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.