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Writing That Makes Sense: Critical Thinking in College Composition
by David S. Hogsette
Wipf and Stock (Resource imprint), 2009
(611 pages, $63.00, paperback)
reviewed by Beth Impson
Thinking and writing are ultimately about the discovery of knowledge and truth, not the construction of it. . . . When you think and write, what do you expect to happen? I encourage you to expect wonder, mystery, and discovery.”
So writes Professor David S. Hogsette in this new college composition text. His approach is refreshing. His unapologetic exhortation to write and think in search of truth (and his assumption that truth exists), his embrace of conservative and Christian ideas as logical, his use of examples that directly oppose the politically correct mantras of most of the academy today: These I have longed to see in a text all my teaching career.
Some Quibbles & Concerns
Of course, having taught college English for twenty-some years, I must also note that, like every text I’ve ever used or considered, this one does not fully satisfy. (Perhaps I will yet be driven to write my own, which will also and inevitably be unsatisfactory to other instructors.) Its shortcomings, however, are shadowed by its strengths and can be overcome by any experienced instructor of composition.
Some of my disappointments in Hogsette’s text are no doubt preferential. The organization of the material, some of the terminology, the classification of academic essays, and the repetition of strategies, for example, will be appreciated by teachers whose classroom approach is somewhat different from mine. Somewhat more important, the lack of an index and an inadequate table of contents make finding material difficult, and the MLA (Modern Language Association) student papers contain numerous citation errors (a problem seemingly ubiquitous to composition texts).
Other concerns are more substantive. Every instructor knows that he will have to supply supplemental (and sometimes corrective) information, no matter what text he chooses. However, a discussion of the thesis statement—the heart of good writing—that spans no more than a page seems highly inadequate. The examples are excellent (and Hogsette eschews the formulaic five-paragraph atrocity), but there is very little guidance on how to create such theses, or why doing so is so vital. The importance of context is rightly brought up many times, yet the discussion of understanding one’s audience is abstract and cursory. And restricting all discussion of syntax—creating clear, precise, concise, and interesting sentences—to the use of punctuation is less helpful than one would like.
More important, in his discussion of logic, Hogsette implies through his examples that merely following the processes of syllogistic logic will inevitably lead to truth, yet this is not the case. Where logic leads us depends crucially on the assumptions with which we begin the reasoning process and the degree of probability of one’s arguments.
To consider one of Hogsette’s examples, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the professor’s superb logic about Lucy’s honesty does not in itself convince Peter and Susan. They have to change their assumptions about the possibility of other worlds existing (which for them requires seeing such a world) before they can accept the professor’s logical conclusion as true. It is also important to note that the professor’s logic is not based on absolute truths: Lucy could be lying, even though she doesn’t usually; Edmund could be telling the truth; Lucy actually could be hallucinating from illness or insanity.
The logic of science, the syllogism, does not always obtain in arguments of rhetoric, which are generally based on probabilities—what will happen in the future if we do X or Y now—more than certainties. Elucidating these matters in the section on logic would have strengthened the book a great deal.
These are all flaws or preference differences that an experienced teacher can work with: I can discuss in class thesis statements, editing strategies, and assumptions to my heart’s content no matter how the text I use addresses them.
Unfortunately, I think this text would be inadequate for home educators unless a parent or co-op teacher has experience in teaching composition and rhetoric. Yet it might provide good examples and discussions to supplement a more traditionally organized and developed text.
Refreshing & Needed
Writing That Makes Sense deserves a goodly clientele. It is refreshing to find a text that discusses the contradictory and illogical nature of relativism, for example, or that explains how the morality of abortion and embryonic stem-cell research hinge upon the question of when life begins, instead of encountering the constant litany of “values-free” arguments and liberal assumptions that so many texts offer.
The professional articles used as examples in this text (and gathered as a reader in the back of the book) offer us some of the best conservative (and often Christian) thinkers, including C. S. Lewis, Michael Bauman, Thomas Sowell, Janice Shaw Crouse, and such Touchstone contributors as David Mills, Frederica Mathewes-Green, and J. Budziszewski. Writing That Makes Sense is a much-needed text in a discipline immersed in liberal, post-modern indoctrination.
Beth Impson is Professor of English at Bryan College (named for William Jennings Bryan) in Dayton, Tennessee, and the author of Called to Womanhood (Crossway). She and her husband have five children and eleven grandchildren and attend Grace Bible Church.