Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Prose Experience

Last week was very busy for me. I had been invited to Barcelona and Budapest to talk about various aspects of the writing process. In between, I spent two days here in Copenhagen talking about the new Carnegie Foundation report about "liberal learning" in business education. Bill Sullivan, one of the report's authors, made an interesting comment at the end of the first day. He cited the widely discussed study of critical thinking and analytical reasoning among undergraduates by Arum and Roksa. That study found that students develop these abilities only in programs that demand a significant amount of reading and writing. That is, our ability to think depends on our degree of engagement with prose.

Well, in my talks at ESADE and Corvinus I was telling researchers and PhD students how to keep their prose "in shape". In fact, the difficulty that researchers have finding time to read and write is distressing in the light of Arum and Roksa's study. If students need to read and write in order to improve their intellectual capacities, then it is highly likely that the rest of us must read and write in order to maintain them. If students must make reading and writing part of their learning, then scholars must make it part of their knowing. Like musicians and athletes (a comparison I never tire of making), scholars cannot expect to perform well if they don't work at their talent every day. In an important sense, scholars who haven't been writing for a few months simply don't know what they are talking about.

I should admit, at this point, that I've been neglecting my own prose for some time. My reasons are the usual ones: I've had other things to think about. But I'm going to have to get back to writing every day (not just blogging twice a week) if I'm to keep my wits about me. Lately, I really have been feeling distracted, and that feeling is nothing other than a lack of prose in my life. A mind that is continuously informing itself by reading well-formed paragraphs and expressing itself in likewise well-formed paragraphs is maintaining a kind of "rigor". That's what Arum and Roksa call it, but I like to think of it as "grace", i.e., the precision that comes from strength—from being much stronger than a given task requires, from not always working at the outer limits of your abilities.

I tell researchers to master the time and space of their writing. I tell them to think of the text they are writing as an object with 40 parts distributed across 8 five-paragraph sections. This is the space in which they work, and it is, importantly, an orderly space in which 40 discrete claims can be supported. Likewise, I ask them to think of their time in 16-week periods of structured work, writing every day, but for no more than 3 hours. The rest of the day can be spent engaged in other activities, including, of course, reading.

Kant was probably right that without time and space we wouldn't experience anything at all. Bergson was right to say that time is what keeps everything from happening all at once, and space, I like to add, is what keeps everything from piling up in the same place. A continuous engagement with prose, then, is a particular way of ordering experience. It is, in many ways, what university is all about (as the Arum and Roksa study shows). Unfortunately, scholars increasingly find themselves with "no time" to read and write—and no place to do it. I worry a great deal about this situation, I must say. We have forgotten the value of maintaining a group of people in society, namely, scholars, whose primary activity is to read and write prose. We need some people to keep their prose strong.

1 comment:

Andrew Shields said...

Louis Menand reviewed that book in the New Yorker earlier this year: