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Critical Thinking, Creativity and Clarity

Student Presentations

 You might have heard someone make the claim that there are no more original ideas for writing. Authors have written books titled “The ## Fiction Plots,” claiming there are only possible varieties of these and nothing original is possible. To this I say, “Baloney!” It is as egocentric to claim there can be no original plots as it is to claim that earth is the center of the universe – and we know how that turned out.

Critical thinking while attempting to create can generate a new idea. This is not claimed to refute someone’s claim that originality is untrue but to argue that each new character, dialogue, monologue, narrative, story line or difference in a plot line, brings original ideas to readers and writers. Whether nonfiction or fiction, the creation of original written expression occurs daily. Whether or not someone can take the article or story and argue that nuances bring it within the fold of an earlier author’s creation of an idea is irrelevant. There is no benefit to thinking in this negative way.

Thinking for yourself begins when someone enlightens you through teaching that by taking the time to think creatively, you can create something new. Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Isaac Asimov, Stephen Hawking, and many others have said that isolation from the interruptive noise of others is essential to original thought. Whether you lay in a hammock by a pond surrounded by trees and birds, sit at a small wooden desk in a rustic cabin in the mountains, or take your laptop to sit on rocks at a beach and listen to the ocean tide crash on the shore, absence of the presence of others allows you the quietude to think for yourself. If you can mentally isolate yourself in your home, that works too.

Once isolated and able to avoid interruption, mentally and emotionally relax. Use any meditative technique that works for you to achieve quietness. Avoid thinking about commonplace ideas unless you intend to base your creativity on something known. You can’t avoid them entirely and it is silly to try. After all, you have knowledge and awareness of things that have been created and these form the basis from which your original ideas may spring. Read, study, and read some more. If you have an idea for a story (since this is about writing) or an article, think about how you are going to get from your general concept to a concrete written work that provides readers with a new read.

Ponder, plan and analyze. Free write if that works for you. Outline a plan and add details to the plan as you ponder each step. The plan may lead to creating characters with story lines that intercept and a plot for a fiction work. Or it might result in concrete steps you can take, using specific contacts and funds, to obtain the information and interviews needed for an article. Research comes in the form of works written by others, hands on study of the physical, and talking to others. Planning how you portray the information and the way in which you describe it, may well create a new examination of the subject. Do not assume another’s claim is true, factual, or well supported. Benjamin Disraeli once said, “a university should be a place of light, liberty, and learning.”

Students in my classes and students who progressed to more advanced studies have reported to me that they decided to try the idea of physically isolating themselves in places that were relaxing, e.g., the beach, a garden, a cozy room with cell phones turned off, a park, a museum, and other novel places. These students reported they were delighted that it worked – instead of being plugged in all the time, they were able to think.

Originality does not include misquoting another or claiming an author wrote something that was never written. Old books, music, movies, radio broadcasts (e.g., Orson Welles and The War of the Worlds), history works, fiction of any genre, memoirs and biographies can all be resources that provide the kernel of an idea that grows into a masterpiece or, at least, a new work. Inspiration can be found in the shadows of people walking by, in the dialogue of two birds, in an event unfolding in front of you (whether innocent or motivated by ill will), or in a story about someone’s stroke recovery. Truthfulness does not preclude creativity in nonfiction or fiction but a lie told in a nonfiction work, which lie is obvious to the public, can end a writer’s career. On the other hand, a different view of an event told by a different witness can be enlightening and revealing.

Muse and analyze everything and what is meaningless to another may become ideas for articles or stories. Part of planning is to recognize when an idea is timely if you intend it for public consumption. An article may sit in a file for months or years and an event will bring the topic or issue to the forefront. A little tweaking and revision and you may have a publishable work. Don’t fail to write about your original view of a topic merely because others have written about it. Creativity should never lie quietly in the shadows, it should blaze a path to a final version that can be brought to light anytime.

We have all met someone who dominates a conversation, so much so that everyone else is merely listening and bored, waiting for a break in the diatribe to politely leave. An anonymous writer wrote that “every man is his own worst essay.” Einstein was an observer of human nature and, while I am like him in no way whatsoever, I agree with him that “[m]ost teachers waste their time asking questions intended to discover what a pupil does not know [when] [t]he true art of a teacher is to discover what the pupil knows or is capable of knowing.” Thinking and creating allows oneself to free the self from intellectual tradition. What is an intellectual but one who is knowingly ignorant so that she may create and write upon the blank slate.

Centuries ago, man had the idea that the earth was the center of the universe. That this idea was amazingly arrogant was not considered. More recently, astrophysicists opined that visible galaxies are all moving away from us. A new version of an old story; we are the figurative center and all else moves away from us, the center. Egocentrism is easily diagnosed but almost never recognized by the narcissist. Of course, modern astronomers were soon emending their opinion to one that had galaxies all moving away from each other, creating a growing universes that was conversely stretching so thin in visibility that we would soon be alone in our corner. A contemporary of Galileo Galeili,in his On the Infinite Universe and World, 5th Dialogue, Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) wrote that, “There is in the universe neither center nor circumference.” How could a man who shared a newly invented minimally strong telescope conceive of the vastness and structure (e.g. lack of structure) of the universe, which we have guessed stretches at least fourteen (14) billion light years or more distant?

If Einstein or Newton had not been patient in their reaching their opinions about relativity or gravity, their impatience would not have allowed them to make the leaps in concept that were necessary to lead others to further discoveries. When a student writes an essay, the student should make every effort to respond to the writing prompt effectively but to find a new way to study the text or the topic. Creative thought and writing is possible even when one is writing an essay focused narrowly on another’s text. Creativity comes in the way ideas are expressed, in the unique views an analysis can bring, and in the prose chosen with which to write. Even if the idea takes a path that leads to an odd view of the text closely studied, oddity can be seen as a new viewpoint and not wrong but, different. Develop the oddity and create from it a new vision, no longer odd but novel.

Thinking is hard work. I tell students this but they rarely understand that it is at first hard only because they have rarely been asked to think for themselves. Once they have begun thinking for themselves, many discover it is challenging but exciting. Creating their unique analysis of a closely studied text can be very satisfying and, when research is added, creative. Each person thinks best in different circumstances, but virtually all think their most clearly when away from distractions. What circumstances are most favorable for you? Go for a walk, exercise – a solitary walk invariably stimulates thinking, according to philosopher and scientist Helmholz (Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand Helmholtz (b. Aug. 31, 1821, Potsdam, Prussia —d. Sept. 8, 1894, Charlottenburg, Berlin, Ger.). Ideas can come without effort in a situation when a person is least tense and distracted.

You think with the conscious mind in-so-far as awareness of thoughts is concerned. You also think with your subconscious; it is working in the background, awake or asleep, and will produce creativity if given a chance. It illuminates ideas, clarifies them, all while your conscious mind is working or sleeping. You are aware of habits you developed that do not contribute to creative thought in any particular way and may be disruptive to thinking. Create a new habit – one that encouraging pondering the issue, topic or thing you are exploring. As you develop your new habit, do so methodically, creating innovative ways to think.

Critical thinking – the analysis of ideas, was the subject of an essay titled “Thinking (By Writing) About … Writing,” written by Phillip C. Kissam. Kissam said, in part,

The critical writing process appears to work in the following manner. Continuous and reciprocal feedback can occur between a writer's partially completed text or texts and her thoughts, memories, and instincts about a chosen subject. This feedback can enrich the writer's vision and stimulate her perception of connections between different elements in a complex picture, especially as she reviews partially stated written elements within the context of her overall knowledge and experience. In Richard Marius' arresting phrase, the critical writing process allows a writer's mind to function like a ‘radar scope that plays continually over one's own text’ in ways that can [compel] the writer to confront and control hard issues more directly and more creatively than is possible with non-written thought. This special perspective … can enhance the creation of new thoughts, the articulation of complex thoughts, and the recognition of the subtleties, nuances, and qualifications that are so important to the art of lawyering. In sum, the critical dimension of the writing process encourages a writer, by herself and possibly with the assistance of others, to enter into a sustained and serious dialogue about the subject under consideration. This dialogue can generate a much fuller and richer consideration of contradictory evidence, counterarguments, and the complex elements of a subject than is ever possible in oral communications alone … .

The critical writing dimension (and thinking about writing as critical writing) is thus an integral aspect of effective … analysis. The critical dimension is essential to many … [professions], and it should be essential to most areas of education. If beginners do not develop an instinctive habit of learning, developing, and applying .. [their ideas] through a critical writing process, they are less likely to be interested in or capable of engaging in the continual task of learning, creating, and applying the[ir ideas] by writing (40 Vand.L.Rev. 135, 141-2).

This is especially interesting because in every area of law, a lawyer must be reasonably competent in analytic reasoning. I differ with Kissam only on the point that critical analysis can be achieved through thought alone, for example, when organizing or planning your essay, and not only thinking through the writing process. When studying a text, whether it is a memoir, personal essay, article, advertisement, image, or fiction work, a person will often find it useful to reflect upon the textual parts in relationship to the ideas the person conceives of to analyze and understand the author’s intent, meaning or the person’s ways in which there might be disagreement between reader and author. So you think critically when you read the text and you think critically when you envision your thoughts about the text and then organize them in some way comfortable to your logical process. Then you critically analyze the text as you organize your paper and go into even more analysis when you write your analysis. There is an unclear step between organizing critically and writing analytically. How do you organize your logically produced thoughts before writing?

I teach first year students how to take their high school writing ability and raise it to a more professional level that professors will find acceptable in a university. I have spoken with dozens of others who teach the same course, a required first year general education writing course, and some have no process to teach their students to organize. Some have a general idea but lack specificity and, as a result, creates confusion for many students. I teach students a process involving organizing the logical deductions and the textual evidence they wish to use. It is an outlining process and has proven very valuable to the students as they tackled essays in other classes. One of the best compliments I have received from students was that I helped them understand themselves and to understand their lives and situations better.

A student who left my university for another began my class as a troubled writer who did not like to write and thought he was “terrible at writing.” I did not disagree because sentence structure and vocabulary use was a major problem for him. However, he is an intelligent fellow and it did not really matter to me why he was not provided a better education through high school. I had to work with him as he stood before me, a promising and bright young man. I provide my students with as much face-to-face tutoring as they need on an individual basis. I do this because every student brings to my classroom a very unique set of skills and limitations. My experience with first year students is that very few of them, perhaps 1 out of every 40 students, has been even slightly exposed to analytical writing. Few attended a school where they were asked to think for themselves when reading a text. Fewer knew what critical thinking meant. The student who left the university e-mailed me a few years later and wrote:

… I just wanted to thank you for the time and effort you put into your classes. I transferred … [and t]oday I got back a research paper that was worth 200 points out of a total of 1000 for the class. On the cover page was a note that said, “PLEASE SEE ME!!!” So I went to the professor’s office and he asked me multiple questions about where I BOUGHT the paper. I told him that I wrote the paper and had the outline and pre-writing information if he would like to see. I showed him the papers and he asked where I learned to write like that. I told him that I had taken your class and that I owed all the credit to you. He shook my hand and said it was one of the best papers he had ever read and that what I had done was ‘truly a lost art.’ So, Thank You Dr. Dutton for putting the time and energy into every student. If you’ll remember, I wasn’t doing well in the beginning of the semester but the work must have paid off. Thanks again.

This student ultimately earned an undergraduate degree with a GPA of 3.94.

If you are attending a university, you know that you will be writing many essays. Is it a good idea to become competent in writing at the earliest opportunity? I say to my students at the first class meeting: “While in this university, you are going to be required to write dozens of essays and many more if you go on to graduate school and I would like you to raise your hand if you think it would be a good idea to be a competent writer.” Nearly every hand is raised in every class. I ask, “Do you think that at your present competency level in writing and critical thinking, you can achieve a grade of “A” on every one of those many, many essays? Raise your hand if you do.” Few hands are raised. The class discussion begins with the question, “Why?” In my first-year writing class, I do my best to instill in my students the confidence that when they conclude my course, having done their very best, they can use the skills they have learned to competently write an essay in virtually any class. If they forget to modify the process provided for the specific subject or neglect to be attentive to write an essay that is responsive to the writing prompt, they will have the ability to identify the problem and revise accordingly. A student does not have to have significant first-hand or pre-study knowledge about a subject to write about it effectively. Research focused on exploring ideas that will allow them to closely study the subject and parts of texts can produce knowledge.

A university catalog provides a description of each course of study. If a course topic is going to be the culture of Native American Indians, it seems reasonable to gain a grasp of the cultural values of Native Americans and their myths and stories from which their culture developed. The assigned or required text may not provide a thorough explanation of those cultural values but, may well provide many issues to study within the ambience of the early or modern Indian cultures. Some research before beginning the course will likely give the student a grasp of the cultures of American Indians. Recognizing that most university students are loath to read the required text, much less unassigned materials, speaks to the quality of interest in learning and intelligence of the student, not the competence of the educator teaching the course. A university is not a high school in which you were in a program that leaves no child behind. Choosing to obtain a degree in higher education is a major step in your life and will cost tens of thousands of dollars. Why treat your opportunity to have the best education possible with contempt by attending class when you want, using cheat sheets and Cliff-Notes, and then complaining when you do not receive an “A” like you did in high school? That attitude will not gain you knowledge and the wisdom to use it.

Maturity and wisdom come through trial, experience, and learning. Get into the habit of obtaining readily available credible information on a subject before your formal study of it begins. You probably will not have to read a book to do so. On the other hand, please do not use unreliable resources (e.g., Wikipedia) simply because they are the easiest to find. How do you find a credible resource? University research librarians are underused and are there to assist every student. Think about what key terms relate to the subject being researched and type them into the advanced search page of your selected database (e.g., JSTOR, Muse, MLA, et al). If you used sensible key terms, the results should produce at least a few articles related to your subject. Read them and find some ideas, terms and phrases that provide ideas you might use in a discussion of the subject. You have to study a great deal, to know a little (Charles deSecondent (1689-1755).

Once you have taken this first important step, write down what you find that will help you understand the subject area. Study the articles you find and think about what you learn. Print copies of the pages that contain information you might find useful later, when you are taking the course and studying assigned texts. When in the class listening to a lecture, take notes in as much detail as you can handle. Develop a personal method of short hand note taking. Use it consistently so that you will be able to understand your notes later. During the course, in between exams, pop quizzes or essays, reflect upon what you have studied, learned, and may learn. Increase your subject area knowledge continually. Although your professor may not assign you research tasks, conduct your own research anyway! I know; why would you do extra work if it isn’t required and you may get no credit for it? Crazy idea, huh? Presumably, you are attending university classes to obtain higher education and learn more, not merely enough to pass tests or receive a passing grade in the course. Be smart! Learn more than you have to learn so you will be able to do something with the knowledge.

There are two things you need to know how to do to facilitate gaining the most knowledge: (1) if related to a university course, write the information and thoughts you have in a notebook related to that course – making it easily found and reviewed, and (2) for those thoughts and ideas unrelated to a course but none-the-less, or even more so, are important – write the information in a separate journal kept for general but important ideas, concepts, thoughts, and lessons you have learned that will improve your life and your thinking process. “One who believes he knows more than his teacher will never learn” – Benjamin Franklin. I have learned from experience that I do not have to prove myself to anyone. Louis L’Amour said, “I am somebody. I am me. I like being me. And I need to make me somebody.” Learning does not occur by chance, students must seek it with ardor and diligence (Anonymous letter to John Quincy Adams, May 8th, 1780).

When you create your annotations in a notebook or journal, don’t leave it at a few words, leaving the depth of the knowledge largely unexpressed. Rather, explore it and reflect upon its meaning. These annotations become the wisdom by which you will continue to learn and live. They are immeasurably valuable and, at a later time, may lead you to self awareness or perceptions that surprise. The personal and human touch you bring to your thoughts will help clarify your genuine feelings about yourself and others. Show that you understand or at least you are making a serious effort to comprehend our weaknesses, ambitions and strengths. The annotations in the notebook and journal are not usually intended to lead to a publishable work. Words are slippery and thoughts viscous; be smart and know that few people say what they really mean and no one means everything they say. Being exacting of speech is difficult; falls are common. But you may find that you come across a train of reasoning that is so compelling that you will achieve a new understanding of a subject and will be able to shed a bright new light upon it, manifesting an original work.

Critically examine the works of others to learn how to critically examine your own. A number of authors have made claims in a work which are believed to be a new way of viewing a subject, a way unique in its perspective and resulting comprehension. Many, however, fail to critically examine their work to ask the difficult questions of reasoning and analysis, which too often lead to a defrocked claim and an undercut analysis and reasoning. If you have expressed a unique vision and it withstands your own criticism, consider how much better it will withstand the criticism of others. It is worth mentioning that criticism should always be constructive, designed to develop comprehension and understanding of meaning, not to ridicule. As a teacher, I never know when what I say has an effect that permanently influences a student; knowing that my teaching can change the life or goals of a student is a heavy burden. I see few teachers who seem concerned about the power they carry or perhaps I imagine that power and burden, but I think not.

Avoid clichés, hackneyed expressions, wordiness that lends nothing to meaning, and adjectives or adverbs that serve only to lengthen a sentence and perhaps generate confusion, Creating works expressing your ideas should be treated with respect and dignity, not written in a hurried and neglectful way that obscures meaning. When I was young and became embroiled in some childhood conflict as a result of which I expected punishment, I was astonished when the punishment was meted out. No belt, ruler, hand, or swat flew; there was no stool to sit upon in a corner and reflect upon the errors of my ways; instead, a heavy tome descended to the dining table and I was directed to sit and study a dictionary page or article from an encyclopedia. I was to find in the reading a lesson that caused me to think about what had transpired. From this punishment, I learned the meaning and usages of many words, learned about historical events and people, and learned about writing and thinking, and I gained knowledge of information that I would likely have never voluntarily turned to, especially in my youth. Eventually, I was pulling these books off the shelves myself to read for relaxation.

I learned from the lessons of others. In my family, I applied that to what occurred when my older brothers erred and received punishment. “Aha,” I thought. “Don’t do or say that!” After studying the text; reading it without understanding was unacceptable, I was bound to hold a discussion about what I learned. Once satisfied with my disciplinary education, my father ensured that I understood, and that was the end of the matter. There came a time when my mother came upon me reading the dictionary or encyclopedia as casually as if it was a science fiction novel or western, which were my favorites in my adolescence. At some point, I began keeping a notebook of words, their definitions and usages, and quotations which made sense to me and helped improve my knowledge of self, especially ones that I especially liked. From this my vocabulary, with class-work, expanded. When I discovered works which provided the quotations of others, I took delight in reading these books from front to back, making annotations and adding to my growing notebooks.

In time, this grew to making notes about the accents and dialects in conversations overheard. I began to include observations about people, things such as the way in which people treated their pets, their children, each other, the diner booths in which they sat, including the faux plants, ketchup bottles with dark ridges of dried ketchup ringing the cap, and similar observations I found to be interesting because together, the manifestations showed humanity in its true state, not the state it pretended. I came to recognize when a person lied to another and the person listening to the lie made a choice to react – attacking the lie with accusation, letting it stand without contest, sighing and giving a shake of the head but saying nothing to contradict, nodding and accepting it in the face of apparent evidence of untruthfulness. This allowed me to reflect upon why the reactions occurred – the relationship power balance demanded it, one person was powerless in the face of another with power, one simply accepted the lie as the ordinary course of the relationship, and others.

Ethics, understanding right from wrong, and the ways in which emotions played a part in ethical choices became a virtual pastime of study. Taking behavioral science courses at a community college gave me greater understanding of these dynamics and the human nature (abnormal psychology) underlying it. Writers call it studying human nature and the ways in which humans interact and do things, which can be used in creative fiction writing. Success in life’s choices may be simple. Do what is right, the right way, at the right time. Writing cannot be done well with reading and it is by sitting down to write that we become writers because without doing so, we remain amateur scribblers.

When a person has a personality disorder, an emotional or mood disorder, or some of the symptoms of an illness without being clinically disordered, confused thinking may be apparent. The illness or symptoms of an illness may, or may not, affect one’s writing and creativity, but always affects clarity of thought. Similarly, a brain injury and consequential deficits can affect thought processing, memory access, organization, expression, the ability to communicate verbally and in writing. Setting these issues aside for a moment, consider how you might cultivate the ability to think clearly for writing purposes.

If you are writing a scientific article, explaining how a scientific discovery or study can help the public or scientists or how physicians can better diagnose or treat, or if you are writing an article explaining the results of a scientific study for public consumption, you must have a grasp of the scientific principles used. You necessarily must be able to explain the data and results clearly, in terms comprehensible to the lay person. Organization and knowing precisely how and what you are going to write is a necessity. Readers will not understand confused data or how results are explained if the writer excludes necessary information or explains the information in a way that creates a lack of clarity. Forming the habit of concrete, clear, creative and constructive thinking allows you to organize your planned text with clarity and in an orderly manner. Having a clear purpose is valuable. Creative nonfiction and literary fiction writers often create characters, behaviors, dialogue, monologue, narrative, setting, scenes and conflict that can be analyzed by a critical reader to illumine the lessons within the work.

In high school, the teachers teach that writing an interesting or catchy topic sentence when beginning a written work is important. In formal or professional writing, it is the strong thesis that seizes the reader’s attention; one comprised of a minimum of words with every word chosen for its precise use and compelling meaning. A meandering approach to a topic, itself unclear, will be rejected by a reader. In my first year writing class, I require the students to create their own title for their essays; preferably one that reflects the focus of their analysis of a subject work. Despite use of a handout (clearly written) and brief lecture emphasizing the value of an interesting title, many students neglect the task or perform it miserably. A few, however, of those students who are reflective and unusually competent in clarity of thought, come up with humorous, dramatic or intelligently phrased titles.

Critical thinking has been described as skills required to recognize, analyze, and evaluate (discuss) claims or arguments. While there seems to be no agreed upon definition of critical thinking, it appears that a critical thinker may be described as an intellectual analyst who, as a consequence of thinking analytically virtually all of the time, takes the time to break an argument into its logical parts, analyze the parts and consider and reflect upon the relationships of those parts to each other. Critical thinking is skillful, competent, and responsible thinking that fosters good judgment because it: a) relies on criteria, (b) is self-correcting; and (c) is sensitive to context. Critical thinking incorporates the abilities to use induction, deduction, evaluation, observation, assessment of credibility of the words of others, assumptions, identification of issues (e.g., claims, facts, arguments, evidence) and the creation and comprehension of meaning.

Critical thinking in education is characterized teaching students how to use logic when thinking and writing, both formally and informally. The logical and rational methods (logos, e.g., the study of) of thinking rather than affective and emotional and motivational (pathos) methods of reasoning were the only ones considered to be reasonable for evaluation and closely study of a text or image. Formalized language should be used by students to control their emotions and thinking when closely studying a text or image to allow them to write a formal scholarly essay in an academic setting.

Before learning to think critically when studying a text, students will tend toward simplified methods of description, including summarization of a text or written work, or the use of simple ideas to show differences, e.g., stereotyping or color. Students at this level of reasoning use linear thought, describing what they believe they see as it arises and would have difficulty figuring out how a later part of a text relates to an earlier part. Doing so creates confusion because thinking is hard work and thinking is not what the students have before been asked to do. More advanced students may have the ability to apply deductive and inductive reasoning to study the ways in which the parts of a text relate to each other. These students do not only study the text. While reading the text, they ask why they react in the way they do to the material. They ask, as they take each step, if there is another way of viewing the text. An analogy might be a perfect cube. On each side is a roman numeral – 1 through 6 - six different views that may produce a more in-depth study of the text.

This reasoning can be applied to written texts, images, or anything else. A student who learns to think like this can question her own thoughts, asking why and how views and thoughts can change. The student considers a text or issue and can reason using all available logical possibilities to determine when her own point of view is least productive or when the view is more productive; can form opinions and interpretations to more closely study a text. Critical thinking provides a student with a method of reasoning which involves the ability to properly understand and assess reasons, claims and arguments, and a critical component, which involves understanding dispositions, habits of mind and character traits, intrinsic to herself, and extrinsic within the text or image.

When reading to achieve something more than mere textual comprehension or appreciation of the work, a person must apply critical thinking skills during the reading. Some like to read a text through once or twice before attempting to analyze it. It may be applied to nonfiction or fiction. When reading nonfiction, the reader is analyzing what the writer means, from the perspective of the author as the first person. Reading fiction, the reader is analyzing what the author is trying to impart through the acts, dialogue, monologue, conflict scenes and narrative of the writer’s characters. Fiction may be written in the first or third person or portray an omniscient viewpoint.

In either instance, the reader is interpreting the words and acts of the character (whether the author in nonfiction or a character in a novel) to discover what meanings to attach to the text. Awareness that a text may be read critically or simply for enjoyment is important because the latter is commonly done for relaxation. Some read critically for relaxation too, but you see my point. If we are reading a fictional work based upon some real events (of which we have read), we are likely to think more deeply about what the author means or is trying to teach through her text.

The pedagogy of teaching rhetorical analysis varies significantly from school to school and professor to professor. Upon enrolling in a writing class where you will learn rhetorical analysis at your school, you will discover the methods your school and professor uses. It serves no purpose for me to attempt to iterate all of them here. Within the university system in which I teach, there is a variety of methods taught. There is not a right or wrong method, just different methods. What students seek is a method that is structured, allows for flexibility, and will give them confidence as they proceed in their education. Unfortunately, there are also professors who teach effectively and others who are less effective.

While attending a university, the students are scholars; students who are very involved in education and learning. For a recently graduated high school student, the term intimates a level of competence in educational studies with which many first-year students are uncomfortable. In our classes, we tend to focus on logos, ethos and pathos as means of analysis. To facilitate learning to think critically, we provide students with prompts that require them to closely study a text (e.g., written essay, article, personal essay, fiction work, or advertisement or other images) and analyze it for the author’s meaning. Students consider whether the text is effectively written and whether or not they agree or are convinced by the writing. Logos provides for a logical approach in which the student studies the text and determines the meaning of the text using inductive and deductive reasoning. Ethos calls for consideration of ethical values, knowledge of awareness of right from wrong, and the intentions of the author. Pathos requires one to discuss the emotions generated within the text as they relate to creating meaning and supporting a lesson the author is teaching readers.

Reading Critically

When we read a mainstream novel, e.g., mysteries, police procedurals, legal thrillers, psychological thrillers (e.g. Jeffrey Deaver, Jonathan Kellerman, Faye Kellerman), we read sheerly for the enjoyment of the story, characters, and the conflicts. Reading for study is not reading for relaxation, although it can be if you love to learn. I am one of those souls who love to read anything; textbooks, dictionaries, encyclopedia articles, books of quotations, and, of course, mainstream fiction. While driving I am usually listening to an audio CD book. Reading critically to discover the surface and layered meanings in a text is different. We study to discover what the writer left unstated but implied: meanings, lessons and things to think about. As a writing teacher, my experience is that many students will read a textbook or assigned text superficially, gleaning from it only the facts and lessons clearly stated in the written words. Students that do this miss out on a great learning opportunity. The texts educate students about an issue or topic but commonly make an effort to persuade the reader of a position. The subject may be history, nursing, psychology, sociology, literature, art, music or any other. The first thing you have to do is comprehend the text. A smart student will look up words they don’t know and not assume the definition they guess at by usage. Words have many definitions and usages. The word character is shown in a few desktop paperback dictionaries to have five or six definitions. By using the CSUSM Kellogg library database access to the Oxford English Dictionary, a student might discover the word has nineteen definitions and usages.

Text comprehension requires thinking about the meaning stated, inferred or implied. Study the title, subtitle, headings and footnotes as you read. Make use of your text and don’t save it for resale back to the bookstore. If this is a financial necessity, ten make a copy of each page you think is important and annotate it, highlight words that convey special meaning (look them up!), and make note of key terms, words in italics, boldface, or in captions. Read to find claims, a thesis, argument or specifically persuasive text. On a writing pad[1], make notes about the meaning of all these things, including supporting evidence. When reading critically, pretend the text being read is a friend with whom whose conversation you care[2] about.

Depending upon the writing prompt and the course in which a text is assigned, a student should make notes about the author’s attitude, expressed in words (often verbs) that indicate sarcasm, humor, wittiness, sincerity, or another emotion. This might help you understand what meaning to attach to the words. When taking notes about a text for purposes of writing about it, handwrite your notes and first take the text apart to figure out the relationships between the parts and how they work together and separately. Most authors write their text in a linear fashion, going from one topic to the next, based upon the specific ideas they want to teach or discuss. When preparing to write about a text, make handwritten notes about:

  • The goals and purposes depicted
  • Sources drawn upon, the credibility of the sources, and whether the text writer opines they are credible or not
  • Claims or arguments and supporting evidence
  • Assumptions, inferences, implications, attitude, humor, et al

Subsequently, add these to your outline and elaborate on your ideas.

[1] I strongly urge you to go to the extra step of handwriting notes because neuroscientific studies have demonstrated that the act of handwriting embeds the memory of what is written in long term memory. Typing the same text on a keyboard goes to short term memory (about sixty seconds) and you are very unlikely to remember and be able to ponder the noted facts or thoughts later if keyboarded. My M.A. thesis, “Using Story and Narrative in the Rehabilitation of Persons with Acquired Brain Injury” provides a review and experience with this area of brain learning.

[2] Emotional attachment to what you read or hear will embed the matter in long term memory. Unemotional learning is far less likely to be retained in long term memory.