More thoughts on reading & writing

In a comment to my last blog post, drkrisg writes

I have a few thoughts here, so here is my first one 🙂. Do you want people to take you “seriously”? Is that really the question you are asking? Or are you more asking if people will derive pleasure and/or interest from your writing?

My thoughts in that posting were a bit all over the map – some autobiographical, some a virtual primal scream at the frustration of trying to understand “the game” of academic literary analysis, some an inquiry into rhetoric and justification. Let me take a second pass at these and see whether it’s any clearer this time around.

One can “write” for a number of purposes. Entertainment/amusement, provocation, inspiration, persuasion, and literal communication all come to mind. (Edit: here’s an article that explores this question in more depth. And this book looks like an interesting treatment of the “why write” question.) I’m mainly thinking of writing with the purpose of persuasion or illumination, where the author has a definite point to make, be that though fictional or non-fiction genres.

First, just a little more personal background. My doctoral thesis studied how adolescents acquire different forms of “knowing” as they develop. I’ll use a taxonomy from Women’s Ways of Knowing as a way of summarizing what I mean (but read that linked Wikipedia article for more detail)

  • Silence (feeling deaf and dumb)
  • Received Knowing (knowledge as a set of absolute truths received from infallible authorities)
  • Subjective Knowing (the “inner voice”)
  • Procedural Knowing (methods for reliably evaluating knowledge claims)
  • Constructed Knowing (integration of subjective and procedural)

I was particularly interested in how/whether/when adolescents jumped between “received knowing” and “procedural knowing.” Some kids study math as “received knowers” throughout their K-12 careers, while others early on recognize that there is reason and logic behind mathematical claims. Others may treat history as a “received knowing” subject (memorizing names, dates, and places) while some treat historical knowledge as an integration of contexts, perspectives of authors, evaluations of historical sources and multiple perspectives, etc. (What did I learn? Stay tuned for a future post…)

Now, when I come across a blog post or editorial that is essentially non-fiction in nature, I feel confident in my ability to evaluate any claims being made and the warrants for those claims. There are assumptions to be made, for sure. For example, I generally assume an author is not deliberately lying or mis-stating facts (I know, a naive assumption in many cases, particularly with regard to foreign policy). But I can spot logical fallacies, question assumptions behind claims, and otherwise weigh the persuasiveness of an argument.

With fiction the waters become much more murky for me. In “serious” literature the author is often holding up a situation or event or relationship for our inspection. The classics of ancient Greece and Rome were held up as exemplars of good, virtuous living for generations of school children, for example. The “message” of the author (and yes, I’m thinking of cases where authors write to make a point, not solely as entertainment or artistic expression) should never be too overt or the piece comes off as “heavy handed.”

Fictional works need to be studied more deeply, in a sense, than non-fiction writing. With non-fiction you generally know what the author is up to; in fiction it can be more subtle (and yes, I do appreciate the artistry of good fiction writing – that’s not the issue). And here is my fundamental conundrum – fiction may be more or less grounded in reality. By that I mean the author can paint a portrait of a realistic-seeming situation, with realistic-seeming characters, acting in perhaps a not-very-plausible manner.

I guess I need an example, and I’ll pull from some of the criticisms I remember Denis Phillips making about treating fiction as social science research. Basically, the example goes like this: imagine someone telling a story of a teacher in a classroom, and the particular events of that day. They may illustrate what we call “good pedagogy,” student interactions that a seasons teacher would recognize as realistic – all in all, a fairly plausible story. Perhaps the author is illustrating the virtue of, let’s say, listening deeply to student arguments.

Phillips argues that in spite of its illustrative value (perhaps this narrative showcase a particular concept being taught in an educational methods class), the fact that it never actually happened is worrisome. That is, the story was not constrained by any real facts on the ground. It was plausible, but not strictly true.

Here is why I worry about this – let’s take that story one step further. Now the teacher is a bit impatient with the African American students in his class, and perhaps in the narrator’s mind we see his pitying of the genetic intellectual inferiority of these students. We would all (I hope) recognize this as ignorant racism. The expected narrative arc would show how the teacher eventually changes his mind or finds some other redemption.

But perhaps there is no happy ending to this story – the classroom dynamics are illustrated and this thick dollop of racial prejudice is sitting front and center of the narrative.  Worse still, the university instructor who assigned this story as a reading goes on to talk about the “well known” inferiority of Black students in his class. In that case, a fictional story was used to support a factually inaccurate and morally bankrupt lesson.

Here’s my point – I don’t think one can simply assume that students would necessarily see through this as “unrealistic.” I crafted this example precisely because in some regions of the US and in some social circles (if not now then certainly within the recent past) this is an entirely plausible scenario. The fictional work issued to illustrate a “point” that is simply not grounded in reality.

So when I pick up a piece of fiction – say, about Palestinian and Israeli teens falling in love – I’m going to absorb a lot of attitudes and situational inferences from the work. I’ll probably claim to have learned a lot about what it’s like to be a Palestinian living in Israel – and I won’t have any basis whatsoever for making that claim. All I have, really, is some naive trust in the author’s good intentions. I could be, for all I know, accepting either a sugar-coated version of reality or a horribly prejudiced narrative (or both), and with general ignorance of facts on the ground may find myself forming opinions – strong opinions, even – based on pure fiction.

I’m unresolved on this point – what do I dare draw from fiction as a “lesson,” and what do I hold tentatively, at arms length, as an “insight” for further exploration? (Obviously the latter is a safer choice) Again, the specter of confirmation bias looms – I certainly can’t use mere “gut check” to evaluate the lesson, for many Southern whites in the 1950’s would gut check the story about those poor Negro kids and find that it fits their world view perfectly.

Now if you’re reading this, and you were a literature major in college, or otherwise don’t share my blind spot about reading fiction, you may be chuckling to yourself about how I’ve gotten this all wrong, or how I’m fundamentally mis-understanding how one should approach the deep reading of literature. If so, please leave me a comment! I’d really like to wrap my head around what insights I can reasonably expect from fiction without being led down a “plausible” but otherwise unproductive path.

Who do these “writers” think they are?

Day 9 of NaBloPoMo, and I’ve picked the low-hanging fruit. Now I want to go out on a limb and express both my ignorance of and belated appreciation for the “writer.”

A bit of background. I read voraciously as a child. When I hit high school and started covering “serious” literature in English classes I began having mixed feelings about reading fiction. On my own time (summers) I would still pick through the science fiction shelves of the local book stores and libraries. During the school year, though, the only fiction I read was prescribed by an English teacher. My high school English classes sucked the joy out of reading; most of what passed for English lit appeared to be an amateur form of psychoanalysis, discussing motives and character and the like. Critically, it seemed like there were those who already knew how to play this game, and those who didn’t (I was in the latter camp). And for those who didn’t, there was precious little instruction in how to actually “do” English literature. I could understand critiques of the technical aspects of writing – incoherence in paragraphs, poor transitions, mixed metaphors, and the like. But getting a C on a paper for the ideas themselves – I truly had no idea what differentiated the A and C papers.

When I got to college my attitude had hardened to the point where I took the minimum required course in English literature and thereafter turned my back on that department. I recognize, of course, that my attitude and experience parallels what many others have expressed about their academic mathematics and science experience. This is more than mere preference at work; it’s an actively hostile aversion to a subject that literally did not make any sense to me.

Later on in graduate school, when I became deeply interested in questions of epistemology, I circled back to the question of literature studies. By what warrants can an author or reader claim to “know” or “believe” a particular claim about a piece of literature? This is the grown-up version of the question that frustrated me as a 9th grade English student – what are the rules of the game? I’ve learned a little bit about interpreting texts (mainly, though, through the tutoring of an anthropologist), but I’m still wary of the value of fiction in general. (Again, a dangling thread I may pick up in a future post. Suffice it to say I closely followed the debate between Elliot Eisner and his critics regarding the status of the arts and fiction in research. Both he and Denis Phillips were teachers of mine in graduate school, and I’m far more persuaded by Denis’s arguments than many of Elliot’s)

Back to the main point – as I’ve been thinking of how to sustain a daily blogging habit, I’ve been reading commentary by authors of various stripes about how they’ve donned the mantle of a “writer.” In particular I’ve taken notice of those who have expressed an inner urge to be a writer, that it was a vocation, a calling. I’ve always thought “writer” was a curious form of identity, sort of like calling somebody an “eater” or a “speaker.” Writing is something one does to express ideas, engage in dialog with critics, sharpen one’s thinking. To say one is a “writer” begs the question – writes about what? The scholar who produces well-reasoned treatises on international relations bears little resemblance to the author of serial romance fiction.

As it turns out, there is a very particular species of writer I’ve learned to both loathe and envy: the self-proclaimed “social critic” writer. Some, of course, write consistently illuminating, thoughtful works. Others simply blather like the Christian evangelists who would periodically infect our college campus. In the middle exists a vast population of commentators whose credentials – whose warrants for their opinions – are suspect. I say “suspect” because the very nature of an editorial piece (or a blog posting) often precludes the lengthy development of ideas and citation of relevant sources. Without knowing something about an author’s history or lineage of writing, it’s difficult to know how seriously to take a single piece of work at face value. I’m all too aware of the dangers of confirmation bias – of nodding my head along with writers who eloquently express the very prejudices I already hold. And there have been plenty of documented cases of journalists and other reality-based writers simply making stuff up.

Yet here I am, writing a series of posts, some auto-biographical, some sharing an insight I’ve gained through personal experience, some criticizing current politics. The question that haunts me is this: why should anybody take anything I write seriously?

I have some partial responses to that question, and they bring me back full circle to both fiction and non-fiction authors and the value of literature. Perhaps it’s not too late for this old dog to learn some new tricks. But for now, I’m just going to leave this question hanging as a mantra.

Why should anybody take anything I write seriously?

Edit: I’ll elaborate on these thoughts in my next post, but I also wanted to pass along a reference to this TED talk by Clint Smith. If you don’t want to watch the video you can also view the transcript of his message.

“Look at me” vs “Look at that” social media

Day #2 of NaBloPoMo, reflecting on how various social media platforms are used. I once heard a radio commentator describe Pinterest as a “look at that” platform, whereas Facebook is a “look at me” platform.

I’m generally more comfortable writing and posting “look at that” sorts of entries: commentaries on current politics, pointers to interesting artistic sites, and the like. This blog, however, started as a reflection on my own creative processes and how my personal projects interest with my professional interests. Perhaps this is one reason why it’s been so hard to sustain; my personal revelations simply don’t come on a daily schedule, and I’m more reluctant to share the personal than the professional or external finds.

Some blogs are clearly in the “look at that” category. I’ve been following Curmudgucation lately (acerbic and insightful commentary on current trends in education “reform”), where the author manages to crank out at least one good post daily, sometimes more (it helps that he’s a professional English teacher, I suppose). There are more than enough issues in the world to sustain a daily “look at that” blog, but commentary on public affairs hasn’t (yet) been my motivation to write (I suspect this will change when I reach my “you damn kids get off my lawn” dotage, and feel entitled to tell the world how to run itself).

Greta Christina’s blog mixes the personal and political, and is stronger for that. Most of her writing is solidly in “look at that” territory, although she recently posted a series in which she documented her own descent into depression and the actions she took to pull out. But that was a “look at me” with the clear intent of helping others, using her own journey as “that” to be examined.

My own Facebook postings have largely been in the “look at that” category. I was reminded of this when I clicked a button to generate a word cloud of my year’s postings, and only three main words popped out. The app was pulling only my personal status updates, not my posted links to other articles/sites. Clearly I had not been posting many “look at me” status updates. And yet, one of the joys of Facebook is seeing the day to day status updates of friends far away; should I not be returning the favor? Perhaps “look at me” can be driven by needs other than ego gratification, a way of reaching out and touching others, giving back to those who provide those momentary smiles throughout the day.

I feel like every blog posting should have a “lesson learned” or neat little summary. In writing this I’ve come to see the “look at me” posting differently than when I first opened the post. That’s one of the benefits of writing, right? Our writing speaks back to us and leads our brain down paths we might not have found just sitting idly on a sofa lost ion thought. On a related note, I hope this daily exercise improves my non-technical writing fluency; I can see how my word-smithing has suffered for lack of practice.

(Oh, I’ve discovered the the cross-posts from WordPress to Facebook look better with a photo caption. Here, have a cat.)

Till next time,

Vanity and chasing after wind

Although I’ve committed to writing a blog entry every week, I usually have no idea what I want to write about until I sit down on Sunday evening. Tonight I ask myself “what have I learned this week?” – and several nuggets come to mind.

  • I was reminded – again – that I have to regulate my media diet. As I posted in an earlier blog about “right involvement,” there’s paying attention to bear witness, then there’s being consumed by the hysteria and hyperbole that passes for political discourse. I’m getting better at closing the browser window when I feel my blood pressure rise.
  • I was reminded that it’s possible to improve by being aware of one’s shortcomings, focusing on how to overcome them, and putting that learning into practice. There’s a bowl turning story here I’ll get to shortly.
  • After a week of not-very-inspiring work I learned that there are limits on how long I can go without some “juice” or passion in my work day.
  • I learned/remembered that the race is not always to the swift, not the battle to the strong.  The American Educational Research Association annual meeting is coming around, and so is ample opportunity to compare my professional life to those of friends and colleagues. I’m getting tired of my inner narratives that say I “fizzled,” or “didn’t live up to my potential” professionally. When I stop comparing, I’m happy with where I am and where I’m headed, and am resolved to use this year’s conference as an opportunity to reconnect with my interests and passions.

I worked on two projects this week that followed different trajectories. First, the bowl project. As I alluded to in my last blog post, I started over with a solid block of wood to keep my design constraints relatively free. Overall, this was a very successful strategy. I turned the outside profile of the bowl, actually finish sanded and oiled it, and turned my attention to hollowing out the inside.  Wham! the bowl (now a solid piece of wood) goes flying off the lathe, into the wall, and onto the concrete floor.  Bruised, but otherwise fine.  Re-mount it, start to hollow… and wham! off it goes again, this time splitting the spigot I was using to chuck it to the lathe.  Uh oh.  Clearly I’m doing something wrong.  So I re-glue the spigot and hit the books.

It turns out that, yes, my approach to hollowing was off in a couple of ways. First, I should have been making steep cuts starting near the center and pushing directly in toward the bottom. That is, I should have been taking shavings “down” the bowl.  Instead, I was cutting “across” the top, which made dangerous “catches” more likely.  Also, I was using way too much force.  So I sharpened up the gouges, re-chucked the bowl, and started making gentle cuts down the center.  No catches!  I needed a lot of patience – it took 2 or 3 hours to get most of the bowl hollowed out – and lots of tool re-grinding (it turns out rosewood is both one of the hardest woods to turn and one that dulls tools most quickly). But I made it through the entire rough hollowing, finish hollowing, and finish shaping without losing it once. I’d actually learned something, and reinforced it through practice.  (Normally I’d post a picture of the bowl, but it’s a gift for a friend, and I don’t want to spoil the surprise. It will make an appearance some week soon)

I still ran into problems – I nearly turned the bottom too thin, and as the walls thinned “chatter” set in and caused some scoring on the inner walls.  It took lots of sanding to get those marks out – I couldn’t manage to do it with a gouge, and had pretty much run out of extra wood to play with (not to self – when I think a bowl wall is a little too thick, it’s probably going to be just right by the time I’m done with finish cuts). But in the end, it’s one of the prettiest bowls I’ve made to date. I took great satisfaction both in conquering my learning challenge and in producing a nice piece.

Now for the second project. A paper for the upcoming conference, that I only reluctantly submitted a conference proposal for in the first place. (Because so many of my projects are collaborative – as opposed to most university work where there’s a single principal investigator and a team of graduate students – I ended up submitting this “for the team”). So from the get go, my heart was not in this paper. I won’t go into a lot of reasons why – it’s enough to say there’s no “juice” in it for me.  But it pays for my ticket to New Orleans next month.

Both projects were struggles this week. The bowl was frustrating and even a bit scary – I just didn’t now how I was going to keep the bowl from detaching itself and launching into whatever happened to be in the way. But taking a break for reflection and re-reading an expert’s writings helped take the mystery out of the problem. I’d probably read this particular book chapter 3 or 4 times, but now (having a specific problem in mind) I paid attention to particular details (the angle of the gouge in particular, and the direction of force) and had an “aha!” moment.

The paper is a struggle in another sense. The only challenge is organizing a very complicated process with lots of moving parts into a coherent narrative. Basically, we’re trying to describe something that on paper appears to be a neat and orderly engineering design/prototyping process, but in reality had lots of fits and starts, a bit of “hacking around” to get us moving, and significant revisions to the original ideas that launched the project.  How to tell this story coherently is a challenge.  It too has some “aha” moments (such as when my colleague helps me remember why we made some decisions that weren’t making sense to me), but it’s not been satisfying to write.

I think it comes down to two qualities, and those are lessons I’ve learned and apparently have to keep re-learning until they become habituated: personal expression and making a difference for somebody.  I get engaged when I’m writing/building/crafting something that has some of “me” in it. The bowl – as simple as the shape was – followed my own aesthetic judgments. The paper feels like a regurgitation of a historical process.  Yes, I had input into that process, and directed portions of it, but it feels like a pretty indirect expression of my ideas.

The bowl is a gift for a couple.  If I’m lucky, they’ll both appreciate it, actually use it, and keeping it as a decorative object will enhance the beauty of their home. The impact won’t really reach beyond them (and their occasional dinner guests). The paper will be read by at least one person (the discussant at the conference panel), and might be downloaded by one or two dozen curious individuals. Will it have an impact on anybody’s (professional) life?  Personally, I doubt it. And if it does, it could easily lead down a path I don’t support (basically, it’s about designing tests for college students, and the last thing we need to do is impose more external testing on institutions).

So tomorrow I’m back to work at my day job, wrapping up this paper and sending it off into the ether. I’ll be in “satisfaction deficit” by the end of this week, and really need to turn my attention to more meaningful work (which, thankfully, I’ll have opportunities to do). I hope to be able to deliver my bowl this week too, and am keeping my fingers crossed that my friends like it. Not for egotistical reasons (although I enjoy a good compliment as much as anyone), but because I genuinely want them to be happy with it. That personal connection means a lot to me, perhaps more than the larger academic audience that might read my “day job” productions.

I’ll close with a favorite line from Ecclesiastes(12:12):

Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

PS:

I’m not a biblical scholar or reader by any stretch, but an old employer/mentor/former book publisher and theologian turned me onto Ecclesiastes.  “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.”   Basically, my reading of it cautions against “chasing after wind” – acquiring material riches for their own sake, or spouting off to gain in reputation. Overall, it’s a constant reminder that all turns to dust.  Perhaps this isn’t the intended meaning, but I also take from it the reminder that relationships and love – in the here and now – are precious things. While they too eventually turn to dust, they give our lives meaning and depth that mere “production” for the sake of production cannot.