So many student writers conceive of how close they are to finishing a paper in terms of how many words or pages they have to write to get the minimum threshhold. If a teacher hands out an assignment without a page length requirement, the first question will likely be, “How many pages does it need to be?” If that teacher wishes to amp up the students’ stress level to eleven, s/he need only respond, “As long as it needs to be.” Students in our Writing Studio routinely describe a paper that is “only two pages” as easy and a paper of ten or more pages as a monumental task.
For more experienced writers with a lot of expertise in their subject area, the reverse is true. Condensing a complex idea into two pages can be much more of a headache than it can be writing ten pages.
Why is writing longer papers so hard for student writers? How does someone get past that fear of the longer paper?
Personally, I’ve experience with being in both camps. Even as a graduate student, I hated writing longer papers. Now, most of my blog posts are way too long even after I go through and cut out what I feel is unessential. Part of the trouble I had with writing longer essays is that I was raised on the five-paragraph essay, which has a very limited length. Having to leave that essay behind to write a longer paper created anxiety and fears that I was somehow doing something wrong. And that anxiety made writing a miserable experience. Only when I started to read through better essays and take them apart, did I see how the longer essay is written.
The best essays change our mind. The best longer essays change our minds multiple times over the course of the essay. A great longer essay is going to present a new understanding of one big topic, but that understanding comes from a thorough analysis of many of the relevant smaller threads of that topic.
The way these essays generate so many threads is by thinking critically about all that comes before them. They make observations about the world around them, they try to explain those observations given what they already know, and then they adopt an attitude of skepticism. In other words, length comes from continuously asking the questions, “Do I really understand this?”, “How can I confirm that understanding?”, and “What other information do I know or can I find to explain what is going on?” Those questions build a depth and breadth of knowledge. The inspire a search for other relevant contextual information, which in turn creates a more complex understanding that gives a writer an ability to describe the topic in a way that the reader might not have seen before.
Because of this need for expertise, much of the writing process of a longer paper starts with thinking about the topic in context. The hard work of coming up with an argument comes not from finding some explanation of a puzzle. Relatively simple answers are easily available and accessible. Many students find these simple answers and start writing only to find they don’t have enough to say. Those students need to realize that the true hard work of writing should come from brainstorming a set of questions that forces us to think more deeply about the topic.
Given what we know about critical thinking, we can see that those questions don’t always come easily. Sometimes we need to read around a lot in a topic to acquire enough expertise in a subject to find a counterintuitive fact that demands more explanation. Other times, we encounter facts that are counterintuitive, but we dismiss our suspicion and accept explanations that are oversimplified or incorrect.
The way that I demonstrate this concept to students is to present them with a picture of a hamburger. Specifically, I use the artist Sally Davies’s picture of a Happy Meal hamburger taken 180 days after the hamburger was purchased. Reportedly, Davies bought the hamburger and left it exposed to the air to see if it would decompose . She then photographed the Happy Meal once a day for six months and posted the results in an art exhibit called The Happy Meal Project, which you can see at the link above. The hamburger on day 180 looks fairly similar to what it looked like on Day 1 of her experiment. In other words, it looks like Happy Meal hamburgers don’t decompose or grow mold.
That photo is counterintuitive. Food should not look the same after 180 days as it does on day 1. However, many of the students to whom I present the picture don’t find it surprising. To those raised in the past health-crazed decades, McDonald’s isn’t real food, but rather some disgusting chemical-laden approximation of food.
That attitude probably came from the experts who crusade for healthy eating habits who also saw Davies’s photos and drew their own abrupt conclusions. Karen Hanrahan, a health educator who teaches a course called “Healthy Choices for Children”, did this same experiment in 1996. When she holds the undecayed, crumbling burger up to her astounded audience, she tells them, “Ladies, Gentleman, and children alike – this is a chemical food. There is absolutely no nutrition here.” Health Ranger, Mike Adams, editor of NaturalNews.com, whose headline promises the real story behind the story, puts it even stronger: “There is only one species on planet Earth that’s stupid enough to think a McDonald’s hamburger is food.”
These two expert stances show the danger of entering into a paper with a thesis statement that jumps at the first explanation of a puzzling fact. Neither Hanrahan and Adams have thought very critically about what they’re saying. Both experts reached conclusions they wanted to reach and presented their findings. They found a fact, a non-decomposed McDonald’s hamburger, and claimed it proves their point without actually trying to interpret all of the available evidence.
The health experts aren’t alone. When Davies posted her project, the story was posted and reposted on blogs and websites across the web. The fact that very few of these sites thought to ask what was really going shows one of the reasons why thinking critically is so hard for writers to learn: they rarely see good examples of it in popular culture.
However, this lack of critical thinking makes writing a longer essay extremely difficult. If a writer had to write a 10-page essay on why a McDonald’s hamburger does not decompose, s/he’d have trouble doing so if s/he thinks like the experts above. In fact, this point of the process is where many students start panicking. They think about the surface level understanding of their topic, develop a thesis, and commit to it before doing any further research or critical thinking.
In the case of Davies’s hamburger, there is much critical thinking to be done on why a hamburger doesn’t decompose or grow mold.
To see why and how, let’s return to the first two of three questions that I noted above that are so critical for writing longer essays: “Do I really understand this?” and “How can I confirm that understanding is true?” The first of these questions helps me adopt the attitude of skepticism, and given the fact that I would have a hard time explaining why the hamburger doesn’t decompose in detail, I’d have to say that “No, I don’t really know why a hamburger doesn’t decompose, and even if I accept that there are chemicals here slowing decomposition, I don’t know what chemicals are in McDonald’s hamburgers.”
Once I recognize what I don’t understand, I can begin to develop depth. If I am considering what is in a McDonald’s hamburger, the first thing I might want to check is the McDonald’s website. On their website, McDonald’s claims that their own hamburgers contain “100% pure USDA inspected beef; no fillers, no extenders.” The nutritional information notes that each hamburger has 250 calories, 80 of those coming from fat. The burgers also have 12 grams of protein and provide 10% of a daily recommended calcium allowance and 15% of the daily recommended iron allowance. The first of these facts seems to contradict Hanrahan’s comment that McDonald’s has added chemicals to its food. (Though if we’re really being fair, we would point out that her hamburger comes from 1996 and these facts come from information listed in 2011. But being fair opens up another thread to explore: what was the content of a McDonald’s hamburger in 1996.) While it’d be silly to say that these hamburgers are the best food you can eat, it shouldn’t take a health ranger to understand that a hamburger is actual food.
Now we’ve reached a point of contradiction. Most students panic when they reach a contradiction because they feel like they’re on the wrong track. However, if you are writing a longer paper, contradictions are wonderful, amazing things. They tell us that the way we have understood things is simplified or just plain wrong (as we see in the post I wrote about a wonderful XKCD comic.) In other words, they show us that we must learn more to change how we understand the concept we’re examining, and that’s a great thing because if we go into depth to change our mind, we probably are going to have grounds to go into depth to change the mind of our readers.
How do we find more depth? That’s where we turn to the third question, “What other information do I know or can I find to explain what is going on?” In other words, once we’ve found out that our understanding needs to change, we broaden our thinking to see what else could be going on. In this case, one might consider what conditions are needed for a cooked Happy Meal hamburger to decompose. Then we might think about whether those conditions are present in the Happy Meal that Davie’s photographed. We’d also want to think about what would happen to a regular hamburger in the same conditions as a Happy Meal hamburger. Would it grow mold? Decompose?
We’re fortunate that someone else thought to ask these questions and pursue their answers. In a blog post on the food website Serious Eats, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt took a skeptical approach to the Happy Meal Project, and the result is a marvelous display of critical thinking. (I won’t bother rehashing the entire post here because it’s worth reading on your own.) Lopez-Alt observes the burger from the Happy Meal Project, and unlike the rest of the experts, he asks if we really understand what is happening to the hamburger in the pictures. He thinks about what could confirm the conventional understanding, and to do that, he thinks about what else he knows about the processes involved in decomposition. From there he devises a series of clever yet simple experiments, which ultimately helps him determine that no hamburger the size of a McDonald’s hamburger patty will grow mold because the majority of the moisture in the burger is lost in the cooking process and that which is not is quickly evaporated. He disproves the idea that McDonald’s uses chemicals in their burgers by showing that a larger burger such as a Quarter Pounder, which retains more moisture, will in fact grow mold. In the end, he suggests that a week-old McDonald’s Happy Meal hamburger is not a piece of chemical food. It’s simply a piece of beef jerky.
None of the ideas that Lopez-Alt brings up are beyond anyone who passed a middle school science class, yet it’s telling that so many of the experts who wrote about the Happy Meal Project, many of whom have advanced degrees in science, bothered to apply that knowledge. Consequently, Lopez-Alt’s post is lengthy, coming in around 2000 words. Compare that to this Yahoo News story, which clocks in at around 600 words, less than a third of the length of Lopez-Alt’s. The Yahoo News story looks like a lot of student papers look when they don’t bother to think critically. It pulls in a lot of expert sources and quotes, but never bothers to consider how those sources fit together or contradict each other. It does little to present any new information to anyone who is passingly familiar with the controversy, and not surprisingly, it’s pretty boring. Lopez-Alt’s story on the other hand changes his readers’ minds.
Writing longer papers can be just as exciting. If a writer treats the research process like an exploration, s/he will find more depth and reasons to change his/her understanding as more information is acquired. The other benefit of researching and thinking in this way is that writing the paper becomes a lot easier. The structure of most critical thinking paper is usually simply a process of taking your readers through the sources you’ve found that have changed your own understanding and analyzing those sources in such a way that they will change your readers’ minds as well.