My colleague Robert Rubin recently shared an essay by Lynn Hunt, professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles, and former president of the American Historical Association (AHA) that recently appeared in the Perspectives on History the Newsmagazine of the American Historical Association.
Hunt’s essay, “How Writing Leads to Thinking (and not the other way around)” takes up the idea that the process of writing can lead to new thoughts–a simple but powerful idea at the center of Thinking and Writing. “Everyone who has written at any substantial length,” argues Hunt, “knows that the process of writing itself leads to previously unthought thoughts. Or to be more precise, writing crystallizes previously half formulated or unformulated thoughts, gives them form, and extends chains of thoughts in new directions” (17). That thinking does emerge from the work of writing is something that most of us have experienced as writers. I would submit that most of us have learned, too, that a course organized around writing a twenty-page essay can persuade students that thinking can in fact develop through the process of writing.
Hunt’s subject is scholarly writing. But the pedagogical implications of her reflections on the scholarly writing process are significant. “You have to believe that clarity is going to come, not all at once, and certainly not before you write, but eventually, if you work at it hard enough, it will come.” The question that follows is whether such a belief in the writing process motivates writing assignments that actually allow students to use writing in this way. The pedagogical wager of Thinking and Writing is that sustained writing offers students an opportunity to experience the real work of writing.
Hunt’s essay includes an anecdote about working with the poet Donald Hall at the University of Michigan that speaks even more directly to our work as teachers of writing. From Hall, she writes, “I learned that writing requires an unending effort at something resembling authenticity. Most mistakes come from not being yourself, not saying what you think, or being afraid to figure out what you really think” (my emphasis). If we can help our students understand this way of thinking about writing—and if we can offer them the experience of thinking through writing—then we are doing the real work of teaching our students to write.
For those interested in reading Hunt’s essay, I attach it here: How Writing Leads to Thinking (And Not the Other Way Around).