Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The Four Habits of Argumentative Writing

In this course you will be producing argumentative writing based on close textual readings. What follows are four general habits of attention and writing practice, guidelines I will want you to apply to your writing this term. These guidelines will also loom large in your peer editing practices and also in our grading of your work. If you can incorporate these four practices into your future reading and writing you will have gone a long way toward mastering the task of producing a competent argumentative paper for just about any discipline in the humanities that would ask you for one. Taking these habits truly to heart also helps foster the critical temper indispensable for good citizenship in functioning democracies in a world of diverse and contentious stakeholders with urgent shared problems.

A First Habit

An argumentative paper will have a thesis. A thesis is a claim. It is a statement of the thing your paper is trying to show. Very often, the claim will be straightforward enough to express in a single sentence or so, and it will usually appear early on in the paper to give your readers a clear sense of your paper's project. A thesis should always be a claim that is strong. A strong claim is a claim for which you can imagine an intelligent opposition. It is a claim that you feel the need to argue for. Remember, when you are producing a reading about a complex literary text like a novel, a poem, or a film the object of your argument will be to illuminate the text, to draw attention to some aspect of the work the text is accomplishing. Once you have determined the dimension or element in a text that you want to argue about, your opposition might consist of those who would focus elsewhere or who would draw different conclusions from your own focus. Your thesis is your paper's spine, your paper's task. As you write your papers, it is a good idea to ask yourself the question, from time to time, Does this quotation, does this argument, does this paragraph support my thesis in some way? If it doesn’t, delete it. If you are drawn repeatedly away from what you have chosen as your thesis, ask yourself whether or not this signals that you really want to argue for some different thesis.

A Second Habit

You should define your central terms, especially the ones you may be using in an idiosyncratic way. If a term repeatedly bears weight in your argument definitely define it. Your definitions can be casual ones, they don’t have to sound like dictionary definitions. And it is crucial that once you have defined a term you will stick to the meaning you have assigned it yourself. Even if you decide it is unnecessary to define a term explicitly, you should always be prepared to do so yourself for any term you use in your paper and you should always be able to show that your use of that term remains consistent. Never simply assume that your readers fully know what you mean or fully know what you are talking about. Never hesitate to explain yourself for fear of belaboring the obvious. Clarity never appears unintelligent.

A Third Habit

You should support your claims about the text with actual quotations from the text itself. In this course you will always be analyzing texts (broadly defined) and whatever text you are working on should probably be a major presence on nearly every page of your papers. A page without quotations is often a page that has lost track of its point, or one that is stuck in abstract generalizations. This doesn't mean that your paper should consist of mostly huge block quotes. On the contrary, a block quote is usually a quote that needs to be broken up and read more closely and carefully. If you see fit to include a lengthy quotation filled with provocative details, I will expect you to contextualize and discuss all of those details. If you are unprepared to do this, or fear that doing so will introduce digressions from your argument, this signals that you should be more selective about the quotations to which you are calling attention. In your final papers you will also be drawing on other texts. These texts should provide personal, social, historical, theoretical, topical, formal, generic contexts for your arguments, but your focus will remain on a text that you are reading closely, and these contextualizations should serve that close reading not detract from it.

A Fourth Habit

You should anticipate objections to your thesis. In some ways this is the most difficult habit to master. Remember that even the most solid case for a viewpoint is vulnerable to dismissal by the suggestion of an apparently powerful counterexample. That is why you should anticipate problems, criticisms, counterexamples, and deal with them before they arise, and deal with them on your own terms. If you cannot imagine a sensible and relevant objection to your line of argument it means either that you are not looking hard enough or that your claim is not strong enough.

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