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.

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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.

How One Psychologist Is Tackling Human Biases in Science


How One Psychologist Is Tackling Human Biases in Science.

What is no doubt bad news for many scientists should be good news for the progress of science and the enterprise of knowing.

It’s good to see greater effort being made to explore the place of intellectual virtue in the practice of science. And there is some irony in the fact that problems of bias in research and intellectual activity in general is confirmed by the methods of scientists.

It would be good to have more examples of the problem described by these researchers on bias. And it would be useful to study the effects of such pervasive scientific shortcomings on belief in matters beyond scientific judgment—in religion, for example.

Why Are Academics Such Bad Writers?


Medieval illustration of a Christian scribe wr...

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“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:

Recommended Reading for Doing Apologetics in Your Home


My lecture on “Apologetics in Your Home” has been popular at conferences. During this presentation, I recommend the following books to parents:

Isaac Watts (1674-1748) is best known as a great hymn writer. But his two books contain much timeless advice for the education of children in piety and critical thinking.

J. Budziszewski is a Christian author and professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas. He converted from Marxism to Christianity and has written these two books to guide Christian university students through the thickets of their “higher” educational experience.

American philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952) was a leading figure in the pragmatist movement in philosophy, and is well-known for his work on the philosophy of education. If used with caution, parents will find much wisdom in his book on How We Think.

Three books are listed here for the exceptional value they offer in areas related to logic and critical thinking. I recommend beginning with D. J. McInerny for an overview of issues related to the nature of truth, evidence, logic, and good judgment. The book by Bowell and Kemp is an excellent textbook—the best of breed, in my opinion. Parents should learn this material early, and lead their children through a close study of its principles before graduation from high school. The book by C. Allen and M. Hand is a useful reference work.

The book by Norman Geisler and David Geisler explains the challenges of relativism and postmodernism and offers practical advice for combining critical thinking with conversational skill in dialogue with nonbelievers.

Here are two additional books to consider: How to Read a Book, by Mortimer Adler, and Study Is Hard Work, by William Howard Armstrong.

Finally, for general wisdom on the cultivation of the mind, I highly recommend the classic by A. G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life.

How To Cultivate the Reading Habit


Reading takes effort. But with the right habits and tools, it is richly rewarding. Here’s a list of tips for improve your reading skills and achieving more of your reading goals.

  1. Relate your reading goals to your larger goals. If you’re powerfully motivated to achieve some larger goal, try thinking about reading as a component in achieving that goal. One goal will fuel another.
  2. Understand that you don’t have to read everything on your list to benefit from the reading habit.
  3. Set specific reading goals. How many books do you want to read in the next year, or month? What kinds of books do you want to read? Make a note of the specific reasons you want to read these books.
  4. Select several books to have on hand to read at the same time.
  5. Use procrastination to your advantage. If you’re procrastinating about reading a particular book in your pile, use that procrastination to read another book in the pile.
  6. Select books that are practical and books that are theoretical. Books of the practical sort recommend solutions to interesting problems, provide guidance for self improvement, or explain how to do something. Books of a theoretical nature expand your knowledge base and enlarge your powers of critical thinking.
  7. In each broad category—the practical and the theoretical—include books that fit different subcategories. You might pick one book from each of ten subcategories: literary fiction (a novel), light fiction (another novel), short fiction (a collection of short stories), poetry (an anthology of works from a specific period, or on a common theme, or by the same writer), biography, history, inspirational literature, cultural commentary, and two practical books (for example, a book that will help you improve your writing and a book about sea kayaking).
  8. Make a note of the primary reasons you have for reading each of the books you’ve selected. Don’t settle for mere enjoyment. Assume that you’re going to enjoy the books you’ve compiled and refine your reasons for reading each book. Is one book in your pile because you want to improve your motorcycling skills? Is a book in the history category going to help you understand some event in the present? Will a particular novel enlighten you about a personally puzzling aspect of the human condition? Will the poetry you’ve picked improve your powers of imagination, or help you see the ordinary in extraordinary ways? Are you reading this book on cosmology in order learn the latest theories about the origin of the universe? Is that book about the narcissistic personality disorder going to help you understand a difficult colleague at work? Write these aims into each book.
  9. Keep these books together in a place where you feel relaxed and are most likely to have the inclination to read. This may be a cabinet next to your bed. Otherwise, use your imagination.
  10. Develop the habit of reading whenever your book stash in nearby. If you have a varied selection of books in different categories, just read what most suits your mood at the time.
  11. Pre-read each book to get an idea what it’s is about and how it’s organized. This will save time in the long run. It will help you decide whether to read the book more carefully, how to re-read the book to achieve your specific goals, and how much time to allocate for a closer read.
  12. Guard against time consuming eye movements. Keep your eyes moving from left to right, without regressing (even if you feel you’ve missed something). Train your eyes to “land” (ever so briefly) on points along the trajectory of your reading path, without moving your head. Work at reducing the number of “landings” for each line as you subconsciously scan for key words and phrases in the line.
  13. Separate the wheat from the chaff. Based on your pre-reading, decide which books deserve to be read more closely.
  14. While reading more analytically, pace yourself to fit the specific goals of your reading and the nature of the material as it changes from one passage to another. Skip over the bits that you already understand, or are repetitive, or don’t serve your reading objectives. Slow down for the complex parts, where key concepts are explained, or crucial details of a plot are revealed, or the line of a major argument is delineated.
  15. Mark your book in pencil as you read. Underline, circle, add symbols in the margins to identify a feature of special significance (for example, asterisks, question marks, explanation marks, bracketed numerals for lists or numbered items, arrows, horizontal lines for significant but unmarked breaks in the progression, check marks, squares, triangles). Create a simple shorthand system with letters of the alphabet for frequent kinds of marking. (If a passage is quotable, I draw a ‘Q’ in the margin. If it should be noted elsewhere in my files, I draw a cursive ‘f’.) Use vertical lines. Bracket sections with corner marks. Experiment with squiggly lines, double lines, light lines and heavy lines, and lines that are mostly light with brief stretches of heavy lines.
  16. Write unfamiliar words in the top or bottom margins—and look them up in a dictionary. This is the best way to improve your vocabulary. Over time, you’ll write fewer words and have a record of the growth of your vocabulary.
  17. Write out questions that come to mind—questions stimulated by what you’re reading. Interrogate the author. (Or, if you prefer, have a “conversation.”)
  18. Draw simple charts to show relationships that have been describe.
  19. Create your own index to the book, using the back endpages. Index key terms and concepts. If necessary, invent names for concepts.
  20. Reserve space in the back endpages to index passages that relate to research, writing, or speaking you may be doing. If you have an abbreviated title for each project, you can use this title for indexing purposes. Later, you’ll be able to return to these notes and enter them elsewhere as needed.
  21. Keep track of the structure and progression of the book.
  22. Write a summary and/or general outline of the entire book into the front endpages, and make a note about the general value of the book relative to your purposes. You may want to draft this on separate paper or with a word processor, and then transfer your final version into the pages of the book. Another option is to use Post-It notes that are nearly the size of a trade book and stick them into the front of the book with these notes and comments.
  23. For maximum portability and time management in pursuit of your reading goals, buy a Kindle and learn how to use it efficiently. (See separate posts with Kindle Tips on this blog.)

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NOTE: Some of the ideas described in this post can also be found in How to Read a Book, by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren. As the subtitle says, this is The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading.

Quotations: The Intellectual Life


“. . . the history of thought is the laboratory of the thinker . . . .”

—Eugene R. Fairweather

“So I’m not educated. I learned my stuff. I’m a heart surgeon, sure, but I’m just a mechanic.”

—Character named Mel, in Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

“The history of my stupidity would fill many volumes./. . . . The history of my stupidity will not be written./For one thing, it’s late. And the truth is laborious.”

—From Czeslaw Milosz’s poem, “Account,” in New and Collected Poems, 1931-2001

“Most of us hate to think. Five minutes of thought can be more terrifying, more energy-draining than days and days of routine or habitual activity. Your mind is intrinsically thrifty, and prefers to do things the way it has done them before. It sees its primary business as establishing effective channels for action, and resists altering a channel that has become established, to say nothing of constructing a new one that causes anxiety.”

—Kenneth Atchity, A Writer’s Time

“I’m a stenographer of my mind.”

—Allen Ginsberg, poet (1926-1997)

“Your best thought is imbedded [sic] in chunks of your worst thought.”

—Mark Levy, Accidental Genius

“Friends of the human race and of what is holiest to it! Accept what appears to you most worthy of belief after careful and sincere examination, whether of facts or rational grounds; only do not dispute that prerogative of reason which makes it the highest good on earth, the prerogative of being the final touchstone of truth.”

—Immanuel Kant, “What Does It Mean to Orient Oneself in Thinking?”

“Most evidently, we cannot give up on the principle of non-contradiction, bold but wayward logicians notwithstanding.”

—Sandra Menssen and Thomas D. Sullivan, The Agnostic Inquirer: Revelation from a Philosophical Standpoint

Reading Groups: Bring the Kids


How do you encourage your kids to read? How do you find friends for your kids who read? What can you learn from your kids who read? How do you train your kids to think and talk about what they read?

There are many answers to these questions. But there’s one answer that covers them all: If you’re part of a reading group, schedule one meeting each year or every six months to include the kids.

I got this idea from a blog post by Kyle Design, who writes about how to start a reading group. Kyle says, “Include the Kids: Once a year we select a book that we will read to our kids, then bring our kids to our book group to discuss it. We all really want to instill our own love of reading to our children.”

I like this concept. This may even be a reason for parents of young children to get involved in a reading club. By participating in a reading group event with their parents, kids will learn new ways to think about reading. Parents will get insights from their children about the reading they do. And because other kids of about the same age will be at the meeting to talk about the same book, the kids will have the opportunity to make friends with peers who read. This is one way for parents to put the power of peer pressure to work for a good cause—on the principle that friends who read don’t let friends who read lose interest in reading.

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