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.

The push to publish

Taking a look at old poems.

I don’t work for an institution that requires me to publish work as part of my role there, but as a student of such places, I believe it is important to actively work toward publication. Publication offers a sense of accomplishment and pride in one’s work, and it also shows others that one knows a thing or two about writing. As a writer in general, I feel like I do enough publishing with my freelance work to feel “validated” as a professional writer. However, getting my creative work out to a wider audience has value in other ways. For one, it gives my students a chance to see the kind of work I do. It also might inspire random readers.

But finding time to write and then shop my creative work around is difficult. And it can be frustrating to receive three rejections in a row. But last year I was at a writing conference, and one of the presenters told participants that she aims to get 100 rejections a year. Out of that number, she said, surely there will be a few acceptance letters!

I appreciated her insight, but I didn’t do anything with that push until the end of the year. I just didn’t have time. Really, what I mean is I didn’t have the energy. But over Christmas break, I sent work out to five places. I’ve heard back from two with rejections. I’ve reached out to one with a friendly, “hey, have you looked at my work, it’s been four months), and I’ve had two pieces placed in an anthology (more on that later!).

These small successes have pushed me to keep up with publishing efforts this year, and I’ve been working on new pieces, tweaking old pieces and writing cover letters. It’s only Monday as I write this, and I’ve already submitted work to a journal and have cover letters ready to go for two others.

Sometimes inspiration strikes, and the writer jams out 1000 words. Most of the time though, writing is a deliberate, slow act. I find that as long as I think of the publishing process in the same way, as a slow, deliberate act, it somehow feels less daunting.

Here’s to 100 rejections in 2019!

Revising, returning

Before I started teaching, back in 2010, my friend Joey told me he thought the experience would be good for me. Not just as part of my new career path, but for my work as a writer.

  You’ll learn new things and work on craft, he said. Teaching will help you develop your own work, too.

I knew he was probably right, but I couldn’t imagine that my students themselves would have a lot to teach me about the writing process. I remembered what it was like to be a student and whip out a paper at the last minute. My own process had changed,  a bit — I didn’t procrastinate as much then as I had in my  days as a student — but it was nowhere near as refined as I knew it needed to be. And let’s be honest. My process is still crap.  I put off my writing, tackling all manner of other things before turning to my desk or notebook or laptop; I still hate revising and editing; I don’t like to slow down enough to really give even my rough drafts the development they need. I guess all that leads to why I love blogging — it is all a brain dump, no editing needed, for me.  And yet… even in that thought it’s clear my process is crap. I don’t write here, regularly anymore. I write here almost never. And now that I’m not working in a corporate communications job, let’s face it. My writing is pretty much reduced to the notes I leave on student papers.

There’s merit to those notes, of course.  It’s been nearly seven years since Joey pointed out that teaching would enlighten me, and he was, of course, correct.  And when I write out suggestions, praise, admonishment for plagiarism, I’m still learning new things.  And as I near that seven-year mark, I am pretty stoked that the teaching work I took up back then has turned into a lifestyle and career.

And so. I am back at the keyboard. Earlier this week I had the pleasure of meeting the author who inspired my work as a grad student and represents the nexus of writing and a  simple life and a literary life: Scott Russell Sanders.


I could say there is something amazing about meeting your literary heroes, and it would be an accurate statement. When I met Tom Wolfe in 2004 I cheesed out HARD, especially when he asked questions about my writing, my work (I was an intern at NBC news in Washington, D.C.) and my writing goals. But I met the writer Barbara Hurd in 2011, and she let me down when she told me anyone’s idea is fair game for a writer.  If I had a good one while in workshop with her, she’d capitalize on it.

So as I waited to talk face-to-face with Sanders after his craft lecture and his reading, I wasn’t sure that I’d have any great literary epiphany. I had been wanting one, sure. But I didn’t expect one.

And in the end, I didn’t have one.  I gave him some tomatoes from the farm and we talked about heirloom plants. I told him his work had inspired my during grad school, and we talked about the MFA program at Chatham University.  I had wanted to ask him about his writing process, how he works with his ideas, how an essay comes to him.

But I didn’t.  Because it doesn’t matter.

As I drove home, I was grateful to have met him. He didn’t say anything that inspired me to work on my writing again, but as I listened to his and other instructors’ thoughts on the writing process, and as I thought about why we write, I knew that I just had to do it. I just had to make time for writing in my life. And no matter how my students write or what they teach me or how they keep me *too busy to write* I need to just make it happen.  No one’s process matters but my own.