What are English Majors Saying about Thinking and Writing?

In the first part of our two-course introductory sequence to the English major I ask students to write an essay about their experiences with academic writing. Their five-page essays allow me to see how students think about writing; and their thinking provides the occasion for an extended discussion about motivations for doing intellectual work in English. Their essays also make visible some impressions of our new first-year course, Thinking and Writing (ITW).

Not surprisingly, thirty-four of the forty essays on academic writing I’ve read this year mention the ITW course. The students who mention ITW confess that the opportunity to write about something that mattered to them is both exciting and terrifying. They express uncertainty about completing a 15-20 page essay. They describe hours of work in the library and their surprise that in fact others have thought about their areas of interest. And they point out how skeptical they are that the area they are writing about is interesting enough for a semester-long project.

If anything, we can count on students coming out of ITW with a vocabulary to talk about thinking and writing as a process. (More so than the students who completed our essay writing course.) Writing in a substantive intellectual context, they tell me, has taught them that good thinking takes time. Moreover, they understand that persuasion requires curiosity and careful reading of, in the memorable words of one student, “interesting people with different views on a topic.” Another student is able to say it this way:  “The most effective essays are written by those who truly believe what they are saying, have a well rounded knowledge of the subject, and have put a lot of thought into how to address opposing claims.”

In addition to understanding writing as a process these students have experienced the challenge of being asked to think about something. Again and again, they point to the unexpected freedom of being asked to write about something they care about. Describing her experience with the semester-long essay, one student excitedly describes developing a “tone of authority combined with credibility, a strong format and use of language.” Another student confesses that he now goes into an argumentative essay believing that he will come out of the process “with a whole new perspective.” And yet another student, writing about encountering adulthood, comments that she was able to “share her experiences with love, death, happiness, and sorrow, and connect it all back to show how these experiences helped me grow and mature.” And in doing so, she concludes, “I learned a lot about myself as a person, and was able to explore “my beliefs, my opinions, and my biases.”

In listening to these testimonials we begin to hear the kinds of changes that take place as students navigate the difficult transition to college-level writing. These changes-as longitudinal studies of student writers confirm time after time-do not necessarily appear on the page. Rather the changes take place in the writer. The most lasting of these changes, it follows, are those that involve the experience of being challenged to think on one’s own as well as receiving support to meet those challenges. One student writes, “I put an extreme amount of effort into this essay, and the final product was a huge success.” Another student, however, says something that has stayed with me. “At the end I did not get a really good grade. But I was interested in learning. And I found out a lot about the modern world.”

Such comments may speak to the dedication of those who of us teach the thinking and writing course. But these  student, more importantly, make visible the kinds of changes students experience in their first college-level writing course. One question is whether a curriculum that takes thinking and writing to be one of the primary pathways across the four years is a curriculum will measure up to the more ambitious goals our students may now be setting for themselves. The question is whether we are ready to meet them where they are.

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