Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Can using social networks lead to better essays?

This is my first blog of the new term, and is rather conveniently facilitated by the fact that I forgot to pre-order my books at the British Library, and have a rather pleasant wee wait until the real work begins. In fact, getting back to blogging is something which is long overdue – for no other reason that I have found the process of blogging a necessary form of exercise, and this has made me think quite a lot again about the value of social networks for study purposes.

I remember once getting some very good advice from a journalist colleague, who said that I should make sure that I write something everyday. Of course, that is never going to happen – but I can certainly testify that if I let myself go too long without writing anything not only do I struggle more to write when I need to, but even my thinking seems to calcify. It is almost as though the process of writing forces us to solidify thoughts in a way which we might not otherwise do – and until we solidify our thoughts they remain ill-defined and vague. For example, this blog contains a great deal about education and politics – and if anyone were to ask me what my thoughts were about either subject, they would soon have the pants very much bored off them. However, although I have spent rather a lot of time over the last few weeks reading about Syria, and about the international political reactions to events there, I have done nothing more than be a passive recipient of swathes of information and other people's opinions about it. If you were to ask me my own views on the subject, I would not even be able to gather my thoughts enough to clearly explain how massively ill-qualified I am to have any opinion about it at all.

Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767 – 1835)

To some degree this seems to accord with what 19th-century philosopher Humboldt referred to as the 'inner linguistic sense', or “the entire mental capacity, as related to the formation and use of language”. Humboldt argued that our capacity to frame thoughts is enabled through the interaction of our innate creative energies (energeia), and the existing formulations of words which express ideas and concepts which are infinitely adaptable (ergon) – which in effect means that all our ideas about things are actually “the fusion of what is produced independently from within and what is given from without”.

In other words, in a way which can admittedly lead us towards the problematic area of ideational theory, Humboldt makes the argument that our ideas cannot exist with any clarity or determination apart from the process of language:

Intellectual activity, entirely mental, entirely internal, and to some extent passing without trace, becomes, though sound, externalized in speech and perceptible to the senses. Thought and language are therefore one and inseparable from each other. But the former is also intrinsically bound to the necessity of entering into a union with the verbal sound; thought cannot otherwise achieve clarity, nor the idea become a concept.

In other words, expressing our ideas through language not only solidifies those ideas, but makes them available to our senses – which can then enable our rational mind to evaluate what it senses.

Why is this important? Because it suggests that the union of language and ideas enables us to continually re-evaluate and refine those ideas. We form an idea, and we express that idea through language, Having done so, we can then re-evaluate those ideas.

Have you ever said anything and then thought to yourself 'actually, that sounds stupid out loud'? Have you ever said anything and thought 'no, that's not what I really mean'? Have you ever written anything which you then look back on and think 'crikey, did I really write that?!'

We are better able to rationalise and refine our ideas once we have expressed them through language. It is language which facilitates that process, and unless we habitually use language to express our ideas then there is a danger that our ideas will remain ill-defined or under-developed.

Hence this blog.

But there are more reasons why I am making this point. It is often difficult to persuade students of the need to start the process of writing early enough in the term. Often students think (as I did when I was a student) that the majority of the term should be spent reading and receiving information, which at the end of the term you write down in your essay. The idea of writing pages and pages of notes and drafts which will never end up in that essay seems like such a waste of time and energy. However, Humboldt's argument suggests that the very process of writing might be the thing that enables us to refine and develop our ideas – as well as to polish our writing – more effectively.

Today, students have a range of opportunities for continually combining their learning with language. Social networks can be used to engage with people in discussions about what they are learning, so that students can conveniently and easily ensure that throughout the term everything they learn is something which they are reflecting on through language. Every idea is something they need to express and defend.

I suppose my question then is really this: Does writing really help us develop our ideas? If so, can using social networks throughout a term to write about and discuss ideas lead to better essays?  Perhaps more interestingly still – how can we find out...?