Friday, April 17, 2009

How to Make Key Rhetorical and Intellectual Moves in Expert Writing

Painting credit:  Melissa Snell, 'Christine Writing' a painting of Christine de Piza (1363–c.1434), a feminist writer who made a living at her desk.In UW20 student-writers are asked to make complex intellectual, analytical, and rhetorical moves in their thinking and writing. Often our everyday language forms are not particularly well suited to such tasks as handling multiple perspectives at once, to forging connections between abstractions and examples, synthesizing ideas from a matrix of sources.

Fortunately, discourse communities (like disciplines, professions, and fields of study) develop specialized traditions of language used to do this complex kind of communicative work. Part of what UW20 students learn is how to recognize, appropriate, and revise these specialized language forms for their own expert writing situations.

The following post provides sample language templates developed by UW20 Professors Eric Drown and Rachel Riedner (inspired by and in dialogue with Graff's and Birkenstein's They Say/I Say) to handle some of the more frequently encountered rhetorical situations that will arise in argumentative writing.

Note: Some instructors may be concerned that such templates might stifle students' originality or do too much of the hard work of thinking for them. We disagree. Professor Drown agrees that "students should think for themselves, but I don't think these templates do the thinking for the students. I'm persuaded by my experience that these templates help students in the ways described by Birkenstein and Graff: which is to help them "bring out aspects of their thought" that they wouldn't have recognized without the templates' prompt. I think these sentence-forms give order to student's ideas, invite students to question their beliefs, and to situate their ideas in relationship to the ideas of others. What the templates do is make key rhetorical moves available to students in way that enables them to develop their ideas in much the same ways more seasoned scholars do."

Professor Riedner uses these templates in her UW20 classes not as formulas but as exercises to begin the writing process. The templates get students to recognize moves of academic writing and to make explicit how they're working with the writing of other authors. Professor Riedner stresses that as students develop their ideas and develop their own language, they should move beyond the templates.

Arguing for an approach to your material and setting up an argument (that will emerge in the paper). These sentences could be worked into an introductory section of a research paper, helping you set up what the paper is doing, what your approach adds to existing knowledge on your subject, and why your approach is important. A strong argument makes a claim that requires analysis to support and evolve and offers some point about the significance of your evidence. It promotes thinking, prompts further questions and draws attention to specifics. It often tends to “push back” against a different view of the topic.

Describing your topic: I am studying __________, in order to learn/explain ___________, which is significant because _________. NOT: I’m “doing” X.

Justifying your approach: I approach [my material/object of study]___ [in this specific way] _______ to support and expand points about the significance of ________. My approach allows us to see evidence __________, prompting further questions about _________ and drawing attention to ________. As a result, my work expands/challenges/argues against _______ view of evidence, and allows us to see ________ [that may have not been considered or understood before].

Developing your ideas and claims: These strategies allow you to produce analysis and develop arguments based on your analysis. These strategies can help you work rigorously with your evidence, help you explain how you’re interpreting it, how you’re adding to existing analysis, how you’re developing key ideas and concepts, how you’re contributing to existing scholarship and knowledge on your subject.

Complication: This explanation gets us __ [only so far] __ as we try to explain [whatever it is we’re explaining]. ___ [Key pieces of evidence] __ don’t fit this explanation in ___ [this particular way] __. Consequently, [Reformulate the argument in light of this]. Repeat.

Complication: Unfortunately, what I have just said is not enough to explain _______. To adequately understand _____, we’ll have to consider ________. Or, The case isn’t so simple, rather _______.

Querying key terms: [These key terms in my argument] __ need to be queried because ___ . Having developed these terms, [reformulate the argument and retest against evidence analyzed in the new terms].

Considering argument as part of something larger: While it may appear that _________ are insignificant, when understood as________, they [significance of new understanding].

Reformulate argument by refusing to go along with the conventional wisdom: Most commentators on ______ tend towards [their understanding] ________. If we consider it in [different] _________ terms, it becomes possible to generate such new insights as _________.

Clarification: Although it might appear that I am saying ________, I really mean ________. Or, Said another way, _________.

Definition/Redefinition: Although this term is usually understood in this [simple] way __________, in the context of my work it means this [more complex, nuanced, specific, specialized thing] __________ . This more subtle meaning is important because ____________.

Introducing and exiting a quote: According to X, a scholar of [source of authority], ________ [paraphrase of the larger argument of the quoted piece]. In “___title___” she writes: _____________. What she means in the context of this paper is _______. If X is right about ______, then __[return to your own ideas considered in light of the quote or as a way to redirect the insights of the quote] ___.

Attributing Sources: According to X, ________. In historian X’s view, ________. In “title of piece,” essayist X argues that “__________.”

Revealing an implication: [Following a discussion of specific details in a writer’s piece] These details add up to the unstated assumption that _________. Or, Although X doesn’t say so explicitly, she appears to mean that ___________.

Revealing a questionable assumption: X’s claim that _____ rests on the questionable assumption that _______.
Contextualizing a specific insight: [This specific thing I’m talking about] is best understood as part of _______ . Or, [This specific thing I’m talking about] is specific example of ___[this larger pattern] ___. By seeing this thing in context, we discover that _______.

Specific insights confirm a more general claim: So as we can see from these aspects of _________, that X more generally tends to ________.

Moving from a general claim to a specific piece of support: [After making the general claim]. For instance, ________. To take a case in point, ________.

Representing the state of dialogue in a field: Such scholars as X and Y have argued recently that ______. This view stands as an important correction to that of Z who classically argued that ______. This shift has enabled the field to ______, producing a better understanding of _______. In light of my own research, ________.

Extending and developing a point of agreement: I agree that _________, and would even add ________. This extension of this idea is productive because ________.
Using summary of someone else’s work to develop a point: In light of what I’ve been arguing, it’s instructive to consider what X has to say about a similar topic: _______. As s/he argues __________. If X is right/wrong about ______, then my ideas __[need to develop; should alter what X thinks…]__.

Allow a counter-argument to develop your point: Some people object that ______. Although I concede __________, I ________[reformulate my point to account for the apt criticism]______.

Getting at the significance of your work [NOT just summarizing what you’ve already said]: At stake in this argument is _______. Or, While most other scholars have argued _______, my work reveals ______. This new insight is significant because _______.

*Developed in response to Gerald Graff’s and Cathy Birkenstein’s work in They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing (NY: W. W. Norton, 2006).

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