From Aristotle to crime scene: A forensics of the academic essay

Another article in TEXT Journal, this one on academic writing …

Writing in the academy is almost always about making a claim, or ‘case’, based on evidence, as one does in court: its rhetoric is forensic (L. forensis ‘in open court, public’, from forum), in Aristotle’s sense. Just as forensic rhetoric takes as a given the laws of the polis and is directed at persuading a judge (Aristotle 1991: 80-82), academic writing assumes a set of rules (one must be sincere, demonstrate one’s argument using evidence, and obey a certain decorum) and is written to persuade an assessor, namely a teacher or peer. And, since the Harvard ‘forensic system’ of essay writing in the late 1870s (Russell 2002: 51-63), it has often been taught in the language of forensic rhetoric: in particular, the apocryphal ‘rhetorical triangle’ of persuasion by ethos, logos and pathos (Booth 1963; Kinneavy 1971) and the informal logic of the enthymeme (Toulmin 1958). At its best, academic writing provides a forum to animate and air ideas. As such, it is amenable to what Eyal Weizman calls forensis: ‘a critical practice’ that ‘interrogate[s] the relation between … fields and forums’ (Weizman 2014: 9; compare Braidotti 2013 on the ‘forensic turn’). For Weizman, a field is a ‘contested object or site [of investigation]’ and a forum is ‘the place where the results of an investigation are presented and contested’ (Ibid.). Where forensics allows objects like bodies, weapons and scenes to ‘speak’, forensis can give voice to sites like academic architecture (Sturm and Turner 2011), forms (McLean and Hoskin 1998) or even essays. Here I explore the academic essay as a forensic site, ‘an entry-point from which to reconstruct larger processes, events and social relations, conjunctions of actors and practices, structures and technologies’ of the academy (Weizman 2014: 18-19). The academic essay is at once a report on research, an argument, a fractal structure, a means of assessment and, as this essay will argue, an exemplar of and exercise in performativity (Sturm 2012).

Digital Caricature

A new article by Stephen Turner and me about the digitas published in DHQ: Digital Humanities Quarterly (link):

For Vilém Flusser, philosopher of technology, the advent of photography heralded the return of the image from its subjection to the linearity of written language. Here we extend his concept of the “techno-image” (successor of the pre-historical hand-drawn image and the historical printed word), to consider the digital image-text that today dominates reading and writing. Our question: Can we reader-writers think the digitas, or are we doomed to perform its functions in an “automati[c]” or “robotiz[ed]” fashion, as Flusser put it, so that, if anything, the digitas now “thinks” us? The short answer to our question is as follows: we can think the digitas, but only if we consider it, firstly, as a kind of writing (“digital orthography”) and, secondly, as a caricature of thinking, both impoverished and, dare we say it, funny (“digital caricature”).

Sommer, E. "Portrait Vilém Flusser". Vilém Flusser Archive. 2012. Reproduced by permission of Ed Sommer.

Sommer, E. “Portrait Vilém Flusser”. Vilém Flusser Archive. 2012. Reproduced by permission of Ed Sommer.

The Cult of Done Manifesto

Perfectionism is procrastination.

After Voltaire, La Bégueule (1772): “the better [le mieux] is the enemy of the good” (compare Jacques Lacan on beauty as our saviour from truth; see The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-60217).

From Bre Pettis and Kio Stark comes a recipe for productivity (Bre Pettis: I Make Things, 3 Mar. 2009):

  1. There are three states of being. Not knowing, action and completion.
  2. Accept that everything is a draft. It helps to get it done.
  3. There is no editing stage.
  4. Pretending you know what you’re doing is almost the same as knowing what you are doing, so just accept that you know what you’re doing even if you don’t and do it.
  5. Banish procrastination. If you wait more than a week to get an idea done, abandon it.
  6. The point of being done is not to finish but to get other things done.
  7. Once you’re done you can throw it away.
  8. Laugh at perfection. It’s boring and keeps you from being done.
  9. People without dirty hands are wrong. Doing something makes you right.
  10. Failure counts as done. So do mistakes.
  11. Destruction is a variant of done.
  12. If you have an idea and publish it on the internet, that counts as a ghost of done.
  13. Done is the engine of more.

Provost - The Cult of Done

Terra (In)cognita: Mapping Academic Writing in TEXT: Journal of Writing and Writing Courses

My essay on the essay has been published at Text: Journal of Writing and Writing Courses. It’s called “Terra (In)cognita: Mapping Academic Writing“:

Students and teachers alike bemoan the sorry state of academic writing, as both readers and writers. Nonetheless, they are loath to venture beyond what they take to be the well-known territory of the academic (read: expository) essay for fear of going astray, or unsettling their readers. Here I aim to map the academic essay as it is practised for the most part . . . but also as it might be practised. I offer a cartography — and something of a history — of the ‘point-first’ and ‘point-last’ essay. The former dominates the academy, but the latter is truer to the origin of the essay. Point-first essays allow writers to show what they know, to negotiate known territory (terra cognita), hence their dominance in the academy; point-last essays enable writers (and thereby readers) to find out what they think, to navigate unknown territory (terra incognita), where lie dragons . . . or riches.

Let’s Do the Time Warp: Becoming Productive as a Scholarly Writer

Because to be productive = to write in the ‘accountabalist’ university, perhaps the problem for scholars today, especially teaching scholars like myself, is how to make time to write — and how to make best use of that time.

For me, being or rather becoming productive as a scholarly writer is not about whether or not my “research environment” is productive; that is out of my control. Nor is it really about freedom from teaching or other pressures — a kind of negative freedom. Rather, it is about freeing myself to write: what might be called positive freedom.⁠ I am, I think, my own worst enemy when it comes to writing (and I’m sure this is the case with most academics — though they might not care . . . or dare to admit it). Or rather, if I am to write well — or, at least, better — the easiest place to start is with me.

Freeing myself to write, then, involves two tasks: learning to manage my time better to allow time for writing (see Boice 1997), and learning not to be too careful too early in the writing process to allow writing to do its work (see Elbow 2010).⁠ Because I know that once I start writing I never have trouble doing it, I must allow myself to write and to free write.

Here is the essay.


What follows draws heavily on Mark Nichol’s “8 Types of Parenthetical Phrases” (16 Jul 2012, at the excellent Daily Writing Tips site.


A non-essential phrase that can be inserted at the start, in the middle or at the end of the sentence, a parenthetical phrase serves one of eight functions. (By way of an example, the opening phrase here is a parenthetical — an appositive, in fact — as is “by way of an example.”) Because it is grammatically inessential, it should be set off by commas.

1. Absolute phrase: An absolute phrase (a noun/pronoun + a participle) modifies the entire sentence, acting like an adverb. It is “absolute” because it is grammatically independent of the rest of the sentence.

Jane stayed up late, writing her report.

2. Appositive: An appositive is a noun or noun phrase that is juxtaposed (“apposed”) to another to rename it, i.e., to identify or explain it, or supplement its meaning.

If you, an experienced hiker, had trouble, how hard will it be for me?

3. Aside: An aside is a phrase or clause that qualifies a sentence. (Compare interjections, which are “content-less.”) It can also be placed within parentheses or between em dashes — like so — to intensify its effect.

Her friend, I hesitate to say, has betrayed her.

4. Free modifier: A free modifier adds detail about the subject (“I” here). It is “free” because it can be positioned wherever it sounds best.

I stood up and, brushing off my pants, continued along my way.

5. Interjection: An interjection — here, strictly speaking, an exclamation — injects into the sentence information (or rather, an emotional cue because it is “content-less”) about the writer or speaker’s state of mind.

Well, what do you have to say for yourself?

6. Introductory phrase: An introductory phrase precedes the main clause to provide contextual information.

On vacation, I had an epiphany.

7. Resumptive modifier: A resumptive modifier “extends” a sentence by repeating a word and adding detail, i.e., resuming the sentence.

She was exhausted, more exhausted than she had ever been before.

8. Summative modifier: A summative modifier extends a sentence by summarizing an idea expressed in the main clause (hence “summative”) and adding detail about it.

We headed toward the summit, the goal we had anticipated all week.

(To remember the eight functions, think “the AA aficionado made amends with the IRS for his intemperance.”)