In my first year of teaching, a colleague suggested that I encourage my students to come to class by sharing the amount of money they were paying for each class they missed. I did the math and found it an appropriately shocking amount of money, so I presented it to the class. We all had a good laugh, and then they forgot it and came to class whenever they felt like it. I was teaching a required general education writing class that all students were required to take, which bred resentment among those who did not like to write. I frequently heard some version of the statement: “I’m going to be an
(engineer/mathematician/some other science or math profession); I won’t need this stuff.” I countered with the argument that knowing how to write would make them a double threat and ergo a richer scientist, etc. Of course, those who listened to me probably became a scientist who makes the same amount of money but gets stuck writing all of their teams’ reports.
When I started my job at Cornell College five years ago, I realized I needed a new way of understanding exactly what I offered as a writing teacher. In my position, I not only work predominately with first-year students, but I also teach lessons in other teachers’ classrooms and advertise the services that the Writing Studio and I can provide. That means I have to sell myself twice: once to the professors who run the class want to hear that I can offer a valuable lesson that dovetails with the rest of the class and once again to the students in the class, who need to hear why they should put the extra effort that it would take to come work with me and learn how to write.
That journey brings me up to the third word in this reflection series: connection.
At its best, a liberal arts education exposes the infinite web of connections in the world, and writing provides a way for students to make their own connections. The founding myth of this process is the allegory of the cave, as taught by Socrates and reported by Plato. In the story, prisoners who have been chained in a cave for as long as they remember watch shadows of the outside world projected onto a wall and mistake the representations of life for all there is. Education breaks those chains and takes individuals out to see the real world. Of course, when you’ve gone your whole life only viewing the world through shadows, you may need preparation to comprehend what you see outside your cave.
The relevant lesson of the allegory of the cave is that we cannot unquestioningly trust even what we have sensed and known all our lives. College students must come to understand that every message they receive is contingent upon the situation. For example, overhearing someone shout, “he’s safe!”, will have different meanings if I’m at a baseball game versus if I was sitting in an emergency room hallway. The extension of that lesson asks college students to realize that nearly every bit of knowledge they have needs to be considered within context.
First-year college students are not particularly adept at understanding these concepts. The educational psychologist William Perry offers us template to understand why. In Perry’s theory of intellectual development, students go through three stages of intellectual development: duality, multiplicity, and relativism. Those in the duality stage imagine that how we understand the world as either right or wrong. In the multiplicity stage, we start to acknowledge that there are other correct understandings, but don’t distinguish between any of them being better than the others. Student writers in this stage frequently will say things like, “That’s just an opinion” or “Every one is entitled to their own opinion.” It isn’t until sometime into college that students start to understand how some opinions can be more true than others by demonstrating logical connections between that opinion and other verifiable knowledge. The truth of any statement is only as good as those connections, and because we are constantly learning, we often find how we understand the world changes from day to day or even hour to hour because we get more information and form more connections. College graduates who go through this process and arrive at a point where they are skilled at understanding the relationships between things are skilled at constructing their own explanation of how the world works.
Perry’s concept of the three stages can be illustrated using a webcomic that I have referred to in the past. In the XKCD cartoon titled “Airfoil,” a teacher explains the reason a wing produces lift: “So, kids, the air above the wing travels a longer distance, so it has to go faster to keep up. Faster air exerts less pressure so the wing is lifted upwards.” When I first read this comic, that is exactly the way I understood the concept. In the comic though, a student asks an insightful question; “But then why can planes fly upside down?” The final panel of the comic presents three ways that a teacher can handle this. The “very wrong” way is to insult the child and reject the connection he’s made. This way views the world through a dualist lens where the world is explained in one way and that is either right or wrong. The “wrong” way is to simply move on because it’s too complicated to explain. That’s the multiplicity lens; another explanation exists, but we will just forget about it because everyone is entitled to their own interpretation. The “right” way of explaining the question shows the way that college writers need to approach the world: the teacher responds, “Wow, good question! Maybe this drawing is simplified–or wrong! We should learn more!” This is the relativist approach. It looks at each new connection as changing the way we understand the world.
Understanding how students connect information to what they already know is important in my position because they will tend to write papers at a level that is at or just behind their stage of intellectual development. Many student writers enter college thinking of writing a research paper as a sort of scavenger hunt. When given an assignment, they construct a thesis based on their general impressions of the topic, and then they search around (normally on Google) until they find people who agree with them. Quotes, statistics, and other “facts” are copied down and inserted into a template that their composition teacher taught them. That writing approach is firmly rooted in the dualist mindset. Surprisingly, however, not all students who write like this are still in the dualist mindset. I imagine that most incoming college students are closer to the multiplicity stage, but they know that their writing has to say something and can’t be just an opinion, so they revert to the earlier stage of development because they think that’s what the teacher wants. [Indeed, this might even have been what the teacher wanted from them in high school. That is the paradox of a school system that conducts class discussions with the assumption that “there is no right answer” while at the same time having a culture of testing that rates children, schools, and their teachers on whether or not students can find the right answer to multiple choice questions. It is not much of a surprise then that first-year college students frequently enter college believing academic writing to be disingenuous.]
At this stage of my teaching career, I find the word “connection” to be tremendously important in explaining why academic writing is not in fact disingenuous. The task of a college writer is to analyze a topic, think critically about it by seeing connections between the topic and other things they may know, and present an interpretation. Rather than thinking about the body of the paper as a place that supports an interpretation by showing a bunch of evidence, I instead see the writer’s task as showing the reader the connections between pieces of evidence and other influences on our opinions like our ethics, our emotions, and logic. A paper on an airfoil would present an interpretation that links the observable, e.g. a plane flying both right side up and upside down, with research and other knowledge. That will result in an explanation that is the students own because the student has constructed the connections between the sets of knowledge. Better yet, a college paper would present a proposal that uses what we know about an airfoil to present a proposal for an improved design.
Eventually, by focusing on the connections between different interpretations of the world, we learn how we fit in the world, and we gain the ability to modify that fit as circumstances change. In other words, by seeing the world as interconnected, we connect to the world.