Teaching writing vs. teaching critical thinking

I’ve been thinking about some of the concerns listed in my previous post, Revisiting Composition 121. Remember, the list of criteria we used to evaluate the use of sources in student papers from 121 goes like this:

  • Understands topic/issue
  • Presents sides of issue both ethically and persuasively
  • Uses appropriate sources to support arguments
  • Introduces sources well enough that the reader knows who said what, why they said it, and why the reader should care that it was said
  • Cites sources correctly, in text and on Works Cited page
  • Explains why each source is pertinent to the topic/issue

In unrelated comments, librarian Barbara Fister and instructional consultant Jerry Nelms critiqued the research paper assignment itself for being artificial and superficial.

Finally, I included some questions from the 121 paper review group:

Are we explicitly teaching writing or are we spending too much time discussing issues and readings? On the other hand, if we spend all semester teaching technical issues, do you get to critical thinking and writing?

I’m a bit puzzled by these last two questions. I do not understand how writing well can be taught without also teaching critical thinking. I do not understand how critical thinking can be taught without teaching good composition in some form or another. Even a movie must be composed. The principles of composition are the same, no matter the genre.

I do not mean that the physical artifacts of the composition process will be the same; the composition of a short film will involve different physical manipulations than will the composition of a written essay. But the rhetorical principles are exactly the same.

Rhetorical Principles of Critical Thinking (and Composition) OR 

Rhetorical Principles of Composition (and Critical Thinking)

  1. Recognize that, as human beings, we do not deal with objective reality. We only deal with the subjective interpretations of reality that we call FACTS. Whoever is in power over an issue controls the flow of information to society, thus convincing us to believe in certain FACTS. Conflicting information streams result in conflicting FACTS.
  2. Recognize that each of us humans has the power to convince those around us to change their minds about any given FACT. To do so, we use the rhetorical tools of appeals to ethos, pathos, and logos (and access to the audience, which has to do with power, which we can try to get through composing appeals to ethos, pathos, and logos).
  3. Get to know your audience. Every argument has an audience, even if you are your own audience. Figure out what moves them to understanding, decision, and action relating to a specific issue. In other words, discover their priorities by studying their behavior and what they say about themselves.
  4. Get to know what the authorities on the topic have to say. What moves them? Logic? Credibility, morality, or ethics? Emotion? What are their priorities? How do they work on their audience in order to garner support for their version of “the truth”?
  5. Get to know yourself. Figure out what you think about the issue at hand. What moves you? Why do these appeals move you? What is important to you?
  6. Decide what you want your audience to believe regarding this issue. What are the FACTS you think your audience should know?
  7. Take stock of the tools do you have available to you (arguments, evidence, and presentation) to convince your audience that your FACTS are the true ones. What is the most convincing way to deploy these tools for this audience on this topic?
  8. Use your tools. This process is called “composition.” It is the creation and communication of a convincing argument. Every decision you make as a writer/critical thinker can be validated or invalidated by checking the real effect of your composition against the effect you set out to achieve. If you write a crappy argument, you write a crappy paper. If you write a crappy paper, the power of your argument is undercut by the low quality of your presentation, which screams, “Do not take me seriously! I have no credibility! I am wasting your time!”

So, my answer to those two questions — “Are we explicitly teaching writing or are we spending too much time discussing issues and readings? On the other hand, if we spend all semester teaching technical issues, do you get to critical thinking and writing?” — is that, if you split the process up like that, you are teaching neither effective writing nor critical thinking.

Next post: I address Fister’s and Nelms’ criticisms of the superficiality and artificiality of the standard research paper assignment.


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