Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Thoughts on the midterm and final papers

We’ll be handing out the midterm at the end of class today, and Dale will, I believe, be posting an answer key on the blog later tonight. The key should hopefully answer most of your questions, but since we probably don’t have enough class time to do this, I thought I’d offer a little bit about the essay question on the exam, and some generally issues I saw a lot of people having. All of these thoughts certainly apply to the final papers, which definitely ask you to do some close reading and rhetorical analysis – you might want to think about them as you begin to put your papers together. Anyway:

When we do close reading, which in this class involves looking for rhetorical figures, language, tropes, schemes, etc., we’re asking for you to do more than merely point those figures out. Indeed, knowing that the text uses figures like this is an all-important first step to providing a good reading, but the next step is to say what they mean, what they do, how the use of these figures expands our understanding of what might seem an otherwise straightforward surface reading.

For example, on the Frederick Douglass passage at the end of the midterm, a lot of you wrote essays that basically said something like “The claim here is that the slaves really wanted to go to the Great House Farm. Douglass uses litotes, analogy and metaphor to show this. Those figures help make his claim stronger than it would have been otherwise.” So: identifying that Douglass uses litotes, analogy and metaphor (for example) is a great move. But you can’t stop there – merely identifying these figures in the text doesn’t say much about what they actually do, how they work, what his specific choice of figures says about what you take to be the claim that the slaves wanted to go the Great House Farm. Douglass did, after all, employ an extended analogy between slaves and politicians. Why might he do this? He didn’t have to, after all – instead of saying “a representative could not be prouder of his election to a seat in the American Congress, than a slave on one of the out-farms would be of his election to do errands at the Great House Farm,” he could have said “a teenage girl could not be prouder of being selected by a boy for a date, than a slave…” for example. Or “a dog could not be prouder of being given the largest bone in the bowl, than a slave…” Or any number of other comparisons.

I hope you’re starting to get the point. All of the examples I’ve just given are examples of analogy or comparison or what have you, but they all do something very different with that comparison. Once you’ve identified that there is a comparison at work here, your job is to analyze it, to explain it, to show why that specific comparison makes a difference. Once you start to do this, you may begin to notice that what you took to be the original claim, that the slaves highly esteemed going to the Great House Farm, may be a little more complicated than you might have thought. What does it mean that he’s comparing not only slaves to politicians, but politicians to slaves? We normally think of slaves as un-free and democracy as the free expression of values; might Douglass’ comparison be commenting on the stakes of that difference, especially when it is those free politicians, after all, who have made and kept slavery a legal practice?

It’s questions like these that make the actual figures significant and meaningful for us, that make the figures matter. They all help inflect what seems to be the surface claim of the passage with new and more complicated vectors of meaning, and help us see a type of the argument the passage is making, perhaps without explicitly doing so. Most importantly, however, none of these questions would be available to us had Douglass used different figures in the passage. Which means that the figures he did use make a real difference in the passage – they’re not just there to emphasize that the slaves highly esteemed the Great House Farm, but to help Douglass make a broader, more interesting claim about the relationship between slavery, politics, American democracy, etc. As a point of comparison, you might want to think about our classroom discussion of Maus. Many of you started that discussion liking Maus for its alleged “realism” or “truthfulness,” the way it told a “realistic” story. As the discussion continued, however, you hopefully started to realize that “realistic” might not be the best descriptive when talking about a book in which all the characters are talking animals. Instead, we started to talk about and figure out ways to understand the relationship between the story being told and the fact that most of its characters are animals.

The point here is that, briefly, details matter in their specificity. I’m not saying that there’s a right answer here or for any text; indeed, it’s up to you to come up with an argument about how and why these details matter. But any good reading will necessarily take those details into account.

8 comments:

Blake Shurtz said...

Ben,
When is the best time to meet for engaging in dialectic as it pertains to the midterm? (I'm guessing it's not after class, and not during the OH for discussing the final paper)

Blake Shurtz said...

Everyone who isn't Ben or Dale,

If you're like me, you're wondering, "What score do I need on my final to get an A in the class?" Here is an easy way to figure it out:

1. Multiply your score on the midterm by .35.
2. Add 30 (which is your attendance and workshop score, assuming you showed up to class every day).
3. Subtract your total for (1) and (2) by 94 (an A).
4. Divide your result by .35. This number is the number of points you need to get an A.

Dale Carrico said...

"What score do I need on my final to get an A in the class?" Here is an easy way to figure it out:

Don't be so sure -- final grades may take into account more "subjective" factors like improvement, extraordinary participation, slightly different weightings of assignments according to our sense of their importance as the actual class played out and so on. Certainly your grades provide a very solid ballpark sense of how you are doing, but they aren't ironclad in a way that justifies the kind of confident calculation you seem to be proposing here.

Blake Shurtz said...

I was just running off what it said on the syllabus. But I feel I've improved a lot, and I'm always on the blog, so I'm still pretty confident.

Blake Shurtz said...

But I don't do it for the grade. I do it because RHETORIC ROCKS.

Dale Carrico said...

Oh, don't worry, I didn't mean to imply that people who calculate their grades according to the percentages on the syllabus and do well on that basis might be surprised in the end to discover instead that they are really doing poorly or anything like that. I just wanted to be clear that there are questions of judgment and wiggle room that properly come into the grading process in ways that you just can't capture very well in a formula in advance and that this sometimes means that the final grades differ a little bit from the ones a dry calculation would produce. It's important to be clear about this sort of thing because otherwise students might form false expectations about the process and feel that even slight deviations from their calculations constitute a violation of trust.

Blake Shurtz said...

This class is great. I would take more classes, if only I could spare the units.

The two most useful things I have learned thus far are:
1. There is a place for figurative language in argument. Not only does it make the argument more enjoyable to read, but it makes it more compelling and it helps to clarify as well. My normal format of writing (for economics) is to whittle it down to condensed, logical statements. Dull.

2. I don't have to attack the main thesis of the article and explain it in its entirety. That is too large, and that is the most prevalent mistake on my midterm. I can just examine a chunk here, a chunk there.

Blake Shurtz said...

When we're doing a reading and trying to identify the schema and tropes, should we be looking for one in particular? In the Douglass reading, you pointed out irony as the master trope. In my essay I identified metonymy- the great house farm and congress as buildings for those who are powerful and respected. I feel my argument is pretty good although it doesn't address irony anywhere. If my argument is supported by evidence, how is it still wrong?