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When I was starting college, friends and relatives told me “college teaches you to think.” I found this idea both puzzling and exciting. It was puzzling of course, because everyone thinks all the time. What was it exactly that we needed to learn? It was exciting because it suggested there was a whole other level of skill at thinking. It implied that college was about training the mind, not just about specific areas of expertise. Learning to think would change me and how I approached everything.
I imagined that this challenge to my thinking habits would come from the class readings and discussions. What I didn’t know was that the process of writing, the process of developing my own arguments, would challenge me even more and become the core practice that stretched my thinking. I use the term “argument” here broadly to mean a presentation of ideas that usually includes reasons to support those ideas.
Most of us are probably familiar with the practical reasons to study writing in college. It’s worth getting good at because we’re going to do it a lot. No matter our major, as we get into higher-level classes we will need to do more writing, whether that looks like lab reports, explanations of mathematical methods, or essays in psychology, political science, literature, or economics.
We probably recognize, too, that writing skills will help us succeed in a career. To get a job, we’ll have to write cover letters, resumes, and emails. On the job, we’ll have to explain things to colleagues in writing. Nurses and doctors write notes on patient care; software engineers comment on the structure of their programs, managers write plans and evaluations. In all these settings, a professional style of Standard English will boost credibility. We will benefit from the ability to switch to this more formal type of language from any dialect we speak within our family and community.
But why does academia make writing so central? And why do so many professions depend on it? What makes writing so valuable? I would argue that academia and the professions need writing because it is our best tool for sharpening our thinking. It helps us slow down and clarify our ideas. Humans are not innately great at this. Many psychologists have argued that people tend to make decisions quickly and base them heavily on emotion. In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow Daniel Kahneman contrasts two ways of forming ideas: System 1, our quick reactions and snap judgments, and System 2, the slow thinking we do when we have to write an essay. According to Kahneman, the human mind tends to jump to conclusions quickly based on limited evidence (86).
In today’s media environment, we are continually pressured into fast thinking because we are bombarded by arguments in the form of social media posts, emails, texts etc. We look for a second, we read a headline without reading the whole article, we decide to click or not click “Like,” we decide to share with friends or not—all based on fast thinking.
Yet fast thinking only gets us so far and often gets us into trouble. We are biased. We may be the smartest creatures on Earth, but we have numerous cognitive habits that lead us astray. There are errors in reasoning that are common among all people. Often, we are not even conscious of these biases, and only slow thinking and engagement with different perspectives can help us overcome them. For example, we suffer from confirmation bias: we tend to look for evidence that confirms what we already believe, and have trouble dealing with anything that goes against what we already believe. We also have availability bias: we tend to base our thinking on the examples, evidence, or experiences we can easily call up in our minds.
Perhaps the highest goal of academia is to advance our understanding as humans and get beyond biases and blind spots. We can think of academia as a conversation of many voices that speak to each other across time and place, through the medium of writing. It’s a good thing that each argument becomes part of this larger conversation because slow thinking is hard. It takes mental sweat. It takes time. We need each other’s help and input. Reading, writing, and revising help us get clearer about our own ideas and those of others. These processes demand effort from every student and scholar, no matter their IQ, overall knowledge, or experience. And the effort pays off.
The slow thinking skills that college cultivates in turn help us as professionals in fields beyond the academy. Reading, writing, and revising allow us to think carefully about each workplace decision, considering multiple factors and perspectives. They enable us to communicate and explain our decisions to colleagues and respond to their questions and critiques.
But slow thinking is not just for academic work and professional life. I believe I was right to get excited when I heard “college teaches thinking,” because the slow thinking we practice as readers and writers is transformative for our personal lives. Slow thinking is a tool for soul searching. High-stakes life questions involve so many complex considerations that they demand extended thought. What major and career should I pursue? How much should I work while in school? These questions require research into the options, and a careful weighing of our values and interests, economic pressures, and family demands, as well as our dreams and desires. Even if we end up going with an intuition or first impulse, such decisions are worth confirming with slower thinking. As Stuart Greene and April Lidinsky put it in From Inquiry to Academic Writing, “[L]earning to consider information carefully and critically, and to weigh competing points of view before making our own judgments--gives us power over our own lives” (11).
Argument can help us gain power in society as well. Jeanne Fahnestock and Marie Secor, authors of A Rhetoric of Argument, go so far as to see it as a tool "to equalize the unequal distribution of power that exists in every institution and situation" (8). Those of us who don’t start out with power can build it by arguing well about the issues that matter to us and our communities. The habits of mind we learn as readers and writers can help us develop our political opinions. Our participation in democracy, whether that means voting or any kind of political activity, local or national, requires myriad decisions on very complex issues. Which drugs should be legal? How should we address climate change? How should we ensure public safety? How much money should the government take from citizens, and how should it spend that money? How do we move toward a more just society? These big questions involve countless smaller ones that require ongoing debate and consideration.
Slow thinking doesn’t come easily, even for supposed experts. As writers and thinkers, we will all feel at times that we are struggling in the dark. In writing this introduction, I have had to remind myself several times: “Just keep writing; it will eventually come together;” “The ideas are always foggy at first;” “Give yourself permission to write a shitty first draft;” “Remember, a bad first draft!” and other mantras. I remind myself of the many times I have been through this and the “aha” moments that came along the way. I remind myself that when I keep working, I eventually make it through the short-term frustration and gain increased clarity.
Even though slow thinking never gets easy, it does get easier. There are specific moves we can learn that will help a great deal. We pick up these moves unconsciously from other writers as we read. But we can also learn them directly. This textbook points out the common moves writers make as they develop arguments. It shows how to recognize these moves as we read and how to make similar moves as we write.
The paragraphs on fast and slow thinking were adapted by Anna Mills from “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Alex Sterling, included in "Critical Thinking for the 21st Century" on Canvas Commons, licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0.