Feedback Is an Experience, not a Judgment

A piece of a writing is meant as an experience: a reading experience. The writer arranges a string of words with the goal of occasioning a series of thoughts or feelings, or simply images, in the mind of the reader. The writing succeeds if it occasions the right thoughts, feelings or images, and fails if the wrong ones, or none at all, come to mind as the reader reads the text. Notice that the writer does not succeed just because the reader likes the writing. That’s all well and good, but the writer was trying to get a particular idea across to the reader and will not be satisfied merely with praise. Nor is criticism necessarily a bad thing. As long as the reader “gets” the meaning that the writer intended, the writer will be satisfied at the level of writing. Of course, the writer may have ambitions and vanities that lie beyond the writing. But a writer who is praised without being understood should feel a little uneasy about the situation. Likewise, if you are vilified for the views you are actually trying to express, you can rightly take some pride in your work. Your reader may be altogether right that you should be ashamed of yourself. But your writing seems to be working.

But how can you know how well your writing works? The standard solution for most people is to ask someone for their opinion. They give them a text they’ve been working on for weeks or months and anxiously await the reader’s judgment. The reader, in turn, tries to be both “constructive” and “critical”, looking for strengths to praise and weaknesses to improve. They will also, usually, end up saying something about the ideas being expressed, and even, whether deliberately or inadvertently, about the intelligence or character of the writer. “This is really interesting stuff,” “there’s a lot going on here,” and “maybe you’ve got too much say,” are almost stock responses these days in academic feedback. “I really like this part…but I’m a bit unclear about…” is common fare. Importantly, the writer has spent uncountable hours on the text by now and the reader has probably spent a few hours more reading and making notes. They’re now spending time (sometimes another hour or two) talking about the text, and when it’s over there’s an enormous amount of information, allusion, and insinuation for the writer to “process”. What, at the end of the day, did the reader think? Did the text work? Sometimes there are more questions than answers.

As an alternative (or at least as a supplement) to this sort of feedback, I’ve long defended a more direct approach. It has the added benefit of laying claim to less than one hour of the writer’s and reader’s combined time. It is an utterly unsentimental form of feedback, which, once you get used to it, should occasion no anxiety at all, while giving you an information-rich experience you can use to improve your writing in countless ways.

You begin by preparing a single paragraph for feedback during a deliberately planned writing moment: the day before, you decide what you want to say (what the key sentence is) and the next day, at a predetermined time, you sit down to compose at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words that support, elaborate, or defend that claim. After 27 minutes, take a three-minute break, print it out, and go meet your reader. Your reader will have agreed to give you exactly 10 minutes of their time, no more and no less. They will have done no preparation (you did that by writing the paragraph) and there will no debriefing or social commitment afterwards. When the ten minutes are up, you each go back to your busy days. If you want to socialize, meet up after work or school and talk about unrelated things.

Here’s how those ten minutes will go. You, the writer, will say nothing at all. You will, as much as possible, not even communicate with nonverbal grunts, nods of the head, or facial gestures. You’ll sit silently and receive the gift of feedback, which is not a conversation. Start a 9-minute timer. First, the reader will read your paragraph out loud; second, the reader will tell you what they think your key sentence is; third, they’ll tell you whether you are trying to support, elaborate or defend it. (They are telling you what they think you’re trying to say and whether you think they, the reader, is having a hard time believing, understanding or agreeing with you.) This may take no more than three minutes. But it may take longer as the reader tries to figure out what you mean or what you are trying to do. Don’t help. Let the reader struggle in their loneliness to make sense of your words. It is a loneliness you now share and, as Virginia Woolf suggested, it is the truth of things. Let your reader sit in silence or puzzle out loud. All of this is information that you are receiving about your text. After the first three tasks are completed, you will continue to say nothing until the timer ends, listening to whatever the reader thinks to tell you. This could be about your language or your knowledge, your style or your ideas. The important thing is that it is the reader’s honest reaction to reading your paragraph. Here, too, silence is information, a gift. Receive it. Don’t break it.

When the timer rings, the reader must stop, mid-sentence if necessary. It is an effort to reflect and an effort to listen and you must keep your promise to each other that the exertions are over at an arbitrary point. You will now sit silently for a minute, thinking about what has happened with a look of profound gratitude on your face for the time your reader has just given you. They have shown you what it is like to read your text. You have shared the literary (not literal) loneliness that is the truth of things. They have let you into their experience of your text as a reader. This experience was not a judgment on you or even your text. It just was whatever it was, their honest attempt to think, feel or see what you wanted them to. The experience will be useful to you in so far as you were deliberate and honest about your intentions when you were writing. Notice that “What is the key sentence?” and “Am I supporting, elaborating, or defending it?” are questions that have right or wrong answers. Your idea either came across or it didn’t. Your posture was either appropriate or not. Make of your reader’s feedback what you will but do not take it as a judgment of any kind. You didn’t give your reader conditions under which a judgment could be seriously rendered. It would be unfair of you, ungrateful even, to take their reading as an assessement of either you mind or your words. But your reader did show you whether you have work to and what that work might involve. And you can give yourself any amount of moments to do it. But that is for tomorrow.

Thing, Object, Fact

In my last post, I suggested that to “conceptualize” is to construe a thing as an object. But this, I’m fully aware, is only likely to be informative to people who can imagine various things differently construed, sometimes as objects of one kind, sometimes as objects of another, and sometimes, perhaps, not as objects at all. That is, it will only work for people who define “thing” and “object” in ways that lets them distinguish between them. In this post, I want to provide those definitions. Readers who are familiar with the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein will perhaps notice that my definitions are inspired by his early work in the Tractatus. There’s also a little of Heidegger’s phenomenology in my approach, but I’m by no means trying to do their thinking justice, nor am I committed to any particular metaphysics. I just find it useful to distinguish between ways of looking at things, and I have found that this also sometimes helps authors think about what they are doing when they are writing about their research. As will become clear, the trick here is to understand how things participate in facts and by this means to establish a certain “objectivity” in our writing.

Everything is a thing and every thing is what it is. To say that some particular thing exists isn’t to say very much about it, though it does distinguish it from things that don’t. But ask yourself a deceptively simple question, “How many things are in your vicinity right now?” There’s a keyboard, a computer screen, a mouse, a telephone, a coffee cup, a pen holder, and a pad of paper in front me. There’s also a desk here, a small receipt printer, and I’m sitting on a chair. I suppose the floor is a thing in my vicinity, as is the lamp above me. That’s about a dozen things. But let’s look closer. There are three pens in the pen holder and 104 keys on the keyboard. The phone has a base and a receiver; the screen has a case; the chair has five wheels. It begins to look as though there are, literally, countless things around me. Exactly how many things there are will depend on how you count or, more precisely, what you count as a “thing”. If you don’t care what you are counting there is no way to know when to stop. Even our sense of “in the vicinity” is unclear here: how far away from me does a thing have to be before it no longer counts as one of the things around me? It all depends on how you look at it. I guess we might call the situation “subjective”.

We solve this problem by construing the things in my vicinity as objects of a particular kind. When I was writing the above paragraph, I was standing at the service counter in the library, so some of the things around me were necessary to my work and others not so much. The phone might ring and it would be my job to answer it. A student might walk up to the counter and ask me a question, which it would be my job to answer. I might have to use the mouse, keyboard and screen to help them find what they were looking for. The pens, too, were there for me and others to use if we needed them. That is, some of things around me afforded me possible courses of action and others made it impossible (or at least unlikely) that particular events would happen. So I could objectify these things as equipment and understand them as useful or useless to me. As equipment, I need the surface of my desk to be clean and tidy, and the computer to be on, and I need to be logged into it. The wheels of the chair stick a little, which annoys me. These interests indicate possibilities, things that could be otherwise. An object is really a thing construed such we know how it could be different; it’s a thing situated in a space of possibility.

When things are arranged in objective ways they constitute facts. (Note that, as I’ve been defining it, an “objective” reality is really just one of many possible ways of engaging with my environment.) For most of my shift, for example, the lights were on and working fine. But there was a brief moment when an electrician cut the power to the lights overhead. It was a fact that the lights were on and then it was a fact that they were off. And then it was a fact that they were on again. All along, the lamp was the sort of thing (an object) that could be on or off, shedding light on the other things around me. And the black surface of the desk is “objectively” black precisely because it absorbs the light that we shine on it. The white piece of paper that is lying on the surface does the opposite. This is what makes the blue ink (a little lighter than black but a lot darker than white) of the pen so useful when we want to note a book classification so we can go and find it on the shelf. The book could be anywhere (it is possible that it has been misplaced) but it is very likely that it was put back properly and we’ll find it where it’s supposed to be — where “in fact” it is.

I’ve been considering the trivial example of me standing at the service counter during a shift in the library. But not long ago I was doing the same thing in a much less trivial way. We had a researcher visiting who was doing an ethnography of everyday life in the library. She was observing the things it contains and the people who use it, construing them as objects of various kinds, as loci of possibilities that she could then analyze as facts. She would have been “objectifying” me and everything around me. There’s no harm in that and, indeed, there’s no way around it. All things are also objects (in countless ways) and everything that exists participates in (countless facts). There is no isolated thing. There are no purely objective relations (without things or facts to realize them), which is merely to say that facts realize (make real) particular possibilities and leave others for another time (sometimes, forever). The purpose of distinguishing between things, objects and facts is to organize our stream of consciousness according to our concepts, to let the theories we have make sense of what is happening in the situations we study. Things just are what they are. But we know them as objects when they join up up with other things to form facts.

Conceptualize, Analyze, Discuss

Last week, a collaborator and I gave our students (hello, students!) 72 hours to write a five-paragraph essay (hello, John!). Officially, the students had been given a 3-page limit (6825 characters including spaces), which was to include their reference list. That gave them about 1000 words of prose to write. They have been taught to think of their writing as a series of paragraphs, each of which supports, elaborates or defends one thing they know in at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words. They know these are just ball-park figures that chalk out a playing field, and that their real task, in this case, is to construct a five-minute reading experience for their peers, which is to say, for their fellow students. They were to present what they know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people — each other. They were given a podcast to listen to and told to draw on the theories we were studying in the course to “conceptualize, analyze and discuss” it. As I prepare to read their essays this week, I thought I’d say a few words (or, indeed, five paragraphs) about what we meant by that.

To conceptualize something is to subsume it under a concept. Less tautologically (if perhaps only slight less so), to conceptualize is to conceive of a thing as an object. Everyday life is full of “things”, which can be seen, heard, touched, smelled, and tasted. We can pick them up, run them into things (and people), buy them, sell them, steal them, break and fix them. When we conceptualize them (which, you’ll note, is just another thing to do with things) we prepare ourselves to think about them objectively. Consider electric scooters, for example. You can, indeed, buy, sell, steal, or rent these things for your own subjective profit or pleasure. But you can also think about them more dispassionately — as, say, “innovations”. To conceptualize an electric scooter as an innovation is to introduce concepts like technology, opportunity, and life-cycle in ways that let you see possibilities (like R&D, ascent, maturity, and decline) that are not visible without those concepts. Note, by contrast, that an engineer might conceptualize the scooter in very different terms, as a “vehicle” perhaps, which might be fast or slow, efficient or wasteful. It’s the same thing but a different object, subsumed under a different concept (or set of concepts), focusing attention on altogether different possibilities.

Once you have constructed your object (conceptualized your thing) and situated it in a space of possibilities, you are ready to analyze it. This means figuring out, not what is possible by virtue of its being an innovation, but what is actually going on with it as such. If all innovations can be located somewhere on the S-curve of the technology life-cycle, for example, then (simplifying somewhat) electric scooters, or a particular brand of electric scooter, are either in the R&D, ascent, maturity or decline phase. Well, what is it? Once you have decided what the truth is, you must also decide how to tell your reader about it, and here it is important to keep mind that when you conceptualized your object you activated your reader’s expectations of it. Engineers and entrepreneurs expect totally different things of electric scooters, so when you told your reader to think of them as “innovations” your reader (being familiar with the scholarship on entrepreneurship) immediately expected your analysis to show certain things. And here’s the twist: an analysis is always the artful disappointment of your reader’s expectations of the object. You want to challenge your reader’s expectations; indeed, your reader expects to be disappointed. They want to be challenged to go beyond the terms of the theory they already have. They want to learn something from your analysis that they didn’t already know.

A disappointment, no matter how expected, no matter how accepted, has to have consequences. And your discussion is all about what those consequences are. Since you have now identified an interesting tension between the concepts of your theory and the object of your analysis, the reader will want to know what you are going to do about it, or what you think someone else (perhaps the reader) should do about it. This could involve modifications to the theory, i.e., some tweaking of the concepts that you subsumed the object under in the first place. We might say you merely tried to subsume the object under a concept and you weren’t entirely successful. The concept, it turned out, couldn’t fully capture the nuances of innovation in electric scooters and improvements to the concept must now be made. (Before you assert your humility, remember that these are merely improvements to your understanding of the theory at the level of the course you’re taking.) Conversely, you can insist that there’s nothing wrong with the theory and the failure is all in the object. If an electric scooter lacks the maturity that befits its station on life’s way, let’s say, your advice is that it grow up. You are proposing entirely practical consequences, which will bring the thing you’re studying into alignment with the theory you share with your reader. You are, of course, willing to discuss it.

Obviously, given the terms of the assignment, one solution would be to spend a paragraph doing each of these things, just as I’ve devoted a single paragraph each to the tasks of conceptualizing, analyzing and discussing innovations. But, as I made clear to my students even as I presented this “easy” solution to them, you can get the conceptualization out of the way in two or three sentences in the introduction. This means you’ll be making some serious assumptions about the theoretical competence of your reader but not necessarily unreasonable ones. (I stress again that the reader is an intellectual equal.) You might also leave your discussion entirely to the last three or four sentences of your conclusion, gesturing to implications that your reader, you assume, will understand the significance and relevance of without further elaboration. That leaves you with three paragraphs in the middle to do a detailed analysis of the object, and in some cases that might be the best way to bring about the artful disappointment you seek in the mind of your reader. Or you might come up with some other way to organize your essay. The important thing is to get your reader to expect something, to challenge those expectations, and to talk your way out the trouble you have thereby caused, all within five minutes (1000 words). With the right reader in mind, a few hours spread over a few days is all you need.

Saying, Doing, Meaning

One would like to say: This is what took place here; laugh, if you can.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

I don’t do empirical work myself, but I often talk to authors who use interviews and observations in their ethnographic research. You don’t have to be an ethnographer, however, to be able to distinguish between experience and understanding — between what happens to us and what we make of it — and I want to use this distinction to say something that I hope will be useful to people who write analyses of social life. As always, I will imagine that the problem is one of writing down what you know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people, i.e., that you are writing “for academic purposes”. I will also assume that you are going to go about this in a deliberate, disciplined fashion, composing one paragraph at a time that supports, elaborates or defends your claims. In this case, I’m going to assume that you will mainly be interested in supporting your claims; that is, I will imagine that you want to get your reader to believe that what you are saying is true.

To keep things simple, I will assume that your data consists of interview transcripts and field notes. (Data can be messier than this. The interviews may be represented only by notes jotted down after the fact; the field may be little more than a memory to you at the time of writing. But I will leave this to you and your methodological conscience to work out between you.) What this means is that the materials that are “given” to you for analysis are records of things people have said and done. You can report what people told you in answer to your questions, what they said to each other in conversation, where they went and what they did, how they sang and how they danced. And you can describe the material conditions under which they did this, the settings in which the action and dialogue took place. “Social establishments—institutions in the everyday sense of that term—are places such as rooms, suites of rooms, buildings or plants in which activity of a particular kind regularly goes on,” said Erving Goffman (Asylums, p. 15). As a social scientist, your empirical object, i.e., the thing you try to experience in a particularly scientific way, is simply this “activity of a particular kind”. You are “particular”, if you will, both in your choice of methods and in your choice of objects.

Now, while what people have said and what they have done is “given” to you (as data, on the assumption that we trust your methods), what these words and actions mean is open to interpretation. Your analysis will attribute significance to the discourse and behavior of your research subjects (which, perhaps ironically, together constitute your object of research). You will not just tell your reader what words were spoken or what deeds were done, you will tell us what the people you studied thought, felt, imagined, believed, desired, hoped, and feared — what they loved, even, and what they hated. You will not just describe their movements but their intentions, not just their performances, but the projects those performances represent. While a novelist like Hemingway may be content to present an experience such that it becomes part of the reader’s experience, an ethnographer must provide the reader with an understanding of it too. And it must be the ethnographer’s understanding that the writing conveys. The reader must become aware, not just of what happened or what was said, but of what the writer took it to mean. Only in this way are the ethnographer’s ideas exposed to the criticism of peers. You must tell us, not just what you think took place, but why you think it matters.

There is a straightforward way to deal with this in your writing practice. When setting up your writing moment the day before, make sure your key sentence states, not just a matter of fact, but an interpretation of one or more facts. In your key sentence, don’t just say that someone did or said something, say that they were unhappy or successful or competent or deceptive or struggling or celebrated or surprised or critical. That is, make a statement that is not immediately true of your data, but one that can only be known by carefully analyzing your data, teasing out the details, uncovering their hidden meaning. Then resolve to support that interpretation by citing your interview transcript or your field notes. Select from your data the items that, taken together, make your statement about the mental states or social relations of the people you have studied easier to believe. What would someone have to say in an interview to make a reader believe, on that basis alone, that she was unhappy? What did you observe someone do that could make your reader believe he was struggling? Write the paragraph with that very specific aim in mind: to support your interpretation of a piece of human behavior.

“In the room the women come and go,” wrote T. S. Eliot, “talking of Michelangelo.” But why did they come and where did they go and what did they think of Michelangelo? As a poet, Eliot didn’t owe us more than the image, which he presumed would leave us with a feeling, and that feeling was all he wanted us to take with us to the next strophe. But as a social scientist, you can’t just leave it at that. Or, if you do, you must be very certain that your reader feels exactly what you want them to feel — ideally, that they think what you think of it all — in short, that they get your meaning. We can imagine writing every paragraph in your analysis as I have suggested — the key sentence always an interpretation of what the data shows — and then, satisfied that each of your attributions of meaning to your subjects has been adequately supported, removing every key sentence so that the reader will have to get your point without your making it explicit. Perhaps this is what Wittgenstein meant in his remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough, where he said “we must do away with all explanation; and description alone must take its place.” Of course, he also believed that philosophy ought to be composed like poetry. Far be it for me to discourage a little poetry in your writing, but let’s not make social science more difficult than it needs to be. Surely, we want to say to Wittgenstein, one can say, “This is what took place here. And this is what it meant.”

How to Write a Sentence

Monday’s post on how to write a paragraph was well received on Twitter. Caught up in all the excitement, I foolishly accepted Felippe Medeiros’s challenge to write the corresponding post about sentences. I must say that I did so fully aware that this will be a much, much harder post to write. Not that it’s harder to write sentences than paragraphs, of course (the one consists of several of the other), but it is substantially more difficult to explain what one does when one writes a sentence than it is to explain what one does when one composes a paragraph. To use an imperfect analogy, it’s easier to give you directions to City Hall than to explain how your legs work. Sentences, we might say, are to paragraphs as taking a step is to going somewhere. It’s only once we pay attention to it that we realize how subtle and how stylish such a simple thing can be.

Begin with a fact. Most sentences are true or false, and facts are what make them one or the other. So, when you’re writing a sentence, make sure that you have a clear idea in your mind of the fact you are trying to represent. You want that same fact to become present in the mind of your reader when they read it. What words, in what order, would make you see the fact with your mind’s eye? Sentences are marvelous things because they conjure up images, and, while those images are not, perhaps, ultimately what the sentences mean (they could mean for you to feel something, or do something, or think something — or something something else, for that matter, if you wish), it’s a good idea to be mindful of the images you evoke when you write. As George Orwell pointed out many years ago, a great deal of bad writing comes out of stringing words and phrases together that are completely unrelated to any pictures that might form in any human being’s head. That’s why I say: start with a fact. Imagine it. Then think of the sentence as an attempt to write the fact down. Make the sentence a window on your mind.

Now, think of your reader. What is your reader doing at this point in the text? What was the reader thinking of just before they got to the sentence you are about to write? Unless it’s the very first sentence, they were doing exactly what you were telling them to do: imagining the fact that your last sentence was about. Was that hard? Should you give them a simpler task this time? Or is your reader ready for something harder? Can the reader handle a lot of detail at this moment, or should you present the fact in its general outline? In what order should the elements of the picture come before the reader? Will you give your reader a thing in motion or the motion of a thing? Do you want your reader to come away with the name of a person or to be left with a clear impression of their relation to another? Remember that when you are writing a sentence you are deciding the exact order that a string of words will pass through the mind of your reader. If your reader is well-behaved (playing by the rules) you are in complete control of your reader’s mind. You must use this power only for good.

“I am a grammarian,” wrote Gertrude Stein. “We will or will not cry together.” That was back in 1931 in a book called How to Write, which you can read for your own pleasure and at your own risk. “Do not worry,” said Hemingway to himself, probably around the same time, in his garret overlooking the rooftops of Paris. “You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” Somewhere between Miss Stein’s stream of consciousness and Papa Hemingway’s dignity of movement, may you find your style. May it become absolutely your own.