Great ideas start with great conversation


Although I’ve been in the business world for many years, I still refer to myself as a “recovering academic.” I feel I'll never quite leave the halls of the ivory tower behind me because I still have to fight daily against the urge to complexify, not simplify, language and ideas.

I also have to remind myself frequently that writing isn't the only tool for promoting deep thinking. That’s not easy to do because I came of age in the era of an educational movement called Writing Across the Curriculum, which I’ve actively campaigned for as a professor and writing centre coordinator. Lately, though, I’m wondering whether the real movement to promote might be Talking Across the Curriculum, or, in the business world, Talking Across the Cubicles. 

I stumbled across a fascinating TED Talk by Steven Johnson: Where Good Ideas Come From. Johnson’s research into the social history of innovation causes me to question some of the fundamental assumptions of the WAC movement, including the primacy of writing as a tool for critical and creative thinking.

The WAC movement assumes that writing is the premiere way to develop those higher-order cognitive skills. To that end, WAC programs engage students in a variety of activities to support the learning process. For instance, in a biology class, students might write brief summaries of lectures, a response paper to a video, lab reports, and a couple drafts of a term paper.

The idea behind such “writing-to-learn” exercises is that writing enables thinking in ways that talk cannot. Writing-to-learn advocates admit that talk can be useful; it can help warm up the writing brain, for instance. But they maintain that writing is a complex, deliberative process that’s uniquely suited to helping us link our experience with new knowledge. In the domain of learning and thinking, writing is highly esteemed as a way to foster critical and creative thinking while talk is considered cheap.

WAC programs endorse the idea of the innovator as a soloist—the lone scientist poring over his petri dishes or the cultural theorist writing alone in a garrett. But Johnson’s historical research shows that there is no innovation to write about without conversation. Talk may be cheap in that it’s plentiful and requires no special skills, but it’s extremely valuable for its capacity to bring together people and ideas. 

WAC advocates argue that writing is uniquely “connective.” [1] The act of graphically recording our thoughts enables us to assemble prior learning, new knowledge, and speculation about the future in ways that help us recall learned information and shape new ideas. Yet Johnson makes equally strong claims about the virtues of talk. Associating the rise of the British coffee house with the emergence of the Enlightenment, he points out that coffee houses gave citizens a place to share and create bold new ideas. Coffee houses, he says (echoing Matt Ridley), provided a space “where ideas could have sex.”

Conversation may seem frivolous, but it’s spontaneous and fruitful in ways that writing isn’t. If you’ll indulge a recovering academic in a bit of etymology, it’s interesting to note that during the Enlightenment, the word “conversation” didn’t mean talk. It meant the sexual act.

Somewhere along the centuries, conversation lost its generative value while writing gained the upper hand as the elite form of communication. Ideas came to be granted currency only when they’d been minted on the printing press. And that turn of events has made writing seem difficult—hard to produce and hard to access.

However, if people like Johnson are right, then writing may really be most valuable as a way to capture ideation, not cause it. Writers who want to produce more analytical or creative thinking may need to spend less time at the keyboard and more time at the coffee shop and other social spaces that stimulate conversation.

That’s good news for extraverts, I think. And something for introverts like me to ponder as well. Like many professors I know, I’m shy and often reluctant to strike up a conversation. I’d rather work through a problem in writing than talk it over with someone else. But what am I missing out on by trying to create ideas on my own? How much deeper and richer might my thinking be if I invited others to think with me?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. How do you generate creative ideas? Do you write-to-think or talk-to-think?

[1] Emig, Janet. “Writing as a Mode of Learning.” College Composition and Communication 28.2 (1977).


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