Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Thinking on Paper

The more papers I read by my undergraduate students, the more I come away convinced of this: that their problems have less to do with the mechanics of writing (though many have problems here as well) as with the thinking that goes into a piece of writing. 

I'm not sure that a lot of my students really understand what is meant by the verb to think. That the word is a verb gives us a strong clue to set out with. Thinking is a process; it doesn't simply happen, or happen simply. It is NOT easy, nor is it meant to be, any more than lifting weights, running a marathon, or doing a valve job is meant to be easy. It takes time; it takes effort. Thinking is an active process. It is work. It requires effort.

Though they say they hate to write, what many of my students reveal to me (in writing to me about their relationship to writing) is that they resent and resist the process of thinking. They resent the necessary effort. It hurts their brains—just as lifting weights hurts other parts of the body. Anything we do to improve our minds "hurts our brains." To grow in any way is to experience—if not pain–discomfort. If it doesn't hurt, then you're not growing.

What my students have said to me very candidly in their papers—though this may not have been what they thought they were saying—is that they want to learn and grow; they want to become better at writing, as long as it doesn't hurt. In other words, as long as it requires a modest effort or, better still, no effort at all.

Sorry, folks: growth doesn't work that way, and neither does learning. If your parents didn't teach you that, then I'm sorry. But you'll learn it now. You get back what you put in.

As for thinking (and I'm talking here not about daydreaming or random thoughts or feelings, but about analytical thinking, the kind of thinking that looks into ideas, that examines and inspects them, that digs for deeper truths), it takes us beyond our perceptions, beyond common knowledge, beyond assumptions and opinions toward something deeper, toward—hopefully—ideas that we can genuinely claim as our own. Or, at the very least, thinking takes us beyond the ideas and opinions that we already have to new ideas and opinions. 

To think, one must question. When one makes a statement, when one says, for instance, "I hate writing about boring topics," one should ask oneself, on behalf of the reader but also one one's own behalf, a) what are these topics and b) what makes them boring? By way of the first answer one student of mine wrote in a paper, "boring subjects like Shakespeare" and left it at that—as if it were plain as day that Shakespeare is a boring subject—as if this were knowledge as common as the roundness of the earth. Well, maybe a majority of college undergraduates feel this way. But even that doesn't make it true (truth, by the way, is not a popularity contest).

If my students were to examine this statement, this idea, this notion that Shakespeare is boring, if he or she were to think about it, he or she might realize that root of the boredom lies not in the subject  of the sentence "Shakespeare bores me," but in its object. It is the "me" who supplies the boredom, not Shakespeare (whose plays have been amusing people for 400 years, and thus, whatever else he is, is not "boring"). What my student experiences when asked to write about Shakespeare is not boredom but mental and intellectual paralysis: he (or she) has nothing to say, or rather he is unwilling or unable to pierce the thick hide of insecurity that divides him from his own perceptions and feelings, and therefore unable to get at what lies beneath. The thing that bores him is not Shakespeare but himself as he sits there with a mind as blank as the page in front of him. To say in such an instance that Shakespeare is boring makes about as much sense as saying "the blank screen on my computer is boring me." It's not my mind that's empty—it's the computer!

Thinking hurts. But it hurts less the more we get used to doing it, and many of my younger students are not used to thinking analytically. They have managed to go through twelve years of lower education with little if any true engagement with that process. Instead they have spent their time memorizing things, learning by wrote, passing tests and getting grades. Thinking has not been a part of the curriculum. They are not used to it, and those who ask them to think are asking them to use muscles that burn with the slightest strain. In this way among others the system has failed them. 

The good news is that these muscles can be developed at any point in life. It's a simple matter of being willing to endure a modest amount of "pain" (I put the word in quotation marks, because, really, it's not even as painful as a small headache). To think is to ask a series of questions that takes us deeper and deeper into whatever subject we are looking into. If we write, "I have no time for writing," the question to ask then is: why? And then we discover, perhaps, that we have more time than we thought. Or we discover that our lives are truly such that we have no time not only for writing, but for self-examination (this is true for many if not most people).

When I say that my students don't know how to think, I hope they don't take this as an insult. It's not meant to be: it's only meant to be an observation. It is not a negative comment on their intelligence. I find most if not all of my students to be intelligent; some are witty as well; a few are wise beyond their years. But the resource of thinking has not been developed in them. They pass judgments and make statements in writing that clearly show this. They don't question themselves. They are content with having an opinion and feel no need to challenge or defend it. They want to "express themselves," which, translated, means they don't want to have to take any responsibility for their ideas or sentiments, to have to verify or back them up with any evidence or facts: indeed, they resent this requirement. "If it's my opinion it's my opinion," they say. "I don't need to defend or argue it!" No—and you can be ignorant, too; I suppose that's your right. But that ignorance won't serve you or society. It will only serve to blind you to your own blindness. It will protect you from ever realizing how ignorant you are. This is the strategy of the ostrich that buries its head in the sand to protect itself from its predators. In this case the predator is ignorance; the enemy is self-awareness; the thing most feared, paradoxically, is that one might actually learn something that might really protect one.

Students, together let us help and encourage each other to think. Let us become thinkers, and be not just better writers for it, but better people. That's my goal for you all in this class. If you learn to write, that's good; if you learn to think analytically—and better still to make a habit of thinking—that's better. That's powerful.

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