Humanistic Writing

The best end result of writing

I asked my freshman writing students today what the best possible outcome would be for their research papers. Most of their responses had to do with the practical benefits they might gain:

“We’ll be better writers.”

“We’ll figure out how to apply our writing skills to other situations.”

“We’ll know how to do research.”

All true, but the response I was hoping for was, “I learned something about myself.” The practical ends of writing instruction are important.  We need to communicate clearly and effectively if we expect to relate to others. And yet, when I am reading student papers, I always search for moments of insight that can only come from deep contemplation.

My students are writing about Malcolm Gladwell’s theory of the Power of Context, which proposes that our behavior is dictated by our environment. Gladwell suggests that positive surroundings create positive human behaviors; conversely, negative environments engender unsavory behaviors, including crime.

It’s a liberating idea, Gladwell argues, because it means that changing things for the better is within our control.  We do not have to shrug our shoulders and passively attribute crime to sociopathic personality or genetic predisposition.  We are not at the mercy of someone else’s inherent destructive tendencies.

As my students do their research and apply these ideas to different kinds of environments—schools, nursing homes, urban areas, workplaces—they are energized by how right Gladwell is.

At the same time, I ask them to consider what Gladwell is also saying about human nature: “Character isn’t what we think it is or, rather, what we want it to be.  It isn’t a stable, easily identifiable set of closely related traits . . . Character is more like a bundle of habits and tendencies and interests, loosely bound together and dependent, at certain times, on circumstances and context.” (The Tipping Point).

I posed this question to the class: “What if I tell you that your thoughts are irrelevant, that the feelings in your heart don’t matter, that everything about you is only shaped by your surroundings? How do you feel?”

After a silence, one student replied, “Helpless.”

This is not a piece of wisdom that we find through research. It only comes from the effort of meditating on the research and articulating how our minds respond to it. If my students are digging deeply enough into the topic as they write, and struggling to make sense of it in clear language, I think they will feel a natural resistance to the idea that our character is just a bundle of habits that can be dismantled in chaotic circumstances.  They may discover that there is something intangible, and perhaps ineffable, about being a person. And maybe—just maybe—they will take note of such insights in their papers.

That is what I want them to learn through their writing. Not how to write a topic sentence or to integrate a quotation, but to struggle through the structure of the paper to reach the best possible outcome: to discover in themselves their own original view of human nature.

Humanistic Writing

Writing and Human Capabilities

DSC_0196As 2018 kicks off, the internet buzzes with ideas about how to do everything better than last year: work, relationships, fitness, you name it. As a college professor, I am always thinking about how to teach better. So much of teaching is about preparing students for life after graduation. How do we know what, exactly, this rising generation will need to know to sustain themselves in their careers? A recent article in the Harvard Business Review suggests that we shouldn’t worry so much about mastering the next hot skill set because it will change as swiftly as technology evolves:

“As the half-life of specific skills diminishes, and machines become proficient at tasks including even decision-making, then fundamentally human capabilities become more important: empathy, curiosity, creativity, imagination, emotional and social intelligence, leadership, and the development of other people.”

Writing helps to develop all of these human capabilities. It requires us to pull something out of our minds—thoughts, feelings, concepts—and connect it to the world around us.

We learn empathy when we struggle to make an idea comprehensible to someone else.

We demonstrate curiosity in our willingness to acquire knowledge and convey it to others.

We use imagination as we shape our language to describe or explain something.

We exhibit emotional intelligence by managing our feelings in an effort to communicate clearly.

We practice social intelligence when we see ourselves as communicators in a complex environment.

We exercise leadership in our willingness to guide others with the content of our writing.

We foster the development of other people by sharing the thoughts that we think will help them.

It is not an overstatement to say that writing helps us to nurture the most essential aspects of our humanity. The writing process slows down our minds, and because our efforts are outwardly directed, it connects us to others.  Or at least, that is what we strive to do when we write—to situate ourselves in the world and to find ourselves in sync with other minds.

Happy New Year.  May 2018 be a great year for you and your writing. pen small