Schools have started up again, and that means assignments are starting again, too. Even down into elementary school, students are being asked to write–and writing is hard. It takes work. It takes attention to detail. And it takes time to do well.
Classroom teachers do their best, of course, but with twenty to forty students in a room, there is only so much time they can give to any one student–and when there’s one or two acting out, it’s clear where the teachers’ attention will go. The quiet student who sits and tries to get things done gets left out–not because of anything they did or anything their teachers have done, but because there’s only so much time in the class, and there’re so many other things that teachers have to do.
That’s where I come in.
I’ve been writing for years, and I’ve taught writing in the classroom and in individual settings for almost as long. My students have ranged from middle- and high-schoolers through graduate students; my clients have ranged from high-schoolers through PhD candidates and established scholars. Each has seen a marked improvement in performance after working with me–and you and yours can have the same success!
I’d be thrilled to put my time and talents to work for you. Let me know what you need help writing, and we’ll talk about what we can do together!
I comment in my most recent previous post about affective reading, noting as I have many times that I ought not to do it. It occurs to me that I’ve not really spent time with the idea outside my years-ago graduate coursework, not in any substantive way, and that a fair number of the people who read this blog (thank you!) may not know what “affective reading” is or why someone like me might have been trained away from it. Thus, the following, in which I offer a cursory discussion of those ideas; as with many things, others have treated the topic more intelligently than I have (ever had?) it in me to do, but I do what I can.
Now, again, this is entirely cursory and paraphrased from years of courses and readings, so it will necessarily gloss over and simplify matters; I can’t give a doctorate in a blog post. But my experience with the term “affect,” and how I’ve used it subsequently, has been something related to reader-response theory. In that theory, the meaning of a given text (and this can apply, really, to any artwork, but I talk about things in terms of text because it’s easier for me to do it that way) exists somewhere in the negotiation between the work as itself and the reaction of the reader to the work. That is, a text is not the words on the page, but the experience of the reader with the words on the page; if there is no reader, there is no text, even if there is a verifiable physical object to consider. It has no meaning unless the reader acts upon it to produce meaning, although it is also the case that the meaning the reader produces from the object is guided and directed by the object itself. I think a lot of people understand this at some level; most of the people I have known have run into readings they didn’t understand, and so those readings didn’t mean a damned thing to them. Certainly so much was true for students when I had them, and I’ll admit that I don’t get a lot out of watching dance; I don’t understand a lot about how dance conveys meaning, so I don’t know how to act upon the performances I see and have seen to make meaning from them.
(Please don’t take this to mean that I don’t like dance or don’t esteem its value. That I don’t understand a thing doesn’t mean I think it has no worth. The failure is mine, and one of many, not that of the medium.)
“Affect,” at least for me, becomes something of an emotional engagement with the text, a self-identification with the events described in the work. That is, it is the manifestation of affection for the characters and their situations, which moves from the meaning-making into over/investment in the emotional content of the work in which they exist. To use the repeated example from the Hobb reread, I find myself sympathizing with Fitz an awful damned lot; I end up feeling as I read as much as or more than I find myself examining and considering what I read.
So much is a problem insofar as attempts to plumb a text for meaning go. For one, reading with affect ends up making the reading more about me than about the text, and even if it is the case that the text does not exist as a conceptual thing without readerly interaction (and I do tend to follow a reader-response-informed theoretical approach, insofar as I have a theoretical approach–which may be part of why I never landed a “real” academic job), overreliance on the effect a work has on one reader inhibits the ability of others to use such a reading to glean their own knowledge and further their own understanding of the text. Too, sympathies constrain and restrict the ability to arrive at some understandings; it is harder to identify faults and label them as such amid some emotional engagements, and far too easy in others, which is not necessarily fair to the thing being examined or appropriate to the context of examination. So much is not to say that what is praiseworthy should not be praised and what is flaw should not be rebuked, but it is to say that it’s a lot easier to find the praiseworthy in what is liked and the blameworthy in what is disliked than the opposite, regardless of its actual presence or absence.
There’s also an issue I think is at work at deeper levels in the minds of teachers such as I have had and as I doubtlessly, in my own lesser fashion, have been. There is an apprehension in those who work in the academic humanities that their work is of no value; it is certainly said often enough and by enough voices to raise the concern. Long-standing practices associate emotional reactions with unserious things–and vice-versa. Consequently, emotional over/investment becomes something to be avoided; it becomes something unserious, and fields of study that already operate under the onus of perceived uselessness can ill afford additional associations with a lack of seriousness.
I have the sneaking suspicion that such associations and the admitted problems of reading with too much (any?) affect combine to move those who study the academic humanities from the love of the things that actually brought them to that study. I know that, for me, the idea of being a band director was one that emerged (at least in part) from a love of music and of playing as part of an ensemble; my shift to English studies emerged almost wholly from a love of reading and a desire to do more of it and be better at it. (I left off being a band director for other reasons, but there’s a difference between moving from and moving to, and it’s more than just a shift of preposition.) I also know that playing while I was trying to be a band director and reading while I was trying to be an English professor were…fraught; the adage about doing what you love so that you don’t ever work is wrong, and its prevalence leads to feelings of inadequacy and insufficiency. Or it did for me, at least.
Anyway, for me, reading with affect happens. And I’m not trying to work in the academic humanities anymore…
I’d love to talk about what writing I can do for you! Please reach out below!
As with a couple of previous posts (here and here), the present post is lightly adapted from teaching materials I’d posted online back when I still had students. I offer it here in the hopes that some will find it useful.
The writing that typically gets labeled as “argumentative” in classrooms serves to present a central idea–a thesis–and to support that idea through the provision of explained evidence. The way in which the evidence is provided can serve to ease its acceptance by readers, helping them to understand what is being given to them and ordering it such that the individual effect of each piece of evidence is amplified. At the paragraph and whole-paper levels, then, what order materials appear matters–as does the way in which the paper moves among those materials. What follows offers some discussion of such concerns.
Paragraphs are the basic organizational units of prose writing (although they are typically composite constructions), presenting and supporting ideas that further the governing concept of the piece of writing being done. In the context of an academic essay, paragraphs present ideas that inform the thesis, as well as supporting information and explanation for it. This is true whether the paragraph is introductory, in the body, or concluding.
Introductory paragraphs, as the name implies, serve to lead the reader into the essay. While longer pieces can–and should and do–have multiple-paragraph introductions, the kinds of essays asked of first-year college writing typically will not; they will usually be of such a length as will only admit of one such paragraph. One useful model for such paragraphs is
The hook is a statement or series of statements intended to command reader attention–to begin the pathos appeal necessary for effective persuasion and argument. It is, admittedly, optional; some situations create the attention and appeal through their nature. But for most argumentation, there has to be some reason for readers to keep reading, and the hook offers that initial reason. Techniques for effectively developing attention vary; which are deployed say much about the presumed audience of a piece, as well as about its expected context of use.
The text that follows the hook will tend to lead towards the central point of the paper, and it will generally do so by offering context for disucssion. That is, it will clarify the topic being treated and the angle of approach to that topic (perhaps giving a review of the most recent extant literature on the topic and/or outlining in summary form a tertiary source that informs the approach). In effect, it bridges the gap between the hook and what follows, helping readers position themselves to make sense of what is to come.
The thesis is as it is in other discussions. It is the central idea of the paper, the point of it, the thing to which the rest of the work is servant and support. Traditionally, it appears at or near the end of the introduction, where it can be seen easily and serve as a guide for the reading (and writing!) to come.
The essay map is an optional inclusion in a shorter essay such as first-year writing classes will usually request. It is what the name suggests: a map of the essay to come. That is, it lays out the major argumentative points in the order that they are made in the paper. Done well, it eases reading; readers know what to expect and when, and they can therefore follow the writing more easily. Done poorly, it undermines ethos; deviating from the map is, in effect, lying to the reader, and a writer who lies once may well do so again.
Body paragraphs serve to provide the information that supports the thesis, as well as to explain that information such that readers can make sense of it. (They are the focus of the section on paper organization, below.) They will constitute the bulk of the paper–not a simple majority, but an overwhelming proportion. They will also need to strike a balance between enough heft to be credible and enough brevity to be scannable–and how long they are therefore will vary by topic, thesis, and intended audience.
One useful model for such paragraphs is
Transition into the
Evidence Supporting the Main Idea
Explanation of How the Evidence Supports the Main Idea
Explanation of How the Main Idea Supports the Thesis
That is, a body paragraph will usefully open by indicating its relationship to what precedes it (about which more below). It will then do well to present its own main idea, followed by evidence that supports it informationally tagged. Something like “For example,” or “Other researchers have commented to that effect” might work. The evidence will need to be explained, however; it does not stand on its own, but must be acted upon to be of any value. And its relevance to the greater topic of the paper must be demonstrated; readers should not be asked to guess at it.
Concluding paragraphs, as the name implies, serve to lead the reader out of the essay. A commonplace method for drafting them is to return to the device of the hook–although not all such devices lend themselves to such treatment. Another, one that works far better in speech than in print (for shorter works), is to reiterate the argumentative structure. Still another, and one that works well in speech and in print, is to trace implications forward, to articulate the “so what?” that any work of research produces. How the reader can use the thesis, now that it has been validated by the paper, merits consideration–and it offers a good way to get the reader back into the wider world.
How the paragraphs in the body of the essay are laid out can serve to make the reader’s task of understanding easier, as well as to align to audience expectations and to enhance the effects of the information presented within them. Conversely, the order can serve to confuse the reader, leading from one idea to another in no pattern or one that does not make sense. Part of eliminating that confusion derives from appropriate use of transitions, as discussed below, but more of it comes from the effective ordering of paragraphs within the essay.
There are a number of orders in which paragraphs, within the body and extending outside it, can array themselves. Some of the more notable are
There are, others, as well, the discussion of which exceeds what may be given here.
Chronological order is exactly what it sounds like; it orders points of argument by their occurrence in time. What happens first gets discussed first; second, second; and so on. It has the advantage of being easy to understand; it has the disadvantages of being somewhat flat and of not necessarily foregrounding what is best to foreground.
It also has a useful variant: reverse chronological order. It, too, is what it sounds like; it begins at the end and works back to the beginning. Its chief utility is in causal work, since cause must precede effect.
Emphatic order is the traditional rhetorical order that is taught in schools. It puts the weakest point of argument first; each successive point is stronger, until the last is the strongest. (Relative strength is usually determined by the amount of evidence available to support a point. Some exceptions will apply, but they exceed the scope of this discussion.) It has the advantages of being conventional and of promoting excellent forward momentum. It has the disadvantage of demanding that the readership remain reading for the whole paper–and not all readers will.
As such, a variant of the traditional rhetorical order is available: journalistic or executive summary order. It works in reverse of the traditional order, putting the strongest point first so that it is taken in and understood. The advantage is clear: readers get the strongest point. Those who will remain, however, may feel let down, and negotiating transitions among points can be a challenge.
Another variant, which may be called mixed emphatic order, can be applied to slightly longer papers. In it, the second-strongest point is presented first, then the weakest, and following points grow successively stronger, until the strongest is presented last. Readers who have to leave early still get a solid point; those who remain are rewarded with forward momentum and the traditionally satisfying conclusion. But the order does demand a longer paper; three points will not sustain it, and five will only barely do so.
IMRaD order is common in social and other sciences. In moving through an introduction (that lays out the topic, recent literature treating it, the gaps in that literature, and the current project), methodology (how the project seeks to do its work), results (what the methods produced), and discussion (what the results mean and what implications they have), the IMRaD model is easy to understand and applies well to reports of experiments and other empirical research. Not all interpretive work applies to such research, however, so it is not universally applicable.
Problem/Solution order is also a common pattern. Papers written in it will establish what problem is to be addressed, why it is a problem, and for whom it is a problem. Afterwards, they will address what solution is best for that group to pursue or have pursued by others, articulating why that solution is best (likely incorporating alternatives and noting why they do not work as well as might be hoped). Like IMRaD and chronology, it is easily understood, but, as with IMRaD, problem/solution patterns do not work for all inquiries.
Always, the purpose being addressed and the audience with whom it is addressed must be kept in mind. They should determine what pattern should be deployed, since it is their needs that must be met for effective argument.
Moving from one point to another, and even from one sentence to another, can be jarring for readers. They are asked by the act of reading a new thing to take in and process a new idea, and if they are not moved smoothly between them, they may not be able to folow–or to follow well. It is therefore important to clearly indicate how what happens in the text’s now relates to what it follows–and that indication comes about through effective use of transitional devices.
Such devices need not be complicated; indeed, many follow predictable patterns or can be made to do so. Some examples include
Additive (indicating that a new point is added on, more useful as something to mix into other patterns than as a primary pattern in itself): One, Another, Yet another, Still another, A final; One, A further, Yet a further, Still a further, A final; One, An additional, etc.; Also; Too; In addition; Moreover
Spatial (useful more within descriptive paragraphs than as a primary organizing principle for a paper): Top to bottom, left to right / right to left, front to back, outside in / inside out, best-side to beast-side / east to west, north to south
Causal: Thus, Hence, Therefore, As a result, Consequently, Ergo, So
Contrastive (useful to introduce counter-argument and rebuttal, as well as to argue against ideas or to set up an argument): But, Yet, Rather, Instead, Divergently, In contrast, However
Emphatic: One, A stronger, A yet stronger, A still stronger, Strongest; One, More important, Yet more important, Still more important, Most important; One, A better, A yet better, A still better, Best
Others are available, of course, and it is important to keep in mind that, although pattern-building is useful, over-reliance on any one pattern of transition will bore the reader. Readerly boredom is unhelpful; break the pattern to emphasize what needs emphasis, but keep it to ease the reader along. The juxtaposition of the two could be quite productive, indeed.
As with some earlier comments, what follows is lightly adapted from materials I’d generated for teaching. The institution obliged then-current APA standards, which I retain here. I continue to hope people will find it useful…
The environment in which written communication exists is a complex one, consisting of many parts that connect with one another in myriad ways. No single model can encompass all of the complexities—at least, not and remain a useful model—so that which appears below is necessarily incomplete. It does, however, usefully highlight a number of points that bear in on the kind of writing students in first-year composition classes—and others—are asked to do.
At its simplest, the environment of written communication can be conceived of as containing three elements:
That is, there are the writer, the thing written, and the recipient of what is written. It is a sensible model, one easily accessible, and one that fits the dominant motif of triplets that seems to pervade rhetorical study. It is only a starting point, however—and no advancement comes to those who remain at the beginning.
Experience teaches that matters are not so simple as they might initially appear—and one of the early complications is that things inevitable get in the way. One term that might usefully apply to such things is interference, literally “that carried in amidst” or what intrudes from outside to inhibit or hinder the easy development, transmission, and receipt of the written message.
Interference can apply at all points of juncture. That is, it can come into play wherever any of the parts of the environment of written communication touch. In that sense, it is like friction, in which all mechanical actions lose energy—and interference, indeed, interferes with the message coming to be, getting where it needs to go, and being understood.
The writing model, with the complication of interference introduced, then becomes:
While it might seem strange to note interference before the writer, it is often the case that things get in the way before the writer begins to write. Perhaps the writer is hungry or thirsty, tired, or subject to other physical demands. Perhaps the writer is instead distracted by family concerns or other work that needs to be done. Perhaps the writer is experiencing the commonplace of writer’s block, daunted by what writing lore calls “the tyranny of the blank page.”
The last begins to be something that appears between the writer and the text, as well. And there are other such interfering concerns to find. Perhaps the writer seeks to type out a paper, but the keyboard does not work—or a cat walks across it or even sleeps upon it. Perhaps the pen to be used is out of ink, or the pencil’s lead breaks. Perhaps the calligraphy brush sheds its hair, or the paper tears. A cup of coffee overturned certainly keeps writing from occurring as might be desired.
Or perhaps the writer needs to find some particular word, but cannot recall it. Perhaps a turn of phrase reads awkwardly, and staring at it to figure out how it might be fixed stalls the fixture of words to the page. Or some bit of knowledge needs finding—and it eludes or else leads to the research rapture described so convincingly by Pigeon (2013). Or any number of other things could intrude between the writer and the text, no less than in between the world and the writer.
Some of the writer’s concerns will apply to the reader, too. Readers are afflicted by hunger and thirst and lust and fatigue; they are enmeshed in concerns of family and work; they are distracted by other things. Perhaps they lack contextual knowledge to make sense of what is written, whether in being unfamiliar with the intellectual underpinnings of what is written or in not knowing what words are used—and in trying to find out, they fall into their own instantiations of research rapture. Or, again, any number of other things can intrude, coming between the text and the reader.
Another set of lecture notes forecasts one of the additional complications that can intrude into a model of written communication: varying levels of readership. There are other such concerns, as well, expanding on the writer, the text, and the readership—about which more below.
A More Complicated Writer
Clearly, without a writer, there will be no text, and so no reader, because nothing to read. Yet the writer is not a unitary entity. As other lecture notes suggest, the writer exists within a network or framework sketched out by demographic factors—and pursuing those leads to an even more complex model of written communication than can be reasonably presented here. But what can be presented here are concerns borrowed from literary study (itself a refinement and extension of writing study, to be sure), namely those of the authorial personal and the narrator.
The authorial persona is that set of attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors adopted by the writer for the purposes of undertaking the act of writing. The concept emerges from that of performativity, the idea that people take on roles as if acting when doing the various things they do, adapting or attempting to adapt to social situations in conscious or subconscious hopes of navigating them successfully. Plainly, people act differently with different sets of people in different circumstances—and all of those acts are roles played, rather than the real person playing them.
Writing is no different. When they set out to write, writers approach the task with notions about what writing is and what writers are and do, and those notions necessarily constrain them in some ways and focus their attentions in others. What those constraints and foci are depend upon the writer’s background and experience, certainly, and they act as a particular lens or filter through which the writer writes. That they come between the writer and the text may make them appear to be interference, but in that they enable to production of a coherent, cohesive work of writing, they are facilitative rather than interfering.
The narrator is, to make things simple, the voice through which the words are spoken. It is the specific perspective through which the text and its information are presented, and it will emerge from the narrative persona and its consideration of audiences, materials, and circumstances. Discussions of narration typically focus on personal perspective—that is, is the narration first person, giving an embedded account of events, or is it third person, giving a dissociated account—limitation—how much the narrator knows, and how much the narrator shows—and reliability—how much the narrator can be trusted. Scholarly writing typically seeks to deploy a mildly limited reliable narrator—it says what it knows and what it does not know, and it tries to convey its ethos.
Whether scholarly writing adopts first or third person, however, depends on the discipline and purpose. Some fields—typically those in “hard” sciences and areas that emulate them—strive for objectivity and so draft their prose in third person. Others, chiefly among the humanities, work with personal concerns in any event, and they acknowledge that much of their work comes from direct experience—so they make use of first-person perspectives.
One Textual Complexity of Many
Other lecture notes make mention of paratextual concerns. That is, they note, however briefly, that the situation of words conveys meaning no less certainly than do the words themselves. Any number of such concerns can receive attention, and for sound reasons (McLuhan, 1964). A few are likely to attract attention for first-year writers.
One such is medium, the venue through which the text is presented. Whether a text is physical or digital, whether it is a book or magazine, a newspaper or a journal, a blog or a database article, matters in terms of how it will present its ethos—as well as in other ways that can be meaningfully explored elsewhere.
Another is the quality of the page. Whether the text is physical or digital, the quality of the page on which it appears influences its ethos—as well as the access readers have to it. Both impact how its meaning will be received.
Similarly determinative of access are the characteristics of the type. Size, color, font, and other such formatting concerns call attention and dissuade it, bespeak importance and its lack, and even allow those who have visual learning differences such as dyslexia greater or lesser access to the words.
Other visual features such as pictures, diagrams, charts, and graphs also influence what meanings emerge from the text and for whom they do. Their presence or absence, as well as their quality if present, should be considered in addition to the overt information presented.
Other lecture notes also, following Johnson-Sheehan (2014), make mention of a four-fold readership: gatekeeper, primary, secondary, and tertiary. The first of these, gatekeepers, introduces several points of complication—in addition to each level of reader imposing its own, as noted above.
Any number of gatekeepers can come between the text and its expected primary and secondary readers, as well as the uncountable tertiary readers that could take a look at the text. One such might be a translator, who work to bring the text from its original language into a target language—and the translator’s background will influence what words and phrases are used to render what, changing the words presented and therefore the text as a whole. Also, the translator will possibly have advisors, whose advice might well also change the words given.
Another gatekeeper, more common than the translator, will be the legal advisors associated with the production of text. The intervention of lawyers is amply attested; little can be added here, save to note that they do come into the matter.
Also more common, and more needed, is the editor of a text. Whether the writer serves to edit her or his own text—and many do—or another editor entirely looks at the piece, someone will (or ought to) look at the text to ensure that it conforms to expected usage standards—whatever those may be.
Additionally, there is the publisher to consider—as well as the publisher’s advisors. They decide what gets out and how, and even self-published works will have such decisions made about them. The decision to permit or bar access is a mighty one, and it must also be considered.
And then, of course, what happens for the primary reader once the gatekeepers have let the text through, as with any other juncture, can interfere.
A Working Model
At the end of such discussion, then, but not at the end of what can be considered, a model of written communication can be looked at thus:
I’ll note that what follows is adapted, lightly, from some old Canvas notes from back when I had students. Perhaps some will find this useful…
Critical thinking–and the reading and writing that proceed from and influence it–demands that the sources used to create arguments be interrogated and assessed. That is, they should not be accepted blindly for what they say, but should be made to account for themselves and their utility. How they are assessed will depend, of course, on how they are to be used–and the same source can be used for different purposes in different situations. What follows offers a few reasonably basic observations about the matter.
One way of classifying sources is in terms of their proximity to what is being discussed. One system for such classification breaks sources into three grades of proximity: primary, secondary, and tertiary/critical.
Primary sources are the things being discussed. For a paper talking about Malory’s Sir Kay, for example, the primary source would be Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. For a paper talking about Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, the movie itself would be the primary source. For one talking about legislation meant to determine curricular standards, the text of the proposed law would be the primary source. And any number of other examples could be found.
Primary sourcing is vital to research, of course; it is the thing being studied, about which new knowledge is being made. As such, it must always be included in the work being done–although it should not be accepted blindly as correct. The questions that apply most especially to secondary sources, discussed below, also apply to primary sources, if not so much; secondary sources can be rejected, but primary sources must be grappled with.
Secondary sources are those things that discuss the primary sources. Published studies of those sources are the most common examples, as Sayers (2007) would be for Sir Kay, for example.
Secondary sourcing is also important to research, although, as the name implies, not to the extent of primary sourcing; as noted above, any individual secondary source may be accepted for inclusion in a piece of research or rejected from it. If accepted, a secondary source will typically be used
To provide context in which the argument is to be made (i.e., “Many others have studied such phenomena. For example, Author (Date) asserts that Æ. Additionally, Other Author (Date) notes that Ð”);
To bolster the claims made about the primary source (i.e., “Author (Date) agrees, noting Þ”);
To provide a counter-claim against which argument can be made (i.e., “Not all agree. For example, Author (Date) contends that Ƿ”), also called a counter-argument;
Or to rebut such a counter-claim (i.e., “Author’s (Date) work is not agreed upon. For example, Other Author (Date) contends Ȝ”), also called a rebuttal.
That is, secondary sourcing need not agree with the claim the research means to support; there are other, entirely legitimate reasons to include it within the structure of the argument. Context is helpful to situate understanding, independent of other concerns, and counter-argument helps develop ethos by demonstrating not only broader understanding of the current state of knowledge in the field (needed if the research is to generate new knowledge), but also to bear out the notion that the writer has considered other alternatives. Rebuttal then becomes necessary to clear out cognitive space in which to construct the argument.
Just as it is not the case that all sources in a piece of research must agree upon the central claim being made, it is not the case that all sources referenced bear in directly upon the question addressed in the research. For example, secondary sources can be deployed that treat similar topics to that being handled in the individual piece of research, facilitating argument by analogy. More to the point, however, some works that are referenced serve as guideposts for that research, outlining approaches to take and philosophical stances from which to take them. Such works can be referred to as tertiary or critical sources.
An example of such a piece for Malory’s Sir Kay might be found in Fredal (2011). His piece does not directly engage with Kay, or with Arthuriana at all, but it does offer a useful rubric of measurement–and that rubric might then be applied to how Kay acts in Malory. (I did this, in fact, at a 2016 conference.)
One of the things that tertiary sourcing does is help writers to contextualize their work within the greater gathering of human knowledge–and that is a vitally important concern, one that helps to mark out a writer as a serious scholar or on the way to becoming one. It also helps readers to understand the work more fully, which is a good thing, as well as to develop ethos further by demonstrating again a broader consideration on the writer’s part.
Whatever the type of source, though, it should not be accepted uncritically. That is, it should have questions asked of it that go beyond “What is it saying?” and “How is it saying it?” Such questions get at the biases in the source–and there are always biases in the source–as well as its limitations, both of which are needed to understand how and if a source should be used. Many of them inhere in the environment of writing in which the piece being assessed exists–as described in other lecture notes.
An initial list of such questions, broken down by those involved in the production of the text, might look like this:
What ethos does the writer have? That is, what authority does the writer have to write about the topic being discussed?
How open about that ethos–and its limits–is the writer? That is, does the writer announce what authority is possessed, as well as where that authority ends?
What else has the writer written, and how reliable is it generally? A history of useful work makes the individual piece being examined more likely to be useful.
With whom is the writer associated, financially and personally? That is, who pays the writer, or whom does the writer value, and therefore who might have an ideological bias that influences the writer’s work?
What ethos does the publisher have? That is, what authority does the publisher have to release materials about the topic being discussed?
How open about that ethos–and its limits–is the publisher? That is, does the publisher announce what authority is possessed, as well as where that authority ends?
What else has the publisher released, and how reliable is it generally? A history of useful work makes the individual piece being examined more likely to be useful.
With whom is the publisher associated, financially and otherwise? That is, who pays the publisher, or whom does the publisher value, and therefore who might have an ideological bias that influences the publisher’s work?
What editorial practices are in place? Also, what peer-review practices, if any, are in place? That is, how does the publisher go about assessing work under consideration for publication, and how is the decision made about whether or not to publish it?
Similar questions might well be asked of other major participants in the written environment, such as translators and other gatekeeper readers. They will have biases and influences upon them, and those will necessarily translate into the work in some way.
One other concern needs attention, as well: timeliness. That is, how appropriate is the time of the source being discussed to the topic and the context of discussion? Generally, more recent sources will be more useful than older ones, in that more recent sources have had more opportunity to emerge from the best available information. That said, a certain amount of time for fact-checking needs to happen (which scholarly work typically includes as part of the extended publication cycle). Also, a piece working with earlier attitudes toward a given topic will benefit from using older sources, largely as primary materials, but possibly in other contexts, as well.
It must be noted, finally, that answering such questions satisfactorily only leads to a greater likelihood of accuracy–never total certainty. New information might always emerge that undermines what is known now. Too, as Edmundson (2009) notes, the work done is done by people, and people are prone to error, deliberate and incidental. But that same uncertainty means there is always more to learn, always more to do, and so that there is always use for the work of researchers at all levels and in all fields. And that is a hopeful thing, indeed.
Inoted not too long ago that I’ve shifted over to freelance work. It’s going decently enough at the moment, and I’m enjoying it, but I’m happy to have additional clients. I’d be happy to put the skills and expertise I’ve developed through years of frequent presentation and occasional publication, decades of study and teaching, and a lifetime of reading and writing to work for you!
I’ve got more than a decade of experience teaching college-level writing and literature classes, doing so at R1 and Big 12 universities as well as small colleges and technical schools. As a private tutor, I’ve worked with high-school students and higher-level scholars, helping them succeed at class assignments, preparation of application materials for schools and for the workforce, thesis and dissertation writing, monograph writing, and novel writing. Fields have ranged from general education to aerospace engineering, business, cybersecurity, language and literature, and psychology.
I‘ve noted, I think, that a fair bit of the freelance work I do involves putting together reading guides and associated lesson plans and instructional materials. I’ve continued to do so, of course, and I’ve worked to do more of it since the shift to full-time self-employment. I’ve commented that, as part of such work, I write a lot of multiple-choice questions. I know there are problems with them, of course; such questions, at best, work in the lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, and they more often assess ability to handle multiple-choice questions than to check content knowledge. And I’ve got more experience with them than many, as I’ve commented before; I know, and quite well, some of the ways in which (over-) reliance on such assessment methods can affect students in and after their time in the classroom.
That said, the work pays, and I need money; I’ve got bills to pay, and not all of my debts are on payment moratoria (#CancelStudentDebt). So I do what I can to use the skills I developed through teaching and practice, and I write multiple choice questions. Because I do as many of them as I do–180 or more at a crack–I’ve worked out ways to make writing them easier on myself; I’ve had to, really, and I don’t think I can be blamed for finding ways to work smarter. The adage, the old wisdom, demands doing such things, doesn’t it?
How I draft multiple-choice questions depends on the content I’m dealing with at the time, namely in terms of whether the question is a stand-alone question or one in a series of related questions. In the former case–something like “Which of the following is the protagonist’s preferred flower?”–I’ll have the correct response and one distractor ready; I’ve noted that one of the distractors, the “wrong” answers, is usually something like a joke or reference I make to amuse myself, and I often pull such references from my own experience, bringing in something from life in the Texas Hill Country. For the example above, the correct answer might be a rose; I’ll include it, of course, and will add a bluebonnet as a distractor, the state flower of Texas being ready to mind.
Most of the time, I have two more answers to develop; I usually get asked to produce a question and a four-response slate, so having two answers ready to go means I have two more I have to write. And those should both look like they could be correct; they have to fit, thematically, with the correct response. When I draft them, I look at word-count, at register, and at language-fit. That is, the distractors should have more or less the same number of words as the correct response, they should be at more or less the same level of formality / politeness as the correct response, and they should look like they come from the same language and background as the correct response. For the above question–“Which of the following is the protagonist’s preferred flower?” “A rose.”–I would need a one-word flower name (easy enough to do, although it excludes such things as “forget-me-not” or “corpse flower”), and I’d need one that’s a relatively simple name for both register and language-fit (so nothing like “delphinium” or “nanohana”). “A violet” or “A lily” would work, really, as might several others. “A tulip,” perhaps.
In the case of questions in a series–something like “Which of the following is Arthur called?” and “Which of the following is Brynhild called?”–I’ll have three (or more) answers already ready. The correct response and the joke are already in place, as noted above. The thing is, if I have a series of questions of similar type, I can use the correct answer to one as a distractor in another. That is, I can use what Brynhild is called as a distractor in for the question of what Arthur is called, and vice-versa. My own experience taking tests suggests that it will often be the case that repeated answers will be regarded as incorrect by those who are responding to the test-as-test, rather than knowing the content. In such thinking, the right answer has to change, so the answers that don’t change have to be wrong. In effect, using such question-series reduce testees’ ability to game the test, and it reduces my question-writing time, as I only need rearrange the order of responses and change one or two words in the question, itself.
As might be imagined, I write a fair number of questions in series. But I can’t always get away with it, so I make sure I can write many of the others, as well. So far, it’s seemed to work well enough.
I haven’t made a secret of stepping up my freelance work, which has for some years included a fair bit of tutoring. Although I am outside formal teaching structures–for good, this time, I’m pretty sure–I do still very much enjoy working with people who want to learn things as they work through ideas and come to have fuller, better understandings of the world and what people have said about it.
One such tutorial recently saw me working with a high school student in New York City whose teacher had asked for responses in verse to verse. The poem in question when I worked with the student was Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, the one beginning “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” It’s a fairly standard piece for high schoolers to treat, in my experience, and it’s not exactly uncommon in college classrooms, either; I’ve taught it, and more than once, as well as reading it more times than that. So it wasn’t really a hard thing for me to walk the student through a closer reading of the text than they‘d yet done, and it wasn’t much harder to help the student get their work in line with the sonnet, itself, mimicking its form closely to make the response more targeted and emphatic.
It occurred to me that the exercise is a good one–not that I’d ever done such a thing with my students; my pedagogy was…not innovative so much as solid and predictable, but structure’s far from a bad thing in the classroom–and that it might be useful for me to do something like it. I can use the practice, always, and it’s not a bad thing to show what all I can do.
Another fairly common reading in high school and college classrooms is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds Admit impediments. Love is not love Which alters when it alteration finds, Or bends with the remover to remove. O no! it is an ever-fixed mark That looks on tempests and is never shaken; It is the star to every wand’ring bark, Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken. Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks Within his bending sickle’s compass come; Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, But bears it out even to the edge of doom. If this be error and upon me prov’d, I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.
As is typical of one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, the poem is fourteen lines of iambic pentameter rhyming in three quatrains and a couplet, with a (somewhat shaded) turn into the couplet. There are any number of readings of the poem, of course, ranging from the romantic to the lewd, and I’m happy to get into them–another time. For now, what matters is how to address a response to the poem. The assignment on which my client was working asked for a personal response; as we conferred, the student and I arrived at the idea of answering the poem with another, something like the Marlowe / Raleigh / Donne sequence that receives classroom attention. (It occurs to me that responding to the Donne piece, “The Bait,” would also be a good exercise.) If I follow that model here, I find that I am given three options:
Agree with the poet,
Disagree with the poet, or
Go off in a completely different direction.
Of the three, the first seems…boring. The third is likely not to be productive; I go off on tangents already without doing so on purpose. This leaves the second option, disagreeing with the poet. And that obliges me to have an idea of what the poem is saying. Fortunately, again, there are any number of readings out there, among which are surface-level interpretations–love is only real if it stays in place as it is. It’s an easy enough interpretation to contest; nothing that lives fails to change, and things cannot improve if they remain as they are. If love is a living thing, then, and something that can deepen and be enriched over time–and there are many who argue as much–then “the message of the poem” is wrong; disagreeing is easy enough to do.
Foregrounding that disagreement is also easy enough to do. The poem’s own lines can–and probably should, in the circumstance–be used against it, such that the response opens more or less as the original closes. To wit: “You never writ, nor no man ever loved.” The line makes clear both what it responds to and the thrust of the response, good things to do for such an assignment.
That much set, and knowing that the form of the poem should be mimicked, it stands to reason that the points the poet raises should be taken in order for the succeeding lines of the poem. One result of such taking might well follow:
You never writ, nor no man ever loved, If love is never love that, finding change, Stays as it is when it first ever moved Or strives not living patterns to arrange In hopes of bringing its love to the mark That looks on tempests and is not shaken. No, use will change the shape of every bark That plies the waves, whatever standard’s taken. Love’s not Time’s fool, oh no, but is its flow’r And fruit that ripens not all in one go, But in its season and appointed hour If tended well, made better, and let grow. No thing that is made better stays the same, And stasis gives the lie to goodness’s claim.
It is a rough cut, of course, a first draft of something usefully reworked. I am apt to blot my lines, after all, knowing well that matters can always be made better. But it’s also a good start, and no journey proceeds but that it has a beginning.
As it happens, I’m working primarily as a freelance writer and tutor at this point, other work not being what I’d thought it would be. Now, those of you who’re looking at this know how I write and what I tend to write about, and those of you who keep coming back seem to like what I do, so I’ll put it to you this way: If you’ve got some writing that needs doing, some writing that needs reviewing, or some literary or writerly thing that seems to be messing with you, or somebody you know does, reach out. My rates are reasonable, and my results speak for themselves.
I work in the following:
General informational/documentary research
Creative writing (especially poetry)
Literature and writing tutoring
So, if you or someone you know needs help with any of those, reach out in the comments below. I’ll see them there!
I look forward to hearing from and working with you!
I have noted my return to teaching and commented upon some of the work I’ve done in the classroom after making that return, I know. The work continues, of course, and that means I’ve gotten to come up with more things for my students to do–and since I teach English, that’s meant I’ve had the opportunity to share my love of reading, and some of the things that I love to read, with my students. Whether or not they like it.
One such thing was Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” a poem I’ve read repeatedly over the past twenty or so years and that I’d previously taught, along with Raleigh’s “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd” and Donne’s “The Bait,” several times during that span. I’ve enjoyed the reading and the teaching pretty much every time, and students usually get into it by the time we get to Donne, catching on to what’s going on in the poems and realizing that we are still doing more or less the same things the three of them do in their poems. When I had the students read and discuss the sequence most recently–a couple of weeks ago, as this emerges into the world–I had much the same experience; I had a good time, and so did the students, with even some of the more reticent getting into discussion.
I say much the same experience because there was one key difference. As it happened, I stumbled into understanding a joke in Marlowe’s poem that I’d not previously recognized–and I’m embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t seen it before, although I must plead that I am not a specialist in early modern English literatures. I mean, yes, I sat for a comprehensive exam in it, but it was not my major or even my secondary area. (My apologies to Prof. Vaught; the fault is entirely mine.)
Anyway, at the beginning of the third stanza, Marlowe’s narrator offers to make for his putative love “beds of roses,” which seems a strange thing to offer someone, especially as a first item to be offered. Now, my students noted, rightly, that offering a bed works as an invitation into bed, and the shepherd is trying to make something of a score–a “goods for services” arrangement, as one student put it, not incorrectly. With the first class I had that day, though, I noted the thorniness of roses and that a bed of them would make for uncomfortable lying down–which the students seemed to understand and agree with.
With the second class I taught that day, though, I had the revelation. A bed of roses, one still having all the thorns, would be a bed upon which the shepherd’s love could expect to be pricked abundantly. It’s the kind of joke I should have pointed out years ago, a little bit of fun embedded in the lines that helps make them continue to merit study–and something that, like a chicken joke in Malory about which I failed to get published, I wouldn’t’ve realized without the help of my students. And it’s the kind of thing that makes teaching continue to be worthwhile.