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and the need to write more, not less, is resolved by the suggestion that we should leave the great bulk of our writing unpublished.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.