Affirming Students’ Intellect

“Many of our foreign professors don’t respect our ability to think or have fresh ideas. ‘They’re just Chinese. It’s good enough that they are learning to speak and write in English,’ they seem to think about us. Return to the United States this very minute if you offer no more challenge than that.”

That stern counsel came to me from an alumnus of Chinese University of Hong Kong when I told him that I was teaching there. He received high marks at CUHK and then matriculated for the M.A. program at Rutgers.

Almost every day in graduate school my professors asked, ‘What do you think about this?’; ‘Was the author correct when she said…?’; ‘What is your favorite book on the topic of…?’
“I was terrified when a professor called on me. I did well at CUHK because I memorized everything, and almost never did anyone call on me in class. I suppressed my feelings and any ideas of my own that might distract me from what I needed to know for exams and final essays.
“Don’t you dare let any of your students be as unprepared as I was to use my mind and articulate my thoughts effectively.”

For three years, I directed the writing program at CUHK, with four brilliant recent graduates of Yale. Here’s a brief description of our sophomore course.

Second Year: Writing About Literature

We will analyze the structures of the standard literary genres and define the ways that individual writers work within or transgress genre boundaries:

  • fiction, including novels, novellas, short stories, et al.
  • nonfiction, including essays, biographies, literary criticism, linguistic analysis, et al.
  • drama
  • poetry, including the lyric, the ballad, the sonnet, the epic, the narrative, et al.

We will get a basic understanding of the different rhetorical modes, including tragedy, comedy, satire, parody, et al. We will also look at various figures of speech, tropes, image patterns, etc.

Students will write many conventional kinds of “literary” and linguistic papers, including:

  • abstracts
  • precis
  • summaries
  • synopses
  • book reviews
  • drama reviews
  • character analyses
  • editorial responses to manuscripts
  • prospectuses
  • folk etymologies
  • elementary quantitative stylistic analyses
  • journals and other biographia literaria
  • prefaces
  • study guides
  • essay tests
  • annotations

Each semester the students will write at least one sustained paper to be read not only in this class but also in at least one other class. They must prepare a prospectus which pleases all assessors, however diverse they may be. Assessors will look at all of the formal qualities of the project, and they will evaluate strategies as intensely as they evaluate surface correctness.

We will constantly ‘try ‘ to define elusive boundaries:

  • between Literature and literature
  • between art and propaganda
  • between bias and objectivity
  • between reality and illusion
  • between spoken and written conventions
  • between golden prose and fool’s golden prose.

We will try to discover how writers establish their authority, and we will challenge all authority.

We will look at some works in their contexts; others we will study without reference to author or period or other matters of reputation, the better to judge the achievement for ourselves (cf. A. Richard’s Practical Criticism).

Sometimes we will prescribe styles or even points of view, such as:

  • Retell this plot irreverently.
  • Attack this point arrogantly.
  • Write a sociological analysis of the context that allows the poet to spend his time writing about violets while leaving his illegitimate daughter in France or driving his son to suicide in America.
  • Read this critic’s response to this poem and attack her subtly while seeming at first to concur.

These assignments are not intended to indoctrinate, but to help students develop a measure of artistic distance, the better to understand the integrity of their own point of view.

The course description beginning “Second Year….” appeared in Progressive Composition Newsletter 13:405 (1987). Louie Clay was then Louie Crew, Director of the Writing Program in the English Department of Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is now Professor Emeritus at Rutgers University.