Spotlight: Embracing Confusion

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303267_pastedImage_3.jpgToday's guest bloggers is Eric Rawson‌, author of American Subcultures: A Bedford Spotlight Reader.

Rhetoric deals with matters of uncertainty and disagreement. In challenging our students to see their writing as a means of discovery as well as an articulation of ideas, we necessarily lead them into places of uncertainty. Their typical—and understandable—reaction when confronting strange territory is to seek safe ground, to fall back on familiar ways of framing arguments, such as the five-paragraph thought-killer. As writing instructors, we challenge our students to plunge into their confusion with the faith that they will find a path. Of course, we cannot sincerely pursue this course if we ourselves are unwilling to embrace a risk-taking model that welcomes uncertainty and doubt into our teaching practices.

Instructors are as prone to confusion as students, as I recently rediscovered as I worked on the American Subcultures topic reader. Particularly when our composition courses are organized around thematics, we often struggle to project our mastery of the material. Since we usually are not experts in American subcultures (or other comp-class thematics), we have to assimilate new material in a hurry. But teaching writing in the context of thematics outside our expertise can be a very good thing. It means that we experience some of the same confusion as our students do. Rather than present myself as an authority on American subcultures, I tell my classes on the first day that I’m not a sociologist, but that together we will explore the readings, discuss the issues, and respond in writing.

Embracing confusion has implications for assignment design. If we are to encourage our students to delve into material that requires thoughtful consideration—moving beyond the already clarified—then we do not want to overdetermine the writing tasks. We want to emphasize the point that for writing to lead to discovery and clarification, it must necessarily start from a place that is unknown and obscure.

  • Confusion and invention: Modelling the invention process is essential, leading students into confusion and showing them a way out again. One way is to solicit a random topic from the class so as to cast the instructor in the role of confused student, as the class “stepstones” through initial ideas, analyzing assumptions, making connections, developing a thesis and perhaps a points-to-make list. Modelling this process risks failure, but failure can be an important lesson. Admit it. Scrap the plan. Start again, having risked appearing foolish. Point out that confusion is a sign that we are asking novel questions. Worry if the students are never Use confusion as a way of generating creative questions worth writing about.
  • Confusion and drafting: Years ago, an Air Force pilot told me that he was trained that when confused about what to do in a damaged airplane, he should DO ANYTHING! Doing something means one can develop a course of action based on what happens next. The potter can’t begin to shape the pot without a lump of clay, and the writer cannot begin to shape an argument without a mess of prose to work with. Finding one’s way out of confusion requires action.
  • Confusion and revision: Early in the semester I show my students a clip from Henri Clouzots 1957 documentary “The Mystery of Picasso.” Using time-lapse photography, Clouzot compresses eight hours of Picasso at work into a few minutes. We watch a painting develop from its initial idea, passing through multiple revisions as the artist scrapes the canvas and begins again—and again— revisiting trouble spots, trying radically new approaches. At one point, Picasso stops the procedure and addresses the filmmaker: “This is bad. This is very, very bad.” Then he completes a masterpiece.

Having made the point that confusion brings rewards not only at the invention and drafting stages but also in the revision process, I turn the lesson to specific writing tasks, examining my own “time lapse”: the multiple drafts of a single introductory paragraph, for instance. It’s possible to oversell the work of close revision, with the unfortunate consequence of locking our time-pressured students in a dungeon of self-doubt. But if presented in a way that doesn’t demand prose at the level of a Nobel Laureate, imagining a reader’s confusion can guide the writer through the process of revision.

Ultimately, confusion generates creativity, exploration, discovery. Too much certainty drives all manner of things drab or dangerous, from depressing architecture to rigid politics. It’s boring. Confusion can be generative. Confusion leads to discovery; certainty rarely does. Certainty can set us in motion, but confusion can change our understanding of the world.