Writing in the East Asian Languages and Cultures Gateway Course

 Philip Kafalas

October 2017

CHIN/JAPN-024 East Asia: Texts and Contexts is the gateway course for the Chinese and Japanese majors in our department. It is designed to introduce students to topics in East Asian humanities and linguistics, and to encourage the majors in those two languages to think beyond just their chosen language area to East Asia more broadly. It is thus necessarily taught in English, and introduces the sorts of English language writing that occurs in the fields addressed by the majors.

I have developed a sequence of writing assignments that I use when I teach the course. The idea is to break the many tasks of writing apart so students can focus on one or two at a time. The assignments aim to help students become critical readers of English-language scholarship in the field, and to apply those same critical tools to their own writing. The scholarly articles I assign are largely not aimed at undergraduates, nor are they necessarily models of elegant language or faultless argument, but they are all good objects for critical assessment, which is where we begin.

First Writing Assignment: One-page Critique

Students are given two articles to read, one a tangled intellectual history tracing changing Japanese conceptions of culture through the twentieth century, and the other an analysis of officially-sanctioned representations of minorities in the PRC. The accompanying writing assignment is:

Write a 1-page double-spaced critique of one of the two articles, addressing the following: 1) What is the central argument? 2) How is the argument made? 3) Is the argument compelling, and why?

Skills: Reading secondary sources critically rather than just for information; extreme conciseness; conveying not just that the author discusses a topic, but what the author says about that topic.

The form of the one-page written assignment follows one that I was given early in graduate school that made me wonder then, “Why did nobody ever teach me to zero in on and assess arguments so carefully when I was in college? That would have made me a much better reader!” Most incoming students read everything for information and increasingly have a hard time weighing the value of various sources. I tell my students that if they were to write a similar one-page critique for every book and article they read, they would not only read more carefully, but they would in passing develop a wonderful critical bibliography of each field they work in. Of course, that would probably require more discipline than most of us possess, but even having the notion in one’s head while reading is an important habit.

This assignment is also central to the writing component of the course, because it forms the basis for how students then question and critique their own writing in subsequent assignments.

Second Writing Assignment: Things that Footnotes Can Do

This second assignment asks students to consider the ways in which their analyses interact with their sources, and seeks to move students beyond using footnotes merely for citing the sources of quotations.

The premise for this assignment is that you are engaged in writing a lengthy and fascinating paper on some topic having to do with East Asia, and you find that you need to help your reader by including a discussion of some aspect of the writing system of China, Japan, or Korea (or perhaps comparing more than one of those). Drawing primarily on the readings from the section of our course on “East Asian Writing Systems,” write a 3-4 page section of that imaginary larger paper, using proper footnotes.  We will use “Turabian Bibliographic Form: Footnote/Endnote Style,” available on the Georgetown Library Web Site under “Style Manuals”: http://www.library.georgetown.edu/guides/turabianfoot/

Skills: footnotes for acknowledgment of sources, for assessment of sources, and for additional pertinent and/or fascinating information that would impede the main text.

Quotations should support one’s own words, not replace them. Yes, quotations need to be properly cited, but if students find themselves citing a blizzard of quotations from a short section of one source, they should be rewriting so as to address (and acknowledge) the larger idea behind that section. One way to do this is to bring the author of that fine idea into the discussion by name, which students rarely do, and then cite that author’s whole discussion instead of just the sound bites (which could probably be rearranged to mean all sorts of things their author never intended).

This assignment also builds on the first one. We often need to give additional information about a source to help contextualize the portion we are drawing upon, and that information can take the form of a briefer version of the critiques we practiced in the first assignment, this time placed in a footnote. Is the idea that we are citing part of a larger argument or stance? Is the source useful but also problematic or perhaps somewhat outdated? With a brief assessment, we can make more precise use of the source in building our own argument.

Sometimes we also find in our research tangential material that is interesting but that might impede the flow of our main text; we can point to that in a footnote, there again filling out the context of our discussion. Or we might wish to point our reader to further work that has been done on a topic.

In this assignment, students are required to demonstrate their ability to wield footnotes for all these purposes.

Third Writing Assignment: Close Reading while Maintaining One’s Voice

We spend a considerable amount of time working on developing a comfortable, consistent voice that is easy to follow—one that is not overwhelmed by those other voices incorporated from primary and secondary sources.

  • Write a 4-5 page close reading of one of the biographical, autobiographical, or memoir texts on the syllabus, demonstrating how the text in question seeks to make sense of the life it depicts. What are the terms, conceptual notions, and/or categories in which it does so?
  • Or: write a 4-5 page close reading of one or two of the Daoist or Buddhist literary texts (including Kamo no Chōmei if you wish), demonstrating how the texts in question manage to express what is essentially beyond words. What techniques do they employ?

Skills: Close reading; freeing the form of one’s analysis from the form of the subject matter, developing a comfortable voice and keeping it distinct from that of the author you are discussing. 

This is probably the most familiar assignment to the students, who have all done close readings before. Usually they have not spent much time experimenting with voice, however, and this assignment gives them a chance to focus on that one aspect. Part of the lesson is that if you do not have a consistent voice, it is difficult to engage your sources in conversation without risking disappearing altogether.

Fourth Writing Assignment: Thinking through and Crafting a Proposal

Thinking through a paper proposal seems to be a somewhat neglected part of the writing process, probably because students are rarely asked for careful proposals. Here I ask students to craft a proposal for a paper they may never even write (although they have the option of writing their final paper on the topic of this proposal). The topics are taken from the latter part of the syllabus.

Write a 2 page project proposal for a 7-10 page paper about interpreting the marvelous, Tokugawa culture, or cities. 

Skills: Developing a central question; defining a manageable project (where will I go, where will I not go); developing an insightful approach, using outside sources to help us perceive the subject matter in a new light.

This again draws on the first assignment, the one-page critique, only it asks students to apply those same critical questions to their own paper design instead of to someone else’s article. What is the central argument going to be? How am I going to make it? What sort of sources will be employed, and how will they contribute? Where will I be going beyond where my sources went? What will make it compelling? Will the argument be too broad for the sources to support? Is the central question too open-ended to be answerable at all? Will my paper draw to a close in 7-10 pages?

Fifth Writing Assignment: Combining Well-honed Skills

In this last assignment, students are asked to demonstrate their mastery of the skills they have worked on in the previous assignments.

Write either the paper for which you wrote the proposal for Assignment 4, or one on another topic that you propose to me first.  5-7 pages.

Skills: combining all of the skills from the previous writing assignments, including footnotes used for multiple purposes.

Mastery of the combined skills is good preparation for other research writing in the major, and indeed for most any writing assignment in the humanities. Of course, formal writing in target language in the Chinese and Japanese majors involves skills we cannot address in the gateway course, but the critical skills from these assignments should carry over effectively.