The Campus Crusaders – NYTimes.com


For some much-needed moral clarity about activist crusaders at colleges and universities today, here’s an article I recommend:

The Campus Crusaders – NYTimes.com

One goal here at my website is to cultivate the kind of “worldly philosophers” David Brooks alludes to at the end of his post.

* * *

Kirsten Power’s book The Siliencing is now on my reading list. It has been for a week or so as I’ve heard her speak to this issue in interviews. It’s refreshing to hear an advocate on the liberal end of the political spectrum offer sanity in a victimization culture fueled by youthful idealism and encuraged by an intellectual class that exploits students for their own purposes.

Not many people…


English: W. Somerset Maugham British writer

English: W. Somerset Maugham British writer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not many people know how much bitterness, how much bargaining, how much intrigue goes into the awarding of a prize or the election of a candidate.

From the Preface of W. Somerset Maugham, A Writer’s Notebook

This is true regardless of profession, and it shows up even among Christian leaders. Perhaps no one is above campaigning on his own behalf for something he thinks he deserves from his constituency or the general public. This includes authors, public speakers, and university professors.

Permanently Lost in Digital Reality?


Technology addiction is a serious affliction today. But how serious?

Matt Richtel, writing for The New York Times, examines the possibility that the brains of today’s young people are being wired to function differently, if not better, than the brains of all previous generations of humanity. The critical difference is the use of technology to process information. His article “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction” makes a convincing case. And the picture he paints isn’t uniformly attractive.

I recommend Richtel’s article to parents, educators, and even teenagers. If teenagers can read to the end of the article and comprehend its basic message, then things may not be as dire as they seem.

Matt Richtel’s website.

How to Write a Lot—A Review


Cover of "How to Write a Lot: A Practical...

Cover via Amazon

Maybe you’d like to write a lot. Maybe you have to write a lot. Here’s a book you may like a lot.

The book is published by the American Psychological Association. Silvia, a relatively young scholar, teaches and writes about psychology. In this book, he applies his own eclectic method in  psychology to the ordeal of writing as an academic.

I say eclectic because Silvia expects his counsel to be congenial to psychologists of various stripes:

  • developmental psychologists
  • cognitive psychologists
  • clinical psychologists
  • emotion psychologists
  • psychologists with interdisciplinary interests

What he writes is for all academics who wish to be more productive writers. But he does advise his peers in psychology a little more directly on occasion. When he says, “Our academic journals radiate bad writing,” he means journals in his discipline. But scholars across the disciplines will recognize the sort.

Silvia pokes fun in good humor. He notes that “psychologists love bad words,” then points out that “they call them deficient or suboptimal instead of bad.” He means, of course, that words like “deficient” and “suboptimal” are often needlessly “erudite,” and therefore bad for good writing.

“Psychologists like writing about the existing literature. Is there a nonexistent literature that I should be reading and referencing?” It’s nice to hear a psychologist asking such a philosophical question. (I’m afraid that some philosophers, in response, will get caught up in analyzing “should” and explaining the scope of relevant research literature in terms of counterfactuals and alternative worlds.)

There are chapters here on:

  • Writing articles—”Your paper might be rejected once or twice before it finds a good home, but a good paper will always find a home.”
  • Writing books—”If you have something to say, write a book.”
  • Writing with style—”Your first drafts should sound like they were hastily translated from Icelandic by a nonnative speaker.”

But the crucial chapters are two, three, and four (pp. 11-57):

  • Chapter 2: “Specious Barriers to Writing a Lot”
  • Chapter 3: “Motivational Tools”
  • Chapter 4: “Starting Your Own Agraphia Group”

Silvia’s aim is to introduce the reader to “a practical system for becoming a productive academic writer.” He acknowledges the irony of writing such a short book on how to write a lot. But, he says, “there isn’t much to say. The system is simple.”

The “system” is indeed simple. It comes down to this. Create a manageable writing routine and stick to it. Specifics include:

  • Follow a schedule (a little writing every weekday, if possible).
  • Set long-term goals for completing writing projects.
  • Set concrete goals for each scheduled writing session.
  • Prioritize your writing.
  • Avoid binge writing.
  • Monitor your progress.
  • Permit yourself a measure of “windfall writing” when it comes naturally.
  • Always engage in some writing-related task during the scheduled writing session.
  • Settle for the simplest of writing implements to be sure you’re always able to write on schedule.
  • Be content with whatever writing environment you’re permitted by your circumstances.
  • Expect a flood of quality writing ideas as a result of regular writing.
  • Join an “agraphia” group.

All of this is excellent advice. Much of it is common sense, often repeated in “the literature” on writing. But such common sense is seldom practiced.

Here are three areas where Silvia’s book might have been stronger:

  1. His comments on writer’s block are slight and mildly dismissive. He’s onto something when he says that “scheduled writers don’t get writer’s block.” But even scheduled writers can be unproductive. This relates to my next point.
  2. He could say more about how to plan scheduled work so that it is completed on schedule. It isn’t enough to (a) decide on a project to be completed, (b) sit down to write regularly about that topic, and (c) set concrete goals for each writing session. Even if every concrete goal is mission critical, regular writing will not ensure project completion. A disciplined writer doesn’t just write daily (or whatever “regularly” means in his case). He writes towards completion of a project.
  3. He understates the value of style in academic writing. This is a bit surprising. Silvia himself writes with engaging style. And he devotes a chapter to style. But oddly, the chapter dedicated to the topic is preoccupied with aids to writing strong, clear sentences. This is a minimalist approach to style. It derives from the notion that “as academics, we’re not creating high literature” (p. 26). This outlook may enable the blocked academic writer. But I’m a strong advocate for writing that engages as it informs.

Most scholars, even the most-published ones I imagine, would like to be more productive writers. Paul Silvia presents a method that works. The book moves chapter by chapter through the standard barriers to productive, anxiety-free academic writing. It’s a quick read with much practical advice, some of it on points not mentioned here.

What is it about them philosophers?


Voltaire and Diderot at the Cafe Procope

Do philosophers today

know what they say;

or do they conspire

to make us tire

of frumpery and fog,

to feel like a cog

and slip a gear

from some primal fear

that every word

is genuinely dear

—or simply absurd?

– RDG

Using “Google Sites” for a Course Project


Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...

Image via CrunchBase

Today TOMD73’s blog has a post that explores the possibility of using blog assignments as part of a course.

I did something very like this with a class of about 75 university students, mostly juniors and sophomores.

Instead of calling it a blog, I called it a website. I had all of them use the Google website app so that (1) everyone was required to follow the same steps and (2) they could very easily create access to each other without “going public.”

With so many students, I formed the group into teams. Students would comment on the websites of those in their team. I gave very specific instructions about the kinds of comments they were to make, and explained that the quality of their comments would be a variable in their final grade evaluation.

Building a website of 5-7 linked pages was the major course project. Students could select their own topics, with two provisos: (1) the topic had to be related to the course topic; (2) I had to approve their selection.

Class met weekly. Each week students were given a series of steps to be completed by the next class period. These steps moved them gradually to completion of their website projects by the end of the semester.

The course was a philosophy of religion course for non-philosophy majors, with special focus on the New Atheism.

Many of the students produced excellent websites that they could be proud to make available to the public.

On the whole, I was pleased with the results. Most difficulties related to the size of the class. This type of assignment would have been much easier for me to manage with fewer students.

Here are some of the more significant challenges I encountered:

  1. Mastering the technology so that I knew what I was asking of the students and so that I could explain it to even the most technologically timid.
  2. Getting teams to work with so many students. There was considerable troubleshooting early on while students were learning the steps to get up and running. But more important, some students simply didn’t participate. I hadn’t counted on this since they were required to. This complicated things for the conscientious students, since part of their assignment was to respond to the comments they received.
  3. Helping the students work within a template of 5-7 pages that would do justice to their topics. Creating website pages differs from writing a paper. Developing and linking ideas is handled differently. Ideally, a decision to create a website rather than to write a paper should be grounded in the conviction that a website better serves the purposes of the project—especially because of the way material can be packaged (e.g., audio and visual tools can be included, and convenient links to other valuable items can be made).
  4. This project required more assistance from me than many other assignments. The student-teacher ratio made this a challenge. But one advantage is that I did get better acquainted with many of the students.
  5. Grading these assignments proved to be time intensive. This isn’t a bad thing. But you need to expect this when planning a course that includes this type of project.

Would I do it again? Absolutely! It would be much easier the next time around. But it has to be the right kind of course for this to count as a suitable assignment. I especially like it that students that have excelled have something to offer the rest of the world the moment the course is over!

Why Are Academics Such Bad Writers?


Medieval illustration of a Christian scribe wr...

Image via Wikipedia

“Our academic journals radiate bad writing—I store my journals on the shelf farthest from my desk to avoid the fallout.” This is Paul Silvia’s take on the modus operandi of far too many academic writers.

What is “bad writing”?

It’s writing that …

  • uses impenetrable English;
  • revels in ambiguity;
  • requires backtracking just to follow the point;
  • ensures a slight readership by the specialization of its vocabulary;
  • deploys arcane symbolism that intimidates readers;
  • can be recommended as a soporific, even to specialists in the same field.

That’s my list.

Paul Silvia believes there are three reasons for bad writing among academic authors:

1. They want to sound smart.
2. They never learned how to write well.
3. They don’t spend enough time writing.

My list would be longer and more focused:

1. They don’t know good writing from bad writing. If all they read are journal articles and academic monographs, then they’re on a steady diet of poor writing. The best writing is nourished by close reading of the best of writers, both inside and outside one’s discipline.

2. They don’t believe that good writing matters. “Academic writing gets published without concern for stylistic quality, so why bother?” There are two reasons to bother. First, the academic writer should pursue excellence, rather than what is commonplace. Second, the best writing attracts more readers. The ratio of readers to authors of journal essays is appalling. Monographs are pricey because the expected readership is low. But the best writers within a discipline, because they reward their readers with more than originality of content, are read by more people, and they are read more faithfully by people who like their writing.

3. They believe that good writing will reduce their publication prospects. More academic authors are looking for opportunities to publish in the broader market. Their prospects are dim if they can’t write with style. Those who are content to write as academics for academics should understand that quality of writing that does not compromise quality of scholarship has a better chance of publication. And for those who write for interdisciplinary journals, the need is even greater, since non-specialists will need more help in their reading and more reasons to keep on reading.

4. They confuse good writing with casual writing, or popularizing. Writing with style means one thing when writing for peers, and something else when writing to inform or persuade Joe Six-Pack. A good writer understands this and adjusts her style accordingly.

5. They don’t realize that good writing can be learned. I have three suggestions for those who wish to improve their writing style.

First, read others who write with style. Observe their practices. Notice how they employ metaphors and similes. Look for sharp and arresting turns of phrase. Study transitions from paragraph to paragraph and from section to section. Look for patterns that explain their capacity to sustain interest. Think of this as a component in the research you do for your writing projects.

Second, spend time in carefully-selected books that point the way to improved style. Books of this kind should practice what they preach. Here are a few that I recommend:

Third, write more—with deliberate attention to style. Be patient with the process. Don’t expect too much too soon. Write a little everyday.

6. They’re impatient in their writing. Writing well, with style, takes more time and effort. Many writers simply don’t want to spend the time. They’re undisciplined writers who fancy themselves sufficiently productive simply because they have countless publications to their credit.

7. They think that to be a good writer you have to be a perfectionist. Not true. What you have to be is patient, persistent, and prioritized. Only the writer with meager styling skills believes that perfectionism is required. But a practiced writer, who habitually attends to matters of style, comes to write more naturally and comfortably. I venture to say that the best stylists have the easiest time of it and have the most fun doing it.

Source:

More good reading about bad writing:

Doug’s related posts:

Other:

Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?


I discovered the music of Larry Norman through a friend in 1979. I never made it to a concert, but I’ve listened to his music for 30 years. And I’ve introduced others along the way. (I play his song “The Outlaw” in my course on Christian apologetics.)

Today I came across an interview he did with a magazine called The Wittenberg Door, published in 1976.

In the interview, Larry talks about the Jesus Movement, “Jesus Rock,” Christian music, signing autographs, being a celebrity, and having heroes. There’s a lot there for Christians to chew on today. I’m not a musician, but my world, what you might call the “Christian knowledge industry,” has its own problems with integrity.

Larry’s perspective applies at all levels of Christian engagement with culture. I encourage thoughtful consideration of what he had to say in 1976.

Note: The title of this post comes from Larry Norman’s song “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?”

The Official Larry Norman Web Site

Polling Today’s Philosophers about What They Believe


Want to know what today’s philosophers believe? Anthony Gottlieb reports results of a poll taken by Australian philosopher David Chalmers. The Chalmers poll probes philosophers’ beliefs about Read more of this post

The Stimulus of Teaching


karl-barth_with-pipeWhy did Karl Barth’s productivity as a writing scholar diminish following his retirement from teaching? Some say it’s because the pressure to produce had run out [see here].

What T. H. L. Parker wrote is that Barth “lost the stimulus provided by the need to give lectures.” The key word here is “stimulus,” not “pressure.” Teaching is the ideal stimulus for scholars who write, especially if they teach graduate courses to gifted students. The stimulus of teaching can be likened to the frequent re-lighting of tobacco in a well-used pipe.

What would I be if not a Philosopher?


Bill Valicella:

Philosophy for me is the unum necessarium. I cannot imagine who I would be were I not a philosopher.

Ad amussum (same here). Can there be any other way to be a philosopher than to be some person who cannot imagine who that person would be if that person were not a philosopher?


Teach Yourself Epistemology


Epistemology is the branch of philosophy devoted especially to study of the concepts of knowledge and justified belief. The name for this discipline, epistemology, comes from the Greek word episteme, signifying “knowledge.” This is why epistemology is sometimes called “the theory of knowledge.” Unfortunately, this designation leads to a truncated view of a complex subject matter ranging over a wide variety of issues having to do with the status of belief.

The study of epistemology is notoriously difficult. It is also difficult to teach. Most university professors in the Anglo-American analytic tradition present the subject as a series of problem-solving ventures. The most persistent theories addressing these problems are presented and compared. Sometimes the teacher favors a general approach in epistemology and gives special attention to explaining and defending that approach and spelling out its implications.

One of the great problems of epistemology is how to think about the subject matter. This is the most fundamental problem for the enterprise of epistemology (which I distinguish from the enterprise of knowing and responsible believing). And yet this problem is often passed over, not only in the classroom, but by epistemologists in their own systematic work.

In my view, this places the student at risk. The student new to epistemology is liable to learn epistemology second-hand, taking as given the various problems and their proposed solutions, arranged in whatever order suits the professor or textbook writer. One very common approach is to begin with the threat of skepticism, which hangs as an ominous spectre over the whole enterprise—and is perhaps never completely exorcised.

A proper approach to “doing epistemology” would have to be delineated with great care and in more space than I have here. But there is a sense in which the self-educated have an advantage when coming to this subject matter. They are more likely to embark upon the enterprise of epistemology with that sense of wonder that is characteristically Aristotelian. In this case, the wonder is that we are capable of knowing so many things in such diverse areas of investigation, and that we move confidently through the world believing much that we do not know or would claim to know.

Still, the student needs a guide to such a complex subject. And while no text can serve in place of careful reflection on aspects of knowing and believing as they present themselves, there are a few very good books to guide the student and prompt examination of long-standing issues in epistemology.

In my own teaching, I have favored three books on the subject:

These books complement each other nicely. The book by Robert Audi will require a tutor for most who are new to the subject. It is rich and comprehensive, and, most important, very sensible about the topics it addresses. Better than any other book I know of, this book presents the subject in a natural order that is conducive to proper progress through to thorny issues it addresses.

To anchor a course in epistemology, I’ve found that the books by Feldman and Bon Jour complement each other neatly. They are concise and readable surveys of major topics. Laurence Bon Jour adopts a method of presentation that he explains clearly at the outset. While I think the method he adopts is unfortunate, it does give readers a sense of the rootedness of trends in contemporary epistemology in the influential work of the great 17th-century philosopher René Descartes. Of special value is Bon Jour’s treatment of the contest between foundationalists and coherentists in epistemology. A convert from coherentism to foundationalism, Bon Jour excels in his exposition of this debate; yet he is also realistic about the persistent philosophical challenges raised by foundationalism.

Richard Feldman demonstrates the exacting technique of analytic philosophy in a way that is accessible and interesting to newcomers. His book is a pleasure to recommend for that reason alone. But it is strong in many other respects. Feldman selects only the most fundamental issues in epistemology, and his book is a natural choice for someone with my anti-skeptical predilections for foundationalism and internalism in epistemology. His juxtaposition of evidentialism on the one hand and internalism and externalism on the other hand is initially puzzling. The presentation of evidentialism is a model of exposition at the introductory level.

Neither Feldman nor Bon Jour does justice to the problems associated with sensory perception. This large area of study in epistemology is set aside by Feldman, perhaps in the interests of conserving space. I think the decision to postpone consideration of the theory of perception can be defended. Feldman simply ignores the topic. Bon Jour, on the other hand, takes pains to explore the theory of perception. He defends a position called indirect or representative realism. As a direct realist, I believe this is a mistake. The presentation is well-organized and focused. And, in my judgment, Bon Jour’s development and defense of indirect realism creates opportunities to indicate significant problems for his position, which is part of any thorough defense of direct realism.

Several other books make useful companions to the ones I’ve recommended above:

The student also needs a collection, or anthology, of readings in epistemology. The best anthologies include selections from influential thinkers going back to Plato, as well as seminal essays by more recent philosophers. Among the best are:

Epistemology, like all professional philosophy, is “trendy.” The serious student of the discipline must understand these trends, even at the risk of being misled about their importance or being distracted from the real business of epistemology. The books I’ve described and recommended here contribute greatly to that task.

Postscript

While I strongly recommend the books by Rober Audi, Richard Feldman, and Laurence Bon Jour as places to begin the systematic study of contemporary analytic epistemology, several other introductory texts make excellent ancillary reading:

A Plan for the Study of Epistemology

  1. Read the three introductory texts recommended at the beginning, by Robert Audi, Richard Feldman, and Bon Jour. Sketch a plan to read them simultaneously, following the topical sequence in Audi.
  2. Read a sample of classic and contemporary essays from one of the anthologies listed above. Read according to interest and accessibility and note those authors who are mentioned in Audi, Feldman, and Bon Jour. Follow the order of coverage by topic in your reading of Audi and the others.
  3. Use Jonathan Dancy’s Companion to Epistemology as a quick reference on sundry topics in epistemology.
  4. Consult the other companion volumes for more detail and discussion.
  5. Survey several other introductions listed in the Postscript above. Especially deserving of careful study are Chisholm, Lehrer, and Pollock.
  6. Begin reading on topics of special interest to you, in books and essays that focus especially on those topics.
  7. Think about issues in meta-epistemology, or the study of the proper study of epistemology. On this topic I especially recommend Chisholm, Theory of Knowledge (already listed) and his essay on “The Problem of the Criterion,” George Chatalian, Epistemology and Skepticism: An Enquiry into the Nature of Epistemology, and P. Coffey, Epistemology, or the Theory of Knowledge (1917).
  8. For a realist approach to epistemology, I suggest reading seminal essays by the so-called “New Realists” in 20-century American philosophy.
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