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.