Introduction If you are interested in improving your writing, many will say, you would do well to spend a good deal of your time reading and writing. As you read and write, your thinking and your writing will get better, the argument goes. Words and sentences, paragraphs, details and connections–the more you become aware of what these linguistic elements make possible the more possible making interesting things with words becomes. And if you are teaching students to become effective writers, it follows, you would provide students with ample opportunities to read and to write.
This section of English 215 will therefore keep you reading, thinking, and writing. We will explore the multi-sensory experiences involved in reading, including recitation (reading aloud) and the touch of pencil/pen and paper (marginal notation, annotation, doodling). We will talk about slow reading and fast reading, print and digital reading, and the tacit dimension of reading that involves remarkably complex, and creative, cognitive activity. We will discuss reading and writing as interrelated activities and the process of writing as a mode of (re)reading and thinking, of connecting texts to other texts (intertextuality) and to historical and cultural contexts. We will explore writing, both generically and through discipline-based problems, questions, and issues. We will practice gathering and using textual (and contextual) evidence, especially to support arguments and claims, and forms of writing that develop ideas by using evidence effectively. And we will talk about the writing process to weigh different (and differing) perspectives, examine (and re-examine) assumptions, and imagine the expectations (and experience) of readers.
You will have two responsibilities as a writer in this course:
Writing Projects The description and guidelines for these longer essays will be posted on the Projects page. We will discuss the project descriptions in class.
Short Essays In addition to completing the longer writing projects you are responsible for completing an end-of-the-week “second-thoughts” or reflective essay. These essays will be posted on your “Thinking” page after class–but no later than the following Monday if you wish to receive credit. The purpose of this writing is to review the reading, thinking, talking, listening and note taking you have completed and to find your way to second thoughts–that is, you will be writing to integrate what you have learned with what you might already know, and to elaborate, make connections, and/or pursue interesting questions that come up in our work. We will use these short essays to talk about writing from questions, engaging intellectual problems, and the mechanics and art of composing clear and purposeful analysis
Each essay will be about 500 words in length and will have a title and a date in boldface type
In addition, I want you each to consider keeping a more informal journal on the “Reading” page of your blog. This writing I will count as extra credit and you can put whatever material you would like on this page
Here is an example of a productive essay that was posted before a discussion of Emerson’s writing in another section of this class:
“Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? What is the one end, which all means go to effect? They are for nothing but to inspire. I had better never see a book, than to be warped by its attraction clean out of my own orbit, and made a satellite instead of a system. The one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul.”
This statement by Emerson in “The American Scholar” summarizes his belief in independent thought and, to use a cliche, of thinking outside of the box, specifically when reading literature. (He mentions Shakespeare as an example later on, and prior to this quote he discusses what he calls “the bibliomaniacs”). Emerson is interested in the idea that so many aspects of our existence begin with the self and not outside influences such as higher education or religion, and that books are to be used as inspiration and not to become the basis of thought and knowledge.
Emerson is urging his audience towards a different way of learning. His metaphor of the satellite instead of a system is effective: for a satellite is trapped in the orbit of something else, never moving on its own path. Emerson objects to seeing the world through books rather than being inspired by books – orbiting other’s ideas, but not creating your own from them. It’s actually ironic that Emerson is saying this here, considering how published and influential Emerson eventually became for so many readers and how his writing shaped and altered many others’ perceptions over time.
Emerson’s “scholar” would consider education and scholarship as a stepping stone, one of the first steps in formulating his or her own ideas and intellectual pursuits. As I read more about the context of the speech in Robert Richardson’s The Mind on Fire (262) I learned that was at least partly the intention of Emerson when he delivered his oration at Harvard. Richardson explains why Emerson approached the oration the way he did and explains how his speech has less to do with institutions and values and more with the problem with so-called higher education. Freedom & liberation from social conformity (or conformity in general) is one of the main themes in Emerson’s writings and speeches.
When he mentions the “active soul” and how we all contain one that is obstructed I am assuming that he means “obstructed” by outside forces such as a education or religious dogma. The passage also helps a reader better understand how Emerson’s work ties in closely with ideas of transcendentalism. The “active soul” is obstructed by different ways and, in Emerson’s mind, this literally leads to a person not even being born, perhaps spiritually or intellectually.