Culture & Criticism Since 2003
Sadly, the American educational system is failing itself on one very important front, allowing students to graduate high school and move to the college curriculum bereft of basic writing skills. There are a multitude of reasons for this, with the dependency on technology the most likely root cause. Obviously, the system as a whole needs to do a better job of teaching students to write more effectively. To this end, the following titles from Cengage serve as some of the best undergraduate composition textbooks currently available to instructors:
Robert Yagelski is an outstanding writer whose talent allows him to communicate for the classroom in a way in which students can readily absorb. Here, he offers a primer on the core concepts of composition, outlining how to write in a purposeful and effective manner. To do this, Yagelski first tells students why we write before carefully delineating what’s expected of the college writer. In sum, Writing sets out to connect students with the underlying reason behind the action of putting pen to paper – the idea is to promote an understanding of the practice in order to make students more personally invested in what they are putting down on the page. Basically, Yagelski is trying to show his readers that what they are doing is important and not just a class exercise done for a grade. And if they truly come to believe that writing is important, the thought is that they will make a more conscious effort to do it better. Topics of coverage include the core concepts of writing; applying the core concepts to the college experience; analytical writing; persuasive writing; how to write to narrate and inform; sources and attribution; how to research your subject matter; and the art of working with information and then reporting on what’s been learned. As noted, Writing works as a course text because it presents all the material the young writer needs to confront in a way that is readily accessible. Informative without ever being intimidating, it conveys one of the most important lessons each of us must learn: In life, we will be judged in one of two ways – by the way we write, or by the way we speak and present ourselves. And the time to learn to do it properly is in years one and two of college.
Jean Wyrick’s Steps To Writing Well continues to hammer the preceding point home by exploring in detail how to write a college essay. Instructors in college composition labs spend countless hours explaining and then re-explaining the components of an essay. However, none are likely able to dissect the topic with Wyrick’s depth and expertise. Topics of coverage in Steps To Writing Well include the skeleton of the essay (thesis statement; body paragraphs; conclusion); drafts and revisions; logic; how to formulate an argument; how to analyze data; and how to craft an effective sentence. One of the best aspects of this text is the way Wyrick shows that good writers are good readers who are able to comprehend and analyze what they read as they intimately connect with the mission of the author. In addition, Wyrick has included a chapter on writing for work, with careful analysis on how to write a business letter. The purpose behind this chapter is to demonstrate to the student that the practice of writing a college essay has a practical end; that being, to help them communicate in the professional world on which they are about to embark.
The Mauk-Metz treatise is a continuation of the theme that is addressed in the two preceding selections – that writing is not an activity relegated to the classroom, but instead, is connected to every aspect of daily life. However, rather than just lecture over the point, Mauk and Metz bring the concept to life by providing reading selections from both professional and student writers. Mauk and Metz have come up with a truly original way to teach writing here, as they set out to show the student that the first thing any writer must do is invent his idea as he simultaneously invents his voice. By using reading selections, the authors are able to create a ‘movie’ of sorts that prompts the student to experience the craft of writing through the work of another writer. Like in most every other discipline, it’s easier to learn by seeing, and these reading selections are the perfect vehicle for the exercise. One of the best parts of The Composition Of Everyday Life is found in the “point of contact” passage that heads each chapter – outlining the first step the writer should take in developing each particular type of idea. Rich and vital, relevant and timely, The Composition Of Everyday Life is a textbook written for the modern world that addresses how the 21st century student best learns. Accordingly, it should be considered as a front-line teaching text for any first-year composition class.
Among the new breed of college student, the two skills most lacking are 1) the ability to write a basic essay; and 2) the ability to effectively comprehend what has just been read. Arguably, these are two of life’s most important intellectual functions, processes which most of us repeat on an hourly basis. In this text, Spears expertly teaches students how to read and interpret information, beginning her treatise from a foundational stand-point, carefully leading the student through common trouble areas. After defining the reading process and its requirements, the author moves into an in depth discussion of vocabulary, stressing the fact that no one can read or write effectively unless they first hone their vocabulary (examining the way that words are used in different contexts). From here, Spears delves into related topics, including: how to make accurate inferences from the information being presented by a writer; how to determine tone and point of view in any piece of writing; and how to develop critical/analytical reading skills in order to effectively counter a given position. In addition to the core topics Spears presents, this text stands out because of its organization, with the author smartly adding exercises at the end of each chapter as a means to immediately test the student’s comprehension of material. In the end, the act of reading should not be drudgery for students, but instead, should excite and enliven their minds and promote intellectual discovery. The catch is that no one can reach this point unless they first learn how to approach the exercise. To this end, Deanne Spears’ Developing Critical Reading Skills marks one of the best texts of its kind currently available.
Recommended to instructors of reading courses (beginning at the intermediate level). Noted for its clear perspective and for the way it involves the student in every step of the presentation.
This text/reader is vital to teaching the elements of argument. Among entry-level English composition courses, most students struggle mightily with any assignment that requires an argumentative essay. Simply, an astounding number of undergraduate students are unable to fashion an argument on paper that sways the audience to their side of the ball. Here, Crusius and Channell stress the “rhetorical context,” teaching students to approach the medium by first learning to read and analyze data before formulating a strategy to alter the course of their reader’s perspective. I think what sets The Aims of Argument apart from other books in this subject area is the way that it touches upon “mature reasoning” as the cornerstone to effective argument. Bluntly, too many students are influenced by the talk-show circuit, where specious arguments rule the stage. However, these authors are smart to talk about reasonable argument in the first pages of their manual, in effect creating the idea that any relevant argument is premised on a thorough understanding of the facts: The mission is to acknowledge the opposing point-of-view and then strip it away, point-by-point. This edition is also important for the incisive casebook it features – “After 9/11: Understanding Terrorism.” By including this material, the authors take a monumental event still bloody with emotion and use it as a tool to teach original tactics of argument the student-thinker can employ both inside and outside of the classroom for years to come.
Recommended as a primary teaching text in all Rhetoric courses that stressthe elements of argument. Further recommended in Logic or Philosophy courses as a supporting class text, recognized for its ability to effectively dissect language and weaken opposing perspective.
This four-part handbook takes an interesting approach in that it features four elements of the writing process together in one handy volume. Reasoning and Writing presents as a reader; a guide on rhetoric; a research manual; and a handbook on the writing process itself – this centralized resource offering students one book that is meant to be used beyond these confines of the classroom. In addition to the chapters on argument and the fine-points of critical thinking (which form the real meat of this volume), the material Dietsch has included on the basics of writing (organization, sentence structure, drafts and revision) are critical to the development of the undergraduate writer, for these are the skills that allow for success at the college level. These days, too many students are winding their ways through school without being able to address complex assignments where a theory must be analyzed and the critical eye applied. Simply, one cannot write an effective argument without first being able to construct a logical sentence whereby each verb is presented in its proper tense. It’s easy to say, but not so easy to accomplish. Here, teaching through example, Dietsch writes with both sharpness and clarity, deftly using graphics to set off important details which need to be cemented in the mind of the reader. In the end, Dietsch’s style shows the student-writer just where mastery in the field can lead.
Recommended as a primary class text in all college-level English-1A or 1B courses, a book spotlighted for its lucidity of detail and for the positive energy it builds in the eye of its reader.
A polar opposite to the Dietch text, the sixth edition of John Langan’s English Skills with Readings is singular in scope, seeking to create a manual that provides insight into those basic areas students must focus on in order to become competent writers. Accordingly, Langan’s text is best suited to students struggling to find their way through the requirements of college-level writing classes. In English Skills with Readings, Langan provides a comprehensive summary of the writing process, including analysis of sentence structure; the nuances of the thesis point; paragraph structure; how to support a thesis point with evidence/detail; and the importance of revisions/drafts (in addition to reviewing the fundamentals of grammar, punctuation and proper word usage). Langan augments this exhaustive exploration into the mechanics of writing by including seventeen readings (by Andy Rooney, Paul Logan, Amy Tan, Bill Wine and others), showcasing pieces which evince the subject matter of the text and show the student-writer just what an effective essay looks like.
Recommended as a primary course text for classes which review the basic tenants of composition as a stepping-stone to English 1A. Notable for the author’s ability to strip information to its core principles, in turn creating a guidebook that invites rather than intimidates.
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This manual delves into speech-language pathology from the clinical perspective. Multidimensional in its approach, Treatment Resource Manual For Speech-Language Pathology addresses basic therapy and information reporting techniques in addition to intervention/treatment strategies for both the child and adult patient. Topics of coverage include preparing for effective intervention; reporting systems and techniques; intervention for articulation and phonology in children; intervention for fluency (including a section on stuttering behaviors); and multicultural issues in intervention. Well-designed and thorough, this text is noted for its deft ability to blend the philosophical with the practical. The message to students: Competency in this field is achieved via the healthcare provider’s ability to understand that speech-language pathology is to be based on the individual and not on some neat scientific formula.
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Language, as the author points out, is capable of both transmitting unlimited kinds of information and also evoking and an unlimited range of responses. Thus, Ottenheimer’s text comes to examine how language evolves across the culture, in turn creating a true record of its uses and misuses.
One of the most poignant examples of such misuse is provided in the Ebonics controversy which erupted after an Oakland, California School District attempted to recognize Ebonics as the primary language of the District’s urban Afro-American students (and historically different from English).
As Ottenheimer points out, depending on one’s social perspective and or personal prejudices, Ebonics can be viewed in many different ways: as a particular patois of African -American English adopted by poorly educated inner city toughs, as a distinct “Creole” vernacular which evolved from African grammatical structures common to the Niger-Congo family of languages, or as just “bad English.”
Languages and language varieties, asserts the author, get their reputation as “good”, “bad” “standard” or “slangy” through the social status of the speaker (“If the speaker of the language is looked down on in some way, then the variety of language that the person speaks will also be looked down upon“).
In retrospect, Ottenheimer’s conclusions would not have come as a surprise to my Italian grandmother and generations of other immigrants who struggled not only with a foreign tongue in a strange country, but the tacit disapproval of their neighbors fortunate enough to have been taught “good” English.
Highly recommended as a class text for instructors who teach anthropology or sociology courses which examine the linguistics of the culture.
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Frank Aiello is an attorney who has practiced law in California since the 1970s, including criminal defense, civil and probate work. He holds a History degree from the University of California at Berkeley, and a Law degree from Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco; he has also studied Anthropology, Sociology and Political Science extensively. Reach him via The Electric Review.