From Benedict Carey’s How We Learn, which is the best collection I’ve found of recent (and historical) findings in cognitive science that explain how our brains work and how we might treat them better as a result. This bit specifically is Very Good because of how it articulates a problem with beginning writers that I’ve noticed but never been able to characterize before:
When I was in high school or college, trying to write an essay or research paper, I was forever looking for someone else’s thinking to rely on. I would hunt for some article written by an expert that was as similar as possible to the assignment. This perfect “model” essay never existed, or I never found it, so I’d end up stringing together quotes and ideas from the articles and books I had looked through. If someone else said it, I figured it must be insightful. In my defense, this isn’t all bad. When looking into the emergence of Christianity in ancient Rome, we should know who the experts are and what they think. The problem is that, when we’re embarking on a research project?especially when we’re younger?we don’t necessarily know how to identify those intellectual landmarks. Often, we don’t even know they exist. Through high school and much of college, I remember longing for someone to tell me how to proceed, sinking into a passing, tentative frame of mind, a fear of embarrassment trumping any real curiosity or conviction. The result was that I rarely consulted the wisdom of the one thinker I had easy access to: myself. I was so busy looking for better, smarter opinions that I had trouble writing?or thinking?with any confidence.
The solution Carey gives comes from a teacher named, no shit, Ronda Leathers Dively. Instead of assigning 6 short papers, she assigned one long one, with 5 short response papers to 5 different kinds of sources toward the semester-long project. Students then gradually got immersed in their topics and became scrutinous experts on the source material out there.
When it came time to write the paper, they were comfortable thinking on the page.
Ronda Leathers Dively!