Act One

I suppose I should have been an English teacher. While what I’m about to suggest would work with any story, it always seems most natural to me use Hamlet as my example. You can replace it with any other story, fictional or otherwise, that you think your students should know. The important thing is that it be well documented and widely discussed in your discipline; it should be the subject of your expertise and there should be a good body of evidence associated with it. The story should contain a lot of knowable facts, some of which can be (and have been) contested. There should be a range of “standard” interpretations and some “fringe” ones too and your students should be able to tell the difference. Like I say, I will use the text of Shakespeare’s famous play as my example, but you’re free to imagine the Mann Gulch Disaster or the Apollo Moon Landings or the Glaxo/SmithKline Merger as you like.

Imagine that you have devoted a full semester to studying the play and that your class meets for three hours per week over twelve weeks. During that time you’ll of course read the text of the play but also a great deal of commentary and you’ll no doubt watch some performances, live or on film. One thing you can ask your students to do is to summarize the play. It should immediately strike you that the play has five acts and the first act in fact also has five scenes. At the end of the first week, it would be reasonable to ask your students to submit a five-paragraph prose account of what happens in Act I. You can either tell them outright to structure their essay into five paragraphs, one for each scene, or you can simply give a one-thousand-word limit and let them figure it out for themselves. Make it clear that you are asking them to tell the story, not to analyze it in any way. You want a series of significant facts and events, but not yet an explication of their significance. To do this the students only need to read and understand the first act of the play.

I know people who will call this assignment trivial, or boring, or even easy. But I would counter that in a class of 25 students we would expect, not only that each student found a unique way of doing it, but that the quality of their work would be gradable. That is, we would be able to identify the top 5 essays, the next 7, the next 8 and the bottom 5. We’d be able to assign As, Bs, Cs, and Ds and Fs accordingly. The As would tell the story accurately but also compellingly. (Remember that it’s a ghost story and includes both a murdered father and a seduced widow.) In addition to getting them right, the students would have to decide what facts to include and what order to present them in. Would they start with the backstory or with the soldiers holding the watch? Would they begin with recent events or with the sledded Poles? This distribution of quality and variety of approaches speaks to the existence of a craft and an opportunity to develop a style.

That is, telling the story of what happens in Act I of Hamlet requires both knowledge of the play and an ability to write effectively. Even in the first week of a course, these skills and this knowledge can be demonstrated, and there are all sorts of good reasons to demand such a demonstration. Not only does it give the students an occasion to make up their own minds and experience the problem of writing down what they think, it gives the teacher an insight into the level that the students are working at. How well have they understood the play so far? How easily do they write about it? How conscious do they seem to be of the discourse? What is the relationship to the reader?

The assignment can be set up in any number of ways but, however you approach it, you should impose serious time constraints. You can give them 72, 24 or even 3 hours to do it. You can let them do it at home or have them write it in class. You can decide whether or not to let them use the text of the play or make it a closed book exam. You can even have them submit one paragraph per day. Different conditions constitute essentially different tests, since you can expect different results and treat different features as signs of competence. Whatever you do, don’t give in to the temptation to see this assignment as absurd, or meaningless. Don’t let the students see it as “merely” providing an exegesis. Emphasize to them that they are to tell a compelling story in no more than a thousand words. Emphasize also that they are telling arguably the most important story in canon. Don’t let them approach it as somehow boring, or stuffy, or academic, or ancient. Like I say, it’s a ghost story. A king has been killed and a queen has been seduced by the murderer. The murderer is the king’s own brother. The old king’s ghost has come to demand that his son avenge him. There are rumors of war. It is bitter cold and the guards are sick at heart. What more do you want?

Writing assignments are not given only by English teachers. At a business school, you might be teaching the financial crisis, or high-reliability organizations, or trade in the European Union, or container shipping, or public administration, or influencer marketing, or Lean innovation. Elsewhere you may be teaching the anthropology of the Nuer or the sociology of homelessness. Or you may be teaching intellectual property law or the criminology of the Internet or NATO’s anti-terrorism efforts. You may even be teaching structural engineering or biomedicine. No matter what knowledge you are trying to impart, there are stories to be told and you can ask your students to tell them — indeed, you can demand that they be able to tell them. It is not a pointless exercise. It is the first act in the performance of a comprehensive craft skill.

“Knowledge Production” vs. the Conservation and Growth of Knowledge*

It seems to me that the purpose of university research has been lost, or at least greatly obscured, over the past fifty or sixty years. It is commonplace today to talk about “knowledge production” and the university as a site of innovation. But the institution was never designed to “produce” something nor even to be especially innovative. Its function was to conserve what we know. It just happens to be in the nature of knowledge that it cannot be conserved if it does not grow. Scientists — “knowers” — need to continuously satisfy their curiosity if what they know is to remain valid and retain its vitality.

But the university itself is not here primarily to make new discoveries or, as is increasingly assumed today, to invent new technologies. This should be left to independent inventors, free spirits working outside the formal institutions of knowledge. (The sort of inventions universities can foster are not, finally, very interesting.) The universities were there to pass what we already know on to those who are capable of knowing it but do not yet know it. Then, after they graduate, let them invent — whether new technologies or new literatures or new social movements or even whole new religions. And then, those who have shown an aptitude for retaining what they have learned and absorbing the novelties produced outside the universities into their thinking in durable ways, let them take their positions as teachers and scholars.

It is the curious mind that learns. And that’s why teachers need to be given conditions under which they satisfy their own curiosity. What seems to have happened this last half century is that innovation has been valorized at the expense of curiosity. In fact, an argument can be made that curiosity has been demonized. It’s so damned “subversive”, after all! Sometimes there’s nothing more annoying than someone who wants to know what we already know about a thing. A healthy society, however, must continually run the risk of having some of its institutions subverted by inquiring minds, by people whose only goal is to discover why we do things the way we do. Like subversion, innovation should not be seen as goal of scholarship but as a byproduct of letting a mind develop to its full potential.

To make that development possible, however, we need the university to present itself, on the whole and in the long run, as a conservatory of the collective experience of the culture. It must demand that students learn what we already know. But it must empathize with the curiosity that is the most teachable part of a student’s mind. I fear that our teachers are losing that empathy. I worry that curiosity is being thought of as, well, somewhat quaint, something to be replaced with the sterner, more profitable stuff of “innovation”. Innovators sometimes forget how much their work depends on what remains the same. The gardener’s main task is to conserve the garden‘s capacity for growth.


*This is a lightly edited version of 2012 post from my old blog.

The Workshop and the Garden

for Susan D. Blum

I introduced my lectures earlier this year by invoking the wisdom of two favorite “how to” books: Oliver Senior’s How to Draw Hands and André Voisin’s Rational Grazing. As reading matter, both books are remarkable to me because they draw on many years of expert experience, on observation and experiment within the relevant practical art. This produces a distinctive style that I enjoy for its own sake. But, just now, while reading Friedrich Hayek’s 1974 Nobel lecture, I was reminded of an important difference between the subjects they are writing about. He ends it with the following observation:

If man is not to do more harm than good in his efforts to improve the social order, he will have to learn that in this, as in all other fields where essential complexity of an organized kind prevails, he cannot acquire the full knowledge which would make mastery of the events possible. He will therefore have to use what knowledge he can achieve, not to shape the results as the craftsman shapes his handiwork, but rather to cultivate a growth by providing the appropriate environment, in the manner in which the gardener does this for his plants.

This, in turn, reminded me of one of my favorite poets, Ezra Pound, who used the imagery of both the workshop and the garden to talk about literature.

We live in an age of science and abundance. The care and reverence for books as such, proper to an age when no book was duplicated until someone took the pains to copy it out by hand, is obviously no longer suited to ‘the needs of society’, or to the conservation of learning. The weeder is supremely needed if the Garden of the Muses is to persist as a garden.” (ABC of Reading, 1934, p. 1)

Some Huxley or Haldane has remarked that in inventing the telescope Galileo had to commit a definite technical victory over materials. (Guide to Kulchur, 1938, p. 50)

This tension between the sorts of “victory” or “mastery” that the craftsman accomplishes and the “cultivation” that a gardener demonstrates is useful to remember. But it must be noted that a gardener, too, has a very definite set of craft skills. Even weeding, as anyone who has tried it knows, can be done effectively or haplessly, efficiently or ineffectually, and ability here shows, not just in the results that it produces (the persistence of the garden as a garden), but in the pleasure the gardener can take in the work itself (as opposed to suffering back pain and cramped hands). But there is that important difference between standing back and being satisfied with the “work” (a teapot, or a table, or a telescope) and having to wait for the garden to grow before the effort finally bears its literal fruit.

Writing good prose seems, at first pass, to belong more to the workshop than the garden. Like Senior’s draftsman, the writer’s knowledge could make, as Hayek puts it, “mastery of events possible”. That is, the writer is in complete control of the material, enjoying full freedom to choose whatever words are needed in whatever order they are required, just as drawing a hand means arranging a set of lines into shapes on a two-dimensional surface to suggest a three dimensional object. But on closer inspection, and when working on larger texts, we see that the process must be managed to “cultivate growth”. The writer must return to the work again and again, day after day, drawing nourishment from the soil of an ongoing inquiry, and making sure not to exhaust the store of ideas before it can be replenished. To control the growth of ideas while writing, certainly a weeder is needed. Writing well requires the competence of a craftsman, but it also requires the patience of a gardener. We must both shape our ideas and let them grow.

The great learning, said Confucius, comes from “watching with affection how people grow”. I want to follow this line of argument out to a somewhat unfortunate metaphor (or at least I think my students will think it’s a little bit off). We must imagine that we are not just imparting skills to our students; rather, part of our work involves treating our students like Voisin treated his cows. He saw grazing as “the meeting of cow and grass” and it must be remembered that he took very seriously the needs of both the grass and the cow. In addition to encouraging our students to hone their craft through practice and “workshopping” their results in our master classes, we must remember to move them from one text to another, one learning experience to another, before they have exhausted completely the matter they are digesting. Let new ideas grow naturally while they are thinking about things, and then move them back to that paddock of learning later — next week, for example. Of course, we do this traditionally simply by designing a curriculum and scheduling their classes. This is not merely an “academic” affectation. It is grounded in a genuine affection for our students.

Good Writing

The word “writing” is famously ambiguous. It can name a product, as in “I like his writing,” or a process, as in “She likes writing.” When we speak of “good writing” or “writing well” we can likewise mean either a readable product or a bearable process. To say that someone is a “good” writer often means they have a strong prose style, but it could also mean that they have healthy work habits. It’s a difference that is worth keeping in mind when you’re thinking about your own writing.

Good writing should of course be visible on the surface of the text. If what you have written doesn’t finally get your ideas across, it’s hard to consider it a success. And whether your writing succeeds in this sense is something you really only discover when you hear from your readers. (When you do get feedback, remember to distinguish between your reader’s reaction to your ideas and their reaction to your writing. If they don’t like what you think, but it is actually what you think, then there may not be anything wrong with your style.) But even before your readers see your text, I would suggest you learn to evaluate your own product. Develop an eye for grammatical errors and stylistic gaffes. Read yourself out loud. And do please learn to see that your writing is improving. As scholars, we write a lot, and this should be as obvious in our prose as the regular practice of athletes is apparent in their moves.

But what is it that you are actually good at? What is it that you are getting better at through practice? This is where I encourage you to take a moment to observe your process, indeed, I challenge you to take a series of moments. The basic idea is to decide what you want to say at the end of one day and then sit down the next day at a particular time to write a good, clear paragraph that says it. Spend 18 or 27 minutes doing some very deliberate writing — writing that has a well-defined end and makes use of predetermined means. You are trying to support, elaborate or defend a single idea in at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words. This is as easy (and as hard) to be “good at” as running 5 kilometers over varied terrain in 25 minutes. There’s no mystery about whether you’re succeeding or how much effort it takes. Most importantly, there’s no mystery about your progress.

In my book, a “good” writer is someone who can make effective use of 20 or 30 minutes (including a short break) to produce a “unit of composition”. A good writer is therefore someone who is able to choose what to write about; there is, after all, no skill that can be applied generally to everything. A good athlete knows what field to step onto and what ring not to get into. A good musician knows what stage to perform on. A good surgeon doesn’t make an incision into just any part of any body. Likewise, a good writer knows what subjects to write about, and who their reader is, and what subjects to leave to other writers for other readers. The standard, I suggest, is whether you’re able to produce a workable prose paragraph in under half an hour. Within your discipline, that is a skill that is very much worth having.

And that means that it is worth investing the effort it takes to develop it. I don’t need to tell you what the effort looks like. At the end of every day, five days a week, over eight weeks, let’s say, pick something you know and write a good clear sentence expressing it. The next morning, sit down to compose a paragraph in 18 or 27 minutes. Take a two or three minute break and get on with your day. Don’t think too much more about it. Just do it and then do all the other things you have to do that day. Experience yourself writing. Experience yourself getting better. In an important sense, “good writing” just is that experience.

The Epistemology of the Paragraph*

“There are various problems as regards language.” (Bertrand Russell)

In his introduction to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, Russell distinguishes between “the problem as to what is the relation subsisting between thoughts, words, or sentences, and that which they refer to or mean” and “the question: what relation must one fact (such as a sentence) have to another in order to be capable of being a symbol for that other?” He takes the latter to be the basic problem of logic, and the subject of the Tractatus, and he counts the former under the problems of epistemology, which is the subject of this post.

Wittgenstein focused on the logic of sentences. “Only in the context of a sentence does a word have meaning,” as Frege originally put it. Well, only in the context of a paragraph, I would argue, does a sentence convey knowledge. The error of logical positivism, we might say, was to reduce the problem of epistemology to a logical problem — they read the Tractatus as a philosophy of science rather than a philosophy of language. Following Wittgenstein, they took the (true) sentence as a the unit of analysis.

When Foucault encouraged us to look not at propositions but statements he was opposing precisely this reduction. The study of “the dispersion of statements” rather than “the interrelation of true propositions” (Heidegger’s phrase) improved our understanding of science greatly. But I wonder if it was very helpful to scientists themselves. The virtue of logical positivism was that it got scientists to think seriously about the individual truths they were expressing and the relationship between them. (The narrowness of their epistemology aside, one often hears that positivists are fantastic thesis supervisors. This doesn’t surprise me.) I want to propose a unit of epistemic analysis that lies between the sentence and the statement: the claim.

A claim doesn’t have to be true in any strict sense. And it doesn’t have to be a viable element of discourse. It only has to be supported by the writer’s knowledge and this support must be articulated in a prose paragraph around it. The paragraph, on this view, offers an excellent object of study for the epistemologist. We can see what is meant by “knowledge” in a particular field of research by looking at how published paragraphs are composed. What sort of support is offered for what sort of claim? “What,” as Russell put it, “is the relation subsisting between thoughts, words, or sentences, and that which they refer to or mean?”

If I am right about paragraphs, then each paragraph is merely the tip of the iceberg of the writer’s knowledge (much of which the writer shares with the reader because they are epistemic peers). The claim (expressed in the key sentence) is the apex of the tip of the iceberg. So, knowing where the peak of the tip is, as it were, we can extrapolate beneath the surface; we can take the “dignity of movement” of the paragraph as an indication of the depth of the knowledge that supports it.

But this support will be different in different kinds of text. A research article in the Administrative Science Quarterly is composed in a different way than a feature article in The New Yorker. Both may be thoroughly researched, and both writers may know a great deal about their subject matter. Still, how they know is different, and this difference ought to be apparent in the relative composure of the paragraphs that the article is made of.


*This post was originally published back in 2011 on my old blog.