BF299: Academic Literacy: Humanities
This is the course where you learn the skills you need to read better, think better, put together strong arguments, test those arguments (and other people’s) to see how well they stand up, and communicate those arguments in clear, direct, readable, academic writing that is organized in a way which allows other people to understand your ideas quickly and easily.
A lot of students go into this course thinking that they know all this stuff, but students who take this course seriously, even students who were already good writers and thinkers, come out much stronger thinkers, and much clearer writers. And that strength translates into an easier time and more success at university, and into being able to work better at any job that requires strong thinking and clear communication.
And that’s why this course, and the Foundations program in general, is part of the Laurier Brantford advantage!
About BF299: Academic Literacy: Humanities
You will learn the basic skills necessary to understand:
- How scholars in the humanities think about problems and approach a variety of cultural artifacts (e.g. works of film, literature, or visual popular culture);
- How they conduct research;
- How they analyze information; and
- How they communicate their ideas.
You will attend lectures as well as small-group classes that will use the course material in a series of task-defined units designed to refine the critical thinking, research, information literacy, and communication skills necessary to conducting effective inquiry in the humanities.
You will be introduced to:
The purpose and functions of humanities education
You will learn that:
- “Humanitas” was a form of classical education usually oriented toward the objective of cultivating better public speakers / public figures.
- Classical “humanitas” was also tied to ideals about cultivating “the whole person”: to this end, “these studies sustain youth and delight old age, enhance prosperity, and offer a refuge and solace in adversity; they also provide pleasure in domestic life without hindering us in the wider world…” (Cicero). Politically, “humanitas” education was animated by an ideal of cosmopolitanism (i.e. a truly cultivated person is a citizen [politas]of the world [cosmos] as much as being a member of the local community).
- Modern humanities education retains this focus on cultivating “the whole person,” through the meditation on ideas and cultural artifacts that have a capacity to delight, inform, inspire and provoke self-reflection.
- Modern humanities education also retains the objective of cultivating better citizens, though there is disagreement as to what makes a “good” citizen. Some conceptions of humanities education focus on trying to cultivate more a “civilized” personality by exposing people to ideas and artifacts that reveal “the truth” or “eternal human values”; conversely, rival conceptions of humanities education focus on the cultivation of citizens who are skeptical about the reliability of any such claims about truth or values.
- Modern humanities education also has the larger political function of trying to form a basis for cultivating an “empathetic imagination”; i.e. the ability – necessary in a democratic society – to imagine and understand others, especially perspectives that differ significantly from one’s own. Accordingly, humanities education involves the meditation on artifacts and texts from multiple perspectives, which inevitably helps reveal the distinctive capacities and limitations of one’s own perspective.
Ways in which contemporary humanities scholarship differs from social science scholarship
Social science scholarship exhibits the following characteristics:
- The social sciences describe and explain social phenomena using methodologically-governed forms of inquiry; its results can then be used to understand and predict social behavior and potentially ameliorate social problems.
- Evidence for descriptions and explanations in the social sciences typically takes the form of “data” – i.e. facts – about social behavior. “Data” are gathered through the application of “methods” and “instruments” to carefully delimited forms of social phenomena, in order to generate models of those social phenomena. To a significant extent, social sciences tend to be data-driven.
- Testing and refining the methods and instruments of social inquiry are ways of producing descriptions and explanations of human phenomena that are precise and accurate.
Humanities scholarship exhibits the following characteristics:
- Evidence in the humanities typically takes the form of “texts” and “cultural artifacts,” and sometimes ideas themselves. Humanities scholarship is less “data-driven” than the social sciences; the knowledge it generates is not predictive and so yields a different kind of “understanding.” It yields knowledge that can enable reflection on the broadest questions about the meaning and purpose of human existence.
- Reflection of this sort informs the methodological and theoretical dimensions of social sciences, but these concerns are bracketed in their application; humanities scholarship tends to foreground the interpretive, critical and reflective aspects of inquiry into human experience (usually as it is represented in texts and cultural artifacts), throughout its inquiry.
- Because the interpretive, critical, and reflective dimensions of human experience are foregrounded in this way, multiple perspectives are prominent in humanities scholarship.
The framing questions and characteristic problems and practices of scholarship in representative humanities disciplines
The framing questions are:
- What happened, and what are its implications for us? (foregrounded in history);
- What does it mean, how do we know, and with what terms do we specify the value of something? (foregrounded in philosophy, ethics); and
- How do the forms of representation affect our understanding of what happened, what it means, and what is its value? (foregrounded in criticism of literary and visual arts, and in some forms of cultural studies).
The characteristic problems and practices of the various disciplines will emerge in discussion with specialists in each discipline, so the particulars may vary from section to section of BF299.
The recognition that the meaning of a text is shaped to some extent by the rhetorical situation of that text
The “meaning” of a text is shaped to a certain extent by the way it draws on a particular background of cultural knowledge, is developed by someone with a certain reader or audience in mind in order to produce certain effects, and is mediated by particular institutions and technologies.
The "Rhetorical situation" is the circumstances in which a statement or claim is put forth, including its context (i.e. what conversation is it engaging, and at what point), the objectives of the speaker, and the nature of its audience.
The recognition that interpretation is similarly conditioned by the interpreter’s own cultural situation
You will be taught that your class and social background, gender, ethnicity or race, age, cultural tradition or personal proclivities all influence, to some extent, the way that you understand a cultural text and respond to social phenomena.
You will consider why it is impossible to strip away these situational conditions to arrive at a purely “objective” interpretive position. An informed response emerges from the effort to understand one’s own cultural situation, and it accommodates that situation as it affects one’s ability to evaluate cultural phenomena.
You will learn:
Critical Thinking Skills
You will learn to:
1) Identify the primary frameworks of communication that humanities scholarship engage (in particular, analysis, description, exposition, and argumentation, along with their definitions and some representative modes of thought/writing).
- Analysis: An account of a whole (e.g. an idea such as justice, an artifact such as De Vinci’s Mona Lisa, a text such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet) that (a) identifies all of the parts and (b) specifies how the parts relate to each other.
- Description: To describe something is to account for some or all of its manifest parts in relation to each other and to the whole.
- Exposition: To expose something is to account for some or all of its internal or functional parts in relation to each other and to the whole.
- Terms of description and exposition: The requisite terminology is drawn from an analysis identifying all the relevant parts of a whole and specifying their relations within a whole.
- Modes of description and exposition: The details of description or exposition must be organized. In this course we study seven helpful patterns or modes of thought / writing: narrative, definitional, taxonomical, analogical, general, abstract and causal accounts.
- Argumentation: An argument is a set of propositions (statements and claims) in which one of the propositions (i.e. the conclusion) is supported by the other(s) (i.e. the premise/s). An argument can be “probative”; i.e., the premise/s purport to prove that the conclusion is true. Or an argument can be “explanatory”; i.e., the premises purport to explain how or why things are as the conclusion specifies.
2) Formulate and assess descriptive/expository accounts using appropriate terms of analysis and a variety of modes of thought/writing (e.g. narrative, definitional, taxinomical, analogical, abstract, general, and causal accounts).
3) Decompose an argument, identify its parts and evaluate the viability of the relation between them (evidence, premises, conclusions).
- Evidence: That which serves to prove, disprove, or explain something. Evidence can take the form of data, physical materials, texts, artifacts, etc. In order for this great variety of evidence to be incorporated into an argument it must be formulated in language as a statement (i.e. a proposition that can be assessed in terms of truth or falsity) or claim (i.e. a wider category than “statement” which includes definitions and conceptual relations).
- Premise(s): Statements or claims that are put forth in support of a further claim (this further claim being the conclusion of the argument).
- Conclusion: The principal statement or claim that is being supported by the premise(s) of an argument. When arguing, this is the fundamental point we are trying to persuade others to accept.
- Inference: The structural, logical relationship between the premises and the conclusion of an argument that, if properly drawn, enables the premises to support the conclusion.
4) Be able to identify the criteria for a “good” or strong argument, and identify some of the most egregious forms of “bad” argumentation (fallacies).
Criteria of a Strong Argument
- The evidence provided in in each premises must be “acceptable.”
- Acceptable: A reasonable person would accept a particular premise if (a) it is true and accurate statement of fact, (b) it is a clear and precise definition of a term, or (c) it is a plausible interpretative claim about a text or artifact.
- The evidence in each premises must be “relevant” to the conclusion.
- Relevant: The evidence presented in the premise has some logical relationship or bearing on the truth of the argument’s conclusion.
- The evidence in the collected set of premises must be “adequate” to support the conclusion.
- Adequate: The evidence considered collectively is sufficient or provides enough support to accept the conclusion on its basis alone. The conclusion must not be broader than what the evidence can support; and the full range of evidence available must be accounted for.
A fallacy is a common form of arguing that has been diagnosed as a “failure in reasoning”; a kind of argument that violates one or more criteria for a sound argument. Such arguments:
- Misrepresent evidence or fudge the definition of key terms (i.e. with unacceptable premises);
- Provide information that diverts or distracts from the point that is being argued (i.e. with irrelevant premises); and
- Don’t provide enough evidence to support the conclusion, or rely on weak evidence (i.e. provide inadequate support in the set of premises).
Fallacious arguments are often accepted despite such flaws because of “confirmation bias.” Confirmation bias is the tendency to more readily accept arguments that support our existing beliefs or align with what we think we already know.
Some Common Fallacies (Bad Argument Forms)
Note: Not all BF299 instructors will teach all of these specific fallacies.
Fallacies of Acceptability
- Inconsistency/Contradiction: Making a statement or claim that is logically incompatible with or does not align with at least one other statement or claim. For example: "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded" (Yogi Berra).
- Equivocation: Using one term or phrase with two or more different meanings at different places in an argument. For example: “Sure, I love my girlfriend. But I also love pizza, and that doesn’t stop me from also loving steak. So why should I only have to love one person?”
- False dichotomy: Presenting two alternatives as if they are exhaustive when really there are more possibilities. For example: “You’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists.”
Fallacies of Relevance (Red Herring Arguments)
- Ad hominem: Attacking the person making the argument rather than engaging the argument itself. For example: “The Prime Minister advocates for foreign trade as a means to improve the domestic economy, but that idiot doesn’t know anything about economics.”
- Appeal to emotion: Trying to persuade someone by appealing to their emotions rather than evidence in favour of your conclusion. For example: “Officer, please don’t give me this ticket because I’ve had a really, really bad day and my dog just died last week, and…”
- Straw-figure argument: restating an opposing argument in oversimplified terms, and then arguing against the restated argument rather than the original one (i.e. like knocking down a straw scarecrow, rather than a real person). For example: “Believing in God is more reasonable than believing that we all just somehow descended from monkeys!”
Fallacies of Adequacy
- Hasty conclusion: Drawing a conclusion before considering all the available evidence. For example: “This was the coldest winter in 25 years, so I guess that shows you all that stuff about global warming is a load of crap!”
- Appeal to authority: Claiming something is true just because a smart or respected person believes it. For example: “If Albert Einstein and George Orwell preferred democracy to other kinds of government, that’s enough for me.”
- Appeal to popularity: Claiming something is true just because it is popular. For example: “Everyone knows that democracy is the best way to govern a country.”
- Confusing correlation and causation: Also called the “post hoc” fallacy, which is short for “post hoc ergo proper hoc (after this, therefore because of this).” Just because one thing happens and then another happens (sequential correlation), that doesn’t mean the first thing caused the second. For example: “If I don’t eat steak before the game we won’t win.”
- Slippery slope: Claiming that an action that is not objectionable in itself will lead ultimately to some remote consequence that is disastrous. For example: “Legalizing homosexual marriage will pave the way for fathers to marry their own daughters and people being able to marry animals from other species.”
Information Literacy / Research Skills
1) Read “actively,” learning strategies for effectively engaging both primary materials and scholarly texts in the humanities.
Active Reading Techniques
Before you read:
- Take a couple of minutes and prepare yourself to look for certain things in the text. Keep the following tips in mind as you read:
- What has the instructor already said about the topics this text seems likely to engage?
- What are the more general emphases or themes so far in the course that this text seems likely to engage?
- What project or question are you working on or thinking about that this text might engage?
As you read:
- Identify and define any unfamiliar terms. Underline the word, look it up in a dictionary, and jot the definition in the margins. It only takes a few seconds.
- Try to identify the main ideas, and in the margin, concisely formulate each main idea (most major paragraphs will have one main idea). Jot this in the margin too.
- Don’t simply highlight. Also engage the text through margin notes. If you highlight something because it is important, also write down something in the margins that will remind you of why it is important, so that when you go back to it later, you can remember what you were thinking. You might:
- Write down a question that something in the text provokes;
- Note its relation to something else you’ve heard in the course or elsewhere; or
- Note its relation to something you are thinking about or working on.
Note: If you prefer working with electronic versions of texts – PDFs, e-readers – make sure you understand the markup apparatus provided by the reading software. Know how to highlight, how to add comments, and how to save your marked up document as a different file.
After you’ve read:
- Review your margin notes, and write a paragraph or two summarizing what the reading was about, what it contributed to your own thinking.
2) Use the appropriate library resources for finding primary and secondary sources.
Scholars share their finding in an extended conversation with other scholars. In order to participate in this conversation we must acquaint ourselves with its origins in primary sources (usually texts or artifacts) and with the secondary literature about these sources. To find reliable sources of both sorts the library is indispensable. Practice and familiarity with the data bases and catalogues are necessary for finding research materials in the library.
3) Evaluate the quality and reliability of scholarly information in the humanities.
Not everything that might be found in a search of the library data bases and catalogues will be specifically relevant to the topic of your research. Nor is everything that’s available equally reliable. Inevitably, you must select the best of all possible sources of information on a topic. Again, practice and familiarity with the data bases and catalogues are necessary for utilizing research materials available in the library.
Communication / Writing Skills
You will learn to:
1) Formulate a research question, and create an idea map that helps bring together research and analysis in a visual form.
A viable research question must engage the primary and secondary sources. Formulating a viable question requires us to refine our research findings and to discover a question that is neither trivial nor overly ambitious. Idea mapping is a visual technique that helps us coordinate and discover the connections between ideas and evidence in our research findings.
2) Form a working thesis statement that establishes a line of argumentation related to the research.
Scholarship must focus on questions that are currently not answered. The answer to a viable, disputable question is properly called a thesis (which must be differentiated sharply from a mere statement of a paper’s topic and focus). Your thesis must answer a disputable question, not a trivial one. Your evidence will be put forth in the body of the paper, but a thesis must be declared first. The reason for this is simple: in scholarship we persuade others on the basis of evidence gathered from our research, and our reasoning ought to be good enough to withstand scrutiny; in order to expose a line of reasoning to scrutiny we must first declare where our line of argument will conclude (i.e. our thesis).
3) Form an outline which articulates the argument in a way that organizes subtopics related to the thesis statement, and indicates potential lines of explanation and evidence for each subtopic.
A viable question, and clear thesis and a visual representation of the idea-relationships in a map are useful exercises for organizing your thoughts. But an essay needs to present its argument in a coherent expository order. So the final pre-writing step consists in outlining topics and subtopics in a provisional order, usually with an eye to the main idea of each paragraph.
4) Understand the structure and function of a properly formulated sentence, as it pertains to academic writing.
Much of what we write about in the humanities is abstract, interpretive and subtle. Abstract ideas, interpretive claims, subtle points, etc. require clear writing. Good, clear writing requires good grammar, and sometimes complex claims – which are inevitable in the humanities – require complex grammar.
5) Understand the structure and function of a properly formulated paragraph, as it pertains to academic writing.
Paragraph unity and coherence are essential to good essay writing. Each paragraph must have a well-conceived function and be structured so that every part serves this unifying function.
6) Understand how to cite and set up a works cited page in both MLA and CMS.
Good academic writing is concise and compresses a great deal of the information it conveys. This is nowhere more evident than in its methods of citation. The footnotes/endnotes and bibliographical styles offered by the Modern Languages Association (MLA) and Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) encode information. A scholar who has learned to decode this information can quickly find the sources being referred to, and a scholar who learns how to deploy these codes can efficiently direct readers to their own sources.
7) Write a properly cited, research-integrated draft from an outline.
Mapping your ideas, formulating your thesis and outlining the expository order of your essay will help guide the composition of a first draft. Methodically working through these pre-writing stages will make the challenges of prose writing less formidable. Still, it is important to recall that writing is in itself part of the process of discovery in humanities research The precise formulation of a point is as important to your argument, exposition, description and analysis as the initial discovery of each point during the research phase of your work. Good writing sharpens the details of our thoughts, and often gives birth to the thoughts we had not anticipated prior to commencing the first draft.
8) Understand principles of effective self-diagnosis of common weaknesses and principles for effective revision with an emphasis on clarity, directness and organizational coherence.
Because the precise formulation of each point is essential to humanities research, revising and redrafting are necessary for a good essay. Learning to read one’s own work critically is a skill that must be learned and refined with practice. We must adopt the same critical posture toward our own writing as we adopt toward work written by others. The criteria of a good argument and the fallacies that help identify bad arguments function as principles of argument construction just as much as they do argument criticism. Similarly, the standards of clarity, directness and coherence can be used to diagnose problems in our own early drafts and identify what needs to be improved to produce a polished final draft that you can be proud of.
Download the essay self-evaluation checklist to attach to your essay.
- the course number(s)
- the year and term the course was offered (e.g. Winter 2015)
- and your WLU student ID
The outlines will be forwarded to you as a PDF attachment.