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English 270

Syllabus Supplement

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1. The Goals of this Course: Active Reading

2. The Goals of this Course: Language Study

3. Self-Reflective Learning, or, Metacognition




The primary goal of this class is to make you a better and more active analyst of this course’s texts through the close study of authorial styles. To accomplish that goal we will center our work on learning the moves by which critical readers analyze such texts in the first place.  I will offer you a method for active analytic reading, and I will require you to use it.  Even though our focus will be the structure and meaning of sentences (paragraphs, really, since we will be working with a more traditonal concept of what a "sentence" is), I will still expect you to think for yourself, even if that leads to some novel responses from time to time.  You will need to be willing to take chances in making stylistic judgments, even to be dead wrong.  You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs, and you are unlikely to become a proficient reader of sentences without abusing them on occasion.  It truly won’t bother me—it should similarly not bother you.  You will very likely feel confused at first, but by the end of the quarter most of you truly will feel a sense of control over the enterprise.


If the primary goal of this class is to make you an active stylistic analyst of sentences, the generic name for the method we will use is “close reading.”  In one form or another it underlies virtually all literary conversation; indeed, it is so common that we don’t always notice we’re doing it.   The sentences read in English classes nowadays vary immensely, from Shakespeare to Alice Walker, from plays and poems to advertisements and football games.  Yet in every case the process of analysis proceeds in much the same way: 

1. We first notice particular features of the language with which the text is written,

2. We then explore each of those features to see what possibilities for the understanding of style they offer, and finally

3. We go on to sift and evaluate those possibilities with respect to each other in order to provide a general interpretative explanation for why those features are as they are. 

Success here will thus not simply be the ability to recapitulate what you have learned in class about the way sentences work, nor will it even be the ability to reproduce what we as a class have worked out about any one stylistic example.  Rather, success will depend on your ability to explain the stylistics of sentences for yourself in ways we will have modeled for you in class. 

For the moment I’ll stress that while there are in this class no single “right” analyses for any of the many sentences we'll look at here, there are nevertheless ways of reading and writing through which skilled readers can produce better and worse understandings of how a given piece of prose or poetry works.


A second goal of this course is to introduce you to the most extraordinary thing we human beings do: speak. Indeed, this fact of human behavior is so central to our lives that we tend to take it for granted. We speak our words so much, so easily, and so automatically that we hardly ever even think about what we are doing when we do it.

But even if we are not thinking much about what we do when we speak English, in fact we are doing a lot. We look for words to fit our thoughts, and we judge them for how well they fit the context in which we use them. We put the sounds of the words we select together in carefully articulated ways, and we slot the resulting words into different structures, each of which creates different meanings even when we are using the very same words. And we do all these things at speed, not even noticing our actions.

How do we do it? How can all the tweaks, moans and pops that human beings so easily cast out into the air cause others to laugh or grow angry or reach out to take a hand?

It is actually all pretty amazing, and it sets us the problem: how can we capture even the basic facts of this extraordinarily ability to communicate?

All of which means: this class will introduce you to a range of language issues, like why grammar is your friend (and not boring at all). But most important, you will learn something about yourself—about the ways language can control you much more than you control it, and especially about how knowing more about that control can give you at least some of the power you will need to have in order to fight back.


As explained above, the primary aim of this course is to supply you with ways to become better readers and writers of your own and of others' sentences.  But in the course of pursuing that goal I will also be asking you to think about what you are doing as learners in this class.  For I believe that students learn more, and learn more deeply, as they develop self-awareness of the ways they learn.  Though we don’t usually  think about it in these terms, learning is itself a highly complex and difficult matter, and involves much more than simply absorbing new material.  Thus, for example, most of us find ourselves at times resisting learning at least as much as we embrace it. 

That notion may at first seem counter-intuitive, but it actually makes a lot of sense.  As learners we are always making judgments (both conscious and unconscious) about what we are asked to learn, weighing the new schemes to which we are being introduced against the schemes we already know.  Sometimes those judgments are straightforward.  Professor X tells you one thing, and Professor Y another—you choose to believe Professor X because she is expert in the field in a way that Professor Y is not.  

But the judgments learners make are often much less obvious.  Professor X suggests you write a paper in one way, but what do you do if you’ve tried that way before and it didn’t work?  Do you really embrace it now?  Or do you finesse the matter, seeming to embrace it for the moment (one needs to please one’s professors, after all), learning provisionally, one might say, but resisting any real change in your paper writing habits? 

That said, decisions to resist learning are by no means always wrong, even if students and professors alike are not always very careful about making them.  This class will thus foreground some of these learning issues with the goal of making your learning more effective than it might otherwise be, and I’ll be asking you at different points in the quarter to reflect on how your learning in the class is or isn’t working for you. 

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