Sunday, June 13, 2010

Four Habits of Argumentative Writing

In this course you will be producing argumentative writing based on close textual readings. We will spend a good deal of time talking together about what it means to write persuasively and read closely, what sorts of things can usefully be considered texts in the first place, and under what circumstances, and so on, but as a first approximation of what I mean I am offering you four general habits of attention and writing practice, guidelines I will want you to apply to your writing this term. If you can incorporate these four writing practices into your future work you will have mastered the task of producing a competent argumentative paper for just about any discipline in the humanities that would ask you for one. Incidentally, I will also say that taking these habits truly to heart goes a long way in my view toward inculcating the critical temper indispensable for good citizenship in functioning democracies in a world of diverse and contentious stakeholders with urgent shared problems.

A First Habit

An argumentative paper will have a thesis. A thesis is a claim. It is a statement of the thing your paper is trying to show. Very often, the claim will be straightforward enough to express in a single sentence or so, and it will usually appear early on in the paper to give your readers a clear sense of the project of the paper. A thesis is a claim that is strong. A strong claim is a claim for which you can imagine an intelligent opposition. It is a claim that you feel a need to argue for. Remember, when you are producing a reading about a complex literary text like a novel, a poem, or a film the object of your argument will be to illuminate the text, to draw attention to some aspect of the wider work the text is accomplishing. Once you have determined the dimension or element in a text that you want to argue about, your opposition might consist of those who would focus elsewhere or who would draw different conclusions from your own focus. Your thesis is your paper's spine, your paper's task. As you write your papers, it is a good idea to ask yourself the question, from time to time, Does this quotation, does this argument, does this paragraph support my thesis in some way? If it doesn’t, delete it. If you are drawn repeatedly away from what you have chosen as your thesis, ask yourself whether or not this signals that you really want to argue for some different thesis.

A Second Habit

You should define your central terms, especially the ones you may be using in an idiosyncratic way. Your definitions can be casual ones, they don’t have to sound like dictionary definitions. But it is crucial that once you have defined a term you will stick to the meaning you have assigned it yourself. Never simply assume that your readers know what you mean or what you are talking about. Never hesitate to explain yourself for fear of belaboring the obvious. Clarity never appears unintelligent.

A Third Habit

You should support your claims about the text with actual quotations from the text itself. In this course you will always be analyzing texts (broadly defined) and whatever text you are working on should probably be a major presence on nearly every page of your papers. A page without quotations is often a page that has lost track of its point, or one that is stuck in abstract generalizations. This doesn't mean that your paper should consist of mostly huge block quotes. On the contrary, a block quote is usually a quote that needs to be broken up and read more closely and carefully. If you see fit to include a lengthy quotation filled with provocative details, I will expect you to contextualize and discuss all of those details. If you are unprepared to do this, or fear that doing so will introduce digressions from your argument, this signals that you should be more selective about the quotations to which you are calling attention.

A Fourth Habit

You should anticipate objections to your thesis. In some ways this is the most difficult habit to master. Remember that even the most solid case for a viewpoint is vulnerable to dismissal by the suggestion of an apparently powerful counterexample. That is why you should anticipate problems, criticisms, counterexamples, and deal with them before they arise, and deal with them on your own terms. If you cannot imagine a sensible and relevant objection to your line of argument it means either that you are not looking hard enough or that your claim is not strong enough.

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