The main purpose of English 101 is to introduce you to the conventions of academic writing and critical thinking. And while academic writing means different things to different people, there are some common elements. We write to communicate to others-whether they are colleagues, professionals in their fields, or friends. We write to convince others that our position has validity. We write to discover new things about our world as well as ourselves. For that matter, the process of writing is epistemological-a way of coming to know. Writing can become a medium for self-reflection, self-expression, and communication, a means of coming to know for both the writer and reader.
Learning to write requires writing. Writing is a craft, and as a craft, writing can be learned and refined. Ultimately, writing takes practice, and as a writer, you will have opportunities to write both in the classroom as well as outside. With that said, the goal I have for this class-one that all writing courses share-is to give you, as students, enough practice writing so that you will become more effective writers by the end of this course than you were at the start. Also, you will develop a greater understanding of what you need to consider to continue to develop as writers.
As we delve into this semester, I hope you will discover also that writing, reading, and learning are intricately intermeshed. Writing is based on experience-experience with a text or personal experience-and that reading is a means to broadening experiences, especially when actively engaged by reading dialectically (as opposed to polemically). Much of the readings, lectures, and discussions may challenge more commonly accepted assumptions and beliefs. You will be required to critically rethink and reevaluate popular concepts and ideas (this may also challenge your own ideas so please try to keep open perspective). One of the main goals for this class will be to try to understand how language informs and shapes our culture and society as well as our everyday lives and practices.
Lastly, I assume you already think critically (you would not have made it to college otherwise, of course). Now we will try to go beyond critical thinking skills; we will reflect on a range of possibilities and positions. We may find ourselves asking more questions rather than finding easy answers. And together, I hope we can become more critically conscious of the world we inhabit.
Though the connection between reading and writing seems to be a "given," reading was not always a dominant force in writing classrooms. In the nineteenth century, students did not typically write analyses of what they read, but instead wrote themes on prescribed topics, such as Vanity, Democracy, Ethics, and so on. Reading and writing became curricularly linked at the turn of the century, when Harvard and other universities decided that reading literature was essential to learning to write.
The reasons for this curricular link are the same today as they were one hundred years ago. Those who argue in favor of reading in the writing classroom claim that reading inspires students, introducing them to great ideas and improving their ability to think critically and analytically. Moreover, reading centers class discussion, giving students something to talk about beyond their own personal experiences. Reading also gives students something to write about: at eighteen, students often lack the experience to come up with sophisticated subjects for their essays; texts provide these ideas. Finally, reading illustrates models of truly excellent writing, thereby offering students instruction in voice, organization, syntax, and language.
Still, professors who teach writing often find themselves questioning the role of reading in the first-year writing classrooms. These professors are concerned about the amount of class time they devote to discussing readings as opposed to the amount of class time they devote to teaching writing. They worry that the attention to reading and analyzing course materials risks crowding out writing instruction—which, they feel, should be the priority of the course.
But we needn't think of reading and writing as disparate course activities. In fact, reading and writing work best when one process fuels or informs the other. In order to make sure that reading and writing are working together effectively in your classroom, you might wish to consider the following:
- Limit the amount of reading assigned so that students have time to devote themselves to their writing.
- Devote class discussion or perhaps a writing assignment to an analysis of how an argument is constructed, rather than focusing exclusively on the content.
- Provide students with course readings that are well written, and take time in class to talk with students about what, exactly, makes the writing so good.
- Provide students with models of bad writing, taking time to talk about what, exactly, makes the writing so bad.
- Generate materials—perhaps with your students—that articulate the qualities of good writing in your particular discipline; ask students to evaluate a piece of writing according to these standards. (For this exercise, consider breaking students into smaller groups and then reconvening to compare observations.)