The English Department at SDSU offers a range of composition courses—from basic to advanced. While each serves a particular purpose within the curriculum, all promote critical thinking and the core principles of good prose that are essential to writing well at the college level and beyond.
While activities and assignments will vary from one composition course to the next, two closely related objectives are central to all such courses at SDSU. The first is that students learn to think critically and to analyze the subjects they write about; the second, that students learn to write well about those subjects.
Critical Thinking and Analysis
To think critically is to wonder, to challenge received assumptions, to adopt multiple perspectives as a means of seeing issues and objects anew, and to seek and to create new knowledge. Such thinking is what we, your instructors, hope to foster in your courses—as an applied skill, yes, but also as a habit of mind, as a way of being in the world. An effective writing course, after all, is not just about writing well but also about thinking well. It is about trying to discover the truth about a given subject and about trying to craft ever more accurate accounts and assessments of that subject. Good writing, in short, has style and substance. It weighs, considers, and questions. It takes chances. It broadens our perspective; it broadens—and improves—our understanding of the world.
Analysis is one means—perhaps the chief means—of demonstrating critical thinking in an essay. To analyze means to break something down into its constituent parts, to try to understand how those parts make up the whole so that the whole becomes newly visible, no longer obscured by the veneer of familiarity. In this way, new characteristics—flaws or perfections, contradictions or consistencies—come to light.
Unlike in a biology or botany course, in which you might analyze a living organism, in a composition course concerned, as it is, with language and images, with forms of representation, you will examine not natural entities but fabricated or constructed ones—visual and print texts, for example, or the persona of a public figure, or events staged for the camera, or an article of clothing, or a theory, or even the self. And in ways that an organism, a bird or a tree, does not, each of these constructions vies for our attention. The form it assumes, in fact, is designed precisely for this purpose—to gain a hearing and, ultimately, to win admirers or adherents. An engineer—with, perhaps, a marketer’s assistance—hopes to imbue an automobile with qualities that appeal to consumers; the writer of an editorial adopts a particular tone and style to sway readers; a political candidate or an entertainer creates a persona to court a wide audience. To analyze such tactics is to peek behind the curtain, to witness the grinding mechanism of calculated effect, to observe rhetoric at work. Analysis, in this regard, helps us to become thinking citizens, aware and, perhaps, wary of those who would influence us, and cognizant of the welter of shouts and pleas audible within the rhythms of daily life.
Core Principles of Good Prose
The principles of good prose noted here hardly constitute an exhaustive list, and your instructors, appropriately so, will add to them. At base, though, good prose in most circumstances will avoid the pitfalls and include the positive traits described below.
Note that each principle anticipates the expectations and needs of readers. This is most appropriate, for to communicate effectively—that is, to shape content into comprehensible and convincing form, to do more than just spill it out onto the page and hope readers will follow and credit what you say—you must take your readers into account. This means trying to anticipate their assumptions and views, of course, but it also means satisfying their expectation that you will abide by the conventions of formal discourse in regard to grammar, diction, syntax, and form.
Good prose is clear. As we well know, contemporary life places great demands upon our time, our attention, and our energies. When we read—at school, at home, at work—we expect that what we read will either inform us or in some way please or provoke us, and that it will do so fairly efficiently. Yet a text cannot fulfill these expectations if we cannot comprehend its grammar, diction, syntax, or form. Having to contend with error and confusion squanders our time, scatters our attention, and depletes our energies. We become frustrated and, in most cases, decide that the difficulty of deciphering the text is not worth the effort. We stop reading. Writing that is clear, on the other hand—writing that abides by the conventions of grammar, that presents the apt not the approximate word, that uses syntax to shape ideas and to signal the proper relation between them, and that conveys its content in coherent and unified fashion—enlivens and engages readers. It makes communication—the central purpose of all writing—possible.
Good prose is concise. Writing that is not clear confuses readers; writing that is not concise risks boring them. Redundancy, needless repetition, and wordy phrasing such as “due to the fact that” and “at this point in time” (rather than the more concise “because” and “now,” respectively) all contribute to writing that uses more words than it needs to convey its meaning. Not only are such excesses tedious and potentially confusing to readers, but they also signal that the writer has not devoted sufficient time to revising and to editing a text—at the readers’ expense. Wordy prose can erode a writer’s ethos—that good character that is so crucial to gaining readers’ trust and securing their willingness to give the writer a full and fair hearing. Strive to write prose that is crisp, focused, and controlled—that respects the readers’ time and intelligence.
Good prose is contextualized. If you attend to it carefully, you will discover that much of the information we now receive via various electronic sources—radio, television, the internet, text messaging devices—is brief, discontinuous, and devoid of context. Facts, testimonies, and accounts are often difficult for us to comprehend or credit because we receive them in disconnected bits, severed from the larger narratives and histories that give them meaning. Print texts, of course, can exhibit the same shortcomings—they can be as brief and as decontextualized as any electronic text—but they also, potentially, offer a more sustained form of discourse that can explain an issue in full rather than merely encapsulate it within the confines of a ten-second sound bite. Good writers know that they must provide background for the issues they discuss, that they must make clear to the reader what is at stake in their argument and how each of their claims advances that argument.
Good prose is convincing. The ultimate measure of good prose is the degree to which it convinces its readers—to act, to consider or reconsider, to question, to accept, to affirm, or any of the other myriad ways in which readers might follow the directives of a text. Following a tradition that dates back to Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), writers historically have employed three means of appealing to an audience—through the logic of the text (logos), the character of the writer (ethos), and the emotions of the audience (pathos). What is important to remember is that these appeals are not givens, but potential features of a text that writers must create. A text’s logos resides in the validity of its claims and in the valid sequencing of those claims; its ethos, in the clear, concise, contextualized prose and tempered, fair-minded approach that establish the writer as someone who is conscientious, competent, and knowledgeable; its pathos, in the articulation of what readers might feel, but also what, perhaps, they should feel. In the end, of course, readers decide whether or not a text convinces them, but writers can do much to ensure that it does.
Your instructors will assess your major essays upon quality of content (including any use of source materials), clarity of form (including correct documentation), and clarity of style (including grammatical correctness). And they will uphold common standards articulated in the following rubric.
The grade of “A” (“exceptional”) designates*:
- fulfillment of the requirements and objectives of the assignment
- an excellent, impressive command of content
- a clear explanation, development, and application of ideas
- independent thought and analysis
- thorough and persuasive substantiation of claims
- clear and effective organization
- precise, fluent, and distinctive expression
- correct grammar, punctuation, documentation, and format
The grade of “B” (“above average”) designates:
- fulfillment of most of the requirements and objectives of the assignment
- a competent command of content
- mostly clear explanation, development, and application of ideas
- a capacity for independent thought, analysis, though it is not fully realized
- sufficient and mostly persuasive substantiation of claims
- mostly clear and effective organization
- mostly precise, fluent, and clear expression
- mostly correct grammar, punctuation, documentation, and format
The grade of “C” (“average”) designates:
- fulfillment of the major requirements and objectives of the assignment, though minor ones are only partially fulfilled or unfulfilled
- an adequate command of subject matter
- adequate explanation, development, and application of ideas, though lack of depth is evident
- lack of independent thought or sustained analysis
- inconsistent substantiation of claims
- adequate organization, though lapses are evident
- adequate expression though lapses in precision, fluency, and clarity are evident
- adequate grammar, punctuation, documentation, and format, though errors are evident
The grade of “D” (“lowest passing grade”) designates:
- insufficient fulfillment of the requirements and objectives of the assignment
- an inadequate command of content
- insufficient explanation, development, and application of ideas
- unexamined, clichéd thinking and little analysis
- inadequate substantiation of claims
- inadequate organization, making the text hard to follow
- inadequate expression with significant lapses in precision, fluency, and clarity
- numerous and significant errors in grammar, punctuation, documentation, and format
The grade of “F” (“failure”) designates:
- a failure to follow or complete the assignment
- a failure to control or comprehend the content
- a failure to sufficiently explain, develop, or apply ideas
- a failure to analyze
- a failure to sufficiently substantiate claims
- a failure to organize the content, making the text largely incoherent
- a failure to write with any degree of precision, fluency or clarity
- a failure to abide by the conventions of grammar, punctuation, documentation or format
* Rubric appears, in slightly different form, in South Dakota State University General Catalog: Undergraduate Programs, 2013-2014 (21).
Policies Concerning Honesty in Academic Writing
The English Department announces herewith that it will not tolerate plagiarism—representing another’s work as one’s own—in any form. Students must abide by the principles governing academic research and writing, the first and foremost of which is honesty. And students must abide by the university’s policies regarding academic integrity, set forth in policy 2.4 of the South Dakota State University Policy and Procedure Manual. A summary of the policy, provided by the Office of the Provost, appears below.
Student Academic Integrity and Appeals: The University has a clear expectation for academic integrity and does not tolerate academic dishonesty. University Policy 2.4 sets forth the definitions of academic dishonesty, which includes but is not limited to, cheating, plagiarism, fabrication, facilitating academic dishonesty, misrepresentation, and other forms of dishonesty relating to academics. The Policy and its Procedures also set forth how charges of academic dishonesty are handled at the University. Academic dishonesty is strictly proscribed and if found may result in student discipline up to and including dismissal from the University.
Also, you must submit work that you have written for your section of English 101, 201, or 283 only, not for some other class. Recycled work from other classes, or previous coursework either at SDSU or elsewhere (including high school coursework), will not receive credit.
If you have any questions about these matters, be sure to discuss them with your instructor. You also may consult the full policy via the SDSU website.
If you would like extra feedback on your drafts or assistance with generating ideas, developing and organizing those ideas, or expressing your meaning clearly and concisely, the English Department provides tutoring in its Writing Center. The Center is located in the Wintrode Student Success Center and is open during Fall and Spring semesters from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday through Thursday and from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Friday. Call 688-6559 to schedule an appointment. Depending upon availability of tutors, walk-ins are also welcome.
The Writing Center is scheduled to move to Briggs Library during the Spring 2014 semester. Please stay tuned for more information!
Course Goals and Outcomes
Broadly, composition courses (101, 201, and 283) seek to help you to improve your ability to read text critically, to research and consider issues thoroughly, to think about them clearly, and to write about them convincingly. These objectives accord with and, thus, satisfy two of the System General Education Requirements (SGR) goals (see South Dakota State University General Catalog: Undergraduate Programs, 2013-2014 ):
Goal #1: “Students will write effectively and responsibly and will understand and interpret the written expression of others.”
Student Learning Outcomes: “As a result of taking courses meeting this goal, students will:
- Write using standard American English, including correct punctuation, grammar, and sentence structure [assessment based upon your performance on various exercises and responses and on the major essays];
- Write logically [assessment based upon your performance on the major essays];
- Write persuasively, using a variety of rhetorical strategies (e.g., exposition, argumentation, description) [assessment based upon your performance on the major essays];
- Incorporate formal research and documentation into their writing, including research obtained through modern, technology-based research tools [assessment based upon your completion of the research component of the major essays and various documentation exercises].”
Goal #7: “Students will recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, organize, critically evaluate, and effectively use information from a variety of sources with intellectual integrity.”
Student Learning Outcomes: “Students will:
- Determine the extent of information needed [assessment based upon your ability to provide sufficient evidence to support your claims in the major essays];
- Access the needed information effectively and efficiently [assessment based upon your ability to find relevant sources and incorporate them into the major essays];
- Evaluate information and its sources critically [assessment based upon your ability in class discussion and in the major essays to challenge and/or corroborate the validity of other writers’ claims];
- Use information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose [assessment based upon your ability in the major essays to gather sources, incorporate them appropriately into your essays, and thereby persuade readers that your arguments are plausible and cogent.];
- Use information in an ethical and legal manner [assessment based upon your ability to fairly and accurately represent others’ ideas through quotation, paraphrase, and summary—and to do so, in the case of paraphrase and summary, in your own words].”
In addition, you will learn how to
- Plan Your Essay
- Choose a subject and narrow it so that you can develop it sufficiently within the limits of the assignment;
- Create a plausible, cogent argument—and explicit thesis—by fairly and thoroughly exploring your subject and your audience’s assumptions about it.
- Organize Your Essay
- Sequence the points of your essay clearly, coherently, and persuasively—making apparent to readers the logical progression of ideas both within and between paragraphs and the relation of those ideas to your thesis;
- Begin and conclude your essay in engaging and thought-provoking ways.
- Support Your Essay
- Marshal details, examples, facts, and plausible conjectures to develop and to substantiate your claims.
- Use Language Precisely, Correctly, and Effectively
- Seek out the appropriate word in a given context;
- Abide by grammatical rules and recognized standards of formal usage, but also determine which occasions and contexts might warrant departing from such rules and usage.
- Revise and Polish Your Essay
- Re-conceive and restructure the argument, and gather and deploy more effective evidence;
- Edit and proofread.
Instructional methods may vary across sections, but students can expect to devote class time to
- discussing the reading assignments and analyzing various advertisements, television shows, films, and prose samples;
- discussing and practicing the various analytic, stylistic, and rhetorical strategies mentioned in the course description;
- free-writing, drafting, and revising your essays (you must revise each of the major essays twice); and
- reading and commenting upon your classmates’ work.