Argument Set-Up: you got a problem with that?

With help from Joseph Harris and Gerald Graff, we have begun to think and rethink argument as something both social and dynamic–something that moves and responds to other arguments, other ideas. I agree with Joseph Harris–this is a crucial element of intellectual or (if we must call it this) “academic writing,” and this stands in stark contrast to the kinds of static essay writing many of us have come to associate with a “thesis statement.” Here is a basic definition of a thesis statement, provided by the writing center at UNC:

A thesis statement:

  • tells the reader how you will interpret the significance of the subject matter under discussion.
  • is a road map for the paper; in other words, it tells the reader what to expect from the rest of the paper.
  • directly answers the question asked of you. A thesis is an interpretation of a question or subject, not the subject itself. The subject, or topic, of an essay might be World War II or Moby Dick; a thesis must then offer a way to understand the war or the novel.
  • makes a claim that others might dispute.
  • is usually a single sentence somewhere in your first paragraph that presents your argument to the reader. The rest of the paper, the body of the essay, gathers and organizes evidence that will persuade the reader of the logic of your interpretation.

That works for me. However, a problem I often encounter with student writing: students can quote this definition but have difficulty getting two key elements of a thesis into their argument: that it is a matter of interpretation (not a statement of a topic); that it is a matter for disputation. In other words, a thesis is an argument, it must be arguable. It’s not a fixed answer: rather, it’s the pursuit of a possible answer or resolution in response to a question, a problem. Responding to a problem is what makes an argument dynamic rather than static.

Consider the ways Harvard University Press emphasizes this as basic for any type of scholarship they might publish:

Questions to consider as you prepare a book proposal:
  • What problems are you setting out to solve?
  • What confusions do you wish to clarify?
  • What previously unknown or unfortunately neglected story are you planning to tell?
  • How is this book different from all other books?
  • Why does that matter? To whom?

A related way to think of this more dynamic kind of academic argument (it’s also the vision Graff has) as opposed to what you might have encountered previously in school–where ‘academic’ as an adjective unfortunately meant ‘dry’ or ‘boring': think of what we value in the liberal arts, and think of how that contrasts with a focus on narrow specialization. A good argument has the flexibility of moving and responding. Here is a recent description of the liberal arts that made me think of our discussion of the elements of academic argument and writing:

The second, slightly less utilitarian defense of a liberal-arts education is that it hones the mind, teaching focus, critical thinking, and the ability to express oneself clearly both in writing and speaking—skills that are of great value no matter what profession you may choose. It’s not just that you are taught specific materials in a liberally designed context, but more generally, the way your mind is shaped, the habits of thought that you develop.

These skills were well described by a former dean of the Harvard Law School, Erwin Griswold, cited in a recent speech by the current dean, Martha Minow. Griswold was discussing an ideal vision of the law school, but his arguments fit a liberal education wherever it is provided: “You go to a great school not so much for knowledge as for arts or habits; for the art of expression, for the art of entering quickly into another person’s thoughts, for the art of assuming at a moment’s notice a new intellectual position, for the habit of submitting to censure and refutation, for the art of indicating assent or dissent in graduated terms, for the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy, for the art of working out what is possible in a given time; for taste, for discrimination, for mental courage, and mental soberness.” [The Liberal Arts as Guideposts in the 21st Century, Nannerl Keohane]

Artful argument of this sort needs a structure, a set-up; it can’t emerge out of a vacuum. In order to be set up effectively, to be dynamic and responsive, it needs three things: a conventional view (the sources, what others have previously argued), a problem with that conventional view, and a response to that problem (the argument or thesis that leads to the resolution of the problem). One of the central limitations professors often find with student essay writing: a writer delves into the argument without identifying the problem. In other words, there is no thesis. Recall that I indicated that I have found this even amongst advanced student writers–including a student writing a senior thesis.

To help visualize this set-up structure, and particularly the importance of a problem, I suggest we consider film–a dramatic structure that builds on conflict and its resolution. We will later in the semester consider the full structure of a film’s text, that is, the screenplay, as a structure for our writing project. For now, let’s focus on the beginning: the introduction or set-up of a film in relation to the introduction of an argument.

Basically, the introduction of a film (Act 1), the first 15-20 minutes leading up to the ‘thesis statement’ of a film, known as the turning point or promise (sometimes called the “hook”) follows this three step structure.

  1. Given/Conventional View [the normal world of the protagonist]

    1. think of this as the conventional view, the context of the argument–where things stand right now with the particular topic
  2. Problem/Disturbance [in film, a disruption or problem that confronts the protagonist, upsets the normal world]

    1. think of this as some initial problems with the conventional view of things, perhaps emerging more recently, something that has been neglected by others, not fully considered, etc.
  3. Turning Point/Hook [in film, a real but surprising or unusual/unconventional way of thinking about the problem, responding to it]

    1. your thesis: your response to the problem, also an unconventional or surprising way of re-thinking things, leading to a resolution of the problem and new understanding of the topic. Recall how we saw Gerald Graff’s version of this in “Hidden Intellectualism”: intellectualism is more complicated than the intellectual vs. anti-intellectual terms we tend to use, a complication he argues for by way of this surprise–he realizes that he wasn’t the anti-intellectual as a child that he thought he was.
For practice, we can apply this structure to one or more of the chapters in Birkerts, see how he sets up his argument in each case. I want you to think about this basic rhetorical structure as you being to compost and then draft your first writing project.
Some other published examples of effectively setting up the problem of an argument.

Making Use of the Medium: Ways of Doing Digital Writing and Reading

I mentioned in the first class that we would be focusing in the course on ways that we could develop and strengthen our writing by paying more attention to, and making better use of, the medium and multiple media of writing. The blog postings you are doing in response to reading and discussion (and on your way to the larger writing projects) are a good example. So here are some tips, offered in response to your initial posts, for ways to develop a stronger response and to experiment with future postings.

  • Provide a  focus for your response–both in terms of summary (what the reading says) and analysis (what you say, your critical thinking in response to the reading). Some simple ways to develop focus:
    • title: at the end, or while writing the blog (I suggest you save or publish the blog before finishing, and then update it once or twice while writing), use this to ask yourself: what am I getting at.
      • at the very least, don’t title it “blog #1″; start experimenting with some creative thinking–will need a good title for your essays.
      • Here is a good example of the way a simple blog title can focus the reader’s attention onto the argument, even before it begins (just like Graff does with his title, or Berry).
    • summary (what you hear the reading say): think 2-4 sentences, an initial paragraph that summarizes in a way that will allow you to later dig in to a key point and elaborate further.
      • Here is a good example of a summary that works well by not doing too much, moving the attention toward the second part–where the writer then clearly turns to her analysis, interpretation, and argument with the text.
    • elaboration (what you notice; what you want to say about the reading): dig in by providing a  quotation; use the quotation tool (in toolbar) to highlight this.
    • basic paragraphing: though the posting need not be fully edited or as formally organized as an essay, consider some basic paragraph breaks to move from summary to analysis, to distinguish different main points; this will also allow you to do some practice with transitions.
    • tags: after finishing the draft, the tag function invites some reflection on what the focus has been, what some key ideas and keywords are; tags can also be effective later when working on an essay and looking for material–to remember or be surprised by some associations (two different posts that turn out to be related by a tag); tags can sometimes lead to interesting associations to other blogs. Some of the WordPress formats will actually suggest automatically other blogs out there that might relate to your post. For example, this artificial intelligence (AI) feature suggested a link in Tim’s blog (about ‘Hidden Intellectualism’) to another that also discussed Gerald Graff. Thus are associations made in the digital world.
  • Advance your focus by making a link
    • the basic links we will use (and mainly use in writing) are quotations and citations.
    • consider digital quotation: a link to a site that offers definition or explanation or example for your focus.
      • use the link function in the toolbar
    • consider linking/inserting an image or other media, if relevant and effective for your focus
    • think of this as a digital means of forwarding and countering (two key elements of academic writing we focus on in the course)
  • Look ahead: to discussion in class, to the next section of the reading, to your next posting.
    • one way to conclude effectively (wrap up, but not entirely–since a blog by definition is not a finished product, should have more to say): ask a question. A good example of that–note the concluding section of this blog, that opens larger questions that could lead to further writing (perhaps material for another blog, or the writing project).

What about new ways and means of reading texts in the electronic age? As I also mentioned, when you are assigned a text that is on the web or a pdf, I still want you to do the sort of active reading that you do with a print text. I don’t want you to come into class on those days empty-handed. The question is, what are better ways of doing that. I experimented with Scrible  for our first two texts, a tool for making annotations on web texts. See what you think:

Graff, “Hidden Intellectualism”

Berry, “In Defense of Literacy”


Reading Birkerts: the how as well as the what

Portrait of Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882 –...

Portrait of Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882 – March 28, 1941) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the opening pages of The Gutenberg Elegies, Sven Birkerts focuses in on a way of thinking about reading (and as he points out, reading/writing, since the two go together) that we are going to explore and exploit throughout the course. Basically, what he does, and what we will do as we continue to read him and other authors, is foreground the process of reading and style of writing that he has in front of him. He pulls back the curtain, as I have suggested (to use the Oz image), on the mechanics and craft (for me, mechanics need not be a bad word; it might be for Birkerts, however) of the writing.

We see this vividly in the opening of his first chapter, in his focus on Virginia Woolf and her ‘stylistic verve'; on the ‘how’ of her writing rather than the ‘what.’ So, this is a useful starting point for us, since we are also interested in exploring the craft of writing (and its relation to the thinking that goes in to critical reading) and want, also, to develop the verve (vivacity, vitality) of our style. A basic definition of style in writing I would suggest is the how that informs the what; the method and mediation that shapes the message.  I wonder what your sense of style is: what the word means to you, in regard to writing and also to other acts and arts. I also wonder what your sense of your own style is.

And so, as we continue to read Birkerts, in addition to developing a grasp of his ‘message’ and pursuing a critical reading of this text, we also want to use him to think about his style and our style. We will often talk about not the what of his writing but the how. And do this to see what we can learn as writers, borrow from his example.

To give you one example: in his introduction, Birkerts offers all of us (I include myself in this, myself who still struggles at times in setting up a focus and thesis for an essay) a useful, decent model for an introduction: declaring ‘straightforwardly’ his ‘premise’ and ‘focus’ and working towards a full statement of his thesis:

As the printed book, and the ways of the book–of writing and reading–are modified, as electronic communications assert dominance, the ‘feel’ of the literary engagement is altered. Reading and writing come to mean differently; they acquire new significations. (6)

We will work throughout the course on ways to develop our own introductions and how to set up our focus and thesis more effectively. So, consider this introduction as a useful example to get back to when you are working on your own essays. We will talk more in class and workshops about what is useful and what is effective in how Birkerts introduces his argument and the ways we can learn from his “how.” One thing we see right away that I would suggest is effective: Birkerts tells us at key points what he is arguing, highlighting key words that signal to us something important: premise, focus. He talks to us as readers of his writing–as though he is having a conversation with us.

Your initial writing in response to our reading, the blog (which can and should lead to stronger writing for your essay projects), can begin to notice and focus more on this ‘how’ in addition to providing some summary of what a particular author has said. Notice how an author like Birkerts uses words like ‘premise’ or ‘focus’ or talks to you as a reader.

And at the same time (of course) we are reading this book for the “what.” What interests me right away is to note the ways that this focus on how–and more generally on the “non-linear” style of writing/thinking that he appreciates in Woolf and wants to imitate in his own–sounds like a key characteristic of digital writing and the technological mediation of thought and language that he is trying to resist. He says in his opening paragraph: “All thinking is relative, relational, Einsteinian. Thinking is now something I partake in, not something I do” (11). At the end of the semester, when we get to electronic literature and digital writing, this quotation will seem very apt for how we “partake” in the thinking of “hypertext” and its Einsteinian relativitiy. So I suppose my question for Birkerts at this point: do you secretly wish, or perhaps by necessity, need to write (the how) in a way that contradicts the logic of your argument (the what: reading should not be relative, relational)?

By the way, Birkerts does–it may surprise you, sometimes post a blog. Here he is on “Resisting the Kindle.”


Ethos, Pathos, Logos: focusing the conversation

I want to introduce three terms from classical (Greek) rhetoric that can be useful to think about as we go forward in the course–and apply both to our critical reading and our writing. In classical rhetoric, where the focus is on an orator and his/her presentation to a live audience, there were, according to Aristotle, three main appeals or ways of relating to your audience. “Appeal” refers to the ways an orator (now writer) gets her audience to listen and be compelled: ways to focus on the kind of conversation you are having and ways to engage your audience. To use the terms from Rewriting, these are older names for ways we do things with texts and engage in the social practice of academic or intellectual argument.

Ethos: as in ethics; where the stature and character of the speaker is what persuades and convinces. One way to think of ethos now–the credibility or authority or expertise of the writer. This authority might be suggested in the writer’s background and credentials; but it can also be demonstrated in the way the writer presents herself and her argument.

Pathos: as in sympathy and empathy; where the orator/author appeals to the emotions of the reader–focuses on convincing by way of feeling.

Logos: as in logic; where the author follows the laws of logic to convince–and must be careful not to be illogical: for example, contradictory.

These are key elements of what we  can think of as the “rhetorical situation” (more on this from Purdue OWL) that form the conditions for any act of composition–or even prior to that, any act of thought or conversation. We will be focusing on these rhetorical conditions of our writing and critical thinking in each writing project. When we are effective in our composition of writing and thinking, we have a good handle on these conditions. Here is a link to the original discussion in Aristotle’s Rhetoric.

You can think of these rhetorical elements as a sort of template or tool to use in your composting of ideas for a writing project; that could begin with your blog writing, focus your close reading response on an element of the writer’s ethos, pathos, or logos. You can also use these elements as a revision tool: identify a place where you can strengthen your pathos or logos, for example, in a draft you are working on. In a larger sense, the word (and study that goes with it) rhetoric is about how to develop, arrange, and deliver arguments by using these kinds of templates.

A basic definition of rhetoric I am working from is thus: the tools a writer or speaker uses to focus the audience’s attention on being informed, persuaded, delighted–ultimately, compelled–by the conversation at hand. That takes work. But since the very beginnings of the academy, this art of rhetoric has been something  that could be taught, practiced, learned. That’s my guiding assumption in this course.


English 101; or, The Rhetoric of Attention

A famous and memorable scene from toward the end of The Wizard of Oz. As far as I recall, it is my earliest memory of watching a film. I recall great relief when the curtain is opened and we see a man, just a man, behind the curtain–nothing scary. There is an analogy to be pursued, I will argue this semester, with learning about writing and critical thinking–in particular, the kind of writing and thinking we do as academics.

Writing is also a kind of machine and invention (and film is yet another writing machine, as we will explore later in the term). Rhetoric is an art or technology (in the Greek sense, techne) of creating impressive image and sound and persuasion (think of the great and powerful Oz); but it is learned by focusing on what goes on behind the curtain, on getting better at knowing the tools to use and the levers to pull. So, we are going to pay more attention to the man and woman–and the moves, the rhetoric, the logic, the grammar–behind the curtain of the reading and writing we will be doing throughout the course. Moreover, in focusing more deliberately on the rhetorical effects of what and how we read and write–a key element of academic thinking, you will understand by the end of the course–we will give our attention through the Writing Projects and the course work informs them the ethos, pathos, and logos of our reading, writing, and thinking.

Here is the clip from YouTube.

In the meantime, I invite you to explore this site (Comp|Post), get a sense of the kind of work you will be doing in English 101.


Fall 2014 Student Blogs

Literature and Composition: Gutenberg Progenies

Once you have set up your blog at WordPress.com, copy the url address into a comment on this page. List your first name along with the address.

I and other students will then use this page to get to your blog in the future.


Workshop: Signals for argument

When you make an argument in writing you are participating in an ongoing conversation. One of the primary ways that conversation takes place in writing is when you quote other critics and views, bring them into your argument, and in some way work off them: come to terms, forward, counter, take an approach. Because this conversation is taking place in your writing, it is important that you clearly identify things such as: who is speaking, which part of the argument you agree with, where you would disagree. These signals are words and phrases that you can revise and edit into your essay. I adapt the following templates from the book They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein.

Introducing Quotations: X states (argues, believes, asserts), “………..”

Explaining Quotations (a way to begin your follow up): In other words, X believes…..

Signaling Agreement/Disagreement

[Disagreeing with reasons] X’s claim that  ___________ rests upon the questionable assumption that _________.

However, by focusing on ________, X overlooks the deeper problem of ___________.

[Agreeing with a difference] X’s view of ____ is useful because it sheds insight on the difficult problem of __________.

[Agreeing and Disagreeing] Although I agree with X up to a point, I cannot accept his overall conclusion that __________.

My feelings on the issue are mixed. I do support X’s position that ________, but I find Y’s argument about _________ equally persuasive.

Entertaining Objections

Of course, many will probably disagree with my assertion that _________.

Yet some readers may challenge my view that _______. Indeed, my own argument seems to ignore _________.

Yet is it always true that ________? Is it always the case, as I have been arguing, that __________?

Although I grant that _______, I still maintain that __________.

Useful Metacommentary (ways of talking more directly to your reader about your argument)

In other words, _________.

Essentially, I am arguing that _________.

My point is ________.

My conclusion, then, is that __________.

Saying why your argument matters (template for larger implications/resolution)

This argument has important consequences for the larger issue of ___________.

Although X may seem of concern to only a small group of _______, it should in fact concern anyone who cares about ________.


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