"Is This Really Good Enough?" A Conversation About Dangerous Thinking and Dangerous Writing

Mike Bybee has been teaching critical thinking and writing for 40 years. Since 1996, he's been a tutor at St. John's College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. 

Matt:

My students face a lot of unhealthy pressure in school, on standardized tests, and on college application essays. Much of the time, they feel they're being asked to look and sound a certain way, regardless of whether their writing is honest or true. (I think you'd call this sophistry - trying to look good without thinking clearly.)

To make things more challenging, many of my students have few alternatives at their disposal. They've been encouraged to echo their teachers' or parents' views, and they haven’t received training in critical thinking (what you'd call dialectic, I believe). 

I'm curious: how do you introduce the study of dialectic? Why do you start where you start, and not somewhere else?

Mike:

You recognize that students are encouraged to regurgitate thoughts. You then asked, “How do you introduce the study of dialectic?” 

Well, it depends. 

If I have a rather older, more sophisticated group, then I can ask them to read a story and ask, “Do you believe this?” But that rarely works (for some reason) with younger people, so here’s what I do instead: On the very first day, after we learn one another’s names, I have a “canned” story that I tell. Then I ask a question that can be answered five or six different ways. [That prevents the students from regurgitating an “accepted” answer.] “How many of you think that the answer is this?” I ask. And some people “vote” for that one. And some people “vote” for another, and so on. 

If I’m clever enough to sit on my hands and keep my mouth shut, a conversation starts with people defending their points of view against points made by other people. 

Then I can say something like this: “Okay. Well, write an essay giving your answer to this question and the reasons you think your answer is the best answer.” 

Since these students are just starting out, they write generally coherent (albeit unsophisticated) papers. If I have the budget, then I get photocopies of all the papers to all the students, and we have a chance to read and respond to them. (If we can’t physically duplicate them, then I ask students to read their essays aloud to the rest of the class.) 

After we have all had a chance to read all the essays, I then ask the class as a whole (not the author, who only gets to listen), “Does this essay have a question at issue? If so, what is it?” You can see that for these early papers, of course they have a question at issue—I gave it to them! So this early on, it’s hard to go wrong. 

I then ask, “Does this essay have an answer to that question? If so, what is it?” Sometimes the author tries to butt into the conversation, and I have to say, “You already gave us your BEST attempt to do this, so your job is to sit and listen and determine to what extent you properly addressed your audience. If you listen to your audience respond to you, you can see how well you’ve done and what you can do better next time.” 

I then ask, “Does this essay have evidence for that answer?” For early papers, this is only sometimes not the case, but occasionally someone tries to “get by” without presenting evidence for their position. This gives me a chance to emphasize Plato’s Meno: True belief is not enough. We need true JUSTIFIED belief. Writing is not expressing a bunch of THOUGHTS. Writing is expressing THINKING, and expressing it on a page so you can tinker with it.  

And THEN I ask the killer question: “Does the evidence provide the structure for this essay?” 

For earlier essays, the answer is almost always, “No.” Their evidence (if and when presented) is just a confused mélange of goofy expressions, usually each of which demands evidence itself. 

So.

Anyway.

That’s how I begin. . . .  And that’s how I proceed. Every time we read an “outside” essay, those are the questions I ask. (If we read Rousseau’s “prize-winning essay," [Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts] we see why he’s hugely embarrassed by it. It’s terrible! If we read Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, we get to see all those points in action.) 

Every time we read one another’s papers, those are the questions I ask. 

Sometimes I get to say, “See how this author used her thinking to structure her writing?” And sometimes the students get it—and more frequently, towards the end of the course, the students get it. 

But it’s a slow process, developing a habit, a habit of thinking of writing as thinking, and thinking of evaluating writing as evaluating thinking. 

And that’s what I would call “dialectic,” if someone pressed me. 

Matt:

At the beginning of this process, what kinds of stories do you have your students read? And if you don't mind sharing, what's the "canned" story you tell, and what question do you ask afterward?

I also like the sequence of questions you ask. My students can usually see whether an essay includes a question, an answer, and evidence for that answer. 

Where they struggle, however, is in figuring out how to structure their thinking. There are lots of compelling ways to write an essay - you can think clearly and still be uncertain about how to sequence your thoughts for rhetorical effect. 

I don't offer comprehensive responses to these concerns. Instead, I suggest some models, and we read lots of essays and talk about the strengths and weaknesses of each. This works - the students get exposed to a wider and wider range of approaches to writing - but I'm wondering whether you have something more direct and powerful up your sleeve.

Mike:

The “canned” story I tell is Alligator River from a book on values clarification. It narrates these events about five people, and at the end of it, I ask, “Who’s the least moral person in this story?” It’s like “Lifeboat,” a more famous story in the same vein. 

From there we get increasingly more sophisticated things to read. In a college (or advanced high school) setting, I use the anthology A World of Ideas. We read. We discuss. In discussions I try to focus on places where the students disagree. And then I have students write essays that each other would read about those disagreements. (That way everyone had a horse in the race, so to speak.) 

Yes, you’ve put your finger on it. The most difficult thing for a student to recognize (or to produce) is a well-structured essay. Often that’s because students (and we teachers, too) have little idea about how evidence itself is structured. Just because we can think (and some of us can think well), that doesn’t (necessarily) mean that we can think well about thinking well. 

Moreover, it almost always requires writers to rethink an essay after they’ve written it, and having rethought it, they then have to rewrite it. That process is not without significant effort, and it requires some time, too—and both these are at a premium in today’s world. 

Matt:

Most students - most people, I think - resist that re-thinking and re-writing process. They've built half a building, and they feel disheartened at the idea that they have to tear part of it down. When your students express those feelings - or when they don't express them, but you know they're feeling them - how do you respond? And how do you structure your classes so that students have the time, space, and motivation to do that rebuilding?

Mike:

Here is one of the exercises I use to emphasize the importance of structure or order in an essay. 

With shopping lists and sentences, we can easily identify which is the best structured—and we can also identify pretty easily the principle of organization for each. (At least, so far all of my classes have been able to see which is the better structured shopping list and why, and they’ve also been able to see which is the better structured sentence and why—although a few students here and there individually are puzzled.) 

The problem is, what’s the principle of organization for an essay? How do you know when the paragraphs are in the “right” order? What makes for a well-structured essay? Is the “principle of organization” for an essay just “whatever I think of next?” Here classes have a great deal more trouble—which is, of course, the point of a composition course. 

You ask, “What do you do when students don’t want to rewrite or revise or rethink their essays?” 

Well, you’ve put your finger on a difficult problem, one that has a couple different layers. 

First,

Some students don’t see the need to revise. They think their writing is pellucid and, in fact, obviously-well-expressed. 

That’s one reason I circulate students’ papers to one another and then have the OTHER students in the class give the writer feedback. I ask the whole class these questions: What’s the question at issue, do you think? If you think this essay has a question at issue, what do you think is the answer it provides? If you think this essay has an answer to its question-at-issue (a thesis), what is the evidence this essay provides for that thesis? If you think this essay provides evidence for its thesis, does the evidence provide the essay’s structure? 

This is obviously a grading template. If there’s no question at issue, the paper is an F. If there’s a question at issue but no answer / thesis, the paper is a D. If there’s a thesis but no evidence, the paper is a C. . . .  Of course, often the answer is not very easily found to any of these questions. It takes thinking to evaluate thinking. Thus, sometimes the class disagrees about whether the essay has evidence (and if so, what it is). Sometimes the class disagrees even about whether the essay has a question at issue. 

During this discussion, the essay writer just sits there and listens to the answers—and often realizes he or she has not written carefully enough. They’re almost always incensed. “Look! See! I wrote this right here!” But I always say to the author, “Just listen to them discuss your essay. This essay was your BEST attempt to express all this. And yet, see how confused your audience is? You can write better than this. Honest.” 

So feedback from peers is important. 

Second,

Some students just don’t want to take the time or put in the effort. They get good grades on their writing in their other classes. That’s “good enough,” they think. 

This is a more intractable problem. For the most part, the best you can do is raise the question. You get to ask, “Is this really good enough?” Composition (in the sense we’ve been discussing it) is an exercise in examining one’s own thinking clearly and carefully. It’s a way to pin one’s own thinking to a picnic table with a thumb tack and hold it still long enough to evaluate it yourself. You cannot do composition (in the sense we’ve been discussing) without that “last” step. And doing that last step often discloses that one’s thinking is NOT “good enough.” 

That’s where your response to their writing is important—and “dangerous.” It’s important because your comments to them should raise questions in their minds about their own thinking. You’re not challenging their thoughts. You’re challenging their thinking. In the margins of their papers, you’re writing questions, question like, “What evidence do you have for this?” and so on. 

And this is dangerous because you have to expose YOUR thinking when you challenge their thinking. You’re reading their thinking—and they’re reading your thinking and evaluating it! They wrote an essay you read, and you’re (in effect) writing them back an essay that they’re reading. And your thinking is addressing their thinking. Whoa! That feels pretty naked there. Their thinking might be BETTER than your thinking. In fact, if you’re doing your job correctly, you’re hoping for that outcome.  

Third,

Some students mistake the whole project. They think they’ve managed to get a full and complete essay written when actually they have only the rough draft—or, more often, only a zero-th draft. 

What’s that like? It’s like framing a house and not putting up interior drywall and exterior siding and roofing. Doing the next drafts of an essay is a finishing project, not a demolition project. Yes, yes, yes, I know that this FEELS as though we’re tearing stuff up, but it’s really going on to the next part of the project that would have been impossible without having done this first part, the rough draft. Without revision, the rough draft is, well, “unfinished.” 

Thus, seeing a difference in their own writing between the rough draft and their finished product is important. If they can’t see a difference, and see what the difference is, then yeah, what the hell. Why bother?    

Well. . . .         

I’ve been over-long again. Sorry. 

Good luck with this! There’s nothing more frustrating than teaching Aristotelian-like rhetoric and Plato-like dialectic in a society of sophistry—in a society that thinks that “composition” is nothing more than eloquence and style. Sigh. 

And in the end, when you do a “good” job, the students all think, “I’ve done this all by myself!” And that’s true, too. You didn’t do their weightlifting for them. 

One last thing. I tried a new tactic this year for the first time. This may also address the last concern you expressed. 

I had my composition students rewrite an essay that they had written and submitted to another class. And I asked them to submit to me both the essay that they had already submitted (and gotten a grade on and an oral) AND the rewrite. 

On the essay that they had submitted, I asked them to write between each paragraph a word like “thus,” or “because,” or “and” or “but” and so on, to indicate how each paragraph related to the preceding paragraph. (You’ll recognize this as right out of Aristotle and his emphasis on the enthymeme and the use in classical Greek of such words in each and every sentence.) 

And then I asked them to do the same thing for their rewrite. 

This exercise was remarkably successful for many students. They were able to see clearly and concretely, “Oops. I didn’t write nearly as clearly as I thought I did when you made me do this concrete exercise. And that’s because I didn’t think nearly as clearly as I had to think in performing this exercise.”