Above: View over Trinity College, Cambridge (UK). Photo by Bob Tubbs, 1997 (from Wikimedia Commons).

Higher Learning

Introduction - Critical Thinking

English 1114 - A Certain Format

Introduction

Often students take English courses because they’re required to, yet they aren’t clear about the reasons behind this requirement. On this page I use excerpts from the 1995 film Higher Learning to illustrate two of these reasons — to think in a critical way, and to write at a post-secondary level. While Higher Learning isn’t an acclaimed film (IMDB gives it 6.5 out of 10; Rotten Tomatoes gives it 49% on the tomatometer and 74% for the audience), it does make a number of crucial points in down-to-earth and dramatic ways.

Please note that there’s a distinction between first-year English courses in literature and first-year English courses in academic writing (English 1130). While both courses highlight critical thinking and advanced writing, literature courses emphasize the aesthetic aspects of high quality writing, and they spend more time on the context out of which this writing comes. These contexts are often historical, cultural, artistic, philosophical, religious, political, etc. One of the principal aims of a literature course is to give students a broad understanding of culture and of the finest verbal expressions of culture. Academic writing courses, on the other hand, tend to focus on contemporary non-fictional prose and on contemporary social contexts. Academic writing courses also tend to be less specific about stylistic or artistic qualities, and more specific about academic format and scholarly sources.

In Higher Learning Maurice Phipps (Laurence Fishburne) is a professor of Political Science at the fictitious Columbus University. Malik (Omar Epps) and Kristen (Kristy Swanson) are taking his class. Deja (Tyra Banks) is Malik’s love-interest, and she proofreads one of his essays. Almost everything Phipps and Deja say about critical thinking and essay writing applies to English classes.

Critical Thinking

Prof. Phipps: Your assignment for the semester is as follows: to formulate your own political ideology. This will be dictated by your sex, background, socio-economic status, personal experience, etcetera, etcetera. This course will be like anything in life. It will be what you make of it.

Phipps’ assignment is geared to a Political Science course, yet throughout the Humanities and Social Sciences instructors want students to come up with their own interpretations, arguments, and theories. This may seem rather demanding, yet the originality required here isn’t a deep study that requires decades of expertise in a field. Rather, it’s an insightful argument backed up by reasons, examples, and (if the assignment requires it) research.

Original thinking and critical thinking are closely aligned. To think critically is to respond more than just subjectively to any given form of communication. It’s to distance yourself from the communication, to see how it fits into a larger context of reason, emotion, rhetoric, media, culture, and history. This can be difficult, partly because in high school you are often asked to understand information but not to analyze how, why, and in what context this information is given. 

Some students may see critical thinking as impractical because it may not have an immediate application to your discipline or immediate study. Yet which discipline doesn’t require — at least in the upper levels of the discipline — re-thinking, new perspectives, and constant re-appraisal? Also, as you receive new information in your studies, this information may challenge what you already believe. Negotiating between your old and new perspectives is in itself a form of critical thought.

One reason that educators and social policy-makers want you to improve your critical thinking is to create a more aware and sophisticated society. In Higher Learning, critical thinking is explored in a negative (and rather heavy-handed) fashion when the alienated Remy uncritically accepts Neo-Nazi arguments and agrees to kill African Americans. Critical thinking is also explored in a positive way when Kristen turns her identity crisis into an exploration of sexuality and into organizing an inter-racial peace festival. Both cases illustrate Professor Phipps’ point that education should be more than learning information, more than recycling “dates and facts from the past.” It should also be part of a larger process that encourages students — and teachers — to analyze, question, and confront the world. To explore the use of language within diverse contexts is part of this larger process.

Later in Higher Learning, Kristen discusses her essay with her instructor:

Prof. Phipps: I am afraid it [her essay] is unclear.

Kristen: But... I don't understand.

Prof. Phipps: Miss Connor, you don't appear to take any kind of position in this paper.

Kristen: I thought that, when you write, you're supposed to be as objective as possible.

Prof. Phipps: That is a rule of journalism. It is often taught and very rarely practised. This, however, is a political science course. If you wish to write about objectivity write about its use in modern politics in your view.

Kristen: That'd make a good paper. I'll write that down.

Prof. Phipps: Oh, Christ Jesus.

Kristen: What?

Prof. Phipps: In future, Miss Connor, please find your own thesis. I am looking for evidence of original thought. You are not here to simply recycle dates and facts from the past. One's primary purpose at university level should be to learn how to think.

In English classes you need to make original arguments, that is, you need to advance new points of view and back them up with reasons and illustrative examples. In other courses you may be required to repeat information and give summaries, yet in English courses (and in many other Humanities and Social Science courses) you need to come up with your own ideas.

English 1114

In this first-year class I emphasize practical criticism. You’re free to bring in other angles or approaches — as long as you interpret the text itself and don’t spend alot of time on outside context. Only bring in outside context if it helps you interpret the text. Practical criticism is

an academic procedure devised by the critic I. A. Richards at Cambridge University in the 1920s and illustrated in his book Practical Criticism (1929). In this exercise, students are asked to analyse a short poem without any information about its authorship, date, or circumstances of composition, thus forcing them to attend to the ‘words on the page’ rather than refer to biographical and historical contexts. This discipline, enthusiastically adopted by the Cambridge school, became a standard model of rigorous criticism in British universities, and its style of ‘close reading’ influenced the New Criticism in America. (Oxford Quick Reference -- oxfordreference.com)

This following illustrates my emphasis in this class:

(Authorial Intention)        (Postmodernism)

Biography + Reader Response + Gender

Geography & History

Textual Analysis

& Close Reading

Genre: poetic mode + music & video

Explication de texte* + Structuralism

(Deconstruction)           (Post-structuralism)

* “explication often involves a line-by-line or episode-by-episode commentary on what is going on in a text. While initially this might seem reasonably innocuous, explication de texte, and explication per se, is an interpretative process where the resulting new knowledge, new insights or new meanings, are open to subsequent debate and disaffirmation by others” (“Explication,” Wikipedia).

A Certain Format

Deja [proofreading Malik’s paper]: Run-on. Run-on. Fragment. Fragment. Fragment. ls this a period or a comma?

Malik: That's a lot of red ink.

Deja: Do you want help?

Malik: I'm here.

Deja: Malik, you gotta get this to flow, and right now it's not flowing. Right here, that's a really good point but you gotta follow it up with a concise explanation […]. When you write an essay, you gotta follow a certain format. You start with your thesis statement and you have to always use transitional phrases. And don't use the same word every single time. Change it up. Professors hate that. You should use a thesaurus. And where's your outline? We got a lot of work to do.

Deja and Malik are attending an American university, yet the thesis statement / topic sentence format is the same across English North America. Personally, I’m fond of the thesis / antithesis / synthesis format, yet I don’t teach this format because 1) instructors in the Arts and Humanities across North America use the thesis statement / topic sentence format, and it’s very helpful for students to master it, and 2) the thesis / antithesis / synthesis format requires a grasp of the subject which is more appropriate for upper-year courses or graduate courses. At the first-year level, students are encouraged to deal with counter arguments, yet not counter-theories.

The thesis / antithesis / synthesis format (or structure) is also extremely logical, and can be used as a model of both writing and thinking::

— The title gives your reader a general idea about the topic.

— The introduction takes your reader from a general state of awareness to your particular argument.

— The thesis statement tells the reader exactly what you’ll be arguing about your subject; it presents your overall argument in 1) a condensed form and 2) in a way that clearly links to your topic sentences.

— The topic sentences show your reader how each subsidiary point you are making advances your overall argument.

— The conclusion highlights your overall point, and either completes any scenario you developed in your introduction or suggests further avenues of enquiry.

Mastering the thesis statement / topic sentence format helps students whenever they need to write essays for courses in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Mastering this format is also an exercise in shaping your writing in a particular way to meet a particular goal. Once you are able to shape your writing one way, you are far more capable of shaping your writing in another way. This is like learning general mathematical principles: you can use them in physics, yet you can also use them in calculating your taxes or interpreting a graph in Psychology or Criminology.

For instance, imagine that a panel of interviewers asks you, “Why should we hire you for a journalist position for The Vancouver Sun?” You could rattle off several ideas: first, you are good with words (you maintain a website); second, you need the money (you have a 25,000 dollar student loan to pay back!); and third, you like newspapers (you then tell them a story about your involvement with your high school paper). Or, you could think of a response that contains an inherent logic and that emphasizes certain points and leave out others (as in the overall structure of an academic essay). In this case, you could choose a chronological order, which would help the panel see something of your career development. You could list your main points quickly, so the panel could have a clear idea of what you’re going to talk about (as in the introduction and thesis statement). You could then go into detail about these points, stressing why each is applicable to the job in question (as in the topic sentences and the body): first, you were the editor of your high school paper (suggesting ambition and practical editorial skill); second, you took writing courses in college, where you also contributed to the college paper (indicating familiarity with the day-to-day operation of larger, adult-oriented papers); and third, you run a site that receives about 200 hits a day (indicating fluency with online media). You could then quickly summarize your strongest points, underlining how all of this makes you ready to work for The Vancouver Sun (as in the conclusion). This response — which mirrors the format of an academic essay — is unified along a chronology, builds a case, and highlights only the things that are important. This organized, coherent way of thinking and communicating will impress any panel — whether the job is in journalism, nursing, police work, or academia.

Finally, try to remember Deja’s words:

… you gotta follow a certain format. You start with your thesis statement and you have to always use transitional phrases.

And where’s your outline?

Because essay structure is crucial, outlines are crucial. Outlines allow you to see your overall argument at a glance. They also allow you to see how well you’re transitioning from one point to the next. They allow you to see whether or not there’s a logic and flow from one main idea to the next. As Deja says, “you gotta get this to flow.”

I strongly suggest that you learn the difference between a scratch and full outline (the latter includes bullet-points beneath the topic sentences), and that you use outlines to your advantage.

The one thing Deja says that I disagree with concerns the use of a thesaurus. In creative writing, repetition of a word may serve a creative effect, yet generally it creates monotony. In academic writing, however, repetition is generally a good thing, since it gives clarity and continuity. If you mean the same thing, use the same word or phrase. Otherwise, your reader will wonder why you switched words. A thesaurus can be used by skillful writers, yet writers who aren’t advanced will often use a word that appears to have the same meaning yet has a subtle difference. Being well-read, instructors are acutely aware of these subtle differences.

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