undergraduate section

ENGCMP 0440 Critical Writing

“Good critical writing is measured by the perception and evaluation of the subject; bad critical writing by the necessity of maintaining the professional standing of the critic.”
– Raymond Chandler

Course Description

This course is designed to help students improve as critical writers by becoming more observant and discriminating evaluators of how they and others use language to interpret, judge, and ultimately shape the worlds in which they live. Students will be first asked to reflect on the behavior of critics they have encountered in an effort to define what they believe good critics do. They will then be asked to test their definitions through close attention to various writing samples, including material they select as well as pieces chosen by the instructor. In keeping with the belief that critical reflection and dialogue enable both individuals and groups to improve, the course is discussion-based, and class members' progress as writers will be its steady concern. This section is best suited for students familiar with basics of grammar and composition, interested in composing more responsible and effective written opinions, and motivated to participate in conversation about reading and writing critically.

This course satisfies the Writing-intensive requirement.

Sample Student Projects

  • For one of two extended papers, students explore facets of race and racism in our culture. Some past topics include a junior computer science student who explored the ways in racism existed in his hometown, a senior writing student who examined the disparate ways the death of Michael Brown was covered by Fox News and MSNBC, and a sophomore unpacked how the myth of post-racial America is playing out on the sidelines of the NFL.
  • Topics of the other extended paper have ranged from a first-year student’s critique of the perceived feminist-masculine dichotomy that drew on research and her own experience after her mother died to a junior psychology student’s analysis of the representation of women in Wes Anderson’s films and to a sophomore’s examination of our obsession with historical villains.
  • Blog posts provide lighter moments with such past titles as “Against Breakfast,” “Against Tomatoes,” or “Against Dating Apps,” as well as more serious critiques of music, books, and film alongside letters to significant people modeled after James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates and other commentary modeled after Roxanne Gay and David Foster Wallace.

Recent Course Faculty

Stephanie Kane-Mainier: “This course will ask students to think about the role and value of critical writing by reading a variety of cultural and social criticism, practicing the art of criticism, and by keeping in mind a foundational question: ‘What is the function of criticism at the present time?’ The twenty-first century, with its explosion in the means of disseminating writing, has seen more and more people paying attention to and writing their own criticism than ever before. With the advent of blogs, online magazines, and social media, one hardly need turn to an academic journal or the latest scholarly tome to find powerful critical writing. Participation in the conversation shaping our world is no longer the exclusive domain of journalists and scholars; critical writing has become simply a necessary skill for negotiating the present.”

Audra Spicer

Recent Student Testimonials

“I liked how we read critical writing pieces and assessed the qualities of them. We were able to develop our own individual ideas of what critical writing is effective, and how different styles can be more or less appropriate, depending on the subject. I also like that we discussed really interesting topics with our assigned readings—this helped keep me engaged and see how critical writing is relevant today.”

“The material is very engaging and exciting. It provokes considerable thought and challenged me to look closely at things I otherwise would not have thought about.”

“I liked that it made me a better writer and helped with understanding difficult topics such as race in America that not every teacher would be willing to address.”