Recently, I did a mid-semester check of how things are going in the first year writing seminars. I asked my students to complete the following phrases: I like. . . . I’ve learned. . . . I wish. . . . Things seemed to be going well, so it was nice that most of their feedback was positive.
About one-fifth of them said something to the effect of “I wish it was clearer what you want”. My syllabus is detailed, and I think, quite clear. The writing prompts too. And I teach what my colleagues and I hope to see in student writing. But sometimes I also say, “There’s more than one way to do well on this paper.” And this annoys some of them who want me to cut to the chase and tell them the one way to be successful. You’ve heard of “paint by numbers”, some students want to “write by numbers”.
The students most disappointed with what they earned on their first two papers are the ones most prone to say,”Just tell me what you want so I can give it to you.” The irony is, by thinking that it’s far less likely they’ll succeed on future papers. Why? Because excellent student writers embrace complexity and delve into the subtleties, nuances, and ambiguity inherent in most every topic.
I wish every high school teacher in the country taught writing by plastering this equation all over their rooms and schools—subtleties+nuances+ambiguity=complexity. The more complex one’s ideas, the more imperative it is that they communicate them clearly. So the challenge for writers is two-fold—1) to embrace subtleties, nuances, and ambiguity to the point that interesting insights bubble up, and 2) to clearly communicate those complex insights in writing.
The first of those challenges requires repeated close readings of other writers who embrace complexity. Discussing ideas with others equally or slightly more adept at critical thinking helps immensely too. The second challenge requires learning how to illustrate complex insights with specific examples.
Every first year college student struggles with both of these intellectual challenges to widely varying degrees. Some get it very early in the semester, others struggle with both until the semester’s very end. Those who struggle the most think the second challenge is most important and they’re convinced they’d turn their “C’s” into “B’s” if their professors would just describe the required formulas more explicitly.
In actuality though, the first challenge is most important. Until students learn to embrace complexity and communicate complex insights clearly, there’s not an explicit writing formula in the world that will help them engage, inform, or move readers.