Writing is thinking. Though I am a writer and a professor of English composition, this was not always obvious to me. During my first semester teaching comp, I stood before a classroom full of ivy league freshmen I was convinced were smarter than I am, just groping around for the words to describe introductions and conclusions. One student in particular depressed me, an engineer who trudged in and said, during first-day introductions, “I hate writing.” I quickly learned that the corollary to that statement is always: “And I can’t see why this stupid class is required anyway.”
All teachers will recognize this student: He’s one of the smartest in the class, but he’s not performing. His biggest problem was not looking at his arguments from more than one angle. He treated his essays like formulae: If A is greater than B, and B is greater than C, then A must be greater than C. Toward the end of the semester, he began taking my pleading comments to heart, and when he considered that X might also be greater than C, the incisiveness of his observation would stop my red pen cold.
Despite my certainty that I was a bad teacher, I did begin to see improvement in my students’ essays. And, once all my grades were in—and please note that he did not get one of the highest grades—my engineer wrote me an email that I fastened to my bulletin board, where it has stayed for four years. Here it is:
“Thank you for a great first semester. To be honest with you, going into the class in the beginning of the year, I was not very excited because I never really liked writing. With your help, however, the course became more than bearable for me, and I believe it improved my thought process as well.”
Thank goodness for students who are smarter than you are. Not only did he reassure me that I was not a horrible teacher, he articulated something I’d only intrinsically known, that writing is thinking. Thus, improving students’ writing improves their thought process as well.
Since then, I’ve taught loads of students who are far more intractable in their belief about the uselessness of my class than that engineer, and I’ve taught them more confidently and successfully partly because of the mantra he gave me: Writing is thinking. I’ve come to believe that the synonymousness of thinking and writing is what makes composition a more important foundational class than even math and science, at all levels of education. I’ve discovered that in college science classes where students cannot write well, the instructors simply don’t assign lab reports; instead they assign fill-in-the-blank reports and multiple choice questions. The students in such classes are being cheated, not because they aren’t getting enough science, but because they aren’t getting enough writing.
So, if you are a teacher of writing, take heart. Go to work today believing that yours is the most important job there is.
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