Anne Thorpe

The Orphic Egg - Jacob Bryant, 1774

A.  Reflections on Writing in the Discipline of Humanities

The Humanities department is an interdisciplinary one, drawing instructors from a variety of fields, such as history, philosophy, political science, art history, or in my case literature and rhetoric.  Thus, we approach the three Humanities courses from our different disciplinary perspectives.  The content of our courses may differ substantially, but what ties them together is their emphasis on helping students become more critical thinkers.  For instance, the focus of my World Views class might be Greek Mythology, while a colleague might devote his to Current Political Ideologies.  But students in either class would come to understand what a World View is, how it shapes the way one sees the world and how comparing and contrasting different world views can foster critical thinking about one’s own.  The diverse approaches we take in our course offerings are also reflected in the types of writing we assign.  There are no set genres of writing our students are expected to master in the Humanities department; instead, we design writing assignments that we think will best help students understand and engage with the course material while developing their critical thinking skills. 

The genres most commonly assigned in the Humanities department are formal analytical essays, formal research papers and more informal essays or assignments where students reflect on or respond to course readings.  We tend to assign writing that asks them to analyze or interpret rather than merely inform or report.  Many of us expect thesis-driven essays, because we believe that the process of generating a viable thesis, gathering appropriate evidence from course readings or research, and then building a logically-reasoned argument helps students become more critical thinkers.  When we evaluate student writing, we are generally looking to see not only that students have understood the course materials, but have also moved beyond merely summarizing the assigned texts, and are instead using their critical thinking skills to engage with and reflect on the course content. Because our courses are required ones, one of the challenges we face as Humanities teachers is getting students to embrace their rigor.  With their heavy courseloads, students often feel that they need to devote more time and energy to the courses in their programs, and there is often an expectation, or at least a hope, that our classes will not be too demanding.  Most students are willing to put some effort into our courses, but they are sometimes surprised by and resistant to the cognitive challenges our courses pose.  Many students would prefer if we just “gave them the answers,” or asked more straightforward, factual questions, so that they could demonstrate their mastery of the material through rote memorization, a mode of learning with which they are more comfortable.  But the primary goal of our courses is to challenge their thinking, and thus we demand much more from them than the mere absorption of the subject matter.  The challenges our courses present are meant to create cognitive dissonance for the students, to push them into the next stages of cognitive development.

I was interested in WID for a number of reasons, but particularly because it promised strategies to increase students’ engagement, while at the same time improving their critical thinking skills.  This seems key for Humanities courses.  If we can find ways to get students more engaged with what they are learning in our courses, they might be more likely to embrace the cognitive challenges we pose to them.  I also wanted to explore what types of writing assignments might actually produce the cognitive growth we Humanities teachers are hoping to see.  WID exceeded my expectations, encouraging me to interrogate my assumptions about what genres of writing best foster critical thinking, and persuading me to make many more changes to my teaching practices than I expected.  In what follows, I’ve tried to convey the main insights I think WID offers for Humanities teachers at Dawson.  I focus primarily on my World Views course, because that’s the course where my students seem to have the most trouble moving beyond rote memorization toward critical thinking.  You’ll see that I refer to Bean repeatedly.  John C. Bean’s Engaging Ideas is the main text we used during the WID program, and it offers a succinct presentation of the various research findings relevant for teaching Writing in the Disciplines effectively.  It’s an invaluable resource for teachers, and available in the Dawson library.  I highly recommend it.

B.  Informal Writing Assignments

I had some reservations about informal writing assignments.  I associated them with personal writing and doubted their effectiveness in courses aimed at teaching critical thinking skills.  When I was a graduate student in the States, I taught a writing and critical thinking course and had a colleague who asked his students to write essays on “what car best reflects their personality.”  Though writing can be a great way to explore who we are, I wasn’t sure that this type of assignment had enough intellectual rigor to challenge students’ thinking.  But reading Bean helped me understand the difference between exploratory writing (where students discover, develop and refine their own ideas) and personal writing (writing about oneself).  And I now see how useful exploratory writing can be in encouraging students to think.  One of the problems with formal, thesis-driven writing assignments is that while they can encourage critical thinking, students often reach their conclusions too quickly and foreshorten the thinking process.  As Bean explains, “they do not suspend judgment, question assumptions, imagine alternative answers, play with data, enter into the spirit of opposing views and just plain linger over questions.  As a result they often write truncated and underdeveloped papers” (7).  Informal writing assignments can encourage students to spend more time in the thinking stage of the writing process, and therefore help them understand how much work there is to be done there, well before they approach a formal essay assignment. I also learned that there is a quite a bit of debate about the effectiveness of the formal, thesis-driven writing assignments I tend to rely on.  In a chapter called “Engaging All Learners,” Bean points out that “[a]lthough . . . thesis-based prose is clearly valued by most academics, there is no universal agreement that teaching this kind of propositional thinking and writing should be the only goal, or even the primary goal, of writing-across-the-curriculum programs or of undergraduate education in general” (46).  Some of the objections come from psychologists and learning theorists who argue that while some personality types excel at writing logical, linearly-organized essays, others thrive on assignments that allow them to write in a more personal voice and include personal experience or personal reaction. 

While we can certainly argue that thesis-driven essays will be the expected genre when our students get to university and that we should give them opportunities to practice it before they get there, it’s possible that we’re not engaging a fair number of our students if we only assign such assignments.  Bean also points out that this genre is particularly challenging for weaker students and those with language difficulties.  These students find the specific conventions of academic discourse quite baffling, and the struggle to express their ideas, while learning or remembering all the arcane rules of formatting and style, can be daunting for them.  Informal writing removes those obstacles for the students, allowing them to immediately engage with the course material, and motivating them in turn for the more challenging formal writing assignments. Bean offers a number of suggestions for incorporating exploratory writing into our courses, and I plan to try out more of them next semester (particularly journal-writing, which Bean argues for quite persuasively).  My classes are usually focused on discussing a text I have assigned, and I generally post questions on Léa that I use to guide our class discussion.  An easy switch for me this term was to turn some of the discussion questions into brief writing activities at the beginning of class.  I liked how getting them to write at the beginning of class gave everyone the chance to respond, rather than just the more vocal students, and provided me with another means to evaluate their class participation.  However, these were very focused questions about the readings, and gradually I grew interested in more general questions, such as “What aspect of the Ancient Greek world view has been most interesting, surprising or disturbing to you thus far?”  This question had the benefit of drawing in even those students who hadn’t done the reading that day, and generated a lively and thought-provoking discussion afterward. Once I tried these informal writing assignments, I started coming up with many more ideas for activities.  I got ahead of schedule in one of my classes and decided to give in to my students’ repeated requests that we watch Disney’s Hercules.  I had never seen it before, and as I anticipated, it took quite a few liberties with the Ancient Greek myths about Heracles. 

Several of the other teachers participating in WID had had success with assignments where students write letters explaining the course material to some non-threatening imaginary recipient.  (Research suggests that students prefer writing to audiences that know less than they do, or whose views differ from their own.)  So I thought I would try getting the students to write a letter to a real or imaginary younger sibling, telling them what they might not understand about the Greeks if they used this Disney movie as their sole source of information.  The students seemed to enjoy getting the chance to show off what they had learned and, though I didn’t weigh this assignment very heavily, they put a lot of effort and enthusiasm into it nonetheless.

C.  Formal Writing Assignments

As I mentioned above, when I applied for WID, I was most interested in exploring what types of writing best foster critical thinking and wanted to rethink the formal writing assignments I give my students.  I already had some doubts about the research paper.  When I first started teaching in the Humanities department, I took over for a teacher who had assigned a very open-ended research paper as the students’ formal writing assignment.  I found that the essays were often quite well-written—in fact, for the most part, they seemed to be more clearly written than the thesis-driven, analytical essays I assigned in my own classes—but I didn’t see much critical thinking in them.  Bean’s book helped me understand why.  Research shows that students write more clearly in assignments that do not challenge their thinking.  The assignment I inherited allowed students to produce what Bean calls the “data dump” essay, where they just present information on their research topic without sorting or classifying it, much less making an argument about it.  Bean does not condemn the research paper, but he offers a number of caveats about assigning it.  Unless very carefully designed, it will not produce the critical thinking we are hoping to see.  (If you’re interested in learning more about how to create effective research assignments, Chapter 11 “Encouraging Critical Thinking and Inquiry in Research Papers” in Bean is very informative).  In order to foster critical thinking, our essay assignments should create cognitive dissonance for the students and urge them to see knowledge as dialogical rather than informational.  In his chapter on how “Writing is Related to Critical Thinking,” Bean provides an overview of some different theories of intellectual development and describes how “students come to college imagining knowledge as the acquisition of correct information rather than the ability, say, to stake out and support a position in a complex conversation.  Eventually, students develop a complex view of knowledge, where individuals have to take stands in the light of their own values and the best available reasons and evidence” (25). 

So while the thesis-driven essay does have its detractors—and let’s face it, it’s difficult for all but the strongest students to produce—it can foster critical thinking skills, and therefore the time students spend grappling with this genre is worthwhile.  We do need to make the students aware that these elegantly structured, logically reasoned essays are the product of a long and sometimes tortuous writing and thinking process, and that writing can be the means through which their thinking and argument take shape.  Many of us were taught as kids that writing an essay was a straightforward process of choosing a topic, narrowing it down, writing a thesis, making an outline and then writing the essay, but writing experts today urge us to acknowledge that writing is a much more complex, often recursive activity, and that writing the thesis and creating an outline too soon will only shortchange the thinking process.  We can help the students make their way through the difficulty by designing scaffolded essay assignments, where we give them a series of activities that stimulate their thinking and help them develop and clarify their ideas, before they begin writing the final draft. We can also help students grapple with the challenges of thesis-driven essay assignments by devoting attention to how we phrase our questions.  Bean contends that students will produce stronger essays if we frame our assignment in one of three ways: 1. Present a proposition (thesis) that students are supposed to defend or refute; 2. Give students a problem or question that demands a thesis answer; or 3. Ask students to follow an organizational structure that requires a problem-thesis pattern (86-89).  This last option offers the students the latitude to find a problem related to the course that they would like to address or a question about the course material that they would like to answer.  Allowing students to generate their own problem or question encourages them to become more active learners and maximizes the chances of student engagement, since they have chosen it themselves.  However, if this third option is chosen, Bean recommends coaching the students through the process and requiring that students submit a prospectus, so that we can guide them toward clear and well-focused questions and theses. 

I realized that I tend to choose the second option, giving students a question that demands a thesis answer, but I learned how to improve the phrasing of my questions and help the students generate their thesis statements more easily.  I also thought I would try to foster more student engagement by allowing motivated students to generate their own question.  Here is the assignment came up with:

Creation Myth Formal Assignment

I was persuaded, however, that there are enough drawbacks to the thesis-governed essay, especially in terms of how effectively it engages all learners, that I would try out some alternatives and see if they fostered more student engagement.  Noticing, for instance, that my students seemed to be interested in how the plays we read, Alcestis and Medea, reveal some cultural disagreement about ideals of masculinity in Ancient Greece, I thought they could explore these conflicting values in the form of a dialogue or debate.  Here is my “creative option” to one of the formal essay assignments:

Creative Option: Imagine that you live in Ancient Greece and serve as a slave or a cupbearer in the Athenian Symposium.  You overhear a debate between some men who have just seen a performance of Euripides’ Alcestis or Medea.  Write a mini-play of this conversation, imagining what they might say about the play and drawing upon what you have learned about the Ancient Greek world view.  For instance, perhaps they disagree about whether Admetus deserves to be rewarded, whether Jason deserves to be punished, and perhaps the conversation evolves into a debate about which Greek values are most important and the larger question about what it means to be a “good man” in Ancient Greece.  For this option, your play should be approximately 750-1000 words, and then you must write another 300-500 words where you explain your intentions in crafting the play.  Draw upon the course material to justify the choices you made and to demonstrate your understanding of the Ancient Greek world view. 

The students loved this assignment.  Though I was concerned about it being the “easier option” and attracting the less motivated students, I do think it produced as much critical reflection on the Greek world view as my usual thesis-driven essay assignments do, if not more.  A former WID fellow, Lisa Steffen, suggested that I have the students act out a few of the plays, and I will definitely incorporate that kind of activity next year.  It seems like it could generate some excellent discussion, especially if I asked students to analyze each others’ work, and reflect on the conflicting values that the plays bring to our attention.  In addition to rethinking the kinds of assignments we give our students, Bean urges us find ways to encourage revision as well.  Research shows that teaching revision is a very effective way to teach critical thinking.  Though students often confuse revision with editing for grammar and punctuation errors, we can help them see the more profound development that their thinking and writing can undergo when they embrace revision in its true sense, “re-seeing” their work.  Bean offers many suggestions for encouraging revision, and makes a compelling case for reading and responding to their rough drafts.  I didn’t think I had the time to do that for 120-160 students, but now that I have some ideas on how I can save time in other areas of my marking (see below), I’m going to give it a try.  Other less time-consuming options would be to have students exchange drafts with each other, or perhaps show students a sample rough draft and revised essay, helping them note the refinement of the student’s thinking across the drafts. 

D.  Exams and Tests

One of the concerns I had about incorporating more writing into my courses is how I would find time to grade all the students’ work, when I am already often overwhelmed by the marking.  Bean offers many excellent suggestions for handling the paper load in Chapter 13, but he also encourages us to question whether the time we spend grading written exams and in-class essays is actually time well-spent.  I hadn’t realized how much writing I have my students do in test situations, and grading this work does take up the bulk of my marking time each semester.  I thought that this was the best way to gauge what the students have learned, and I am often impressed by the students’ encyclopedic knowledge of Greek Mythology by the final exam at end of the semester, but how effective are these written exams in fostering critical thinking?  (Bean points out that students spend only an hour and a half thinking during an exam, whereas an out-of-class essay might involve a dozen hours or more.)  If my students aren’t always displaying the kind of critical thinking I’m looking for, is it because I’m asking them to produce it in timed test environments?  And if I were to test the students’ knowledge in some other way that was less time-consuming to grade, would that free up more time for me to read and respond to all these different writing assignments I now want to give them?  Since I had already distributed the course outlines for the semester, there were only so many changes I could make this semester.  But I will definitely rethink my reliance on these writing-intensive exams in the future.  In the meantime, I took advantage of some of Bean’s suggestions for fostering critical thinking in timed tests:  1) give students potential exam questions in advance, so that they will have time to think through their answers; and 2) teach students how to write exam answers, before they take the test.  This latter activity proved to be very effective.  I had the students write responses to a question that often appears on the midterm exam:  “Discuss two differences between Eden and Mecone that you think are most important for understanding the different world views.”  I then took some of representative examples and led a discussion on the strengths and weaknesses of the various responses.  I think this helped the students better understand what I was looking for and taught them to recognize the difference between reporting the factual differences between these mythical places and analyzing what these differences reveal about the two world views.  The students’ performance on the exam improved, and I saw more critical thinking in their responses.

E.  Final Reflections

Because we already assign a great deal of writing in our Humanities courses, I initially thought that participating in WID would just give me ideas on how to tweak my assignments, changing their wording perhaps, to foster more critical thinking.  But it actually led me to reflect on many more aspects of my pedagogy, and to recognize that if I really want to encourage critical thinking in my courses, I need to rethink my exams, incorporate more informal, exploratory writing, teach writing as a process with more scaffolded assignments and emphasize the importance of revision.  The advantages to making these changes, however, are manifold—both for the students and the teacher.  Research shows that “Professors who successfully integrate writing and critical thinking tasks into their courses often report a satisfying increase in their teaching pleasure: class discussions are richer, students are more fully engaged in their learning, and the quality of their performance improves” (1).  After only a few months of trying out some new assignments and activities, I can already attest to their effectiveness.  Incorporating the insights from WID leads to more engagement, more learning, better writing and stronger thinking—exactly what we teachers are hoping to see. 

Last Modified: November 7, 2011