Critical Thinking through
Writing in Cyberspace
By Mark Crane
short article makes a two-fold claim:
informal writing can help your students develop critical thinking skills, and
e-mail discussion lists are uniquely suited to encourage speculative informal writing that can lead to increased learning.
Included are instructions for starting your own discussion list at the University of Louisville and additional on-line resources.
All of us are familiar with the notion of writing as communication, a way of transmitting that which is already known. Yet writing can also be a powerful tool for learning, a way to teach students to synthesize and apply the knowledge specific to your discipline. Writing scholar Nancy Martin notes the relationship between the informal speech that is used by most of us to communicate most of the time, and informal writing for classes. As an approximation of speech, informal writing is “crucial for trying out and coming to terms with new ideas” (Martin 26). As Martin implies, informal writing is most useful when it is part of a larger dialogue. One way to encourage this speculative or expressive writing and dialogue in conjunction with your classroom is through participation in an electronic mail discussion list, also known as a “listserv.” Electronic discussion lists have the advantages of other forms of informal writing, such as journals, but also gain the advantages that come from sharing writing with peers (Hawisher 86). Chesebro and Bonsall write that electronic writing “possesses the advantage of focusing attention upon the written word…[and] also allows or forces users to employ words concretely, vividly, and meaningfully” (qtd. in Hawisher, 84).
Of course, the same might be said of traditional writing. Yet electronic writing incorporates elements of orality. First of all, electronic writing is often more immediate and dynamic than written text. Its recipients, for example, often respond within moments, much like in conversation. Although e-mail can be archived indefinitely, in some ways it is also less permanent than written text, in that most of it is not saved for future reference, giving e-mail a sense of spontaneity not always found in more formal writing. In Orality and Literacy, Walter Ong writes that orality is “empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced” (Ong 45). He also notes that electronic writing, like orality, can foster a communal sense and focuses on the present moment (Ong 136).
The workings of e-mail lists are fairly straightforward (see instructions for setting up a listserv for your own class). First, all class members “subscribe” themselves to the class discussion list. This is accomplished by sending a message to a special address. Next, messages that are sent to a specific address are also distributed to everyone else who has subscribed to the list.
On a productive list, the results can be similar to having a good class discussion, except that it occurs on-line. We’ve all experienced productive class discussions that continue without the prompting of the instructor. A good e-mail discussion list can achieve that same sort of spontaneity and self-sponsored learning.
In conclusion, incorporating informal writing into your class in the form of e-mail discussion lists gives students the opportunity to reflect on their in-class learning at their own pace. It can also generate productive dialogue in an informal setting that can be accessed anytime. Finally, it gives students the chance to develop speculations about the course in exchange with a real audience.
Hawisher, Gail E. and Paul Leblanc, eds. Re-Imagining Computers and Composition: Teaching and Research in the Virtual Age. Portsmouth: Boynton Cook, 1992.
Martin, N., P. D ‘Arcy, B. Newton and R. Parker. Writing and Learning across the Curriculum. London: Ward Lock Educational, 1976.
Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New York: Methuen, 1982.
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