“First, They Both Have Food” – How “Thinking” Has Become a New Elective

Sometimes, the only way teachers, tutors, and professors can survive a particularly “special” student paper is to learn how to enjoy it for its more charming qualities.  I have written before on grammatical “mystics”, but now I would just like to share a few thoughts on the tragedy (and hilarity) of simplicity.

Some students really don’t know how to convey deep ideas on paper.  It is not necessarily that they are unintelligent (though in the midst of our frustration in grading, we might begin to wonder), but that they are unwilling or unable to think deeply and critically about an idea.  It seems that the majority of students are exposed to little reading and even less writing in their middle and high school careers.  Most students do the bare minimum and escape the painful world of words as soon as they can.  By the time they arrive at college, they still struggle with the basics of a comparison/contrast essay.  How are cats and dogs similar?  How are they different?  Will we ever know?

Well, I got another one of those yesterday. This ambitious student wanted to compare two restaurants.  Charming soul that he was, he chose Hooters as one and compared it with an Italian place.   Aside from the fact that he rambled incoherently about his favorite foods and watching sports in the “wholesome family environment” at Hooters, he had a lot of trouble simply finding points of comparison and contrast.

He began his list of similarities with the astonishing revelation:

“First, they both serve food.”

I knew I had my work cut out for me.

How do you teach someone to think deeply and look beyond the most simplistic of revelations?  It comes down to more than just knowing how to write.  Do I have to teach these students how to think as well to put words on paper?  I tried to explain the problem here and asked him to look a little further and to try to bring something to his paper that the reader might not already know.  I will never know if I got through to him, but I can hope.

I guess the “moral” of this story is that most students dismiss reading and writing out of hand as irrelevant and useless to their futures without realizing the benefits of being both well-read and a good writer.  Reading and writing both force you to think and judge and learn how to express things for yourself, and that is what this student, among others, is sorely lacking.

I might philosophically dismiss this essay as just one poor paper and expect something better to follow.  After all, there are so many smart and well written students out there.  I should not despair entirely, right?  But of course, today was just not that sort of day.  My very next essay began with this gem:

Each day begins with morning and ends with night.

Let’s just say that was the most thought provoking thing that was said in the essay.

So I suppose I must continue to do my part in passing on what little I know about writing to those who know even less and hope for better and brighter days (that begin with morning and end with night, of course) in which my students will rise to the occasion and write thought-provoking essays on deep and interesting topics.

In the meantime, we can all dwell on the incredible news that there are two restaurants out there that share the unique attribute of serving food.

Who knew, right?


About Melissa

generally in love with things Celtic, mythological, fantastic, sharp and pointy, cute and fuzzy, intellectual, snarky, cheerful, or some combination thereof. Such things as sarcastic bunnies wielding claymores might come to mind...

Posted on October 11, 2011, in Editing, Humor, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Melissa Rogers, Words, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. I had experience like that…except it was with a professor in my grad program.

    The topic was the American colonies as the “periphery and the center” and the professor built up the discussion with this long and weighty diatribe about the drastic revelation that this idea would bring to the table. Almost as soon as he started, I thought, “They’re talking about geography, right? The older coastal colonies versus the newer ones inland. Nah. That’s too obvious.” So, thirty minutes later, he finally looks at us and asks us what it all means. You hear crickets chirping. Finally he proceed to explain with frustration that the older coastal colonies….

    • Yes, it is dangerous when those academics start learning cool, long words… they want to use them ALL THE TIME! Sometimes, there is a much simpler way to say it that is infinitely better. I tried to convince a student (on the debate team, drat their little souls) that his needlessly complicated essay could be simplified and clarified and he looked at me like I was stupid. Big words = THMART!

  2. If it’s any consolation, your experiences are not unique, Melissa. On second thought, that’s probably no consolation at all. Forget I said anything.

  3. It is the product of testing! Schools must produce high test scores and as a result they teach to the tests. Children aren’t taught to think anymore or how to write real papers. Then they are thrown into college without the least idea of what to do in classes that require writing and thinking! It isn’t that these students can’t think, it is that they are not taught how to organize their thoughts, pull out the good stuff from their ideas and then write them in a coherent manner. That isn’t required on the tests, with the exception of the SAT I suppose. It is one of the main reasons I homeschool my children so that I can make sure they know how to think critically and be able to expound on those ideas. We need to change how the public school system works and get rid of the idea that everybody must go to college.

  4. I hate to break this to Angela, but the absolute lack of anything remotely resembling thought in the mind of the average college freshman goes back way before No Child Left Behind and the current testing craze. “In our modern, contemporary world of today, in which we now live . . .” I got to read that phrase from a fresher more than a quarter of a century ago. (It’s from the Department of Redundancy Department, in case you’re wondering.) The current emphasis on testing isn’t helping–but the problem goes much deeper than that. But that’s a diatribe for another day.

    • I do agree with Angela that homeschooling (and, at times, sending one’s child(ren) to those rare, truly excellent schools that are out there believe it or not!) is a remedy for a lot of these failings. But yes, the testing system is just exacerbating an issue that has already been brewing. One reason so many people didn’t feel a need to attend college “back in the day” is that a high school education was regarded the way that a college education is now. It was that good.

  5. I’m not sure you have to teach a number of them how to think. I think you have to convince them that they need to *work*.

    • There are certainly those students, but I have had many very hard working students who simply just don’t know how to apply their zeal. They don’t get the concept of critical thinking at all and explaining it gains me little more than a hopeful, but very blank smile. For instance, if I told a student like this one that I wanted to know not only how they are different but also WHY IT MATTERS?

      But yes, then there are just the ones who have figured out that thinking requires additional effort and effort is silliness because there are tv shows and video games and staring at walls as delightful alternatives.

      • Oh, definitely, some just don’t get it, but I’ve had a number who are certainly smart enough – smart enough in some ways not to see the short-term benefits of expending finite time on something that may not so much *hurt* them later as fail to help them. Even more could clearly think (all you had to do was debate the issue orally as a class to see that). It was the writing that stumped them. Listening to them you’d put them in the top 10% for intelligence, but looking at their writing… not so much.

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