On Thinking and Clarity

The following material is a response to Richard Lanham's Style: An Anti-Textbook. I shared it with my expository students today. It relies on a ridiculous simplification. My use of the terms "rhetoric" and "composition" are completely idiosyncratic and reductionary.

I’ll write as preface that these remarks probably won’t be clear. And the reason they won’t be clear is that I’m thinking. Or, perhaps I should say, I am still thinking, and thinking doesn’t tend to sit still. What I’m reacting to is Lanham’s question “Does clear writing really make for clear thinking?” And, while my thoughts are conflicted, they go something like this:

Clear thinking isn’t necessarily representative of quality thinking. Thinking is messy and conflicted. In fact, when it comes to teaching, we often must choose to teach either thinking or clarity. As a teacher, when I think of clarity and Freshman Composition I think of assignments such as “what did you do on your summer vacation?” Because the question is insipid, students can focus on the expression, the clarity, without any thinking getting in the way. If you want to teach clarity [prose], then you can’t teach thinking.

Thinking back (uh oh) to an earlier lecture, I discussed the principle canons of rhetoric germane to an Expository Writing class: invention, arrangement, and style. Rhetoric (as a pedagogic discipline) primarily concerns itself with invention—generating ideas. Composition primarily concerns itself with style—communicating those ideas. Arrangement gets caught between the two: for rhetoric, awareness of generic (and in genre) forms can help stimulate invention; for composition awareness of structure can facilitate communication.

So, thinking of this class, I hope you see that the emphasis is on Composition. All our work engaging a network is to help you generate ideas. And allowing you to choose your own area of interest is to “limit” your thinking (is this true? I don’t know). Let me explain: last semester I taught this same course on the history of education. Students needed to compare and contrast Plato’s allegory of the cave with Cicero’s analogy of the healthy civic body as regards the purpose of higher education. This was a course on approaching complex, messy ideas. And relating them. And, as expected, the writing was messy.

Now I’m toning down the reading list. In fact, I am essentially allowing you to generate your own weekly reading lists (is Lanham right? Do you read?). But I don’t think I am necessarily teaching clarity. I haven’t used that word yet. And, as a deconstructionist, I abhor simplicity (simplicity and certainty always mask complexity and doubt). This aversion to simplicity goes along with my aversion to teaching writing in favor of the possibility of exposing W-R-I-T-I-N-G. But I wrote about that here.

See. I knew this wouldn’t end clearly.

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