English 456: C20 Criticism and Theory

How to Get the Most from College

Al Drake | Cyber Cafe | Thurs. 6-7 | 714-434-1612

The most important thing to realize is that initiative matters. Being a college student is temporary, and you may be juggling the role with work, parenting, and marriage, but still, studying is a discipline -- it entails responsibilities and method. Perhaps you might think of it as like building a house -- you need to have a blueprint before you can do real work. So as a student you should give some thought to your methods and goals. How do you plan to learn and remember things? What do you want your learning to add up to? What is your connection with your fellow students and your teachers? What connections should you make between the various disciplines you are introduced to? College shouldn't be a grim, competitive experience. Developing sound ways to proceed will help you get the most from your time in college. Here are some observations based on my own experience as a student and teacher.

Above all, learn actively:

1. Learn from both the instructor and class participants. The teacher should know the material well, but students will offer insightful questions and observations as well.

2. Participate as much as you can in ways that suit your personality. If you are quiet and reflective, that's good. But remember that your observations and questions might prove valuable to others, including the instructor. If you are outgoing, you may find that an asset. But make sure others do some of the work. And if you're somewhere between Woody Allen and a rock star, that's fine, too. Push yourself a little, and the results will be worth it.

3. Develop a note-taking strategy and stick to it. The Cornell System is valuable because it builds reflection into the process, but perhaps your own will work better. Excellent note-taking always flows from the understanding that lecture material should be treated as a foundation for further thinking, not as a set of commandments carved in stone. Socrates says that a teacher is a midwife who helps others give birth to their own ideas. That's true, and teachers often do so partly by offering their own insights and methods as a starting point. My ideal student is modeled on the Greek response to experience: a situation (for example, a lecture) may be imposed upon you from without, but you are accountable for how you respond to the situation. Strong, active students learn from others without surrendering the chance to find their own voice. Friedrich Nietzsche, a lover of the Greeks, says somewhat grandly that "whatever does not kill us makes us stronger." My lecturing hasn't killed anyone -- at least not yet.

4. Take advantage of your instructors' office hours. Call or email if you have questions or observations. Try to work through the question on your own first, but if the question doesn't go away -- and many should not go away -- ask it. Visit your teachers. If you do, they'll think of you as a human being with goals and interests rather than as a walking term paper. You shouldn't get a better grade just because you show up at office hours; but then, if, as I expect, you are a serious student, it can't hurt to make teachers aware of it from the outset. In sum, don't be a sheep. People say nice things about sheep, but then they kill and eat them.

5. Do things on your own initiative. If you don't know a word or a reference, look it up. The teacher can't anticipate every question or problem you might have, so speak up. When you get your syllabus, take the time to read it -- it contains the basic rules that partly determine your experience and your grade. If you need to contact your instructor about something, don't hesitate to call at a reasonable hour or to email. If, while you are in class, your instructor forgets to pass out some material or to discuss something, if he or she says something will be sent to you by email or posted on the course web and then it doesn't happen, say so. Your desire to make sure things go smoothly for the class will be appreciated.

6. Learn the ropes about taking exams and writing good papers. Aside from technical matters like how to study and memorize things, about which you can find some advice on our course web's tips sites, here are several keys to success:

a) Write lucidly. It always matters how well you write in an English or humanities class. It matters both for in-class exams and for term papers. Take yourself seriously as a writer, as one who is learning a skill deeply connected with self-expression and with the ability to influence others for the better. Sweeping openers like "Throughout history," non-analytical, general conclusions like "I really enjoyed The Odyssey," and sloppy proofreading and editing (even in rough drafts) cannot but affect an instructor's estimation of what you have written, and such problems also make it harder for teachers to offer substantive advice. Accept nothing less for yourself than precision of thought and execution. A good tip is that reading your drafts aloud works wonders. In the transition from speaking to writing, phrases slip in that would sound stilted or illogical if we said them out loud. For help with essay writing and editing, confer with me and see my guide Deductive Essays, my Grammar Guide, and other materials available in the Writing section at the top of the Syllabus Page. I'm with Gerard Manley Hopkins on the issue of romantic particularity: "Glory be to God for dappled things" -- and for clear, varied, enjoyable prose based on refined observation.

b) Be willing to do more than meet the minimum requirements for the assignment. While it is important to understand what your assignment calls for, it is equally important to understand why a teacher might ask a particular question. If you can do that, you should be able to treat the question as a matter for exploration of the texts in question, not just as a command to regurgitate your lecture notes. Let's be careful here: part of responding to a paper or essay prompt involves showing that you have read the texts and lecture materials well enough to respond coherently. Even so, the most interesting dimension of an assignment is the one that is more your own, the one that shows you've been thinking about the topic and the text rather than just trying to memorize the plot and the characters. Can you build into your response a good critical narrative about the text, one that you have arrived at by careful reading and that interests me as an intelligent reader who would like to learn something from you? Good critics are good storytellers -- they make a reader want to go back and have another look at a given work. Finally, stay away from the Opium Den of Cliff Notes -- they are facile and will impede your own engagement with the text. Yea, from them shall you have "no light, but rather darkness visible," as Milton's narrator says in Paradise Lost.

c) Take the grade you see on the page as an attempt to tell you how well you performed a particular task. No doubt we always take less than flattering grades somewhat personally at first, but on reflection we must move beyond that stage. There is a degree of subjectiveness involved in evaluating a humanities paper or exam -- but only a degree. Dangling participles, fragments, redundant pronouns, tangled syntax, excessive use of the passive voice, and imprecise expression are not included in that degree. Communicate with your instructor if you are upset about a grade, but move forward and learn as well.

d) Be safe and sane in your borrowing of other people's language. Common phrases like "a stitch in time saves nine" need no source. However, the sentence "For Touchstone love is a ubiquitous human need that seeks an object; it is very like a need that in animals is seasonal," unless you yourself originated it, had better be followed by (Gilman 28). Never paraphrase or copy another writer's language -- including the teacher's handouts and the anthology's introductory material -- without making sure the reader knows that's what you're doing. There are procedures for quoting and paraphrasing with propriety and sophistication. See, for example, the study guides Plagiphrasing and Analysis and, on the issue of proper form, the most recent MLA Handbook and my Grammar Guide. Plagiarism is the academic equivalent of a felony. Like Caesar's wife, you must learn to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. With that admonishment in mind, I'll close by citing the Modern Language Association's explanation of the problem and by offering a few of my own common-sensical observations.

Editor Joseph Gibaldi's MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 5th. edition (New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1999 pp. 30-31), explains plagiarism as follows:

To use another person's ideas or expressions in your writing without acknowledging the source is to plagiarize. Plagiarism, then, constitutes intellectual theft. . . .

At all times during research and writing, guard against the possibility of inadvertent plagiarism by keeping careful notes that distinguish between your own . . . thoughts and the material you gather from others. Forms of plagiarism include the failure to give appropriate acknowledgment when repeating another's wording or particularly apt phrase, when paraphrasing another's argument, or when presenting another's line of thinking.

You may certainly use other persons' words and thoughts . . . but the borrowed material must not seem your creation. Suppose, for example, that you want to use the material in the following passage, which appears on page 625 of an essay by Wendy Martin in the book Columbia Literary History of the United States.

Some of Dickinson's most powerful poems express her firmly held conviction that life cannot be fully comprehended without an understanding of death.

If you write the following sentence without any documentation, you have committed plagiarism:

Emily Dickinson strongly believed that we cannot understand life fully unless we also comprehend death.

But you may present the material if you cite your source.

As Wendy Martin has suggested, Emily Dickinson strongly believed that we cannot understand life fully unless we also comprehend death (625).

Now that is a clear explanation! I conclude with a few practical observations. Students sometimes feel confused about what to do with ideas from sources other than books and scholarly articles.* The main questions are as follows:

1. "What do I do with an idea my friend or roommate or spouse gave me?"

My response to this question -- and keep in mind that the response may differ for some instructors -- is that such borrowings need not be documented. In my view, ideas of this sort are freely given; the giver does not require or want credit for ideas good-naturedly and casually thrown your way. The spirit of the situation is, "hey, here's an insight I have about Dante's Inferno--see what more you can make of my observation!" However, it's entirely another and less savory matter to let others do your writing for you or to let them do much of your thinking. Don't let others take over the tasks of writing, editing, structuring, and thinking through. Others should understand that making suggestions about these matters can be helpful -- but all "takeovers" in academic matters are hostile.

2. "What about the teacher's handouts and lecture material? Should I treat them just like a book or an article?"

My response is that if you are making use of such material, you should indicate as much. Handouts are written material, and although the insights offered in them are freely given, the manner of giving is not casual but formal and academic. If you borrow from them, say so; if you quote them directly, do so in proper MLA form.

Lectures and student observations, while freely given, are offered in an academic setting, so it would be unwise to repeat what I or your fellow students say as if it originated with you. It is surely acceptable to use this kind of material -- in fact, often an exam question or a paper prompt calls for some incorporation of lecture material, though good questions and prompts ask you to do more than simply demonstrate your recall of what was said in class or written in handouts. When you refer to lecture comments, simple, occasional, generic attribution-phrases like "As suggested in class, ..." will serve you well, though you should not be fanatical in applying them. A fuller example might be,

It was suggested in class that one of the most important things to understand about Dante is how he dramatizes the distance between human and divine love. That observation seems to me particularly appropriate in reading Canto such and such, [which I now go on to explore in my response].

A passage like the above suggests that you're aware of what the teacher has said, but also that you have managed to incorporate it into your own understanding of the text, using it as a guide for further exploration, a point of departure. Even if you agree with what your instructor says and want to respond in that spirit, use your own examples and offer insights of your own. If your whole response lies between one big implied set of quotation marks, that's bad news -- it means you're just repeating the ideas you hear, either without having reflected on them or without understanding that the teacher would actually welcome your expressing the results of that reflection. It is all right to disagree, and it is all right to strike off on different paths. I would be perfectly happy to see a response like the following:

It was suggested in class that one of the most important things to understand about Dante is how he dramatizes the distance between human and divine love. Still, in Canto such and such [which I now go on to explore in my response] Dante calls attention to the ways in which humans make that distance seem all the greater because of their own misconstruction. [Or, "Canto X emphasizes another, equally important problem...."]

To sum up what I've been saying about borrowing others' ideas, while it may be true that "95% of life is just showing up," it's even more true, as Oscar Wilde says, that "The critic's task is to see the object as in itself it really is not."* Understand that quip in a truly Wildean sense -- not as a call to willful, lazy misinterpretion of great books but as an invitation to be insightful and creative -- and you will never have to worry about plagiarism and lack of originality. Instead, you will be honoring the authors of said great books and making your instructors' experience a lot more worthwhile. Your "other 5% of life" is really the most important part.

3. How on earth do I cite Internet sources? The basic requirements are that you cite the document title, author, relevant publication dates, Uniform Resource Locator (URL), and the date on which you accessed the information. The MLA mentions many different kinds of internet sources, so it is best to consult that handbook. Below is an MLA example in which someone has cited "a document within a scholarly project or information database":

Dove, Rita. "Lady Freedom among Us." The Electronic Text Center. Ed. David Seaman. 1998. Alderman Lib., U of Virginia. 19 June 1998 <http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/subjects/afam.html>.


*Terse definitions of plagiarism often contribute to the confusion. For example, editor Gibaldi's language in the above quotation -- "another person's ideas or expressions" -- suggests that ideas are somehow different from language or "expressions." As he surely knows, ideas are word sequences; you don't get an idea and then put it into words. Rather, the idea is already a linguistic construction which can be refined with further utterances or writing.

*The very earnest Victorian man of letters Matthew Arnold had said, "The critic's task is to see the object as in itself it really is."