Don’t read this post. It’s long. It’s a lecture. It’s only partially finished.

Posted on August 17, 2010


It’s coming up to the beginning of semester, and I’ve been focused on reworking my course outline and rewriting my first lecture. As a result, I’ve not had much time to think about posting. So I figured, “What the hell, right?”

Here’s what I’ve got so far.

Introduction to College English: Thinking and Writing.

Welcome to College English.

Nobody knows what “College English” is, but that’s what we’re supposed to be teaching you here, so you’d better pay attention. It’s not easy learning something when nobody knows what the hell they’re talking about.

If you don’t believe me, try taking a political science course some day.

But whatever College English may be, one thing is clear: it involves writing.

Most often this is attempted by teaching an imaginary form of writing known as the Five Paragraph Essay. The Five Paragraph Essay is essentially a formula into which various statements can be inserted and the end result is then called an “essay.” The fact that no Five Paragraph Essays actually exist in the real world is irrelevant to the education system. The Five Paragraph Essay allows students to compose standardised blocks of text which are very easy to mark. That’s all that really counts.

The very nature of this practice shows that its proponents either know absolutely nothing about real writing, or hold no confidence that students are capable of learning how to do it.

The truth is, good writing is entirely dependent upon clear thinking.

And I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you guys are’t thinking clearly.

Or at least, most of you aren’t. There may be a few here who, through some lucky fluke, attended a particularly good private school where they were taught logic, rhetoric, and grammar.

Anyone? Anyone?


As for those who have come through the regular public school system – well, you never stood a chance.

You are not thinking clearly.

That’s not to say that you might not be thinking brilliantly, intuitively, or any number of other positive adverbs, but you aren’t thinking clearly. Furthermore, just because some people think clearly doesn’t mean they might not be thinking moronically, idiotically, stupidly, or any number of other negative adverbs.

The truth is, clear thinking can sometimes be wrong.

But, just as a map which has been torn into pieces and then put together in a random fashion can never tell you how to get to New York, muddled thinking can never be right.

There are many kinds of clear thinking.

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cella

That’s T. S. Eliot thinking clearly about angst and futility and the end of the Second World War. With images taken from politics, literature, religion and the occult, his poem, “The Hollow Men,” articulates a feeling shared by many of his generation after having come through the most terrifying and destructive war the world had ever known to that point.

In this case, the thing about which he is thinking clearly is a feeling.

The things people like Dave Barry, Trey Parker and Matt Stone think clearly about is humour.

Because the things are different, the way we express them is different. But in each case the writer must be thinking clearly.

Consider this excerpt from Dave Barry’s essay, “On Relationships.”

Contrary to what many women believe, it’s fairly easy to develop a long-term, stable, intimate, and mutually fulfilling relationship with a guy. Of course this guy has to be a Labrador retriever. With human guys, it’s extremely difficult. This is because guys don’t really grasp what women mean by the term relationship.

Let’s say a guy named Roger is attracted to a woman named Elaine. He asks her out to a movie; she accepts; they have a pretty good time. A few nights later he asks her out to dinner, and again they enjoy themselves. They continue to see each other regularly, and after a while neither one of them is seeing anybody else.

And then, one evening when they’re driving home, a thought occurs to Elaine, and, without really thinking, she says it aloud: “Do you realize that, as of tonight, we’ve been seeing each other for exactly six months?”

And then there is silence in the car. To Elaine, it seems like a very loud silence. She thinks to herself: Geez, I wonder if it bothers him that I said that. Maybe he’s been feeling confined by our relationship; maybe he thinks I’m trying to push him into some kind of obligation that he doesn’t want, or isn’t sure of. And Roger is thinking: Gosh. Six months. And Elaine is thinking: But, hey, I’m not so sure I want this kind of relationship, either. Sometimes I wish I had a little more space, so I’d have time to think about whether I really want us to keep going the way we are, moving steadily toward . . . I mean, where are we going? Are we just going to keep seeing each other at this level of intimacy? Are we heading toward marriage? Toward children? Toward a lifetime together? Am I ready for that level of commitment? Do I really even know this person? And Roger is thinking: . . . so that means it was . . . let’s see . . .February when we started going out, which was right after I had the car at the dealer’s, which means . . . lemme check the odometer . . . Whoa! I am way overdue for an oil change here.

Notice a couple of things here.

He keeps on track.

He is talking about the differences between the way men and women view relationships. To illustrate this difference he gives an example in which the woman is thinking at great length about their relationship because they’ve been going out for six months now, while he’s realising that if they’ve been going out for six months then the car must be due for an oil change.

The humour comes about largely through the fact that while Barry and the woman he’s writing about keep to the topic of relationships, the guy he’s writing about is thinking about something else entirely. The humour would be lost, or severely weakened were Barry to introduce other elements into the illustration, such as how fast the car was going or what the weather was like.

All forms of writing have their “rules,” but these rules are not so much imposed from the outside as arise from the nature of the subject.

Feelings are often written in poems. Mathematics is written largely in numbers and mathematical symbols. Stories are written in narratives. But there can be a lot of overlap as well. Feelings are often written in narratives, and many great epics are written in poems. And humour can be written in mathematics.

“There are 10 people in the world: those who understand binary, and those who don’t.”

It’s subtle, but it’s humour nonetheless.

Analysis, on the other hand, tends to take the form of an “essay.”

The word means “to try.”

In analytical writing, that’s the best we can do: try.

That’s because analysis is never finished. There will always be new information, new definitions, new shifts of knowledge and of our relationship to that knowledge. We question our previous conclusions, we change our minds, we have an experience that makes us look at the available data in a different light.

Analysis is always just “the best I can do at this moment.”

That makes analytical writing somewhat special. We can never consider a subject to be “finished.” There is always more to explore, more to consider.

Best of all, we can analyse anything. We can analyse feelings, we can analyse humour, we can analyse writing. Hell, we can even analyse analysis.

By convention, we tend to reserve the word “essay” for shorter forms of analytical writing, but there is no clear distinction between, for instance, a philosophical essay and a philosophical book. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, “Self-Reliance,” is over 10,000 words long – or more than 42 pages in APA format.

In that essay, Emerson says something quite pertinent to this course:

There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better for worse as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.

He is promoting the idea that for real education, there must come a time when the student realises that success can only come from an internal effort, that intellectual crutches such as envy and imitation are completely useless. “The power which resides in him is new in nature,” says Emerson, “and none but he knows what that is he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.”

To relate that to writing essays, it means that the analytical engine in each of us is ours, and ours alone, and the only way we can know what it’s capable of is to take it out and give it a spin.

Which brings us back to this course.

It’s called College English, and as I said, nobody really knows what that is.

Analytical writing, however, we can get a handle on. Furthermore, it’s what real people really do when they write.

The only people who write “College English” are college students – and outside of college,  that’s hardly a valuable life skill.

Analytical writing, however, is.

Analytical writing, as the name suggests, consists of both analysis and writing.

And both of these rely on clear thinking.

So one purpose of this course is to teach the principles of thinking clearly.

Clarity in thought has its rules, just as clarity in humour has its rules. But also, just as the rules for humour are remarkably flexible, so too are the rules for clarity.

To write clearly, you must keep to your topic, make sure the reader always knows what you’re talking about, and give the reader concrete examples. The blocks, or “paragraphs,” into which you organise your material must be organic to the subject matter, and of a size digestible by the reader.

The size of these paragraphs will vary according to the nature of the subject matter, the audience for which the essay is intended, and the overall “flow” of the material.

The idea of “flow” we’ll explore later.

But to follow the rules of analytical clarity, in any of their forms, it is first necessary to analyse clearly.

This includes knowing the difference between valid and invalid conclusions, between logical and illogical lines of reasoning, and most important, between your own knowledge and the knowledge gained from other people.

Much of this is reflected in the style guide used. In our case, that would be the APA style.

APA stands for The American Psychological Association, which is the style mostly used by the sciences and social sciences.

Don’t ask me why. I don’t know.

But different disciplines have their own style guides. If you were in a literature course you would follow the Modern Language Association’s style guide – the MLA. Another major style guide is the Chicago Style Guide (never referred to by its initials), used for histories and some humanities.

Publications often have their own style guides. The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, the Chicago Tribune – each has its own particular style used to format information.

Style guides cover such things as the distance between lines, the manner in which titles are written, and a whole host of other little details.

For instance, in most styles, such as APA and MLA, some titles are written in italics while others are enclosed by quotation marks. The criterion for this has to do with whether the work was published independently, or as part of something else. A book title, for instance, is italicised. An article from a magazine is put in quotation marks.

The purpose of any style guide is to provide consistency, and to reduce ambiguity for the reader.  In other words – to promote clarity.

Likewise, references and citations are important elements to these styles. Any conclusions or information that are not directly the result of the writer’s own thoughts, experiences or observations must have its source cited in the text, and a full reference given in the end references. This keeps ownership of ideas clear, and shows the source of information.

[That’s as far as I got so far.]