Basic Skills

Dominik Lukes offers some great suggestions in his comment to my last post. But before I steal them I want to note an interesting thing he also says (or insinuates) about what is “worth writing”:

I still find that no matter how well I think I know my subject, I discover new things by trying to write it down (at least with anything worth writing).

It’s that parenthetical remark that intrigues me. Can it really be true that the straightforward representation of a known fact is not “worth writing”? Is the value of writing always to be discovered (by way of discovering something new in the moment of writing)? I think Dominik is thinking of kinds of writing that are indeed very valuable because they present ideas that move our own thinking forward and, ideally, contribute positively to the thinking of our peers. But I also think there is value is writing that doesn’t do this, writing that is, for lack of a better word, boring.

In fact, I think it’s the primary of value of academic writing and one of the reasons that so many people (and even academics themselves) almost equate “academic” (adj.) with “boring”. The business of scholarship is not to bring new ideas into the world, indeed, the function of distinctively academic work (in contrast to, say, scientific or philosophical or literary work) is not to innovate or discover but to critique, to expose ideas to criticism. In order for this happen efficiently and regularly, academics must spend some of their time representing ideas that are not especially exciting to them along with their grounds for entertaining them. They must present their beliefs to their peers along with their justification for thinking they’re true. And they must do this honestly, which is to say, they must not invent new beliefs or new reasons for holding them in the moment of writing. They must write down, not what they’re thinking right now, but what they’ve been thinking all along. This includes what they’ve been telling their students and their stakeholders in the policy apparatus. It’s these ideas — the ones that are already circulating in the discourse (and in their heads) — that must exposed to criticism, lest their errors, if they exist, be perpetuated.

And here Dominik’s exercises are excellent. I’m paraphrasing:

  1. Describe a picture (a photograph or drawing or painting).
  2. Describe a picture as if it were part of a sequence of events.
  3. Describe a comic strip as if telling a joke.

The good thing about these exercises is that we can refer back to the source on which the description is based. We can see if you got the source right. We can get a reader who has not seen the source to draw the pictures that your description evokes in their mind. You are representing something you can yourself imagine (indeed, you can see it) and your aim is to get the reader to imagine it too. These basic skills could then be used in a harder case that might be relevant in, say, a finance (or sociology of finance) class. Here we will move from description to explanation, but there will be need to do some describing too:

  • Explain what is happening in the “Fire Sale” scene in the movie Margin Call. What instructions are the traders being given? What rewards are they being offered? Why is this happening?

To do this, they will of course have to watch the entire movie, and they’ll probably find it useful to draw on their knowledge of finance and trading. The assignment can be limited to a single paragraph or to an essay (of essentially any length); they can be given any number of weeks to complete it or it can be done in class. The point is that there’s a right answer — or several (countless) right answers. The scene can be misunderstood, or only superficially understood, or it can be understood at a very deep level. (In another classroom, after all, students might be asked to compare it to Harry’s St Crispin’s Day speech in Henry V.) The point of writing about it is not to discover something new in it (though many students will no doubt see things they wouldn’t have seen if they hadn’t written about it), nor is the point to demonstrate to the teacher that you know something about how finance and trading works. The point is to open yourself to criticism from your peers (your fellow classmates) so that they can correct you on points of fact and interpretation that you have gotten wrong.

I never tire of quoting John Henry Newman. “If its object were scientific and philosophical discovery,” he said, “I do not see why a University should have students” (1852). Only once we recognize why academics have students can we recognize why it is that they write for each other, the true value of that writing, the real problem it solves. The problem isn’t one of having more or better ideas. The problem is that our heads are full of bad ideas we haven’t yet written down. I’m happy to grant the point that Dominik will no doubt make: sometimes that is all it will take to show the error to ourselves. That is of course a kind of discovery.

One thought on “Basic Skills

  1. Thanks for engaging. I often leave comments longer than the posts I comment on (as part of discovering what I think by writing it out). But in this case, it got a bit excessive even for me, so here’s a blog post elaborating my points: http://metaphorhacker.net/2019/06/writing-as-translation-and-translation-as-commitment-why-is-academic-writing-so-hard.

    TL;DR: I agree. Both with the point about what’s worth writing and the purpose of academic writing. But I would still like to explore why is even relatively ‘mundane’ writing so hard and why it is harder for some people than others. I used the analogy of writing as translation from ‘mentalese’ to ‘writtenese’. The key point of analogy is that perfect translation is often impossible as is writing down perfectly the contents of our mind. But this is not absolute and exists on a scale.

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