English: Disciplinary Aspirations

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In general, English courses and assignments have certain ambitions for students, ambitions about the types of skills students will develop and the types of ideas they will learn in the classroom—and apply beyond it. This resource will discuss some of the goals of English courses and what they hope to teach students.

Cultivating a Strong Academic Skillset (Applicable Across Disciplines)

English classes strive to teach students important academic skills that can be applied across all disciplines. Introductory English courses focus on questions of language (the medium used at least part of the time by all disciplines, including the sciences); they teach students how to close read a text, quote and paraphrase academic sources, summarize readings, judge arguments, identify rhetoric, use evidence to support claims, and more. Upper year English courses encourage students to ask inventive and unusual questions, engage with diverse theories, and draw connections within and across texts. These skills not only assist students with their English assignments, but will also help them with assignments in any discipline.

Promoting Critical Thinking

English courses also aspire to help students improve their critical thinking. A strong critical thinker is someone capable of analyzing information (both its content and sources) and evaluating evidence in order to determine whether the ideas presented are convincing. Ideally, English courses help students become more discerning individuals, which is a skill that is broadly transferrable. For example, students will be able to form a critical response to a superficially appealing policy by thinking through its possibly detrimental effects, or analyze a speaker’s rhetoric to expose his/her tactics (e.g. emotional manipulation).

Fostering Creativity and Intellectual Curiosity

Any student who has experienced the difficulty of sitting and writing an assignment just to meet the word count knows that without passion or curiosity writing papers can be daunting. English courses, especially upper year courses, often encourage students to “be creative;” that is, they challenge students to think of an insightful and unexpected question, argument, or connection (while still fulfilling the assignment requirements). Even standard first year assignments (e.g. the rhetorical analysis) can be quite interesting if one thinks about questions such as: How can I say something interesting? How can I pose questions that are different from others? How can I add “a spark” to my work? A significant part of writing English papers is following your intellectual curiosity—you never know where might a particular assignment might lead you.

Doing Work in the “Real World”

Students who come to English from a Science background might think that English is strange. After all, many science courses focus on performing experiments, and the assignments are about reporting on these experiments and discussing them. Conversely, in English literature courses it might seem like students are asked to reflect on things that are “not real;” that is, they are instructed to read and write about fictional characters from imagined places invented by the author. However, to think this way about English courses is to miss one of the key purposes of the discipline: to do some work in the “real world.”

English classes explore the use of language, allowing students to reflect on the medium through which most communication occurs (across their courses, as well as beyond the university). This focused engagement with language helps students develop their vocabularies and express their ideas more articulately. It can also be applied to most of life’s endeavours, whether they are personal, professional, or academic. Moreover, English courses encourage students think differently about the world around them. Perhaps a literary text includes a commentary on a particular social injustice, and reflecting on this interpretation helps to expose an analogous injustice happening right now. English assignments can lead students to perceive that which was previously unnoticed, and to ask be[er and more meaningful questions.

*This handout was created by the CAC, not the ENGL department; if in doubt, follow your professor’s instructions rather than this handout.*