Teaching Critical Writing

I taught comp for eight or so years.  But to teach any humanities class — if not any class — is, in some sense, always to teach writing. Because to teach writing is to teach a posture in and towards language, in and towards things and ideas, in and towards the world. And isn't that what all education is?

I only taught at UC Berkeley to freshman and sophomores who, for the most part, believed they already knew how to write. Which, for the most part, they didn't. They'd been taught some silly things. This inevitably tempers the reach of my insight. Nevertheless, here are my thoughts on the subject and some tactics I deployed. Frankly, I felt I was just figuring it out when I stopped teaching.

To Write Critically is to Write About Something: Always Have an Object
To paraphrase Husserl, all critical writing is writing about something. Of course, there is writing that need not be about something; I think of the so-called avant-garde. And there are aspects of all writing that are not about anything — tone, texture, the way words play along the palate.

But if there is no object to analyze there is nothing to critique. The language may be gorgeous, the affect delirious. And that's fantastic. But it's not critical writing. Critical writing needs an object, any object.

To write critically, then, is to read critically. Which means I spent a lot of time in my comp classes parsing the arguments and performance of the texts we read.

Little did I know that this was not common practice. But during the brief period when I considered teaching for a living, I interviewed with the head of well known comp department in the Bay Area — ahem, Stanford — and we disagreed over precisely this point (needless to say, I didn't get the job and, frankly, I didn't want it). After looking at the materials I'd sent her, she told me: "It sounds like you're teaching a subject matter, not writing." I offered my retort but I knew, from her question, that this was no place for me. Still, I wonder what the heck they do over there.

It's all very odd to me because without something to entwine oneself with, student writing tends to get vague, general, passive, meandering. Without an object, what else can it do?

So on the first day of class every semester, before there was any assigned reading, together we'd read the space of the classroom, constructing an argument about it. Why are all the chairs facing one direction? After all, the knights of the round table used, well, a round table. And why is there a very small window in the door — a window good for looking in but lousy for looking out? What could inform such a decision? And on and on we'd go making sense of the space we were in. Because to write critically is always to write about something — is always to read something.

No Generalities. Be the Reader of This Text
I discovered, much to my bewilderment, that students thought that critical writing begins with a wide generalization before getting particular. The first time I taught Nietzsche's "On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense" — a perfect essay to teach, I will add  — many papers began like this: Man has long pondered the question of truth. In his essay, Nietzsche.... 

Oy! When I asked them about this, they told me they'd been taught to write using this inverted triangle: begin broadly, then get specific.

I immediately addressed this: no generalizations. No talking about things you don't know anything about. To say Man has long considered the question of truth is to make an historical argument. But are you an historian? Have you done the historical research to justify such a claim? If not, you're undermining your own authority before even beginning.

We are readers of this text, here and now. That is your authority — an unquestionable authority! If you begin looking outside the text, begin making historical, biographical, or general sociological claims, you enter a realm in which you have no knowledge and no authority. But as a reader of this text here, you have as much authority qua reader as anyone in the world.

The point is: be particular. Talk about this text and nothing but. Begin specifically: In 'On Truth and Lies,' Nietzsche does x.... Now that's a first sentence.

Short, Frequent Papers
The comp requirement at Berkeley dictated that I assign so many pages — 35, if I remember correctly. Which is too many. The number of pages has nothing to do with whether a student knows how to construct an argument, how to connect ideas, how to integrate citations. When I began teaching, I'd assign five page papers. But then both my students and I had to spend too much time making sense of nonsense we could have more readily negotiated in two pages. If you don't know how to write, one page and five pages are the same — only five pages make writer and reader miserable.

When I was in high school, I had an incredible English teacher. Every week, we had to write a paper no more than two pages. (The assignment was always the same: One week, he'd give us a quote to explicate; the other week, we had to compare any two books on the extensive reading list.) He'd give our papers back the next day (holy moly!) with succinct comments. And then we'd have our next paper the following week.

So, in my own classes, I did two things. One, I had them write every week on a class blog. I didn't grade this but it forced them to write every week for the public. And, two, I made the papers two pages until the last paper which I made longer to prepare them for other courses with longer page requirements.

I found a quick feedback loop more productive than long papers stretched over the semester.

And short papers have an added benefit: they have to edit. They can't write those long winded sentences. They have to be precise. Longer papers are easier to write because you can waste time, meander. But short papers? You have to know what you want to say. And it made my job grading much easier. Everybody wins.

No Re-writes
Rewrites are one of these things that are taken as both good and necessary in comp classes. Me, I found them unproductive if not counterproductive. Usually, the problems are structural so what would it even mean to do a rewrite?

My philosophy and method was: Take what you learned from this paper and apply it to the next.

No Outlines. And No Rough Drafts.
I've written about this before. Outlines are static and recapitulate the biggest "mistake" young writers make: listing. Nietzsche does this and this and this and that. The fact is, my clients do this, too. I work with big companies to help them construct an argument about who they are, what they do, and what they offer customers. Many companies, like young writers, list their features and functions: We're a good value and high quality and have good service and...and...and.... I'm paid to help them turn it into an argument: We believe x so built y to let customers do z. This argument is what we call a brand strategy.

To avoid students listing, I created something called the Argument Map. I had students write four to five sentences, numbered, that should move from point 1 to point 2 to point 3. What matters is the movement between. That's where arguments happen.

With an Argument Map (I didn't use the worksheet; I had them email me their four to five sentences), I could see their thinking, critique it, make suggestions in mere minutes. How did you get from point 1 to point 2? Might you have considered this? And without wading through pages of awkward prose, we had a structure. And those students suddenly wrote clear, lucid, assertive papers — no passive voice, no meandering. They knew the map — the lay of the land — so then just had to tour it. The transformation of their writing was remarkable.

No Also, In Addition, Furthermore, or In Sum
As listing was far and away, and consistently, the biggest issue in students' papers, I forbid the use of "listing" words — also, in addition,  furthermore, in sum. Nietzsche says this and also this and, in addition, says this; furthermore, he says this. So in sum.... 

That's not an argument. What does furthermore mean? It sounds like it means something but it says nothing. And "in sum"? This isn't arithmetic. No need to sum anything up. Rather than sum up, let your conclusion open up.

I always look for words that signal turns of argument — but, therefore, that is to say, however. These involve logical twists; also is just an enumeration of a to-do list.

Every time a student used one of these words, they lost a full grade — from an A to a B. While I'm not a fan of such violent prescriptions, it was effective.

Create Arguments as a Class
Creating an argument is hard — not just for students but for everyone. For the most part, people get inundated with information and don't know how to organize it, coerce it, shape it, make sense of it all. So they rely on the main tactic they know — listing. Arguments — the logical and particular connections between things — are hard.

So I'd spend much of class time creating arguments. And when it came paper time, I'd have one student at the board walking us through his or her argument map. And, together, we'd assess it.

If other students ended up using this as their argument, well, great. The first component of critical writing is knowing how to write a critical argument. I don't care about originality; that comes later. In order to write an original argument, you have to know how to write any argument. Repetition is an incredibly effective pedagogic tool.

Ask a Critical, Specific Question: The What and the How
How, alas, is a young writer supposed to write a critical essay? The instinct is to bring in theory and thoughts from elsewhere — Freud, Marx, "The NY Times," stuff they just think is true.  But this raises all sorts of issues, namely, command of that material and authority.

Which is why I always asked the same question of them: How does what the text says relate to how it says it? This bypasses any critical reference, moving the critical frame to this reader and this text right in front of them. No other knowledge is necessary.

No Opinions
I don't care if a 19 year old thinks Nietzsche is "brilliant." Once again, this only raises the question of their authority: Why does your opinion matter?

The goal of critical writing is to open the text up, to show your readers what's interesting and perhaps overlooked when reading, say, Nietzsche's "On Truth and Lies."

Critical writing is a world away from judgemental writing, from the thumbs up thumbs down, 5-star review world we know so well. What matters is how a text operates, not whether you like how it operates.

Learning the Way of Words
While focusing on how to construct an argument, I found it necessary to focus on the way of words — tone, rhythm, getting a feel for words. I don't mean to downplay this element which, I assume, most people associate with writing classes. But I wrote about that here. 


I realize that my approach spends a lot of time focusing on things that don't seem like writing. But to write critically is to organize ideas and things. It's to make an argument about something — and that means spending time talking about arguments and things and how things relate to each other. Writing is not just about words and grammar. It's about standing towards the world and making sense of it.


Lindsay Meisel said...

Throughout high school and college, I loooooved handing in essays that I knew were well written and well argued but that fell significantly short of the teacher’s length requirement. Definitely the most effective method of critiquing an assignment you don’t like.

But I wasn’t as successful with this strategy in your class, I think because your standards were higher. I was a good writer, but obviously not a perfect one. When I handed in my first too-short essay in your class—it was about the Garden of Forking Paths, I remember—you gave me a B and told me it was because I got lazy at the end, and that you weren’t knocking me on my brevity, you were knocking me on failing to carry out the line of thinking that I started.

Everyone has a schtick, and you definitely challenged mine! I was probably a cocky and annoying student who thought I had nothing to learn from any writing teacher, but you proved me wrong.

what the Tee Vee taught said...

Copying bits of your shtick really helped my teaching (in the way-back-when), made it a whole lot more fun. I remember having kids replicate the moves of Queneau's Exercises, such a sharp tool for teaching the endless delights of how to do a what.

TomG said...

Thanks for laying this out. I teach critical thinking in a way that focuses on analysis, and I think this will be helpful in getting across what I’m looking for from them.

Behold This Non-Fungible Vagina (NFV), or The Multiple Event of Emergent Particularity in the Digital Age

 Check out this nutty essay on this NFT/NFV that I wrote on Medium