Into the Thicket

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When offered the opportunity to have a sustained encounter with the limits of one’s own understanding, most people would politely decline. But, if you think about it, that’s what the act of writing really is—an open invitation to be dragged off into the thicket of the unknown, where hours disappear in a haze, the blank screen concealing sentences half-started, half-revised, then abandoned. Experienced writers learn how to keep at it and even come to enjoy the struggle that precedes any new insight. Most other folks run screaming in the other direction.


When Ann and I set out to write Habits of the Creative Mind, we were motivated, in part, by the desire to help our students unlearn their fear of the thicket. We wanted to give them the chance to see writing not as a tool for keeping the unknown at bay, but rather as a technology for thinking new thoughts.


Why do our students fear the thicket? Our students—and yours—are the most tested generation in human history. They have spent over a decade filling in bubbles, providing short factual answers, and writing formulaic “arguments” that prove that doing A is better than doing B. In such a world, one doesn’t say, “I don’t know” or “I don’t think doing A or B really addresses the root of the problem.” One learns, instead, to avoid questions and ideas that resist conversion to readily-understood bullet points. So trained, our students stick to clichés and allow their thoughts to be contained by the sluicegates of the commonplace.


We see ourselves working against this test-driven vision of learning and the incurious culture of checklists and clickbait it leaves in its wake. And we propose, instead, that it is the teacher’s job to model a version of intellectual curiosity that delights in questions and complex problems.  The rallying cry for our pedagogy could well be, “To the thicket!”


For beginning students, the thicket is never far off.  So, they don’t so much need help getting there as they need help learning how to stay there, so they can develop a greater tolerance for the encounter with the unknown, the unfamiliar, the ambiguous.


Take a simple problem: you assign an online reading and the students come to class saying they couldn’t do the reading because they couldn’t find it on the web. They’ve “tried” and failed and now they look to you for guidance. What to do?


We understand that the natural response in such a situation is to revert to what is familiar and manageable—to print out copies of the reading in advance, say, or to stick with assigning the readings included at the back of the book. But teaching Habits is about teaching students how to improvise in a world overrun with information and teeming with possibilities. And we believe that the only way to do this is for the teacher to model, in matters big and small, an openness to the inevitability of having to revise, rethink, redirect, and refocus all semester long.


If your students say they can’t do a Google search to find the reading online, what are they telling you about their creative resources? If this hurdle is too high for them, how well has their past education prepared them to survive in our information-rich economy? Curiosity is a habit and it’s acquired through practice; so, too, is learned-helplessness.


And this, to our way of thinking, is precisely what makes teaching writing so intellectually stimulating and emotionally rewarding: you get to help students come to see thinking and writing as lifelong activities whose value extends well beyond the walls of the classroom and the confines of a college transcript. To get our students to make thinking creatively a habit, to make being curious a habit, to make improvising a habit, we self-consciously design our classrooms to be learning environments that promote creativity, curiosity, and improvisation.  So, while our goals as writing teachers remain constant, the details of our syllabi are always implicitly provisional; they’re just sketches of how the course might go and are subject to revision as soon as the journey into the thicket begins.

About the Author
Richard E. Miller has been teaching writing for over 25 years. He has blogged extensively about digital technology, the end of privacy, and the future of higher education on his website He’s served on the executive committee of CCCC and of the ADE; he’s been on the editorial board of CCC, Studies in Writing and Rhetoric, and Pedagogy (ongoing). He’s an essayist, social media fanatic, sometimes poet, photographer, multimedia composer, graphic novelist (he writes about the misadventures of his alter-ego, Professor Pawn) and memoirist.