May 19, 2020

What You Think, What I Think

A reflection on thought.

In my third year here at UChicago, back when the quad was still populated, I received two contradictory lessons on writing. The first came from my teacher and mentor Bill Ayers, with whom I had the honor of taking the course Beginning Nonfiction Workshop. We discussed themes ranging from narrational honesty to the use of slang and profanity in creative texts, repeatedly arriving at what seemed like a cornerstone principle of creative nonfiction: The narrator’s unique voice is everything.

The next quarter, I took the infamous Little Red Schoolhouse (LRS) class, considered by many to be a “must-take” course. Larry McEnerney, practically a local celebrity, delivered the course’s introduction: This course deals with a tiny piece of a tiny piece of a tiny piece of all the writing that exists in the world, he said. Then, he and two others proceeded to teach 10 weeks on soulless, academic writing. LRS presents itself as a course on “academic and professional” writing, which helps contextualize both McEnerney’s “tiny piece” remark and the aforementioned soullessness. (I mean no harm to McEnerney, whose lectures were enlightening, and more than made up for the frustration the course caused me.)

There is another of McEnerney’s LRS sayings that stands out in my memory: Readers don’t care about what you think; they care about what they think. If true, this would support the notion that academic writers should remove emotion and personal experiences from their writing since their readers simply do not care about these elements. They would rather get straight to the point. Let’s assume, at least for now, that this does accurately describe readers of academic writing. The questions still remain: Does it apply to readers of creative writing? How does creative writing, particularly creative nonfiction, differ from the type of writing taught in LRS? Does it? And how should this distinction inform not only the way one writes creative nonfiction, but the way one reads it?

Personally, I would put many of the texts read in Sosc classes in the category of creative nonfiction. I think, in particular, of Karl Marx. As dry, unhumorous, and analytical as Marx can sometimes be, texts like The Communist Manifesto, as well as his early essays, show a clear knack for rhetorical flourish. One needs only to read the words “a specter is haunting Europe,” followed by the acknowledgment that Europe’s nations have “entered into a Holy Alliance to exorcise this specter,” to sense that this book isn’t some plain-old-vanilla social theory.

In Sosc classes and similar types of seminars, we analyze texts with the stated purpose of discussing what authors think about the world. “What does Marx think about industrial capitalism?” you might hear a professor ask. “Can someone find a passage that suggests what Smith thinks of the division of labor?” I even once had a Hum professor tell me to forget about what I thought of a text and instead focus solely on the author’s argument. This was a critical pedagogical intervention for me. Students often make premature judgments on texts’ “worth” or “value.” In fact, we are all guilty of this. It is essential, instead, to first develop a cohesive understanding of what they, the authors, think, before so forcefully, and sometimes irreversibly, deciding what we think. What if the author was actually spending that inflammatory introduction preparing to tell us something valuable later on? We wouldn’t know, because we stopped taking them seriously. We may have even stopped reading. This hypothetical scenario represents an obvious loss: We are stuck thinking bad ideas even though better ideas are contained in the very pages before us!

This whole discussion proves that McEnerney is right: We do, ultimately, want to know what we think about the world, whether we are reading academic writing or creative nonfiction. (As the example of Marx demonstrates, the distinction is sometimes moot.) In certain instances, such as heated debates, we even feel as though we need to know what we think about the world. Understanding creative nonfiction texts in their entirety and in their complexity is key to developing such opinions and thoughts. Before we allow these texts to confirm or deny, affirm or negate, reduce, contest, or ignore what we think, let’s allow them to teach us to think, and, moreover, to teach us what we think.

As a soon-to-be-graduating fourth-year, I can tell you that my Sosc curriculum sinks a little bit deeper into my head with each passing year. The changes have been gradual but many. For instance, as a second-year, I was an emergent Marxist; now, I am a full-on Marxist. As I do some of my own thinking, particularly about my time at this university, I find myself reflecting on the curious, odd, and sometimes incompatible ways I’ve been taught to think. Here’s what I think of my ways. What do you think of yours?

Jake Weiss is a fourth-year in the College.