Our focal point in the first project was developing ethos through reflection. There are two places you can see this critical reflection emerge in an essay and think about, going into the next project, how you can continue to develop it: a strong set up of your argument, its clarity and complexity (a statement in brief form of your argument as a response to a problem, a focused and arguable thesis); strong coherence of that argument as it moves through your body paragraphs (the elaboration of the problem/response and your keywords or terms–in other words, how you support, complicate, and reiterate the argument through critical and personal reflection ).
Some examples to consider from a selection of writers from past classes; these are not the only way to do it, but they offer some good models for practice.
Clarity and Complexity of the Argument
- Keita: Note how the title initiates the “problem” that the first sentence also wraps into the given. By the end of the first paragraph, the key term “conversation” identifies the essay’s response to the problem.
- Valerie: Example of a two paragraph set up, beginning with a narrative (placing the reader in a detail from the story), then pulling back for the statement of the problem and response.
- Kassie: Note the development of reflection in the second paragraph (first body paragraph), spending time (not racing through nostalgically) a particular experience, then using a critical quotation to reiterate her key terms.
- Jacob: a good example of using a critical quotation (first Birkerts, then Graff) in a body paragraph to elaborate and complicate the argument. Take a look at the second body paragraph where he uses Birkerts as part of his conversation–both to agree initially with him, but then to take his argument toward a different view of intellectual reading. This is a good example of what we will work on in the next project–forwarding someone else’s text.
- Alicia offers a good example of developing the critical reflection to elaborate an example within a body paragraph that also supports/reiterates/complicates the argument and thesis. Paragraphs 3-5 are particularly strong–and notice the ways she uses the critics (Harris and Birkerts) to develop the personal reflection.
- Strong example from Jillian–notice how she moves out from her argument with a new image/scene, but in doing so reiterates the argument. This helps send the reader from her particular argument with thoughts of other places/implications for the argument.
- We are talking about complicating our critical and rhetoric–developing the layers of our argument. That sort of complication is a good thing in our writing. In terms of grammar and style, we also want to give some attention to clarifying aspects of our sentences that might be confusing. This is something for you to consider when editing. For some useful guidance on confusion in writing and grammar, in addition to Professor Harvey’s book, see this section of the Guide to Grammar and Writing on Eliminating Confusion.
Even if you have never read Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, you know the name. The image of the monster (perhaps of the scene when it comes to life, lightning crashing, the mad scientist screaming, “It’s alive!”). Those of you who have read the novel know–and for first time readers, it won’t take long to see–that such images from film don’t match up with the original novel. [more on the history of Frankenstein in film]
We don’t get to the famous creation scene until 5 or 6 chapters in. And, of course, by then we know that Frankenstein is not the monster; it is, rather, the name of its creator–though could also be the monster, since it is unnamed, and technically the son. And a bit later in the reading, we wonder how the monster ever became the green hulking, inarticulate thing from the movies. Hint: the monster reads Paradise Lost.
A keyword I will be using as we discuss the novel and explore it with our second writing project in mind (we focus on intertextuality and close reading of text): complication. We will work on complicating our reading of this novel. That doesn’t mean we will make it difficult or harder than it needs to be. It means recognizing that the novel, as a text, is already a layer of complications–stories and images and other texts woven and folded in to its narrative. As we will see in reading Mary Shelley’s original draft of the novel, the layers of complication include the fact that she is not the only one reading and writing, since her husband Percy Shelley edits the manuscript that would be published in 1818 (the second edition is published in 1831 by Mary alone).
A literary term for this condition of the layering of writing is “intertextuality”; for more on that, consult this reference from the University of Wisconsin. As we think more critically about the literary significance of intertextuality in Frankenstein–a focus for our next writing project–we will do so in order to think further about the rhetorical effect of intertextuality in our writing: the fact that in the texts of our essays and projects we use and transform the texts of others. Joseph Harris refers to this as “forwarding,” our critical focal point for the project. So, we will be reading Frankenstein as critical readers, but also as student writers, seeing what we can learn from Shelley.
There are two marks of those complications (of text as woven materials) even before we begin the story. The first comes in the author’s introduction–where we learn of the complex origins of the story. And more to the point, it seems to me, we learn of the complication that our author, Mary Shelley, views her creation of the novel in very similar terms as those used by Frankenstein concerning his. She concludes the introduction bidding her “hideous progeny go forth and prosper.” The novel, apparently, is also a monster.
A second location of complication: the title page. Look at the intertextuality–the presence of one or more other texts within a text–we are confronted with before we even get past the title. As we will see, this is only the beginnings of a text that is woven by numerous connections, links, echoes, allusions to other texts.
The point I will be making in the face of this complication–of this multiplicity of texts and voices and narrators and stories–is that we need to do close reading not to find some sort of hidden meaning. I know that is what it often felt like in high school English. The problem of this novel–the problem that makes it compelling and engaging, it seems to me–is that there is too much meaning. It is hard to know what to do with it all.
By the way, speaking of this multiplicity, I wonder what you think of the Electronic Frankenstein site. It strikes me that it could help with the of kind layering of text that we start to get as early as the title page. One way to think of things–perhaps Shelley’s novel is a hypertext of sorts. Is it better to read the novel in digital form? At the same time, we can think about various “remediations” (remakes in other media, other versions) of the novel that are basic to this story–well before we get to the digital age. In particular, there is the incredibly rich film history (and before that even, theater history) in which Shelley’s story is, in a word, mashed up and retold. The first film is 1931, directed by James Whale, starring Boris Karloff as the ‘monster’. This film includes the famous line (not from the novel): “It’s Alive!” In addition to film, there are also variations on the story in print, such as The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein and The Case Book of Victor Frankenstein. Another retelling and reimagining of the novel, from other perspectives, is the well-known hypertext novel (more on this later in the term) called Patchwork Girl.
Here is a recent article that notes some of these intertextual implications (the novel as creation myth), locating the complications as early as the author’s introduction and in her biography: “Was ‘Frankenstein’ Really About Childbirth?” And finally, an article about “frankenwords,” our tendency to create words out of hyrbrids, including words with “franken” as a prefix, such as reference to a “frankenstorm.”
All of these retellings and remediations, from print to film to digital, I would argue, in fact build upon, and are inspired by, an original story that is already, and at heart, about the idea of remediation and the power and influence of telling (which is to say, retelling) a story. Like I say, it’s complicated. And that’s a good thing.
- An astronomer who claims that the night Mary Shelley conceived of her story (as discussed in her introduction) really did have the shining moon she describes.
- Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature. NIH site that explores Frankenstein and science.
- Mary Shelley: My Hero, by Neil Gaiman.
- Frankenstein It’s (Still) Alive: writing contest, bicentennial.
- Why Frankenstein’s Monster Haunts Queer Art.
Revision focuses on getting a handle on what your writing is about, where you want it to go. Generally speaking, revision is when you are still dealing with changes that could be as large as entire paragraphs, how your argument is organized, developed. It means asking questions such as: What else? What’s next? As we discussed with reference to Joseph Harris: you revise arguments, ideas, paragraphs, essays; you edit sentences. Revision is rethinking, rereading, expanding, developing; editing is tweaking. This is what we will be doing through Wednesday or Thursday of this week.
Revision and editing can sometimes blend. But for the sake of our efforts in this course, I suggest that editing is what you do toward the end of a project. Editing concerns how your essay communicates to a different set of eyes and ears than the ones which wrote it. How it reads to a reader who is not in your head. This is what you will be focusing on Friday.
Therefore, a good strategy for editing is to become more self-conscious about the sound and shape of your writing–something we take for granted. In order not to take it for granted (since you have been working on this essay and it probably makes sense to you), we need to defamiliarize it.
- Read it aloud–hear the writing. Have a peer read it aloud or read it aloud yourself. Read it backwards, paragraph by paragraph or sentence by sentence: listening for places where the expression/communication (the how of the writing, the mechanics, the style) is not matching up with the idea. Usage errors would be one way expression and ideas get crossed.
- Workshop: in your writing group, select a paragraph you want to focus on for editing–want to improve. Have someone else read your paragraph aloud. Then discuss for a few minutes what you hear and see–suggestions for what you might need to do or want to do with the paragraph.
- More active than passive. Richard Lanham’s Paramedic Method (from Revising Prose, 5th edition, Pearson 2007): one strategy to pay better attention to the way your “voice” is informed by the machinery of sentence length, verb (active vs passive), prepositions. These are not ‘errors’ but choices you make in presentation. We will be returning to this in later editing workshops. For today, let’s focus on the issue of crafting and clarifying the action of our sentences.
1]Circle the prepositions
2]Circle the “is” forms.
3]Find the action
4]Put this action in a simple (not compound) active verb.
5]Start fast–no slow windups. [the passive construction is often connected with too-conversational kinds of beginnings:
“One of the things that I think about reading is that reading is engaging for the mind.” vs.
“Reading engages the mind.”
Or a sentence where the actor is buried or hidden, and therefore the action that is the focus of the sentence is also unclear.
“It was the main point by the author that I didn’t really agree written throughout the book that a reader reads alone in a room.”
“In The Gutenberg Elegies, Birkerts argues emphatically for reading as an act of solitude and privacy. I disagree for these reasons…”
focus today on 1-5: the issue of using active verbs and active voice [also discussed effectively in Harvey, chapter 2, and in this section of The Style Academy on Active v. Passive voice ]
- Some formal/presentational features to consider and not neglect at the end:
- Title? I will be crushed to see an essay titled ‘paper #1’
- introduction/conclusion: how do you bring the reader into your story? where do you leave the reader? A strategy to consider: start in with the narrative, or in the middle of an experience, before pulling back to more general set-up. And conclude by circling back to your beginning. [these are tricky–will continue to work on this in later workshops]
- Transitions: are there effective signals through the essay, toward the beginning of each paragraph (usually first sentence), to lead the reader and identify the focus at each point?
- Go back through the draft to recall/find sections you might have left unfinished, intending to get back to. [for example: a section that has something like “add quotation here”]
- Have in mind a few of the mechanical/surface errors you tend to make and will need to clean up–punctuation, spelling, wrong words.
- You can use this list of the 20 most common formal errors that can be edited–list provided by the Writing Center.
- Become active in getting a better handle on the grammar/mechanics/sentence-level issues you need to work on. I will focus on a few in workshops; but the point is for you to get used to using a resource like the Guide to Grammar and Writing to practice and correct on your own.
- Proper citation format for any works you cite (which means directly quote or paraphrase). Consult Purdue OWL as a useful resource for citation basics.
- Final Abstract: You will be turning in with your final version the final version of your abstract–the one with the latest, most refined statement of your argument. Here is an example of what an abstract looks like (the ways it identifies given/problem/response, identifies keywords, and provides a basic map for the evidence):
- Although Frankenstein is typically viewed as a classic horror novel, primarily designed to frighten us, I argue that it can be read instead as a love story. Shelley emphasizes the romantic elements of the novel by way of the intertextual relation with Coleridge’s poem “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” where the focus is on communicating and connecting with others. Rather than scaring readers, Shelley’s forwarding of Coleridge’s poem works to connect her readers to the heart of her story.
Strategies for Revising
In Chapter Five of Rewriting: How to Do Things With Texts, Joseph Harris suggests several ways to think about revising based on the concepts he develops in earlier chapters: Coming to terms, Forwarding, Countering, and Taking an Approach. Below is a summary of the strategies he offers on pages 108-121.
Coming to Terms with a Draft: What’s Your Project?
Create an abstract of your draft: An abstract is a brief summary (usually around 150 words) that sometimes appears at the beginning of an academic article. Once you’ve finished an initial draft, try summing up the entire piece in just a few sentences, making sure to include all the most essential points. Doing this will help you identify key words that might help you focus your draft, and it will help you clarify the real purpose of your paper.
Create a sentence outline of your draft: In the margins of your draft, try to sum up each individual paragraph in one sentence (or two at most). The result will be a kind of outline that shows how you move from one point to another in your paper. Reading back through the summary sentences by themselves will give you a quick version of the draft you’ve written, and it should also point out moments where ideas aren’t connected or logical moves need to be strengthened.
Revising as Forwarding: What Works?
Highlight the strengths of your draft: Look for the moments that you consider to be the strongest in your paper and consider ways that you might bring those moments forward and give them greater emphasis. Also, think about how you might replicate those strong moments in other weaker spots in your draft.
Revising as Countering: What Else Might Be Said?
Identify questions that a reader might have: As you look back through your draft, think about moments where a reader might question you. This strategy might simply make you aware of spots where you need to go into further detail, or it might open up a whole new line of thought for you. As Harris describes it, this process is more than just playing “devil’s advocate.” Instead, it’s an opportunity to look for alternate lines of thinking your draft might open up.
Revising as Looking Ahead: What’s Next?
Look at your final paragraphs to see how you’ve expressed your main idea: When we’re drafting, it often takes several paragraphs (or pages …) for us to “warm up” and begin doing our best writing. Often, the clearest, most articulate statements of purpose occur at the end of a rough draft rather than at the beginning. Take advantage of that by looking at your final paragraphs to see if some of the language there can help you to shape and refocus the earlier parts of your draft.
Look ahead to see the implications of your draft: Once you’ve reached the end of an initial draft, you might think about what the implications of your ideas are. Your conclusion should suggest why your ideas matter and what they suggest for further study. Harris suggests the questions “What’s next?” and “So what?” That last question is particularly powerful. Why should your reader care about what you’ve said, and why does it matter? Those are tough questions, of course, but they’re an essential part of making an interesting point.
Rubric: Think of the rubric I will be using as a guideline/checklist for revision. It identifies important terms and characteristics of effective writing (logic, rhetoric, grammar). I will be looking for them; and so you can also look for them in your writing as you revise.
We are starting the process of moving into the drafting of the First Writing Project, called “The Ethos of Literacy.” The initial drafting is due Friday. One strategy you should take into beginning to think about any writing project that you will undertake, in my class or any other: carefully read through the assignment and any related materials (such as a rubric or guidelines for evaluation). With your notebook, you can begin to annotate any questions you have about the assignment and also jot down initial ideas that come to mind. I call this composting. This reading of the assignment will help you think about purpose and audience for the project–it will vary by class and circumstance. A rhetorically effective project will engage with its audience and focus its purpose; a weaker project will fail to do so. One thing you might do at this stage of the project is take the assignment into the Writing Center (and/or into a meeting with me) and ask questions and start the composting process with another.
I copy here the description of Writing Project 1 (also available on the page Writing Projects) and the audience and purpose for the projects:
Purpose: To engage in the development and revision of a critical argument in writing that responds to a problem relating to the texts and ideas we are exploring in the course. In other words, you will be developing in each assignment a thesis-governed essay. In addition, the purpose in each case will be to focus in on a particular element of critical writing and thinking (what I take Emerson to mean by “creative reading” that will enable you to practice and develop he arts, or what we would now call the “mechanics,” of effective writing for use in any of your college courses, and beyond. These are the learning focal points we will address one at a time, using terms from classical rhetoric: ethos, pathos, logos.
Format: The writing projects should be approximately 3-5 double-spaced pages (12 point font, standard margins) or 750-1250 words (approximately 250 words per page), unless otherwise noted. Each project will be submitted to Canvas as well as posted to your blog. The copy uploaded to Canvas must include this preface either on the document or submitted in a comment. The preface includes:
- What the project is: Abstract of your argument (2-3 sentences).
- What is working: identify at least one element of your writing (from the rubric and/or your to-do list) that you have focused on and believe is strong in this project.
- What else you could do: identify at least one element or your writing that you will keep on your to-do-list and believe could use further attention and feedback.
Any project missing the preface will not be graded; it will be returned to you and marked as late until resubmitted with proper format. Your essay should also include your statement of the Honor Code pledge.
All citations (direct or indirect) should use MLA format. For guidance on proper MLA citation format [in-text citation; works cited at end] consult the Purdue OWL.
“Approximately “means that a piece much shorter than 3, or much longer than 5, is in need of revision and rethinking for the purposes of the given assignment. The final project will be longer and have additional requirements.
Audience: I am only the initial reader of your essay. Since we are emphasizing that writers seek to communicate their writing in a variety of public/published forms, you need to consider a larger audience for each of the essays–and let that audience inform your writing and revision. Generally speaking, your audience for these projects will be readers who are interested in what first-year students at Washington College are writing and learning. This means that they have a basic knowledge of this course and its assignments, but no specific knowledge of the texts you are discussing or ideas you are exploring. One goal of mine is to have you submit a final version of one of these essays for publication in a digital magazine I am developing for first-year writers at Washington College. Readers of that magazine will be: your peers, other professors on campus, your parents, future students–all interested in getting a better view of how first-year students at WAC think and write. There are also numerous other publications on campus for you to consider such as The Medium, The Collegian, and The Washington College Review. This is your audience.
Writing Project #1
Coming to Terms with Intellect: The Ethos of Literacy
Develop a 3-5-page essay that reflects on, and argues for, your definition of the meaning of literacy. Think of it as “what it means to be (or perhaps not be) a reader and/or a writer”–particularly for someone in your position, in college. (Literacy suggests both the reading and the writing of words–literally, letters; I will leave it up to you to decide to focus on reading or writing or, if you think it effective, both). Since this is your definition, your “defense (or revision) of literacy,” the essay will explore how your personal experience as a reader or writer (or perhaps a non-reader/non-writer) informs your definition and reflection; since this is a definition of literacy’s meaning (synonyms here would be “significance” or “character”) informed by your experience, it is also an argument–since others likely won’t agree with you, and you likely don’t agree with other definitions of the character of literacy that you have encountered. From your perspective as a reader and writer, how is literacy significant, important, misunderstood, overvalued, etc?
You have some useful models to consider (Graff, Birkerts, Berry, Harris) for how strong and engaging critical writing and argumentation can be effective and deliberate in using autobiographical reflection and personal experience to develop a focus and argument about an idea (in this case, defining the meaning of literacy). Our rhetorical focal point for this project, ethos, emphasizes the ways writers strengthen their argument by paying attention to the development of their ethos.
- The Question you will be answering in this essay (think of your thesis as the answer to this question): What is your view of the meaning (purpose, value) of literacy and how has that view been shaped by your experience as a reader and/or writer?
- Learning Focal Point for this project: Ethos. We will discuss and workshop ways that Ethos is developed through critical reflection and by “coming to terms” with our ideas and argument. As Harris argues (Rewriting), “coming to terms” with an argument requires strong reflection from the writer. Think of this reflection as effectively citing/quoting from your own experience and thinking.
- Citation requirement. Another way you will develop your focus your attention and your argument: cite and explain what Birkerts or Graff or Harris say about reading/writing–and use that to then focus on your own view in response. Your essay must have at least one direct quotation in it (from either Birkerts, Graff, Harris, or Berry), effectively incorporated into your argument for this essay.
- Some suggestions for developing your argument and its focus:
- Identify and respond to a problem:
- Use another to set up the problem: Although Birkerts argues that reading is X, in my view reading is Y.
- Use your earlier self/views to set up the problem: Although I used to view reading/writing as ___, now I understand that ____.
- Another way to focus is to narrow your scope: you will need to focus on some key autobiographical examples of your engagement with reading/writing (say 2 or 3) that help demonstrate and develop the overall significance you are writing about. This is where the reflection comes in–taking your time with your argument and its complications rather than quickly listing off some experiences you have had.
- Identify and respond to a problem:
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?
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.
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.”