What Is Intellectual Work?

When instructors give you writing assignments, they want you to do intellectual work. If you can understand what this means, you’ll be better able to understand what your professors are looking for and how to complete your assignments successfully.

If something is intellectual, it’s about thinking, so understanding information and ideas. And as soon as we talk about using something, we are working with it. So “intellectual work” is about thinking actively (in the ways that your professor is asking you to think) and demonstrating that thinking through whatever your professor asks you to produce.

Writing assignments are one way that professors get you to practice more complex intellectual tasks. They certainly aren’t the only way, but in college (and professionally) writing is a common way of working through and then sharing complex ideas.You already do intellectual work, even if you haven’t used that phrase. For example, memorization is a kind of intellectual work you’ve almost certainly done: being able to identify the parts of a plant, for example, or remembering vocabulary words in a language class. While memorization can be important, it is rarely an endpoint in college (and, to be honest, probably not in most of your recent education either). Memorization at this level just serves as a starting point for more complex tasks, such as propagating plants or holding a conversation in a new language.

In a later chapter, I talk about how to analyze specific writing assignments for a range of factors, including the purpose and audience of the assignment. In this section, I’m hoping to help you develop a stronger understanding of the kind of thinking that different writing tasks ask of you.