Thursday, July 07, 2011

Writing a Precis and Co-Facilitating Discussion

One of the key assignments for our course will be your co-facilitation of class discussion of one of the assigned texts. This assignment also requires that you generate and post onto our blog a précis of the text you are taking responsibility for in advance of our discussion of it. Think of this precis as a basic paraphrase of the argumentative content of a text.

What follows is intended to provide a broad and informal guide for the writing of your precis, consisting of questions you should actually always be asking of any serious text as you are reading it, and usually again after you have finished reading it. I don't want you to treat this as an ironclad template, but as a rough approach to producing a precis. For one thing, a truly fine and useful précis need not necessarily ask every one of these questions, but will often rather focus in on just a few especially relevant ones.

A precis should try to answer fairly basic questions such as:

1. What, in your own words, is the basic gist of the argument?

2. To what audience is the text pitched primarily? (What makes you think so? Do you see yourself as part of that intended audience, and how does your answer impact your reading of the argument?)

3. What do you think are the argument's stakes in general? To what end is the argument made?

a. To call assumptions into question?
b. To change convictions?
c. To alter conduct?
d. To find acceptable compromises between contending positions?

4. Does it have an explicit thesis? If not, could you provide one in your own words for it?

5. What are the reasons and evidence offered up in the argument to support what you take to be its primary end? What crucial or questionable warrants (unstated assumptions the argument takes to be shared by its audience, often general attitudes of a political, moral, social, cultural nature) does the argument seem to depend on? Are any of these reasons, evidences, or warrants questionable in your view? Do they support one another or introduce tensions under closer scrutiny?

6. Does the argument explicitly anticipate any objections? Does it qualify itself in ways that suggest implicit anticipation of objections? Does it circumvent or respond to objections in a revealing, unexpected, or satisfying way, do you think? Does it miss any glaring objections in your view?

7. What, if any, kind of argumentative work is being done by metaphors and other figurative language in the piece? Do the metaphors collaborate to paint a consistent picture, or do they clash with one another? What impact does this have on their argumentative force?

8. Are there key terms in the piece that seem to have idiosyncratic definitions, or whose usages seem to change over the course of the argument?

As you see, a piece that interrogates a text from these angles of view might yield something like a general book report or something more like a close reading, but one that focuses on the argumentative force of a text.

For the purposes of our class, a precis succeeds if it manages

(1) to convey the basic flavor of the argument and
(2) provides a good point of departure for a class discussion.

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