Should first-year writing students choose their own essay topics? I’d like to take some time this morning to venture an interesting take on this question that has been turning around in my head for a few months now. Long a topic of boisterous debate within composition and rhetoric, the role of student choice within the writing projects undertaken in first-year writing courses has largely been repeated and rehashed time and time again with the same stale, well-versed arguments. A vital aspect of the types of thinking our field seeks to inspire in its students, however, has been neglected within the current body of research: a comprehensive, exhaustive, full-bodied exploration of the neuronal impact the writing, thinking and research habits we teach has on our discipline, as well as a full-scale venture to probe the limits and possibilities that neuroplasticity holds for discourse, rhetoric and the academy. I’ve touched upon this topic in the past, as have a few other scholars within the humanities and social sciences, among them Jordynn Jack et al. in their 2010 special edition of Rhetoric Sciences Quarterly entitled Neurorhetorics, Alice G. Brand, and Jeffrey Walker all the way back in the 1990s. More recently, a number of rhetoric scholars have renewed this and similiar conversations. Daniel Gross renews the discussion of the role emotion and neuroscience play in writing (and in turn learning) in his 2014 book The Secret History of Emotion: From Aristotle’s Rhetoric to Modern Brain Science. Stacey Bailey expands our conceptions of the role the brain should play when forming conceptions of education and instruction in higher education, drawing from the field of educational psychology to posit that the “mental frameworks” our students come to the classroom equipped with and in turn develop throughout their learning experience are more than just familiar themes to be picked up and set down lazily from a bag of isolated, detached memories. Many theorists and cognitive neuroscientists now postulate the vital role of “conceptual associations” within the act of integrating new information into old, ie. learning. If we can safely transpose Bailey’s characterization into the field of composition, we are forced to examine the role these so-called “mental frameworks” play in the instruction we already enact and indeed forcibly impose upon our students. We must ask the question once again: should students choose their own writing topics in their first-year writing course?
Students unquestionably benefit from writing about topics that matter to them. A number of my colleagues seem to think these advantages are negligible in the profit they turn compared to more structured, set-in-stone assignments, but the neuroscience behind the question is difficult to overlook. There is, as a start, a real and fundamental role that pleasure plays in writing, cognition and composition. Writing about a topic that is pleasureable has distinct benefits with real impact on mental activity and written performance when compared to writing about topics that are dry, dull, tired. The human brain is intrinsically hardwired to seek and respond positively to pleasure (Freud aside), and linking pleasure to writing is a surefire way to improve the effectiveness of instruction and assignment design on student writing. Research in the cognitive sciences has linked the anticipation of pleasure alone to the stimulation and release of dopamine into the brain, a neurotransmitter and neuromodulator which counts stress level reduction, reward reinforcement and attention/focus boosting among its many competences. What if… you know… our students actually wanted to write? What if they saw writing as a gateway to something greater than a brief passing ticket to a successful semester report?
When a subject’s curiosity has been aroused by something she/he finds interesting, studies have shown the subject to have performed better at learning and remembering completely new information. Curiosity has been shown to pique the hippocampus, lighting up and stimulating the region of the brain where memories are spawned, stored and drawn upon. What students find captivating and engrossing will not only be better suited for compelling them forward on their writing project, which will in turn build new and beneficial synaptic connections, but also will light up important regions of their brains and release beneficial chemicals and neurotransmitters profitable to the craft of writing.
Peter Elbow, one of the primary figureheads in our field, has long argued that students should not be exposed too early to overly-dense academic discourse, which can be impenetrable and discouraging if not tackled at the right moment in a student’s intellectual development. Instead, Elbow suggests students should read one another’s writing and become attuned to the sentence structures, organizational choices and semantic constructions of writers at similar levels of writing maturity. We’ve almost always in recent years chosen to meet students on their own turf. But isn’t selecting, choosing, designing and reasoning through an writing project’s conception, goals, purpose and audience part of any real project’s domain? Why do we presume to do this for our students, and what is gained by not requiring them to do so? A lot less, I contend, compared to when we require developing writers to move through the entire writing process rather than letting them skip major, fundamental aspects of rhetorical invention, one of which is designing the assignment to be completed.
On a practical level, I don’t think we need worry too much about the possible downfalls to a student-designed writing project. No one is suggesting that students ought to design every aspect of their composition assignments. Rather, my practice has always been to provide firm but flexible guidelines for assignments. My students all write six page argumentative papers for their semester capstone writing project, but they’re required to argue an answer to an open-ended question. In the spring of 2017, I asked my students to venture a reply to the question what is the greatest problem facing our world in 2017? The young writers composed argumentative essays incorporating multimedia elements which were then posted to an online web publication set up by me and supported by our governing institution. Students picked a variety of answers to write on, ranging from environmental concerns about carbon emissions and climate change denial to social problems dealing with race, gender, even the coddling of children (so-called “helicopter parents”). To me, the idea that pampering and indulging a child outweighs in importance to the world the coming environmental apocalypse, among so many other concerns, is mind-boggling and immaterial. However, when approving topics for my students to write on, I gladly accepted this student’s choice, even providing a set of texts and references I thought might be helpful to the project. To protect this particular student’s identity, I’ve neglected to link the publication here, but I believe the student’s contribution to illustrate a very valuable point locating itself very much in line with the social turn/social constructivism move in composition and rhetoric study: when it comes to writing, product and process are never separated entirely, but remain intrinsically connected, utterly allied, supplements to the same incomplete whole.
The next time you design a writing project, keep the above ideas in mind. You may just find them to be a compelling take on an otherwise rehearsed question that has beset composition and rhetoric for much of its being.