WHAT IS THIS
This section, "Response to Readings," helps you
understand perhaps the most important single
element of introductory writing in college: an
assignment in which you must respond to a
reading, situation, or event. While
writing research papers is of
great importance, too--and all of the papers in
this section also can lend themselves easily to
research writing, as well--instructors often test
your knowledge, expect you to think, or
otherwise require your active writing in
response to one or more readings, or sometimes a
situation or event.
There are a
number of ways to respond to readings (or
situations or events), and this
section explores many of the most basic or
common ways you may be asked to respond.
The section starts by defining more clearly just
what an instructor thinks is a "good" response
(with "good" being defined in many different
ways, according to the assignment, the
discipline, and the instructor). Though
the chapters all discuss how to respond
specifically to a reading, most of them also are
talking about responses of varying kinds to
situations or events, as well.
There are some
tricks and secrets to reading and observing well in college.
These are discussed, including how to read large
amounts of assigned materials efficiently.
For a discussion of accurate observation, see
The final five chapters discuss five very
different types of responses to readings.
"Summary," "Analysis," and "Disagreement" are by
far the most common. However, the final
two--"Evaluation" and "Critical Review"--not
only help you develop your college-level
judgment but also prepare you for writing you
may need to perform in your upper-division
courses in college or in courses in graduate
If you find yourself
needing to respond to literary works, there is
an entirely separate section on that type of
writing. See "Section H.
about College Reading
This is a simple, interesting story about my growth
as a reader in college. The first time I became really, really excited about college reading and writing
was in my fourth semester of college.
I was taking "Humanities III" from
Mr. Golding at Shimer College. The course was primarily about world literature,
also studied aesthetics--philosophy of literature and art--and wrote several major
papers. You may remember by brief discussion in the "How I Started"
chapter of the previous section of Mr. Golding's class.
At first, in this world lit class, Mr. Golding seemed very strict and formal, calling each
of us "Mr. Jewell," "Miss Reuben," etc. He started each week
by lecturing. At first I thought his lectures, like most other
instructors', would be filled with information that, however important to his
discipline, would be boring. However, he managed three surprises.
First, he unfolded the confusing passages and the deeper meanings of each novel
so that we found ourselves in an amazing world of concepts and effects.
Second, he watched our faces as he spoke, and whenever more than one or two of
us seemed not to understand him, he would stop and explain in clearer
language. Third, not only was he, himself, really enthusiastic about the
literature we all were reading, but he also conveyed that enthusiasm to the rest
of us. The combined effect of these three qualities of his presentation
made the class a fascinating experience.
In the latter part of each week, he would engage us in discussion. At
first I was afraid to contribute, for I had other instructors who took
"discussion" to mean an opportunity to argue with students himself or,
at the least, to scoff at their ideas. However, Mr. Golding gave us his
utmost respect. When he opened the floor to discussion, he would ask some
questions, and then he would lean back against his front table and
coordinate. He would encourage opposing views, always greet each idea, no
matter how silly or off base, with aplomb, and only intercede to help clarify
our comments to each other or to keep us talking respectfully to each
other. I learned quite a bit through the discussions, one of the few times
in my first four semesters of college that this was so.
The real excitement for me was in discovering myself as a good academic
writer. I had had few classes before that in which I had to write, and in
the ones where I had, I always felt I was trying to learn how to write in a
secret code that the instructor would not reveal, and that I had to be careful
not to use my own beliefs. Mr. Golding encouraged us, instead, to develop
our own interpretations of our literature. We did, in each paper, have to
apply a reading from philosophy to one of the books for that period of
time. However, we were free to apply it in any way we wanted, just as long
as we could support what we were saying well with quotations from both the
philosophy and the literature. I received a "B" on my first
paper and then three "A's."
A cynic might argue that I just happened to finally find the kind of instructor
and the kind of course material that best suited me, and that might be
true. I do, in fact, tend to enjoy world literature more than American
literature, and I so much enjoyed the philosophy part of Mr. Golding's course
that I moved on to a philosophy major.
Even so, there were two or three aspects of Mr. Golding's teaching--and my
learning style--that joined. First, I learned to mark up my textbooks--my
literature books--more than ever in his class. I would write comments in
the page margins as I read, more comments as we talked about the book in class,
and even more comments during a second reading of the parts of the book I would
use to write a paper. By the end, some pages of my books were so dense
with notes that I had to continue writing them on one or more of the following
Second, Mr. Golding was the first college instructor to ever describe how to
write a paper. I have to admit that I was the person in the class who
asked him most of the questions about how to develop our papers. However,
once asked, he gave us quite a bit of useful information. Other
instructors avoided answering such questions and expected us to have already
learned it somehow--to have magically absorbed it from the air or from the great
masters we were reading. Mr. Golding, however, described to us briefly but
clearly exactly what he wanted in both structure and method--a clear, specific,
interesting thesis; several main supporting reasons; a good number of
quotations; and good explanations and transitions. In those days (long
before most colleges had separate composition courses), the relatively brief
time he spent on writing instruction was a blessing.
In addition, he truly did let us develop our own ideas in our papers. If
we adequately supported these ideas with plenty of quotations that logically
worked, he would grade us well, even if he didn't necessarily believe what we
were saying himself. He was more interested in seeing us actually practice
analyzing our literature and arguing about it using a theory. His interest
in helping us develop as thinkers and writers showed, finally, in his comments
on our papers. They did not agree or disagree with our ideas and beliefs,
but rather only with how well or poorly we constructed our argument and our
paper. His interest was to help us write better papers next time.
Are you reading this because you must write about readings? Instructors
have a wide variety of styles in teaching writing about readings. Perhaps
two of the most important tools you can learn from the chapters in this section
are how to use critical reading methods, and how to ask the right questions of
your own instructor about exactly what kind of paper he or she wants. The
key to the first is to mark up the pages of your readings--a lot. And the
key to the second is, simply, to speak up and ask.
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