I’d like to begin this post by posing a question to my readers, especially those involved in the ever-complicated undertaking that is the teaching of the craft of writing: how can we press our writing communities, whether they be inside of the college classroom or outside of it, to travel intellectually beyond current thinking into realms and regions entirely foreign to them, realms perhaps even new to public discourse as a whole?
Many composition scholars point to diverse and multifarious reading lists as a beginning answer to this question, and they’re absolutely correct to do so. Posing students with unfamiliar ideas found in materials they’re unaccustomed to has certainly proven its worth time and time again in the quest to expand intellectual horizons. Many instructors list this as their primary motivation when constructing the textbook or online content requirement of a writing course. Asking students to engage with a multi-faceted and many-sided series of texts, videos, images, sounds and website experiences is sure to spark connections between new information and their existing knowledge. Recent studies in cognitive neuroscience and psychology posit the important role of “conceptual networks” in the learning process. Learners, our students among them, integrate new information into existing knowledge structures gradually, assimilating the new into the old in a complex cognitive process neuroscientists are only ankle-deep into exploring. These “conceptual associations,” I contend, play a major role in the learning that goes on in the brains of young writers experiencing college-level educational materials for the first time in their lives, and should be considered paramount in our understanding as professional educators of their learning experience.
But back to the original question: how best to encourage our students to explore new territory in their writing? Many would now turn toward a familiar friend and catchword to our discipline: critical thinking. Setting aside Paul Lynch’s rebuke in College English of critical thinking perhaps having outlived its usefulness, we might also examine critical thinking’s conceptual cousin: creative thinking. Creative thinking, as I’ve written about previously, is entirely capable of being nurtured within writing classrooms, and we should perhaps be doing this more if we are to heed Lynch’s advice and cultivate creative thinkers in our newer generations. This all leads me me to an interesting possibility for our discipline. Might we take our emphases on critical and creative thinking and blend them together into what I contend to be reminiscent of American psychiatrist Albert Rothenberg’s concept of divergent thinking? If we can, what might it look like, and what would be its value? Rothenberg’s concept of divergent thinking involves examining, together and simultaneously, multiple lines of thought and the many antitheses and counter-theses that are raised when something is examined, deconstructed and decoded. Divergent thinking considers opposites, supplements, associations, connotations and links as paramount generators of what may turn out to be profitable ideas. This particular method of inquiry seeks not to answer questions or to draw conclusions, but rather to explore the entangled points of view that multiple interpretations can conceive. Divergent thinking, which Rothenberg also terms Janusian thinking after the two-faced Roman goddess Janus, seeks to examine from all angles a central line of thought and contemplation, to embrace its fundamentally complex, manifold knottiness.
Renewed conviction in the areas of critical contemplation, including increased exploration of gray areas, may serve the composition classroom in a few important areas, which I’ll outline in the coming paragraphs. Gray areas are where cognitive seeds are planted, and in turn are the sites in which lifelong habits of critical contemplation, reflection and reasoning are cultivated in the habits of developing writers and citizens (as well as their material, neuroplastic brains). Divergent/Janusian thinking, in Rothenberg’s estimation, prompts thinking into four directions valuable to our field: (1) Thinkers are forced to create something entirely new, in a group or on their own; (2) Thinkers deviate from what they’ve already thought of or experienced, exploring previously uncharted territory; (3) Thinkers critically contemplate multiple attitudes toward a single issue; and (4) Thinkers crystallize previously unconnected ideas and attitudes into new, interconnected networks into theories or products that may be entirely new or constructive in their own way. Rothenberg believed influential and worthwhile ideas tended to be formed from thinkers responding riskily and experimentally to existing norms, exemplified in his mind by masters such as Einstein, Picasso and Mozart. How might composition embrace gray areas and find the potential for productive thinking residing in them?
An assignment I’ve conceived for my upcoming first-year writing classes involves reading the historical text Autobiography of the Life of Frederick Douglass. The writing activities involved with the assignment involve students examining their own literacy as 21st century Americans, then comparing it to the literacy Douglass develops throughout his lifetime and the impact forces such as race, class, and cognition play in transfers of power, information and influence. Studying and contemplating literacy in this way not only accomplishes some of the chief goals of composition, ie. exploring writing, reading and information in society, but also spurs students toward new considerations of their own unique worldviews informed by considerations of race, gender, history, economics and cultural values. We’ll explore the hallmarks of first-year writing through this unit– ethos/pathos/logos, counterpoints, etc.– but also will delve into reflective writing on the metacogntivie aspects involved within examining literacy as represented in Douglass’ text and the literacy students act within throughout their everyday lives.
The gray areas within literacy as it exists within historical circumstances are fertile ground for planting cognitive seeds that may prod developing critical thinkers toward dynamic ends. This exercise answers Patrick Sullivan’s call for increased creative thinking in the composition seminar, as problem-solving neural pathways are opened and new networks are created, breached, strengthened. Students synthesize new connections from existing conceptual networks and associations that have already been formed, building on their past experiences in a productive exercise in divergent thinking that arouses new understandings of their place in society.
What else does composition have to gain from renewed consideration of the productive potential residing in gray areas? Divergent thinking hold the potential to drastically change the way we approach writing and literacy. Gray areas encompass entire worlds of meaning that our students are likely to find to be valuable resources for developing critical thinking and writing skills, surely a valuable goal in light of the circumstances transforming our field outlined by “apocalyptic turn” writers such as Lynch. Renewed exploration of gray areas may be just the worthwhile endeavor composition has been searching for to mold the next generation of critical, contemplative thinkers.