How to Write a Dialectical Journal
The term “dialectic” stems from ancient Greece and the philosophers Socrates and Plato. They developed the dialectical method of reasoning through dialogue, questions and answers, and the continuous investigation of opposites to arrive at truth. In the classroom, this method can be applied to your journal writing. The dialectical journal is a way for you to explore your own thoughts and feelings in response to assigned literature. Hopefully, you arrive at a greater understanding of the text and yourself.
Create your journal by dividing the pages vertically into two columns. In the left-hand column, record passages from the assigned text and corresponding page numbers. You can entitle this column “Readings” or “Passages.” The column subheads can include the specific title and author of the work if reading more than one book. In the right-hand column, which you can label "Responses," record your personal reactions and insights to the text so they correspond with each selected passage on the left-hand side. In a true dialectic fashion, the journal should mirror your back-and-forth reasoning process. Journal length will vary with your teacher and assignment, but the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory suggests at least one entry for every 40 pages of reading.
Selection of passages for the left-hand column is entirely up to you and should be based on personal interest and appeal. Entries can be one sentence or a complete paragraph. The Madison County School District recommends searching for quotes that are significant, powerful, thought provoking or even puzzling. Passages may contain unusual vocabulary or effective metaphors or similes. They may reveal a pattern, illuminate a particular character or setting, or represent a plot twist. Perhaps most importantly, passages should appeal to you personally, whether reminding you of something in your own life or verbalizing something you’ve always thought.
Response entries in the right-hand column will also vary with your personal preferences and interests. Generally, they can take the form of questions and/or clarifications about the text, personal reactions, greater reflections on themes or characters, predictions on plot development, or even evaluation of the author and his or her implicit values. As with the passage entries, the Madison County School District encourages students to be as specific and detailed as possible in their responses. Some sample sentence starters include “I really dislike/like this idea because...” and “This passage reminds me of a time in my life when…”
Benefit of the Dialectical Method
Of course, you’ll only get out of a dialectical journal what you put into it. The goal of any dialectic is to develop greater understanding and reveal truth. Hopefully, the back and forth between the two elements in your journal leads to a third element -- a new understanding that didn’t exist beforehand. To this effect, the Webster Central School District requires that journal entries demonstrate fully developed thoughts and connections to the text. They discourage any entry that appears hasty, shallow or lacking in relevance. The Seminole County public school system advises students to take risks and be honest with their responses. This district’s instructions for a dialectical journal state the following: “By writing about literature, you make your own meaning of the work in order to truly understand it.”
Scott Neuffer is an award-winning journalist and writer who lives in Nevada. He holds a bachelor's degree in English and spent five years as an education and business reporter for Sierra Nevada Media Group. His first collection of short stories, "Scars of the New Order," was published in 2014.