The decline of critical thinking

If I say “composition,” what do you think of?

If you’re an artist or photographer, perhaps you think of the way a piece comes together– its composition. That’s a pretty nice association to have with that word. But for many people, I think the word brings up the dreaded high school or college composition class. In my line of work, as a college writing instructor, that’s what I’m talking about, nine times out of ten.

And believe me, that word is just about as cringe-worthy for me as it is for many of my students.

If course, the class is not a struggle for me in the way it is for them; I’ve already figured out what a thesis statement is and I can * mostly * write in an organized manner. What is a challenge for me, however, is grading the papers that my students labor to churn out.

Because I teach online and have truncated semesters (8 weeks for one school, 10 for the other), I have grading deadlines, respectively, of one week and three days. It’s tough to turn around student papers in such a short amount of time and give them adequate feedback, but it is where I spend most of my hours. Pointing out their errors and explaining why they are errors is the only way for them to learn how to do something correctly. That’s kind of a “duh,” statement, I know. But one of the greatest values of a comp class is the way it models and molds critical thought, and I don’t think a lot of people see it that way.

Not only am I teaching my students how to discover, outline, write and support an argument through research, I’m teaching them the importance of thinking critically about the world around them. And especially with persuasive writing, they’re learning the importance of using facts and data to back up a claim, not just stating an opinion and calling it good.

Again, more “duh” statements, I know. But I was just reading a paper about the benefits of getting a technical degree over a four-year liberal arts degree, and I got sidetracked. On the one hand, I completely agree with my student: not all people should pursue a liberal arts degree and the debt that comes with it. (Diving into that issue is a whole ‘nother post.) But on the other hand, this student, who works in a trade industry currently, had written a whole paper full of opinion statements. There weren’t any facts, there was no data to back up claims, and the general assumptions peppering the document could easily be shot down by someone in the know.

And there’s the problem. I’m seeing so many students come into class totally ignorant of how to back up a claim with fact. Yes, yes, they are students and I can’t expect them to know everything, or else what good would I be? I agree. But I’m seeing this more and more in those who’ve grown up on social media, or, in the case of this student, those who don’t come from a background that encourages education. I don’t want this to be a political post, but as I see our government champion more cuts to education while also issuing statements that are not backed in fact, at a time when soundbites reign supreme, I worry about the collective intellect and our society’s ability to spot, source and understand the truth.

We already know high school doesn’t prepare kids for adult life. Now, it seems like they’re not even prepared to navigate the mistruths of our world because they don’t know how to think critically about it.

I went back to my student’s paper halfway through writing this post, and I felt a renewed sense of importance regarding the work. I still don’t like grading virtual stacks of papers, but I’m not one for marching in the streets, either. It seems like grading papers and stressing the importance of critical thinking to my students could become, for me, a form of activism. It’s sort of a nice thought; I’d like to hang on to it when the grading load is heavy and the deadlines are tight.

National Poetry Month

abstract black and white blur book

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

April is National Poetry Month, and the Academy of American Poets has a lot of tools available on their site to help you celebrate. One of those tools offers “30 ways to celebrate” poetry throughout the month.  Check it out!

There are some good options in the list;  numbers 3, 7, 8, 12, 15, 19 and 29 are my faves. Which ones interest you?

My own methods of celebrating include leading a poetry workshop later this month, attending a poetry night and open mic, and participating in a “write a poem a day” challenge with 100+ other poets. We’re on day 2, and so far I’ve cranked out two poems.

As I wrote in my previous post, I’m not a fan of “prompts” to help me write, but so far, the two prompts put forth in the group have spoken to me.  I’d share them here, but I actually think they could become something publishable, so I’ll refrain, at least for now.

I hope National Poetry Month treats you well and turns you on to some new words, forms and poets!

After the flood

Rattle, an online and print publication dedicated to promoting poetry, sponsors (among other amazing things) a weekly poetry challenge. In this challenge, writers must respond to events of the previous week and submit them by Friday.  I’m not much of a “prompt” writing person, mostly because I don’t like to try to make something work around an idea that isn’t mine. No, that’s not ego; its just that I have a hard time feeling inspired by someone else’s idea. So it’s more of an inspiration thing.

Recently, however, I decided to give the poets respond challenge a try.

I grew up in Nebraska, and in the past few weeks, the whole state has been dealing with flooding.  This poem, “After the flood,” is a response to that.

After the Flood

Yesterday, we watched the Niobrara River,
hungry for years, open wide
and swallow our world.
She took the corncrib, the house,
and everything we’ve worked for
all these long, hard years.
Great-grandpa Joseph dug the well by hand
and kerosene lantern in the 1880s.
He dug deep to hit the Ogallala Aquifer,
said he wanted to give his descendants
the gift of easy access to water.
With my headlamp on, this morning
 I watched my daughter’s newborn 4-H calf
struggle against unending bounty,
take its last, wet breath, and float by.
She’ll understand that her 4-H season is over —
she’s lost a calf before. But I don’t know how
to explain the move to town, how to tell her
that our life on the farm is over.

 

I heard back from Rattle yesterday; I didn’t “win” the challenge. But that’s OK. With hundreds or maybe thousands of submissions, I knew it was a long shot. And it was just fun to try and respond to a prompt that allowed me to be inspired by whatever spoke to me.  If you’d like to read the poem that “won” (rightfully so, it’s great!),  you can read it here.