Sunday, December 27, 2015

RSL Published!

2015 has been an exciting year for this blog. I hope you have enjoyed it as much as I have. To put a cap on it, I'm happy to announce that an essay that was constructed out of posts that go as far back as 2005 has just been published in a special issue of Knowledge Cultures. I am grateful to Sharon Rider for her encouragement and editorship, which has yielded a text that I'm very happy to call my own and see in print. I am also happy to see it in the context of what looks like a very interesting issue, which I'm looking forward to reading and engaging with.

The essay is dedicated to Steve Fuller, for what I hope are obvious reasons to anyone who is familiar with his work. Here's the abstract:


Since 1968, at least, academia has been subject to the “crisis of representation.” This essay explores the consequences of the “postmodern condition” for the identity formation of academics. It is informed by Foucault’s and Deleuze’s understanding of the pivotal intellectual developments in the late 20th century, which are taken to challenge Wittgenstein’s presumption that language is essentially about the assertion of facts. Instead of abandoning representation, however, it proposes to meet this challenge squarely, proposing a disciplined engagement with its particular difficulty. Facts are deployed in academic writing, it argues, through the act of scholarship. The ability to represent a fact is at the core of the knowledge that is implicit in the self-formation of the scholar.

Keywords: postmodernism; self-fashioning; representation; scholarship; writing; facticity

Readers of this blog will, hopefully, recognize some of the ideas and the general spirit of the thing. If I find time, I'll make a little index here of the posts that it draws from. Do feel free to use this post also a place to engage with the ideas in the essay, which I'm sure there's much to disagree with.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Scientific Writing and "Science Writing"

"The standards of this criticism alter to the degree that historiography approaches journalism." (Martin Heidegger)

For me, 2015 will be the year that I finally lost all respect for "science writing". Not that I had been holding the genre in especially high esteem until now. Five years ago I participated in what Brayden King called a "backlash" against Malcolm Gladwell's "tsunami of wrong". I was especially worried about the reverence that social scientists have for his writing, and the influence it seems to have on the way they think and teach. I even found myself comparing Gladwell with Daniel Pinchbeck, who was at the time among those arguing that December 21, 2012 marked "the end of time" (in an admittedly only vaguely specified sense). (Last week, I finally got around to buying Terence McKenna's Food of the Gods, which has inspired much of Pinchbeck's project. More on that in the new year.) To my own surprise, I found Pinchbeck's writing to be more credible than Gladwell's (in a sense that I really hope you'll let me specify).

Even back when I was writing my PhD, my romance with popular science was beginning to unravel. I recently rediscovered an old anecdote about Erwin Schrödinger that I read in Leon Lederman's popular The God Particle, written before the Higgs boson was discovered, and before I lost my faith in the genre. At that time I was just beginning my master's studies in what would turn out to be the philosophy of science. But I was getting my history of science by this highly unscientific means. Indeed, this was the source of my understanding of physics beyond the high school level, and I cringe a little now recalling the confidence with which I declared what the metaphysical consequences of quantum mechanics are.

It was probably while reading Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene as a PhD student, that I started to realize that something was amiss with my approach to what is known by science. I had gone into my reading of the book expecting simply to "deconstruct" it (that's the sort of thing I was doing back then) but I found it to be a very compelling and illuminating read. It really did teach me, or so I thought, a great deal about evolutionary theory, and about how evolution "works". It helped me to understand things I had previously only vaguely believed. But at the time, a friend of mine was also telling me about the somewhat radical ideas of Paul Shepard and his "pleistocene paradigm" so I was thinking very hard about the evolutionary account of what it means to "be human". Also, though Steve Fuller hadn't yet testified in the Dover case, I'm sure I had discussed intelligent design with him by then. There was much to think about, in short, and I was trying to make up my mind.

I remember very clearly reading Dawkins' chapter on "the extended genome". I won't try to do it justice except to say that Dawkins made a compelling case for the idea that some of our features are the expression of genes that are not our own. (Some snails, as I recall, have thick shells because these shells are, not to their own evolutionary advantage, but to the advantage of parasites they carry. The parasites, not the snails, transmit the "selfish gene" that produces this thickness.) Bringing together my conversations about Paul Shepard and intelligent design, and no doubt my earlier reading of Lederman, I began to work out a theory of the "God Genome", i.e., a sense in which all the human body's traits are actually to God's (or some "advanced" alien species') overall advantage in the universe, or simply incidental products of some other, more or less divine, advantage, and not really to the benefit of our own genes. It was heady and exciting stuff.

But then a kind of depression set in. Dawkins' himself said that his chapter on the extended genome was really just a summary of a book he'd written for a less popular audience. I.e., an actual work of science, a piece of scientific writing. My friend was writing a dissertation about the evolution of cognition and would constantly correct me on elementary factual errors. It was frustrating for us both. He felt like he was teaching me high school biology, I felt like he was stifling my creativity. He, of course, was more right than I was. I simply had no basis to propose a paradigm-shifting account of human nature that makes of our bodies a divine "emanation". Though it was very exciting to think about these things, it just wasn't a very serious intellectual activity. I lacked a proper basis in science. I lacked knowledge. I was an ignoramus.

This, like I say, despite reading a great deal of popular science writing. As I've come to understand, especially since the invention of the TED talk (a "dark art"), it gave me the feeling of knowing without actually providing me with knowledge. Popular presentations of science tell us stories about what is known without giving us the critical foundations we need to engage with it, i.e., to question those stories. I know there are some people who will say that Darwin's Origin of Species is essentially a work of popular non-fiction. But the important difference is that his "public" was highly educated. They didn't lack the knowledge to engage with his ideas, only, perhaps, the time and equipment. Someone who had the necessary resources, would not need a more "specialized" version of his argument before his criticism could be of use.

At some point, perhaps around the time of The Selfish Gene, this stopped being true. Evolution became a theory you should believe even if you don't understand it, and even if it is beyond your abilities to understand it. The public became thankful for popularizers who could give people the feeling that they were "in on" this important theory. I don't have a good historical account of this process worked out yet, but as I write this post, it seems to me to be a worthwhile project to try to pinpoint the moment that scientific belief and a real scientific understanding were separated from each other. It is a consequence of the enormous advances in science and technology, of course, and the specialization that has driven it. I fear this has also affected the quality of our scientific writing.

I will definitely have to say more about this in the weeks to come. After all, the concept of "academic writing", my bread and butter, tells us a little about what is being lost. Knowledge was once something you acquired through years of study, guided by books, but framed by a classroom (other people), an observatory (other vistas), a laboratory (other experiences), a library (other books). If you did not have access to these "academic" conditions you did not presume to understand the topic. Scientists wrote about their discoveries for people who had the knowledge, intelligence, time and apparatus to test them. These days, "science" is becoming something that is produced in a lab and consumed in a book you buy at the airport.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Academic Writing Is for the Birds?

"It’s tempting to just give up, and I usually do. But it’s also tempting at times not to, so here I go." (Duncan Richter)

As I've had occasion to say a few times before, one of the advantages of blogging is that it opens the possibility that Thomas Presskorn will read something you've written and think out loud about it. Recently, it gave him the chance to point me in the direction of Duncan Richter, whose blogging I haven't been aware of. His taste in music notwithstanding, he's written a brilliant post in somewhat back-handed defense of the humanities, very much in a key I resonate with. (I think I managed to justify that otherwise gratuitous jab at Belle and Sebastian at the end of that sentence, didn't I?)

Richter brings together two troubling trends in (indeed, indside) higher education, under the rubric of "making meaning" as an alternative to, I guess, actually knowing things. My own view, of course, is that higher education should make us more knowledgeable. It should not just imbue our students with greater knowledge of the world in which they live, and the history that shapes our lives, but also make us better able to know things going forward, giving us greater mastery over ourselves and, therefore, making us more bearable to our fellow humans.

The first example that Richter has found is from a recent column in Inside Higher Ed by Barbara Fister, a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College. (I'm the resident writing consultant at the Copenhagen Business School Libary, and work very closely with librarians, so this connection is highly fortuitous.) The crucial paragraph reads as follows:

From a librarian’s perspective, I'm wondering how can we address a situation where the basic epistemological foundations of our practice are up for debate. For academic librarians, the new Framework for Information Literacy has a strong emphasis on context and on making meaning rather than finding and evaluating it in finished form. It’s not so much “here’s how to do it right” as “if you have a critical understanding of how these social systems operate, you’re better positioned to participate and raise questions.” I’m still a bit skeptical that librarians can effect this shift in perspective – it has to be built into students’ coursework – but it invites us to model a more critical and big-picture understanding, from the fifty-minute one-shot instruction session on up.

I'm not going to hold Fister accountable for the entire ACRL information literacy framework, but I will, it seems, have to engage with it as closely as I've been been engaging with the "post-process" tradition in composition studies. It looks as though we're going to need to make specific efforts to bring about a shift back from "if you have a critical understanding of how these social systems operate, you’re better positioned to participate and raise questions" to, simply, "here’s how to do it right". It's not that it isn't important to understand social systems critically or to participate by raising questions. It's just that getting some basic things "right" is, in fact, foundational.

I've long been arguing that our "basic epistemological foundations" are not discovered by theoretical debate but by practical engagement. There's a craft to scholarship and the state of our foundations depends on the state of the craft. The only way to learn a craft, in turn, is "by doing". And this does actually mean "doing it right", in the sense of working towards an ideal, held to a standard that allows others to judge that you've done it wrong, which is the essential experience of learning.

And this brings us to the second reading that would have driven Richter "drink and despair" if it hadn't occurred to him just to go out and look at birds. This is another article in Inside Higher Ed that presents "findings" to show that it's the quality of a writing assignment, not the amount that that matters. As Thomas pointed out in the comment, Richter's summary of this result is rather apt: "the report provides weak evidence that the bleeding obvious is indeed true." I think this is the sort of issue Andrew Gelman sorts under the importance of considering your "priors". But Richter makes an important point about how far the field of composition studies has moved us away from a grounded, common-sense understanding of what writing is, and what turning the problem of writing into an "empirical" question has done to our literary sensibilities.

This became clear to me a few months ago, when I was reading Freddie deBoer's critique of the empirical standards of composition studies. He mentioned some weaknesses of Arum and Roksa's Academically Adrift, which I had been confidently invoking in my writing seminars and lectures as proof positive that writing makes students smarter and group work makes them stupid. "Science proves it," I would say, if always with a little ironic wink. But it turns out that Arum and Roksa's evidence is being used to justify a number of rather dubious conclusions. This has forced Arum to say things like, "It is hard for me to imagine that any thoughtful educator believes that increasing the quantity of assigned writing is the most effective pedagogical approach to improving the quality of student writing," which apparently needed saying.

As I wrote in my reply to Thomas's comment, there may actually be a good explanation for the caricature of the Arum and Roksa result that "more writing" correlates with improved thinking, though not one that a ghost need come from the grave to tell us about. If we want to know why, statistically, teaching programs that assign a lot of group work generally make students dumber and those that assign a lot of writing make them smarter, we have to recognize that that it's generally easier to "craft" a smart writing task than to craft a smart group task. At the extremes: if you tell the students in one cohort to just "write about this week's reading" and the students in another cohort to just "talk in groups about this week's reading", then the students who've been given the most thoughtless writing task imaginable will get more out of it than those who've been given the most thoughtless group task imaginable. If you add to this "just grading" the result, i.e., giving them a grade for their performance (of "just writing" or "just talking"), it seems obvious that the grade for writing will be more informative and foster better learning.*

I think we who work in the academic writing racket need to take seriously observations like Richter's: "A field in which this makes waves is not one in which I want to work." Ouch! In any case, there's lots to think about here. Before the birds return from the south in earnest.

*Update (11/12/15): It occurs to me that this could be tested experimentally (although I'm not sure it would pass IRB). Give a cohort the CLA at the beginning of the school year and at the end. Give them the same readings and the same lectures (ideally, let them attend all the same lectures). But split them (randomly) into two sections for the purposes of class work and grading. The first section is split into groups that are told to meet weekly to discuss the course content. Every week, they submit 30 minutes of recorded conversation in the group (their choice of when to start the recording). The second group is to work individually, submitting one paragraph of prose every week that is "relevant" to their readings or lectures. Now, at the start of each week the students are given a grade on the past week's work. Here's the kicker: the grade is assigned randomly, albeit "on a curve" (to give a normal distribution of As, Bs, Cs, Ds and Fs). That is, there is no "intelligence" either in the assignment or the grading. The students are completely on their own to make sense of both and get out of it what they can. My hypothesis is that the students who are writing will still outperform the students working in groups on the year-end CLA. And also on any actually graded final exam.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Against "Preparation"

"The readiness is all."

I was recently asked by a reader of this blog whether I had any suggestions about how to "prepare" for writing. He said he had found the 27-minute key-sentence approach useful, but wanted some advice about how to set up the writing task. I'm happy to oblige.

I've written a little about preparation before, sometimes in the context of "where" you think your knowledge resides before being written down. But these days, I should say, I usually say there is no such thing as "preparation" for writing. There is research and there is planning, but there's no need to prepare your writing session beyond deciding when to write and where to write. These decisions have to be made wisely, but can be made quite swiftly. Choose something you know well to write about. Choose a place where you will not be disturbed.

Can it really be so easy? Before I answer that, please notice that I'm not here denying the difficulty but locating it. Research is hard. And writing is also hard. Your efforts should be concentrated directly on those difficulties most of the time. The (relatively) easy part is deciding whether you are going to be doing research or writing. By creating a third problem, namely, "preparation", you are actually opening the whole space in which things like "writer's block" can thrive. Just don't do that and you'll be fine.

So, my advice is to reduce the problem of preparation to the problem of making a decision, and then to sort the remainder under "research". If you need preparation to write, you really just need to do more research, to gain more knowledge. And it is knowledge proper when you are able to quickly and easily identify it by way of a key sentence, which can then serve as the focus of a paragraph that you can write in 27-minutes.

That does, of course, make certain demands of your research (i.e., your "knowledge formation") process. Your research has to result in, roughly speaking, paragraph-sized claims about the world. You have to make up your mind about things that can be expressed in at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words. If you're writing such paragraphs in a regular disciplined way, and always deciding on what to write the day before, you will develop habits of mind that make such well-formed beliefs more likely. Your knowledge will be "ready" for writing, if you will, even as you are acquiring it. You'll be preparing your beliefs for their expression in prose. Indeed, it is my view that academic beliefs should, by definition, be prepared to be expressed in prose. If they don't play well in prose they aren't very good academic beliefs.

The trick, I've found, when deciding what to write tomorrow, is not to choose something you only recently discovered. Certainly not something you discovered today. Let the discovery settle into the apparatus of your prose a little before demanding it express itself in writing. To ensure this, try only writing tomorrow about something you knew before the weekend at the earliest. At the end of the day, then, spend five or ten minutes choosing between one and six things to write individual paragraphs about tomorrow. And make sure that each choice is marked by a clear, simple, declarative sentence. Then sit down tomorrow and write a paragraph to support each sentence. It's your whole mind that is prepared for this task now.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Write More, Publish Less

In Monday's post I said something that might seem contradictory. On the one hand, I said that there's "no shortage of writing in the world"; on the other hand, I said that "we need to write more".* What was I trying to say, then?

Well, obviously, my view is that there is too much bad writing in the world. By "bad" I mean writing that doesn't do its job, and there are of course many jobs for writing to do. My beat is academic or scholarly writing, and at the heart of such writing is what Bertrand Russell called the "essential business" of assertion. A scholar is able to competently assert and deny facts in prose. And, by "prose", I don't just mean writing in complete sentences. I also mean writing coherent paragraphs that each say one thing and support or elaborate it.

So when I say there's too much bad academic writing out there, I mean there's too much writing that presents itself as "scholarship" but doesn't actually consist of well-formed paragraphs that competently assert or deny facts. I am not saying that this is the only business that scholars are in, but I am going to insist that it is an "essential service", if you will, in the knowledge society. Even a scholarly journal article can include practical advice, normative recommendations, and political proposals. But the substance of the article should be an argument for the existence or non-existence of particular things in particular relations.

The solution is not to shame scholars into writing less. But it may well be to shame them into publishing less. (Along with this, of course, there should be a relaxing of the pressure to "publish or perish".) Instead of publishing bad prose regularly, scholars should write just as often, but without the immediate ambition to get into print. They should spend a long time both rehearsing their arguments and training their style, so that the work they do in fact publish clearly presents their justified, true beliefs about the world. Their peers are then in a good position to learn from them and to correct them on points of fact where they happen to know better.

In short, the contradiction between there already being too much writing in the world and the need to write more, not less, is resolved by the suggestion that we should leave the great bulk of our writing unpublished. Professional athletes get most of their exercise off the actual track or field on which they compete; professional musicians do most of their playing outside the concert hall. Professional scholars should do most of their writing as preparation for publication. They should write more and publish less.
*Truth be told, I added that "more" to Monday's post just before writing this one. It's what I meant.

Monday, November 23, 2015


"The physicist who wishes to understand the problems of the social sciences with the help of an analogy from his own field would have to imagine a world in which he knew by direct observation the inside of the atoms and had neither the possibility of making experiments with lumps of matter nor opportunity to observe more than the interactions of a comparatively few atoms during a limited period." (F.A. Hayek, The Counter-Revolution of Science)

One way to understand a "knowledge society" is as a society in which social problems are presumed to arise from ignorance. The solution to these problems, therefore, is to be found in their careful study, resulting in greater knowledge. The ignorance that underlies a social problem, meanwhile, may be of one of two kinds. The social problem may arise from ignorance among certain individuals or groups within society; these people are ignorant of something that the rest of the society has knowledge of. Alternatively, the social problem may arise from a general ignorance—from an absence, anywhere in society, of the needed knowledge. The first kind of problem is to be solved by education, the second, by science.

The particular social problem that interests me here, of course, is the sorry state of "the prose of the world". While there is no shortage of writing in the world, its ability to represent the world (the facts of which it is composed, "everything that is the case") is doubtful at best. In particular, the genre known as "academic" or "scholarly" writing is falling into increasing disrepair and, accordingly, disrepute.

The conventional wisdom among academic writing instructors is that we need more research and more teaching in the area. That is, it is approached as any other social problem in the knowledge society. (It should be noted that writing instructors are natural ideologues of the knowledge society. It's in our interest.) The problem is that students don't know how to write. Some of what they need to know we already know and only need to impart to them; some of it, however, requires careful "scientific" study of the problem—field work, discourse analysis, etc.

I disagree with the conventional view. I don't think the problem of academic writing stems from ignorance about writing, neither the student's nor the teacher's. We don't need to know more about writing to recover our prose faculties. We just need to write more.

As such, inspired by Hayek's words in the epigraph, I want to somewhat brashly declare a counter-revolution in writing instruction. Instead of approaching the problem of writing "from the outside", i.e., as something to be studied by looking at the surfaces of the students' texts, comparing them to the surfaces of exemplary writing, and then deriving "rules" for good writing that the students, it seems, need to learn, I want to insist that we "know by direct observation" how good writing works. Both we, ourselves, and they, our students, can recognize a clearly written text that yields an understanding of a particular set of facts. We can also recognize when a text of our own making is clear and clean.

With a moment's preparation, anyone can sit down for 27-minutes and experience both the difficulty and the satisfaction, the joy and the pain, of writing down what you know in a coherent paragraph. In that experience, repeated hundreds of times in the course of an education, and then thousands of times again throughout a lifetime, lies the alleged "secret" of good writing. No amount of experimentation with lumps of text will more effectively reveal the "mystery" of writing or shed light into the darkness of our supposed ignorance of the matter.

Let's stop pretending we don't understand how to solve this problem. If our students wrote paragraphs for half an hour a day, 32 weeks of the year, (that's 80 hours per year) the prose of the world would be in good hands. Today, I'm afraid, our prose is manufactured in the devil's workshop.

Friday, November 13, 2015

You Must Submit!

The other day, I finished teaching a crash course in academic writing. The structure was simple: students had been asked to submit a paper that they had written for a previous course. In my course, they would rewrite it, essentially by taking the "9-hour challenge". We had about 10 hours of classroom time set aside and they were expected to spend at least 10 hours writing outside of class. Like I say, a simple arrangement.

During the first class, I presented them with my definition of knowledge, the "writing moment", the importance of paragraphs, and the outline of a standard social science paper. This included my paragraph-for-paragraph instructions for writing a three-paragraph introduction and the first paragraph of the conclusion. Their first task, to be submitted for the next class (the 2nd of 3) was to compose those four paragraphs, 27 minutes at a time. A minimum of 2 hours of work.

Most participants submitted those paragraphs, though many admitted that they had not observed the 27-minute discipline very rigorously. Some of them had probably just done the assignment in the usual way, the night before it was due. I told them they would have to take it more seriously for next time. After all, they would now have to write 14 clearly defined paragraphs (two for the background, two for the theory, two for method, six for analysis and two for the discussion). They would need to spend exactly 7 hours doing this, 1 or 2 hours per day (there were about 5 days to the next class meeting.)

As you (unfortunately) might expect, things didn't go so well. Hardly anyone submitted the final assignment (the course was completely voluntary) and half the students stayed away from our final class (the 3rd of 3). This led to an interesting discussion with those who turned up anyway.

One student's remarks, in particular, stuck with me. He told me that he enjoyed the course and had gotten a great deal out of it. He hadn't submitted the final assignment because he had decided to spend his time doing something other than writing paragraphs, namely, thinking about the structure of the paper and "working on it". He had revisited my tutorials (available online) and read my blog and he found it all very edifying and even inspirational. He complimented me on my very good advice and told me he agreed with it entirely.

But he had not, like I say, spent seven hours writing fourteen paragraphs like I had suggested. He had decided to "do something else".

We went back and forth about it for a while. He suggested that building the structure of the paper was more important (for him, right now) than weaving (what I sometimes call) the texture of the paragraph. I countered that, if he thought only about structure but not about the materials it would be built out if, he would erect only a tower of garbage. (The discussion was frank like this, but I think he would agree that it was pleasant.) I told him he was trying to learn the rules and strategies of football but not running his laps with the team. He'd be no good to us come game time no matter how well he understood the problem and "agreed with" my (the coach's) strategy.

Again he said he agreed with me completely, he had just chosen to do something different. In exasperation, I finally said, "I don't want you to agree with me. I want you to submit to my will." I could also have said what I did say on the first day, "You won't learn this by believing what I tell you but by doing as I say." In fact, it's fine if you don't agree with me while you're doing it. Like Niels Bohr's horseshoe, it works even if you don't believe in it.

My exasperation must be like that of the doctor who is treating the high blood pressure of a patient who insists on spending every day in front of the TV. You suggest going for a "brisk walk" for merely 30 minutes every day and they say they understand and agree. But at the next consultation, they tell you that, well, they walked to the store last week (because the car was in the shop) and cleaned the house so that's got to count for something, right? Wrong. What works is deliberate, disciplined exercise. This is true both for general health issues and specific skills training. And it goes for the body as well as mind.

As you can imagine, I find moments of lucidity like this somewhat disconcerting. When you are confronted with naturally talented people who are insistently undisciplined and cheerfully disobedient, and therefore won't actually learn what you are trying to teach them, you begin to feel like a fascist, like your attempt to educate them is actually an attempt to subjugate them. There's nothing more disheartening (and confusing) than hearing someone tell you that they found your lecture "inspiring" while, in the very next sentence, telling you that, "of course", they didn't actually do the thing you suggested.

The only solution I can think of is to go back to grading on a curve. Give the students something to do that you know will make them smarter. Then give the good grades to the students who actually do what you tell them and, therefore, outperform those who are happy just to believe what you've said.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Disenjoyment: Science and Loathing in Writing Instruction

Earlier this year, I suddenly realized that my impulses run counter to an important trend in writing instruction—one that follows a broader trend in higher education. The trend is to base teaching, not on the experience of teachers, but on the evidence of studies of teaching. On a number of occasions that I've recently attended, I've noticed this strong emphasis on what the "research" tells us when thinking about how to teach students how to write, from their first year of undergraduate study to their last year in a PhD program. It's as if writing instructors no longer trust their intuitions. They want to implement writing methods (and the means to teach them) that "studies have shown" to be effective. I find this trend distressing.

Why wouldn't we want to base writing instruction on the careful study of how students learn to write? I think I can best explain what I mean by beginning with the two sources of trouble in contemporary writing instruction that Dino Knudsen rightly identifies when he introduces his "deliberate practice" approach:

1) Many teachers do not write well themselves.
2) Many teachers do not know how to teach writing in their field.

I suppose these are themselves both "empirical" claims, and they could be (and no doubt already are) subjected to careful scientific study. But let's grant them at least for the sake of argument. My first question is: can science help us to develop teaching strategies that don't depend on solving these two problems first? That is, can we develop writing modules, to be taught by writing instructors, that can succeed in improving student writing without affecting the ability of their course instructors to either do their own writing or support the students' writing? When I look at the approaches that are suggested, this often seems to be the goal: we want to make students better writers while accepting that their teachers aren't very good at it.

My second question is this: if we solved Dino's two problems, would there be any significant problem of "student writing" left to solve? That is, if the students' content teachers were good writers and knew how to teach writing, would there be any need for a "science of writing" to figure out what good writing is and how to teach it? Both of these questions are, of course, rhetorical ones, and my view is clearly that the answer is "no". I don't think there is any hope for writing instruction, no matter how much research it is backed by, if we ignore the competence of those who teach the students in their regular courses.

The problem, in my opinion, is precisely the separation of the writing problem from the problem of knowing. As a "writing coach" I'm fully aware that there's a sense in which I'm part of the problem. I guess that also puts me in a position to be part of the solution. This post is small step towards it, I hope.

Let me suggest two additional, and perhaps deeper, problems that underlie the current "crisis" of student writing. (I do believe there is a crisis, and I believe it goes beyond student writing. It's academic writing as such that is coming undone at its foundations.) Here are two theses I'd like to add to Dino's:

3) Many teachers hate reading student writing.
4) Many teachers hate writing.

I think the real driver of "scientific" interest in the writing process is the search for solutions to an underlying difficulty that we might call "disenjoyment". I thought I'd have to coin this word (it is not often used) but it already exists. I'd like to use it in a way that resembles the use of "disenchantment" to describe the influence of modern science on our understanding of both nature and culture, i.e., an undermining of a belief in magic. Modern science has taught us to understand the world in which we live without positing "occult" forces or divine interventions. Instead of miracles, we have accidents; instead of creation, we have evolution. Disenjoyment is the influence of modern science, not on our faith in magical powers, but on our joy in artful making. Please note that disenchantment can be a good thing, if you like, and disenjoyment still make you a little sad, as it should.

What I would like to accuse modern instruction of is to propose approaches to writing that constitute a "work-around" for a lack of joy in writing. My suggestion is that no such work-around is possible in the long run. If we rely on it, we will end up transforming all writing into the loathsome activity that some teachers, it seems, already see it as. Like a crutch, scientific studies of writing take the "load" off our hearts and, in the end, will foster a kind of writing that, if we tried to enjoy it, would break them. Good writing, and certainly the good writing that should be modeled by writing instructors, is enjoyable writing. I do not say that writing should be easy, nor even always a joy, but it should be enjoy-able. One should be able to enjoy it.

This will be a long argument. And I'm perfectly willing to develop it in reaction to forceful criticism. So please bring it on in the comments. I'll start developing this theme next week.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Writing and Publishing

It is one thing not to write and another not to publish. These past few days I've been writing but not publishing as I normally do, both here at RSL and at the Ethicist. It's not clear to me exactly why I'm reticent about publishing, but there is certainly some kind of "block" that I need to get out of the way.

Note, however, that it isn't a block in my writing, just in my willingness to make my ideas public. It's also an unwillingness to write for publication, of course, since I could merely see my blogging as an obligation and then keep it by choosing things to say that I don't mind saying publicly.

This obligation to keep a stream of prose coming can itself, at times, become heavy and obstruct the enjoyment of writing. Since the main thing is to keep the prose healthy and vibrant, then, I'm going to continue writing for a few weeks, having officially renounced my obligation to publish. That doesn't mean I won't post something every now and then, only that I want to see where my prose leads me when I'm writing without the obligation. This is very much related to concerns I've discussed previously, here and here.

Monday, October 12, 2015

On Colin Blakemore and ABSW

On Saturday, Sir Colin Blakemore resigned as honorary president of the Association of British Science Writers over its handling of the controversy around Connie St Louis' reporting of Tim Hunt's remarks about women in the lab in June. Since he mentions my name in his statement, which I take as no small honour, I'd like to offer some thoughts about it here.

Specifically, Blakemore is unsatisfied with the way that ABSW dealt with a number of written complaints about St Louis' journalism. One of those complaints was mine. Like Blakemore, I was puzzled by ABSW's decision to give her its "full support" as she faced criticism that the ABSW described as an "attack" on her person for "the everyday act of reporting a news story".

More importantly, I wanted to know whether it was in keeping with "the highest standards of science writing" for Connie St Louis not to disclose to her readers the fact that she is a member of the executive board of the World Federation of Science Journalists, whose conference Tim Hunt was a guest of when he made his remarks. This, I have argued, gave her a range of options for mitigating the harms that his remarks may have done to women in science, rather than recklessly amplifying those harms by tweeting her outrage. That outrage, of course, was based, at best, on a misunderstanding and, at worst, on a distortion of his actual meaning, which soon became clear to anyone who cared to give the matter a moment's thought.

In accepting Blakemore's resignation, the board of the ABSW, on which St Louis of course sits, has, to my mind, only made the need for that resignation clearer. Once again defending St Louis' journalism, they claim that:

Sir Tim has not disputed the accuracy of St Louis’s reporting and has apologised to the Federation for his comments. Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, is on record as saying that Sir Tim’s comments were unacceptable.

This is, to my mind, a highly misleading statement, clearly intended to make it seem as though St Louis' story has stood the test of time, and that her interpretation of Hunt's remarks is not really in doubt. But already a month ago, in my response to ABSW's response to my complaint, I pointed out that Tim Hunt has, in fact, disputed the accuracy of St Louis reporting from the very beginning. She said he seriously suggested sex-segregated labs; he said he was joking. That is, he disputed the meaning that was attributed to his words after they had been taken out of context. The only thing he did not dispute was the literal transcription of 37 words that he spoke, which he granted were "accurately reported".

As I've said before, to characterize this as "not disputing" Connie St Louis' report, is so ignorant that it would be kinder to call it dishonest. What Tim Hunt apologized for, more graciously than it now seems he should have, was the offense that was caused, not by his comments in the room that day, but by a wildly misleading report of those comments. Indeed, while one would have to ask Paul Nurse himself, I'm quite certain, especially given his subsequent remarks on the matter, that what he found "unacceptable" were the remarks as originally reported, and not the act of saying words that, when sufficiently distorted in the fun-house mirror of a journalist's agenda, could be construed as a sign of "ingrained sexism". (As it seems we must always point this out, I will do it again: everything we now know about Tim Hunt suggests that there is not a grain of sexism in the man. No one who knows him has anything bad to say about him on this point.)

One last thing. Citing the Observer article on the resignation, ABSW has found it necessary to clarify that "It has not received the notification needed to start a case under [their complaint] process, which involves a formal complaint in writing." Actually, the process involves a little more than just making a complaint in writing. It requires filing it on paper, signed by the complainant. (All the complaints I'm aware of were, in fact, made in writing, though I guess by email.) When I was corresponding with Martin Ince, I did at one point offer to make such a formal complaint if he thought it would be easier to address my concerns by that means. Ince did not invite me to do so. Blakemore is therefore quite right when he says that ABSW "decided not to invoke its ... complaints procedure". I formed my opinion of the Association and the profession accordingly when I received the board's answer to my questions.

As if to issue a challenge, the ABSW now says that it "will of course act upon any such complaint it may receive". Maybe one or some of us will have to rise to that challenge and see how that procedure, when actually used, does work. But let it not be said that we didn't give the ABSW the opportunity to do the right thing by less formal means.

Friday, October 09, 2015

Is Science Writing Making the World Less Safe for Scientists?

After the debacle in Seoul this summer at the World Conference of Science Journalists, many of us are paying extra attention to news coming out of ScienceWriters2015 in Cambridge this year. We're worried that some other innocent victim is going to get into hot water for something he, or she, might find coming out of their mouth and then being, more or less faithfully, reported on Twitter. Thankfully, there hasn't been any drama yet. But, as if in anticipation, Mark Strauss decided to create a "rogues gallery" of "Nobel Prize winners we'd like to forget"* for National Geographic. Whatever you may think of the exercise in general, the Tim Hunt entry was sure to get my attention, and I imagine that getting people like me worked up was part of Strauss's intent. I'd like to take a moment to explain my reaction.

First of all, I'm of course surprised that a venerable institution like National Geographic would engage in such cheap, click-baiting, character assassination. It is a publication that depends on fostering good relationships with scientists, so you would think that when writing about Nobel laureates, even if critically (as is sometimes of course necessary), that it would do it in a less glib and tabloid-like manner. This doesn't just apply to writing about Sir Tim, and I'm sure that the gallery will divide opinion on some of the other "rogues" as well. But since I happen to know something about that case...

Let me begin by pointing out how strong Strauss's opprobrium against Tim Hunt actually is. Because of what (it is said) he said in Seoul, he argues, Tim Hunt is best forgotten about all together, his contribution to our understanding of cell division notwithstanding. His name deserves to be listed among "racists, frauds, and misogynists" (rather than mentors, friends, and discoverers). While there are many "clueless sexists" in science, says Strauss, "one name stands out for special recognition", namely, Tim Hunt's. He is described as being clueless about a "vast" problem and as harboring an "ingrained attitude" that "makes it harder for women to advance in science". That is, Hunt is characterized as a singularly good example of the problem of sexism in science.

On what evidence does Strauss make this very strong claim? The piece references four sources. Connie St Louis' blog post at Scientific American, the BBC's early reporting of the story and his first apology, a U.S.News & World report about gender disparity in science, and Deborah Blum's storify about the incident. The most recent of these sources is from June 15, i.e., one week after the infamous luncheon was held. That is, four months after the event, Strauss ignores all the subsequent coverage of both the incident and its central figure, to make his portrait of a rogue.

But he doesn't even get his sources right. He cites St Louis for a version of Hunt's remarks that doesn't appear in her article. Tellingly, it appears in a comment to that article that criticizes her distortion of his remarks and their meaning. He insists on the originally scandalous meaning, of course, and leaves out of his quote the mitigating words that have become central to the discussion about whether he was joking, i.e., the "now seriously..." He says that Hunt "issued" the "pseudo-apology" that was in fact, elicited by the BBC, and he attributes his remarks about being "honest" to something he said to a "co-panelist" (presumably Blum) when that was in fact part of his comment to the BBC.

Finally, he cites the USNews report as support for the claim that there is a "vast underrepresentation of women working in STEM fields," though that report is actually focused on evidence that there may be no "leaky pipeline" keeping women who are already in science from staying in. Worse—indeed, astoundingly—that argument is actually very similar to one that Hunt does make, namely, that, yes, there is in fact a disparity, but it is not caused by any sexism he is aware of. To say that a man who describes the inequalities as "staggering" is "clueless" about the under-representation of women in science is just plain, well, clueless about the man's views. Strauss doesn't seem to have done any research at all on this story.

Yesterday on Twitter, inspired by Faye Getz Cook, I announced that science writing is making the world unsafe for academics. It might be argued that that is as good and justified as political journalism making the world "unsafe" for politicians. But this is only true, even for political journalism, if we mean bad ones, i.e., dishonest and fraudulent politicians and scientists. Sure, yes, let's make the world unsafe for them. But being able to distinguish between a good and a bad scientist must surely be part of the competence of a science writer. Strauss, it seems, can't even read his own sources. Pilots who can't tell the difference between yaw and torque would also make the world less safe for passengers. Fortunately pilots are members of a serious profession!

As I said when I first read the piece, National Geographic should be ashamed of itself, and of Mark Strauss. They owe Tim Hunt a full and sincere apology and retraction for this shoddy piece of so-called journalism.

*It looks like the title of the piece has been changed since publication.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Authority and Critique

In the comments to my last post, Rasmus brings up a number of very good points. Doesn't my vision of a "site" of prose (rather than a book), undermine a lot of the advice about structure I normally peddle? Is my utopia not a lot more postmodern than I normally pretend to be?

In reply, I said that I'm not contradicting but radicalizing my standard advice. Killing off the author has always been a way of making our writing be about the facts (or thoughts) themselves, not about our authority, or our position and status as authors. Remember also that the allegedly post-modern thesis of "the death of the author" is actually a radicalization of the entirely modern practice of "new criticism", focusing on "what is actually there on the page", and eschewing the intentional fallacy. Perhaps it's not so much that my utopia is postmodern as that my postmodernism is utopian.

Earlier this year, I tried to make an argument for a utopia in which most academic communication happened through blogs and wikis, entirely free of charge, and with no publishers, peer review or other editorial oversight. But it's important to point out, as I did already there, that there's still room in this vision for what Jerry Davis calls a "curator", which would be made of up traditional journals, with editors and publishers. Since they would mainly present results that are already known (through the free network), however, these journals would need to guarantee a very high standard of writing and reliability. Also, they would need to take post-publication criticism very seriously. That is, it would really say something about a paper that it was published in, say, the Administrative Science Quarterly, and has not been retracted for ten or twenty years. But if this is to mean anything, then we really have to treat the stuff that is published in the high-end, "premium" journals, not as work to be merely "believed", but as work to be criticized and replicated. That is, getting published there should also come at a higher risk of having to retract it, or at least of having to acknowledge your mistakes publicly.

That is why, in my utopia, "merely" critical papers would be at least as important as the original empirical studies. Something like this is implicitly acknowledged every time a journal corrects or retracts a paper that has been found faulty in some minor or major way. This recently happened at ASQ, in fact, when a "concerned reader" found something amiss with a paper on CEO narcissism. It was worth the time that a reader, an editor and an original author had to spend to find and correct the error to make sure that a falsehood wasn't circulating in the literature. In my opinion, the same sort of reasoning should be applied by in evaluating a "critical essay" that merely corrects errors in an "original" study that has already made a co-called "theoretical contribution". If the paper is flawed enough, its contribution will presumably have been to mislead us. Correcting it is therefore as much of a contribution as the original paper had been believed to make.

In short, I imagine an academy where there are a lot of researchers, but fewer scholars. ("The scholar disappears," said Martin Heidegger.) These scholars would be the proper "authors", i.e, they'd have the authority of knowledge behind them. When they said something, they'd therefore have their "names on the line", just as the journals who published them would have their reputations at stake.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Sites and Books

"Here it can be seen that solipsism, when its implications are followed out strictly, coincides with pure realism. The self of solipsism shrinks to a point without extension, and there remains the reality coordinated with it." (Ludwig Wittgenstein, T5.64)

This is not a book. But it is a collection of pages filled with prose. I'm working on a secret project these days (all will soon be revealed) that is teaching me something about the changing nature of writing and, perhaps, what phrases like "the end of the book" and "the death of the author" really mean.

Do you remember I said I spent a few days in the Alps with Oliver Reichenstein and his staff at Information Architects? It was a transformative experience for me. Or at least, I suspect, the beginning of one; the process continues. I was especially grateful (hi Chris!) for an opportunity to revisit my views on Zen and the nature of the ego. For a brief moment, sitting there in the most literal of alpine meadows, I had a glimpse of my literary utopia. I imagined building a website out of my ideas, consisting mainly of prose paragraphs, not in a sequence, but hyperlinked through individual words. A site not a book.

Writing stops being "between covers". Every page takes up a position equidistant to the reality it is a part of. A book is a thing. A site, by contrast, is a place. We construct that place and invite our "readers" (now, in fact, visitors) to come. They can make themselves at home. Enjoy the grounds.

And what then of "the writer"? Well, the Buddhists have that useful notion of "ego death", a liberation from the illusion that we are something other than a body implicated practically in the living world, that our existence amounts to more than the space we occupy in the universe. That is my literary utopia, then: each of us working on a site that is the articulation of our selves. Once the basic structure has been built, and the machinery of the hypertext is up and running, nothing remains but maintenance and upkeep. There is no need for a "second edition", nor even a "next book". The self of the author, we might say, shrinks to a point without extension, and there remains the prose coordinated with it.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Craft and Dogma

"Real education must ultimately be limited to men who INSIST on knowing, the rest is mere sheep-herding." (Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading)

On Wednesday, I found myself suggesting that we remove the teaching of evolution from the elementary school curriculum. As Jonathan rightly pointed out, that absurd consequence is a reason to re-evaluate the thinking that led me there. To that end, it's important to keep in mind that I'm not against teaching children all the science they can handle. My worry is that when we teach evolution, we aren't actually teaching them science. I'd say the same thing about showing them pictures of atoms and, indeed, diagrams of the solar system. They give a false impression about the sense in which the motion of particles or planets can be seen. And without a realistic sense of how these facts are observed, we're not really teaching them scientic method. We're teaching them scientific doctrine. We're indoctrinating them.

And my point, of course, is that doctrine is the opposite of science. Once we've told students that scientific knowledge is what comes from scientific authorities supported by scientific institutions, we've prepared them to be credulous rather than critical. My favourite example of how this enters the classroom (certainly how I was taught it back in the 1980s) is through the hero/martyr narrative of Galileo. The story we are told is that he discovered that the Earth moves and was silenced by the Church. This is, in many ways rightly, presented as "the birth of modern science", but the emphasis is too often on "science" not "modern", as if there was no science before modernity. The key element of the narrative is that the Church is not cast as a "scientific" institution, but a religious one.

The truth, however, is much more complicated. Though time has vindicated his hypothesis, Galileo's evidence at the time was not at all unambiguous. Much more importantly, the model of the solar system that he was challenging had been carefully constructed to account for the observable data. For the most part, the Church did not deny the empirical facts of planetary motion (i.e., how the objects in the visible sky behave); it just rejected Galileo's revolutionary explanation for these facts. What we call "science" is not just the matter of coming up with the right theory of the universe. It's about the careful of observation of nature. That's not something Galileo invented.

But it is certainly something he was very good at. Indeed, he was an innovator of our observational techniques, and his inclined plane experiments, which I've been harping on about, is an excellent example. Ezra Pound—my Virgil this week, my guide through this hell—put it this way (with a tip of the hat to "some Huxley or Haldane"): "in inventing the telescope [Galileo] had to commit a definite technical victory over materials" (GK, p. 50). Galileo, we might say, was not just a great genius but also a master craftsman. In making this point, however, Pound does not reject what came before. "Before the scientific method," he points out, "when men had hardly more than words as a means for transmission of thought, they took a great deal more care in defining them." He ends up proposing that "Every man who wants to set his ideas in order ought to be soused for a week at least in one part of mediaeval scholasticism."

Failing such care in defining our terms, we find ourselves believing in facts without understanding our words and, ultimately, without mastering the methods that give us access to them. My worry is that we're teaching science, too often, as dogma not as craft. Even our "methods", especially in the social sciences, are often merely ritualistic ways of invoking facts where only meanings are available. We pretend to observe what we can only interpret. I've been concerned about this for a long time, it seems. Truth be told, I think I'm through the Inferno. I'm going to have to find a way out of this purgatory now.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Machines or Magic

"In the study of physics we begin with simple mechanisms, wedge, lever and fulcrum, pulley and inclined plane, all of them still as useful as when they were first invented. We proceed by a study of discoveries.” (Ezra Pound, “How to Read”)

As I recall, I was shown a picture of Niels Bohr's atom in a science textbook in grade five or six. It wasn't until high-school physics that I was taught Galileo's inclined plane experiment—complete with the historical detail that, lacking a mechanical clock, he timed the rolling ball against a musical phrase that he would hum. Not yet a teenager, I was being taught that apparently solid matter consisted mostly of empty space, that the function of science is to make fools of my senses. (They call this "wonder" sometimes.) Only much later did I learn that science was a way of making sense of my experiences.

I don't want this to be a complaint about K-12 educational ideologies, but the difference between these two images is interesting to me. Bohr's atom is a wildly inaccurate representation of an object that I will never experience with my senses, and which only very few people ever really learn how to observe empirically. Galileo's inclined plane is a sensible object and a physical machine that, as it happens, shows us very precisely how one of the indisputably most important forces in the universe operates. At best, Bohr's atom helps us to remember that there are (whatever they are) electrons, neutrons and protons. Galileo's plane teaches us how to decompose the motion of an object into its vectors, and thereby determine its acceleration due to gravity.

On one of my other blogs, I recently argued that we could safely leave the teaching of evolution out of the elementary school curriculum.* For one thing, it would avoid making our children's minds an ideological battleground that pits parents against teachers, religion against science. Instead, we could simply teach our students how to actually observe the life around them. Our current approach is to insist they come to believe in a theory of our origins that is, when you think about it, very difficulty to understand, very difficult really to get your mind around. Even those who rightly think evolution is true, often don't really know how it works. It's a bit like teaching children that matter is really mostly space. They might get that answer right on an exam, but it's unlikely to be based on an understanding of the fluctuations of the quantum ether.

By a similar token, I believe that the "crisis of representation", the "metaphysics of presence" and the "archaeology of knowledge", however rightly they may get at the complicated situation of contemporary writing, have distracted us from the heart of the matter, which is not "language" or "experience" but words and letters arranged to be about something.

The teacher of prose who has grown bored with the paragraph is like the teacher of poetry who doesn't want to see another sonnet. It's time to find another subject to teach, not to declare the genre retired. (I know. That's the second potshot I've taken at Adam Banks this week. I'll try to come at him more directly next week.) It is because we lack the patience to show students the full variety of expression that is possible using at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words arranged to support a central claim that we have turned to occult notions of "inspiration" and "expression". We have to show students once again that three quatrains and a couplet are resources, not constraints, when the aim is to be precise about our emotions.

We should confine education to the teaching of things we know. There is so much out there that our students don't yet know the first thing about. And we refuse to teach those first things to them. It is a mystery to me why we waste their time trying to get them to believe things they are unlikely to be able to understand. We're leading them to believe that our machines work by magic. They certainly seem increasingly unable to distinguish between sticks and stones and words.

*[Update, October 1: In the comments, Jonathan rightly points out how weird this suggestion is. I wish I could claim I meant it as a "modest proposal" of some kind, but at the time (even yesterday) I thought it had some plausibility. Obviously, it could never be implemented in actual curriculum design, and the suggestion, taken as an analogy, probably just reflects the depth of the despair about writing instruction that I mentioned in my last post. When I'm more optimistic (which I usually am) my ideas are less ridiculous.]

Monday, September 28, 2015


"Man is an over-complicated organism. If he is doomed to extinction he will die out for want of simplicity." (Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading)

In the early twentieth century, around the time of Einstein, science was driven by the dream of reducing our understanding of the world to basic, simple principles. The physical universe was to be understood as a composition of simple mechanisms (balls, levers, walls, lenses) that could ultimately explain, at least in theory, the complexity and variety of experience. But the frontier of knowledge was pushed forward, and as the equipment that was needed to observe things that are ever smaller (think: subatomic particles) or ever more remote (think: protogalactic quasars) got more specialised, we came to realise that the "simplest constituents" were not so simple after all. Today, a scientists is not someone who is possessed of an elegant "theory of everything", but rather an expert in a particular something. And the expertise is usually evident in the mastery of a rather esoteric jargon.

Even our understanding of our own selves has been subject to this trend. The social and psychological sciences advance through the study of ever bigger datasets and ever finer neuronal networks, approached with ever more sophisticated statistics and equipment. Our basis for understanding everything from political power to artistic creativity is found, not in the lived experience of statesmen and artists, but in "scientific" methods whose application is framed by a bewildering complexity of "theories" of human behaviour. Each thesis can be competently evaluated only by a handful of specialists, and no one seems qualified to bring it all together into a comprehensive account of "human nature". "Am I," any one of us might ask, "even qualified to know who I am?"

My own interest is in writing—specifically, academic or scholarly writing— and I've lately been driven almost to despair at the sophistication with which we have theorised this practice. At this point, understanding what students are doing when they are writing essays seems to depend on resolving a series of incredibly subtle disputes between, say, Derrida, Foucault, Barthes—even Lacan—about the nature of writing and authorship. Under these conditions, it is no wonder that writing teachers are increasingly calling for us to "retire" the essay as the focus of instruction. The idea seems to be that our best available theories tell us that a five paragraph essay is as far removed from the truth about Writing as a marble on an inclined plane is from the truth about Reality. What we need is a "quantum theory" of writing, it is said, or, indeed, a "mothership of funk" to take us beyond prose and into the stars.

I have warned against this kind of sophistication before. I'm not at all sure that our efforts to improve undergraduate (or even doctoral) writing skills need to be guided by theories of writing as sophisticated as those of Michel Foucault or Roland Barthes (to confine ourselves, for the moment, to thinkers that I respect a great deal.) The vast majority of writing is done by people who are "authors" in a much less problematic sense than they (otherwise rightly) suggested. Or, to take another example (with which I am, admittedly, less familiar), I suspect that the vast majority of writing does not succeed or fail in proportion to how well it leverages the play of différance. Likewise, the great majority of the buildings in which we live and work depend neither on wave functions nor chaos effects for their stability. They are ordinary Newtonian machines. Or at least I hope this is the case.

This will be my theme this week. I am once again trying to write my way of out of a particular kind of despair about modern scholarship and present-day academia. I think writers who eschew (or avoid or neglect) the paragraph as a literary form and site of instruction are like physicists who can't describe the fall of an object under the acceleration of gravity. I guess I believe that the paragraph is as close to the truth about Writing as the inclined plane is to the truth about Reality. The simple principles and the simple machines that constitute ordinary experience are where we should begin, and where most of us can safely remain. From there, we should proceed with caution. The Devil, perhaps, lurks in the details.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015


A good question has been coming up lately when I've been talking to students. It has been asked by first-year students as well as professional master's students and follows naturally from my advice that you should practice your writing even when you don't have an assignment due, just as you should go for a jog even if you've got no place to be or a race to win. How, the students ask me, can they know they are making progress? How do they know that they are doing it right?

When I say a question is "good", I don't mean that in the ironic sense of being stumped by it. I usually mean that I have a good answer to it, and that's also the case here. Now, the first answer is of course to seek feedback from others on a regular basis. If your teachers are too busy, then ask your fellow students. Give them simple tasks like reading a paragraph out loud to you and identifying the key sentence. If this is easy for them, you're doing something right. You can also ask them for some frank but constructive criticism.

But don't let everything depend on outside criticism. Remember that it is your style we're talking about. Learn how to evaluate your own writing as well.

To see how this can be done, begin with our usual paradigms of "practice" and "training": music and sports. If you sit down at the piano every day for twenty minutes and practice Bach's thirteenth invention, as I have, there will be little question in your mind that you've made progress after a few weeks. The impossible becomes possible; the painful becomes pleasurable. Likewise, if you go for a five kilometer run every other day, as I also have, you won't be in much doubt about whether your stamina is improving. Your legs and your lungs will give you some pretty direct feedback about your progress.

In both cases, of course, your "learning curve" may taper off. At some point, you may feel that regular practice is merely maintaining your form. And, in some cases, working without a teacher or coach and pushing yourself to reach ever high goals, you may find yourself straining a little; you may even suspect that you are injuring yourself, or developing a bad habit. This, of course, is when you should seek advice and guidance. In the meantime, relax your regimen a little.

The most important aspect of this kind of self-assessment, to my mind, is the pleasure you take in your writing. Are the twenty-seven minutes you spend working on a particular paragraph increasingly enjoyable? When you read your paragraph out loud at the end of your writing session, does it give you pleasure to form the words and to hear them spoken? (This is like paying attention to the sound of your music or the pain of your muscles.) Remember that writing is something you are training your body to do; it is a coordination of your hands with your mind through the heart. The body is an excellent, natural instrument of "feedback". Listen to it. Feel yourself improving.

Monday, September 21, 2015

A Sequence of Fact and Motion

Here's a Hemingway passage that I think bears upon my discussion of fact and nuance in sociology, journalism and literature.

I was trying to write then and I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what your were supposed to feel, and had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced. In writing for a newspaper you told what happened aided by the element of timeliness which gives a certain emotion to any account of something that has happened on that day; but the real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion and which would be as valid in a year or in ten years or, with luck and if your stated it purely enough, always, was beyond me and I was working very hard to try to get it. (Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon, 1932, p. 10)

I've written about it before in this post.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Opinions and Motives

"...I have to retrace my steps by way of the shadows. I try to interfere as little as possible in the evolution of the work. I do not want it to be distorted by my opinions, which are the most trivial things about us." (Jorge Luis Borges)

Every now and then I find myself growing suspicious of my motives and my opinions. I have to remind myself that they are, for the most part, not "mere" opinions, nor base motives, but the refined product of many years of experience and conversation. At the moment, however, they've gotten me mired in self-doubt, along with feelings of triviality and superficiality, which is why I haven't been writing. (It can happen to anyone.) I hope the weekend's immersion in the practical contingencies of volunteer work will lighten my mind a bit.

For those who want something to read, I've written about how to form scholarly opinions at this blog before. As for motives, it's something I've touched on, albeit with a hint of mysticism, on my other blog.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Fact and Nuance 3

Given the prevalence of "nuance" in contemporary sociology, I'm sure some readers of Kieran Healy's excellent essay, "Fuck Nuance", have interpreted its message more radically as "Fuck Sociology" and, of course, if they are themselves sociologists, "Fuck You".

Alice Goffman and her supporters might, for example, read it this way. When her facts in On the Run were drawn into question, first by Steven Lubet and then by Paul Campos, the common defence was that her aim was to capture the nuance of urban poverty, not the mere facts. I have to admit, actually, that this is my interpretation of the defence; I've been able to find a few explicit invocations of "nuance" among her defenders, but not nearly as many as I had expected based on my memory of reading about the controversy. But my impression of her famous TED talk was, precisely, that she was trying to wrap the brute facts that she presented in her "one slide" about incarceration rates in a lot of narrative nuance in order to try to make the problem more "present" to her audience.

The question that Healy raises (though not about Goffman directly) is whether this is good sociology. If it isn't, then what is it? The answer that some of her critics have suggested is that it's just bad journalism or, worse, undeclared fiction. I haven't had as much time to think about it since Friday as I would have liked, so this post isn't going to accomplish everything I wanted to. But I'd like to at least get the distinction on the table that I announced on Friday, namely, the distinction between fact, theory and nuance.

"We need better theory," says Healy, "not less of it." He might also have said we need better theory, not more nuance. But this is not, he stresses, because nuance is a bad thing, just that it's not good for sociology. I agree with him on both points. I think sociology should theorize what can be theorized (though this is less than most sociologist think, I suspect) and leave the nuances to novelists.

That's, of course, what I also think Goffman should have done. Since she has destroyed her field notes, there is, to my mind, very little to distinguish her field work from the "life experience" that novelists draw on to write their stories. These stories are then able to capture what Healy calls the Actually-Existing Nuance of the experience of urban poverty. Some novelists seek out such experiences. Others are merely born into them. And some write not novels but memoirs. If we want a "nuanced" account of the experience of being black and incarcerated, we do better to read Dwayne Betts than Goffman, I think. But fiction has a certain license with the facts, and memoirs are, of course, subjective. So isn't that where Goffman's work makes its contribution: it's "scientific", objective, factual and nuanced?

Well, I think the Goffman controversy shows that the sort of local facts that make up her narrative are not best left to ethnographers. Rather, we do better to trust journalists whose reputations depend on actually getting those facts right. (Remember that Sabrina Rubin Erdely's career was seriously harmed by her UVA reporting for Rolling Stone, whereas Goffman's reputation is largely intact among sociologists.) She does not seem to be as accountable to the facts as journalists would be, which is probably some part of the explanation for how the controversy unfolded in the media.

Anyway, I don't have time today to do this argument (or Healy's essay) justice, but I think theory should be developed with an eye to explaining large, well-established social facts, and journalism should investigate the smaller facts, the particular details. Ideally (in a world where no one made mistakes and no-one lied), a social theory would never deny an actual fact, i.e., one that a journalist has correctly described, nor would a journalist try to pass off facts that make no sense from the perspective of a well-established theory, but, in real life, they will no doubt constantly challenge each other. The relationship between sociological theory and journalistic fact could be one of respectful competition.

So-called "nuance", in the sense that Mailer promotes (in journalism) and Healy dismisses (in sociology) occupies a strange, spectral and, like I say, unaccountable middle ground. That ground, I believe, is literary. It's where the writing happens, and that's why it's also relevant, to a degree, in both sociology and journalism. Mailer was a "literary journalist", and there are plenty of like-wise "literary" sociologists. Part of me thinks that if I follow my impulse to agree too much with Healy, I will also have to dismiss what is perhaps Mailer's most significant contribution to American letters. On the other hand, perhaps my equal and opposite impulse to celebrate Mailer's achievement will give us a way of understanding and, ultimately, approving of Goffman.

As Mailer said to the protester's on the eve of their march on the Pentagon in 1967. "This is an existential situation. We don't know how it will turn out." More on Wednesday.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Fact and Nuance 2

There's has been some good discussion in the comments to my last post, which I think is worth moving into a post of its own. Randall Westgren wants to know about the boundary between fact and nuance, while Jonathan Mayhew, pulling in the opposite direction, is not sure that nuances are usefully contrasted to facts. (Thomas Presskorn took things in a somewhat inside-Basbøll direction with his "pangrammatical" question—a reference to the work I've done on my now-retired other blog. I'm always happy to defend that style of thinking, but I can't really demand that anyone follow me there. Those who are interested can perhaps start with this post, which actually touches on Randy's question.)

Roughly speaking, I said to Randy, nuances are the stuff of poems and novels and facts are the stuff of science and journalism. That's not to say that you can't have facts in a novel or nuances in a field report. It might be more accurate to say that novelists and poets pride themselves on getting the nuances right, whereas scientists and (though I sometimes wonder!) journalists pride themselves on getting the facts right. But everyone deploys both fact and nuance to achieve their ends. Norman Mailer says that "a fact is a compression of nuance". Conversely, we can say that a nuance is the surface of a fact. That is, we can't have one without the other, but we can be interested in one over the other.

Jonathan, however, pointed something out that made me see that in making this distinction I'm actually reifying nuances, turning them into "things", individual existences. "Nuances," Jonathan reminds us,

are subtle differences and distinctions, and can pertain to either facts or non-facts. For example, it is un-nuanced to say the Franco killed Lorca. It would be more nuanced to describe in factual terms what actually happened. Which factions of the Right wanted him dead, exactly? Being nuanced means being more fine-grained, less simplistic, and, in many cases, more factual as well.
Jonathan also points us to a recent paper by Kieran Healy called "Fuck Nuance", which will be the subject of part three of this series (on Monday). I want to deal with what Jonathan and Healy have in common, namely, the definition of "nuance" in terms of "subtle differences" and "shades of meaning", which, as Jonathan rightly points out, make them inapt as correlates or complements of individual facts. Shouldn't I use some other term to denote the fleeting, perhaps "subjective", side of facts. Wittgenstein's "aspects" might do.

My somewhat self-serving answer is that I need the fact/nuance distinction in my reading of Mailer's writing, especially his journalism of the 1960s. I believe that Mailer was working with almost explicit "phenomenology" that attempted to restore "nuance" to a world of "fact", dominated by science and (non-literary) journalism. But I have to remember that nuances aren't recoverable as such. They aren't sights, sounds and smells that we have stopped noticing because we're too aware of the facts beneath or behind them. A nuance is always between one thing and another, it's where one experience (of a color or an emotion) "shades off" into another. The question, then, is what are nuances fundamentally differences between.

It's probably not really "things" and I'm reluctant to say facts. (The difference between one fact and another is probably just another fact, as I think Jonathan's "Who Killed Lorca?" example is intended to show.) So I'd venture that nuances are always differences between images. But this can all get quite subtle, quite shady—"nuanced", if you will. After all, if I'm going to say that a smell is "nuanced" insofar as it is a difference between images of facts it could, precisely, be the difference between the olfactory and the visual image of the rose.

I use smell as an example advisedly. Mailer's book about the moon landing ends with a touching scene in which Mailer, with "the pain of all these months of a marriage ending and a world in suffocation and a society in collapse", goes to visit a rock that had been brought back from the moon and finds an objective correlative for his emotion in the "hermetically tight glass bell" that keeps him from, yes, smelling it. "All worship the new science of smell!" he says. "It was bound to work its way trough two panes of glass before three and a half billion more years were lost and gone." That, he would argue, was an attempt to find the "nuance" in his encounter with the moon rock, rather than merely to state the fact of its presence here on Earth.

Mailer's critique of modern politics was also that it had lost nuance.

[A] President suffers intellectual horrors. His information is predigested—his mind is allowed as much stimulation as the second stomach of a cow. He is given not nuances but facts; indeed, he is given facts not in whole, but facts masticated, their backs broken. (PP, p. 2, my emphasis.)

Elsewhere he says that, "A fact is a compression of nuances that alienates the reality," though that's actually a "strong" (Bloomian) misreading of Mailer's sentence, which corrects what I think is a typo.

Back in 2009 when Barack Obama became President, I (somewhat grandly, for all concerned) tried to approach his presidency as Mailer approached Kennedy's. And so I took issue with what I thought was a poor joke he made about Rahm Emanuel by riffing on Mailer's jab at an anecdote about Kennedy. "The worst story I ever heard about Jack Kennedy was that he sat on his boat one day eating chicken and threw the half-chewed bones into the sea," says Mailer (PP, p. 101). He presents that story, we might say, as a fact: Kennedy threw chicken bones into the sea. Then he explains: "Throwing a chicken bone into the sea is bad because it shows no feeling for the root of death, which is burial. Of course Kennedy might have muttered, 'Sorry, old man,' as he tossed the bone. That is the difficulty with anecdotes. One cannot determine the nuance" (PP, p. 102). He says "the nuance", i.e., he talks about nuances as individual states or moments or experiences, not as shades of difference. I believe he's talking about the nuance of the fact that Kennedy threw bones into the sea.

Like I say, I'll continue this on Monday. There's some work to be done here in distinguishing literary nuance from both sociological theory and journalistic fact. I thank you for your patience.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Fact and Nuance

Science posits a world of facts, which it undertakes to discover. These facts presumably subtend the variety of phenomena that we experience in our everyday encounters with things and people. The encounters are often too fleeting and too ambiguous to give us knowledge of the facts of the world. Indeed, I'm reluctant to say that the sights, sounds, and smells that I encountered yesterday evening on my jog through the park are facts about how the park looks, sounds and smells. It is a fact that I went for my jog and that the park exists. The familiar route that I ran, the trees and the grass around me, are facts, confirmed by repeated encounters. (They remain facts this morning, visible from my window.) But the phenomenal experience, the thoughts and feelings that passed through my body on that particular run—these are not facts. Let's call them nuances.*

Likewise, my encounters with other people consist, in the moment, largely of nuances, not facts. It is not a fact that my lover is pleased to see me, nor that my child is unhappy. Not at first pass, not as I encounter them. It is not a fact that my colleague is annoyed with me, nor that my boss is worried about my performance. Rather, in the encounter, I'm aware of nuances that suggest such interpretations. An ethnographer who is observing my "interactions"—let me interrupt myself to say I don't like this word when used in everyday speech, precisely because it sounds so scientific, but it is the technically correct term here—an ethnographer who is observing my "interactions" would register these nuances in their field notes and, perhaps, given further observations, one day be in a position to construct a fact—of my lover's pleasure, my child's unhappiness, my colleague's annoyance, my boss's worry. But the nuances themselves are not facts.

There are, no doubt, some scientists who believe that the universe is just an enormous collection of discoverable facts, and that even a nuance is reducible to a series of physical, biological, neuronal facts about the working of my body, its senses and muscles. It is a hypothesis that they pursue and I am happy to let them do so. But life is simply too short to acknowledge every fleeting nuance of experience as though it is a fact about which the truth could have been known. I'm happy to dwell, first and foremost, "proximally and for the most part" (as Heidegger might put it), among nuances.

*I get this distinction between facts and nuances from Norman Mailer who invokes it a number of times in his Presidential Papers. One day, I'll write a paper about it. I think it is an important part of his philosophy, his phenomenology.

Monday, September 07, 2015

The Highest Standards of British Science Writing

(This is a long post. Some may want to start with part 2, which is where the "news" is: the Association of British Science Writers continues to stand by Connie St Louis' Tim Hunt reporting, even in the light of subsequent developments. The first part is mainly background.)


During the summer break, I had a brief email exchange with Martin Ince, the president of the Association of British Science Writers, about Connie St Louis' journalism in the Tim Hunt case. ABSW had previously come out in "full support" of St Louis, who serves on its board, in the face of criticism of her cv by the Daily Mail that followed her coverage of Tim Hunt's allegedly sexist remarks in Seoul in June. In its statement, ABSW described the Mail's criticisms as part of "a media furore directed at Connie for the everyday act of reporting a news story". The board stood by her "as an organisation of science writers which fosters excellence in journalism" and vowed to stand by any of its members who face similar "personal attacks" in the future.

The critique of St Louis' credentials, of course, has become part of a much more comprehensive unravelling of the story that she broke in early June. It now appears that she's not quite the science journalist (nor, in fact, the "scientist") that she has previously claimed to be, just as it seems very clear that Tim Hunt is not the sexist that she originally made him out to be. In the early days of this story, many of us were trying to figure out who to believe, and the "ad hominem" argument, i.e., the question of who has greater credibility, has become a natural part of the process.

My view, as I've said on Twitter, is that Connie St Louis is no longer a credible journalist, just as Tim Hunt is no longer a credible sexist. By and large, those two judgments go together. Given Connie St Louis' claims (and the absence of any kind of correction or retraction on her part) I can't adjust my opinion of Tim Hunt without adjusting my opinion of Connie St Louis, and vice versa. The sort of credibility we're talking about here is precisely the kind that David Kroll gained in spades when he publicly apologised for running with St Louis' story without checking the facts first. It's impossible, at this stage, to have respect for both St Louis' journalism and Hunt's feminism. One has to choose.

I didn't create that situation, nor did Tim Hunt. It was Connie St Louis who contrived to tell a story that is now entirely her word (and that of, on my count, three deeply implicated "eyewitnesses") against Hunt's (supported by eyewitnesses, photographs, an audio recording, a leaked official report, and common sense, at least.) Moreover, while everything depends on whether we believe Connie St Louis, almost nothing depends on whether we believe Tim Hunt. Unlike, St Louis he hasn't made any strong statements about what happened; he has merely acknowledged that his words may have been misunderstood. And he has a great many very credible character witnesses behind him. (I don't think even one person has come forward to accuse Hunt directly of inappropriate behaviour.) Indeed, I'm inclined to discount a good portion of Hunt's early "confession" as largely coerced. It's not a question of whether Hunt's defence is convincing at this stage, but of whether St Louis' allegation is even plausible.

As I've been saying for some time now, my conclusion is that, whatever Hunt may have said or meant, the coverage of his remarks was extremely shoddy. If there was a story about "sexism in science" somewhere in what he said, St Louis botched the telling of it terribly. If this was indeed an important occasion for feminism, she did not rise to it.

That's why, for some time now, a good part of my curiosity has been directed at how the science writing community responds to what is happening. This is similar to the shift of focus that took place in Rolling Stone's UVA rape story, where it became increasingly important to arrive at a judgment about the quality of the journalism, rather than continuing to use it as an occasion to talk about the campus rape problem or the appropriateness of the university's response. The question, for a time, became whether the original story had gotten the facts even remotely right. As in that case, I still think Tim Hunt's university acted rashly. I.e., I'm not letting UCL off the hook for accepting Tim Hunt's resignation. But this post is about the journalism alone.

The focus of my query to ABSW was what I saw as the undisclosed conflict of interest that was implicit in Connie St Louis' role on the executive board of the World Federation of Science Journalists, which hosted the World Conference of Science Journalism. (The WCSJ is the semi-annual conference of the WFSJ, which is traditionally organised by a national member organisation that bids for and wins the honor of doing so.) When St Louis said that Hunt's "hosts" were much offended, she should have included herself under that label. That is, she should have taken part of the responsibility for her guest's behaviour and, in my opinion, should have taken steps to mitigate any possible damage his words might have done rather than to compound it by amplifying his remarks. At the very least, she owed her readers full disclosure of her role at the conference.


My exchange with Martin Ince culminated in a statement from the executive board of the Association of British Science Writers that runs as follows:

[W]e do not think that this situation constitutes a journalistic ‘conflict of interest’, in that Connie St Louis’s position as a Board member of the World Federation did not directly influence her reporting of the story. The question to ask is, if her position was stated explicitly in her first tweet whether it would have changed the story, or individuals understanding or response to the story – in our view it would not.

There are a number of points we would like to make to expand on our view. First, Connie has never intentionally tried to hide the fact that she is a Board member of the World Federation of Science Journalists. Second, the World Federation Board is not the organiser of the Conference. Those responsible for choice of sessions/events/speakers were the Korean Science Journalists’ Association who won the bid to organise the event. The Conference website shows the organisational structure quite clearly, the World Federation is considered a ‘host’. Third, we would consider it inappropriate at a journalism conference to ‘gag’ members of the Federation Board or those more directly responsible for choosing speakers. As journalists they should be free to report on the event as they see it, whether that be critical or not. When the ABSW organised the World Conference of Science Journalists in London we demanded no restrictions on reporting by any of those involved, all of whom were free to debate issues at the event and report on them in whatever way they felt appropriate. Finally it is important to note that Tim Hunt has not disputed the quotes that have been attributed to him by Connie St Louis.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I disagree with ABSW. I do believe St Louis had a conflict of interest, and one that should have been disclosed. And I certainly would have been differently receptive to her initial comment if the story had been "Member of WFSJ executive board and two members of WCSJ program committee denounce sexist comments made by their invited speaker." You can't tell me that wouldn't have been a completely different story.

As for the other details: First, as I understand the norm of disclosing conflicts of interest, i.e., being up-front about them, one does not meet it merely by not intentionally trying to hide them. Second, it is sufficient, to my mind, that Connie St Louis be "considered a host" to give her an interest worth disclosing. Third, I'm not suggesting that anyone be "gagged" but rather that, in this case, their first responsibility was to minimise the harm of Tim Hunt's remarks, and only then, and after discussing it with their guest (i.e., Tim Hunt), move to tell the story publicly, in a way that could shed maximum light on the issue of gender bias in science.

I'm sure ABSW "demanded no restrictions" of their members when they hosted the conference themselves, but I would hope that they expected their own executive board members, and the members of the program committee, to raise any possibly scandalous incidents through internal channels before, perhaps in frustration, taking them public. Note that, in that case, the scandal would be much greater, since it would amount to whistleblowing on the ABSW, WCSJ and/or WFSJ's unwillingness to act against a speaker who made an outrageous comment. (In this case, in fact, there has been no official statement from WFSJ, i.e., no comment from the very board that Connie St Louis serves on and who, as ABSW points out, can be considered Tim Hunt's "host".)

Finally, I find it really outrageous that ABSW feels that "it is important to note that Tim Hunt has not disputed the quotes that have been attributed to him" when he has, very clearly, including in his oft-promoted apology to KOFWST, disputed the meaning that Connie St Louis attributed to him. To say that Hunt's assurance that he was trying to make a joke does not count as "disputing" St Louis' claim that he seriously suggested sex-segregated labs is so ignorant that it'd almost be kinder to call it dishonest.

In any case, the ABSW's standing orders state that "members of the Association are expected to observe the highest professional standards. Wilful or frequent misrepresentation or inaccuracy, wilful breach of confidence, or behaviour in any way prejudicial to the interest of the public in accurate scientific reporting, or of the professional interests of the membership of the Association, shall be considered in breach of these standards," and may lead to "suspension or expulsion" from the Association. So long as Connie St Louis remains a member in good standing of ABSW, I assume we can take her work on the Tim Hunt story as exemplary of "the highest professional standards" of British science writing. We can form our judgments of that professional group accordingly.