With help from Joseph Harris and Gerald Graff, we are beginning to 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. In the terms of classical rhetoric, this was known as the “issue” or “status” of an argument: not just what it’s about, but why: what’s at stake? what’s the (arguable, debatable) point?
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?
We can also think about the “problem” that an argument needs, and needs to focus its response, its purpose, as the “stakes”: what’s “at stake” in the argument, as we (academics) like to ask? I also refer to this as the “urgency” for the argument–we spoke of the urgency that Birkerts introduces in the opening paragraphs of his book. Here are some options for ways to address the stakes.
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.
Given/Conventional View [the normal world of the protagonist]
- think of this as the conventional view, the context of the argument–where things stand right now with the particular topic
Problem [in film, a disruption or problem that confronts the protagonist, disturbs the normal world]
- 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.
Response [in film, a real but surprising or unusual/unconventional way of thinking about the problem, responding to it, and leading the viewer through the various plot complications that will have to be solved by the end]
- 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.
As an example of the set up of an argument that we have begun to discuss in class, consider the following example, an Op-Ed from the NY Times by Lawrence Summers. While an Op-Ed has features that differ from essays and academic research (namely, much shorter, with less quotation of text, no citations), we can see that Summers focuses his “opinion” as an argument in setting up a given issue; a problem with that given; his response to that problem.
A PARADOX of American higher education is this: The expectations of leading universities do much to define what secondary schools teach, and much to establish a template for what it means to be an educated man or woman. College campuses are seen as the source for the newest thinking and for the generation of new ideas, as society’s cutting edge.
And the world is changing very rapidly. Think social networking, gay marriage, stem cells or the rise of China. Most companies look nothing like they did 50 years ago. Think General Motors, AT&T or Goldman Sachs.
Yet undergraduate education changes remarkably little over time. My predecessor as Harvard president, Derek Bok, famously compared the difficulty of reforming a curriculum with the difficulty of moving a cemetery. With few exceptions, just as in the middle of the 20th century, students take four courses a term, each meeting for about three hours a week, usually with a teacher standing in front of the room. Students are evaluated on the basis of examination essays handwritten in blue books and relatively short research papers. Instructors are organized into departments, most of which bear the same names they did when the grandparents of today’s students were undergraduates. A vast majority of students still major in one or two disciplines centered on a particular department.
It may be that inertia is appropriate. Part of universities’ function is to keep alive man’s greatest creations, passing them from generation to generation. Certainly anyone urging reform does well to remember that in higher education the United States remains an example to the world, and that American universities compete for foreign students more successfully than almost any other American industry competes for foreign customers.
Nonetheless, it is interesting to speculate: Suppose the educational system is drastically altered to reflect the structure of society and what we now understand about how people learn. How will what universities teach be different? Here are some guesses and hopes.
Summers provides a useful example for us in the signals he uses to establish his argument: the given is the understanding that the world is changing; and the  problem is the “paradox” that (“and yet”) undergraduate education has changed little; his  argument in response is to “speculate” and “suppose” (recall I suggested a thesis is a sort of “What if? we find in film) that the educational system could/should be different.
You will note that in this example, Summers doesn’t offer a thesis statement ahead of his “guesses and hopes” (the supporting examples or body of his argument). It is, in effect, half of his thesis, guided by his rhetorical question, with the second half of the thesis (his answer to his question) to come at the end. That’s one model for a thesis statement. The model more familiar to you is the one where the last sentence would answer the question, identify the key elements of his argument that will be explored in the body (we see Sven Birkerts doing this in his introduction to The Gutenberg Elegies). Though I invite you to try some alternative approaches to stating your thesis, since there is more than one way to state one, I will be emphasizing the importance of providing a map of your argument to your reader, giving the reader some keywords for your argument, language that will reappear in your body paragraphs and in transition sentences. In this case, given the brevity of an Op-Ed, Summers has more flexibility in not indicating specifically where he’s going. He does, however, clearly tell us what he is responding to–that he is arguing for change.
In other words, a key to establishing the “thesis” (however it may be stated) is to engage the reader’s focus on a problem and response. This example shows us how one does that very basically and simply–even in the pages of the NY Times by the former president of Harvard. In fact, one of my favorite examples of the set up of the problem/conflict needed for an academic argument comes from Summers. I read once that he set up an economics paper that argues against the convention of the “efficient market hypothesis” (the prevailing view that markets are rational because people are rational) with the following two sentences: “There are idiots. Look around.”
An Op-Ed from a newspaper is a compressed argument. It is not merely one’s opinion; it is an arguable claim that must be supported by a reason and some evidence. For some further discussion on the rhetorical elements of an op-ed that we can learn from, see “Tips for Aspiring Op-Ed Writers,” by Bret Stephens, The New York Times. Stephens addresses the key element of ethos, the standing or credibility of the writer. But he also notes that a good argument to be effective needs to address counter-positions and move toward more complicated understanding of what we already knew. He calls this “standing with surprise.”
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 the “how” of his writing in addition to the “what.” To use a famous phrase we will encounter later in the course, we will explore how the medium of his writing informs his message. We want to see what we can learn as writers,what we can borrow from his example.
To give you one example: in his introduction, Birkerts offers all of us (I include myself in this, a writer who still struggles at times in setting up a focus and thesis for a project–particularly larger ones) 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. In other words, notice elements of his critical thinking, rhetorical knowledge, and knowledge of conventions (from our rubric and learning goals of the course). I will continue to ask of each writer we read and engage with: what can we learn about our own writing from this writer?
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.”
I have introduced “rhetoric” as one of our keywords, and defined it in this way: the art (in the original Greek, the word is techne) of developing and delivering persuasive expression or communication. In “Hidden Intellectualism,” when Graff argues for the importance of argument, he is arguing for rhetorical knowledge. For Graff, such knowledge can be found in schools, interacting with books, but it can also be found in the vernacular, in the world of what he calls “street smarts.” For some further discussion of the power of rhetoric and its relevance to you as college students, read “How to Think Like Shakespeare.”
I want to introduce three terms from classical 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. I suspect that some of you have encountered these concepts previously in an English or composition class. Whether you know them well or not at all, I suggest that they can be useful for us as a heuristic, a tool for getting our hands on the rhetorical mechanics that are hidden behind the curtain.
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 Harris’s 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–also more broadly, evidence; where the author follows the laws of logic in providing evidence–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.
Think about applying this concept to guide your initial reading. For example: how would you characterize the ethos, pathos, logos of Graff’s argument, or Berry’s “In Defense of Literacy”? Where do you see it at work and effective, and why? Where would you say it is lacking?
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 and thinking and conversing we will be doing throughout the course. The work we do daily and weekly gets us behind the curtain: responding to a reading assignment, bringing your notes and thoughts into the conversation of a class discussion, working further on those thoughts in your weekly blog post, then working and re-working them into a Writing Project (with lots of revision and further reworking), and so on. The Writing Projects, and particularly the final project, where you will return to earlier work and do even further revision, is the place where we close the curtain, step out from behind it, and become writers, great and powerful–or at least, more powerful than when we began the course. That’s the overall goal, in keeping with the four learning goals of the W2 writing program requirement which serve as the learning goals for this course.
Here is the Wizard of Oz clip from YouTube.
And here is an animated introduction to some basic rhetorical concepts we will be taking up in the coming weeks: How to Use Rhetoric to Get What You Want.
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.
Once you set up your blog, copy/paste your blog address (the url) into the comment below. Put your first name with it. Then, whenever I or a classmate wishes to read your latest post, we can get to all blogs from this page.
Presentation: Further Reading. To guide your revision, you will update your to-do list and propose a revised abstract for the final project revision. You will also identify one key rhetorical or logical element of your writing and one grammatical or stylistic element of writing that you will revise and improve. You will post a 1 page summary of both elements that offers the class examples and guidelines. In a brief (5 minute) presentation in class, you will teach us what you have learned and how the rest of us might learn from your further reading. Your presentation (and 1 page summary posted, linked to this page) should thus include three elements:
- Revised Abstract: what your new argument will be, what approach you plan to take to the older project(s), how you plan to do that.
- At least one Rhetorical/Logical element of writing you will focus on–with reference to how we all can improve this element of writing. Link to a resource we can consult to learn more about it. Provide an example from your writing that applies to this element. [Consult the first two sections of our rubric for these logical and rhetorical elements of writing, as well as previous revision workshops]
- At least one Grammatical/Stylistic element of writing you will focus on–with reference to how we all can improve this element of writing. Link to a resource we can consult to learn more about it. Provide an example from your writing that applies to this element. [Consult the third section of our rubric for these grammatical/stylistic elements of writing, as well as previous editing workshops]
Post this summary of your revision plan to your blog. Then copy the link to this page. Be prepared to present to the class these elements of further reading and learning that you are pursuing as part of your revision.