The Value of Academic Writing

Of late, my job has been teaching something called “academic writing.”  Naturally, I’m inclined to ask: what’s the point of such instruction?  The conventional answer is that academic writing courses help students succeed in college.  Whether a student majors in business, biology, or whatever, they will have to write texts that make arguments, cite sources, etc.  A general academic writing course early in college helps prepare students for this work.

I don’t think the conventional wisdom is necessarily wrong.  Though one can argue that there’s no such thing as “writing in general,” I do think that being made to study and produce carefully considered, supported and revised prose for a semester does, in an important way, help students succeed in college.  I also think, though, that conceiving academic writing instruction as merely college prep is limiting.  I’d like to suggest that in its demands for elaboration and revision, academic writing pushes back against a pervasive cultural tendency towards sound bites and hot takes.  As such, it serves a social purpose larger than simple college prep.

To ascertain the social benefits of academic writing instruction, we first have to define the term “academic writing.”  By academic writing, I don’t mean an “objective” rhetorical posture, or any specific genre, or set of discipline-specific moves or skills.  Instead, I mean what could be called “critical discourse” or “elaborated code.”  That is, writing that slows down and makes its assumptions explicit, takes the time to lay out definitions, charts the connections between ideas, addresses counterarguments.

Integrally, the essence of “academic writing,” as I see it, is not just in the formal features of a text, but in the process of textual creation.  To rightfully be called “academic writing” a text needs to undergo a process of drafting, evaluation and revision.  Non-academic writing is typically a one-off deal.  It’s thrown into the world and is successful if it achieves its immediate goals, if it’s “good enough.”  Academic writing, on the other hand, is created, then evaluated and revised.  It has its limitations as a means of thinking and communication revealed and addressed.

So, in short, academic writing is defined by elaboration and revision.  Why is this sort of writing valuable?  On a personal level, I’d argue, academic writing as a product and process is a useful technology for getting your thinking straight.  It helps you see (and perhaps address) contradictions in understanding.  This straightening process, in turn, helps you engage the world in more productive ways.

On a social level, carefully considered prose helps us connect with one another—empathize and understand—and ultimately cooperate to get things done.  It’s cliché, but also true, that everyone “sees the world from a different perspective.”  One of the main goals of language (perhaps the main goal) is to bridge perspectives.  We codify our perceptions and desires in writing as to make them available to others.  When our codes are incomplete or jumbled—when too much of the stuff that allows meaning to be made is hidden or inaccessible—writing is prevented from fulfilling its bridging function.  The result is disagreement and social friction.

So academic writing, as I’ve defined it, is a valuable technology.  The habits denoted by the term are also becoming increasingly rare.  As I’ve discussed before on this blog, current material conditions encourage the use of highly restricted code.  In the face of information excess, writers must make texts more condensed, more restricted. They must produce text faster, with less time for reflection or revision.  The result, as predicted, is the widespread failure of communication and cooperation.  When assumptions aren’t made explicit, when cause and effect isn’t charted—when code is not elaborated, in other words— writing becomes unable to mediate between people who don’t share a preexisting set of values and beliefs.  As a result, writers become unable to speak to/with people outside their own community.  This sort of disconnection, of course, is what we experience everyday online

To summarize, we can say that the habits associated with writing in an academic mode, particularly elaboration and revision, work to resist some of the worst tendencies of current public discourse.  In teaching academic writing, therefore, we not only help individual writers succeed in college, but perform an important social (even political) function.  Of course, as many have argued, there’s no guarantee that the habits learned in writing class will manifest in other domains.  But I highly suspect they will (humans are, after all, creatures of habit).  We simply need to ensure that students 1) have the ability to write in elaborated code, 2) have the ability to revise, and 3) can see the value in these “academic” ways of being (both inside and outside the classroom).  If an academic writing pedagogy does these things, it promotes the greater good.

Talking to Yourself: Online Writing, Restricted Code & Social Fragmentation

Why is online communication so toxic?  Why does it often feel like different groups are talking past each other?  One reason might be the type of writing digital spaces encourage.  Simply put, much digital discourse—on blogs, news platforms, social media, etc.—is marked by the use of restricted (rather than elaborated) codes centered around emotionally laden, community-specific keywords.  As we’ll see, digital space incentivizes this sort of writing.  Indeed, restricted codes are often an efficient means of communication.  But (and this is important) they are not well-suited for communication between groups.  Therefore, the use of restricted codes may contribute to the sense of disconnection we often experience online.

The distinction between restricted and elaborated codes comes from sociolinguistics.  In a restricted code, certain words act as a form of shorthand—pointing to an entire complex of ideas.  This allows meaning to be conveyed with fewer words.  Such writing can be used when the communicating parties share a set of assumptions or experiences.  Elaborated codes, on the other hand, are more explicit.  Terms are defined and the connections between ideas articulated.  The text, in other words, provides more direction as to how it should be interpreted, thus allowing similar meanings to be made by people with different sets of assumptions.

Digital writing is often highly restricted.  This makes sense for a number of reasons.  First, reading on a screen is hard.  It’s physically taxing (compared to print) and within the digital environment, there’s a lot of other stuff vying for our attention.  The writer, therefore, to get read, needs to condense meaning.  It also takes time and energy to make a text more elaborated.  Digital texts are often produced quickly; both tech platforms and the current media environment push writers to emphasize quantity over quality.  Once again, this equals more restricted texts.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it seems to me that in the digital world, venue increasingly helps determine meaning.  As noted, restricted codes work when the writer and reader share a set of assumptions.  In a world where each reader controls her information flow, the mere selection of a venue should equate, roughly, to a defined set of assumptions.  If I’m an urban liberal, for example, I’m probably not going to read Brietbart.  A Brietbart writer, in turn, because he doesn’t need to “speak to the other,” can use a more restricted code.  A sort of feedback loop develops.  As the Brietbart code becomes more restricted, it becomes less likely that liberals will choose to read the Brietbart text.  The Brietbart writer is thus free to make his code even more restricted, and so on and so on.

From the above analysis, we can see why, when trying to communicate online, different groups might seem to be talking past each other.  As noted, an elaborated code can “stand on its own”—it contains all the information a reader needs to make meaning.  To understand a restricted code, on the other hand, a reader needs to hold a certain set of assumptions.  If she doesn’t, the text can only be read with great cognitive effort and/or is more likely to be misinterpreted.

Let’s take a look at how the above ideas play out in practice.  Twitter missives are perhaps the ultimate example of a restricted code.  Consider the text of a recent tweet:

It’s so sad to see toxic masculinity destroy relationships between dads and their children. on the contrary: kindness, love, and tenderness are foundational to being a good man and father.

This tweet received over 800 likes, indicating it successfully conveyed meaning to its audience.  The nature of this meaning, though, is not apparent on the face of the text.  This is because apart from the seemingly illogical “on the contrary,” no direct guidance is given as to how to connect the tweet’s two sentences.  A shared definition of the term “toxic masculinity” is needed to establish this connection and make the message coherent.  The tweet’s intended audience, or many of them anyway, can access such a definition.  For them, the tweet reads something like:

It’s so sad to see [a societal demand that men not show emotion] destroy relationships between dads and their children. on the contrary: [displays of emotion such as] kindness, love, and tenderness are foundational to being a good man and father.

Understood in this way, the tweet makes a coherent claim.  Integrally, though, if a reader doesn’t have access to the shared definition—if they are operating with another set of assumptions towards the emotionally charged keyword “toxic masculinity”—they will not have access to this claim.  The message will likely appear illogical or as a cliched “attack on men.”  In other words, because of the highly restricted nature of the code, only readers who already basically agree with the writer can grasp her meaning.  As such, this sort of writing acts as a barrier to communication between groups.

Interestingly, the same keywords often circulate among different communities, where they have different, but equally implicit definitions.  Consider a recent Fox News article entitled “This Father’s Day let’s call toxic masculinity what it is.”  Though longer than the above tweet, this piece is also written in restricted code.  And again, it is almost incomprehensible to an outsider.  The author’s primary claim is/seems to be that the conventional ideal of manliness is good, needed and under attack.  The discussion turns around the term “toxic masculinity.”  The academic left accuses manly men of having “toxic masculinity.” They insinuate that manliness is to blame for the actions of sexist workplace monsters.  Apart from this “they insinuate” there is no further attempt to define what “toxic masculinity” might mean to the writer or his opponents.  Again, I’d argue, an explicit definition is unnecessary.  The article’s intended readers, by virtue of having chosen to read a Fox News op-ed about toxic masculinity, can be assumed to share an implicit definition of the term.  A simple reference to it invokes an entire complex of ideas, emotions and identities (undoubtedly negative), which the writer can then work against.

The tribal nature of behavior online has long been noted.  The above analysis indicates that the very language we use might be fueling this tribalism.  As noted, the use of highly restricted codes is driven by structural incentives.  That means that for people (like me) interested in curbing social conflict, there is no easy solution.  It does seem, though, that a general recognition that certain types of language are more likely to be ignored or misinterpreted by those different than us is an important first step.  Perhaps our best option is to learn to read our own texts better—to recognize the implicit definitions and missing connections—and start to take pride in being (more widely) understood.

Deep Bubbles: How Personalized Media Fragments Reality

As someone interested in healthy political discourse, I’m glad to see that social media “filter bubbles” and “echo chambers” have become a focus of empirical research.  In a recent blog post, Cristian Vaccari summarizes this research and presents some findings of his own.  Drawing on online surveys of internet users in Germany, Italy and the UK, he calculates how often people agree and disagree with political statements encountered online, offline and via the mass media.  He finds that 1) social media users encounter more opposing than supportive opinions online, and 2) more opposing opinions online compared to face-to-face political conversations.  From this, he concludes that ideological filter bubbles aren’t as prevalent as media accounts have indicated.

Now, I don’t dispute Vaccari’s findings: I suspect he successfully measured what he set out to measure.  I’d like to argue, though, that such findings alone don’t indicate that media personalization isn’t a problem.  Instead, they suggest that we need a more nuanced conception of what the filter bubble effect might involve.  Particularly, we need to realize that filter bubbles aren’t just (or even primarily) about the political opinions one encounters.  Instead, they’re about the fragmentation of the background knowledge out of which we form our political opinions.

I’ll use an example to explain what I mean.  In an effort to escape my particular left-leaning bubble, over the past few months I’ve been reading the Fox News website.  Of course, in doing so, I encounter political opinions with which I disagree.  For example, there might be an op-ed piece arguing for increased military spending.  This policy position is in direct opposition to what I believe should occur.  It is thus the type of encounter Vaccari set out to measure.

Now, while such direct opposing claims exist on the Fox News website, the overwhelming majority of information on the site does not consist of such claims.  Instead, it consists of simple “factual” reporting.  And this is where things get strange.  In short, the world presented by Fox News, I’ve found, is completely different than the one presented by CNN or the New York Times.  Whereas the latter will be covering perceived turmoil in the Trump White House, for example, the former will feature three articles in a row about crimes committed by illegal aliens.  Integrally, neither set of stories are “fake news” nor “political opinions” of the kind Vaccari attended to.  Instead, they are the raw materials out of which we form our political opinions.  Exposed to talk of White House turmoil (background), you may conclude that Trump should not be president (opinion).  Exposed to talk of illegal immigrants and crime (background), you may conclude that the US needs a tougher immigrant policy (opinion).

So different news outlets put different spins on the day’s news.  Of course.  But how does this relate to social media?  The connection, I would suggest, lies in the logic which animates both Fox News, and Facebook, Twitter, etc.  In short, Fox News is perhaps the greatest manifestation on the mass media-level of what we can call the “consumer impulse.”  Fox is particularly adept at providing its viewers with the kind of content that will drive repeated engagement, at “giving customers what they want,” in other words.  And what they want, like most humans, is information which confirms (or at least does not contradict) their existing beliefs and inclinations.  Hence, a non-stop stream of stories about treacherous immigrants and “good guys with guns.”

Moving from mass media to social media, we can see how a similar dynamic exists when information is shared within social networks.  If you are the type of person who often reads, likes or comments upon articles about crimes committed by illegal immigrants, social media platforms—in line with your wishes as a consumer—will show you more information about that topic.  They will also suggest that you connect with people who share similar engagement patterns.  Information will be exchanged about your topic of shared interest.  The beliefs and inclinations you started with will thus be confirmed and intensified.  Integrally, this often occurs without the exchange of overt political messages.  It’s simply like-minded people sharing information about “how the world is.”

Let’s look at an example of the type of information exchange I’m talking about.  Consider the following:

Facebook on the Budget

Though from an obviously politically-invested source, this message, on its face, contains very little that could be classified as a political opinion (ICE likely wouldn’t call their database “invasive,” but may very well agree with the facts of the case).  If I like, share or comment upon this post, I will likely be exposed to more content which emphasizes the perils of the surveillance state.  If my followers “like” my shared content they will, in turn, also be exposed to additional anti-surveillance content.  At the same time, I will be encouraged to share more such content (because I want social approval in the form of likes).  The end result is that all parties in a network—sorted by their original consumer preference (EG, an inclination to worry about surveillance)—will be exposed to an increasingly intense stream of information about the dangers of surveillance.  This will, in turn, lead to the formation and/or sedimentation of anti-surveillance beliefs.

Keep in mind that there’s no “fake news” or overt political opinions involved in the above process.  There really are, out in the world, problems associated with state surveillance.  Because of the consumer impulse, though, the narrative which dominates within any network will tend to highlight only one part of a much more complex story.  This is because those who prefer other narratives (that state surveillance is necessary, say) will, through the same process of sharing and liking, create their own networks around the same topic (or, as is perhaps more common, ignore the topic all together).  As a result of this segregation process, certain problems and issues will loom large in the imaginations of certain segments of the population.  And barely register in other segments.  The result is widely divergent ideas about the state of the world and in turn, what political opinions are valid.

Two additional features of this sorting process are of note.  First, is the importance of repetition.  Exposure to one or even a few articles about a topic doesn’t necessarily shape your opinion.  Instead, it is the relentless drumbeat of similar missives.  Social media is particularly insidious because of its ability to deliver many different messages, over a long period of time, tilted in one direction.  The exposure process is also highly automated.  In a high-stimulation environment like a Facebook page, consumers can’t consciously register most of what they see.  As such, unless we’re particularly committed to a topic, articles and comments about surveillance or criminal immigrants structure our thinking without us even knowing.  Certain views suddenly just appear obvious or “commonsense.”

To summarize, the filter bubble concept must be understood to include not just the expression of overt political opinions, but the background information out of which opinions are formed.  Many different, yet not necessarily contradictory narratives are in circulation.  Media personalization, which reaches its zenith in the form of social media, allows us to choose the narratives we like.  It then works to reinforce our choices.  Any understanding of “filter bubbles” or “echo chambers” must take this dynamic into account.

Protecting Our Space

According to a new survey, 20% of American college students now say it is acceptable to use physical force to stop a speaker from making “hurtful or offensive comments.”  Catherine Rampell, in the Washington Post, reads this as a growing rejection of the principle of free speech.  I think she’s right.  It does seem that Americans are increasingly willing to accept censorship and silencing.  Or at the very least, they are more willing to take active measures to protect their discursive space.  Why?

The first and most obvious answer, I believe, is the dominance of consumer logic.  The world of late capitalism is ruled by “choice.”  Through our consumption habits, we are expected to construct our own reality.  I can customize my home or outfit—sculpt it to the exact image I want to project—so why not my information stream?  Of course, as Cass Sunstein has argued, exposure to opposing views is a necessary social good.  Consumer logic undercuts such thinking, though.  It sidelines the expert (Sunstein), and long-term (democracy) in favor of immediate, emotional satisfaction.  When we think as consumers, therefore, it is only logical to censor and silence.

So people shut down speech because they want to, and believe as consumers, they should get what they want.  Where does this desire to silence originate?  Of course, the alien is always disconcerting.  Still, this new survey data indicates that people are increasingly troubled by opposing views.  Or perhaps we are simply more attuned to them.  Perhaps because of the homogenization of our discursive space the alien sticks out, demands our attention (and challenge), more than it once did.  When I spend most of my time in a filter bubble, the sliver of the outside world that sneaks through is bound to be upsetting.

I do wonder though if there are other factors at play. This is very speculative, but I wonder if the structures of belief which we use to define self and world are shakier than they once were.  In our multicultural, multivocal world even the most closeted thinker must know—at least on some level—that other views are always out there.  Perhaps in earlier, less connected times these views were more distance, and hence less threatening.  And/or perhaps our relation to knowledge has changed.  Perhaps we can say that with modernity and postmodernity some sort of ground has disappeared, and this makes us fundamentally insecure.

We can imagine, for example, a true believer, someone so confident in his views that opposing beliefs are seen only as objects of amusement. Such would be the position of a medieval Christian laughing at a Hindu, perhaps.  The Hindu’s gods are so distance, and the Christian’s understanding of how the world “is” so solid, that the former’s religious claims cause no offense.  Now compare this to students trying to shut down a conservative speaker, Ben Shapiro at Berkeley say.  They find it intensely offensive that Shapiro claims there are only two genders. Shapiro’s views fundamentally hurt these students.  Why?  Why can’t they just laugh at him?  Certainly, they “know” that gender is a spectrum, a social construct.  They know it as certain as the medieval Christian knows the true nature of God….

My point is that it seems that what it means to know has changed.  On some (subconscious) level we have internalized the idea that knowledge is relative, rhetorical and shared.  Leftwing activists need Ben Shapiro to acknowledge gender is a spectrum because, simply put, we can’t be sure of anything anymore.  There’s an abiding sense of unreality, a feeling that everything is up for negotiation.  The negotiation is public, but the outside works its way in, shaping how the individual thinks.  This would explain why we see students chasing conservative speakers off campus.  And why we see Trumpian attacks on the “lame steam media.”  In both cases the principle is the same: I want (or need) to believe the world is X.  When you say it is Y, it makes my life harder.  I must therefore stop you from saying Y.

In short, in a world of excess—of connection and unbridled choice—we recognize that everything is shared, everything is unstable.  We must take an active role in constructing our reality.  And this means being constantly on guard against threats to that reality.