An ENG 101 Instructor’s Plea: Let’s Stop Sharing Our Theses (So Soon!)

April 8, 2020 § 11 Comments

MadrazoBy Christen Madrazo

COVID-19 social media content was all fun and games at first. We shared memes, tweets, and posts about the media hype, the handwashing, the run on toilet paper… Now, though, this is our real lives—not just our virtual ones—and our online tone has grown increasingly somber.

The same folks who, three or four weeks ago, insisted this was all “no big deal” and even shamed others for their “hysteria,” suddenly implored us to “check in on our friends with anxiety.” Those who said “relax—it’s just a flu,” almost overnight began to chastise those not doing their part to #flattenthecurve.

But I’m not writing to call out the hypocrisy here. That our social media content would shift makes sense. As more information surfaces, our opinions change.

I get it. In fact, it’s my job to get it. For 14 years I’ve taught university-level intro to writing and research. My work is rooted in the premise that writers’ opinions shift the more they dig into complicated questions and issues. The old saying’s typically true: the more you know about something, the more you realize how little you know at all.

The not-knowing part is frustrating. Composition students don’t like to hear, “You don’t know your thesis yet,” but if your topic is worth writing about, the inquiry—no less the thesis—will not be clear without extensive research. And maybe not even then.

People want answers, though. They want to share “the truth” and fast. Understandably, they want to avoid grappling with something for ages only to find out they’re more confused than when they started.

But that’s what real thinking is.

And so, my problem with the recent COVID-19 social media posts is not the shift in opinion. I like that. It means thinking is happening.

My problem is that we jumped to our theses so quickly—and publicly!—to begin with.

When my students jump to a thesis without doing the hard part, I send them back to the drawing board, and no harm’s done. But when our unsupported theses are shared (and shared and shared and …) what are the widespread consequences? At best, simplistic and unsupported theses are boring. At worst, they’re dangerous. How many cases might we have avoided if our infectious disease non-expert social media contacts hadn’t provided their definitive thesis about COVID-19 so soon?

Now, I’m not suggesting that we leave the posting to the experts. In fact, in our field, we proudly insist that even the most academic conversations are for everyone. I’m also not calling for any sort of social-media-distancing. This is not a plea to unplug. As a writing instructor, I couldn’t be happier that people of all ages, classes, and education levels now regularly express themselves in public writing more than perhaps ever before.

I am, however, calling on us to consider some 101 best practices before we jump to publicly share our unsupported theses.

What if instead of treating social media platforms as a way to engage in transactional writing— writing defined as that which operates in a one-way, definitive direction—we instead embraced one of our field’s most exciting practices: writing-to-learn?

Writing-to-learn is the process by which we write to reflect, grapple with, and question what we know and don’t know. When instructors assign exercises designed for students to write-to-learn (vs. those designed for them to learn to write), we aim to provide a space for thinkers to arrive at meaning through writing—not yet to argue for meaning through writing.

This can look like stream-of-consciousness writing. It can look like a rambling free-write. It likely involves crafting and re-crafting dozens of questions to which the writer has absolutely no answer or ability to answer. This type of writing is vulnerable. It’s not polished. It rarely looks ironic or edgy. While I’m ecstatic that intellectualism is “cool” right now, that doesn’t change the fact that intelligence doesn’t always look cool.

Similarly, the best writing doesn’t always start smart.

And so, I wonder, what if we took a less transactional approach to social media composition and instead embraced writing-to-learn strategies? What if we collaboratively speculated? What if we asked more questions than we did provide answers? What if we helped each other revise our inquiries? What if instead of sharing a source for its headline, we read several and compared them—took chaotic notes in the comments like we used to in the margins? What if we wrote to unpack the great heaving mass of information together?

Imagine how much more quickly we could get to the bottom of things if we posted-to-learn. Or, more likely, how much more quickly we’d realize that there might not be a bottom yet. Maybe we’d feel more at ease with the not-knowing. Maybe we’d start to embrace questions like we do answers. And maybe, we’d realize that having no thesis at all is far more responsible than sharing a rushed one.

Christen Madrazo is a lecturer at CUNY, John Jay College of Criminal Justice where she ran the writing program for several years. She is the founder and director of John Jay’s literary nonfiction podcast series Life Out Loud, and she teaches storytelling around the world with Dramatic Adventure Theatre. Her original nonfiction has appeared on various travel sites and has been performed at New World Stages, Cornelia Street Café, and Renegade Reading Series, among others.

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