ENGLISH 101. ACADEMIC WRITING
Instructions for Lesson 4
1. To get started with thinking about research, read Hacker's
A Pocket Style Manual, pages 100-111, and view
Librarian Barbara Kobritz' tutorial on evidence.
Diana Hacker's A Pocket Style Manual is our rule book for Academic Writing. You can't play the game without the rules. Take a look at the manual, and notice notice its general layout:
If you have been unable to get a copy of Hacker's A Pocket Style Manual (4th edition), please notify Dr. G immediately, so that we can resolve the problem. This book is essential to your ability to pass this course.
Hacker's companion web site for A Pocket Style Manual contains additional information about all of the subjects in the book. If the book is not clear on some point, or if you want further information, check out the web site for further help. When you sign in to the web site, you will be asked for your instructor's email; use email@example.com.
We don't know much about the physical campus of Plato's Academy. The Romans who destroyed it were so thorough that there is nothing left to excavate, and there is even some disagreement over the exact location of the site. We do know that the main building was what we today call a "library" (that is, a place of books; from Latin "liber," meaning book). Of course, Plato had no books, at least no books like ours, because he lived about eighteen centuries before Gutenberg's book-making machine, and about five centuries before the codexes that Romans called libri. (A codex is a set of sewn up manuscript pages, bound between covers. Codex technology was largely responsible for the great burst of literature in the first and second centuries CE--but that's a story for another day.).
So Plato didn't know the word "library." He housed his collection of scrolls and manuscripts in a "museum"--that is, a temple of the Muses. The goddess Muses personified all of the different kinds of music that traditionally had been played and sung in Greek, including songs that had been recited from memory long before the introduction of writing. This group included, among others, heroic poetry (personified by the Muse Calliope), history (Clio), tragedy (Melpomene), comedy (Thalia), astronomy (Urania), religious hymn (Polyhymnia), love song (Erato), dance (Terpsichore), and instrumental (Euterpe). Plato was a music buff and probably collected manuscripts related to many of these old song traditions, as well as writings in philosophy, government, mathematics and other up-to-date subjects.
The document collection at the Academy led to bigger things. It inspired Plato's student Aristotle to gather manuscripts from everywhere in the known world and to assemble the contents into the first true encyclopedia of human knowledge. Moreover, Aristotle's massive project, in turn, prompted his most famous pupil, Alexander the Great, to endow the greatest literary collection in the ancient world, the renowned museum at Alexandria, Egypt. In its heyday the Alexandrian library held some 500,000 to 750,000 manuscripts. It became the primary model for modern libraries in the West. Nearly all academic collections today, even in colleges and universities having strong religious affiliations, feature diverse subjects and diverse points of view--in contrast to the much smaller, cult-centered libraries that had been the norm before Plato.
Yet, in spite of his manuscript collecting, Plato was not the usual sort of antiquarian who simply loves musty lore and quaint old books. He clearly saw that literature of the past and present could be, and often was, misinformed. Plato's Socrates--the world's earliest literary critic on record--regularly takes shots at poets for lying, for thinking incorrect thoughts, and for promoting immorality. In almost every dialogue, Socrates manages to work into the conversation some literary criticism or another. For example, as we already have seen in "Euthyphro," he disagrees with a poet named Stasinus who wrote a foolish verse that "where there is fear there is also reverence" ("Euthyphro" 12a). Also in this dialogue Socrates refuses to believe the old story of baby Zeus and his infant-eating father Kronos, a story told in the archaic poet Hesiod's Birth of the Gods, c. 700 BCE.
One of the foremost groups that prosecuted Socrates for impiety was the local poets' society whose members no doubt were angry about his criticisms. Apparently, they were unused to having critics scour through their works for fabrications and mistakes.
Plato's Socrates is a model for academics both in literacy (he reads) and in skepticism (he often finds fault with what he reads). He has genuine curiosity about science, philosophy, poetry, and mathematics, and yet he maintains a detached perspective on all subjects. He's interested in truth, not in books for their own sake. We can't go very far wrong in our own research if, like him, we search for truth, and nothing but the truth, never accepting anybody's claims about anything without the closest examination that we are capable of making.
A darker side: the Academy on grants
The land on which to build the Academy was granted to Plato by the City of Athens. We don't know whether the city attached conditions to this grant, beyond the fact that Plato was required to run a cemetery association there, but we do know that the school developed an expertise in government consulting. It trained young people for careers in politics, and it may have helped to draw up city charters, constitutions, laws and perhaps other organizational documents for Greek city states. Apparently, Plato sometimes traveled to advise governments on leadership training and government administration. In any case his dialogues often reflect these political interests.
We can begin our practice of skepticism by questioning the Academy itself. Did truth or politics come first? Was there ever really a detached, objective search for truth at the Academy, or were these interests compromised by the political circumstances of the school and its leaders? Did the academics claim to pursue the truth while they in fact followed a hidden political agenda?
There's little question about worldly activities in academia today: education of students is one business, but consulting for government and industry is another. Much of the research that takes place in the modern academy is grant work, written by academics but funded by non-academics who have financial or other practical interests at stake in the outcomes of the research. For example, a pharmaceutical industry trade association might provide money to a university to write and publish a study on the costs of regulation in the pharmaceutical business. Or the same study might be funded by federal or state grant money, sponsored by a particular politician or group of politicians with ties to the industry or ties to its adversaries. In any case, what on its surface appears to be an independently researched academic study may in fact be propaganda in disguise.
Our job is a whole lot more complicated than looking up the answers. As we begin our search for truth, we cannot assume that any sources are unbiased, even if they appear to be academic or scholarly sources. Let's ask: who has paid for this research that we are reading? Why was it written? Many reputable researchers acknowledge their sources of financial support, but they are a minority. Can we trust any source when we don't know the motivation or money behind it?
Of course, bias occurs outside of academia, too. The next time that you are watching the "news" on CNN, but most of the stories seem to be about the lives of celebrities--especially movie stars and sports figures and pop singers and the same personalities who regularly appear on Larry King Live--remember that CNN is owned by Time-Warner, Inc., a media company in the entertainment business. The other major networks, like NBC (owned by General Electric), ABC (owned by Disney), CBS (owned by Viacom) and Fox (owned by NewsCorp), have similar ownership structures and similar businesses. The owners are conglomerates with news businesses (which tend to lose money) along side of other, larger and more profitable businesses, like film and TV entertainment studios. Their "news" programming obviously can be used to feed these other, more lucrative businesses. Moreover, it's not exactly in the corporate interests of these media giants to tangle with the President, members of Congress or bureaucrats who regulate and tax them.
Under these circumstances, how objective is our "news"? Do Americans, if they are informed from sources such as these, really know what's going on in the world? What did they know about Iraq or Mogadishu? Do they really know what's going on inside corporate America? What did they know about Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, or Arthur Andersen?
One of the most obvious uses of language is to deceive. All of us have experienced broken promises, lies, and various forms of false talk in our everyday lives. There is little reason to suppose that words become true when they happen to be issued from a printing press, even a university printing press. Always question the biases that possibly could underlie and distort what you read.
In primary and secondary education, reading skill is simply the ability to understand what the words are saying. In higher education, however, the goal is to learn to read between the lines--that is, to see with insight beyond what the words are saying, to evaluate their truthfulness and importance. In your search for truth in your reading, always ask:
As a general rule, when you write a paper for an academic audience, stick to academic sources if you can. Keep away from newspapers and popular magazines. Insofar as you can, look in academic journals instead. Avoid publications that are stuffed with advertising. Avoid publications that have clear political, commercial, social or religious agendas (unless you are writing specifically about or for these same groups). For example, if you're researching a drug therapy, don't trust the literature of the pharmaceutical company that manufactures the drug, and don't trust the literature of that company's competitors, either. Always try to assess the bias or self-interest that might distort anything that you read. Think like Socrates: BE SKEPTICAL.
Look at the writer's education and professional credentials, too. In general, academic readers are going to pay more attention to other academics than to non-academics. In assessing sources, ask: what are the writer's academic degrees, honors, teaching positions or research fellowships, and prior scholarly or scientific publications? Is the writer's educational background relevant to the subject matter that the writer is discussing? (A PhD in philosophy, for example, isn't necessarily expert in genetics or terrorism or anything else outside the field of philosophy.)
Similarly, avoid books from popular publishing houses, when you can. Few best sellers carry any academic weight at all. Look for books published by academic publishers: Oxford University Press, Harvard University Press, Cornell University Press, and the like. (Some of these titles will be too technical to understand, of course.) Books from reputable government printing offices and professional organizations (other than political lobbying organizations) generally are acceptable , but some of these can be highly controversial (United Nations publications, for example). Similarly, in journals and magazines, make use of those periodicals that are connected to a school or that at least have academic editors. In some media, such as newspapers, there are almost no academic alternatives, so you may be stuck with non-academic sources.
Always look for books and articles that are well documented with footnotes or endnotes or works cited references. In general, avoid books and articles that do not clearly identify the author's sources of information. Of course, expert scholars sometimes write popular books that skim over the finer points of research to elaborate on the broader points of interest for the general public. These kinds of books may have few or no citations identifying the author's sources, so you have to trust that what the author has to say is true or reasonable. Few authors deserve such trust.
Look for longer articles and books, not the shortest articles that you can find. Length is an indicator of depth.
When using on-line sources, stick to those that are listed or catalogued in your academic library's databases. If you have to expand into a general search online, however, avoid web pages with dot-com addresses. Use sites with dot-edu addresses instead, but understand that these edu pages do not have the authority of academic print sources. The reason for their second-class status is that almost anyone connected with a school can post a page on the school's web site, but printed journals and books must pass the scrutiny of academic peer review and professional editors. A few academics (especially among older faculty) still don't use the web and are dour about those who do use it. I am a frequent traveler and well aware that the internet is the Misinformation Stupor Highway.
Consult academic librarians --that is, librarians working in college and university libraries. They can be very helpful in steering research and pointing out reputable sources. It's their job, and they are experts in it. I highly recommend consulting with one or more librarians at the beginning of any research project. Their advice can save you a great deal of frustrating search time.
When in doubt about the legitimacy or value of a source, the best choice always is to ask your instructor. Most teachers will be very happy to help guide your research by suggesting where to search and what to avoid. Some will give different advice than you find this page, and they of course will be right (for that course).
Left: the probable site of Plato's Academy (outside of Athens) as it appears today, a little rubble with some contemporary litter strewn over it. Plato formally chartered this ground from the city as a cemetery association, and eventually he was buried here, and many other famous academicians after him died and were buried here, too, but the graveyard was desecrated almost 1500 years ago so that we hardly can imagine that this place once was considered sacred or heroic.
Left: Great Al, a student of a student of a student of Socrates. In his empire literacy and scholarship reached levels that would not be surpassed until the Renaissance, almost 2000 years later.
Left: the cynic Diogenes (cir. 412 - 323 BCE), a Socratic follower, is said to have spent his life vainly searching for an honest man. Ironically, a false image of him now has been affixed to the Torot card of "The Hermit." The historical Diogenes apparently would have nothing to do with the Academy but preferred instead to preach to the inner city poor. His reputation was tarred by academics who wrote that he did not believe in civilization but fornicated and relieved himself in public like a dog. We do not have Diogenes' writings today, so we don't know what he said about his rival teachers, but he must have struck a nerve!
How well can a democracy function when the people get their knowledge from tabloids and sound bites?
LEARN TO READ BETWEEN THE LINES!