Daniel Ernst, Consultant
The paper is a collegiate common denominator. In just about every class in every discipline, writing papers is required. Therefore, it’s easy to see the paper as busywork, a pointless academic exercise often with no real world counterpart. But the paper is more than some arbitrary unit of learning by which an instructor attempts to measure a student’s intellect. If we think about what we really do when we write, we see in fact that the writing process offers a unique and effective learning arena.
This isn’t just armchair philosophizing either; writing’s unique relationship with learning has been well documented by scholars in fields from psychology to linguistics to composition theory. One composition/education theorist in particular, Janet Emig, provides a general overview of writing’s role in learning in her article “Writing as a Mode of Learning.” Emig first distinguishes writing from other forms of language usage—reading, talking, and listening. Then, she explains how writing distinctively requires the deployment of and interaction among multiple learning methods, such as analysis, synthesis, experience, and genesis.
Writing’s interactive and multifaceted process is what makes it so challenging, but this process also fosters a uniquely instructive learning environment and sets it apart from other forms of language usage. For example, take the idea of analysis. College students are commonly asked to analyze; the term analysis (or its sister term ‘critical thinking’) appears on almost every essay prompt or class syllabus in one form or another. This is because analysis is a powerful educational tool in which an idea’s deconstruction into its elemental building blocks helps students better understand its composition. In general, though, analysis is accomplished through class readings and discussions. So if reading, talking, and listening in class helps to take apart these big ideas, what then to do with all the disassembled pieces? This is where writing comes in.
Writing papers is your chance to take the deconstructed concepts and theories and build something new. In other words, synthesize new connections/conversations that become new ideas. Not only is this a critically important move from “destructive” to “constructive” intellectual work, but it’s also your opportunity to contribute, as many of my teachers have put it, to the scholarly conversation. The significant and sort of radical thing here is that these are your ideas and your unique contributions. And in formulating these contributions, you are forced, through the nature of writing, to confront ideas in a special way. Writing’s combination of and interaction between analysis and synthesis, mediated by the writer’s own experience and end-goals, promotes a participatory brand of learning that is unrivaled and truly indispensable. So the next time you are assigned to write a paper, try to embrace the chance to learn in a unique way and capitalize on your opportunity to participate and contribute your voice and your ideas.