Posted in Academic writing, Writing

Dumitrescu: How to Write Well

This post is a review essay by Irina Dumitrescu about five books that explore how to write well.  It appeared in Times Literary Supplement, March 20, 2020.  Here’s a link to the original.  

She’s reviewing five books about writing.  Is there any writing task more fraught with peril that trying to write about writing?  Anything less than superlative literary style would constitute an abject failure.  Fortunately this author is up to the challenge.

Here are some of my favorite passages.

She reminds of an enduring truth about writing.  Everyone starts with imitating others.  You need models to work from:

Shakespeare patterned his comedies on Terence’s Latin romps, and Terence stole his plots from the Greek Menander. Milton copied Virgil, who plagiarized Homer. The history of literature is a catwalk on which the same old skeletons keep coming out in new clothes.

On the other hand,

Style unsettles this pedagogy of models and moulds. As the novelist Elizabeth McCracken once told Ben Yagoda in an interview, “A writer’s voice lives in his or her bad habits … the trick is to make them charming bad habits”. Readers longing for something beyond mere information – verbal fireworks, the tremor of an authentic connection, a touch of quiet magic – will do well to find the rule-breakers on the bookshop shelf. Idiosyncrasies (even mistakes) account for the specific charm of a given author, and they slyly open the door to decisions of taste.

One author makes the case against turgid academic writing in a book that she admiringly calls

an inspiring mess, a book that in its haphazard organization is its own argument for playfulness and improvisation. Like Warner, Kumar cannot stand “the five-paragraph costume armor of the high school essay”. Nor does he have much patience for other formulaic aspects of academic writing: didactic topic sentences, or jargony vocabulary such as “emergence” and “post-capitalist hegemony”. In his description of a website that produces meaningless theoretical prose at the touch of a button, Kumar notes that “the academy is the original random sentence generator”.

Of all the books she discusses, my favorite (and hers, I think) is 

Joe Moran’s exquisite book First You Write a Sentence…. As befits a cultural historian, Moran compares writing sentences to crafting other artisanal objects – they are artworks and spaces of refuge, gifts with which an author shapes the world to be more beautiful and capacious and kind. Like a town square or a city park, “a well-made sentence shows … silent solicitude for others. It cares”.

Moran’s own sentences are so deliciously epigrammatic that I considered giving up chocolate in favour of re-reading his book. Because he has dedicated an entire volume to one small form, he has the leisure to attend to fine details. As he explores sentences from every angle, he describes the relative heat of different verbs, the delicately shading nuances of punctuation choices, how short words feel in the mouth, the opportunity of white space. “Learn to love the feel of sentences,” he writes with a connoisseur’s delight, “the arcs of anticipation and suspense, the balancing phrases, the wholesome little snap of the full stop.”

Enjoy.

How to write well

Rules, style and the ‘well-made sentence’

By Irina Dumitrescu

IN THIS REVIEW
WHY THEY CAN’T WRITE
Killing the five-paragraph essay and other necessities
288pp. Johns Hopkins University Press. £20.50 (US $27.95).
John Warner
WRITING TO PERSUADE
How to bring people over to your side
224pp. Norton. £18.99 (US $26.95).
Trish Hall
EVERY DAY I WRITE THE BOOK
Notes on style
256pp. Duke University Press. Paperback, £20.99 (US $24.95).
Amitava Kumar
FIRST YOU WRITE A SENTENCE
The elements of reading, writing … and life
240pp. Penguin. Paperback, £9.99.
Joe Moran
MEANDER, SPIRAL, EXPLODE
Design and pattern in narrative
272pp. Catapult. Paperback, $16.95.
Jane Alison

In high school a close friend told me about a lesson her father had received when he was learning to write in English. Any essay could be improved by the addition of one specific phrase: “in a world tormented by the spectre of thermonuclear holocaust”. We thought it would be hilarious to surprise our own teachers with this gem, but nothing came of it. Twenty years later, as I looked through the files on an old computer, I discovered my high school compositions. There, at the end of an essay on Hugo Grotius and just war theory I must have written for this purpose alone, was that irresistible rhetorical flourish.

As much as we might admire what is fresh and innovative, we all learn by imitating patterns. Babies learning to speak do not immediately acquire the full grammar of their mother tongue and a vocabulary to slot into it, but inch slowly into the language by repeating basic phrases, then varying them. Adults learning a foreign language are wise to do the same. Pianists run through exercises to train their dexterity, basketball players run through their plays, dancers rehearse combos they can later slip into longer choreographies. To be called “formulaic” is no compliment, but whenever people express themselves or take action in the world, they rely on familiar formulas.

Writing advice is caught in this paradox. Mavens of clear communication know that simple rules are memorable and easy to follow. Use a verb instead of a noun. Change passive to active. Cut unnecessary words. Avoid jargon. No aspiring author will make the language dance by following these dictates, but they will be understood, and that is something. The same holds for structure. In school, pupils are drilled in the basic shapes of arguments, such as the “rule of three”, the “five-paragraph essay” or, à l’américaine, the Hamburger Essay (the main argument being the meat). Would-be novelists weigh their Fichtean Curves against their Hero’s Journeys, and screenwriters can buy software that will ensure their movie script hits every beat prescribed by Blake Snyder in his bestselling book Save the Cat! (2005). And why not? Shakespeare patterned his comedies on Terence’s Latin romps, and Terence stole his plots from the Greek Menander. Milton copied Virgil, who plagiarized Homer. The history of literature is a catwalk on which the same old skeletons keep coming out in new clothes.

Style unsettles this pedagogy of models and moulds. As the novelist Elizabeth McCracken once told Ben Yagoda in an interview, “A writer’s voice lives in his or her bad habits … the trick is to make them charming bad habits”. Readers longing for something beyond mere information – verbal fireworks, the tremor of an authentic connection, a touch of quiet magic – will do well to find the rule-breakers on the bookshop shelf. Idiosyncrasies (even mistakes) account for the specific charm of a given author, and they slyly open the door to decisions of taste. Think of David Foster Wallace’s endless sentences, George R. R. Martin’s neologisms, the faux-naivety of Gertrude Stein. In his book on literary voice, The Sound on the Page (2004), Yagoda argues that style reveals “something essential” and impossible to conceal about an author’s character. The notion that the way a person arranges words is inextricably tied to their moral core has a long history, but its implication for teaching writing is what interests me here: convince or compel writers to cleave too closely to a set of prescribed rules, and you chip away at who they are.

This explains why John Warner’s book about writing, Why They Can’t Write: Killing the five-paragraph essay and other necessities, contains almost no advice on how to write. A long-time college instructor, Warner hints at his argument in his subtitle: his is a polemical take on American standardized testing practices, socioeconomic conditions, and institutions of learning that destroy any love or motivation young people might have for expressing themselves in writing. Against the perennial assumption that today’s students are too lazy and precious to work hard, Warner holds firm: “Students are not entitled or coddled. They are defeated”. The symbol of the US’s misguided approach to education is the argumentative structure drilled into each teenager as a shortcut for thinking and reflection. “If writing is like exercise,” he quips, “the five-paragraph essay is like one of those ab belt doohickeys that claim to electroshock your core into a six-pack.”

What is to blame for students’ bad writing? According to Warner, the entire context in which it is taught. He rails against school systems that privilege shallow “achievement” over curiosity and learning, a culture of “surveillance and compliance” (including apps that track students’ behaviour and report it to parents in real time), an obsession with standardized testing that is fundamentally inimical to thoughtful reading and writing, and a love of faddish psychological theories and worthless digital learning projects.

It is easy for a lover of good writing to share Warner’s anger at the shallow and mechanistic culture of public education in the United States, easy to smile knowingly when he notes that standardized tests prize students’ ability to produce “pseudo-academic BS”, meaningless convoluted sentences cobbled together out of sophisticated-sounding words. Warner’s argument against teaching grammar is harder to swallow. Seeing in grammar yet another case of rules and correctness being put ahead of thoughtful engagement, Warner claims, “the sentence is not the basic skill or fundamental unit of writing. The idea is”. Instead of assignments, he gives his students “writing experiences”, interlocked prompts designed to hone their ability to observe, analyse and communicate. His position on grammatical teaching is a step too far: it can be a tool as much as a shackle. Still, writers may recognize the truth of Warner’s reflection that “what looks like a problem with basic sentence construction may instead be a struggle to find an idea for the page”.

Trish Hall shares Warner’s belief that effective writing means putting thinking before craft. Hall ran the New York Times’s op-ed page for half a decade, and in Writing To Persuade she shows us how to succeed at one kind of formula, the short newspaper opinion piece. The book is slim, filled out with personal recollections in muted prose, and enlivened by the occasional celebrity anecdote. Her target audience seems to be the kind of educated professionals who regularly read the New York Times, who may even write as part of their work, but who have not thought about what it means to address those who do not share their opinions. Hall does offer useful, sometimes surprising, tips on avoiding jargon, finding a writerly voice, and telling a story, but most of the book is dedicated to cultivating the humanity beneath the writing.

“I can’t overstate the value of putting down your phone and having conversations with people”, she writes. Persuasion is not simply a matter of hammering one’s own point through with unassailable facts and arguments. It is a question of listening to other people, cultivating empathy for their experience, drawing on shared values to reach common ground. It also demands vulnerability; Hall praises writers who “reveal something almost painfully personal even as they connect to a larger issue or story that feels both universal and urgent”.

Much of her advice would not have surprised a classical rhetorician. She even quotes Cicero’s famous remark about it being a mistake to try “to compel others to believe and live as we do”, a mantra for this book. At her best, Hall outlines a rhetoric that is also a guide to living peaceably with others: understanding their desires, connecting. A simple experiment – not finishing other people’s sentences even when you think you know what they will say – exemplifies this understated wisdom. At her worst, Hall is too much the marketer, as when she notes that strong emotions play well on social media and enjoins her readers to “stay away from depressing images and crying people”. There ought to be enough space in a newspaper for frankly expressed opinions about the suffering of humanity. What she demonstrates, however, is that writing for an audience is a social act. Writing To Persuade is a stealth guide to manners for living in a world where conversations are as likely to take place in 280 characters on a screen as they are at a dinner table.

In Hall’s hands, considering other people means following a programmatic set of writing instructions. Amitava Kumar, a scholar who has written well- regarded works of memoir and journalism, thinks another way is possible. In Every Day I Write the Book: Notes on style, he breaks out of the strictures of academic prose by creating a virtual community of other writers on his pages. The book is a collection of short meditations on different topics related to writing, its form and practice, primarily in the university. Kumar’s style is poised and lyrical elsewhere, but here he takes on a familiar, relaxed persona, and he often lets his interlocutors have the best lines. Selections from his reading bump up against email conversations, chats on the Vassar campus, and Facebook comments; it is a noisy party where everyone has a bon mot at the ready. The book itself is assembled like a scrapbook, filled with reproductions of photographs, screenshots, handwritten notes and newspaper clippings Kumar has gathered over the years.

It is, in other words, an inspiring mess, a book that in its haphazard organization is its own argument for playfulness and improvisation. Like Warner, Kumar cannot stand “the five-paragraph costume armor of the high school essay”. Nor does he have much patience for other formulaic aspects of academic writing: didactic topic sentences, or jargony vocabulary such as “emergence” and “post-capitalist hegemony”. In his description of a website that produces meaningless theoretical prose at the touch of a button, Kumar notes that “the academy is the original random sentence generator”. He is not anti-intellectual; his loyalties lie with the university, even as he understands its provinciality too well. But he asks his fellow writers to hold on fiercely to the weird and whimsical elements in their own creations, to be “inventive in our use of language and in our search for form”.

This means many things in practice. Kumar includes a section of unusual writing exercises, many of them borrowed from other authors: rewriting a brilliant passage badly to see what made it work; scribbling just what will fit on a Post-it Note to begin a longer piece; writing letters to public figures. Other moments are about connection. In a chapter on voice, he quotes the poet and novelist Bhanu Kapil’s description of how she began a series of interviews with Indian and Pakistani women: “The first question I asked, to a young Muslim woman … Indian parents, thick Glaswegian accent, [was] ‘Who was responsible for the suffering of your mother?’ She burst into tears”. That one question could fill many libraries. Invention also means embracing collaboration with editors, and understanding writing as “a practice of revision and extension and opening”. Kumar calls for loyalty to one’s creative calling, wherever it may lead. The reward? Nothing less than freedom and immortality.

But surely craft still matters? We may accept that writing is rooted in the ethical relationships between teachers, students, writers, editors and those silent imagined readers. Does this mean that the skill of conveying an idea in language in a clear and aesthetically pleasing fashion is nothing but the icing on the cake? Joe Moran’s exquisite book First You Write a Sentence: The elements of reading, writing … and life suggests otherwise. As befits a cultural historian, Moran compares writing sentences to crafting other artisanal objects – they are artworks and spaces of refuge, gifts with which an author shapes the world to be more beautiful and capacious and kind. Like a town square or a city park, “a well-made sentence shows … silent solicitude for others. It cares”.

Moran’s own sentences are so deliciously epigrammatic that I considered giving up chocolate in favour of re-reading his book. Because he has dedicated an entire volume to one small form, he has the leisure to attend to fine details. As he explores sentences from every angle, he describes the relative heat of different verbs, the delicately shading nuances of punctuation choices, how short words feel in the mouth, the opportunity of white space. “Learn to love the feel of sentences,” he writes with a connoisseur’s delight, “the arcs of anticipation and suspense, the balancing phrases, the wholesome little snap of the full stop.”

The book is full of advice, but Moran’s rules are not meant to inhibit. He will happily tell you how to achieve a style clear as glass, then praise the rococo rhetorician who “wants to forge reality through words, not just gaze at it blankly through a window”. He is more mentor than instructor, slowly guiding us to notice and appreciate the intricacies of a well-forged phrase. And he does so with tender generosity towards the unloved heroism of “cussedly making sentences that no one asked for and no one will be obliged to read”. As pleasurable as it is to watch Moran unfold the possibilities of an English sentence, his finest contribution is an understanding of the psychology – fragile, labile – of the writer. He knows that a writer must fight distraction, bad verbal habits, and the cheap appeal of early drafts to find their voice. There it is! “It was lost amid your dishevelled thoughts and wordless anxieties, until you pulled it out of yourself, as a flowing line of sentences.”

Human beings take pleasure in noticing nature’s patterns, according to Moran, and these patterns help them to thrive, sometimes in unforeseen ways. A sentence is also form imposed on chaos, and his suggestion that it has an organic role in the survival of the species might seem bold. (Though how many of us owe our lives to a parent who said the right words in a pleasing order?) The novelist Jane Alison’s invigorating book Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and pattern in narrative follows a similar impulse, seeking the elegant forms that order nature in the structures of stories and novels. Her bugbear is the dramatic arc, the shape that Aristotle noticed in the tragedies of his time but that has become a tyrant of creative writing instruction. “Something that swells and tautens until climax, then collapses? Bit masculo-sexual, no?” Alison has other ideas for excitement.

In brief, compelling meditations on contemporary fiction, she teases out figures we might expect to spy from a plane window or in the heart of a tree. Here are corkscrews and wavelets and fractals and networks of cells. Is this forced? Alison recognizes the cheekiness of her project, knows her readings of form may not convince every reader. Her aim is not to classify tales, to pin them like butterflies on a styrofoam board. She knows, for example, that any complex literary narrative will create a network of associations in the reader’s mind. Her goal is to imagine how a reader might experience a story, looking for “structures that create an inner sensation of traveling toward something and leave a sense of shape behind, so that the stories feel organized”.

Shapes appear in Alison’s mind as clusters of images, so what begins as literary analysis condenses into a small poem. For “meander”, Alison asks us to “picture a river curving and kinking, a snake in motion, a snail’s silver trail, or the path left by a goat”. She speaks of the use of colour in narrative “as a unifying wash, a secret code, or a stealthy constellation”. The point is not ornamentation, though Alison can write a sentence lush enough to drown in, but tempting fiction writers to render life more closely. Against the grand tragedy of the narrative arc, she proposes small undulations: “Dispersed patterning, a sense of ripple or oscillation, little ups and downs, might be more true to human experience than a single crashing wave”. These are the shifting moods of a single day, the temporary loss of the house keys, the sky a sunnier hue than expected.

The Roman educator Quintilian once insisted that an orator must be a good man. It was a commonplace of his time. The rigorous study of eloquence, he thought, required a mind undistracted by vice. The books discussed here inherit this ancient conviction that the attempt to write well is a bettering one. Composing a crisp sentence demands attention to fine detail and a craftsmanlike dedication to perfection. Deciding what to set to paper requires the ability to imagine where a reader might struggle or yawn. In a world tormented by spectres too reckless to name, care and empathy are welcome strangers.

Irina Dumitrescu is Professor of English Medieval Studies at the University of Bonn

Posted in Academic writing, Course Syllabus, Writing Class

Class on Academic Writing

This is the syllabus for a class on academic writing for clarity and grace, which I originally posted more than a year ago.  It is designed as a 10-week class, with weekly readings, slides, and texts for editing.  It’s aimed at doctoral students who are preparing to become researchers who seek to publish their scholarship.  Ideally you can take the class with a group of peers, where you give each other feedback on your own writing projects in progress.  But you can also take the class by yourself.

Below is the syllabus, which includes links to all readings, class slides, and texts for editing.  Here’s a link to the Word document with all of the links, which is easier to work with.

I’ve also constructed a 6-week version of the class, which is aimed at graduate and undergraduate students who want to work on their writing for whatever purpose they choose.  Here’s a link to that syllabus as a Word document.

 

“The effort the writer does not put into writing, the reader has to put into reading.”

Stephen Toulmin

Academic Writing for Clarity and Grace

A Ten-Week Class

David Labaree                            

Web: http://www.stanford.edu/~dlabaree/

Twitter: @Dlabaree

Blog: https://davidlabaree.com/                                                     

                                                Course Description

            The title sounds like a joke, since academics (especially in the social sciences) do not have a reputation for writing with either clarity or grace much less both.  But I hope in this class to draw students into my own and every other academic’s lifelong quest to become a better writer.  The course will bring in a wide range of reference works that I have found useful over the years in working on my own writing and in helping students with theirs.  The idea is not that a 10-week class will make students good writers; many of us have been working at this for 40 years or more and we’re just getting started.  Instead, the plan is to provide students with some helpful strategies, habits, and critical faculties; increase their sense of writing as an extended process of revision; and leave them with a set of books that will support them in their own lifelong pursuit of good writing.

This online course is based on one I used to teach at Stanford for graduate students in education who wanted to work on their writing.  It was offered in the ten-week format of the university’s quarter system, and I’m keeping that format.  But you can use it in any way that works for you. 

Some may want to treat it as a weekly class, doing the readings for each week, reviewing the PowerPoint slides for that week, and working through some of the exercises.  If you’re treating it this way, it would work best if you can do it with a writing group made up of other students with similar interests.  That way you can take advantage of the workshop component of the class, in which members of the group exchange sections of a paper they working on, giving and receiving feedback.

Others may use it as a general source of information about writing, diving into particular readings or slide decks as needed.

Classes include some instruction on particular skills and particular aspects of the writing process:  developing an analytical angle on a subject; writing a good sentence; getting started in the writing process; working out the logic of the argument; developing the forms of validation for the argument; learning what your point is from the process of writing rather than as a precursor to writing; and revising, revising, revising.  We spend another part of the class working as a group doing exercises in spotting and fixing problems.  For these purposes we will use some helpful examples from the Williams book and elsewhere that focus on particular skills, but you can use the work produced within your own writing group. 

Work in your writing group:  Everyone needs to develop a recognition of the value of getting critical feedback from others on their work in progress, so you should be exchanging papers and work at editing each other’s work.  Student work outside of class will include reading required texts, editing other student’s work around particular areas of concern, and working on revising your own paper or papers.  Every week you will be submitting a piece of written work to your writing group, which will involve repeated efforts to edit a particular text of your own; and every week you will provide feedback to others in your group about their own texts. 

Much of class time will focus on working on particular texts around a key issue of the day – like framing, wordiness, clarity, sentence rhythm.  These texts will be examples from the readings and also papers by students, on which they would like to get feedback from the class as a whole.  Topics will include things like:

  • Framing an argument, writing the introduction to a paper
  • Elements of rhetoric
  • Sentence rhythm and music
  • Emphasis – putting the key element at the end of sentence and paragraph; delivering the punch line
  • Concision – eliminating wordiness
  • Clarity – avoiding nominalizations; opting for Anglo-Saxon words; clearing up murky syntax
  • Focusing on action and actors
  • Metaphor and imagery
  • Correct usage: punctuation, common grammatical errors, word use
  • Avoiding the most common academic tics: jargon, isms, Latinate constructions, nominalizations, abstraction, hiding from view behind passive voice and third person
  • The basics of making an argument
  • Using quotes – integrating them into your argument, and commenting on them instead of assuming they make the point on their own.
  • Using data – how to integrate data into a text and explain its meaning and significance
  • The relation of writing and thought
  • Revision – of writing and thinking
  • The relation of grammar and mechanics to rhetorical effect
  • Sentence style
  • The relation of style to audience
  • Disciplinary conventions for style, organization, modes of argument, evidence
  • Authority and voice

            Writing is a very personal process and the things we write are expressions of who we are, so it is important for everyone in the class to keep focused on being constructive in their comments and being tolerant of criticism from others.  Criticism from others is very important for writers, but no one likes it.  I have a ritual every time I get feedback on a paper or manuscript – whether blind reviews from journals or publishers or personal comments from colleagues.  I let the review sit for a while until I’m in the right mood.  Then I open it and skim it quickly to get the overall impression of how positive or negative it is.  At that point I set it aside, cursing the editors for sending the paper to such an incompetent reviewer or reconsidering my formerly high opinion of the particular colleague-critic, then finally coming back a few days later (after a vodka or two) to read the thing carefully and assess the damage.  Neurotic I know, but most writers are neurotic about their craft.  It’s hard not to take criticism personally.  Beyond all reason, I always expect the reviewers to say, “Don’t change a word; publish it immediately!”  But somehow they never do.  So I’m asking all members of the class both to recognize the vulnerability of their fellow writers and to open themselves up to the criticism of these colleagues in the craft. 

Course Texts

Books listed with an * are ones where older editions are available; it’s ok to use one of these editions instead of the most recent version.

*Williams, Joseph M. & Bizup, Joseph.  (2016). Style: Lessons in clarity and grace (12th ed.).  New York: Longman.  

*Becker, Howard S.  (2007).  Writing for social scientists:  How to start and finish your thesis, book, or article (2nd ed.).  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

*Graff, Gerald, & Birkenstein, Cathy. (2014). “They say, I say:” The moves that matter in academic writing (3rd ed.). New York: Norton.

Sword, Helen.  (2012).  Stylish academic writing. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

*Garner, Bryan A.  (2016). Garner’s modern English usage (4th ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.  (Any earlier edition is fine to use.)

Other required readings are available in PDF on a Google drive. 

Course Outline

Week 1:  Introduction to Course; Writing Rituals; Writing Well, or at Least Less Badly

Zinnser, William. (2010). Writing English as a second language.  Point of Departure (Winter). Americanscholar.org.

Munger, Michael C. (2010). 10 tips for how to write less badly. Chronicle of Higher Education (Sept. 6).  Chronicle.com.

Lepore, Jill. (2009). How to write a paper for this class. History Department, Harvard University.

Lamott, Anne. (2005). Bird by bird: Some instructions on writing and life. In English 111 Reader.  Miami University Department of English.

Zuckerman, Ezra W. (2008). Tips to article writers. http://web.mit.edu/ewzucker/www/Tips%20to%20article%20writers.pdf.

Slides for week 1 class

Week 2:  Clarity

Williams, Joseph M. & Bizup, Joseph.  (2016).  Style: Lessons in clarity and grace (12th ed.).  New York: Longman. Lessons One, Two, Three, Four, Five, and Six.  It’s ok to use any earlier edition of this book.

Slides for week 2 class

Week 3:  Structuring the Argument in a Paper

Graff, Gerald, & Birkenstein, Cathy. (2014). “They say, I say:” The moves that matter in academic writing (3rd ed.). New York: Norton.  You can use any earlier edition of this book.

Wroe, Ann. (2011). In the beginning was the sound. Intelligent Life Magazine, Spring. http://moreintelligentlife.com/content/arts/ann-wroe/beginning-was-sound.

Slides for week 3 class

Week 4:  Grace

Williams, Joseph M. & Bizup, Joseph.  (2016).  Style: Lessons in clarity and grace (12th ed.).  New York: Longman. Lessons Seven, Eight, and Nine.

Orwell, George. (1946). Politics and the English Language. Horizon.

Lipton, Peter. (2007). Writing Philosophy.

Slides for week 4 class

Week 5:  Stylish Academic Writing

Sword, Helen.  (2012).  Stylish academic writing. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Check out Helen Sword’s website, Writer’s Diet, which allows you to paste in a text of your own and get back an analysis of how flabby or fit it is: http://www.writersdiet.com/WT.php.

Haslett, Adam. (2011). The art of good writing. Financial Times (Jan. 22).  Ft.com.

Slides for week 5 class

Week 6:  Writing in the Social Sciences

Becker, Howard S.  (2007).  Writing for social scientists:  How to start and finish your thesis, book, or article (2nd ed.).  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.  It’s fine to use any earlier edition of this book.

Slides for week 6 class

Week 7:  Usage

Garner, Bryan A.  (2016). Garner’s modern English usage (4th ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.  Selections.  Any earlier edition of this book is fine to use.

Wallace, David Foster. (2001). Tense present: Democracy, English, and the wars over usage. Harpers (April), 39-58.

Slides for week 7 class

Week 8:  Writing with Clarity and Grace

Limerick, Patricia. (1993). Dancing with professors: The trouble with academic prose.

Scott Brauer. (2014). Writing instructor, skeptical of automated grading, pits machine vs. machine. Chronicle of Higher Education, April 28.

Pinker, Steven. (2014). Why academics stink at writing. Chronicle of Education, Sept. 26.

Labaree, David F. (2018). The Five-Paragraph Fetish. Aeon.

Slides for week 8 class

Week 9:  Clarity of Form

Williams, Joseph M. & Bizup, Joseph.  (2016).  Style: Lessons in clarity and grace (12th ed.).  New York: Longman. Lessons Ten, Eleven, and Twelve.

Yagoda, Ben. (2011). The elements of clunk. Chronicle of Higher Education (Jan. 2).  Chronicle.com.

 Slides for week 9 class

Week 10:  Writing with Clarity and Grace

March, James G. (1975). Education and the pursuit of optimism. Texas Tech Journal of Education, 2:1, 5-17.

Gladwell, Malcolm. (2000). The art of failure: Why some people choke and others panic. New Yorker (Aug. 21 and 28).  Gladwell.com

Labaree, David F. (2012). Sermon on educational research. Bildungsgeschichte: International Journal for the Historiography of Education, 2:1, 78-87.

Slides for week 10 class

Posted in Academic writing, Writing, Writing Class

Rothman: Why Is Academic Writing So Academic?

In this post, Joshua Rothman addresses the problem of academic writing by comparing it to what’s going on in journalistic writing.  As a journalist who was once a graduate student in English, he knows both worlds well.  So instead of the usual diatribe against academics for being obscure and deadly, he explores the issue structurally, showing how journalism and academia have drifted apart from each other in the last 50 years.  While academia has become more inward turning and narrow, journalism has become more populist, seeking a large audience at any cost.  In the process, both fields have lost something important.  The piece first appeared in the New Yorker in 2014.  Here’s a link to the original.

Rothman throws up his hands at the end, suggesting that writers in both fields are trapped in a situation that offers no escape for anyone who wants to remain a member in good standing in one field or the other.  But I partially disagree with this assessment.  Yes, the structural pressures in both domains to constrain your writing are strong, but they’re not irresistible.  Journalists can find venues like the New Yorker and Atlantic that allow them to avoid having to pander to the click-happy internet browser.  And academics can push against the pressures to make disinterested research uninteresting and colorless.  

There are still a lot of scholars who publish articles in top academic journals and books with major university presses that incorporate lucid prose, lively style, and a clear personal voice.  Doing so does not tarnish their academic reputation or employability, but it also gets them a broader academic audience, more citations, and more intellectual impact.  I’ve posted some examples here by scholars such as Jim March, Mary Metz, Peter Rossi, E.P. Thompson, and Max Weber.  

For lots of examples of good academic prose and stellar advice about how to become a stylish scholarly writer, you should read Helen Sword’s book, Stylish Academic Writing.  I used this book to good effect in my class on academic writing.  (Here is the syllabus for this class, which includes links to all of the readings and my class slides.)  I also strongly suggest checking out her website, where, among other things, you can plug your own text into the Writer’s Diet Test, which will show how flabby or fit your prose is.

Enjoy.

Why Is Academic Writing So Academic?

by Joshua Rothman

Feb. 21, 2014

Rothman Photo

A few years ago, when I was a graduate student in English, I presented a paper at my department’s American Literature Colloquium. (A colloquium is a sort of writing workshop for graduate students.) The essay was about Thomas Kuhn, the historian of science. Kuhn had coined the term “paradigm shift,” and I described how this phrase had been used and abused, much to Kuhn’s dismay, by postmodern insurrectionists and nonsensical self-help gurus. People seemed to like the essay, but they were also uneasy about it. “I don’t think you’ll be able to publish this in an academic journal,” someone said. He thought it was more like something you’d read in a magazine.

Was that a compliment, a dismissal, or both? It’s hard to say. Academic writing is a fraught and mysterious thing. If you’re an academic in a writerly discipline, such as history, English, philosophy, or political science, the most important part of your work—practically and spiritually—is writing. Many academics think of themselves, correctly, as writers. And yet a successful piece of academic prose is rarely judged so by “ordinary” standards. Ordinary writing—the kind you read for fun—seeks to delight (and, sometimes, to delight and instruct). Academic writing has a more ambiguous mission. It’s supposed to be dry but also clever; faceless but also persuasive; clear but also completist. Its deepest ambiguity has to do with audience. Academic prose is, ideally, impersonal, written by one disinterested mind for other equally disinterested minds. But, because it’s intended for a very small audience of hyper-knowledgable, mutually acquainted specialists, it’s actually among the most personal writing there is. If journalists sound friendly, that’s because they’re writing for strangers. With academics, it’s the reverse.

Professors didn’t sit down and decide to make academic writing this way, any more than journalists sat down and decided to invent listicles. Academic writing is the way it is because it’s part of a system. Professors live inside that system and have made peace with it. But every now and then, someone from outside the system swoops in to blame professors for the writing style that they’ve inherited. This week, it was Nicholas Kristof, who set off a rancorous debate about academic writing with a column, in the Times, called “Professors, We Need You!” The academic world, Kristof argued, is in thrall to a “culture of exclusivity” that “glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience”; as a result, there are “fewer public intellectuals on American university campuses today than a generation ago.”

The response from the professoriate was swift, severe, accurate, and thoughtful. A Twitter hashtag, #engagedacademics, sprung up, as if to refute Kristof’s claim that professors don’t use enough social media. Professors pointed out that the brainiest part of the blogosphere is overflowing with contributions from academics; that, as teachers, professors already have an important audience in their students; and that the Times itself frequently benefits from professorial ingenuity, which the paper often reports as news. (A number of the stories in the Sunday Review section, in which Kristof’s article appeared, were written by professors.) To a degree, some of the responses, though convincingly argued, inadvertently bolstered Kristof’s case because of the style in which they were written: fractious, humorless, self-serious, and defensively nerdy. As writers, few of Kristof’s interlocutors had his pithy, winning ease. And yet, if they didn’t win with a knock-out blow, the professors won on points. They showed that there was something outdated, and perhaps solipsistic, in Kristof’s yearning for a new crop of sixties-style “public intellectuals.”

As a one-time academic, I spent most of the week rooting for the profs. But I have a lot of sympathy for Kristof, too. I think his heart’s in the right place. (His column ended on a wistful note: “I write this in sorrow, for I considered an academic career.”) My own theory is that he got the situation backward. The problem with academia isn’t that professors are, as Kristof wrote, “marginalizing themselves.” It’s that the system that produces and consumes academic knowledge is changing, and, in the process, making academic work more marginal.

It may be that being a journalist makes it unusually hard for Kristof to see what’s going on in academia. That’s because journalism, which is in the midst of its own transformation, is moving in a populist direction. There are more writers than ever before, writing for more outlets, including on their own blogs, Web sites, and Twitter streams. The pressure on established journalists is to generate traffic. New and clever forms of content are springing up all the time—GIFs, videos, “interactives,” and so on. Dissenters may publish op-eds encouraging journalists to abandon their “culture of populism” and write fewer listicles, but changes in the culture of journalism are, at best, only a part of the story. Just as important, if not more so, are economic and technological developments having to do with subscription models, revenue streams, apps, and devices.

In academia, by contrast, all the forces are pushing things the other way, toward insularity. As in journalism, good jobs are scarce—but, unlike in journalism, professors are their own audience. This means that, since the liberal-arts job market peaked, in the mid-seventies, the audience for academic work has been shrinking. Increasingly, to build a successful academic career you must serially impress very small groups of people (departmental colleagues, journal and book editors, tenure committees). Often, an academic writer is trying to fill a niche. Now, the niches are getting smaller. Academics may write for large audiences on their blogs or as journalists. But when it comes to their academic writing, and to the research that underpins it—to the main activities, in other words, of academic life—they have no choice but to aim for very small targets. Writing a first book, you may have in mind particular professors on a tenure committee; miss that mark and you may not have a job. Academics know which audiences—and, sometimes, which audience members—matter.

It won’t do any good, in short, to ask professors to become more populist. Academic writing and research may be knotty and strange, remote and insular, technical and specialized, forbidding and clannish—but that’s because academia has become that way, too. Today’s academic work, excellent though it may be, is the product of a shrinking system. It’s a tightly-packed, super-competitive jungle in there. The most important part of Kristof’s argument was, it seemed to me, buried in the blog post that he wrote to accompany his column. “When I was a kid,” he wrote, “the Kennedy administration had its ‘brain trust’ of Harvard faculty members, and university professors were often vital public intellectuals.” But the sixties, when the baby boom led to a huge expansion in university enrollments, was also a time when it was easier to be a professor. If academic writing is to become expansive again, academia will probably have to expand first.

Posted in Academic writing, Writing

Farnsworth on Balancing Saxon and Latinate Words in Your Writing

This post focuses on the value of using an apt mix of Saxon and Latinate words in your writing.  It draws on a book by Ward Farnsworth called Farnsworth’s Classical English Style.  English has a wonderfully polyglot heritage to draw upon — starting with an ancient form of German brought by early Saxon invaders, then Danish brought by Vikings, and finally French brought by the last set of conquerors

The primary poles of the language remain the Saxon and the Latinate, and this polarity provides a rich array of possibilities for authors seeking to enhance the effectiveness of their writing.  The two forms of words have strikingly different characteristics, which the skilled writer can use to considerable effect.

Farnsworth Cover

You don’t need the Oxford English Dictionary to tell you distinguish the two kinds of words from each other.  Here’s how Farnsworth puts it:

Saxon words are shorter, and in their simplest forms they usually consist of just one syllable. Latinate words usually have a root of two or three syllables, and then can be lengthened further and turned into other parts of speech.

The simplest guide, useful often but not always, is this: if a word ends with -tion, or if it could be made into a similar word that does, then it almost always is derived from Latin. Same if it easily takes other suffixes that turn it into a longish word.

A key difference is the sound:

Saxon words tend to sound different from Latinate words in ways distantly related to the sounds of the modern German and French languages. Many Saxon words have hard sounds like ck or the hard g. Latinate words are usually softer and more mellifluous.

Another central difference is between high and low speech, formal and informal speech.

When French arrived in England it was the language of the conqueror and the new nobility. A thousand years later, words from French still connote a certain fanciness and distance from the gritty, and Saxon words still seem plainer, less formal, and closer to the earth. If you want to talk clinically about something distasteful, you use the Latinate word for it – the one derived from old French: terminate or execute (Latinate) instead of kill (Saxon).

As the conceptual life of English speakers became more sophisticated, they needed new words to talk about what they were thinking. They usually made them out of French or more directly from Latin or Greek. That is part of why people who teach at universities find it hard to prefer Saxon words when they have their conversations. Most of them would probably write better if they did use more Saxon words, but there are lots of tempting Latinate words that seem designed for academic purposes, because they were. They allow a kind of precision (or facilitate a kind of jargon) that Saxon words cannot match.

As Farnsworth notes, this high-low difference offers both an opportunity and a challenge for academics.  We need Latinate words in order to achieve the desired precision and complexity of argument and to deal with abstraction — all central components of academic discourse.  But we also may lean toward the Latinate simply because it makes us sound and feel more professional, unsullied by common speech.  This not only puts off the nonacademic reader but also clouds clarity and reduces impact for all readers.

Yet another distinction in these types of words is between the visual and the conceptual, the felt and the thought.

Saxon words tend to be easier to picture than the Latinate kind, most of which need a minor moment of translation before they appear in the mind’s eye. Compare light (Saxon) and illumination (Latinate), bodily (Saxon) and corporeal (Latinate), burn (Saxon) and incinerate (Latinate). The difference between visual and conceptual is related to the ways that these kinds of words can speak to the different capacities of an audience. Latinate words tend to create distance from what they describe. They invite thought but not feeling. Saxon words are more visceral. They take a shorter path to the heart.

Here he lays out a central principle of good writing in English.

For most people most of the time, attractive English isn’t the art of choosing beautiful words. It is the art of arranging humble words beautifully.

Here’s an example from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address:

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

He provides some other vivid examples from that wellspring of good writing, the King James Bible.

And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. Gen. 1:3 Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. Matt. 7:7 And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. John 8:32 Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. John 15:13 Every word of those passages is Saxon. The gravity of their meaning matches the simplicity of their wording.

Perhaps more precisely, the sense of weight is increased by the contrast between the size of the meanings and the size of the words. A big thing has been pressed into a small container. The result is a type of tension. It gets released in the mind of the reader.

I love the way he captures the dynamics of powerful writing — creating a “tension” that “gets released in the mind of the reader.”

One way the writer uses the difference in character of the two kinds of words is by deploying them at different places within the same sentence:  starting Latinate and ending Saxon, or the other way around.  Consider what happens when you use the first approach.

Starting with Latinate words creates a sense of height and abstraction. Ending with plain language brings the sentence onto land. The simplicity of the finish can also lend it a conclusive ring. And the longer words give the shorter ones a power, by force of contrast, that the shorter ones would not have had alone.

Lincoln is well-known for his love of simple language, but he was also at home with Latinate words and mixed the two types to strong effect. He especially liked to circle with larger words early in a sentence and then finish it simply. The pattern allowed him to offer intellectual or idealistic substance and then tie it to a stake in the dirt.

Here’s an example, from a letter he wrote about the Emancipation Proclamation:

But the proclamation, as law, either is valid or is not valid. If it is not valid it needs no retraction. If it is valid it cannot be retracted, any more than the dead can be brought to life.

An example from Winston Churchill:

They will never understand how it was that a victorious nation, with everything in hand, suffered themselves to be brought low, and to cast away all that they had gained by measureless sacrifice and absolute victory – gone with the wind!

And another from an opinion by Oliver Wendell Holmes.  The setup is Latinate, the punchline is Saxon.

If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought – not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.

Frederick Douglass:

Inaction is followed by stagnation. Stagnation is followed by pestilence and pestilence is followed by death.

But you can also reverse the direction to good effect, starting Saxon and ending Latinate.

A frequent product of this pattern is a sense of compression released. Moving from Saxon to Latinate words makes the first part of a sentence feel compact, the rest expansive. The last part thus gains a kind of push.

The way of the Lord is strength to the upright: but destruction shall be to the workers of iniquity. Prov. 10:29 In that last case the good and the strong are described in simple words. The long words are reserved for the villains. 

How great are his signs! and how mighty are his wonders! his kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and his dominion is from generation to generation. Dan. 4:3 These sentences go from a tight start to a finish that flows freely and gains in height. The result can be a feeling of increasing grandeur, like passing from a low ceiling into a room with a higher one.

Lincoln again:

I insist that if there is any thing which it is the duty of the whole people to never entrust to any hands but their own, that thing is the preservation and perpetuity of their own liberties and institutions.

And Churchill:

You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land, and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy.

Try creating and releasing tension in your own sentences through a judicious mix of Saxon and Latinate words.

 

Posted in Academic writing, Uncategorized

Agnes Callard — Publish and Perish

This post is a recent essay by philosopher Agnes Callard about the problems with academic writing.  It was published in The Point.  

In this essay, she explores the way that professionalization has ruined scholarly writing.  The need to sound professional and publish in the kinds of serious journals that are the route to tenure and academic recognition has diverted us from using writing to communicate ideas to a broad audience in favor of writing to signal scholarly cred. 

Early on she makes a confession that many of us could make: “Although I love to read, and read a lot, little of my reading comes from recent philosophy journals.”  Sound familiar?  It sure resonates with me.  We tend to read journals in our field out of duty — reviewing for journals, checking on a possible citation for our own work — rather than out of any hope that this will provide us with enlightenment.

Much of her discussion is familiar territory, part of the literature on the failures of academic writing that I have highlighted in this blog (e.g., here and here.  But she adds a qualifier that I find intriguing: 

The sad thing about being stuck reading narrow, boring, abstruse papers is not how bad they are, but how good they are. When I am enough of an insider to be in a position to engage the writer in back-and-forth questioning, either in speech or in writing, that process of objection and pushback tends to expose a real and powerful line of thought driving the piece. Philosophers haven’t stopped loving knowledge, despite the increasingly narrow confines within which we must, if we are to survive, pursue it.

It’s not that academics are failing to come up with interesting ideas.  It’s that they feel compelled to hide these ideas under heaps of jargon, turgid prose, and professional posturing.  In conversation, these scholars can explain what’s cool about their work.  But it’s obviously counterproductive to make the reader do all the work of unpacking your argument into a discernable and compelling form. 

Recall Stephen Toulmin’s point, which I use as the epigraph for my syllabus on academic writing: “The effort the writer does not put into writing, the reader has to put into reading.”

Enjoy.

 

Publish and Perish

Agnes Callard

These words exist for you to read them. I wrote them to try to convey some ideas to you. These are not the first words I wrote for you—those were worse. I wrote and rewrote, with a view to clarifying my meaning. I want to make sure that what you take away is exactly what I have in mind, and I want to be concise and engaging, because I am mindful of competing demands on your time and attention.

You might think that everything I am saying is trivial and obvious, because of course all writing is like this. Writing is a form of communication; it exists to be read. But that is, in fact, not how all writing works. In particular, it is not how academic writing works. Academic writing does not exist in order to communicate with a reader. In academia, or at least the part of it that I inhabit, we write, most of the time, not so much for the sake of being read as for the sake of publication.

Let me illustrate by way of a confession regarding my own academic reading habits. Although I love to read, and read a lot, little of my reading comes from recent philosophy journals. The main occasions on which I read new articles in my areas of specialization are when I am asked to referee or otherwise assess them, when I am helping someone prepare them for publication and when I will need to cite them in my own paper.

“Counts” being the operative word. What can be counted is what will get done. In the humanities, no one counts whether anyone reads our papers. Only whether they are published, and where. I have observed these pressures escalate over time: nowadays it is unsurprising when those merely applying to graduate schools have already published a paper or two.

Writing for the sake of publication—instead of for the sake of being read—is academia’s version of “teaching to the test.” The result is papers few actually want to read. First, the writing is hypercomplex. Yes, the thinking is also complex, but the writing in professional journals regularly contains a layer of complexity beyond what is needed to make the point. It is not edited for style and readability. Most significantly of all, academic writing is obsessed with other academic writing—with finding a “gap in the literature” as opposed to answering a straightforwardly interesting or important question.

Of course publication is a necessary step along the way to readership, but the academic who sets their sights on it is like the golfer or baseball player who stops their swing when they make contact with the ball. Without follow-through, what you get are short, jerky movements; we academics have become purveyors of small, awkwardly phrased ideas.

In making these claims about academic writing, I am thinking in the first instance of my own corner of academia—philosophy—though I suspect that my points generalize, at least over the academic humanities. To offer up one anecdote: in spring 2019 I was teaching Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; since I don’t usually teach literature, I thought I should check out recent secondary literature on Joyce. What I found was abstruse and hypercomplex, laden with terminology and indirect. I didn’t feel I was learning anything I could use to make the meaning of the novel more accessible to myself or to my students. I am willing to take some of the blame here: I am sure I could have gotten something out of those pieces if I had been willing to put more effort into reading them. Still, I do not lack the intellectual competence required to understand analyses of Joyce; I feel all of those writers could have done more to write for me.

But whether my points generalize across the humanities or not, I will confess that I feel the urgency of the problem for philosophy much more than for some abstract entity called “the humanities.” I love Joyce, I love Homer, but I am not invested in the quality of current scholarship on either. It’s philosophy that I worry about.

When I am asked for sources of “big ideas” in philosophy—the kind that would get the extra-philosophical world to stand up and take notice—I struggle to list anyone born after 1950. It is sobering to consider that the previous decade produced: Daniel Dennett, Saul Kripke, David Lewis, Derek Parfit, John McDowell, Peter Singer, G. A. Cohen and Martha Nussbaum. In my view, each of these people towers over everyone who comes after them in at least one of the categories by which we might judge a philosopher: breadth, depth, originality or degree of public influence. Or consider this group, born in roughly the two decades prior (1919-1938), remarkable in its intellectual fertility: Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Stanley Cavell, Harry Frankfurt, Bernard Williams, Thomas Nagel, Robert Nozick, Richard Rorty, Hilary Putnam, John Rawls. These are the philosophers about whom one routinely asks, “Why don’t people write philosophy like this anymore?” And this isn’t only a point about writing style. Their work is inviting—it asks new questions, it sells the reader on why those questions matter and it presents itself as a point of entry into philosophy. This is why all of us keep assigning their work over and over again, a striking fact given how much the number of philosophers has ballooned since their time.

And it’s not just a matter of a few exceptional figures. A few years ago, I happened to browse through back issues of a top journal (Ethics) from 1940-1950—not an easy decade for the world, or academia. I went in assuming those papers would be of much lower quality than what is being put out now. Keep in mind, this is a time when not only was publication not required for getting a job, even a Ph.D. was not required; there were far fewer philosophers, and getting a paper accepted at a journal was a vastly less competitive process.

In general, I would describe the papers from that decade as lacking something in terms of precision, clarity and “scholarliness,” but also as being more engaging and ambitious, more heterogeneous in tone and writing style, and better written. Perhaps some amount of academic competition is salutary, but the all-consuming competition of recent years, it appears, has been less productive of excellence than of homogeneity and stagnation. Because the most reliable mark of “quality” is familiarity, the machine incentivizes keeping innovation to a minimum—only at the margin, just enough to get published. It constricts the space of thought. Over time, we end up with less and less to show for all the effort, talent and philosophical training we are throwing into philosophical research. If I wanted to make progress on one of my own papers, I’d certainly be better served with a paper from Ethics in 2020—I’m much more likely to want to cite it. But if I were just curiously browsing for some philosophical reading, I’d go for one of those back issues. We might be hitting more balls today, but none of them is going far.

Some see a way out: they call it “public philosophy.” But it is a mistake to think that this represents an escape from the problem I am describing. We do not have two systems for doing philosophy, “academic philosophy” and “public philosophy.” “Public philosophy,” including the piece of it you are currently reading, is written mostly by academic philosophers—which is to say, people who studied, received Ph.D.s at and in the vast majority of cases make a living by working within the academic philosophy system.

I have no objection to applying the title “philosopher” broadly, including to those public intellectuals who have had so much more success in speaking to a general audience than I or any of my colleagues who operate more strictly within the confines of academic philosophy: from Judith Butler and Bruno Latour to Slavoj Žižek, Camille Paglia and Steven Pinker. But it is one thing to be a “philosopher” in the sense of being a source of intellectual inspiration to the public, or a subset thereof, and another to be a member of a philosophical community. The latter designation requires a person not only to be beholden to such a community argumentatively, but also calls for participation in the maintenance and self-reproduction of that community through education, training and management. Academic philosophy is the system we have. You can’t jump ship, because there’s nowhere to jump.

The sad thing about being stuck reading narrow, boring, abstruse papers is not how bad they are, but how good they are. When I am enough of an insider to be in a position to engage the writer in back-and-forth questioning, either in speech or in writing, that process of objection and pushback tends to expose a real and powerful line of thought driving the piece. Philosophers haven’t stopped loving knowledge, despite the increasingly narrow confines within which we must, if we are to survive, pursue it.

Some in the philosophical community will defend this “narrowing” as a sign of the increasingly scientific character of philosophy. But no matter how scientific some parts of philosophy become, the following difference will always remain: unlike science, philosophy cannot benefit those who don’t engage in it. Philosophical technology—ideas, arguments, distinctions, questions—cannot live outside the human mind.

One doesn’t need to idolize Socrates, as I happen to, to think that philosophy is an especially dialogical discipline. All academic work invites response in the weak sense of “there is always more to be said,” or “corrections welcome,” but philosophical talks, papers and books specifically aim to provoke, to incite, to court pushback and counterexample. Our task is not to take some questions off humanity’s plate, but to infect others with our need to find answers.

The philosopher is an especially needy kind of truth-seeker. Like vampires, zombies and werewolves, we are creatures who need company, and who will do whatever it takes to create it.

No one thinks that Plato, Descartes, Kant and the rest were right about everything; nonetheless, centuries and millennia later, we cannot stop talking not just about them, but to them, with them. They made us into one of them, and we need to keep paying that forward.

Posted in Academic writing, Rhetoric, Writing Class

Tilly: Why? Different Ways that People Give Reasons — and Lessons for Scholars

In this post, I explore the issue of the different ways in which people give reasons to each other.  It draws on a lovely little book by sociologist Charles Tilly: Why? What Happens When People Give Reasons…and Why.  One of the things that makes his account valuable is how it gives scholars a way of understanding the yawning chasm between how they explain things to other experts and how ordinary people explain things to each other. 

Bridging this gap is difficult for scholars but it’s absolutely necessary, if our insights are going to gain acceptance in a broader audience.  I’ll get to that part later on, but for now let’s explore the basic typology or reasons that Tilly lays out.

Tilly -- Why

Here’s a table of the different ways in which people give reasons for events, categorized according to whether they take a popular or expert form and whether they are formulaic or a really explanatory.

Popular Specialized/Expert
Formulas Conventions Codes
Cause-Effect Accounts Stories Technical Accounts

Formulas:  giving reasons without providing a causal account.

Cause-effect accounts:  the focus is on explaining why something happened.

Popular:  generally accessible explanations that are used by the general public.

Specialized:  reasons that are used by and accessible only to experts.

Conventions:  Conventionally accepted reasons for whatever happened:  traffic is terrible, it’s your turn, I’m clumsy, he’s smart, bad luck.  They don’t pretend to be real explanations, but they’re sufficient for the social purposes at hand, which really don’t require such an explanation.  Especially prominent with everyday events that are unremarkable.

Codes:  Understanding events through an arcane code like law, church canons, bureaucratic regulations, scientific methodology, medical science.  Not a real explanation; it just locates the issue as connected to a specialized domain and for the civilian that is sufficient:  it’s the law, it’s God’s will, it’s regulation, it’s policy.

Stories:  Narratives about cause and effect, with reasons, actors, morals, heroes, and villains.  They are called upon to explain events that are more unusual, troubling, often carrying a normative element of praise or blame.  This is the way regular people explain things.  It’s the most accessible and effective way to explain things to the broadest audience.

Technical accounts:  Expert efforts to establish some kind of valid and reliable explanation of cause and effect using specialized expertise.  A medical explanation of disease, a social scientist’s explanation for why A (not C-Z) caused B.

All of these efforts to give reasons – popular and technical, formulas and explanations – exist in part to establish, maintain, reinforce, define, or deny relationships with other people.  Formulas are a formalistic bow to the need to give reasons to others and preserve civil relations: sorry I’m late, couldn’t find parking.  Nobody takes the reason too seriously but they appreciate the message of mild apology.  Formulas frequently announce relations of inequality:  I give you a formulaic response because I don’t consider it necessary to give you a real explanation given your lower status; it’s often just a brush off.  Demanding explanations is a social move asking to be taken seriously and treated like an equal.  Here’s how Tilly explains the relational element (recall: he’s a sociologist).

All four kinds of reasons commonly do relational work. The most invisible work simply confirms the relation between giver and receiver, for example as a penitent accepts a priest’s interpretation of her sins and the priest’s prescription for proper recompense to man and God in a code that has little or nothing to do with causes and effects. More visibly, reason giving often establishes relations, as in the case of an interviewer who explains the purpose of a survey when calling to ask about preferences in food, television, or politics. It sometimes negotiates relations, as when the author of a technical account displays professional credentials to make a claim on a listener’s respect and compliance. Finally, much reason giving repairs relations, as someone who has inflicted damage on someone else tells a story to show that the damage was inadvertent or unavoidable and therefore, despite appearances, does not reflect badly on the relationship between giver and receiver. The phrase “I’m sorry, but . . . ” often starts a story that does relational repairs. Both formulas and cause-effect accounts do relational work.

Formulas identify an appropriate correspondence between Y (the event, action, or outcome at hand) and X (its antecedent), but enter little or not at all into the causal chain connecting Y to X. Cause-effect accounts trace causal lines from X to Y—even if we observers find those causal lines absurd or incomprehensible. “Popular” reasons obviously vary from one public to another, for example as a function of religiosity and religious creed. Specialized reasons likewise vary strikingly from discipline to discipline; theologians elaborate both codes and technical accounts that differ deeply from those proposed by medical practitioners.

There’s a warning here for scholars and other experts.  As Tilly puts it,

Sophisticated readers should guard against an easy and erroneous pair of assumptions: that popular reasons peddle inferior, ignorant, and excessively simplified versions of codes and technical accounts, and that truly sophisticated people therefore never resort to conventions or stories. We sophisticates easily make the mistake because we frequently have to translate our own codes or technical accounts into terms that people who work in other idioms will understand.

We take justified pride in our expert knowledge, and we rely on rigorous research methodologies to give our conclusions scientific credibility.  So most of our reason-giving is directed at other experts, who can understand our theories and methods and appreciate their validity.  

But when we have to communicate our findings to nonexperts, we run into a problem.  We feel like we can’t explain results to civilians without dumbing down the discourse in a way that invalidates the rigorous methods involved in producing the results in the first place.  As a result, we commonly find ourselves making a stand on the general credibility of our expertise.  Trust me, I’m an expert; I know what I’m doing.  One way of doing this is to blow away the civilian reader with a flurry of stats and tables and Greek letters and institutional affiliations and scholarly citations.  Look at all this expert evidence, we say.  This is why you need to listen to us.  

Misuse of the “I’m the expert” approach is part of what has undermined public faith in science over the years.  After all, experts gave us the bomb, the Vietnam War, and the plastic garbage patch in the Pacific.   We need to be able to communicate more clearly and still credibly to nonexpert audiences, but that’s not easy.

The civilian approach is to tell stories.  These stories are organized around actors and actions, motives and outcomes, and they usually come with a moral defined by a struggle between good guys and bad guys.  The problem for serious academic research is that the story is more complex than that, and good and bad are difficult to discern.  We do a disservice to the richness and complexity of our findings by oversimplifying them in this way.

But we scholars often slide into simplifying mode anyway, especially around issues we care about a lot and which are fraught with emotion and concerned with  fairness.  Think race, inequality, policing practices, immigration, climate change, war and peace.  Evidence, methods, and reason don’t seem to be sufficient for these subjects, so we shift from scholarly explanation to political advocacy. 

Being a political actor is good and necessary for any citizen, including a scholar, but the danger is in suggesting that your political position is a simple extension of your scientific research — e.g., saying “Research shows we should do this.”  But research never tells us what we should do.  At best it gives us solid information upon which to make choices about issues whose core concerns are normative, political.  Recall Weber’s point in Science as a Vocation — that science can’t answer Tolstoy’s question, “What shall we do, and how shall we arrange our lives?”

It’s still possible, however, for scholars to connect with people who don’t understand the methods we use to develop our conclusions.  We can find ways to tell compelling stories that will make an effective case for a particular understanding of events without recourse to either arcane methodologies or emotional appeals.  

In my writing class, I found that one way to dig out the core story in your research is to try something called a fast-write.  Sit down in front of the computer and spend no more than 10 minutes writing a paragraph about the central issues in your study.  Be sure you do so without using any academic jargon, scholarly citations, theoretical references, or methodological procedures.  Pretend you’re talking to an educated person, not a specialist in your field, who just asked you about your work over a glass of wine.  Think about what got you interested in the subject in the first place, what you found most compelling among your findings, what you feel is the coolest thing you uncovered. 

What you’ll find you’re writing is a story.  It probably won’t have heroes and villains and a simple moral, but it will have a narrative that civilians can connect with.  When you’ve done this you may well find that you have written the ideal opening paragraph for the written version of your study — where you lay out the big issues in the work before delving into the technical details that shore it up.  You’ll be doing your technical readers a favor by framing the analysis this way up front, allowing them to see the significance in what follows.

Here’s an example of what I mean, the opening paragraphs of one of the classic texts in organizational theory, Karl Weick’s paper, “Educational Organizations as Loosely-Coupled Systems.”

Imagine that you’re either the referee, coach, player or spectator at an unconventional soccer match: the field for the game is round; there are several goals scattered haphazardly around the circular field; people can enter and leave the game whenever they want to; they can throw balls in whenever they want; they can say “that’s my goal” whenever they want to, as many times as they want to, and for as many goals as they want to; the entire game takes place on a sloped field; and the game is played as if it makes sense (March, personal communication).

If you now substitute in that example principals for referees, teachers for coaches, students for players, parents for spectators and schooling for soccer, you have an equally unconventional depiction of school organizations. The beauty of this depiction is that it captures a different set of realities within educational organizations than are caught when these same organizations are viewed through the tenets of bureaucratic theory.

Here, in a few simple words, Weick gives a quick window into the heart of his richly complex theory of schools as loosely-coupled systems.  It’s accessible to anyone, and it evokes the larger implications of his story while at the same time luring the reader to plunge ahead into the analysis that follows.  It simplifies without dumbing down.  It compels without pulling out the emotional stops.  It shows how good academic storytelling is both possible and necessary.

Posted in Academic writing, Course Syllabus, Writing

Links to All of My Publications and Course Materials

For anyone who’s interested, today I’m posting below a list of all my publications and courses, including links to these works and to full course materials.  Here’s a link to a Word document with this hyperlinked material, and here’s a link to my full CV including the former.

 

David F. Labaree

Links to Courses, Papers, Chapters, Magazine Articles, and Books

July 1, 2020

Lee L. Jacks Professor, Emeritus                  

Graduate School of Education                       E-mail:  dlabaree@stanford.edu

485 Lasuen Mall                                             Web:  https://dlabaree.people.stanford.edu/

Stanford University                                        Twitter:  @Dlabaree

Stanford, CA 94305                                        Blog:  https://davidlabaree.com/

 

RECENT COURSES TAUGHT: with links to full course materials

Doctoral Proseminar in Education

Academic Writing for Clarity and Grace

History of Higher Education

History of School Reform in the U.S.

School: What Is It Good For?

BOOKS:

Labaree, David F. (2017). A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Labaree, David F. (2010).  Someone has to fail: The zero-sum game of public schooling. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Labaree, David F. (2007). Education, markets, and the public good: Selected works of David F. Labaree (in series: Routledge World Library of Educationalists). London: Routledge.

Labaree, David F. (2004).  The trouble with ed schools. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Labaree, David F. (1997). How to succeed in school without really learning: The credentials race in American education. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Labaree, David F. (1988). The making of an American high school: The credentials market and the Central High School of Philadelphia, 1838-1939. New Haven: Yale University Press.

EDITED BOOK:

Tröhler, Daniel, Popkewitz, Thomas, & Labaree, David F. (Eds.). (2011).  Schooling and the making of citizens in the long nineteenth century: Comparative visions. New York: Routledge.

MEDIA ARTICLES:

Labaree, David F. (2020). Doctoral dysfunction: Many doctoral students today are tending to fall into one of two disturbing categories: academic technician or justice warrior. Inside Higher Ed (June 18).

Labaree, David F. (2020). Two cheers for school bureaucracy. Phi Delta Kappan, 101:6 (March), 53-56.

Labaree, David F. (2020). Book review: Steven Conn. Nothing succeeds like failure: The sad history of American business schools. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019. History of Education Quarterly,

Labaree, David F. (2020). Two cheers for school bureaucracy. Bildungsgeschichte: International Journal for the Historiography of Education, 10:1, 123-26

Labaree, David F. (2020). Try spreading your wings. Bildungsgeschichte: International Journal for the Historiography of Education, 10:1, 100-103. Response to comments on “We’re producing academic technicians and justice warriors.”

Labaree, David F. (2019). Pluck vs. luck: Meritocracy emphasises the power of the individual to overcome obstacles, but the real story is quite a different one.  Aeon (December 4). https://aeon.co/essays/pluck-and-hard-work-or-luck-of-birth-two-stories-one-man

Labaree, David F. (2019). Book review:  Research universities and the public good: Discovery for an uncertain future. By Jason Owen-Smith. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2018. American Journal of Sociology, 125:2, 310-12.

Labaree, David F. (2019). Luck and pluck: Competing accounts of a life in the meritocracy. Bildungsgeschichte: International Journal for the Historiography of Education, 9:2, 295-302.

Labaree, David F. (2019). We’re producing academic technicians and justice warriors: A sermon on educational research, part 2. Bildungsgeschichte: International Journal for the Historiography of Education, 9:1, 123-26.

Labaree, David F. (2018). Gold among the dross.  Academic research in the US is unplanned, exploitative and driven by a lust for glory. The result is the envy of the world. Aeon (December 18). https://aeon.co/essays/higher-education-in-the-us-is-driven-by-a-lust-for-glory

Labaree, David F. (2018). Public schools for private gain: The declining American commitment to serving the public good. Phi Delta Kappan, 100:3 (November), 9-13. https://www.kappanonline.org/labaree-public-schools-private-gain-decline-american-commitment-public-good/

Labaree, David F. (2018). The exceptionalism of American higher education. Project Syndicate (May 17). https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/american-higher-education-exceptionalism-by-david-f-labaree-2018-05?linkId=51848748

Labaree, David F. (2018). The five-paragraph fetish. Aeon (February 15).  https://aeon.co/essays/writing-essays-by-formula-teaches-students-how-to-not-think

Labaree, David F. (2017). Rags to riches: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education. Aeon (October 11). https://aeon.co/essays/how-the-us-college-went-from-pitiful-to-powerful

Labaree, David F. (2017). Nobel prizes are great, but college football is why American universities dominate the globe. Op-ed in Quartz (October 7). https://qz.com/1095906/nobel-prizes-are-great-but-college-football-is-why-american-universities-dominate-the-globe/.

Labaree, David F. (2013). Why GSE?  Why now? Stanford Educator (spring), 4-5.

Labaree, David F. (2012). Sermon on educational research. Bildungsgeschichte: International Journal for the Historiography of Education, 2:1, 78-87.

Labaree, David F. (2011). Targeting teachers. Dissent (summer), 9-14.

Labaree, David F. (2000). Resisting educational standards. Phi Delta Kappan, 82:1 (September), 28-33.

Labaree, David F. (1999). The chronic failure of curriculum reform. Perspective article, Lessons of a Century series, Education Week 16:36 (May 19), pp. 42-44.  Reprinted in Staff of Education Week (2000), Lessons of a century: A nation’s schools come of age (pp. 148-151).  Bethesda, MD: Editorial Projects in Education.

Labaree, David F. (1999). Too easy a target: The trouble with ed schools and the implications for the university. Academe, 85:1 (January-February), 34-39.

Labaree, David F. (1998). Educational consumerism: Bad for schools. Op-ed column, Detroit News, February 26, p. 15A.

Labaree, David F. (1997). Are students “consumers”? The rise of public education as a private good. Commentary article in Education Week 17:3 (September 17), pp. 48, 38.

Labaree, David F. (1994). An unlovely legacy: The disabling impact of the market on American teacher education. Phi Delta Kappan, 75:8 (April), 591-595.

Labaree, David F. (1989). The American high school has failed its missions. MSU Alumni Bulletin, 7:1 (Fall), 14-17; reprinted in MASB Journal (Michigan Association of School Boards), 50 (November), 10-12.

Labaree, David F. (1983). Schools: Some caveats on promoting. Op-ed, Philadelphia Inquirer (May 17).

REFEREED JOURNAL ARTICLES:

Labaree, David F. (2020). How schools came to democratize merit, formalize achievement, and naturalize privilege: The case of the United States. Bildungsgeschichte: International Journal for the Historiography of Education, 10:1, 29-41.

Labaree, David F. (2017). Perils of the professionalized historian. Bildungsgeschichte: International Journal for the Historiography of Education, 7:1, 95-6.

Labaree, David F. (2016). An affair to remember: America’s brief fling with the university as a public good. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 50: 1, 20-36.

Labaree, David F. (2014). College – What is it good for?  Education and Culture, 30: 1, 3-15.

Labaree, David F. (2014). Let’s measure what no one teaches: PISA, NCLB, and the shrinking aims of education. Teachers College Record, 116: 090303, 14 pages.

Labaree, David F. (2013). A system without a plan: Emergence of an American system of higher education in the twentieth centuryBildungsgeschichte: International Journal for the Historiography of Education, 3:1, 46-59.

Labaree, David F. (2012). School syndrome: Understanding the USA’s magical belief that schooling can somehow improve society, promote access, and preserve advantage. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 44:2, 143-163.

Labaree, David F. (2012). Sermon on educational research. Bildungsgeschichte: International Journal for the Historiography of Education, 2:1, 78-87.

Labaree, David F. (2011). Do no harm. Teacher Education and Practice, 24:4, 434-439.

Labaree, David F. (2011). The lure of statistics for educational researchers. Educational Theory, 61:6, 621-631.

Labaree, David F. (2011). Consuming the public schoolEducational Theory,61: 4, 381-394.

Labaree, David F. (2010). Understanding the rise of American higher education: How complexity breeds autonomy (translated into Chinese). Peking University Education Review, 8:3, 24-39.

Labaree, David F. (2010). What schools can’t do. Zeitschrift für Pädagogische Historiographie, 16:1, 12-18.

Labaree, David F. (2009). Teach For America and teacher ed: Heads they win, tails we lose. Journal of Teacher Education, 61:1-2, 48-55.

Labaree, David F. (2009). Participant in moderated discussion of the film 2 Million Minutes. Comparative Education Review, 53:1, 113-137.

Labaree, David F. (2008). The winning ways of a losing strategy: Educationalizing social problems in the U.S. Educational Theory, 58:4 (November), 447-460.

Labaree, David F. (2008). The dysfunctional pursuit of relevance in educational research. Educational Researcher, 37:7 (October), 421-23.

Labaree, David F. (2006). Mutual subversion: A short history of the liberal and the professional in American higher education. History of Education Quarterly, 46:1 (Spring), 1-15.

Labaree, David F. (2006). Innovation, nostalgia, and the politics of educational change. Educational Administration Quarterly, 42:1 (February), 157-164.

Labaree, David F. (2005). Life on the margins. Journal of Teacher Education, 56:3 (May/June), 186-191).

Labaree, David F. (2005). Progressivism, schools, and schools of education: An American romance. Paedagogica Historica, 41:1&2 (February), 275-288.

Labaree, David F. (2003). The peculiar problems of preparing and becoming educational researchers. Educational Researcher, 32:4 (May), 13-22.

Labaree, David F. (2000). On the nature of teaching and teacher education: Difficult practices that look easyJournal of Teacher Education, 51:3 (May), 68-73.

Labaree, David F. (1998). Educational researchers: Living with a lesser form of knowledge. Educational Researcher, 27:8 (November), 4-12.  Reprinted in Day, C. et al. (Eds.), The life and work of teachers: International perspectives in changing times (pp. 55-75). London: Falmer Press.

Labaree, David F. (1997). Public goods, private goods: The American struggle over educational goals. American Educational Research Journal, 34:1 (Spring), 39-81.

Labaree, David F. (1996). The trouble with ed schools. Educational Foundations, 10:3 (Summer), 27-45.

Labaree, David F., & Pallas, A. M. (1996). Dire straits: The narrow vision of the Holmes Group. Rejoinder: The Holmes Group’s Mystifying Response. Educational Researcher, 25:5 (June/July), 25-28, 31-32, 47.

Labaree, David F. (1995). A disabling vision: Rhetoric and reality in Tomorrow’s Schools of Education. Teachers College Record, 97:2 (Winter), 166-205.

Labaree, David F. (1992). Power, knowledge, and the rationalization of teaching: A genealogy of the movement to professionalize teaching. Harvard Educational Review, 62:2 (Summer), 123-154.

Labaree, David F. (1992). Doing good, doing science: The Holmes Group reports and the rhetorics of educational reform. Teachers College Record, 93:4 (Summer), 628-640.

Labaree, David F. (1991). Does the subject matter? Dewey, democracy, and the history of curriculum. History of Education Quarterly, 31:4 (Winter), 513-521.

Labaree, David F. (1990). A kinder and gentler report: Turning Points and the Carnegie tradition. Journal of Education Policy 5:3, 249-264.

Labaree, David F. (1990). From comprehensive high school to community college: Politics, markets, and the evolution of educational opportunity. In Corwin, R. G. (Ed.), Research on Sociology of Education and Socialization, 9, 203-240. Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press.

Labaree, David F. (1987). Politics, markets and the compromised curriculum. Harvard Educational Review 57:4 (November), 483-494.

Labaree, David F. (1986). Parens patriae: The private roots of public policy toward children. History of Education Quarterly, 26:1 (Spring), 111-116.

Labaree, David F. (1986). Curriculum, credentials, and the middle class: A case study of a nineteenth century high school. Sociology of Education, 59:1 (January), 42-57.

Labaree, David F. (1984). Academic excellence in an early U.S. high school. Social Problems, 31:5 (June), 558-567.

Labaree, David F. (1984). Setting the standard: Alternative policies for student promotion. Harvard Educational Review, 54:1 (February), 67-87.

BOOK CHAPTERS:

Labaree, David F. (2017). Futures of the field of education. In Geoff Whitty & John Furlong (Eds.), Knowledge and the study of education: An international exploration (pp. 277-283). Oxford, UK: Symposium Books.

Labaree, David F. (2016). Learning to love the bomb: The Cold War brings the best of times to American higher education. In Paul Smeyers & Marc Depaepe (Eds.), Educational research: Discourses of change and changes in discourse (pp. 101-117). Dordrecht: Springer.

Labaree, David F. (2014). Schooling in the United States:  Historical analyses. In D.C. Phillips (Ed.), Encyclopedia of educational theory and philosophy (pp. 740-43). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Labaree, David F. (2013). Balancing access and advantage in the history of American schooling. In Rolf Becker, Patrick Bühler, & Thomas Bühler (Eds.), Bildungsungleichheit und Gerechtigkeit: Wissenschaftliche und Gesellschaftliche Herausforderungen (pp. 101-114). Bern: Haupt Verlag.

Labaree, David F. (2013). Targeting teachers.  In Michael B. Katz & Mike Rose (Eds.), Public education under siege (pp. 30-39). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Labaree, David F. (2013). The power of the parochial in shaping the American system of higher education.  In Paul Smeyers & Marc Depaepe (Eds.), Educational research: The importance and effects of institutional spaces (pp. 31-46). Dordrecht: Springer.

Labaree, David F. (2011). When is school an answer to what social problems? Lessons from the early American republic.  In Daniel Tröhler & Ragnhild Barbu (Eds.), Educational systems in historical, cultural and sociological perspectives (pp. 77-90). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Labaree, David F. (2011). Adventures in scholarship. In Wayne Urban (Ed.), Leaders in the historical study of American education (pp. 193-204). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Labaree, David F. (2011). Citizens and consumers: Changing visions of virtue and opportunity in U.S. education, 1841-1954. In Daniel Tröhler, Thomas Popkewitz, and David F. Labaree (Eds.), Schooling and the making of citizens in the long nineteenth century (pp. 168-183). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Labaree, David F. (2011). The lure of statistics for educational researchers. In Paul Smeyers & Marc Depaepe (Eds.), Educational research: Ethics and esthetics of statistics (pp. 13-25). Dordrecht: Springer.

Labaree, David F. (2010). How Dewey lost: The victory of David Snedden and social efficiency in the reform of American education. In Daniel Tröhler, Thomas Schlag, and Fritz Osterwalder (Eds.), Pragmatism and modernities (pp. 163-188).  Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Labaree, David F. (2009). Educational formalism and the language of goals in American education, educational reform, and educational history. In Paul Smeyers & Marc Depaepe (Eds.), Educational research: Proofs, arguments, and other reasonings (pp. 41-60). Dordrecht: Springer.

Labaree, David F. (2008). Limits on the impact of educational reform: The case of progressivism and U.S. schools, 1900-1950.  In Claudia Crotti & Fritz Osterwalder (Eds.), Das Jahrhundert der Schulreformen: Internationale und nationale Perspektiven, 1900-1950 (pp. 105-133). Berne: Haupt.

Labaree, David F. (2008). An uneasy relationship: The history of teacher education in the university. In Cochran-Smith, Marilyn, Feiman Nemser, Sharon, & McIntyre, D. John (Eds.), Handbook of research on teacher education: Enduring issues in changing contexts, 3rd ed. (pp. 290-306). Washington, DC: Association of Teacher Educators.

Labaree, David F. (2006). Progressisme, écoles, et education school: Une romance américaine. In Hofstetter, Rita & Schneuwly, Bernard (Eds.), Passion, fusion, tension: New education and educational sciences (pp. 305-324). Bern: Peter Lang. (Translation of 2005 paper in Paedagogica Historica.)

Labaree, David F. (2004). The ed school’s romance with progressivism. In Ravitch, Diane (Ed.), Brookings papers on education policy, 2004 (pp. 89-129). Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Labaree, David F. (2000). No exit: Public education as an inescapably public good. In Cuban, L., & Shipps, D. (Eds.), Reconstructing the common good in education: Coping with intractable American dilemmas (pp. 110-129). Stanford: Stanford University Press. Translated into Japanese and published in Hidenori Fujita (Ed.), (2000), Education, Knowledge, Power (pp. 110-138). Translated into Italian and published in Punti Critici, 7 (November), 115-143.

Gitlin, A., & Labaree, David F. (1996). Historical notes on the barriers to the professionalization of American teachers: The influence of markets and patriarchy. In Hargreaves, A., & Goodson, I. (Eds.), Teachers’ Professional Lives (pp. 88-108).

       Philadelphia: Falmer Press.

Labaree, David F. (1995). Why do schools cooperate with reformers? The case of the teacher professionalization movement. In Petrie, H. G. (Ed.), Professionalization, Partnership and Power: Building Professional Development Schools (pp. 93-109). Albany: SUNY Press.

Labaree, David F. (1995). The lowly status of teacher education in the U.S.: The impact of markets and the implications for reform. In Shimihara, N. K., & Holowinsky, I. Z. (Eds.), Teacher Education in Industrialized Nations: Issues in Changing Social Contexts (pp. 41-85). New York: Garland Publishing.

Labaree, David F. (1989). Career ladders and the early public high school teacher: A study of inequality and opportunity. In Warren, D. (Ed.), American Teachers: Histories of a Profession at Work (pp. 157-189). New York: Macmillan.

OTHER PUBLICATIONS:

Labaree, David F. (2003). The future of schools of education. The Navigator, 3:1 (fall), p. 7. Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis, Rossier School of Education, University of Southern California.

Labaree, David F. (2003). Comment on paper by John Bishop. In Ravitch, Diane (Ed.), Brookings Papers on Education Policy, 2003 (pp. 204-208). Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Labaree, David F. (1995). Foreword. In Brown, D. K., Degrees of control: A sociology of  educational expansion and occupational credentialism (pp. ix-xvi). New York: Teachers College Press.

MONOGRAPHS:

Labaree, David F. (1983). Setting the Standard: The Characteristics and Consequences of Alternative Student Promotional Policies. Philadelphia: Citizens Committee on Public Education in Philadelphia.

Labaree, David F. (1983). The people’s college: A sociological analysis of Philadelphia’s Central High School, 1838-1939. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania.

 

Posted in Academic writing, History of education, Rhetoric

A Brutal Review of My First Book

In the last two weeks, I’ve presented some my favorite brutal book reviews.  It’s a lot of fun to watch a skilled writer skewer someone else’s work with surgical precision (see here and my last post).  In the interest of balance, I thought it would be right and proper to present a review that eviscerates one of my own books.  So here’s a link to a review essay by Sol Cohen that was published in Historical Studies in Education in 1991.  It’s called, “The Linguistic Turn: The Absent Text of Educational Historiography.

Fortunately, I never saw the review when it first came out, three years after publication of my book, The Making of an American High School: The Credentials Market and the Central High School of Philadelphia, 1838-1939.  Those were the days when I was a recently tenured associate professor at Michigan State, still young and professionally vulnerable.  It wasn’t until 2005 that a snarky student in a class where I assigned my book pointedly sent me a copy of the review (as a way of saying, why are we reading this thoroughly discounted text?).   By then, thankfully, I was a full professor at Stanford, who was sufficiently old and arrogant to have nothing at stake, so I could enjoy the rollercoaster ride of reading Cohen’s thorough trashing of my work.

The book is a study of the first century of the first public high school in Philadelphia, the city where I grew up.  It emerged from my doctoral dissertation in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, submitted in 1983.  The genre is historical sociology, and the data are both qualitative (public records, documents, and annual reports) and quantitative (digitized records of students in every census year from 1840-1920).  The book won me tenure at MSU and outstanding book awards in 1989 from both the History of Education Society and the American Educational Research Association.  In short, it was a big fat target, fairly begging for a take-down.  And boy, did Sol Cohen ever rise the challenge.

CHS Cover

Cohen frames his discussion of my book as an exercise in rhetorical analysis.  Building on the “linguistic turn” that emerged in social theory toward the end of the 20th century, he draws in particular on the work of Hayden White, who argued for viewing history as a literary endeavor.  White saw four primary story lines that historians employ:  Romance (a tale of growth and progress), Comedy (a fall from grace followed by a rise toward a happy ending), Tragedy (the fall of the hero), and Satire (“a decline and fall from grand beginnings”).  

The Making of an American High School is emplotted in the mode of Satire, an unrelenting critique, the reverse or a parody of the idealization of American public education which, for example, characterizes the Romantic/Comedic tradition in American educational historiography….

The narrative trajectory of Labaree’s book is a downward spiral. Its predominant mood is one of anger and disillusionment with the deterioration or subversion and fall from grace of American public secondary education. The story line of The Making of an American High School, though the reverse of Romance, is equally formulaic: from democratic origins, conflict and decline and fall. The conflict is between egalitarianism and “market values,” between the early democratic aspirations of Central High School to produce a virtuous and informed citizenry for the new republic and its latter-day function as an elitist “credentials market” controlled by a middle class whose goal is to ensure that their sons receive the “credentials” which would entitle them to become the functionaries of capitalist society….

The metaphor of the “credentials market,” by which Labaree means to signify a vulgar or profane and malignant essence of American secondary education, is one of the main rhetorical devices deployed in The Making of an American High School.  Labaree stresses the baneful effect of “market forces” and “market values” on every aspect of CHS and American secondary education: governance, pedagogy, the students, the curriculum. As befits his Satiric mode of emplotment, Labaree attacks the “market” conception of secondary education from a “high moral line,” that of democracy and egalitarianism.

The lugubrious downward narrative trajectory of The Making of an American High School unexpectedly takes a Romantic or Comedic upward turn at the very end of the book, when Labaree mysteriously foresees the coming transformation of the high school. We have to quote Labaree’s last paragraph. “As a market institution,” he writes, “the contemporary high school is an utter failure.” Yet “when rechartered as a common school, it has great potential.” The common public high school “would be able to focus on equality rather than stratification and on learning rather than the futile pursuit of educational credentials.” Stripped of its debilitating market concerns, “the common high school,” Labaree contends in his final sentence, “could seek to provide what had always eluded the early selective high school; a quality education for the whole community.” The End.

Ok, this is really not going well for me, is it?  Not only am I employing a hackneyed plot line of decline and fall and a cartoonish opposition between saintly democracy and evil markets, but I also flinch at the end from being true to my satiric ethos by hastily fabricating a last-minute happy ending.  I spin a book-length tale of fall from grace and then lose my nerve at the finish line.  In short, I’m a gutless fabulist.  

Oh, and that’s not all.

There is something more significant going on in Labaree’s book, however, than his emplotment of the history of American secondary education in the mode of Satire and the formulation of his argument in terms of the metaphor of the market. Thus, the most prominent rhetorical device Labaree utilizes in The Making of An American High School is actually not that of the market metaphor, but that of the terminology and apparatus of Quantitative Research Methodology. Labaree confronts the reader with no less than fifteen statistical tables in what is a very brief work (only about 180 pages of text), as well as four statistical Appendices….

One can applaud Labaree’ s diligence in finding and mining a trove of empirical data (“based on a sample of two thousand students drawn from the first hundred years” of CHS). But there is a kind of rhetorical overkill here. For all his figures and statistics, we are not much wiser than before; they are actually redundant. They give us no new information. What is their function in the text then? Labaree’s utilization of the nomenclature and technical apparatus of quantitative research methodology is to be understood as no more (or less) than a rhetorical strategy in the service of “realism.”

Ok, now here’s my favorite paragraph in the whole review.  I think you’ll find this one worth waiting for.  To make sure you don’t miss the best parts, I’ll underline them for you.

Within the conventions of its genre, The Making of an American High
School, though lacking in grace as a piece of writing, possesses some complexity and depth, if not breadth: it is an acceptable story. But as if Labaree were dissatisfied with the credibility and persuasiveness of a mere story, or with that story’s formal rhetorical properties, its Satiric mode of emplotment, its metaphoric mode of explanation, its fairy-tale ending, or were aware of its writerly deficiencies, he puts on scientistic or Positivist airs. Labaree’s piling on of inessential detail and his deployment of the arcane vocabulary and symbols of quantitative research function as a rhetorical device to counteract or efface the discursivity, the textuality, the obvious literary-ness of The Making of an American High School and to reinforce or enhance the authority of his book and the ideological thrust of his argument.  As if the language of “mean,” “standard deviation.” “regression analysis,” “beta factors.” “dummy variables.” and “homoscedasticity,” vis-a-vis ordinary language, were a transcendent, epistemologically superior or privileged language: rigorously scientific, impartial, objective. From this perspective, the Tables and Appendices in The Making of an American High School are not actually there to be read; they are, in fact, unreadable. They are simply there to be seen; their sheer presence in the text is what “counts.”

Wow, I’m impressed.  But wait for the closing flourish.

The Making of an American High School, within the conventions of its genre, is a modest and minor work, so thin the last chapter has to be fleshed out by a review of the past decade’s literature on the American high school. But the point is not to reprove or criticize Labaree. The Making of an
American High School is a first book. It is or was a competent doctoral
dissertation, with all the flaws of even a competent dissertation. That it was
awarded the Outstanding Book Award for 1989 by the History of Education
Society simply shows which way the historiographical winds are currently
blowing in the United States.

Nuff said.  Or, to use the discourse of quantitative research, QED.  

So how do I react to this review, nearly three decades after it appeared?  Although it’s a bit unkind, I can’t say it’s unfair.  Let me hit on a few specifics in the analysis that resonated with me.

The tale of a fall from grace.  True.  It’s about a school established to shore up a shaky republic and promote civic virtue, which then became a selective institution for reproducing social advantage through the provision of elite credentials.  It’s all down hill from the 1840s to the present.

Markets as the bad guy.  Also true.  I framed the book around a tension between democratic politics and capitalist markets, with markets getting and keeping the upper hand over the years.  That’s a theme that has continued in my work over the years, though it has become somewhat more complex.  As Cohen pointed out, my definition of markets was hazy at best.  It’s not even clear that school diplomas played a major role in the job market for most of the 19th century, when skill levels in the workforce were actually declining while levels of schooling were rising.  The golden days of school leading to a good job did not emerge as a major factor until the turn of the 20th century. 

In my second book, How to Succeed in School without Really Learning, I was forced to reconsider the politics-markets dichotomy, which I outlined in the first chapter, drawing on an essay that remains my most cited publication.  Here I split the idea of credentials markets into two major components.  From one perspective, education is a public good, which provides society with the skills it needs, skills that benefit everyone including those who didn’t get a diploma.  From another, education is a private good, whose benefits accrue only to the degree holder.  I argued that the former constitutes a vision of schooling for social efficiency whereas the latter offers a vision of schooling for social mobility.  The old good guy from the first book, democratic politics, represented a vision of schooling for democratic equality, also a public good.  For many years, I ran with the continuing tension among these three largely incompatible goals as the defining force in shaping the politics of education. 

However, by the time I got to my last book, A Perfect Mess, I stumbled onto the idea that markets were in fact the good guy in at least one major way.  They were the shaping force in the evolution of the American system of higher education, which emerged from below in a competition among private colleges rather than being created and directly controlled from above by the state.  Turns out this gave the system a degree of autonomy that was highly functional in promoting innovation in teaching and research and that helped make it a dominant force in global higher ed.  State dominated systems of higher education tend to be less effective in these ways.

The happy ending that doesn’t follow from the argument in the book.  Embarrassing but also true.  I have long argued that, before a book on education is published, the editor should delete the final chapter.  This is typically where the author pulls back from the weight of preceding analysis, which typically  demonstrates huge problems in education, and comes up with a totally incredible five-point plan for fixing the problem.  That’s sort of what I did here.  In my defense, it’s only one paragraph; and it doesn’t suggest that a happy ending will happen, only that it would be nice if it did.  But I do shudder reading it today, now that I’ve become more comfortable being a doomsayer about the prospects for fixing education.  To wit, my fourth book on the improbability of reform, Someone Has to Fail.

Deceptive rhetoric.  Also true.  The rhetorical move that strikes me as most telling now is not the the way I waved the flag of markets or statistics, as Cohen argued, but another move he alluded to but didn’t pursue.  On the face of it, the book is the history of a single high school.  But that is not something that interested me or interested my readers.  I frame the book as an analysis of the American high school in general, its evolution from a small exclusive institution for preparing citizens to a large inclusive institution for credentialing workers.  But there’s really no way to make a credible argument that the Central case is representative of the whole.  In fact, it was quite unusual. 

Most high schools in the 19th century were small additions to a town’s common schools, usually located in a room on the top floor of the grammar school, taught by the grammar school master, and organized coeducationally.  But for 50 years Central High School was the only high school in the second largest city in the country, and it remained very exclusive because of its rigorous entrance exam, its location in the most elegant educational structure in town (see the picture of its second building on the book’s cover), its authorization to grant college degrees, its teachers who were called professors, and its students who were all male.  In the first chapter I try to wave away that problem by arguing that the school is not representative but exemplary, serving as a model for where other high schools were headed.  Throughout the text I was able to maintain this fiction because of a quirk of the English language.  I kept referring to “the high school,” which left it ambiguous about whether I was referring to Central or to the high school in general.  I was always directing the analysis toward the latter.  On reflection, I’m ok about this deception.  If you’re not pushing your data to the limits of credibility, you’re probably not telling a very interesting story.  I think the evolutionary arc for the high school system that I describe in the book still in general holds up.

Using statistics as window dressing.  I wish.  This is a good news, bad news story.  The good news is that quantitative student data were critically important in establishing an important counterintuitive point.  In high school today, the best predictor of who will graduate is social class.  The effect is large and stable over time.  For Central in its first 80 years, however, class had no effect on chances for graduation.  The only factor that determined successful completion of degree was  a student’s grades in school.  It’s not that class was completely irrelevant.  The students who entered the school were heavily skewed toward the upper classes, since only these families could afford the opportunity cost of keeping their sons out of the workforce.  But once they were admitted, rich kids flunked out as much as poor kids if they didn’t keep up their grades.  Central, counter to anything I was expecting (or even desiring — I was looking to tell a Marxist story), the high school was a meritocracy.  Kind of cool.

The bad news is that the quantitative data were not useful for making any other important points in the book.  The most interesting stuff, at least for me, came from the qualitative side.  But the amount of quantitative data I generated was huge, and it ate up at least two of the four years I spent working on the dissertation.  Sol Cohen complained that I had 15 tables in the book, but the dissertation had more like 45.  I wanted to include them all, on the grounds that I did the work so I wanted it to show in the end result; but the press said no.  The disjuncture between data and its significance finally and brutally came home to me when my friend David Cohen read my whole manuscript and reported this:  “It seems that all of your tables serve as a footnote for a single assertion: Central was meritocratic.”  Two years of my life for a single footnote.  Lord save me from ever making that mistake again.  Since then I have avoided gathering and analyzing quantitative data and made it a religion to look for shortcuts as I’m doing research.  Diligence in gathering data doesn’t necessarily pay off in significance of the results.

Ok, so I’ll leave it at that.  I hope you enjoyed watching me get flayed by a professional.  And I also hope there are some useful lessons buried in there somewhere.  

Posted in Academic writing, Higher Education, History of education

The Lust for Academic Fame: America’s Engine for Scholarly Production

This post is an analysis of the engine for scholarly production in American higher education.  The issue is that the university is a unique work setting in which the usual organizational incentives don’t apply.  Administrators can’t offer much in the way of power and money as rewards for productive faculty and they also can’t do much to punish unproductive faculty who have tenure.  Yet in spite of this scholars keep cranking out the publications at a furious rate.  My argument is that the primary motive for publication is the lust for academic fame.

The piece was originally published in Aeon in December, 2018.

pile of books
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Gold among the dross

Academic research in the US is unplanned, exploitative and driven by a lust for glory. The result is the envy of the world

David F. Labaree

The higher education system is a unique type of organisation with its own way of motivating productivity in its scholarly workforce. It doesn’t need to compel professors to produce scholarship because they choose to do it on their own. This is in contrast to the standard structure for motivating employees in bureaucratic organisations, which relies on manipulating two incentives: fear and greed. Fear works by holding the threat of firing over the heads of workers in order to ensure that they stay in line: Do it my way or you’re out of here. Greed works by holding the prospect of pay increases and promotions in front of workers in order to encourage them to exhibit the work behaviours that will bring these rewards: Do it my way and you’ll get what’s yours.

Yes, in the United States contingent faculty can be fired at any time, and permanent faculty can be fired at the point of tenure. But, once tenured, there’s little other than criminal conduct or gross negligence that can threaten your job. And yes, most colleges do have merit pay systems that reward more productive faculty with higher salaries. But the differences are small – between the standard 3 per cent raise and a 4 per cent merit increase. Even though gaining consistent above-average raises can compound annually into substantial differences over time, the immediate rewards are pretty underwhelming. Not the kind of incentive that would motivate a major expenditure of effort in a given year – such as the kind that operates on Wall Street, where earning a million-dollar bonus is a real possibility. Academic administrators – chairs, deans, presidents – just don’t have this kind of power over faculty. It’s why we refer to academic leadership as an exercise in herding cats. Deans can ask you to do something, but they really can’t make you do it.

This situation is the norm for systems of higher education in most liberal democracies around the world. In more authoritarian settings, the incentives for faculty are skewed by particular political priorities, and in part for these reasons the institutions in those settings tend to be consigned to the lower tiers of international rankings. Scholarly autonomy is a defining characteristic of universities higher on the list.

If the usual extrinsic incentives of fear and greed don’t apply to academics, then what does motivate them to be productive scholars? One factor, of course, is that this population is highly self-selected. People don’t become professors in order to gain power and money. They enter the role primarily because of a deep passion for a particular field of study. They find that scholarship is a mode of work that is intrinsically satisfying. It’s more a vocation than a job. And these elements tend to be pervasive in most of the world’s universities.

But I want to focus on an additional powerful motivation that drives academics, one that we don’t talk about very much. Once launched into an academic career, faculty members find their scholarly efforts spurred on by more than a love of the work. We in academia are motivated by a lust for glory.

We want to be recognised for our academic accomplishments by earning our own little pieces of fame. So we work assiduously to accumulate a set of merit badges over the course of our careers, which we then proudly display on our CVs. This situation is particularly pervasive in the US system of higher education, which is organised more by the market than by the state. Market systems are especially prone to the accumulation of distinctions that define your position in the hierarchy. But European and other scholars are also engaged in a race to pick up honours and add lines to their CVs. It’s the universal obsession of the scholarly profession.

Take one prominent case in point: the endowed chair. A named professorship is a very big deal in the academic status order, a (relatively) scarce honour that supposedly demonstrates to peers that you’re a scholar of high accomplishment. It does involve money, but the chair-holder often sees little of it. A donor provides an endowment for the chair, which pays your salary and benefits, thus taking these expenses out of the operating budget – a big plus for the department, which saves a lot of money in the deal. And some chairs bring with them extra money that goes to the faculty member to pay for research expenses and travel.

But more often than not, the chair brings the occupant nothing at all but an honorific title, which you can add to your signature: the Joe Doakes Professor of Whatever. Once these chairs are in existence as permanent endowments, they never go away; instead they circulate among senior faculty. You hold the chair until you retire, and then it goes to someone else. In my own school, Stanford University, when the title passes to a new faculty member, that person receives an actual chair – one of those uncomfortable black wooden university armchairs bearing the school logo. On the back is a brass plaque announcing that ‘[Your Name] is the Joe Doakes Professor’. When you retire, they take away the title and leave you the physical chair. That’s it. It sounds like a joke – all you get to keep is this unusable piece of furniture – but it’s not. And faculty will kill to get this kind of honour.

This being the case, the academic profession requires a wide array of other forms of recognition that are more easily attainable and that you can accumulate the way you can collect Fabergé eggs. And they’re about as useful. Let us count the kinds of merit badges that are within the reach of faculty:

  • publication in high-impact journals and prestigious university presses;
  • named fellowships;
  • membership on review committees for awards and fellowships;
  • membership on editorial boards of journals;
  • journal editorships;
  • officers in professional organisations, which conveniently rotate on an annual basis and thus increase accessibility (in small societies, nearly everyone gets a chance to be president);
  • administrative positions in your home institution;
  • committee chairs;
  • a large number of awards of all kinds – for teaching, advising, public service, professional service, and so on: the possibilities are endless;
  • awards that particularly proliferate in the zone of scholarly accomplishment – best article/book of the year in a particular subfield by a senior/junior scholar; early career/lifetime-career achievement; and so on.

Each of these honours tells the academic world that you are the member of a purportedly exclusive club. At annual meetings of professional organisations, you can attach brightly coloured ribbons to your name tag that tell everyone you’re an officer or fellow of that organisation, like the badges that adorn military dress uniforms. As in the military, you can never accumulate too many of these academic honours. In fact, success breeds more success, as your past tokens of recognition demonstrate your fitness for future tokens of recognition.

Academics are unlike the employees of most organisations in that they fight over symbolic rather than material objects of aspiration, but they are like other workers in that they too are motivated by fear and greed. Instead of competing over power and money, they compete over respect. So far I’ve been focusing on professors’ greedy pursuit of various kinds of honours. But, if anything, fear of dishonour is an even more powerful motive for professorial behaviour. I aspire to gain the esteem of my peers but I’m terrified of earning their scorn.

Lurking in the halls of every academic department are a few furtive figures of scholarly disrepute. They’re the professors who are no longer publishing in academic journals, who have stopped attending academic conferences, and who teach classes that draw on the literature of yesteryear. Colleagues quietly warn students to avoid these academic ghosts, and administrators try to assign them courses where they will do the least harm. As an academic, I might be eager to pursue tokens of merit, but I am also desperate to avoid being lumped together with the department’s walking dead. Better to be an academic mediocrity, publishing occasionally in second-rate journals, than to be your colleagues’ archetype of academic failure.

The result of all this pursuit of honour and retreat from dishonour is a self-generating machine for scholarly production. No administrator needs to tell us to do it, and no one needs to dangle incentives in front of our noses as motivation. The pressure to publish and demonstrate academic accomplishment comes from within. College faculties become self-sustaining engines of academic production, in which we drive ourselves to demonstrate scholarly achievement without the administration needing to lift a finger or spend a dollar. What could possibly go wrong with such a system?

 

One problem is that faculty research productivity varies significantly according to what tier of the highly stratified structure of higher education professors find themselves in. Compared with systems of higher education in other countries, the US system is organised into a hierarchy of institutions that are strikingly different from each other. The top tier is occupied by the 115 universities that the Carnegie Classification labels as having the highest research activity, which represents only 2.5 per cent of the 4,700 institutions that grant college degrees. The next tier is doctoral universities with less of a research orientation, which account for 4.7 per cent of institutions. The third is an array of master’s level institutions often referred to as comprehensive universities, which account for 16 per cent. The fourth is baccalaureate institutions (liberal arts colleges), which account for 21 per cent. The fifth is two-year colleges, which account for 24 per cent. (The remaining 32 per cent are small specialised institutions that enrol only 5 per cent of all students.)

The number of publications by faculty members declines sharply as you move down the tiers of the system. One study shows how this works for professors in economics. The total number of refereed journal articles published per faculty member over the course of a career was 18.4 at research universities; 8.1 at comprehensive universities; 4.9 at liberal arts colleges; and 3.1 at all others. The decline in productivity is also sharply defined within the category of research universities. Another study looked at the top 94 institutions ranked by per-capita publications per year between 1991 and 1993. At the number-one university, average production was 12.7 per person per year; at number 20, it dropped off sharply to 4.6; at number 60, it was 2.4; and at number 94, it was 0.5.

Only 20 per cent of faculty serve at the most research-intensive universities (the top tier) where scholarly productivity is the highest. As we can see, the lowest end of this top sliver of US universities has faculty who are publishing less than one article every five years. The other 80 per cent are presumably publishing even more rarely than this, if indeed they are publishing at all. As a result, it seems that the incentive system for spurring faculty research productivity operates primarily at the very top levels of the institutional hierarchy. So why am I making such a big deal about US professors as self-motivated scholars?

The most illuminating way to understand the faculty incentive to publish is to look at the system from the point of view of the newly graduating PhD who is seeking to find a faculty position. These prospective scholars face some daunting mathematics. As we have seen, the 115 high-research universities produce the majority of research doctorates, but 80 per cent of the jobs are at lower-level institutions. The most likely jobs are not at research universities but at comprehensive universities and four-year institutions. So most doctoral graduates entering the professoriate experience dramatic downward mobility.

It’s actually even worse than that. One study of sociology graduates shows that departments ranked in the top five select the majority of their faculty from top-five departments, but most top-five graduates ended up in institutions below the rank of 20. And a lot of prospective faculty never find a position at all. A 1999 study showed that, among recent grads who sought to become professors, only two-thirds had such a position after 10 years, and only half of these had earned tenure. And many of those who do find teaching positions are working part-time, a category that in 2005 accounted for 48 per cent of all college faculty.

The prospect of a dramatic drop in academic status and the possibility of failing to find any academic job do a lot to concentrate the mind of the recent doctoral graduate. Fear of falling compounded by fear of total failure works wonders in motivating novice scholars to become flywheels of productivity. From their experience in grad school, they know that life at the highest level of the system is very good for faculty, but the good times fade fast as you move to lower levels. At every step down the academic ladder, the pay is less, the teaching loads are higher, graduate students are fewer, research support is less, and student skills are lower.

In a faculty system where academic status matters more than material benefits, the strongest signal of the status you have as a professor is the institution where you work. Your academic identity is strongly tied to your letterhead. And in light of the kind of institution where most new professors find themselves, they start hearing a loud, clear voice saying: ‘I deserve better.’

So the mandate is clear. As a grad student, you need to write your way to an academic job. And when you get a job at an institution far down the hierarchy, you need to write your way to a better job. You experience a powerful incentive to claw your way back up the academic ladder to an institution as close as possible to the one that recently graduated you. The incentive to publish is baked in from the very beginning.

One result of this Darwinian struggle to regain one’s rightful place at the top of the hierarchy is that a large number of faculty fall by the wayside without attaining their goal. Dashed dreams are the norm for large numbers of actors. This can leave a lot of bitter people occupying the middle and lower tiers of the system, and it can saddle students with professors who would really rather be somewhere else. That’s a high cost for the process that supports the productivity of scholars at the system’s pinnacle.

 

Another potential problem with my argument about the self-generating incentive for professors to publish is that the work produced by scholars is often distinguished more by its quantity rather than its quality. Put another way, a lot of the work that appears in print doesn’t seem worth the effort required to read it, much less to produce it. Under these circumstances, the value of the incentive structure seems lacking.

Consider some of the ways in which contemporary academic production promotes quantity over quality. One familiar technique is known as ‘salami slicing’. The idea here is simple. Take one study and divide it up into pieces that can each be published separately, so it leads to multiple entries in your CV. The result is an accumulation of trivial bits of a study instead of a solid contribution to the literature.

Another approach is to inflate co-authorship. Multiple authors make sense in some ways. Large projects often involve a large number of scholars and, in the sciences in particular, a long list of authors is de rigueur. Fine, as long as everyone in the list made a significant contribution to research. But often co-authorship comes for reasons of power rather than scholarly contribution. It has become normal for anyone who compiled a dataset to demand co-authorship for any papers that draw on the data, even if the data-owner added nothing to the analysis in the paper. Likewise, the principal investigator of a project might insist on being included in the author list for any publications that come from this project. More lines on the CV.

Yet another way to increase the number of publications is to increase the number of journals. By one count, as of 2014 there were 28,100 scholarly peer-reviewed journals. Consider the mathematics. There are about 1 million faculty members at US colleges and universities at the BA level and higher, so that means there are about 36 prospective authors for each of these journals. A lot of these enterprises act as club journals. The members of a particular sub-area of a sub-field set up a journal where members of the club engage in a practice that political scientists call log-rolling. I review your paper and you review mine, so everyone gets published. Edited volumes work much the same way. I publish your paper in my book, and you publish mine in yours.

A lot of journal articles are also written in a highly formulaic fashion, which makes it easy to produce lots of papers without breaking an intellectual sweat. The standard model for this kind of writing is known as IMRaD. This mnemonic represents the four canonical sections for every paper: introduction (what’s it about and what’s the literature behind it?); methods (how did I do it?); research (what are my findings?); and discussion (what does it mean?). All you have to do as a writer is to write the same paper over and over, introducing bits of new content into the tried and true formula.

The result of all this is that the number of scholarly publications is enormous and growing daily. One estimate shows that, since the first science papers were published in the 1600s, the total number of papers in science alone passed the 50 million mark in 2009; 2.5 million new science papers are published each year. How many of them do you think are worth reading? How many make a substantive contribution to the field?

 

OK, so I agree. A lot of scholarly publications – maybe most such publications – are less than stellar. Does this matter? In one sense, yes. It’s sad to see academic scholarship fall into a state where the accumulation of lines on a CV matters more than producing quality work. And think of all the time wasted reviewing papers that should never have been written, and think of how this clutters and trivialises the literature with contributions that don’t contribute.

But – hesitantly – I suggest that the incentive system for faculty publication still provides net benefits for both academy and society. I base this hope on my own analysis of the nature of the US academic system itself. Keep in mind that US higher education is a system without a plan. No one designed it and no one oversees its operation. It’s an emergent structure that arose in the 19th century under unique conditions in the US – when the market was strong, the state was weak, and the church was divided.

Under these circumstances, colleges emerged as private not-for-profit enterprises that had a state charter but little or no state funding. And, for the most part, they arose for reasons that had less to do with higher learning than with the extrinsic benefits a college could bring. As a result, the system grew from the bottom up. By the time state governments started putting up their own institutions, and the federal government started funding land-grant colleges, this market-based system was already firmly in place. Colleges were relatively autonomous enterprises that had found a way to survive without steady support from either church or state. They had to attract and retain students in order to bring in tuition dollars, and they had to make themselves useful both to these students and to elites in the local community, both of whom would then make donations to continue the colleges in operation. This autonomy was an accident, not a plan, but by the 20th century it became a major source of strength. It promoted a system that was entrepreneurial and adaptive, able to take advantage of possibilities in the environment. More responsive to consumers and community than to the state, institutions managed to mitigate the kind of top-down governance that might have stifled the system’s creativity.

The point is this: compared with planned organisational structures, emergent structures are inefficient at producing socially useful results. They’re messy by nature, and they pursue their own interests rather than following directions from above according to a plan. But as we have seen with market-based economies compared with state-planned economies, the messy approach can be quite beneficial. Entrepreneurs in the economy pursue their own profit rather than trying to serve the public good, but the side-effect of their activities is often to provide such benefits inadvertently, by increasing productivity and improving the general standard of living. A similar argument can be made about the market-based system of US higher education. Maybe it’s worth tolerating the gross inefficiency of a university system that is charging off in all directions, with each institution trying to advance itself in competition with the others. The result is a system that is the envy of the world, a world where higher education is normally framed as a pure state function under the direct control of the state education ministry.

This analysis applies as well to the professoriate. The incentive structure for US faculty encourages individual professors to be entrepreneurial in pursuing their academic careers. They need to publish in order to win honours for themselves and to avoid dishonour. As a result, they end up publishing a lot of work that is more useful to their own advancement (lines on a CV) than to the larger society. Also, following from the analysis of the first problem I introduced, an additional cost of this system is the large number of faculty who fall by the wayside in the effort to write their way into a better job. The success of the system of scholarly production at the top is based on the failed dreams of most of the participants.

But maybe it’s worth tolerating a high level of dross in the effort to produce scholarly gold – even if this is at the expense of many of the scholars themselves. Planned research production, operating according to mandates and incentives descending from above, is no more effective at producing the best scholarship than are five-year plans in producing the best economic results. At its best, the university is a place that gives maximum freedom for faculty to pursue their interests and passions in the justified hope that they will frequently come up with something interesting and possibly useful, even if this value is not immediately apparent. They’re institutions that provide answers to problems that haven’t yet developed, storing up both the dross and the gold until such time as we can determine which is which.

 

Posted in Academic writing, History, Writing

On Writing: How the King James Bible and How It Shaped the English Language and Still Teaches Us How to Write

When you’re interested in improving your writing, it’s a good idea to have some models to work from.  I’ve presented some of my favorite models in this blog.  These have included a number of examples of good writing by both academics (Max Weber, E.P. Thompson, Jim March, and Mary Metzand nonacademics (Frederick Douglass, Elmore Leonard).

Today I want to explore one of the two most influential forces in shaping the English language over the years:  The King James Bible.  (The other, of course, is Shakespeare.)  Earlier I presented one analysis by Ann Wroe, which focused on the thundering sound of the prose in this extraordinary text.  Today I want to draw on two other pieces of writing that explore the powerful model that this bible provides us all for how to write in English with power and grace.  One is by Adam Nicholson, who wrote a book on the subject (God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible).  The other, which I reprint in full at the end of this post, is by Charles McGrath.  

The impulse to produce a bible in English arose with the English reformation, as a Protestant vernacular alternative to the Latin version that was canonical in the Catholic church.  The text was commissioned in 1604 by King James, who succeeded Elizabeth I after her long reign, and it was constructed by a committee of 54 scholars.  They went back to the original texts in Hebrew and Greek, but they drew heavily on earlier English translations. 

The foundational translation was written by William Tyndale, who was executed for heresy in Antwerp in 1536, and this was reworked into what became known as the Geneva bible by Calvinists who were living in Switzerland.  One aim of the committee was to produce a version that was more compatible with the beliefs of English and Scottish versions of the faith, but for James the primary impetus was to remove the anti-royalist tone that was embedded within the earlier text.  Recent scholars have concluded that 84% of the words in the King James New Testament and 76% in the Old Testament are Tyndale’s.

As Nicholson puts it, the language of the King James Bible is an amazing mix — “majestic but intimate, the voice of the universe somehow heard in the innermost part of the ear.”

You don’t have to be a Christian to hear the power of those words—simple in vocabulary, cosmic in scale, stately in their rhythms, deeply emotional in their impact. Most of us might think we have forgotten its words, but the King James Bible has sewn itself into the fabric of the language. If a child is ever the apple of her parents’ eye or an idea seems as old as the hills, if we are at death’s door or at our wits’ end, if we have gone through a baptism of fire or are about to bite the dust, if it seems at times that the blind are leading the blind or we are casting pearls before swine, if you are either buttering someone up or casting the first stone, the King James Bible, whether we know it or not, is speaking through us. The haves and have-nots, heads on plates, thieves in the night, scum of the earth, best until last, sackcloth and ashes, streets paved in gold, and the skin of one’s teeth: All of them have been transmitted to us by the translators who did their magnificent work 400 years ago.

Wouldn’t it be lovely if we academics could write in way that sticks in people’s minds for 400 years?  Well, maybe that’s a bit too much to hope for.  But even if we can’t aspire to be epochally epigrammatic, there are still lessons we can learn from Tyndale and the Group of 54.  

One such lesson is the power of simplicity.  Too often scholars feel the compulsion to gussy up their language with jargon and Latinate constructions in the name of professionalism.  If any idiot can understand what you’re saying, then you’re not being a serious scholar.  But the magic of the King James Bible is that it uses simple Anglo-Saxon words to make the most profound statements.  Listen to this passage from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill, but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Or this sentence from Paul’s letter to the Phillipians:

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

Or the stunning opening line of the Gospel of John:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

This is a text that can speak clearly to the untutored while at the same time elevating them to a higher plane.  For us it’s a model for how to match simplicity with profundity.

KJB

Why the King James Bible Endures

By CHARLES McGRATH

The King James Bible, which was first published 400 years ago next month, may be the single best thing ever accomplished by a committee. The Bible was the work of 54 scholars and clergymen who met over seven years in six nine-man subcommittees, called “companies.” In a preface to the new Bible, Miles Smith, one of the translators and a man so impatient that he once walked out of a boring sermon and went to the pub, wrote that anything new inevitably “endured many a storm of gainsaying, or opposition.” So there must have been disputes — shouting; table pounding; high-ruffed, black-gowned clergymen folding their arms and stomping out of the room — but there is no record of them. And the finished text shows none of the PowerPoint insipidness we associate with committee-speak or with later group translations like the 1961 New English Bible, which T.S. Eliot said did not even rise to “dignified mediocrity.” Far from bland, the King James Bible is one of the great masterpieces of English prose.

The issue of how, or even whether, to translate sacred texts was a fraught one in those days, often with political as well as religious overtones, and it still is. The Roman Catholic Church, for instance, recently decided to retranslate the missal used at Mass to make it more formal and less conversational. Critics have complained that the new text is awkward and archaic, while its defenders (some of whom probably still prefer the Mass in Latin) insist that’s just the point — that language a little out of the ordinary is more devotional and inspiring. No one would ever say that the King James Bible is an easy read. And yet its very oddness is part of its power.

From the start, the King James Bible was intended to be not a literary creation but rather a political and theological compromise between the established church and the growing Puritan movement. What the king cared about was clarity, simplicity, doctrinal orthodoxy. The translators worked hard on that, going back to the original Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic, and yet they also spent a lot of time tweaking the English text in the interest of euphony and musicality. Time and again the language seems to slip almost unconsciously into iambic pentameter — this was the age of Shakespeare, commentators are always reminding us — and right from the beginning the translators embraced the principles of repetition and the dramatic pause: “In the beginning God created the Heaven, and the Earth. And the earth was without forme, and void, and darkenesse was upon the face of the deepe: and the Spirit of God mooved upon the face of the waters.”

The influence of the King James Bible is so great that the list of idioms from it that have slipped into everyday speech, taking such deep root that we use them all the time without any awareness of their biblical origin, is practically endless: sour grapes; fatted calf; salt of the earth; drop in a bucket; skin of one’s teeth; apple of one’s eye; girded loins; feet of clay; whited sepulchers; filthy lucre; pearls before swine; fly in the ointment; fight the good fight; eat, drink and be merry.

But what we also love about this Bible is its strangeness — its weird punctuation, odd pronouns (as in “Our Father, which art in heaven”), all those verbs that end in “eth”: “In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut downe, and withereth.” As Robert Alter has demonstrated in his startling and revealing translations of the Psalms and the Pentateuch, the Hebrew Bible is even stranger, and in ways that the King James translators may not have entirely comprehended, and yet their text performs the great trick of being at once recognizably English and also a little bit foreign. You can hear its distinctive cadences in the speeches of Lincoln, the poetry of Whitman, the novels of Cormac McCarthy.

Even in its time, the King James Bible was deliberately archaic in grammar and phraseology: an expression like “yea, verily,” for example, had gone out of fashion some 50 years before. The translators didn’t want their Bible to sound contemporary, because they knew that contemporaneity quickly goes out of fashion. In his very useful guide, “God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible,” Adam Nicolson points out that when the Victorians came to revise the King James Bible in 1885, they embraced this principle wholeheartedly, and like those people who whack and scratch old furniture to make it look even more ancient, they threw in a lot of extra Jacobeanisms, like “howbeit,” “peradventure, “holden” and “behooved.”

This is the opposite, of course, of the procedure followed by most new translations, starting with Good News for Modern Man, a paperback Bible published by the American Bible Society in 1966, whose goal was to reflect not the language of the Bible but its ideas, rendering them into current terms, so that Ezekiel 23:20, for example (“For she doted upon their paramours, whose flesh is as the flesh of asses, and whose issue is like the issue of horses”) becomes “She was filled with lust for oversexed men who had all the lustfulness of donkeys or stallions.”

There are countless new Bibles available now, many of them specialized: a Bible for couples, for gays and lesbians, for recovering addicts, for surfers, for skaters and skateboarders, not to mention a superheroes Bible for children. They are all “accessible,” but most are a little tone-deaf, lacking in grandeur and majesty, replacing “through a glasse, darkly,” for instance, with something along the lines of “like a dim image in a mirror.” But what this modernizing ignores is that the most powerful religious language is often a little elevated and incantatory, even ambiguous or just plain hard to understand. The new Catholic missal, for instance, does not seem to fear the forbidding phrase, replacing the statement that Jesus is “one in being with the Father” with the more complicated idea that he is “consubstantial with the Father.”

Not everyone prefers a God who talks like a pal or a guidance counselor. Even some of us who are nonbelievers want a God who speaketh like — well, God. The great achievement of the King James translators is to have arrived at a language that is both ordinary and heightened, that rings in the ear and lingers in the mind. And that all 54 of them were able to agree on every phrase, every comma, without sounding as gassy and evasive as the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, is little short of amazing, in itself proof of something like divine inspiration.