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March 12, 2009

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Teaching as Anti-Teaching / Writing as Anti-Writing

My friend (and fellow Penn Comparative Literature alumnus) Mark Sample on what’s uncritical about the critical essay:

[C]ritical thinking stands in opposition to facile thinking. Critical thinking is difficult thinking. Critical thinking is being comfortable with difficulty. And this is something else that separates the expert learner from the novice learner: experts are at ease with uncertainty, while novices are uncomfortable with what they don’t understand, and they struggle to come up with answers — and quickly come up with answers — that eliminate complexity and ambiguity. The historian and cognitive psychologist Samuel Wineburg calls this tendency to seek answers over questions “schoolish” behavior, because it is exactly the kind of behavior most schools reward.

I want my students to break out of this schoolish mode of behavior. Instead of thinking like students — like novices, I want them to think more like experts, and I must coach them to do so. It requires intellectual risk-taking on their part, and on my part, it requires mindfulness, patience, and risk-taking as well.

I love what Mark’s asking his students to do instead:

This is the primary reason I’ve integrated more and more public writing into my classes. I strive to instill in my students the sense that what they think and what they say and what they write matters — to me, to them, to their classmates, and through open access blogs and wikis, to the world.

In addition to making student writing public, I’ve also begun taking the words out of writing. Why must writing, especially writing that captures critical thinking, be composed of words? Why not images? Why not sound? Why not objects? The word text, after all, derives from the Latin textus, meaning that which is woven, strands of different material intertwined together. Let the warp be words and the weft be something else entirely.

With this in mind, I am moving away from asking students to write toward asking them to weave. To build, to fabricate, to design. I don’t want my students to become miniature scholars. I want them to be aspiring Rauschenbergs, assembling mixed media combines, all the while through their engagement with seemingly incongruous materials, developing a critical thinking practice about the process and the product.

“Aspiring Rauschenbergs!” I’m way more committed reflexively attached to writing (writ large) and literature (read wide) than Mark is — but still, this makes me feel even more excited to seek out new modes of anti-teaching. Let’s stay on the move.

Tim-sig.gif
Posted March 12, 2009 at 9:26 | Comments (2) | Permasnark
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin', New Liberal Arts

Comments

Thanks for your comments, Tim. I especially like the idea of anti-teaching. I had never heard it phrased that way, but it makes sense.

I want to emphasize that I don't think I'm any less committed to writing than anybody else in the humanities. After all, I do study literature, and somebody had to write that literature.

In fact, I would argue that writing should take precedent over reading. Don DeLillo, who is a touchstone for me in most areas of culture, has said that he writes to "learn how to think." He goes on to say that "writing is a concentrated form of thinking. I don't know what I think about certain subjects, even today, until I sit down and try to write about them" (Paris Review 128, Fall 1993, p. 277). Writing comes before reading, and it even comes before critical thinking.

Cognitively, developmentally, artistically, this is true: we learn to write before we learn to read. I want to recover that dynamic in my teaching. I'm simply advocating that we broaden what counts as "writing."

Hi Mark! No, I think I get it; I'm only meaning "anti-writing" in the same sense as Wesch's "anti-teaching" -- so, like in the title, it's "writing as anti-writing."

As for the comparison between me and you, I was originally way more specific, talking about the chirographic/typographic word and the specific forms of paper and the book, and about how that was partly because I work on nineteenth and twentieth century stuff and you work on twentieth and twenty-first century stuff... but it got weird and wonky. "Nobody's going to care about this but me and Mark!" I thought. And I was exactly right. :)

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