Sunday, August 27, 2017

Malcolm Pryce on dreams, reality, and fiction

One of my favorite authors on why fiction is not a distraction from reality. Here's a taste:
The night time dream is chaotic and can be genuinely frightening. The dream we call life is filled with joy and suffering, but for many people a lot more suffering than joy, and we have no control over it. It just happens. The dream we enter when reading fiction has a number of advantages over the one called life. It is scripted rather than chaotic. If the dream called life is scripted it is done so by a bungler, whereas writers of fiction are often highly skilled.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Does writing exist?

It seems paradoxical to write the question, "Does writing exist?" but what I mean is: is there some thing called writing that someone can be good or bad at, teach, or simply do? According to John Warner, we know how to teach writing. But what is the evidence? And what is it that we, supposedly, know how to teach?

Warner's concern is with student writing, and in particular with the common complaint that students write badly. One part of his response, to which I am very sympathetic, is to say that people have been complaining about bad student writing forever. Saying that students can't write is like complaining about kids these days. I get that.

A second part of his response relies on agreement among people who teach writing about what works and what doesn't when trying to get students to write better. I have some sympathy with him on this too. When you teach something you do find out what works, and this isn't necessarily something you can easily prove to people who have not taught that subject. On the other hand, there are some questions one could ask about his main claims, which he says most writing instructors would agree with. Here are the claims:
  1. The more reading and writing we do, the better.
  2. Writing is best taught as a recursive process which includes (but isn’t necessarily limited to) pre-writing, drafting, revision and editing.
  3. Writing should engage with the rhetorical situation: message, audience, purpose and genre.
  4. Reflection and metacognition are key ingredients to developing as a writer.
  5. Isolated exercises in grammar and mechanics that don’t engage with the students’ own writing are not helpful.
  6. Sentence diagramming is not an important skill for good writing.
  7. Peer response and collaboration are useful tools in helping developing writers
  8. Writers write best when engaging with subjects they are both interested in and knowledgeable about.
  9. Developing as a writer requires a mind-set where we seek to increase our expertise without ever declaring ourselves expert. (There is always more to learn.)
  10. Writing itself is an act of thinking that allows for discovery while writing. In other words, the ultimate message is constructed through the act of writing, as opposed to being fully formed prior to starting to write.
  11. Developing writers benefit from close one-on-one instruction from an experienced mentor
Here are my responses to these claims:
  1. Agreed (within reason)
  2. This sounds right, too, as long as we keep in mind that this probably does not apply to all writing (e.g texting my kids) and that not everyone works best like this 
  3. Probably also true, although I sometimes fear that in teaching this point too much attention is paid to teaching and learning the meaning of 'rhetorical situation'
  4. This seems doubtful. "Reflection and metacognition" sounds as though it means self-consciousness, and I can imagine this doing as much harm as good. But perhaps this is because (or why) I haven't developed much as a writer
  5. Could be true. But when people complain about student writing I think that grammar and mechanics are primarily, if not exclusively, what they have in mind. So if these things cannot be taught (which I know #5 isn't saying) then perhaps we should stop trying to teach students how to write in dedicated writing courses 
  6. Depends how it is done, I think. (I have never done it, by the way.) Argument mapping has been found to improve critical thinking. (I don't mean that it has been conclusively proved to help in all cases.) But perhaps argument mapping is too different from sentence diagramming for this to count. Or perhaps critical thinking is not relevant to good writing. Or perhaps what almost all writing instructors would agree on is not the same as what empirical evidence shows.
  7. Maybe. My students very often think it is a waste of time (I still do it sometimes, because it seems as though it ought to help.) I believe that people with MFAs disagree about whether this kind of thing actually improves one's writing or, instead, turns it into writing by committee. Peer response will only be as good as the peers in question anyway.
  8. Plausible. But students must learn to write about things they are not already interested in. 
  9. OK
  10. Certainly writing should involve thinking
  11. Surely this is true
In other words, many of Warner's claims are at least highly plausible. But I also get the distinct impression that he wants to focus on teaching writing in a sense that is quite different from what the "kids these days can't write" crowd want. They want spelling and grammar. He, and others who teach writing, want something else. That's fine. But I think the reason so many students are required to take so many writing courses is because of "kids these days" concerns. If these courses don't address those concerns they should probably be optional.

Here's another questionable claim from Warner, one that I've heard before from other people (emphasis added):
Supposed tensions such as “Do we hold students accountable to sound mechanics?” or “Do we let students engage in self-expression?” are not actually tensions when students are required to work in a full rhetorical situation because they are forced to do what all writers must do -- make choices and wrestle with ideas that will be presented to interested audiences.
Do that enough times in enough different contexts and not only will you learn how to write, but when you’re confronted with a type of writing you haven’t done before, you’ll be able to figure out how to write in that form or genre as well.
Seriously? If you write a novel, a political speech, and a lab report then when you have to write a sonnet you'll be able to do it? That's absurd. So maybe that's not what he means. You might be more confident of your ability to rise to the challenge, and confidence surely helps. You might also know something about how to learn how to write a sonnet. But you won't actually be able to do it just because you have written other kinds of things. If you really want to learn how to write sonnets you should take a sonnet-writing or poetry-writing course. Just as if you want to know how to write a lab report you should probably get to a lab and ask someone there.

Which is to say that I have real doubts about the point of trying to teach generic writing, unless it really is focused on precisely the grammar and mechanics that people like Warner, understandably, seem not to want to teach.

Monday, August 21, 2017


This Guardian essay on neoliberalism is frustrating in some ways (too cloudy at key points, and too prone to ad hominem insults), but it's interesting, and brings out the importance of Friedrich von Hayek, whose work probably ought to be engaged with more just because it has been so influential. With that in mind I started reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on him. It contains this gem:
Bureaucrats experience mistakes not as events from which they need to learn but rather as events that they need to cover up. 

Monday, August 14, 2017


Moving to this country was the the first time I ever flew in a plane. I landed in Charlottesville, where I lived for five years. I still live just over an hour's drive from there, and go there quite often to eat a meal, do some shopping, or just get out of the small town I live in for a few hours. It's weird to see the city's name synonymous with racist extremism and violence. 

The pressing question is what to do about these racists. Some people argue that neo-Nazis should be denied the oxygen of attention, while others argue that they must be resisted with force. The fact is, I suppose, we cannot really know what will be most effective. Perhaps we can know what it is right to do, though, even if we cannot know what will do the most good. It seems right to protest, and to be ready to defend anyone who gets attacked by neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates. Not that I did so this weekend, but I think I should have.

I once counted the reasons why I don't do more. I think there were nine of them. Laziness and cowardice were no doubt two, but I don't remember all the others. One of them, though, is that I am put off by other people on my side, including some leading figures in the local movement against racism. Or, I should say, some of the things said by these people. The people themselves don't repel me. There's an example of the kind of thing that puts me off above, featuring people whose identities I have tried to cover. The comments are made by people I'll call A, B, and C. The order of speakers is: A, B, A, B, A, C. A is a white woman, B is an African-American man, and C is a white man (I wish this were irrelevant, but it isn't). They are talking, initially, about neo-Nazis rallying in Charlottesville.

What A says seems right to me. B is also right to point out that these people, "frightened white boys" though they may be, also pose a very real threat and do real harm. A then accepts this point, and adds that they are irrational. I agree. It is not good to honor Nazis, etc. with the label 'rational'. If we find ourselves concluding that such people are rational, we should probably reconsider our conception of rationality. (See here for more on this sort of thing.) It also seems simply accurate to call right-wing extremists irrational. Their ends make little sense ('racial purity' is a stupid thing to want) and their means are unlikely to get them what they want (joining a racist group might get you some 'friends', but it is likely to lose you others and hurt your career, while the chance of achieving your political goals (which, if achieved, I suspect would be unsatisfying) are very slim). 

B then responds in a way that seems somewhat uncharitable, albeit with a good point or two as well. The good points are that identifying them as irrational should not lead us to be complacent, and that their irrationality is not sheer irrationality. It can be seen as an understandable, albeit deplorable, reaction to certain historical and political trends. A, who sounds frustrated, in effect accepts these points, while clarifying that she had not meant to say anything contrary to them. At this point C steps in and tells A to apologize to B and "sit down", which at least sounds as though it means shut up.   

Despite some misunderstandings, which up to this point all seemed to be quickly cleared up, A and B, as A says, seem very much to be on the same side. Indeed, they seem to be making complementary points. Yet A is accused of "explaining how white supremacy works to a black man" and told to apologize to him "for the misunderstanding." And then to shut up. 

I imagine that C's behavior here strikes you as being as patronizing, as unproductive, and as based on misunderstanding as it does me. But, as you can see, C gets more likes than A. And B, who seems better than C but also to misunderstand A, gets even more. The conversation has continued and neither side has backed down or changed its mind (last time I checked at any rate). C has not, for instance, apologized to A. 

If anyone sees the matter differently I am genuinely curious what there is to be said for C's take. I don't know how common this kind of thing is--apologies if this is a matter of only very local interest--but from my perspective it looms large.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

New online Wittgenstein book by Kristóf Nyíri

This looks interesting, in terms of both content and the decision to publish free and online. The title is Pictorial Truth: Essays on Wittgenstein, Realism, and Conservatism, and it's by Kristóf Nyíri. He writes:
I am really curious how the scholarly world will react e.g. to my view formulated in the Preface, that peer-reviewed publications by now might have become obsolete. 
Me too.