English As a Discipline at the University level By: Thomas Lane

Why is English Mandatory after 4 years of High School curriculum?

Right now, you are advancing through your High School career. In your English classes, you have completed paper after paper, studied and comprehended grammar, practiced your public speaking skills, and made a public presentation project. After all this work and you graduate your Senior year, you can finally move on to college and...take 2 more semesters of English classes? But you just spent 4 years mastering this material and taking the SAT exam to prove it, so why are you being forced to take more English classes, as English is part of the General Education Program (GEP)? This chapter aims to explain why, some tactics that college English courses solidify in students, and how English as a whole affects how you perceive the world.

“To call for close reading, in fact, is to do more than insist on due attentiveness to the text" - Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction

How do you generally read a novel? Maybe you analyze the characters, the settings, the plot, and other important facts that stand out. Throughout your time as a high school student, you have probably done these analyses too many times to count. This is one strategy that every student learns how to do: close reading - which is analyzing the aspects of a novel or short story past the plot. In this lesson, we will delve into what close reading can reveal about a passage through literary devices.

Close Reading: Connecting Scenes Together to Form a Bigger Picture

Have you heard of such words as flashback, foreshadowing, and irony? If you have, then you know a bit about literary devices, which can play a huge role in close reading. A literary device is a concept that focuses on a particular aspect of a passage. Let's focus on the three I have provided in the first sentence, which you will undoubtedly learn or potentially know now. A flashback is a pretty famous literary device, as these happen all the time in movies. It cuts away from the present time to show a significant moment in the past that reveals new information. Instead of using text, however, I want to prove that close reading is applicable to sources outside of novels and short stories. Watch this scene from Forrest Gump, where Forrest reflects on the moment he first ran, and determine if the literary device of flashback exists in the very same nature as it is in the movie.

This is a powerful use of a flashback. This scene reveals not only when Forrest stop using his leg braces, but he reminisces with a smile, showing his happiness and triumph of this moment. Keep this flashback in mind when discussing the next two literary terms. Let's examine the second literary devices; foreshadowing. Foreshadowing provides subtle hints about events that will happen in the future of the plot. Now, it might be possible (if you have seen this movie before!) that you asked, "Wait, doesn't this scene foreshadow when Forrest runs across the United States later in the movie?" And you are absolutely correct! Literary devices do not exist solely within themselves; multiple literary devices can exist in one scene, and the better you become at close reading, the more readily you are at detecting this. Now examine this scene from Forrest Gump and notice how elements in the first scene foreshadow elements in the second scene.

With these two scenes in mind, would you expect a kid who has leg braces to not only be running later in life, but love to run as well? This is a good place to introduce irony, which has multiple definitions and confusion surrounding it, but in this case, is the unexpected result versus the expected or actual result. Click the link below to read more about the different functions and definitions of irony:

In total, we have three literary devices existing at once now. Although these examples are in the form of a movie, the same situation can easily exist in the world of literature. Take this excerpt from The Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway.

Pay attention to the descriptions of the two sides of the junction, and the importance of time.

Another literary device you may be familiar with is symbolism, which is when one object represents another concept, person, or object. Here, the barren side of the junction can signify death and barren life, and the lush, green side may represent life and birth. This scene can also foreshadow future events to come in the short story. This is what is taught at the University level, where the student learns to appreciate the language presented to him/her and scrutinizes details very finely. Also, at the University level, you will be dealing with far more mature and real-life problems, because these topics are very prominent in our lives and the lives of authors. Far more literary devices and application exist, but here is just the basic overview of how they coexist and can connect multiple scenes together to form a bigger picture. If you want to challenge yourself further and see how the author of the work can interject his/her own experiences, philosophy and personality into his/her works, check out the rest of this short story and this brief biography of Ernest Hemingway.

Lesson Overview

  • Literary devices play an important role in how we read any piece of literature
  • These can be applicable to both literature and movies
  • Multiple literary devices can exist in one scene and harmonize
  • At the University level, these tackle more mature and serious issues that may be faced in life
  • An author can interject himself/herself into a work, and this adds more details about how characters and scenes may relate to the author personally.
Jot down your thoughts and personal reactions - they will help with the questions!


  1. Which literary device do you enjoy the most? Did I list it here?
  2. What exactly is Close Reading? What is the furthest moment back you can remember reading a story in this way?
  3. Do you think an author should place their personal experiences and people they know into their stories? Do you know of any authors who do this?
"Viewed freely, the English language is the accretion and growth of every dialect, race, and range of time, and is both the free and compacted composition of all" - Walt whitman
Writing is a building process, and an action we do everyday.

Composition is a difficult skill to master, and even writing a perfect paper is a feat in itself. Think of all the processes you take in formulating an essay. First, you need to think of a good topic, then you need to set up a logical flow to your topic to show what you are proving in your paper, and that's only the outline! Once the paper comes together, that's your rough draft, and then proofreading and improving upon what you wrote comes next. In the proofreading stage, sometimes it's better to have a teacher or parent read over your work as well to make sure the paper makes sense and sounds academic. Even after that, you may re-read your paper and think "Gee, I don't like the way this sounds". As you can see, much thought, concentration and action needs to take place in producing the best quality paper. Because this is such a time-consuming and arduous process, compositional skills and work-shopping needs to be improved and focused every year, and at the university level, mastering composition prepares you for your career, both at a professional level and academic level. Today, I will be focusing on two aspects of composition that are difficult to master separately, but together make your paper so much more clear and stronger.

First Compositional Skill: Thesis Statement

A Sample Introduction

Introductions, for most students, are the hardest part of any paper. Where do I begin? How do I make a compelling introduction that is interesting to read but also has good content? Well, forming a strong thesis statement is the first step. A thesis statement details what your paper is about and what you are proving. With a strong thesis statement, you can form a thought-provoking introduction, a logical flow to your paper, strong content to support your claim, and a conclusion showing that you proved your thesis statement. In a way, you may think to yourself, "The thesis statement sounds like the whole paper..." and you would be entirely correct! A good thesis statement essentially writes the paper for you, and gives you a strong outline, a strong rough draft, and what you need to improve to support your claim during the proofreading stages. Now, take a look at one of my introductions. Identify the thesis statement above (I will remind you, a thesis statement states the author's topic and objective (what you are venturing to prove)). If you think it is the last statement, you would be correct! Here, I clearly defined it, and you can do that, but in some other papers, the thesis statement is a bit more implicit and less obvious. Read this article to find out a bit more of how to dissect introductions and formulating a great thesis statement!

Transitioning: How to make the reader understand where your paper is heading

If I said, "I'm not busy this weekend" and then said "It's cold outside", you would probably think, "What does one have to do with the other?" Well, maybe it will be cold over the weekend and I am staying inside this weekend, but I did not lead you to think I was going to say that and therefore it was confusing. That one crucial sentence in between can make such an impact in understanding my reasoning for saying such two differing subjects. Although this pertains to conversation, conversational and compositional transitioning are very similar in that there needs to exist a logical reasoning as to why I am delving into two differing topics and trying to connect them. Strong transitioning leads to what we call a "flow", which leads the reader into expecting a logical sequence and understanding why the evidence being presented to them is being presented in a certain order. At the university level, transitioning is a bit more tricky, however. Definitively saying, "My next argument is..." or "My next piece of evidence for my thesis is..." is a bit odd. The reader is expecting the author to provide a evidence and the next paragraph will either provide a new topic or furthered explanation, so the reader knows what is coming up. Therefore, transitioning is taught to be implied, and lead your reader into what to expect next without directly stating a sentence that can be reworded as, "Here's my next paragraph". Multiple phrases provide strong transitioning, such as "However" (leading to a contrast view) or "Subsequently" (leading to a chronological view). Watch this video about the numerous types and strategies to creating a strong transition.

Lesson Overview: One Sentence and its Impact

As you may have noticed, thesis statements and transitions are very similar and unique in the sense that they consist usually of only one sentence. However, the impact and framing of your essay hinges on the success of both. With thesis statements, you can provide all the content and subject matter you need around it, and frame your introduction, body paragraphs and conclusion around it. With transitions, keeping the reader on track and understanding why the author provides paragraphs in the way he/she does is crucial in providing a strong argument. Therefore, these two techniques are arguably the most important in mastering your compositional skills, and becomes immensely useful and stressed in college writing.

Lesson Questions

  1. What is a thesis statement? How can you identify a thesis statement in an essay? How important is it in the grand scheme of an essay?
  2. What is a transition? Do you need to flat out state your transition? Why or why not? What does a good transition do for the reader?
  3. Each of these tactics is one sentence (rarely two sentences). This makes them quite difficult in execution. Which one do you think is more difficult to perfect and if writing is a process, how long do you think writing strong thesis statements and transitions requires?
“The business of the novelist is not to relate great events, but to make small ones interesting.” - Arthur Schopenhauer, The Works of Schopenhauer: The Wisdom of Life and Other Essays

While reading a novel, certain topics that are covered in your history courses or topics you have discussed outside the classroom setting may have crossed your mind. For example, if a character in a novel is strong, independent, and desires to be seen as an equal, you may think that those are signs of feminism being portrayed. Feminism is the desire and movement for women to be seen and treated as equals to men in society, which encompassed political movements, novels and philosophers as well. Feminism is a strong example of a broader discourse known as Literary Theory. Literary Theory calls for more than just comprehending what close reading provides; it requires deep connections that exist outside of the text. In this lesson, I will delve into how Literary Theory changes the perspective of a novel, one prominent literary theory that is applicable to innumerable works of literature, and how the university setting can affect what Literary theories are taught.

How Literary Theory Adds a Third Dimension to Novels

Literary Theory incorporates Historical Context, which is evidence from the time period a work of literature is written to explain certain aspects of the characters, setting, or plot. Take the character Othello from Othello by William Shakespeare, for example. In the time period it is set (early 1600s), race was a prominent issue. Othello is a black man who, later in the play, feels that he is isolated from Venetian society because of his skin color, despite him being a powerful Captain in Venice. This opens many routes for us to travel down when thinking of Othello as both a novel and the character himself. In what scenes are race a prominent theme? Who uses race as a way of de-humanizing Othello? These are the types of questions that are enabled through Literary Theory and Historical Context. Take this quote that Iago says early in Othello. In what ways does this quote fixate the issue of race in Othello and also de-humanize Othello?

"Sir, you're robbed. For shame, put on your gown! / your heart is burst. you have lost half your soul. even now, now , very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe." iago to brabantio about othello and desdemona

Karl Marx: Influence on Literature

If you have discussed communism before in your history classes, you may have heard of Karl Marx. Marx was a philosopher who wrote about how the economy, social class, and labor dictated the world and personalities. His philosophy is now referred to as Marxism, which details his perception and is the founding basis for Communism. If you want to learn more about Marx and his perception, including his vocabulary, click the button below.

How does his work and research influence novels and poems we read, though? Marx describes certain mannerisms, ideals and perceptions of the proletariat, or the working class. Many characters in literature are influenced by their capital, or the power that is determined by culture and social status. Cultural Capital are aspects about you that show your wealth and education (i.e. a high school diploma). Social capital is how you use characteristics of your cultural capital to give you more power and influence in society (i.e. expensive clothes or profound vocabulary). In the video below, Brittany Thompson details Marxism and how understanding the influence of social capital and cultural capital might affect your perception of characters and the plot of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. Watch it and take some notes.

How a University's Political Atmosphere affects Literary Theory

As you may notice, Literary Theory pertains heavily to history and occasionally controversial topics. Any University has a political mindset, whether that entity is more liberal or conservative. Saint Joseph's University, for example, is a college with a very liberal mindset, and the literary theory taught is more contemporary, focusing on how feminism and gender influences literature. No matter where you attend college, the same principles will be applicable there too!

Closing Regards on Literary Theory

Literary theory is a powerful extension of close reading. How effective literary theory might be towards your studies depends on two crucial concepts. The first is your understanding of the novel you read using close reading, and the second is the knowledge you extrapolate from your studies in other content areas to add to your close reading. Although extremely difficult to master, Literary Theory empowers you to make deeper connections and revelations about any piece of literature than are conceivable.

Lesson Questions

  1. What is Literary Theory and how does it relate to Close Reading?
  2. What is Marxism? What are some of its basic premises and how does this philosophy and understanding of history apply to books you have read?
  3. How do politics play a role in Literary Theory and at Universities?

In the previous sections, you may have noticed a recurring theme. All the strategies that I spoke about, from close reading to compositional skills and literary theory involve written speech. But how do you normally communicate with people? By speaking and interacting physically, of course! This section pertains to how your speech and language can influence your emotions and perception of the world. However, I am disclaiming here that this is only a hypothesis. Although the material (I find to be very intriguing!) is useful and insightful, there is no definitive truth that this phenomenon exists. As the title states, this is only a hypothesis, which is a proposition that has some truth to it, but cannot be concretely proven. With that clarified, let's see how language influences your interpersonal relationships!

Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: What is it?

Have you ever noticed the way you speak when you are angry or sad? Maybe when extremely angered, you might find yourself using expletive words and curses far more than usual. When your sad, you may notice you describe objects and people more vividly, remarking them in a more dull sense with a bleak outlook. This is the premise of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a proposition that your language influences your perception of the world and how you interact with it. Notice that I said language, because the notion of your word choice is not the sole proponent of this hypothesis. The language you speak also has a direct impact and a questionable real world implication. To demonstrate this point, let's compare two very contrasting languages. Let's take Russian and English, which do not even share the same alphabet. Look at the sky in the back ground of this text. I want you to use one word to describe the sky. Although I do not actively know what you said, I think I would be safe in assuming you said "blue". You may have saw the dark blue and light blue shades, but I limited you to one word, so you cannot say that. However, in Russian, words such as "dark blue" and "light blue" have their own, distinct words, and therefore do not need the "light" or "dark" preface to detail it. As a result, Russian's have a far more unique and deep appreciation for shades of colors and identify them more quickly, according to their language. This is the premise of the hypothesis, that word choice, vocabulary and language structures all influence the way you interpret the world. Below are two videos: one detailing the linguistic standpoint and the other explaining the interpersonal consequences if the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is true. Watch one of them (preferably both) because they are very interesting and pertain to your life heavily!

Lesson Overview: Emotions and Language

As I stated in the introduction, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is only that: a hypothesis. There is no concrete evidence to prove the truth behind this notion. Nonetheless, this is very interesting and worth pondering because there may exist a connection between language and other studies, such as philosophy. Pay attention to the way you speak to people and what mood you are in when you addressing people: that conversation might be additional evidence to proving (at least to yourself) whether this has truth to it or not!

Lesson Questions

  1. What is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis? Is it a necessary truth and objective evidence to prove this is true?
  2. Do you believe your emotions affect your language (and possibly vice versa)? Why or why not?
  3. After watching the videos, which do you believe more - that it is a linguistic phenomena (i.e. just an observation and possibly true), or that the discussion in the second video may lead you to believe that language does impact your relationships?

At this point, you have completed the chapter. If there are four key points you should walk away with, they are:

  • Close Reading is deeply embedded into how we read stories, and is a difficult skill to master. However, it is applicable to most forms of literature, including movies and comic books. Likewise, literary devices that you have learned throughout middle school and high school are crucial in understanding works fully.
  • A Thesis Statement is the most important part of setting up a strong essay. If you provide a thesis statement that has plenty of material to discuss and might support your claim, you will find writing essays to become very easy over time. Despite this, transitioning is a difficult composition skill to grasp, but will provide ample logical flow to your paper and guide the reader.
  • Political philosophies frame the concept of literary theory. Popular political philosophies, such as Marxism and Feminism, contribute to understanding the author and characters of a work. However, they do not reveal historical evidence of the era the work was written, so it is only useful for contributing to your understanding of literature.
  • Language is a powerful tool that may affect the way you interact with people and the world. Although the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is just that; a hypothesis, it is nonetheless worth investigating.

Hopefully, this e-textbook has not only deepened your appreciation and understanding of why language is so important, but how it might assist you in achieving your dreams. Everyone speaks and writes, and to perfect it means you hold so much power and knowledge at your hands. I hope this also explains why you take English class after English class, throughout middle school to college. Take a look at the questions below and see how well you comprehend the material in this e-text!

  1. Do you think close reading or literary theory application is more difficult? Why? What does one ask of you that the other does not?
  2. Does understanding the importance of writing a thesis statement and transitioning make you more aware of its occurrence in novels? Why or why not? Which technique is more difficult to you, thesis statement crafting or transitioning?
  3. Does you think understanding history contributes to good literary theory? Let's say you know about the feminist movement in the United States, does that make you understand feminism literary theory? If not, then state why. Does political views and aspirations change over time?
  4. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis claims that the way you speak actively affects how you perceive the world. In terms of writing, do you think the emotions and vocabulary you use affect the way you address your audience? Do you think the words you choose change the tone of your essay?
  5. Critical Thinking: 2 sections in this e-textbook deal with reading, 1 section deals with writing and the other section deals with writing. Is there a way that each of these are interconnected? That is to say, does an aspect of close reading affect the way you speak? And, does the way you write affect the way you speak? Think about it, and provide evidence from the section in your response.
  • Close Reading- analyzing a story or film by paying close attention to scenes through character interactions or scenery in order to reveal bigger and grander themes in the work.
  • Flashback - a literary device that skips back in time to reveal a plot point or character details.
  • Foreshadowing - a literary device that provides inklings through scenery or character expressions to future events in a story/film.
  • Irony - a literary device that has the ability to 1) reveal character flaws to the audience but is unknown to the character himself/herself (tragic irony) 2) produce the opposite event of what is expected.
  • Thesis Statement - the part of an introduction that states the author's claim and his/her objective.
  • Objective - an author's point in an essay and how he/she plans to portray and provide evidence.
  • Transitioning - a technique in essay writing that quickly and efficiently connects paragraphs and what/how the next paragraph will differ from the last.
  • Flow - a logical format for how an essay is being presented.
  • Feminism - a political movement whose essence is to pursue the equality of women and men. It has been adopted into a political philosophy, and therefore has become a subcategory in literary theory.
  • Literary Theory - a broad discourse that relies on knowing political philosophies throughout history to contribute to close reading.
  • Marxism- the political philosophy framed after Karl Marx's philosophy. Puts significant emphasis on social class, wealth and government limitations on the working class.
  • Proletariat - Karl Marx's vocabulary term for the working class, or the typical middle-class citizen today.
  • Capital - the power a person inherits from social or cultural environments.
  • Cultural Capital - power a person inherits from education, gender, or sex.
  • Social Capital - power gained from effectively using aspects from cultural capital (i.e. being an inspiring orator from education).
  • Hypothesis - a proposition made on limited observations for the purpose of a starting point for further research.
  • Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis - a proposition stating that what language a person speaks and his/her word formation affects how he/she perceives the world.


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