Reading & Composition
The Literary Essay in the English and Spanish Traditions
Writing strategies and expectations vary among cultures. Spanish writers, for instance, may be surprised to discover that their thoughtful attempts at emphasizing an idea can be seen by English readers as unnecessary repetitions. They may also find themselves wondering why a general reflection, intended to highlight the argument’s complexity, can be perceived, instead, as a digression. In turn, the characteristic brevity and concision of English prose can sound naïve to Spanish ears, and the use of irony and witticisms, of which English essayists are fond, can be seen as a lack of depth and engagement. Spanish readers may also ask themselves if it is worthwhile to read a whole essay when the author has already revealed the results and conclusions from the start. And why do sentences in English need to be so short and paragraphs so long? And when did using the passive voice become an unforgivable sin? This class will encourage students to ask this type of questions, and to use them as an incentive to become more critical readers and writers.
After analyzing some essays by French Renaissance writer Michel de Montaigne, who is considered the father of the genre, we will read a series of representative texts in the English and Spanish traditions, paying special attention to the central role the essay acquired in the definition of a Spanish American cultural identity. This historical overview will help us see that writing requirements are not universally valid principles. Instead, we will treat them as strategies that we can learn to use in order to better convey and test our ideas. Paying attention to the historical and social contexts in which stylistic conventions were established can also give us tools to negotiate how we identify ourselves as writers.
The course satisfies the second half of UC Berkeley’s Reading and Composition requirement. It is a reading- and writing-intensive course, in which students will use their comparative interpretations of the texts as the basis for their writing and research assignments. Students will develop their critical thinking and composition skills, as they gain practice in the different stages of the academic writing process. Starting with in-class writing exercises, drafts, and revisions, they will gradually work towards the completion of a final research paper.