Writing is thinking

jente skriverI came across two really great opinion pieces today, one in “Morgenbladet” (a weekly newspaper emphasising literature, art, culture and politics), the other in “Dagens næringsliv” (a business and management daily newspaper).

The first one, entitled “Dictation”, was written by Gudmund Hernes, former minister of education, now professor at the Norwegian school of business and management. Hernes writes about how students often think better than they write. Their inability to put their thoughts into a logical, well-structured and correctly spelled paper hampers their (in most cases) only chance of expressing their knowledge. Hernes argues that the students have been the victims of a particular pedagogical ideology, namely the one that claims that creativity and talent for style grows best when unchecked. In other words: the “let-them-play-and-originality-will-appear” ideology. Hernes thinks that this has been a failure, and that students are paying the price. All musicians know that they have to master the basics before they go on to master the more advanced pieces of music, he says. Musicians learn a language, a notation, a kind of “musical esperanto” that is used for all musicians in the world; they cannot just “sing with their own beak” and hope for the best.

Hernes explains that to be good at something, one has to start with the basics and the rules. Why not more emphasis on the old-fashioned “dictation” in the school system, he asks. Why should we not teach our students how to use their language? How else can we teach them to express a coherent thought? It was an interesting point, and I really do hope that something is done about this problem.

The other article was called “Å skrive er å tenke” (Writing is thinking) and was penned by Toril Moi, a professoor of literature at Duke University. She wrote: “To write is to think: it is when we express an insight on paper that we begin to understand what it means. To write is also to explore something: it is when we try to find words to describe what we have seen that we see what we have understood” [my translation]. I couldn`t agree more.

Moi argues that a good researcher will never wait to write till after she has “read up on the subject”; she will write a research diary where she will speculate and contemplate over what she has read. She will allow herself to write terrible drafts, just to see what she is thinking about the subjects. “PhD students must be braver”, Moi continued. “The fear of being judged, the fear of being seen as stupid, paralyzes many good students. A student cannot just write a diary. She must master the art of writing for others and to be able to take constructive criticism, to understand that revising drafts over and over again is a natural part of writing.” [my translation]

These two opinion papers, published only one day apart from each other, interested me greatly. Why don`t we spend more time teaching our students how to write? I teach academic writing, but most of the time in class I talk about how to find and use information, not much about the writing itself. I would love to do a little project on the writing processes itself, but I don`t have the same access to the students as teachers have. This is one of the things that I keep coming back to when I write about teaching; the lack of access. This fall, however, I will be more involved with a couple of classes at least. Maybe I can start something there?

I have heard teachers say: “We cannot spend so much time on academic writing this early on (first year college students). They have to learn something to write about first!”. I disagree. I think that form and content should go hand in hand. The one cannot exist without the other.

The opinion papers are worth reading (if you can read Norwegian, of course..). They certainly gave me some ideas.

Hernes, G. (2013) Diktat. Morgenbladet, 9.-15. august 2013 [online], s. 44 URL: http://morgenbladet.no/baksiden/2013/diktat#.UgyNx2TfaaM (14.08.2013).

Moi, T. (2013). Å skrive er å tenke. Dagens næringsliv, 10. august 2013, s. 51-51.