The “Big Idea” Writing Syllabus

1. Homo sapiens and their ancestors have always communicated with one another and with other forms of life. Studying this communication is important, as is participating in various forms of communication. Language controls us, and we control languages. 

2. The development of spoken and written languages represents one of the greatest accomplishments in history, making sophisticated communication possible. Language is hard. The study of semiotics helps reveal how outstanding this feat really has been. Humans develop languages from various symbols that are grouped together and assigned sounds, all of which represent persons, places, things, ideas, qualities, and much more. Humans code-switch regularly, too, which is to say they adjust how they communicate depending on the specific setting.

3. “Rules” that exist have various functions. Sometimes they allow for communication to be possible, but other times they try to limit creativity or limit possible changes to how languages are practiced. Frequently, too, the rules of grammar have the consequence of perpetuating oppression when non-majority accents or grammars are considered incorrect.

4. There are ultimately no essentialist rules as to how Homo sapiens can or should communicate, and how they speak and write constantly changes. All languages are culturally and socially constructed. English as practiced in the United States today will be unintelligible in just a few hundred years. When communicating—informally or formally and knowingly and unknowingly—Homo sapiens are constantly pushing current limits and changing how their languages are practiced.

5. Because seeing and understanding and reading and writing and speaking—language, life—are always in (re)development, Homo sapiens must keep learning. Writing is re-writing. Speaking is re-speaking. Reading is re-reading. Perfect communication does not exist. Informal instruction (such as through cultural productions, conversations with others, etc.) and formal instruction (such as in History or Science classes or dedicated writing classes) help guide people through this process. Such life-long instruction allows for the possibility of the very best that can be produced at a given time and place.

6. Language is powerful. In some way or another, all Homo sapiens are readers and writers. All forms of language want to accomplish something and/or to explore ideas. This “something” mirrors hopes and fears of the time and place in which it was produced, and can be analyzed by studying its rhetoric.

7. There are a variety of ways in which Homo sapiens can read texts. Humans “read” books or films, as well as each other, the weather, or a room, for example—all of which are “texts.” Consensus, stable interpretations, from the perspective of hermeneutics, do not exist.

8. And so too, there is no limit to how Homo sapiens can take their ideas and communicate them, visually or in writing. The most effective authors will use appropriate evidence, will use ethos, pathos, logos, and kairos to their rhetorical advantage, will embrace critical thinking, will plan, will engage with others, and will accept the writing is a never-ending process. They will learn the “rules” and then adjust or break them to better communicate. Humans communicate most effectively when they read and analyze regularly. For people who hope to use the written language effectively, actively reading—especially written books—is especially important.

9. Homo sapiens have the opportunity for a profound responsibility: aiding in the preservations and perpetuations of languages created across time and place and the creations of honest, high-quality texts, for such allows us to appreciate and understand others.

You can read my “The ‘Big Idea’ History Syllabus” here.

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda

Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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6 replies

  1. This is a really good summary of the importance of language to human biology and cultural evolution. It clearly has enough ideas in it to explore within a semester, or even a PhD thesis.

    I am interested in how language is formed and expressed in the brain. What I found with mindfulness is that the origin of words in our brains (not evolutionary origin but process origin) is actually in our brainstem, not in the temporal lobe centers. Just try to extemporatneously speak about something in a place of isolation, where you can speak aloud safely without having to think about someone else being there to listen, and instead, think about what your are thinking. At some point you are groping for the right words to use, sometimes speaking a word before you decide to change it. Those words that come to mind silently in your brain are being signaled from what I call “concept cells” in your brainstem.

    Most linguists think that concepts arise from a group of sentences that arise from a group of words, but that is clearly unlikely. Every vertebrate has concepts of basic needs, desires, and observations. Every vertebrate has a concept of “home” for instance, and they do not need speech or a language to have that concept. Their concept of “home” might include concepts of “safety,” “babies,” “food,” “nest,” etc. Our concept of “home” includes all those things, and often some others, like “family,” “essential stuff,” “bed,” etc. Because the primitive vertebrate brain had such concepts before language ever developed, before a neocortex developed with its temporal lobe, then certain basic concepts live in the brainstem. So cells there must contact the neocortex (temporal lobe) cells that hold at least syllables. Analysis centers there then put the syllables together to make the words.

    This has profound importance for those with difficulty putting together speech, as in advanced Alzheimer’s and other disorders. They often know the word but just cannot speak or write it. They know the word, only because they know the concept, which just hasn’t reached the cell(s) which hold(s) that word. Or somewhere in that chain of cells, a complete word cannot be spoken or thought of.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. This is wonderful, but I doubt it can be covered in one writing course? What say you?

    Liked by 2 people


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