C. Wright Mills was overwhelmingly concerned with the political, moral, & social responsibility of intellectuals in postwar America. In a preface to The Sociological Imagination titled “On Intellectual Craftsmanship,” Mills lays out what he thinks defines Good Work in sociology. We find it pretty inspiring.
We are deeply interested in how people learn. We believe there’s much to be gained from the ethnographer’s lens. When we squint just right, we find that we’re surrounded by dispatches from the future of learning.
And that’s how these notes are intended: our attempts to pick out the bits and pieces from our day-to-day worth polishing up as we learn about learning. We thought it appropriate to kick off these notes with a bit of an homage to Mills—what follows is the result of liberally mixing, matching, excerpting, and tweaking “On Intellectual Craftsmanship.”
Enjoy (and be sure to check out the original)!
To the mathetic designer who feels to be part of the classic tradition, designing learning tools & experiences is above all the practice of a craft. At work on problems of substance, you are among those who are quickly made impatient and weary by elaborate discussions of method-and-theory-in-general; so much of it interrupts your proper studies. It is much better, you believe, to have one account by a working student of how you are going about your work than a dozen ‘codifications of procedure’ by specialists who as often as not have never done much work of consequence. Only by conversations in which experienced thinkers exchange information about their actual ways of working can a useful sense of method and theory be imparted.
It is best to begin, I think, by reminding you that the most admirable thinkers within the community you have chosen to join do not split their work from their lives. They seem to take both too seriously to allow such dissociation, and they want to use each for the enrichment of the other. Of course, such a split is the prevailing convention, deriving, I suppose, from the hollowness of the work in general now done. But you will have recognized that you have the exceptional opportunity of designing a way of living which will encourage the habits of good workmanship. Scholarship is a choice of how to live as well as a choice of career; whether they know it or not, the intellectual worker forms their own self as they work toward the perfection of his craft; to realize their own potentialities, and any opportunities that come their way, they construct a character which has at its core the qualities of the good workman.
What this means is that you must learn to use your life experience in your intellectual work: continually to examine and interpret it. In this sense craftsmanship is the center of yourself and you are personally involved in every intellectual product upon which you may work. To say that you can have experience, means, for one thing, that your past plays into and affects your present, and that it defines your capacity for future experience. As a mathetic designer, you have to control this rather elaborate interplay, to capture what you experience and sort it out; only in this way can you hope to use it to guide and test your reflection, and in the process shape yourself as an intellectual craftsman. But how can you do this? One answer is: you must set up a blog, which is, I suppose, a designer’s way of saying: keep a journal. Many creative writers keep journals; your need for systematic reflection demands it.
In such a blog as I am going to describe, there is joined personal experience and professional activities, studies under way and studies planned. In this blog, you, as an intellectual craftsman, will try to get together what you are doing intellectually and what you are experiencing as a person. Here you will not be afraid to use your experience and relate it directly to various work in progress. Your blog encourages you to capture ‘fringe-thoughts:’ various ideas which may be byproducts of everyday life, snatches of conversation overheard on the street, or, for that matter, dreams. Once noted, these may lead to more systematic thinking, as well as lend intellectual relevance to more directed experience.
You will have often noticed how carefully accomplished thinkers treat their own minds, how closely they observe their development and organize their experience. The reason they treasure their smallest experiences is that, in the course of a lifetime, modern man has so very little personal experience and yet experience is so important as a source of original intellectual work. To be able to trust yet to be skeptical of your own experience, I have come to believe, is one mark of the mature workman. This ambiguous confidence is indispensable to originality in any intellectual pursuit, and the blog is one way by which you can develop and justify such confidence.
By keeping an adequate blog and thus developing self-reflective habits, you learn how to keep your inner world awake. Whenever you feel strongly about events or ideas you must try not to let them pass from your mind, but instead to formulate them for your files and in so doing draw out their implications, show yourself either how foolish these feelings or ideas are, or how they might be articulated into productive shape. The blog also helps you build up the habit of writing. You cannot ‘keep your hand in’ if you do not write something at least every week. In developing the blog, you can experiment as a writer and thus, as they say, develop your powers of expression.
One of the very worst things that happens to educators is that they feel the need to write of their plans’ on only one occasion: when they are going to ask for money for a specific piece of research or ‘a project.’ It is as a request for funds that most ‘planning’ is done, or at least carefully written about. However standard the practice, I think this very bad: It is bound in some degree to be salesmanship, and, given prevailing expectations, very likely to result in painstaking pretensions; the project is likely to be presented, rounded out in some arbitrary manner long before it ought to be; it is often a contrived thing, aimed at getting the money for ulterior purposes, however valuable, as well as for the research presented. A practicing mathetic designer ought periodically to review the state of their problems and plans. A young investigator, just at the beginning of their independent work, ought to reflect on this, but they cannot be expected—and shouldn’t expect themselves—to get very far with it, and certainly they ought not to become rigidly committed to any one plan.
Any working designer who is well on his way ought at all times to have so many plans, which is to say ideas, that the question is always, which of them am I, ought I, to work on next? And you should keep a special little file for your master agenda, which you write and rewrite just for yourself and perhaps for discussion with friends. From time to time you ought to review this very carefully and purposefully, and sometimes too, when you is relaxed.
Some such procedure is one of the indispensable means by which your intellectual enterprise is kept oriented and under control. A widespread, informal interchange of such reviews of ‘the state of my problems’ among working mathetic designers is, I suggest, the only basis for an adequate statement of the leading problems of mathetic design. It is unlikely that in any free intellectual community there would be and certainly there ought not to be any ‘monolithic’ array of problems. In such a community, were it flourishing in a vigorous way, there would be interludes of discussion among individuals about future work. Three kinds of interludes—on problems, methods, theory—ought to come out of the work of mathetic designers, and lead into it again; they should be shaped by work-in-progress and to some extent guide that work. It is for such interludes that a professional association finds its intellectual reason for being. And for them too your own blog is needed.
Under various topics in your blog there are ideas, personal notes, excerpts from books, bibliographical items and outlines of projects. It is, I suppose, a matter of arbitrary habit, but I think you will find it well to sort all these items into a master blog of ‘projects,’ with many subdivisions. The topics, of course, change, sometimes quite frequently. In fact, the use of the blog encourages expansion of the categories which you use in your thinking. And the way in which these categories change, some being dropped and others being added-is an index of your intellectual progress and breadth. Eventually, the blog will come to be arranged according to several large projects, having many sub-projects that change from year to year.
All this involves the taking of notes. You will have to acquire the habit of taking a large volume of notes from any worth-while book you read—although, I have to say, you may get better work out of yourself when you read really bad books. The first step in translating experience—either of others’ writing—or of your own life, into the intellectual sphere, is to give it form. Merely to name an item of experience often invites you to explain it; the mere taking of a note from a book is often a prod to reflection. At the same time, of course, the taking of a note is a great aid in comprehending what you are reading.
But how is this blog—which so far must seem to you more like a curious sort of ‘literary’ journal—used in intellectual production? The maintenance of such a blog is intellectual production. It is a continually growing store of facts and ideas, from the most vague to the most finished.
In the intellectual condition of the learning sciences today, there is so much to do by way of initial ‘structuring’ (let the word stand for the kind of work I am describing) that much ‘empirical research’ is bound to be thin and uninteresting. Much of it, in fact, is a formal exercise for beginning students, and sometimes a useful pursuit for those who are not able to handle the more difficult substantive problems of social science. There is no more virtue in empirical inquiry as such than in reading as such. The purpose of empirical inquiry is to settle disagreements and doubts about facts, and thus to make arguments more fruitful by basing all sides more substantively. Facts discipline reason; but reason is the advance guard in any field of learning.
Although you may never be able to get the money with which to do many of the empirical studies you design, it is necessary that you continue designing them. For once you lay out an empirical study, even if you do not follow it through, it leads you to a new search for data, which often turn out to have unsuspected relevance to your problems. Just as it is foolish to design a field study if the answer can be found in a library, it is foolish to think you have exhausted the books before you have translated them into appropriate empirical studies, which merely means into questions of fact.
Empirical projects must promise, first, to have relevance for the first draft, they have to confirm it in its original form or they have to cause its modification. Or to put it more pretentiously, they must have implications for theoretical constructions. Second, the projects must be efficient and neat and, if possible, ingenious. By this I mean that they must promise to yield a great deal of material in proportion to the time and effort they involve. But how is this to be done? The most economical way to state a problem is in such a way as to solve as much of it as possible by reasoning alone.
By reasoning we try (a) to isolate each question of fact that remains; (b) to ask these questions of fact in such ways that the answers promise to help us solve further problems by further reasoning. To take hold of problems in this way, you have to pay attention to four stages; but it is usually best to go through all four many times rather than to get stuck in any one of them too long. The steps are:
- the elements and definitions that, from your general awareness of the topic, issue, or area of concern, you think you are going to have to take into account;
- the logical relations between these definitions and elements; building these little preliminary models, by the way, affords the best chance for the play of the sociological imagination;
- the elimination of false views due to omissions of needed elements, improper or unclear definitions of terms, or undue emphasis on some part of the range and its logical extensions
- statement and re-statement of the questions of fact that remain.
The third step, by the way, is a very necessary but often neglected part of any adequate statement of a problem. The popular awareness of the problem—the problem as an issue and as a trouble—must be carefully taken into account: that is part of the problem. Scholarly statements, of course, must be carefully examined and either used up in the re-statement being made, or thrown out.
I know we will agree that we should present your work in as clear and simple language as your subject and your thought about it permit. But as you may have noticed, a turgid and polysyllabic prose does seem to prevail in the learning sciences. I suppose those who use it believe they are imitating ‘physical science,’ and are not aware that much of that prose is not altogether necessary. It has in fact been said with authority that there is ‘a serious crisis in literacy’—a crisis in which learning scientists are very much involved. Is this peculiar language due to the fact that profound and subtle issues, concepts, methods, are being discussed? If not, then what are the reasons for it?
Such lack of ready intelligibility, I believe, usually has little or nothing to do with the complexity of subject matter, and nothing at all with profundity of thought. It has to do almost entirely with certain confusions of the academic writer about their own status.
In many academic circles today anyone who tries to write in a widely intelligible way is liable to be condemned as a ‘mere literary man’ or, worse still, ‘a mere journalist.’ Perhaps you have already learned that these phrases, as commonly used, only indicate the spurious inference: superficial-because-readable. The academic man in America is trying to carry on a serious intellectual life in a social context that often seems quite set against it. His prestige must make up for many of the dominant values he has sacrificed by choosing an academic career. His claims for prestige readily become tied to his self-image as a ‘scientist.’ To be called a ‘mere journalist’ makes him feel undignified and shallow. It is this situation, I think, that is often at the bottom of the elaborate vocabulary and involved manner of speaking and writing. It is less difficult to learn this manner than not. It has become a convention—those who do not use it are subject to moral disapproval. It may be that it is the result of an academic closing of the ranks on the part of the mediocre, who understandably wish to exclude those who win the attention of intelligent people, academic and otherwise.
To write is to raise a claim for the attention of readers. That is part of any style. To write is also to claim for oneself at least status enough to be read. Young academics are very much involved in both claims, and because they feel their lack of public position, they often put the claim for their own status before their claim for the attention of the reader to what they are saying. In fact, in America, even the most accomplished men of knowledge do not have much status among wide circles and publics. In this respect, the case of education has been an extreme one: in large part habits of style stem from the time when educators had little status even with other academic men. Desire for status is one reason why academics slip so readily into unintelligibility. And that, in turn, is one reason why they do not have the status they desire. A truly vicious circle—but one out of which any mathetic designer can easily break.
To overcome the academic prose you have first to overcome the academic pose. It is much less important to study grammar and Anglo-Saxon roots than to clarify your own answers to these three questions:
- How difficult and complex after all is my subject? (Very difficult, but not very complex at all. After all, everyone learns!)
- When I write, what status am I claiming for myself? (Just that of another learner and occasionally another designer who has spent some time paying attention to how people learn and how we might better support learning.)
- For whom am I trying to write? (First of all, for others working to create compelling learning experiences. And secondly, for learners and the people who care about them.)
From what I have said, you will understand that in practice we never ‘start working on a project;’ we are already ‘working,’ either in a personal vein, in the files, in taking notes after browsing, or in guided endeavors. Following this way of living and working, we will always have many topics that we want to work out further. After we decide on some ‘release,’ we will try to use our entire blog, our browsing in libraries, our conversation, our selections of people—all for this topic or theme. We are trying to build a little world containing all the key elements which enter into the work at hand, to put each in its place in a systematic way, continually to readjust this framework around developments in each part of it. Merely to live in such a constructed world is to know what is needed: ideas, facts, ideas, figures, ideas.
Thinking is a struggle for order and at the same time for comprehensiveness. We must not stop thinking too soon—or we will fail to know all that we should; we cannot leave it to go on forever, or we will burst. It is this dilemma, I suppose, that makes reflection, on those rare occasions when it is more or less successful, the most passionate endeavor of which the human being is capable.
Perhaps I can best summarize what I have been trying to say in the form of a few precepts and cautions:
- Be a good craftsman: Avoid any rigid set of procedures. Above all, seek to develop and to use the sociological imagination. Avoid the fetishism of method and technique. Urge the rehabilitation of the unpretentious intellectual craftsman, and try to become such a craftsman yourself. Let every man be his own methodologist; let every man be his own theorist; let theory and method again become part of the practice of a craft. Stand for the primacy of the individual scholar; stand opposed to the ascendancy of research teams of technicians. Be one mind that is on its own confronting the problems of man and society.
- Urge upon yourself and upon others the simplicity of clear statement. Use more elaborated terms only when you believe firmly that their use enlarges the scope of your sensibilities, the precision of your references, the depth of your reasoning. Avoid using unintelligibility as a means of evading the making of judgments upon society-and as a. means of escaping your readers’ judgments upon your own work.
- Examine in detail little facts and their relations, and big unique events as well. But do not be fanatic: relate all such work, continuously and closely, to the level of historical reality. Do not assume that somebody else will do this for you, sometime, somewhere. Take as your task the defining of this reality; formulate your problems in its terms; on its level try to solve these problems and thus resolve the issues and the troubles they incorporate. And never write more than three pages without at least having in mind a solid example.
- Do not study merely one small milieu after another; study the social structures in which milieu are organized. In terms of these studies of larger structures, select the milieux you need to study in detail, and study them in such a way as to understand the interplay of milieux with structure. Proceed in a similar way in so far as the span of time is concerned. Do not be merely a journalist, however precise a one. Know that journalism can be a great intellectual endeavor, but know also that yours is greater! So do not merely report minute researches into static knife-edge moments, or very short-term runs of time. Take as your time-span the course of human history, and locate within it the weeks, years, epochs you examine.
- Realize that your aim is a fully comparative understanding of mathetics that have appeared and that do now exist in world history. Realize that to carry it out you must avoid the arbitrary specialization of prevailing academic departments. Specialize your work variously, according to topic, and above all according to significant problem. In formulating and in trying to solve these problems, do not hesitate, indeed seek, continually and imaginatively, to draw upon the perspectives and materials, the ideas and methods, of any and all sensible studies of man and society. They are your studies; they are part of what you are a part of; do not let them be taken from you by those who would close them off by weird jargon and pretensions of expertise.
- Know that you inherit and are carrying on a tradition of classic social analysis; so try to understand man not as an isolated fragment, not as an intelligible field or system in and of itself. Try to understand men and women as historical and social actors, and the ways in which the variety of men and women are intricately selected and intricately formed by the variety of human societies. Before you are through with any piece of work, no matter how indirectly on occasion, orient it to the central and con- tinuing task of understanding the structure and the drift, the shaping and the meanings, of your own period, the terrible and magnificent world of human society in the second half of the twentieth century.
- Do not allow public issues as they are officially formulated, or troubles as they are privately felt, to determine the problems that you take up for study. Above all, do not give up your moral and political autonomy by accepting in somebody else’s terms the illiberal practicality of the bureaucratic ethos or the liberal practicality of the moral scatter. Know that many personal troubles cannot be solved merely as troubles, but must be understood in terms of public issues -and in terms of the problems of history- making. Know that the human meaning of public issues must be revealed by relating them to personal troubles-and to the problems of the individual life. Know that the problems of social science, when adequately formulated, must include both troubles and issues, both biography and history, and the range of their intricate relations. Within that range the life of the individual and the making of societies occur; and within that range the sociological imagination has its chance to make a difference in the quality of human life in our time.