Sunday, January 31, 2010

Writing Your Precis

You will recall that one of the key assignments for our course will be writing a précis (two of them, actually) and, ideally, co-facilitating class discussion of the texts for which you write these precises. The precis should in fact provide a point of departure for your contribution to the discussion in class, and you should publish it to the blog at least a day before class to give everybody a chance to think about the text in the terms that interest you.

Those of you who have taken a course with me before may think you already know all of this already, but for our class I have in mind something a little different for the précis, and in any case it is a good idea to review this stuff, since it summarizes the key questions anyone should ask of any text one means to read in, shall we say, a rhetorical sort of way.

Think of a précis, first of all, as a basic paraphrase of the argumentative content of a text.

The following are questions you should always ask of any text as you are reading it, whether you are generating a formal précis or not -- but, mind you, any of these questions can provide the basis for a useful closer reading of a text, even though few readings would ever be expected to make all of these interventions.

In your précis (and in your readings more generally) you should always try to answer fairly basic questions such as:

1. What, in your own words, is the basic gist of the argument? What is its main claim or thesis? What makes you think so? Is that thesis explicit, or do you have to come up with your own version of it?

2. To what audience is it pitched primarily? Do you see yourself as part of that intended audience, and how does your answer impact your reading of the argument? Does it anticipate and respond to possible objections? Does it anticipate your own objections, even inadequately?

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?

Why do you think so? How is this signaled in the text itself?

4. What are the explicit reasons and evidence and premises 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) and assumptions 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?

5. What kinds of argumentative work (for example, clarification, illustration, exhortation, emphasis) is being done by metaphors and other figurative language in the piece? Are there extended analogies in it, or do various metaphors collaborate to paint a consistent picture -- or do they clash with one another in interesting ways? What impact might any of this have on their argumentative force? What kinds of experience do these figurative moves call upon and how do they connect (or not) with what you take to be the piece's claims, assumptions, ends?

6. 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 will yield something between a general book report and a close reading, but one that focuses on the argumentative force of a text. For the purposes of our class, such 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.

In our course I am especially interested in compelling you to give greater attention than you normally would do to polemical arguments for which you likely have little sympathy, or at least to think more critically than you otherwise might do of texts for which you sympathize.

What matters for the purposes of our class is less whether or not we agree with the depiction of facts or with the declared ends we find in these pieces of rhetoric, but that these works have all been enormously influential and that we would all do well to understand just why they have the abiding influence they do when we disapprove of them, and why they may fail to accomplish their work for the lack of a sufficient appeal even when we approve of them ourselves.

Hence, I recommend that you choose to write your precises for texts with which you disagree and disapprove, and that you engage with them in the spirit of one who would truly understand rather than dismiss their power. There is no necessity about this -- I won't assume anybody disagrees or agrees with a text just because they have chosen to grapple with it for their précis. I just think that such interrogations will likely be more fruitful for you as a general matter. Also, I think it is a good idea for you to zero in on key passages or sections of larger pieces that seem to you especially problematic or perplexing, even if you find the work in which these passages appear generally compelling.

Given out huge enrollment and the fact that I expect at least two of these precises from each of you to appear in the blog (although there is no upper limit on the number of such precises you publish or on the comments you append to those that are published by your colleagues), I think that we should be seeing a very high number of postings to the blog beginning more or less NOW. Be sure to sign your whole name to your contributing, inasmuch as your handles are often ambiguous and I want to be sure to credit everybody for their work. Be brave in your opinions and bold in your readings -- nobody in the wolfpack will hold it against you when you go out on a limb in the fraught business of coming to an understanding of a politically freighted text in our shared company.

I hope this guide is helpful to you, and I look forward to reading what you have to say and to elaborating your ideas in the give and take of discussion in our meetings from here on out. I hope everybody is having a good weekend. I'll post a permanent link at the top of our blogroll so that you can find these guidelines and the syllabus easily, even after a great deal of content is posted on the blog.

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