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Teaching Orwell's Six Points of Style with CritiqueIt

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Students demonstrate their understanding of Orwell's chief style points
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The Last Man in Europe – A Portrait of George Orwell

Brief Assignment Overview: 

Students read Orwell's "Politics and the English Language," discuss it in class, and then demonstrate their understanding of Orwell's chief style points through an activity using CritiqueIt, a tool for collaborative composition and peer review. 

Type of Assignment: 
Assignment Length: 
Pedagogical Goals - Rhetoric: 
Pedagogical Goals - Literature: 
Pedagogical Goals - Writing: 
Pedagogical Goals - Digital Literacy: 
Additional Pedagogical Goals: 

This assignment introduces students to a few handy rules about writing style from a highly credible source, while also giving them a text that will call their attention to the long-standing philosophical problem of how to address the variety of misuses of language and rhetoric. Students will (1) become aware of common stylistic pitfalls (2) learn how to avoid them or correct them, and when to tolerate them (3) attune themselves to concrete instances of how one can use language to disguise meaning or deceive others, rather than to clarify meaning and inform others.  

Required Materials: 

Students can access Orwell's widely-reproduced essay online, or they can find it at the library. To use CritiqueIt, they should go to the CritiqueIt website and set up an account.  

Timeline for Optimal Use: 
Full Assignment Description: 

I assigned a classic text, but I did not throw students all the way back to the Gorgias. (Next time!) Instead, I gave them Orwell's "Politics and the English Language." Some readers may expect an explanation of this choice, which I will give in a future Blogging Pedagogy post.

Here's how the day should go:

Students read the essay as homework. When they arrive at class, hold a discussion.

First, define and discuss Orwell's chief terms, like dying metaphors, mixed metaphors, operators or verbal false limbs, pretentious diction, and jargon. Discuss concreteness and abstractness, cliches, and the overall message of avoiding "ready-made phrases" and automatic writing. Discuss Orwell's insistence on usefulness as the measure of good style, and his rejection of attempts to save archaisms or more firmly entrench a standard codified English. 

Second, discuss the political aims of Orwell's essay. Address Orwell's equation of political writing with bad writing. Discuss the notion of the "party line." Discuss the use of high-sounding, dramatic phrases, the use of euphemisms for actions and events that involve human suffering and death. Discuss Orwell's claim that fuzzy writing can encourage fuzzy thought, just as much as the latter produces the former. And lastly, discuss Orwell's final dictum, "Political language -- and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists -- is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." 

After this robust discussion, students log onto their computers, and onto their CritiqueIt accounts. They seek an opinion/editorial article published in the news that day, or the transcript of a speech or a press release, on a topic of interest. They paste the text of the article into a Word document and upload it to the Document space in CritiqueIt. Within the program, they transfer the Document to the Group space for peer review, which is necessary to enter into critiquing mode. Then, using the editing tools in the program, they critique their articles (and other students' articles), indicating places where Orwell's six rules of advice apply to improve the article's style:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. 
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. 

Afterward, hold a concluding discussion, especially with the chance to answer questions that students raise about ambiguities that arise, how to apply these style lessons in their own writing, and what kinds of exceptions to note. 

Suggestions for Instructor Preparation: 

This assignment is most helpful for students in the first third of the course, preferably after students have completed a few writing assignments and had the chance to attempt an initial adjustment to the teacher's higher expectations, yet while students still have time to improve their writing and overall performance in the course.

The teacher needs to read the Orwell essay closely, and familiarize him or herself with the major criticisms of it. The teacher must also learn how to use CritiqueIt, which I find a bit glitchy and counter-intuitive at times, though still generally a user-friendly software. The teacher will need to create a Group for the class, and invite each of the students to join the Group by entering their emails into the system. The teacher should plan to guide students through the process of setting up their CritiqueIt account and making sure they can upload documents to the Document space provided. 

The teacher can motivate students to study the essay seriously by threatening to hold a quiz on the day the assignment is due -- this remains an effectual way to motivate students. 

Instructions For Students: 

Students should come to class having read the essay thoroughly, at least twice through. They should already know to use the dictionary to look up unfamiliar terms, but the teacher can remind them of this. Students should have the expectation that they will take a short-answer quiz on the essay when they arrive at class, so that they read it closely and study it intently. Students can learn how to use CritiqueIt software in class under teacher supervision. 

Evaluation Suggestions: 

This assignment was not graded. 

Notes on Reception, Execution, etc.: 

Students responded enthusiastically to the Orwell essay. One student said she did not care for this kind of writing, i.e. "literary analysis" or "style" guides, but students otherwise responded well. To improve the assignment, I would spend more time preparing the students to use the CritiqueIt software. It is not self-explanatory, especially the text-editing or "critique" mode. Also, glitches can be a serious problem. If a student used bold or italics to highlight a passage, no peer reviewer can comment on that passage with the CritiqueIt editing tools (the company says it is addressing this glitch, but it caused a fair amount of annoyance for this exercise).

In fact, the entire assignment could be accomplished with Google Docs, and more conveniently. Nevertheless, CritiqueIt has value as a peer review device, and for that reason it was good to give students a chance to learn how to use it. 

Course Description: 

RHE 306 – Rhetoric & Writing is a course in argumentation that situates rhetoric as an art of civic discourse.  It is designed to enhance your ability to analyze the various positions held in any public debate and to advocate your own position effectively.  Your work in this course will help you advance the critical writing and reading skills you will need to succeed in courses for your major and university degree.

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