E. M. Forster said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” As a composition teacher, who understands the importance writing plays in the development of our ideas, the question reads not as a clever quip but as an accurate description of the relationship between thought and word. Writing provides structure to thought, allowing the writer to see what she has to been thinking. Seeing thought on paper then allows the writer to re-write or re-organize those thoughts in order to share them with readers. Encouraging students to use writing as a way to see what they think supports the feminist and critical pedagogy that shapes my classroom.
For me teaching composition is about demonstrating the truth of Forster’s quote to students; teaching them to view writing as a means to understand what they think, as well as a way to communicate those thoughts clearly to a reader. In my composition courses I often ask students to consider the relationship between their lives, education, and popular culture by asking them to consider non-traditional texts (songs, television programs, movies, and/or contemporary novels) rhetorically. Considering the rhetorical context of artifacts students interact with regularly demands that they begin to read and think critically about their world. Asking students to consider things they already find familiar, like a television show, in a new light demonstrates to them their ability to think critically about any subject, preparing them for whatever field of study they choose to enter.
At the end of each class meeting I ask students to write informally in their course notebook as a way to help them organize and structure their thoughts about the class. At the beginning of each formal writing assignment I ask students to read through what they wrote up to that point. Re-reading their writings reminds them what they think about the topic and serves as a brainstorming activity for the formal writing they are about to do. Once students see what they think, the formal writing assignment requires them to use writing in a new way by using it to communicate their thoughts to a reader. As students learn how to effectively organize their thoughts for others, their ability to change and shape their education, their field of study, and eventually the world.
When students leave my composition class, I hope that through practice they’ve learned the intimate way that thoughts and words are connected. Understanding the connection between thought and word provides students with a concrete activity – writing – that can help them ‘see’ what they think, ‘say’ those thoughts to others, and ‘know’ writing is a way they can impact their world.