I. Argumentative Writing
Social Utopias was a course that challenged me as a writer. High school did not fully prepare me for the argumentative writing I did in this course. But I am confident that the response papers and essays assigned in this course helped improve the overall quality of my writing. My improvement was a result of not only practice, but also taking the time to better understand the process, mechanics, and style of quality writing.
I used to believe that argumentative writing needed to sound complex and embellished. The feedback on some of my initial writing in the course signaled otherwise (See RP1&2). Still, I refused to believe my writing style needed refining. Similarly, the argument templates offered in Writing Workshop 1: The Argument did not strike me as useful. I expressed my opinion that day, and remember being encouraged to try using the templates on my next piece of writing (In-class September 17, 2015). Given that the next writing assignment, Essay 1, was worth 15% of our final grade, I resolved to change my writing style.
Essay 1 taught me the importance of clarity. Although creative thinking is one of my strengths, I have always struggled to present my thoughts with clarity. The feedback I received from Yasmine (the course’s Writing Fellow) reflected this idea, too: she suggested that I try and eliminate the passive voice from my writing, because she struggled to follow the focus of my argument at times. I ultimately learned that clarity is an essential component of one’ argument, regardless of how creative one’s ideas are. Professor Watts corroborated this idea when we met about the graded final version: the wording of my argument lacked clarity to the extent which Professor Watts was unable to understand parts of my essay (Office Meeting, October 9, 2015). Going forward, I invested significantly more time on the presentation of my ideas and the greater clarity of my writing. I found it troubling at first that I was saying more with less words. But the feedback and performance that I began receiving signaled to me that it was working (RP6&7). As the class progressed, I began to carefully analyze how author’s presented their arguments. Rousseau’s diction was incredibly clear to me. Actually, I thought his style of writing was so effective in making an argument that I tried mimicking it in some of my informal writing. In addition to the Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality Among Men, Bradshaw’s diction in the journal article we read was another work that I sought to incorporate in my writing. This emphasis on diction had a large impact on Essay 2. I invested a hefty amount of time in outlining the essay and even more time writing it. When I met with Yasmine about my first draft, however, it was a big success. She had very little to critique about the essay besides a few minor revisions that I later made. All of the time and effort seemed to pay off, because the final draft was well-received, too. In effect, I think Essay 2 is a testament to the profound development of my argumentative writing this past semester.
II. Critical Reading and Thinking
At the beginning of the semester, I was frankly scared about the course’s textbooks. I never leave a page unturned, so I knew it would be a lot of work for me. Additionally, I learned early on in high school to actively read (e.g. highlighting key phrases or passages and using post-it notes). But looking back, I now understand that actively reading does not predict critical reading or even critical thinking about the text.
The first book we read in the course was Plato’s Republic. I remember spending a lot of time highlighting important phrases and bookmarking important pages. Unfortunately, when asked to recall key parts of the text, I was all too often lost for words. In short, my active reading was not translating into critical reading or thinking. The question to RP2 forced me to search for evidence that I ultimately did not consider. In short, I failed to think about the intent of a passage. The importance of this idea was summed up in the Writing Workshop we did later in the course about topic sentences in relation to our overall writing. But at the time, I realized the importance of using a question to guide your exploration for evidence. Essay 1 is an example where I truly internalized the importance of using evidence to interpret one’s argument in order take your own argument further. I remember compiling not only evidence in Plato’s Republic that I had initially found relevant, but also curating pieces of evidence as indicated by the index. I spent approximately four hours just compiling evidence! But I found that having all of the evidence in one place allowed me to better understand it in relation to the essay question being posed. Moreover, this explicit process of gathering evidence deepened my understanding of the greater concept at hand – namely, social utopias.
At the end of the semester, we were challenged to research more about a intentional community of our choice. I chose New Odessa and jumped into the research process with enthusiasm. The first webpage I came across contained an exhibit source that included a questionnaire. I remember holding back on reading the actual response in order to think about what effect this would have on the author’s point of view. Doing so allowed me to better understand the author’s point of view. Furthermore, this act of critical thinking literally guided my critical reading. Posing a question to myself before reading ultimately influenced my critical reading and thinking the most, not simple active reading. And perhaps that was the importance of the four individual “Getting ready to talk about Plato/More/Rousseau/Tristan” handouts. They guided my reading in ways that I did not realize at the time. On the other hand, sometimes our critical reading and thinking processes are guided by other factors. For example, when I came across a scholarly argument concerning New Odessa, I was more focused on the evidence it incorporated than the argument it presented itself. That in itself I think is a crucial aspect of critical reading and thinking: in concrete, not getting so carried away by the writer’s argument that you forget to evaluate their evidence.
III. Oral Communication
Our course web page has an entire page dedicated to expectations regarding reading, writing, and oral communication. According to the course site, oral communication was evaluated across four distinct categories: (1) Oral reports by study groups and responses to discussion questions, (2) Reading aloud of our class reading and sharing informal writing with the class, (3) Short (4-8 min) oral presentations of research, and (4) Regular contributions to the seminar discussion, both in and outside of class.
I am confident that my study group helped me think aloud. When we met to present on Vespucci’s exhibit source and its relation to More’s Utopia, I was surprised by how much of the reading I had overtly misinterpreted. Thus, much of our informal oral communication was dedicated to clarifying ideas for the benefit of the group. Ultimately, I learned that I needed to keep it short and simple. I think our second group presentation went well, in part because we spent time outlining evidence and discussing what we wanted class discussion to look like. But I made a mistake in class that day. After thinking about an interesting concept of revolution versus evolution in regards to Flora Tristan’s argument, I introduced it to the class. When asked to comment, however, I abandoned the evidence and made an incorrect assertion. A key takeaway for me was sticking to what you know and not making assertions based off of presumptions. I took this idea into account when designing my presentation for New Odessa. While I have never had trouble standing in front of a crowd (due to my leadership in high school and involvement in speech and debate), I have always had trouble running amuck by going off topic. My PowerPoint therefore consisted of brief, clear points that would not require explanation. I think this ultimately helped me get my ideas across. I learned that with oral communication you must stay on topic and point to the evidence, otherwise your audience might not get the message, or, worse, you might make an incorrect assertion.
I learned a lot in my first semester at the University of Richmond. All of my courses challenged me to tackle new ideas at a rapid pace. As I reviewed for many of my final exams, I realized how much I remember but failed to fully understand because the course advanced so fast. On a similar note, Social Utopias was a course that always had multiple assignments and readings each week. As I prepared my reflection and wrote it, I came to understand the meaning behind a lot of the assignments I was asked to complete. Overall, I am confident that I am a better student today because of the work I completed in this course. I can also admit that this course has changed the way I approach concepts and arguments outside of the classroom.