A preview of my book, Games: Agency as Art

My book, Games: Agency as Art, is now forthcoming from Oxford University Press! Oxford has given me permission to offer the first chapter as a preview.

The book is a sustained defense of the value of games and game-playing, from several perspectives. The book says that:

  • Games are the art form of agency. Game designers don’t just create environments and obstacles. They set our goals in the game and our abilities; they create the agency which we will inhabit in the game.
  • Games can work in the medium of agency to create aesthetic experiences of acting and doing. They can offer us crystallized, designed, and refined versions of our everyday experiences of practicality.
  • One way that games are satisfying: they let us inhabit a world that’s easier to make sense of, one in which the values are clearer, simpler, and easier to apply. Such games offer us are rare experience of clarity of purpose. They are an existential balm against the rest of our lives, which are full of a plurality of subtle and competing values.
  • This also leads to a danger: games can seduce us into expecting that simplicity elsewhere. They can serve as a morally problematic fantasy of clarity. 
  • The fact that we can play games teaches us something remarkable about ourselves. We have the capacity submerge ourselves in alternate agencies, to slip in and out of temporary agencies. We can take up ends that we don’t usually care about and dedicate ourselves to them, for a time. We can adopt different modes of thinking, acting, and deciding. And then we can put them all away when then game is over. Games teach us that our agency is notably fluid. 
  • A big bonus: it turns out that stupid drinking games and party games are incredibly important to understanding the nature of our own practical rationality and agency.
  • Just as narratives are a technique for writing down stories, games are a technique for inscribing and preserving modes of agency. With them, we can create an archive of agencies – we can experience different ways of being an agent. Games are a technology for us to cooperative to help develop each others’ autonomy.
  • The book offers a unified account of the art form of striving games. It discusses, under a single conceptual umbrella, computer games, board games, card games, party games tabletop role playing games, live action role playing games, and sports. (There are many other sorts of games besides striving games, however, and the book doesn’t purport to cover them all.)
  • Also: discussions of the aesthetic ontology of games, the nature of interactivity in games, a taxonomy of game types, and a comparison of games to contemporary practices of relational aesthetics and social practice art.

What’s Missing From Cookbook Reviews

My post at Aesthetics for Birds on What’s Missing From Cookbook Reviews:

“Read enough cookbook reviews, and you’ll start to notice a curious gap. Cookbook reviews mostly focus on how the recipes turn out — how tasty the dishes are, or how authentic they are. Sometimes they’ll also talk about the quality of writing, or how much you learn about some region’s culinary history  or food science or the author’s childhood or whatever. But usually they leave out what it feels like to actually cook the goddamn things…”

Later, it talks about how we ignore how food makes us move:

“Why do we legitimize aesthetic commentary, in conversation and reviews, on the taste, smell, and look of food, but refuse to legitimatize aesthetic commentary on the quality of the physical movements that food urges on us? The movements you make on the plate with your fork and knife are a tiny little dance, and dances can be graceful and awkward, and choices that a chef makes about how to plate will push on you more awkward or more graceful forms of dance.”

Keep reading it at AFB.

Cognitive islands and runaway echo chambers

My new paper, Cognitive islands and runaway echo chambers is out in Synthese. (For those without institutional access, here’s the pre-print for free.)

What it’s about, in a nutshell: In some areas of intellectual life, you need to already be an expert to find the other experts. This opens a door to a horrible possibility: if you misunderstand things and use that misunderstanding to pick out who you trust, then that trust will simply compound your misunderstanding. Morally flawed people will pick morally flawed advisors and gurus, and bootstrap themselves into being worse people. But we have to trust. So we might just be screwed.

The long version: For some kinds of experts, there’s an easy test: you can tell a good mechanic because they can fix your car. You don’t really need to know anything about cars to sort the real mechanics from the posers. Call these the obvious cognitive domains. A total novice has some hope of figuring out who the right advisors and teachers are. But in some kinds of cognitive domains, you already have to be an expert to recognize the experts. And no other kind of expertise will do — you need to share expertise to recognize a real expert. Call these cognitive islands. On a cognitive island, you need to already be some kind of expert to figure out who the experts are. The novice in that domain has no idea who to trust. Plausible candidates for cognitive islands include the moral and the aesthetic domains, and maybe even philosophy and economics and more.

Some people think being on a cognitive island makes it impossible to use experts. Only novices need the help of experts, and they can’t find any. I think this kind of pessimism is wrong, and I think if we look at how we actually trust each other, how we use other experts, we’ll see why. All the time, we use our own expertise to help find other experts who can help fill in our own gaps — our blind spots, our biases. We need others to help us triangulate on when we’re reasoning well and when we’ve made mistakes.

The real problem for cognitive islands isn’t that we can’t use other experts at all. It’s that there’s no safety net. If your own understanding is flawed, there’s no test for that. If other experts are flawed, there’s no independent check. You can only figure out who to trust by applying your own abilities. But we have to trust each other – we have to use each other to corroborate and check on our own thinking. And this means that if you’re deeply flawed, those flaws will simply compound themselves through expert selection. KKK members will pick racist advisors, who will corroborate their racism.

This leads to a kind of epistemic trap, which I call runaway personal echo chambers. On a cognitive island, the only way to figure out who to trust is to use your own abilities. So if you start out with deep problems in your understanding, you’ll just bootstrap yourself into something worse. And it doesn’t seem like there’s any way out.

The aesthetics of rock climbing

The pleasures of rock climbing and the pleasures of philosophy turn out to be strangely similar. Most non-climbers have the wrong idea about climbing – it is, in the popular imagination, a particularly thuggish way of courting death. Before I’d actually tried it, my mental image of climbing was some kind of vague blend of pull-ups, screaming and gargling Red Bull. But it turns out that rock climbing is a subtle, refined and often hyper-intellectual sport. It’s solving puzzles, with your body and mind. It’s about getting past cryptic sequences of rock, through a combination of grace, attunement, cleverness, and power.

Climbers dream of the perfect “project” – a climb that you work on, over days and weeks. At first, such a project might seem utterly impossible. The holds are too small, or in the wrong place, or impossibly far apart; the wall is too overhung, or too blank. But slowly, bit by bit, you figure out a sequence of moves that just might get you through. Place your left foot there, and balance over just so. Flip your left hand so you’re pushing down against that ridge of rock, leaning down on it like you’re in a yoga triangle pose. Then you can reach high with your right hand and take hold of a tiny pocket. Step high and then flip your hand in the pocket, so you can lean the other way. Through care and attention, the impossible slowly becomes possible. You learn the holds, you learn the moves, you learn where to throw in all-out effort and where to relax for a moment, you train your body, until one day it all comes together and you dance your way up that wall.

 

rock climbing aesthetics 2

Dana Le/Flickr

 

And dancing, I think, is exactly the right place to start to understand the aesthetic dimension of rock climbing. So let’s start there: climbing is something like dance – not just in skill, but in aesthetic reward. You can hear the similarity when you listen to some climbers talk about their climbs. They talk about climbs with nice movement, with good flow, with interesting moves. They’ll talk about ugly climbs, beautiful climbs, elegant climbs, gross climbs. At first you might think they are just talking about the rock itself and how it looks. And sometimes they are; every climber loves a clean crack up a blank face, or bold jutting fin to climb. But if you interrogate a climber, and watch as they explain where the beauty in the climb is – with arms out, legs in the air, imitating the odd precise movements of the climb – you’ll figure out that what so many of them care most about is the quality of the movement – about how it feels to go through the rock, about the glorious sensations in the body, and the subtle attention of the mind.

So let’s start with dance. Barbara Montero, a philosopher of dance, has made a convincing case that the central aesthetic experience of dance involves a dancer’s proprioceptive sense of moving through space and feeling that movement as beautiful. We don’t just appreciate dance visually; we can feel it in our muscles and neurons. As a consequence, she adds, the best people to understand the aesthetics of dance are the dancers themselves, and people in the audience who have danced – who can imagine their way more precisely into how it must feel to move that way. The beauty of dance is a beauty of embodied movement.

When I think back to my favourite climbing experiences, what I can remember most precisely is the feel of the movement, the sense of gracefulness, of being able to move with precision and economy and elegance. That movement quality is something I savour, that I daydream about, that calls me back. And sometimes that movement quality is embedded in something dramatic. It has a relationship with difficulty. Some of the most perfect climbing moments are those when I was exhausted, maybe bleeding a little, when my fingers were raw, but I forced my mind quiet and calmed my head and then pulled through, forced my trembling limbs to calm, and reached somewhere inside myself to find that elegance, that precision, that lovely movement.

So climbing is like dance, but not exactly like dance. Climbing is graceful movement that always serves a well-defined task-oriented purpose. You’re trying to get to the top, and often the harder that journey is, they better. And climbs don’t just allow graceful movement; they sometimes require it; they’ll punish you and throw you off the rock if you’re careless. The economical movement in climbing arises in response to a set of very specific demands. The rock (real or artificial) may force a sequence of movement out of me, but it doesn’t tell me what that sequence of movements is, unlike in dance, where a director often teaches a piece of set choreography. I invent it, in response to the problem. Sometimes I may watch somebody else and imitate their movements, but even then, I need to adapt those movements to my body. I ape their movements in general, and then adapt them, precisify their inner feeling, all guided by the difficulties set by the rock. By and large, climbing is a puzzle-and-solution oriented practice. My movements in climbing are always in response to the challenges set to me by the rock; the elegance that I sometimes grasp within myself is one forced on me by the necessities of economy, of preserving what little stamina I have.

Rock climbing is a game. And this is where philosophical work can help us again. Let’s turn to one of the most delightful, insightful, and under-appreciated books in recent philosophy – Bernard Suits’ The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia. You will recall the parable of the grasshopper and the ant – the grasshopper is idle all summer long, and the ant works hard. At the end, the grasshopper starves to death. Moral of the story: work hard or die, suckers. But Suits inverts the moral of the story. In his book, the grasshopper is the hero, a paragon of playfulness. The book opens in adorably pseudo-Socratic fashion. The Grasshopper – the great philosophical defender of play – is on his deathbed, surrounded by his disciples. He is starving because he has refused, on principle, to work. His disciples are begging him: Please, let us feed you, let us work and bring you food. But the Grasshopper replies: No, for then you would be ants, and doubly so! I would rather die for my commitment to idleness!

So the Grasshopper gives his disciples a series of puzzles about play, and games, and then promptly dies. And the rest of the book is one in which the students work out those puzzles, and, along the way, provides a definition of the term “game”. This is explicitly intended as a reply to Wittgenstein’s challenge – that most terms in general, but “game” in particular, did not admit of rigorous definition. Suits offers his definition in versions of varying digestibility. Here’s the least technical one, which he calls the “portable” version:

“Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”

This gives us a very broad notion of games, which includes board games, sports, rock climbing, and perhaps even certain academic disciplines. Suits’ definition has become rather famous, or infamous, around those corners of the academic world that study games.

In the full version of his definition, we learn, among other things, that playing games involve taking up artificial goals and imposing inefficient means on ourselves, because we want to create a new kind of activity. The point of basketball is not getting the ball through the hoop – that has no independent value in itself. If it did, we’d show up after hours to an empty court with a step-ladder, and pass that ball through to our heart’s content. Rather, we take up the artificial goal – passing the ball through the hoop – and barriers to that goal – opponents, the dribbling rule – in order to create the activity of playing basketball. Notice that what constitutes game-playing is not the physical movement, but the intentional state of the player towards that action. In short: in ordinary practical activity, we take the means for the sake of an independently valuable end. But in gaming activity, we can take up an artificial end for the sake of going through a particular means.

So let’s return to rock climbing. My chosen discipline is bouldering – conducted without a rope, on short boulders of usually no more than twenty feet, with fold-out gymnastics pads to fall on. Bouldering began as a way to train in safety for more adventurous climbs but quickly evolved into its own thing, pursued for its own sake. Boulderers actually refer to specific climbs as “boulder problems”; they are a clear kin to, say, chess problems. Boulder problems are often very short, exceedingly difficult, and the kind of thing you might fail at and fall on your ass a hundred times on the way to success. If those multi-day roped climbs up cliff-sides are the adventure marathons of rock climbing, than bouldering is the sprint trial.

Suits himself uses mountain climbing as an example of a game. The point is not simply to get to the top – after all, you could get to it by helicopter, in the case of Everest, or via the highway up the back, in the case of El Capitan. The point is to do it via a specific set of limited means. This is surely true of bouldering, as well. A regular occurrence for boulderers: we will be trying to climb up the hard overhung face, and a young child will run up the path on the backside of the rock and look down on us from above and gleefully and smugly inform us that we must have missed the easy way up. (Sometimes I have a desire to sit them down and explain the Suitsian theory to them, but usually, since it’s my one day off from grading and the academic slog, I’d just lie down and have a beer.)

So: climbing is a game, in the Suitsian sense. But it is a very interesting sort of game, for many people indulge in it for openly aesthetic reasons. If one looks at the recent history of the philosophy of sport, one will find the Suitsian analysis all over the place, but theorists have considered a fairly narrowed range of reasons for engaging in that Suitsian activity. Usually, it’s something like: we take up these unnecessary obstacles to become more excellent, or develop physical skills, or to win. But the Suitsian analysis allows any sort of reason for wanting to bring an activity into being, and if one listens to the talk of climbers, one will discover that those reasons are often aesthetic ones – and they are often proprioceptively aesthetic.

Let’s take one classic climb in Joe’s Valley, Utah: The Angler, one of the most beloved boulder problems in one of the most beloved bouldering regions in the world. As it turns out, it’s not that interesting to watch somebody climb it. First of all, non-climbers tend to like to watch really explosive and spectacular movement. During competitions on artificial rock, lay audiences will cheer for big jumps from one huge hold to another. The Angler has none of that; it’s slow, plodding, and careful. Experienced climbers tend to like watching subtle, intricate movement, but even then, it’s best when the movement is visible – when you can see the re-balancing, the yoga-like stretches, the interesting body postures. But none of the interesting stuff is visible in The Angler. It’s very gradual, delicate climb, with a slopey, slippery ridge for your hands, and tiny invisi-feet. The difference between success and failure depends on minuscule shifts of balance – it depends on maintaining your core tension, on controlling your centre of gravity and inching it around with painstaking care. And, when you do it right, it feels unbelievably good – it feels like you’re a thing made of pure precision, a scalpel of delicate movement, easing your way up the rock. But, to somebody watching from outside, it looks… like nothing. Even for an experienced climber, it’s pretty boring to watch somebody else climb this thing. I love The Anglerto death, but I’ll admit: I’ve sat with a beer by the river next to it and tried to watch people climbing it and gotten bored almost instantly. In this particular climb, all those fascinating internal movements are invisible to the external eye. The aesthetics of movement, here, are for the climber alone.

rock climbing aesthetics 1

Simon Li/Flickr

The Angler is an exemplar of a perfect boulder problem, to many a climber’s taste. It has everything. The rock itself is strikingly beautiful. More importantly, what climbers call the line is visually beautiful. That is, the feature on the rock that the climber follows is visually distinctive, and the path of the climb itself is clear and itself striking and lovely. The movement is wonderfully interesting. And best of all, these things match and fit in a pleasing way. In The Angler, the movement quality changes over the course of the problem. It’s intricate and subtle down below, but the movements become bigger and scarier as the line moves up and right. And, when the season’s right, you have to make the last few moves – which are bold but easy – over the river itself. The feel of the movement rises, as the line rises, from delicate to thrilling. Rock, line, and movement all have a wonderful consonance. And when you pull over the top, after all this pain and carefulness, with your nose crammed inches from the rock, staring down searching for the slightly better nubbins of friction – you stand up right into the mouth of a river canyon, running river all around you, wind in your hair and water burbling, and the sensation of victory bleeds into the sensation of wild, free, open nature.

I manage to be pretty focused in doing philosophy, but some of the most focused and attentive I’ve ever been in my life is on a hard climb – mind zeroed in on tiny ripples in the rock for my feet, exactly the angle of my ankle, whether I’m holding the most grippy part of the rock with my hand, the exact level of force I need to push with on my foot as I slide over to the next hold. One might be tempted to say here, if one were caught in a traditional aesthetic paradigm, that the climbing is just a technique, a trick to focus the mind on the really beautiful things – the rock itself, and nature. But I think this ignores what climbers are actually doing, feeling, and appreciating. They’re paying attention to themselves, to their own movements and appreciating how those movements solve the problem of the rock. The aesthetics of climbing is an aesthetics of the climber’s own motion, and an aesthetics of how that motion functions as a solution to a problem. There is, for the climber, a very special experience of harmony available – a harmony between one’s abilities and the challenges they meet.

I remember one afternoon I spent in the Buttermilks, a glorious collection of boulders in Bishop, California. I was trying my damnedest to solve a weird, tricky problem that involved a series of heel-hooks and toe-hooks and spending half-my time with my feet above my head, my ankle stuffed into a crack in the rock. Next to me, a far better climber was working a far harder problem on another part of the same boulder. We spent the whole afternoon at our respective tasks. He was totally, savagely into it – screaming his way up, cursing, stabbing at the rock. The critical move involved easing his way up to a bad, slopey hold for his right hand, high-stepping his left foot up almost to his crotch, and then squeezing himself up between his right hand and his left foot, popping himself between them like a wet watermelon seed, and stabbing with his left hand for a tiny set of pocket dimples. The move is typical of high-end bouldering – the hold you’re going for is so far out of reach that you need to fling yourself at it dynamically; you’ve got to jump. But that hold is also so faint that you can’t have any extra momentum when you hit it, or you’ll rip yourself right off the rock.

He’d been trying the same move for, like, three hours, with long rests between tries. He was cursing, frustrated, melting down. Then finally, in one great screaming effort, he did it – he had a little bit too much momentum, but he grabbed that next hold with extra force, muscles straining, yanking himself back into place, screaming. And he finished the problem.

He came down, staring at his fingers. One of them was bleeding.

“Nice job”, I said. I went to high five him, but he shook his head.

“That was ugly as hell”, he said, glumly. “Terrible style”. He wrapped up his finger in some climbing tape, rested himself for about twenty minutes, and then stepped up and did again. This time, it looked perfect – just a delicate little bump and step and he floated over and just dropped into place, like it was nothing.

He climbed down the back and jogged over to me, grinning hugely. “God, what a gorgeous problem!” he told me. “You’ve got to do it. That move is so beautiful. It’s just…” he mimed the move, and mimed it again. “Just fantastic! You’ve got to do it!”

Sadly, I told him, that problem was way too hard for me.

He jittered from foot to foot, grinning and trying to feel sorry for me. Then he went over and did it again.

(Originally published in The Philosopher’s Magazine, 78, 2017: 37-43)

A philosopher enters politics

Matt Johnson is the only philosopher I know who responded to the political shit-storm of 2016 by actually throwing down and running for public office. He’s doing it right now – somehow juggling finishing his PhD, teaching seven (!!) courses, serving as a human relations commissioner, and running for Lancaster city council all at the same damn time. And he wrote a goddamn musical.

His whole approach is so impossibly cool that  I had to interview him about what it was like. The whole interview is over here.

Things I learned:

  1. Matt actually starting teaching free rhetoric and argument courses to activists in a local pub.
  2. Matt thinks the joys of philosophy and the joys of public service are deeply similar – throwing yourself at profound and intractable problems – except sometimes, in public service, you actually, like, save somebody’s home.
  3. Best of all: Matt thinks that the skills he developed over in philosophy are incredibly useful for consensus building in political life. Which blows my goddamn mind, because in academic philosophy itself, everybody’s using their analytic skills to stab each other in the face. But it occurs to me: maybe that’s nothing about the skills of philosophy itself, but just the incentive structure of academia. As in: to publish, you have to prove you’re different. But in political life, the incentives switch: things happen when you build consensus.

Matt’s take is so thrilling and so invigorating that he almost convinced me to run for city council.

 

New paper: “The Uses of Aesthetic Testimony”

My new paper, The Uses of Aesthetic Testimony, is out in the British Journal of Aesthetics. (For those without institutional access, here’s an older draft for free.)

What it’s about, technical version: There’s this debate about the seeming “asymmetry” between aesthetic and empirical testimony. We’re allowed to acquire beliefs based solely on testimony for empirical stuff (doctor’s advice, mechanic’s advice), but we’re not allowed to uptake judgments about how, say, the beauty and brilliance of Van Gogh’s Irises based solely on testimony. I say: yeah, yeah, but look over here: there’s an even more interesting second asymmetry within the aesthetic itself. There are all sorts of things I’m entirely permitted to do from aesthetic testimony: I can take restaurant recommendations, I can choose a travel destination, I can choose an art school, all from testimony. The uses of aesthetic testimony are rich and varied. There’s only this one very particular thing I can’t do from testimony, which is acquire a belief wholesale. The real mystery is how to explain the way our intuitions change between different uses of aesthetic testimony.

You might think, then, that this all just turns on speech acts vs. practical action. But consider the following case: when I’m picking out a painting to hang in my own bedroom, it would be totally weird to defer to the word of an expert and not engage my own taste. But if I were a museum director, I could totally defer to the word of an expert in choosing my acquisitions. No speech, all action, same asymmetry.

I then try to show that, if you take seriously all these intuitions about the uses of aesthetic testimony, it points us towards a moderately cognitive theory of aesthetic judgment.

What it’s really about: We act like aesthetics is all about autonomous judgment. But the really interesting thing that people don’t study is how much we profoundly trust others everywhere in our aesthetic lives.

New Paper: “Competition as Cooperation”

Here’s my new paper, Competition as Cooperation, coming out soon in the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport. It contains:

1. My view that games are a sort of moral technology for converting competition into cooperation.

2. Exhaustive technical detail on the motivational structures that human beings must have in order to use this technology properly.

3. The fun part: me having a go at the dominant position in the philosophy of sport – that the purpose of sports is developing or displaying human excellence. I think the social conversion stuff just as important. The coolest part of the paper is about whether the paradigmatic case of sports are Olympics/professional sports, or, like, flag football with your family.

It’s probably my… most ambitious paper? And, if you follow my wife’s “Thi Scale of Papers”, in which the more completely goofy and inane examples a paper has, the more Thi it is, then this is the most Thi paper I’ve ever written. There’s even a bit where a shitty asshole houseguest shows up at my house and I save the evening by deploying a board game that converts their dickheadery into something useful for everybody else.

This paper is deeply connected to the Good Violence, Bad Violence paper I wrote with Jose Zagal. “Competition as Cooperation” has got way more technical detail on Suits and the nature of game consent and the purpose of game-playing; “Good Violence, Bad Violence” has way more discussion of juicy online stuff like spawn-camping and trash-talking/harassment, the formation of online communities, and all the cool stuff that comes from the fact that Jose is an actual, you know, game designer.

New paper: “Good Violence, Bad Violence: The Ethics of Competition in Multiplayer Games”

Jose Zagal just presented our co-authored paper, “Good Violence, Bad Violence: The Ethics of Competition on Multiplayer Games” at the DiGRA-FDG 2016 conference. It’s coming out in the conference proceedings soon, but, if you just can’t wait, you can get your hot little hands on the final version right here.

There’s a more formal abstract, but here’s a quickie version:

There’s a whole set of fascinating questions about the ethics of competition. Some kinds of competition seem healthy and transformative – they take our hostile impulses and turn them into something positive for all involved. Other kinds of competition seem problematic, including, perhaps, trash-talking, spawn-camping, and ganking. But where’s the line, and how do we draw it? The paper argues against certain standing accounts that provide a simple, unidimensional answer. One target is the view, from the philosophy of sports, that all that matters is player consent. Instead, we use a magical sprinkle of Bernard Suits’ work to argue that morally good competition requires a whole host of factors in alignment, including player consent, successful game design, and psychological fit. Many older views tend to locate all the moral lifting in the intentions of the players. Our view distributes that responsibility between the players, the game designers, and the structure of the player community.

(This paper is the first published tip of a massive and sprawling project that I thought was just one quick idea, but has metastasized into multiple distinct papers on various aspects of the morality of game competition. Turns out: it’s a complex topic.)

 

The Philosophy and Aesthetics of Games

The Journal of the Philosophy of Games is here! Here is the call for papers for the inaugural issue, deadline March 1, 2016.

In addition, we are in the planning stages for a (hopefully) annual North American conference/workshop on the philosophy and aesthetics of games. If you’d like to participate, please drop me a line and we’ll put you on the mailing list.

The philosophy writing workshop sequence

Most undergraduates who come into my classroom seem to have no idea what it’s like to work on a paper with other human beings, or work on a paper in stages. They just sort of crap out a paper in one long go and throw it at you, starting with an empty screen and making it up as they went along. So I started forcing them to do what most serious writers do: write down their ideas at every stage, show them to other human beings, and get feedback. I tried to gather as many of the different methodologies I knew about for paper-writing, and turn them into a set of exercises. I’ve been fine-tuning it for about eight years.

The biggest thing is to break apart writing into a conceptual stage, and a communication stage. I mean doing an outline first, settling what you want to say, and then starting to actually write prose only after most of the conceptual work is settled. Most students, I think, start writing by opening up their word-processor, with no idea of where they’re going, and just start writing.  (I polled a class of thirty philosophy majors once about how many did at outline first, or anything like that, before starting to put prose to page. The answer: one.) I emphasize that separating the stages makes it easier: you don’t have to worry about communication when you’re figuring out your arguments, and when you’re writing, you can focus on the task of clearly presenting your ideas.

Most importantly, this introduces a low-cost stage where students are willing to change and revise their ideas.  I used to comment on rough drafts, but my students were almost never do any deep surgery when they’d already written a draft. It’s just too easy to get too attached to your own prose, and the sunk effort. But if you get the criticism in at the outline level, it’s so much emotionally easier to pivot. The moment I started doing outline-level work, the quality of argument in the final papers took a major jump up.

Students often hate it at first. And then they love it. Usually, they get frustrated and ego-wrecked for the first few sections. By the end of the term they’ve come to terms with it. And then so many of them come back to me in a year or two and tell me that they think this is how they actually learned to write, that they’ve been using this style of thing forever paper since, that this workshop sequence was one of the most valuable things they’d gone through.

There are many variations. Below is how I run it in a standard upper-division philosophy class. It’s designed for maximum impact for minimum in-class time expenditure. Here’s how it goes:

First Paper Outline Workshop

Students write a one to two page outline of their future paper, based on several provided essay prompts. It helps to be very explicit about the fact that I’m asking them to separate the conceptual stage from the communication stage. When they’re thinking about their arguments, they only think about their arguments. And by the time they’re actually writing a paper, they’re supposed to already know what they want to say, and only have to worry about how they’re going to say it. I say, for the outline, to not worry at all about reading clarity, and just to worry about their arguments.

They come into class with copies of their outline. I break them into groups of four or five. Each students takes about twenty minutes to stand up in front of their group, and present their thoughts. I tell them to do it in two stages: first stage, present the argument, where the audience only asks clarificatory questions. Second stage: the audience raises challenges, look for gaps in the argument. I emphasize that the goal in the second stage not to be antagonistic, or to crush the presenter, but to help them locate weaknesses in the paper, and to think together about how the paper might be improved. The goal is for each student to use their fellow students to locate weaknesses in their paper, so that they might be improved. And, more importantly, to figure out which criticisms are deepest and will lead to the most interesting dialogue

I also tell the students not to be too attached to where they originally thought their paper was going. It’s easy for students to get broken-hearted if their original line of argument seems to fall apart. But if you tell them that the goal of this session is not to defend their original argument, but to search for the most interesting version of their paper possible – if you tell them it’s OK to modulate, or restrict, or even switch directions for their conclusion – things go a lot better.

I give them colored markers and white-board space and usually make them sketch out their arguments in some sort of logical flow-chart. Usually, students resist doing this at first, but it seems to really help a lot of the groups talk about the structure of the argument.

I usually give them about 1.5 to 2 weeks to generate a final paper from this workshop.

Second Paper Outline Workshop

The second paper outline workshop is much like the first, but I provide no essay prompts. Typically, students struggle with choosing topics of appropriate size. Thus, the second paper outline workshop often forces students to focus their topic, refine their thesis, and clarify their direction of argument.

It’s really important here that students have a sense of ownership over their ideas. Having to present an original idea in front of their peers seems to force students towards coherency, and towards actually thinking about the motivations for taking on a particular topic. Without this, papers often have an automatic quality, as if the students are simply filling out a template passed down from on high. There’s a sense I often have that students have been taught this thing, this essay form that they plug through, which is completely disconnected from any sense of communication. But by doing peer presentations of their own ideas, the students suddenly seem to start viewing themselves as actually communicating, and their natural sense of clarity and order emerges.

Second Paper Draft Workshop

A week after the second paper outline workshop, the students bring a draft of the paper into class. I break them into groups of four or five, and circulate their papers, reading and commenting on them. I tell them that, though they’re free to raise criticisms, the primary goal of this session is to focus on writing clarity. I tell the students that they are not editors today – they don’t need to provide fixes. They are simply reporting their reading experience. They’ll write down where they become confused, what words they don’t understand, what questions they had, where they got lost about the structure. I say: “It’s often so hard to see your own writing, because you often don’t actually see what you put on the page – you just fill in what you wanted to say, from your own head. But a lot of times, the most important thing is so obvious to you that you don’t put it on the page. So now, as a reader, your job is to communicate to the writer what the experience of reading was like for you, where you stumbled or got lost, so the writer knows what got through into the writing, and what was left out.”

I have a theory here that most important thing here is being on the reading end of this exercise. Of course, getting feedback is great. But having to trudge through all these other students’ papers for an hour or more is the heart of it. They see: how easy it is to get lost, how important structural transitions are. They see how, over and over again, little tiny vaguenesses in grammar or simple pronoun ambiguity accumulate and destroy communication. They see how hard it is to understand argumentative material when it is anything less than absolutely lucid. And usually, in a batch of papers, there’s one or two that are much more clearly written, and it suddenly becomes clear to them how much work the little transitional and structural details are doing, to help the reader.

They usually end up in a state of misery and nausea, and a lot of the times what I hear is, “How the hell do YOU manage to read papers like this without shooting yourself?” And then they get their own papers back, covered with marks from their peers about the very same problems – the ambiguities, the confusions. And it’s so much easier to understand what’s missing in their paper when they’ve just been in the confused-reader role on their peers’ papers.

Peer-commentary is also, I think, more emotionally convincing. A lot of students are, I think, ready to dismiss their professor’s comments as coming from some weird, nit-picky, ivory-tower sort of place, but willing to accept their peers’ comments about unclarity or incomprehensibility.

The final drafts I get after this work are so, so, so much clearer.

Feel free to use these ideas in your own class. One request: if you do, let me know how it goes, and let me know any tweaks or improvements you come up with.