Academic research does not rely on the Internet. While I embrace wikipedia as a beginning point for research, the thinking stimulated by wikipedia entries and other sites is insufficient as a definitive source. Knowledge is a commodity: everything available on the Web is constructed and disseminated by people with particular agendas. You may or may not be aware of the goals or intentions of web authors, and in many instances the honorable intentions of designers and creators of web-based media are subverted by the functions that software programs and technological innovations actually fulfill.

People who read your writing – whether it is online or in more traditional formats – will (should) also be skeptical of what you purport to know and (ought to) question your motives. This is why you not only need to write well – so as to maintain reader attention and interest – but you must know the scope of what you are writing about. Informed readers will know when someone is spreading baloney or spouting a personal opinion. Even alert readers can be boondoggled into believing solid writing without realizing the information is skewed or flat-out wrong!

This is why research matters, and specifically why the sources you use to build your own knowledge of a particular topic are crucial to the quality of your finished argument. University libraries have access to databases of information that are not readily available to the general public. You need to learn how to learn about all sides of an issue – including which aspects have widespread agreement and which aspects remain in contention, as well as the pro and con arguments concerning (particularly) those elements where agreement has not yet been accomplished. Understanding the relationships among all the elements and aspects of a topic or issue is the essence of critical thinking.

Writing is the most basic technology for learning about how you think. Speech may be easier (in terms of delivery, especially), but words spoken into air vanish, only to be mis/remembered. What you write records the process of your mind at work. The way you organize your thoughts, describe the issue(s) and topic(s) you will engage, and convey the logic of your point-of-view become apparent when we can read (and re-read!) your words on the page or computer screen. The goal in academic writing classes is to begin to examine the ways you put your thoughts into written language so that you can start to recognize when your writing is effective for your audience (accomplishes its goal) and when, where, or how your writing fails to reach through to your intended readers.

This may sound daunting, but in reality we will build upon and refine skills you already have. You may wish to skim this article adapted from Tools for Taking Charge of Your Learning and Your Life. The questions posed by its authors (Linda Elder and Richard Paul) are the same kinds of questions we will be asking ourselves and each other (you might see information from the article on a peer review sheet or self-evaluation):

What have you learned about how you think?

Did you ever study your thinking?

What do you know about how the mind processes information?

What do you really know about how to analyze, evaluate, or reconstruct your thinking?

Where does your thinking come from?

How much of it is of “good” quality?

How much of it is of “poor” quality?

How much of your thinking is vague, muddled, inconsistent, inaccurate, illogical, or superficial?

Are you, in any real sense, in control of your thinking?

Do you know how to test it?

Do you have any conscious standards for determining when you are thinking well and when you are thinking poorly?

Have you ever discovered a significant problem in your thinking and then changed it by a conscious act of will?

If anyone asked you to teach them what you have learned, thus far in your life, about thinking, would you really have any idea what that was or how you learned it?

 

Answer? Research!

With yourself and each other as subject and support, we will all improve our abilities to think. We will also learn how to improve the ways that we convey our thinking to others through the medium of the written word.

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