ADVICE ON PLANNING, DRAFTING, AND REVISING
The Purpose and Goal of the Project
In general, what you're being asked to do in this assignment is do a literary interpretation of a text using a "historicist" approach. In other words, you are going to place a text in its historical context for the purpose of developing an interpretation that allows you to use the text to illuminate the culture and the culture to develop a deeper understanding of the meaning and significance of the text. Confused? Don't worry. This will become clearer as you work through these notes and this project.
What you're trying to do is answer the question: "What does this text (or groups of texts) say, how does it say it, and why does it say that thing in that way?" In other words, you are analyzing the text as a work of rhetoric-as a means by which an author tries to persuade his/her audience regarding a particular point. We're trying to figure out to whom the author is speaking, what arguments the author seems to be conveying, and what methods s/he uses to persuade the audience.
And that's why we turn to other documents from the period. We use those other resources to find out why that topic was important at that time, whether the argument the author is making is conventional or unusual, and whether the author's methods of persuasion are typical of the period or literary genre. By looking at the issues, arguments, and methods of persuasion used in a period, we can learn a great deal about the culture of that time, and we can also arrive at a deeper understanding of the role of that text in the culture. In other words, was this text important? Did it make a contribution?
A Process for Constructing Your Project
Step One: Choosing a Focus and Texts
There are two things you need to do when starting out on a project like this. One thing you need to do is choose not just a subject but also a focus. Your "topic" is Franklin, but what is your focus? For example, it might be how Franklin advocates enlightenment virtues. Or it could be how Franklin sets up education as the basis of life in a republic. By focusing on a narrowed-down topic, you give yourself the opportunity to go into one significant idea in depth. Taking on too many different subjects forces you to settle for thin coverage.
The other thing you always need to do when starting a project is to select the resources that will give you the best material for your purposes. For example, if I want to write about Franklin and race, I'll probably want to look at the essay on slavery and the essay on Native Americans. On the other hand, if I want to talk about how Franklin's ideas on race reflect Enlightenment ideals, I might also need to include a text by Locke. If I'm going to do Franklin and education, I might want to use the biography, his will (where he talks about setting up schools), and any other texts in which he talks about the importance of reading or education. (Practically everything Franklin wrote included comments on those subjects.)
It doesn't really matter whether you start by picking your resources or your topic. However, once you've come up with a tentative answer to one of these questions, use that answer to guide you in your thinking about the other question. And once you've picked both your focus AND your resources, think one more time about whether they fit together as well as possible or whether you need to refine or revise your plan. In fact, be sure to pause to refine and revise your plan after completing each step of the research and writing process. Your ideas should be changing as you read, research, reflect, and write.
Step Two: Close Reading to Identify Key Issues and Evidence
Once you choose a focus and resources, you'll want to go carefully through the text to identify key quotes and issues. If you're writing on Franklin and education, for example, you could make a list of Franklin's main ideas about education. For example, how does he believe people can become educated? Does he tell us why education is important? Sometimes an author is making one central point; more often he or she will be offering several related ideas that connect together to offer a coherent vision of a subject.
Each time you notice a new idea as you read, put that idea on your list and write down a quote under that point. As you find other quotes on the same point, add them underneath the first. By the time you finish your reading, you should have a list with several points; you should also have several quotations under each point.
Now that you've taken a closer look at your resources, it is time once again to revisit your choice of a focus and texts. Do you have enough arguments and evidence to produce a substantial interpretation of this issue? Do you have too much to cover in your essay? Use those questions to think about whether you need to narrow your focus, expand your focus, and/or choose additional or different texts.
Once you've done all this you are ready to begin planning your draft. Before you write, it's usually helpful to make a list of the main points you hope to develop in the course of your essay. It is also a good idea to try drafting a logical order for your points.
Step Three: Drafting
One way to develop a first draft is to try to write at least one paragraph to state, explain, and provide evidence for each main point. You should also try to draft an opening paragraph in which you state your thesis, describe the texts you will be discussing, and preview the points you expect to cover in the course of your paper. In the conclusion of your essay, you should be sure to help your reader understand the significance of the arguments you have offered. In other words, now that we know these three or four points about this subject, what do we know about the text, the significance of the text in the culture in which it was first produced, and the value of the text for today's readers?
Step Four: Revising the Draft
Here is a short revision checklist. Use it to evaluate the quality of your draft and to plan your revision.
1) Does the opening paragraph include a clear statement of the thesis and a coherent explanation of the issues and texts that will be developed in the essay?
2) Does each paragraph open with a clear statement of the point of that paragraph?
3) Does each paragraph stick to the point announced in its opening sentence?
4) Does each paragraph include a clear and thorough explanation of its main point?
5) Is each point supported with one or more quotes that offer persuasive evidence of the validity of the argument? Are the most powerful and relevant passages from the texts cited here?
6) Are the points presented in a logical order?
7) Does the body of the essay offer a clear and powerful analysis of all of the most important issues related to the focus?
8) Does the body of the essay answer the questions: What arguments do these texts seem to be making? What methods are used by the authors to persuade readers to accept their arguments? What does the text tell us about the culture in which it was produced, and how can an understanding of the cultural context help us better understand the text?
9) Does the conclusion offer a persuasive argument not only about the role of this text in its culture but also about whether it still has a role to play in 21st century culture. In other words, does this text matter?
10) Is the paper clear or does the author need to add further explanation or rewrite particular sentences or passages so that readers can readily understand the arguments?
11) Has the author established his or her credibility as a scholar and writer? Does the writing style and the content persuade us that we can rely on this essay as the work of a professional? (If you want your audience to trust your authority, you need to establish that authority by speaking in a professional rather than casual voice, using appropriate language, arguments, and evidence. You also need to be sure that your grammar and punctuation do not undermine your authority.)
12) Does the essay offer us ideas that are deeply true and useful? In other words, does this go beyond the surface of what a casual reader would find? Is it just a clever argument and sleight-of-hand or is it really helping the reader understand an important truth? Will the reader benefit from having encountered these ideas; to what extent will it contribute to his or her future thinking?
TRAPS THAT CAN TRIP YOU
Academic writing needs to be clear, accurate, deeply analytical, and useful. That means it is important to avoid the kinds of traps that trick us when we read, write, and think in a casual way. Pay attention to these traps-they could save your paper. More importantly, once you learn to recognize and avoid these traps, your ability to perform as a scholar in any discipline should improve in a significant way.
The Generalizing/Simplifying Trap
We simplify or generalize all the times when we are talking in casual conversations. But even though we feel comfortable making those generalizations, we all know that they're not actually true. It's easy to say, for example, "My teachers don't realize that I'm taking four other courses. They just pile on the work without caring about that." That statement conveys a bit of the truth in the sense that most teachers are primarily concerned with making sure you do the work necessary for their own courses and disciplines. However, we all know that teachers know that students are under pressure from many different sources. In fact, many professors try to plan their exams or assignments so that they don't conflict with work in other courses, although that rarely succeeds. So even if many generalizations include a bit of the truth, they aren't really true.
However, although we usually get away with using generalizations and simplifications in conversations, they can spell doom in an academic paper. Scholarship places a high value on accuracy and precision, because only accuracy and precision can lead to the truth.
If you find yourself using the word "all" in your writing or implying that something applies to all people, consider that a warning sign. For example, beware of sentences that state: "In the 17th (or 18th or 19th or 20th) century, all Americans " or "Americans in the 17th century " If you are going to make a broad statement about all people in the 17th century, or all puritans, or all women, you should be sure to have a source to back up your statement. Think twice before you use the world "all" since there are very few things (besides birth, death, and taxes) that apply to ALL Americans or all of any other group for that matter. Consider whether you are talking about "all," "most," "some," or the members of a particular group. Also think carefully about whether you have evidence to back up your assertion.
A second warning sign can be any statement that insists people in a different period enjoyed life that was "easier," "simpler," or "less complex" than our own. Although life in the 21st century is certainly complicated, I doubt many of us would find it simpler to go everyplace on foot or on horseback, live in homes heated only by a fireplace and chop our own wood, or face major medical problems without the aid of modern medicine. And when you think of it, many of the complexities of life arise from human nature and human relationships, and neither of those has changed much over the last couple of hundred years.
So when you see yourself writing statements that are general or simple, there are two remedies. First, decide whether you can make your language less general and more precise. Second, make sure you have quotations from authoritative texts or other evidence to support your point.
The Asserting without Proving Trap
A second trap that sometimes catches the unsuspecting essay writer is the tendency to rely on "general knowledge" or draw upon class lectures and discussions as a basis for your assertions. Certainly the presentations in class are intended to provide a foundation for your thinking, and it's difficult to disregard what we think we know all the things we've heard in classes, read in books, and seen in the media throughout our lives. But when you write a paper, you are framing your own argument and need to base it on authoritative, quotable evidence. For that reason, in order to prove something was typical in a particular period, you need to cite primary texts from the period or secondary works written by historians and literary scholars in order to support your comments. One way to test yourself is to see whether you have offered at least one quote or piece of evidence in support of each main point you offer.
The Personal Opinion Trap: Reacting Rather than Analyzing
If you find yourself saying that you "like," "admire," "enjoy," or "agree" with the author-or that you "dislike," "disapprove," were "bored" or "disagreed" with the author-then you are probably reacting to the text rather than analyzing it.
When you are developing a literary interpretation that is based on a historicist view of literature, it is your job to analyze:
· the ideas a particular text or group of texts seems to be conveying;
· the methods used to convey those ideas to persuade the audience
· and what the text helps us understand about the culture of those times, and what the context and culture help us understand about the meaning and significance of the text.
It is important for you, as a reader, to decide whether or not you accept that author's ideas and want to adopt them into your own life and also to decide whether these ideas and rhetorical methods have something to offer 21st century readers. However, comments on those subjects should be reserved for the closing of the paper. You can only evaluate a text after you have thoroughly analyzed its meanings, methods, and the place of the text within its historical context.
The Vague Point Trap (Often Combined with the "Children-Need-Mothers Obvious Assertion" Trap)
Beware if you find yourself making general statements such as "Mary Rowlandson believed in God" or "Benjaming Franklin believed in education." Both of those points are, of course, true. However, they are not telling us anything we don't already know. A professor from another college who taught Child Development courses once told me that he often received papers that began with the sentence: "Mothers are very important to children." The problem is not that the statement is false but that it's not contributing anything to our understanding. Scholars aim to expand the understanding of their readers by developing new ideas and/or by offering a deep analysis of a familiar idea.
In order to develop a real analysis, therefore, you need to go beyond your general assertion and figure out what it means. If Rowlandson believed in God, what were her beliefs? How did she convey those beliefs? Why is it important for us to know or to think about those beliefs? (For example, do they seem to contradict one another? Were they different than those of her culture? Do those beliefs give us a new understanding of her culture?) And the same goes for all other topics. Since everyone who has read Franklin (and most other Americans) already knows that Ben believed in education, use your deep analysis of the text to help your readers understand why Franklin thought an education was important, and how he thought you should become educated.
The "Side by Side Points that Don't Touch" Trap
Often when we are writing about "X's influence on Y" or about how "X compares/contrasts with Y" we fall into the trap of discussing each item separately. Thus, it is all too easy when talking about how the ideas of Locke influenced Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence, to write one paragraph on Locke's ideas, one paragraph on Jefferson's ideas, and then a conclusion asserting: "And so I have shown that Jefferson was influenced by Locke." But talking about each author or text or idea separately does not constitute a comparison, a contrast, or a display of influence. Instead, you need to keep referring from one to the other. You also need to write a conclusion in which you identify the precise points of comparison, contrast, or influence.
These are just a few suggestions about the reading, research, and writing process in an academic environment, and about the nature and goals of real scholarship. Use them to guide you in your projects, and when you have further questions or would like to consult about the progress of your work, just e-mail: email@example.com
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