Making our writing matter (essay)
The fact that you’re reading Inside Higher Ed means that you are a writer. You write research articles and speeches, or reports and memos, or letters of recommendation, or endless streams of e-mails.
You write because you teach, or provide a student service, or administer a unit or department or division or the college itself -- or you are a student learning how to take on one of these roles. Writing weaves throughout this vast, complex enterprise of higher education, and for many of us, much of the time, it becomes a routinized, not always welcome, task.
I’ve taught and studied writing for over 40 years, and during my time at the University of California at Los Angeles's Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, I’ve developed two courses for our graduate students: one to aid them in becoming better scholarly writers, and one to help them write about their work for nonacademic audiences. There is so much in academic life that works against writing clearly and with force, from the oft-cited sins of scholarship -- jargon, convolution, etc. -- to the increasing bureaucratization and segmenting of all aspects of institutional life. How many of us, from faculty to counselors to administrators, have said something like, “This is not what I signed up for”?
Still, I deeply believe that writing matters. And I try in every way I can to get my students to see that writing well matters a lot -- and the thing is, they know it intuitively. I think we all do. We know how a careful argument, a well-turned phrase, a respectful appeal captures our attention, even in the maddening flow of words across our screens.
When I was asked to address the 2012 meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education, I thought back over my own writing, the writing I’ve appreciated during my time in higher education, and the work I’ve done in those writing classes. I condensed my thoughts down to twelve observations.
I should note that I’m not only concerned about getting words on paper or on a screen. Since I think of writing as both analytical method and creative craft, a number of these observations include activities that both precede writing and enhance the writing itself. Let me also admit that a number of these observations are pertinent to some kinds of writing more than others. All I ask is that, regardless of the kind of writing you do, allow yourself to consider the way a bit of detail in a memo can catch a reader’s eye, or the story in a report can drive a message home, or a set of numbers can be presented in way that tells a story.
1. Pay Attention to the Obvious.
We all have spent so many years in school that it’s hard for us to get any distance from it, to see it new, to, as the anthropologist suggests, “make it strange.” And, paradoxically, one way to “make strange” is to record the obvious. Write down or sketch or take pictures of the most humdrum, everyday things:
- Describe people entering a campus, on foot, in cars, on bicycles.
- List the signs and directories that lead you to the library, the administration building, the student health center.
- What kind of questions are asked in a meeting?
- What is the first question asked? The last?
- How do people respond?
- In a classroom, what does the teacher do physically: where does she stand, does she move through the room, what are her gestures?
My statistician colleague, Mike Seltzer, tells his students to do something similar before applying all the heavy technical machinery: Look closely at plots of data. Examine outliers. Summarize for yourself what you see.
This everyday material becomes so useful when you’re trying to set a scene or explain context. And sometimes there are revelations in the mundane – as when I realized after a few hours at a community college serving a quite poor section of the city how many people walked with some sort of a limp. I was at the college to study barriers to achievement, and this emerging observation about people’s gait spoke volumes about trauma and health care.
2. The Value of Detail.
I try to open up all my sensory antennae when I’m in a place I’m going to write about. The acrid smell of electrical heat in a factory, or the bleats and blasts of instruments from the music room, or the feeling of being jostled in a packed hallway. The Beat writer Jack Kerouac wrote that “detail is the life of literature.” But here’s the thing about detail: you can get lost in details, whether they’re verbal images or a slew of regression coefficients. So the details need to lead to an idea. The idea emerges from the detail and the detail grounds the idea.
3. Real Speech.
We put a lot of stock in the formal interview or focus group. And both are valuable sources of information. But I prefer, when possible, to talk to people while they’re doing something related to the topic of the interview. So, for example, I prefer to talk to the student nurse while she’s practicing on a mannequin her technique for inserting an I.V. or with a teacher as soon as class is over. You’re in the flow of their activity, and what they say will be more grounded, less of an abstraction or a surmise.
I also believe in keeping your ears open all the time, on the bus, the street, walking across campus. Never be without a small notepad. Attune your ears to the rhythms of speech, to the staccato give and take at a diner, to the fragments of a cell phone conversation. And sometimes the most casual conversation will present a phrase or sentence that captures perfectly the issues you’re writing about, as when a student said to me as I was walking her to the bus, “You know, it’s a terrible thing to not have any money.”
4. A Story Needs to Do Something.
Many of the stories people tell in everyday life have a moral to them, a point to make. Here’s the basic plotline: “If you act this way, do something this foolish or this brave or this considerate, then this is what’s going to happen.” I think a story in the writing we produce likewise has to do something. It needs to contain or build toward a claim or an argument of some kind. We are basically saying to the reader: Look, I’m telling you this story because I want to illustrate a point, or shine a new light on something, or reveal layers and tensions where we thought none existed. No matter how moving a story might be, it has work to do.
5. Numbers Tell a Story, Too.
When I’m working with students who are quantitative researchers or reading a draft of a report for an administrative colleague, I ask them what story the numbers tell. That is, I want them to think about numbers narratively, for even a list or a table can tell a story. What is that story, and are you mindful of how you are telling that story to a reader? And as your potential reader changes, say from a colleague in your field to a legislator or the broader public, how will you change the way you tell your story?
6. Using Personal Stories.
Like a fair number of people these days, I use personal material in my speeches and writing. It can be from my teaching or from my experience running programs, but even closer to home, it can come from my own family. There are legitimate arguments against using such material, but as some feminist social scientists would argue, personal history can provide a valuable way of knowing. Given my working class upbringing, I understand things about social stratification that all the reading in the world couldn’t provide. Or I have a sense of the complicated and contradictory set of attitudes someone like my mother – who worked as a waitress all her life – could have toward hard physical work.
I find significant value, as well, in combining personal material with research, each benefiting the other. For example, as I was reading historian David Montgomery’s extraordinary chapter on “The Common Laborer” (in The Fall of the House of Labor), I kept thinking of my grandfather Tony Meraglio, who emigrated from Southern Italy to work in the Pennsylvania Railroad. As vivid as Montgomery’s writing is, my knowledge of Tony – the stories I heard, the photograph on my desk – all brought a further depth of understanding to the historian’s portrayal. Conversely, the context Montgomery provides, the macro view of social and economic forces, brings Tony to fuller life. He’s not only a cluster of family stories but a man located in a time and a place. The table of labor statistics and the narrative of a life are quite different ways of representing the world, but they also can complement and enhance each other.
7. Be Skeptical of the Big Idea, the Hot Theory.
I’m not a flat-earther or a climate change denier. I’m O.K. with theories. But when it comes to explanations of human behavior, I’ve found it helpful to push the pause button and think things through. We live in a TED-Talk universe, a time of remarkable transformations that give rise to big predictions and grand theories. But sometimes, human variability, nuance, the particularity of experience get lost in the excitement. I guess I have a hesitation about abstraction. No matter how progressive the idea or theory, I like to go slow, to be, well, conservative, cautious. I want to test the ideas against what I know and my experience. If this idea is true, I ask myself, how would it manifest itself when people work in a group, or write a story, or raise children? I look for counter cases, disconfirming evidence. What’s going on with the outliers? Is there an alternative explanation for the evidence? I might well end up buying the new idea, the big theory, but do so on more solid ground.
8. Testing an Idea With the Community in Your Head.
Another way I like to test out an idea is to imagine different people I respect hearing or reading it. Now, let me be clear, I am not talking about all those nattering voices in your head that tell you that your writing stinks and that you’re a dummy. No. For me, my auditors are people with a smart and distinct point of view – like my dissertation chair Rich Shavelson, a first-class applied statistician and research methodologist. Another might be my Uncle Joe, a guy who never finished high school and worked at General Motors all his life. What would they say? And how can I incorporate what they say? Or argue back? Now, here’s an important caveat: Don’t do this too early – don’t ever do it when you’re still generating ideas and words, for it can paralyze you. But once you’ve got something together, open the door and invite these imaginary readers into the room.
9. Take a Risk.
For a place that is a center of intellectual work, the academy can be pretty risk-adverse, and we pass this along to our students. But I wonder how we can take more risks – not irresponsible risks, not daredevil “look ma, no hands” risks. But creative intellectual risks. Let me pose the concept of diligent risk. There’s certain conventions that can’t be broken, certain protections and safeguards, certain demands of analytical rigor. But within these constraints interesting things can happen.
Let me give you an example from the genesis of my book Lives on the Boundary. Way before I entered my doctoral program in education, I had been writing poetry, some of it portraits of my family and other Italian immigrants from their era.
When in the late 1970s I started writing academic essays and research articles, I continued the poetry, and these different kinds of writing, poetry and the academic essay, overlapped – but did not intersect in any way. Eventually, I became curious about the possibility of combining the writing I was doing. Scholarship and research gave me a set of powerful analytic tools, and I worked hard to get better at using them. And the poetry provided a medium to convert all the little pieces of daily life – from my grandmother’s shawl to an old radio – into written language, and with that conversion came the development of descriptive skill. I didn’t want to lose any of this. And I began to wonder: Could analytic prose be blended with poetry?
So one day, and I still remember this vividly, I photocopied a few paragraphs on the structure of long-term memory from a cognitive psychology textbook and taped them on a large sheet of white paper. Underneath them, I placed some of those immigrant portraits. So I ended up with a discussion of memory processes right next to a depiction of memories. Why not? It was this sort of fooling around with text and genre that would lead to the form of Lives on the Boundary, which blends narrative with analysis.
Now, I’m not asking you to do quirky things with Scotch tape and butcher paper, but I firmly do believe that within the confines of our writing – and this includes administrative reports and policy briefs – there are possibilities, degrees of freedom, if you will, that we don’t initially see, and that could enable us to write better, to communicate more effectively.
10. Read Deep Into the Grain and Read Grain Against Different Grain.
We’ve all heard the phrase “to read against the grain,” that is, to go beyond the easy interpretation, to read critically. This is absolutely a good thing to do, and graduate school trains us up the wazoo to do it. But let me offer two other approaches, using the wood-grain metaphor.
One I’ll call reading deep into the grain, and by this I mean reading the history of what you’re studying, regardless of what it is, from latent variable modeling, to financial aid, to the concept of stereotype threat. I promise you that history will not only broaden your background understanding of something – understand its origins and other possible approaches or solutions that might have emerged – but also the history will sharpen your analytic vision in the moment. I swear that my reading about the history of the development of hand tools while I was observing a wood construction class helped me consider more carefully the learning I was trying to capture, even just a novice’s refinement in the grip of a chisel or the swing of a hammer.
By reading grain against grain, I’m asking you to read side-by-side material that is unexpected, that doesn’t automatically match, combining cedar and oak. Let’s face it, there are few surprises in our bibliographies. I’ll bet you that you can read the first few paragraphs of an article in your field and predict with good accuracy the items that will appear in the reference section. Instead, once in a while, read like this: if you’re studying financial aid, read something in the anthropological literature on the practice of lending. Or if you’re interested in current educational reform movements, skim through a book like Howard Segal’s study of technological utopianism in American culture, for it will help you understand the faith we as a people place in technocratic solutions to social problems.
11. Dealing With Conflicting or Contradictory Information.
Sometimes data come out screwy because we made a mistake in our analysis, or the elements in someone’s story don’t add up because we missed something or didn’t ask the right questions. Back then to the drawing board. But realize that sometimes things come out confusing and contradictory because, in fact, they are confusing and contradictory. Things are rarely simple when it comes to studying human behavior. Your job then is to render as best as you can with numbers or stories or both that complicated reality. Don’t try to smooth it out to neatly fit a claim or a seamless narrative or to force a main effect. The real treasure might rest in the conflicting findings, the messy tension.
Be ready to fail. Or, at the least, get ready to think you’re failing. If you’re doing something worthwhile, something that pushes on the edges of things even just a little, you’re going to slam up against your limits, not to mention your insecurities and demons. Every project of mine that has been worth a damn has had me waking up in the middle of the night convinced that I couldn’t do it.
When I was getting close to the end of Possible Lives, a chronicle of my travels across the United States visiting good public school classrooms, I had that dark night of the soul. Several of them. Wide awake at three or four in the morning, convinced I wasn’t smart enough or skilled enough to know how to bring the book to a satisfying conclusion. How could I tell all those wonderful teachers I visited that I was going to let them down, was not able to tell their stories? What made me think I could do this project in the first place? Oh Lord, the humiliation! My God, the public shame!...
Get out of bed. Get a drink of water. If you pray, then pray. If you take a pill, do that. Scribble some notes, if that helps. But realize that the odds are that you’ll get through this, maybe with a new insight, maybe with a new way to frame the problem. I keep a little voice recorder by my bed just in case. Eventually, you’ll get to the place where you’re able to say to those little furry-footed demons: Oh, it’s you again. Ask them if they’d like a drink… or one of those pills. Invite them to curl up at the foot of the bed. And then say a few words into your voice recorder.
Mike Rose is on the faculty of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and the author of Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education.