Valjean Clark

Learning how to think

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In college I took a humanities courses focused on United States history. The course was a mix between an English course that focused on writing assignments and a history course that required reading textbooks and novels relevant to the period of history we were studying. The professor was a published author.

I had a pretty good formula for humanities coursework in high school and college: read, summarize accurately, use good grammar, get the A. I confidently turned in my first assignment using this tried-and-true approach, and I was shocked when I saw the grade: C-. Impossible! My grammar was correct and my summarizations accurate!

I saw the professor after class to ask him about it. He told me that while my grammar was indeed correct and I had met the word count requirement, I hadn’t written anything of depth. At first, I was upset. My approach to these kinds of assignments had worked so well for so many years, why is this professor asking me for something different?

I tried thinking of more interesting things to say in each assignment. I eliminated sentences that said obvious things or repeated previous points. I tried digging deeper into statements I was writing. Why was that event important? What were its implications? What do we still not know with certainty? Initially, my motivation was simply to improve my grade in the class. Eventually, I found myself engaging in a way I hadn’t with other courses.

The final assignment was a presentation on a topic of our choosing. I wrote about the difference between patriotism and nationalism and how each shows up in good and bad ways in American history. Growing up, I was taught to be patriotic, and I had never thought deeply about the concept. This class forced me to revisit these assumptions, which led to revisiting other assumptions, and before I knew it I was genuinely interested in the subject matter. By the time I had written a first draft, instead of stretching content to fit the minimum word count like I usually did, I was fiercely editing to get under the maximum word count.

By the end of the semester, I clawed my way up to an A- grade. I had never felt so proud of an A- before.

Looking back on it now, this class was my first real lesson in how to think. No other professor or class had such an outsized effect on me. It was an early step in my understanding of quality, and I learned that I could actually be interested in and challenged by my college education.