Final Portfolio Reflection
Having concluded the final semester, I can now reflect back and evaluate my strengths and weaknesses in the different categories of learning of my FYS: Social Utopias class. The course stressed individual critical thinking through the writing of analytical papers and challenging reading assignments. At the same time, the class focused on communication skills, as it opened the opportunity for students to work collaboratively in small research groups, to engage in eclectic class-discussions, and to present findings of research through individual oral presentations. These three different categories, argumentative writing, critical reading, and oral communication thus constitute the major pillars of the course; my learning in each can now be assessed.
Focusing on the critical reading section, the FYS class has made me accustom to engage with difficult, college-level texts. The class has not only allowed me to have the opportunity to read the works of iconic philosophers, but improve my critical thinking skills, as I have enhanced my ability to grasp the major essence of the texts. While reflecting on the process I underwent to fully understand the works of Plato, More, Bradshaw, Rousseau, or Tristan, I discern how much I improved in identifying the authors’ most important claims. Early in the semester, when reading Brendan Bradshaw’s article criticizing J.H. Hexter’s “More in Utopia”, I highlighted more than enough points that I considered necessary to point out, instead of only focusing on few, strong ones that I could go deeper with (in thinking critically about them). Hence, at the time when I had to write my commentary on the article, I had a difficult time selecting which pieces of evidence to incorporate, which was a sign that my critical reading skills were not at their best. I grappled not only with the process of selecting the right evidence to support my main argument, but with the process of deciding what I wanted the main point of my argument to be, as I had not even fully understood what Bradshaw’s main point of his argument was. I had highlighted an excessive amount of instances where Bradshaw directly criticized Hexter’s analysis on More, and thus thought that his main purpose was to discredit Hexter and devaluate his claims. However, after a considerable amount of time that I spent re-reading my notes and the article itself, I unraveled how while Bradshaw did criticize Hexter, his main purpose was, as I mention in my Response Paper 4, “to set forth a more accurate representation of More’s work,” which is significantly different than just stating that he only attempted to dispute Hexter’s analysis. I then had to go over all of my notes to decide what evidence to incorporate, which was tedious. Hence, I realized how during my reading of the works, I needed to polish my skills in detecting fewer, yet always strong, instances where the authors’ central arguments were reflected, in order to both avoid having trouble deciding what evidence to utilize, and to clearly grasp what the authors’ main purposes are in their works.
By reflecting on the process I underwent to read Erasmus’ letter to his friend Guillamue Baudé however, which was the assignment right after Bradshaw’s article, I unravel my improvement. When reading the article, instead of highlighting every statement that I found intriguing, I limited myself to highlight only the instances where major statements were made. Then, when writing my commentary (RP 5), I easily set forth my thesis, and the evidence I incorporated in order to support it was easily found in my notes. By comparing how I could easily incorporate evidence in Response 5 to how long I took to do so in Response 4, I can discern a major improvement in outlining the major points during of the critical readings and in selecting the appropriate amount of evidence.
Moreover, I can reflect on how I improved my critical reading by focusing on my research on the Pachamama Community in Costa Rica. At first, as I explain on my “Final Research Project Written Report,” I was interested in researching about the community’s core-values, and how they made it become an example of a modern utopia. However, after a critical analysis of an exhibit source, a harsh critique on the community’s leader and how he does not live up to the value he is supposed to, I polished my research question. I wanted to focus on how the community was an example of how modern utopias gained followers, and how they lost them, which I was able to formulate after studying the source. However, I then continued to make even more research, and studied more sources of different natures (academic journals, more exhibit sources, and newspaper articles) on communities similar to Pachamama. By selecting the major points of these sources’ arguments, a skill I learned by reading the works of authors like Bradshaw and Erasmus, I was able to discern a trend between all of them: modern utopias are unable to detach from societal norms (such as dependence on money and laws); I thus ultimately refined my research question to be: “With reference to its core values and origins, how is the Pachamama Community in Costa Rica an example of how modern utopias are unable to detach from social norms?,” as evidenced on my Written Report. The Written Report and the research project become evidence then, of how this course enabled me to exploit my critical reading skills; they led me to conduct my own research. At the same time, I was able to achieve the goal of “developing fundamentals of information literacy,” by using the resources in the library, and developing my research skills.
As for “argumentative writing,” I also faced some challenges early in the semester. My weakness in selecting more than enough evidence during my reading transferred from the reading category to the writing category. When writing my Response Paper 2 for instance, I incorporated more evidence than analysis at times. In attempting to demonstrate how Plato taught the reader about “justice” through Socratic dialogue, I included different conversations between Socrates and three different characters. Because my response had to be only five hundred words long, and I included so much evidence, I hindered opportunities for in-depth analysis on the process through which Plato presented his ideas. For instance, in paragraph two, I included a conversation between Polymarchus and Socrates as evidence of how Plato taught his audience about “justice.” I then only “told,” rather than “showed,” the audience that the piece of dialogue served as an example of how Plato ties the reader into the text, and then makes him or her agree with the concluding statement: justice is not defined as “treating friend well and enemies badly.” However, I could polish this by writing my Revised Response Paper 2, where I closely analyzed how I, as the reader, was led through Socrates’ rhetorical questions to both get immersed in the text and to learn about justice, and thus refined my argumentative writing skills.
Moreover, by writing Essay I, I can further appreciate how I have learned a good mechanical technique for argumentative writing: presenting not only arguments, but also counterarguments to support my thesis statements. Essay I focused on Plato’s presentation of the
Guardians — the protectors of the city. Instead of just analyzing his own claims and analyzing how he makes the reader perceive the guardians as something positive, I used my own reasoning to challenge Plato’s. I pointed out evidence of how the guardians are ideal in society, by using Socrates’ allusion to a hound, who is both “strong” and “gentle,” an how Guardians resemble this. I explain how Plato thus uses a natural concept, an animal (the hound) to present the guardians as ideal. Soon after however, I myself pose the question: if Plato uses the concept of nature to establish his claims, then why does he deviate from it afterwards? I explain that hounds are naturally inclined to do a variety of tasks, and that it is thus natural to do so. Ironically, Plato says that the Guardians are confined to one same task for a lifetime, challenging the ‘natural’ behavior they had been presented to have. My own arguments then, through this mechanical process of presenting my reasoning, become well structured and significantly analytical, which makes them have more weight.
Hence, by reflecting on how I improved on both my reading and writing assignments, I can conclude that by now, I have “enhanced my ability to read and think critically,” which is one of the FYS’ major goals. I can also state that through the reading and writing categories, which are evidently connected, I have also “expanded my understanding of the world and myself.” By reading intellectuals’ works of what an ideal society would be like and critically thinking of how far it is from my reality, of their flaws, and of ways which I would challenge such visions, I have come to take hold of new perspectives in regards to how I think about a better world.
The FYS course has also made me improve on oral communication skills. As stated earlier in the semester, the class environment allowed me to express my opinions, and by listening to others,’ I contributed to collaboratively raise the level of academic discussion. For instance, when we were discussing Plato’s work, I noticed how I outlined a point I thought about during my reading, how another student built on it, and how another one challenged it. Coupled to that were the meetings with my group members, which gave me an opportunity to communicate my findings in the readings. Finally, the Formal Oral Presentation, which outlined the process of my research (as explained on the Final Research Written Report), allowed me to practice my presentation skills in front of the class, and enhance my ability to speak in public in my second-language (Spanish is my first language).
By reflecting on all three categories then, I can see how the goal of “enhancing my ability to communicate in speech, writing, and reading,” has improved. I have been able to engage in intense discussions, write critically about topics I did not fully understand at first, and read about philosophic themes that have challenged my mind.