Approaching a scholarly text can often feel, to students, like wandering into a swamp. They may get lost simply in the language itself and pursuing one jargon word can lead them into quicksand wherein they lose any kind of foothold on the general purpose of the article. They come into class angry with the scholar who wrote the text, angry with scholars in general who engage in this kind of self-enclosed and self-perpetuating discourse, and angry with you for assigning, and thus, participating in it yourself or forcing them to participate in something that feels exclusionary. Giving students clear guidelines for identifying the main claim that the text is making and for assessing the strength of the argument can provide a way in for students whereby they can enter into the conversation and eventually use these texts to strengthen their own arguments.
Adapt and distribute the following sets of questions before the class period in which you will be discussing a difficult scholarly text. It is also a good idea, prior to sending them off on their own with a scholarly text, to guide students as a class through a close-reading of a more accessible text to demonstrate how the subtle nuances of argument often materialize in word choice and metaphor. For more information, see Close-Reading. Once they have located the main claim of the text and come to some understanding of how the argument is set up, they should go back and attend to the specific rhetorical moves the writers makes to get a more complex sense of the argument. Eventually, they will take these sets of questions as well as their practice in close-reading into their own research projects and analytical essays.
I. Find the claim:
One of the keys to finding your way through the specialized and often dense texts produced by scholars is remembering that somewhere early in the text the writer needs to tell the reader how his or her study contributes something original to the scholarship on the subject. It may be a correction of some past misunderstanding; it may be the inclusion of some consideration or variable that previous researchers have missed; it may be applying a theory or concept in a new way or in a place it has not previously been used. Make it your first goal to find that claim. Once you know that claim, you will be better able to understand the author's choices, and better able to evaluate the effectiveness of the argument.
Another key is that academic language is subtle, understated. Scholars rarely exhort readers adamantly to reject the lousy scholarship of those who came before and see the brilliance of their fresh new positions. You therefore need to be very attentive to small rhetorical signs like "but" and "although."
While close reading for these subtle rhetorical roadmaps, use the following questions to guide you in locating the claim:
1. What question does the author pose?
- What is the primary argument made by the author?
- Where do you first find the argument?
- What language indicates to you that this is the primary argument?
- Why is the argument significant?
- What other positions does the author indicate are debated regarding the topic?
- When was the article written? Where was it published? Who was the intended audience?
II. Assess the strength/validity of the argument:
Again, you will need to use close reading skills to uncover the nuances of the argument and to evaluate its effectiveness in making its claims and engaging with other positions. For example, notice how the writer introduces evidence in support of his or her claim. Does the writer simply say, "Many literary scholars have argued unconvincingly that Hester Prynne's return to Salem in the end of The Scarlet Letter attests to Hawthorne's anti-feminist attitude toward women artists"? Or does the writer engage the theses of specific literary scholars who, no doubt, have their own nuanced readings? In some cases, the argument that gives attention to the complexity of a few other arguments (rather than generically referencing "many scholars" or "studies that show") can produce the more complex and subtle claims. Then again, sometimes writers must generalize in order to distinguish themselves more broadly from others. If they get too hung up on subtle points of differentiation between their arguments and those of others, the significance of their claims may get lost in the trees. Be aware of the relative effectiveness or ineffectiveness of either approach, depending upon the scope of the argument.
While continuing to close read for the subtle rhetorical ways in which the writer builds his or her case, use the following questions to help you sort out the building blocks of the writer's argument:
- What evidence does the author offer in support of the position put forth? (Identify all pieces of evidence you find.)
- What is the nature of each piece of supporting evidence? For example, is it based on empirical research, ethical consideration, common knowledge, anecdote?
- How convincing is the evidence? For example, does the research design adequately address the question posed (#1 above)? Are the ethical considerations adequately explored and assessed? Have you read/heard anything on this subject that confirms or challenges the evidence?
2. Counter arguments
- What arguments made in opposition to the author's views were described?
- Were these arguments persuasively refuted?
- What evidence was used in the refutation?
- What were the strengths of the article?
- Was it difficult to read and understand? If so, why? If not, why not?
- Were you able to follow the moves of the article from thesis to evidence, for example?
- Did the structure of sentences and paragraphs and the overall organization guide you and help you follow the author's intent?
- Did all the material seem relevant to the points made?