Finding a Critical Voice

Berkeley Connect English students play literary detectives

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How do you find your own critical voice? It helps to start by studying great role models. In  a recent small-group meeting, Berkeley Connect English students took part in a lively game that helped them explore and identify recognizable critical voices. Every student was given a passage and a name of an author…that didn’t correspond. The group had to work together to match each author with the right passage, using what they know about each author’s voice and style.

“I wanted to find a way to think about critical voices that would be fun instead of being prescriptive,” graduate mentor Jonathan Shelley said. Many of the authors were very familiar names, including quite a few Berkeley professors, such as Robert Reich in Public Policy and Kathleen Donegan, faculty director of Berkeley Connect English. “I was going to use classic critics, but a friend saw me when I was preparing and told me to put myself in your shoes. As a grad student, theirs are buzz words for me, but I forget that no one in the real world knows them,” Jonathan admitted with a laugh as he introduced the game.

The students began by reading all the authors’ names and their passages. When they finished, Jonathan said, “These are our eighteen critical voices today. Begin!”

Students shared what they knew about each author as they began to trade names and passages. In addition to style, some students noted key words. “That one is definitely Walter Benjamin’s,” a student said, “because it talks about mechanical reproduction and that’s the title of one of his most famous works.” Some passages were easily matched to names, such as Robert Reich’s. “I follow Robert Reich on Facebook,” the student who matched Reich’s piece said. “I come from a very different place, but he is so compelling. And he’s very much a political animal and very cogent, just as this piece is.” But others incited fierce debate. One passage in particular sparked a discussion as to whether it was written by James Turner or Janet Sorenson, both professors in the English department.

Identifying the piece written by Robert Hass, also a professor in English, a student said, “It has to be his. Only a poet could write like that.” T.S. Eliot’s was identified because a student recognized the opinion about close reading as one that Eliot held. Another student successfully matched Professor Kevis Goodman to the right passage because of the critique in the piece. “I know she is very critical of those critical of Milton,” he said.

Still, students struggled. One student noted that she found it difficult without having read the entire book from which the passages were drawn and that she found herself relying on key words to match. “But one can argue that the use of words and the way they are used are part of style,” Jonathan pointed out. Just as he suggested, one student recognized Professor Donegan’s passage almost immediately. “How do you know?” Jonathan asked. “The topic,” the student noted. “Also it sounds like her. The writing style sounds sorta like how she talks.”

By the end of the discussion, all eighteen passages were matched with their corresponding authors – although not without a few blunders and hints. In a playful way, students were able to explore eighteen distinct voices – and use them to inform their own!

posted by Katherine Wang
Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant