Critical Reading and Writing

The aim of English 110 is to help you write in interesting ways about texts and ideas that matter to you. Critics are people whose own creativity is bound up with the texts they read and watch and listen to.  To write as a critic is to respond to the work of others, to place your thoughts in relation to theirs. Reading and writing, writing and reading. And.

English 110 is set up as an academic seminar—as a course in which we all read a set of books and articles together and then share what we think and write about them with each other. In a seminar everyone brings their work to the table. You can thus expect to read much of the writing your classmates are doing and to have them read your work too. This sort of give-and-take is a key aspect of working as a critic, of responding to the ideas and writings of others. You might think of this course, then, as a kind of conversation—one that takes place in both speech and writing, and that includes both our voices and those of the writers we read.

Writing Cultural Criticism

While all sections of  E110 share the same course goals, different teachers work toward those goals in their own particular ways, centering their sections on readings and questions that they find important and engaging. As a writer and a scholar I’m interested in what is often called cultural criticism, in using the skills of close reading to better understand the many different kinds of texts that we encounter everyday: not just books and articles, but images, music, videos, ads, games, buildings, clothes, technologies, and the like. (I’m using the word text here to refer to an object that users find meaningful. In this sense, a poem or essay is a text, but so too is a song, or a video game, or a photograph, or a YouTube video.)  And so I’ve decided to center our work in this course on a pioneering attempt to write this sort of cultural criticism, John Berger’s Ways of Seeing.

John Berger is a British painter, novelist, and critic. He wrote Ways of Seeing in 1972, basing his book on a TV program he had helped produce for the BBC.  Berger was one of the first critics to draw connections waysofseeing_02between the images of high culture and those of popular culture—between paintings hung in museums and photos found in ads and magazines. That was his first innovation as a thinker and writer. The second had to do with the form of his writing. Berger is a remarkably clear and imaginative writer. Four of the seven essays in Ways of Seeing combine images with words; the other three consist of images alone. In this mixing of modes and media, Ways of Seeing remains a prescient, quirky, and striking book.

But it also a book that was written in 1972—before WIFI, before the web, before CDs or videocassettes or cable TV. And so much of the work I’ll ask you to do with Ways of Seeing will involve assessing which of its ideas and terms still strike you as useful, and which need to updated, rethought, or simply discarded. What holds up? What doesn’t? What can be tweaked or revised?

My goal is to offer you a sense of the kinds of work that you’ll be asked to do as a writer at this university, of the sorts of things you’ll need to know how to do with the texts you’re given to read and respond to. Ways of Seeing is a complex and sophisticated book. If you learn how to make strong use of its ideas and phrasings in your own work, you’ll be ready to take on almost any other text you’re asked to write about. My hope is that, by the end of this course, you’ll not only feel more confident in writing about texts and ideas, but more interested in doing so. I think this kind of work is fun. Give me a chance to convince you.

Good luck! I look forward to working with you!