It’s not enough to write what you know

As the US’ ‘dumpster fire’ of a presidential election looms, it is more important than ever that students engage with other perspectives and acknowledge that their views aren’t universal, says Maximillian Alvarez

October 6, 2016
Person waving at reflection in street puddle
Source: Getty

A few months ago, a YouTube video went viral, depicting a University of Michigan student shouting some pretty nasty, belittling stuff at an Uber taxi driver who had refused to pick him up. When I showed it in my undergraduate writing course, Welcome to the Monkey House: How Politics Becomes a Reality Show, I was not surprised to learn that most of my students had already seen it. But that isn’t the point.

I’m a literary scholar, and the class I teach is in the department of comparative literature. But the bulk of the material we’ve been looking at is a mixture of philosophy, history and political case studies (the 1920s trial of anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, second-wave feminist protests, Ronald Reagan, 9/11 and Donald Trump). Sure, some of the inspiration came from my selfish need to figure out how the hell we in the US ended up with our current dumpster fire of a presidential election. But, more importantly, I’m committed to showing people how the world is in desperate need of the kinds of writing skills and modes of thinking that make up what I’ll vaguely call “literary study”. This doesn’t involve just reading what we traditionally think of as “literature”. It’s not just about what you read, but how you read it. It’s about the kinds of questions that you ask about the stuff in front of you, and the kind of answers that you demand from it.

There’s no magic “right” way to teach literature and essay-writing; there are simply effects (good and bad) that come with each method. In high school English, we’re given bricks of text and a barking directive from the teacher: interpret. The most obvious effect of this method is an unfortunate tendency for students to see literature as a puzzle that they have to solve: a metaphor for something else. Literature is boiled down to an author wanting to say something but hiding it away in plots and characters. The student’s job is to find it.

There’s another (sinister) effect of teaching literature and essay-writing this way. The crucial element of research is missing. As University of Illinois at Chicago academics Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein note in their 2007 book, They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing, this leads to a kind of “academic writing [that] is taught as a process of saying ‘true’ or ‘smart’ things in a vacuum, as if it were possible to argue effectively without being in conversation with someone else”. The basic justification for this is pretty straightforward: instead of being flooded by what other people have thought, felt and said about a book, students focus on what they think and feel, and then say something about it. They’re expected to sit in isolation, clench their eyes shut, concentrate really hard and summon opinions and arguments from somewhere inside themselves.

It may not seem like it, but this method of teaching sends a really strong message to students about some pretty deep philosophical stuff. Put plainly, it teaches students to have a clear and limited sense of what a “self” is. If they’re expected continually to come up with arguments by themselves, based purely on their reading of this or that text, deaf to what others have said, it’s assumed that their selves are the only resource they need. A student’s self is understood as something they just have, already formed, and that they need to mine in order to figure out what to put on paper. It doesn’t help either that we live in a consumer culture that is constantly assuring us that our selves are unique, special. What an existential nightmare it must be for students to look into themselves, try to find something “creative” to say and come up with nothing.

Listen, I’m not suggesting that it’s bad to be an individual. I’m suggesting that the particular way we teach students to think of their individuality is empirically bad. And the role that essay-writing plays in that process isn’t small. The same goes for the realm we label as “politics”. I see a very significant relationship between our exposure to the world of politics and our (in)ability to write good papers. In a 2005 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Argumentation in a Culture of Discord”, Frank Cioffi put his finger on this relationship when he pointed out that the whole political culture in the US that’s been propped up by the news media is, by design, based not on good argument and thoughtful discussion but rather on partisan bickering and “food-fight journalism”.

“Our media do not provide a forum for actual debate,” he wrote. “Instead they’re a venue for self-promotion and squabbling, for hawking goods, for infomercials masquerading as news or serious commentary…This failure to provide a forum for argumentative discourse has steadily eroded students’ understanding of ‘argument’ as a concept.” I think that Cioffi’s statement about “self-promotion” is truer than even he realises.

My students and I have come of age in a media-saturated environment in which “politics”, as we’re taught to understand it, is what red-faced people yell at each other about on our parents’ TVs. This gives students a decidedly bad understanding of “argument as a concept” and tends to turn them off politics. They want no part of it. Why would they?

But this problem isn’t solely a product of “the media”. Students don’t learn what bad arguments look like just from watching the news. As I’ve already suggested, the way we teach argument in school feeds into the same culture of developing opinions in a vacuum.

There’s a dangerous feedback loop here. We’re taught to have our opinions and to argue for them, and it’s presumed that those opinions come from some unique-snowflake-like hard-wiring inside our brains that makes us individuals from birth. Furthermore, this feeds the idea that those opinions are fundamentally part of who we are, so that saying you’re “entitled to your opinion” basically amounts to saying that you have a right to exist. And here’s the final turn of the screw: when we’re taught to think of opinions and arguments this way, others arguing against our opinions become tantamount to an existential threat. They are not so much arguing with a viewpoint or an idea as challenging the fabric of who we are.

Reflection in puddle of person stepping into street

Is it a coincidence that so much political “debate” devolves into personal attack? I’m suggesting that this kind of thing makes sense in the culture of argumentation we’ve created. It’s a sign of the invisible fusion of opinion and selfhood that’s taken place. Attacking a person isn’t just a lazy way to avoid confronting an opinion; if “you are who you are” and those opinions are hard-wired in you, then attacking the person is a legitimate way of attacking the opinion. This makes for passionate defences of opinions, but it is also the tipping point where open, constructive debate dies on the table.

So it’s a Monday morning and I choose to show my students two videos. The first is the 30-second clip of the Michigan student verbally assaulting the Uber driver. The second is more familiar territory for our class: two minutes of violent clashes between Trump supporters and anti-Trump protesters at a Trump rally in Chicago. We watch in silence. When the second clip is over, we just stare at each other for few seconds.

Me: “What do you see?”

A couple of students at once: “Anger.”

Me: “Anger, right. Lots of anger…What else?”

Student A: “Well, ya, I see anger. But apart from that I don’t really see the connection between the two clips.”

Student B: “I think one thing connecting them is an inability to see things from other people’s perspectives.”

Me: “Exactly. And the two, I think, are intimately related.”

I’ve watched both video clips a number of times by now. Like many other people, I get angry watching them. In my more sombre moments, that anger gives way to a deep despair that thuds inside my ribcage.

I see in each video eruptions of anger made possible by a sinister process that allows one person to see another as somehow less human than they are. Human beings, in all their complexity and diversity, are reduced to singular markers of identity – political ideology and class/occupation (an Uber driver and a “frat bro” college student). In philosophy, this kind of thing is called essentialism. It’s the name for what happens when you think you know a person, their intentions and motivations, when you know very little – sometimes only one thing – about them. It is when you fear a person because of their skin colour or religion; when you presume to know what a woman “wants” based on how she’s dressed; when you presume to know that a person is racist for supporting Trump or a politically correct “loser” for protesting against him.

Here’s the thing about the clip of the Michigan student: there are hundreds of thousands of people who, like me, have “seen all they need to see”. We’ve made our judgements. In effect, we’re doing to that student the very same thing he was doing to the Uber driver. We’re giving in to the same tendencies that I tell my students to avoid like the plague because they make for crappy papers. Blind certainty. Self-righteous judgement. The reduction of other people to simple shapes.

I’m sure as hell not defending the kid. I detest what he did. But I maintain that both the confrontation in the video and people’s gut responses to it are filled with the simplifying, essentialising impulses that fuel anger and violence. These are the things that good writing and argument reject. This isn’t about giving Trump supporters and the Michigan student a “fair shake” and trying to find out whether or not they’re “good people” in real life. Frankly, I don’t care about that. This is about not being lazy; it’s about avoiding what’s easy – because it has real consequences.

It’s for this reason that I think the ways we teach writing and argumentation matter. When I tell my students to do research, to engage with other perspectives, to consider the hard questions that come from realising that your views are not universal, there’s a real civic and existential purpose to it. It teaches students that their selves are radically open and beautifully vulnerable: open to influencing others, vulnerable to being influenced. It teaches them that opinions, like people, are porous, contextual, not black and white, and that reducing complexity is both lazy and dangerous. It is in that mutually open space between selves that the best kinds of writing and argument take place.

What we should try to teach students is that openness is a virtue of all good writing. It teaches them that opinions are not predetermined outgrowths of the selves we have from the beginning. It teaches them, rather, that our selves gradually develop out of what we do, where we go, who we associate with, what we come into contact with and how we respond to the world around us. You’re not merely a product of your environment, nor are you a unique snowflake that’s been formed independently and apart from that environment. What makes you unique is the expanding exchange between the parts you’re born with and the world you inhabit, the world we share. And that is, after all, what learning is all about. That is why it is altogether bad to train students to develop arguments about the world while simultaneously cutting them off from it. Coming into contact with other arguments, interpretations and worldviews won’t cause students to “lose” their voice; rather, they may find it for the first time.

Maximillian Alvarez is a dual-PhD candidate and graduate student instructor in the departments of history and comparative literature at the University of Michigan.

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