Posts Tagged ‘The Primacy of Practice’

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Thinking Gray

posted: 12.9.09 by Barclay Barrios

I recently chatted with a group of teachers at a nearby institution who were going to test the readings in Emerging, Appiah’s “Making Conversation” and “The Primacy of Practice.”  One of the things we talked about is that students always want to flatten what they read, a particular problem when it comes to essays with subtle and complex ideas like Appiah’s.  After reading these selections, students will want to say, “We should all just get along,” or “We just need to talk more and that will solve things.”  And, yes, those reflect Appiah’s ideas.  But things are not so simple, so black and white.  Sometimes the challenge of teaching writing is getting students to think gray—to deal with the messiness of complexity, and to think their own way through it.

I shared with those teachers some of the techniques I use to get students thinking gray.  For example, the class will gravitate to certain sections of an essay or certain quotations; these will probably be the key sections of the reading, but they will also probably be the ones students “get.”  I try to direct students to the ignored parts of an essay.  If a section feels unimportant, then why is it there?  What does it do for the argument?  Along these lines, I ask peer editors to find quotations from the essay that challenge a student author’s argument.

But sometimes the best way to think gray is to pay very close attention to the text.  That was my suggestion for Appiah.  Students will want to dismiss him as all “kumbaya” and “Let’s all get along.”  But then I direct them to a small but crucial quotation from Appiah’s text: “Cosmopolitanism is the name not of the solution but of the challenge.”  Asking students to explain what Appiah means, to account for this quotation within his larger argument, to see cosmopolitanism as both a challenge and a solution… that is the stuff of thinking gray.

What are your methods for engaging students in a “messy” reading?

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Categories: Argument, Critical Reading, Critical Thinking, Emerging, Rhetorical Situation, Working with Sources
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