What Does It Mean to Think?

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What does it mean to think? And how do you know you’re doing it?

Let’s consider the question in three different scenarios: listening to a lecture; driving; writing a college essay. Is thought necessary in any of these scenarios? 

When I discuss these questions with my students, a consensus emerges that the mental activity in the three scenarios differs. In a lecture, one is passive, receiving the auditory data and processing it as best one can. Behind the wheel, the monitoring of the inbound data requires constant attention, so that one can react as the unfolding situations demand.  While thinking is possible in each situation, it is also possible to do each without actively making decisions. This is clearly the case with listening, as one can’t stop the sounds from entering one’s ears, but one need not attend to them. And, while it may seem that driving is of a different order altogether, the inability to recall huge chunks of a long drive suggests that, whatever mental activity turning the steering wheel and hitting the brakes requires, the vast majority of the experience is defined by routine. So routine, in fact, that drivers feel they can drive and text, drive and carry on phone conversations, drive and shave, etc.

Writing seems a different beast, doesn’t it?

When my students tell me that writing requires a different kind of thinking, I’m skeptical. With twenty-five years’ experience reading and responding to student work, I have plenty of evidence to the contrary. Sure, you can’t write while shaving, but it sure seems like I receive a lot of writing that has been completed while watching streaming video or chatting or skyping. Writing that has emerged during the defining experience of our time: multi-tasking.

I press the point and a distinction emerges. Sure, driving involves a multitude of micro-decisions that leave no trace in memory, barring something cataclysmic, but writing seems to require a different kind of mental activity, as is evidenced by the fact that the micro-decisions that result in writing leave behind their traces for us to consider—as words on the screen or scratches on the notepad. We can use those traces to get a glimpse of what is going on in the writer’s mind.

In the final scene of Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s loving evocation of the experience of aging, the film’s main character, Mason, is sitting with Nicole, a girl he’s just met on his first day at college. They’ve skipped freshman orientation, ingested some pot brownies, and driven out to Big Bend National Park to watch the sun set.

Nicole, leaning towards Mason, asks rhetorically, “You know how everyone’s always saying, ‘Seize the moment’?” Once Mason avers, Nicole says, “I don’t know, I’m kinda thinking it’s the other way around. You know, like the moment seizes us.”

In standard Hollywood fare, the scene would end with the two kissing.

But, that’s not how the movie ends.

Mason agrees: “Yeah. Yeah . . . I know. It’s constant, the moments, it’s just . . . it’s like always right now, you know?”

And Nicole says, “Yeah.”

Then there’s a few more awkward seconds of silence and the screen goes black. Credits.

On the threshold of adulthood, Mason is experiencing time as: now and now and now, ad infinitum. Those who haven’t seen the movie might be tempted to argue, based on the dialogue alone, that Mason is experiencing a version of enlightenment, but there’s nothing in the film to support this reading. Mason hasn’t been on a spiritual journey and he’s an especially thoughtful or remarkable young man. He’s just older than he was when the film started—twelve years older, in fact. His life as a thinking person, if he’s going to have one, lies ahead, on the other side of the rolling credits.

I asked students in my 21st Century Narrative class to reflect on the representation of time in Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood and any of the other texts we’d worked with in the course so far.

To a one, the in-class written responses connected Linklater’s film to one of the other texts via the word “and.”

This, despite the fact that Boyhood: is the only film we’ve watched in the class so far; was filmed with the same actors over a twelve year period, so as to visibly document the passage of time on screen; and has no sustained narrative action, but rather is a series of vignettes.

Somehow, the task of writing obliterated all the differences between Boyhood and the other texts we’ve encountered so far in the course, leaving behind a pile of responses showing that Boyhood and text X were both about time.

Is writing of this kind evidence of thought?

Instead of grading these responses, I came to class and wrote on the board:

Boyhood + text X = time

And then I said, “Having said this, what do we know that we didn’t already know?”

Not much, the students had to admit. Indeed, since the writing wasn’t going to be graded, we were free to wonder: could text X be any text at all and still support the observation that both were connected “because of time”? As long as the connection is kept at that level of generality, sure.

Is this thinking? In its most rudimentary form, yes. Like to like to like, ad infinitum.

It’s not the kind of thinking I am interested in, though. I’m looking for thinking that makes connections via distinction, qualification, nuance. I’m looking for thinking that delights in subtleties and complexity. And, although the initial written responses my students handed in didn’t evidence this, they know how to do this kind of thinking. They just don’t have much practice at it.

So, I start over.  Is the flow of time in Boyhood like the flow of time in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad? The short stories in George Saunders’ Tenth of December? The second season of Sarah Koenig’s Serial podcast?  Not really.

To move beyond this observation, the students need to get into the habit of making connections that qualify and connections that offer alternatives. They need to start using “but” and “or” as the hinges of thought, so that they can move from thinking exclusively through similarity and begin to think through difference. And, as they practice making connections that qualify and that consider alternatives, they will be acquiring the habit of self-reflection—the habit of seeing that the way one first sees the world is not necessarily the only way to see it.

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 www.text2cloud.com. 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.