One of the eight threshold concepts that frame my FYC and co-requisite courses is this: uncertainty, difficulty, and confusion are normal parts of a writer’s growth. Upon reflection, I think I would add that these nouns also characterize an experienced writer’s process (the meandering path that led to this particular blog post, were it made visible, would provide substantial evidence to support this assertion).
And yet, even having articulated this principle within my classroom (and particularly in the readings I assign), I find that I am still very quick to minimize or undermine uncertainty for my students, especially in the early days of their college writing careers. And I suspect in doing so, I am also minimizing an opportunity for learning.
A classroom conversation this week illustrates my tendency. I had asked students about thesis statements, and their answers were typical: It’s the last sentence of the first paragraph in the essay. It’s just a summary of what you say. It’s the plan for the essay so the reader can follow. I was told it had to have a certain format. It can’t announce the topic. It can’t be too broad or too narrow. It should answer a question. You should know what it is before you start writing. Using their text as a guide, students talked about weak and strong thesis statements and identified problems in samples that needed to be “fixed.” The students seemed pleased with the exercise: it was straightforward and clear—thesis statements either work or they don’t. There was only a slight ripple of consternation when I suggested that thesis statements need not be presented in one place, worded a specific way, fully developed at the outset, or stated explicitly. Despite making these comments, however, the activity of evaluating and improving thesis statements (and reading about “common problems” with a thesis) implied the opposite: thesis statements are certain, clear, and predictable.
Later that same day, I called my daughter, who has just begun a Ph.D. program in English. For some time, she had been reworking an MA project as a book chapter. She commented on how frustrating the process had been for the first several days (perhaps even weeks) of her work. But, she was thrilled to announce during our talk that her initial musings and reflections had finally led her to a thesis, and she now feels confident the chapter will come together. I could hear the energy in her voice: she had a thesis, and while it might still need some tweaking, her sense of the potential impact of the paper (and her ability to write it) was striking.
Consider the differences in these thesis-focused conversations: for many of my students, a thesis is primarily a component of a written product – a component that will be assessed by expert readers, possibly as ineffective, inappropriate, or misplaced. In short, my students view the thesis as something they can “get wrong” and thus something that must be nailed down immediately – and preferably without any changes. My daughter, on the other hand, views her thesis as a means to control and develop her writing. She discovered her thesis via invaluable but messy exploratory writing (which no one sees or grades), and she is harnessing the power of that thesis to guide the development of her work. While the thesis will surely be subject to the critical reflection of her future readers, she can use those responses to further define and refine her theoretical stance. It is, in short, a mode of learning, a means to agency and control in her writing—and her thinking.
I see a similarity in the ways my students conceptualize a thesis and their understanding of grammar: both are seen as a toggle switch, set to either the right or wrong position, not as opportunities to learn, make choices, or express meaning. The anxiety produced by the desire to get it right leads me (far too often) to let students bypass the messy process of thesis-building (or sentence construction) by issuing a judgment and recommending remedies quickly. They invariably do whatever I suggest. I know better, but I have a competing desire to relieve anxiety, especially for students whose previous academic experiences have been demoralizing and disorienting.
In a workshop for our faculty at the start of this term, we were challenged to apply practices of “Transparency in Learning and Teaching” or TILT (a faculty professional development initiative led by faculty researchers at UNLV) with our assignment design. For me, this fall, that means finding ways to make “useful confusion” explicit for students and helping them recognize the value of uncertainty in the process of discovering and refining a thesis. Transparency about the value of uncertainty means challenging the binary terms so often used to talk about the thesis (right/wrong, strong/weak, broad/narrow). It also means asking more questions during writing conferences, and acknowledging the frustration of working with a murky thesis in initial drafts. My hope is that students will come to accept uncertainty and confusion—anxiety-inducing as they may be—as a means to extended possibility and power in their writing, just as experienced writers like my daughter have.
In what ways are you helping students re-imagine uncertainty and confusion as platforms for writing development?
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