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Month: February 2013

Bad Term Paper Math

So, you’re assigned a 20-page paper when really you’re only used to 5-page papers. That’s pretty daunting. It’s a lot of space to fill. Therefore you’ll have to fill it with a lot of stuff. Four times as much stuff. Four times as large a topic. Four times as significant a claim!

Except that that’s not right at all. That’s the wrong multiplier. Go down that road and you’ll start trying to develop new theories of renaissance post-modernism, or a comprehensive description of the minority female healer in the modern consciousness.

A better multiplier is nuance or detail. Four times as much nuance is a wonderful thing.

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Discussing Discourse

If I could only be un-nervous and fully supported in my geekery in every class (by profs and students), they could all be as fun as last Tuesday’s class was. I’ve done similar things in other classes, but I often come out feeling like people were just kind of baffled by the crazy librarian who seemed really excited about… something.

Exploding a Reading
Exploding a Reading

So last week was based on what I think of as a fairly standard class: exploding the article. Basically, you take any given reading. You figure out who the author builds upon (citations and allusions) to move backwards in time. You figure out who has cited the work (technically citations and allusions, but really the allusions are pretty hard to search for so you’re left with cited reference searches in Web of Science or Google Scholar) to move forwards in time. And you Read Instrumentally to figure out the language and methodology of this community of inquiry so that you can search for more people using similar language or methodologies.

For this class, the professor and I chose to explode the least explode-able of the day’s readings: and excerpted portion of a book theorizing the silences in history.* There weren’t any citations included, and the piece was difficult to begin with, so we thought this approach might help us all figure out his argument a bit by figuring out who he’s talking to and what his base set of information is.

Our class that day, held in the student union.
Our class that day, held in the student union.

We started out discussing what outside voices the author included in his argument (and I’d brought the un-excerpted version from the stacks just in case we wanted to track down any actual citations), but very quickly started talking about how hard the piece was to read. We agreed (heartily) that this had not been written for OUR discourse community. In fact, it seemed bent on keeping us at arm’s length.

Talking over what made us feel unwelcome in this author’s world helped us think about conventions that we’re used to in American Studies papers that help us understand what’s going on. Some of that is vocabulary, some of that is topic, some of that is the dreaded citation (which everybody hates but which everybody really missed in this work because they felt like he was just name-dropping or referencing things and then leaving us without context). Basically, we talked about how discourse is situated within a community, and that following the conventions (of vocabulary, method, acceptable evidence, and yes, even citation) makes readers in your community more at ease — more ready to think through your thoughts with you rather than write you off or give up in frustration. Every piece of the work, from vocabulary to argument, has to work together to move your reader from thinking what they already thinking to agreeing that your way of thinking is interesting and useful. Every piece should help your reader trust that what you’re saying is reasonable. If you don’t pay attention to the rhetoric, your message risks being discounted or simply lost.

* Trouillot, Michel-Rolph, “Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History,” American Studies: an Anthology, Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. 558-566.