Oddly enough, I do not teach communication skills per se. I say “oddly,” because I am a faculty member in the Writing and Critical Thinking (WCT) domain of the University Scholars Programme (USP). So, if I find myself at, say, a cocktail party and the receiving end of a question that was merely posed out of politeness, or even drunkenness, I just reply, for the sake of simplicity, “I teach writing at NUS.” And what is writing, the thinking might go, if not a form of communication? In fact, writing is the main form of communication in academic and research circles; although we give lectures and talks, we largely communicate our work to fellow scholars via publications. So to teach “writing” is to teach “communication skills,” surely?
That equation, of writing with communication, is one way of thinking about the matter. If communication, as the Oxford English Dictionary would have it, entails “the transmission or exchange of information, knowledge, or ideas, by means of speech, writing, mechanical or electronic media, etc.,” (Oxford Dictionaries Online, n.d.) then communication, whether by writing or other means, would be a kind of vessel or container for thought. In this model, thinking precedes communication, and the role of writing would be to convey, or, quite literally, re-present the thoughts in our heads. In turn, an educator who imparts “communication skills” would help students with, not so much the message, but its medium: how to speak clearly and effectively, how to write with style and panache, and so on. This is the more intuitive understanding of “communication.” And it is a useful one, since it allows us, as teachers, to compartmentalise, and therefore make manageable, our pedagogical tasks. We might even call this notion—this over here is the teaching of content, and then there is instruction on how to communicate—a necessary fiction.
But that is not the way my colleagues and I tend to think of writing. Indeed, that is arguably not how writing works in real life. When we make a shopping list, to pick just one banal example, writing down “pick up coffee” may spur us into also remembering to buy milk. In a more academic setting, we are probably all aware of how lamentably rare it is for the finished essay to perfectly resemble the one that was “in our minds” at the start. Rather, the act of writing changes thinking. Trying to re-port or re-present the ideas we thought we had worked out in our heads usually crystallises, sharpens, clarifies, or complicates them, or the process might—in unhappier scenarios!—even overturn these insights. But writing almost never leaves those “original thoughts” untouched.
In this sense, writing—or its parent category, communication—would be, to all intents and purposes, indistinguishable from thinking. Hence, though the programme in which I teach is called “Writing and Critical Thinking,” its faculty members usually think of the two names in the phrase as denoting the same thing: writing as critical thinking.