Thinking with Words

A while ago I posted about the way that we think using images. It’s one recent piece of writing that I’m particularly proud of. It was particularly timely for me because it grew out of some reading that I had been doing, but also because I have been having a lot of official and unofficial conversations around my workplace about metacognition. It’s one of those terms that manifest in the discourse of teaching and stir things up a bit. Sometimes I think they’re the academic equivalent of a fad—but only in my cynical moments.

I intend to pursue the idea further, because I think it ties into a lot of interesting things like religion, culture, advertising, and even literary criticism.

But first (before the heavy thinking) I would like to provide an entertaining tangent about the way the mind thinks with words in the absence of images (at least for now). It comes from an activity that I usually do with my freshman students in the beginning of a writing class. I have a lesson about the nature of revision in writing and how it is more than just proofreading or spell checking an essay before you hand it in. It involves wrestling with your own ideas and struggling to find the right words.

But near the beginning of the lecture I always project the following paragraph onto the screen using (this is important!) Microsoft Word:

The Trip

Being at a young age when most kids are unhealthy and arrogant, we went on a cross country hike in our minivans without fail and supervision. At all costs we were worth millions and had sun tanned skin in the event of an emergency. The first day looked back at time gone by and we wondered if our trip contained enough fried tuna and asparagus leaves, which they don’t have around my house last year. By the second week, our minivans had filled with gas and no longer contained ourselves. Unfortunately we had still left the house. In my defense I hat asparagus. There was absolutely no reason not too much. Much the same way at that time we could never see what happened last night because I was tired from. Horsepower! How about that? Who could not see the important part of my pajamas, pan-fried with peas and perhaps some pickled ginger.

And I ask them, “what is missing in this paragraph?” And it’s really cruel at the beginning. Have you found it yet?

You couldn’t have. Copy and past it into MS Word (or any other word processor).

See it yet?

I usually start giving them hints after a few minutes. I say things like “Think about the program I am using.” And about half the time someone will find it. Nothing is underlined (with those squiggly red or green or blue lines, impotent symbols of computer-generated analysis). Spelling and grammar check hasn’t flagged a single word or phrase. And the point I always emphasize is that good writing must be more than grammatically correct. It has to communicate good ideas. Clearly.

But here’s the really interesting thing: a lot of the time, I can see them struggling for the first few minutes with the paragraph, and they’ll throw sideways glances at me (because they know I wrote it), and I can see the self-doubt in their faces. They’re asking themselves “Am I just not getting this?”

Because the first thing the brain does in a situation like this is try to make sense out of nonsense. It says: “hmm, this is a story, as I can tell from the title, and it’s about a bunch of kids in a minivan who packed a lunch and then ran out of gas.” Then it will get lost, but it tries very hard, especially if you read quickly, to fit into some sort of pattern of meaning.

My thesis: a lot of our knowledge is sometimes nothing more than pattern recognition. Movies, commercials, sermons, talk radio—even blog posts—all follow a particular pattern that we identify subconsciously.

And then we plug the key words into the right spaces and leave with little more than our preconceived ideas in a slightly different, temporary arrangement.

It sounds more cynical than I meant it to. This is only the result of half-interested learning. Of forced attendance at church or school, or the passive acceptance of TV ads. But it can still be powerful.


About Derrick

Derrick lives and works in South Carolina where he teaches English at a technical college and raises his two small children with his wife, Danielle.
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