Entering a Conversation-1

Entering a Conversation

Major Writing Project 2

Major Writing Project 2:  Entering a Conversation (4 pages)

Entering a Conversation

Instructions:  Choose one of the sets of essays listed below (Kelly and Gladstone together make up a “set”; Carr and Thompson together make up a “set,” etc.).  Your essay should include summaries of both of the authors’ arguments (“they say”); your argument should point out how the authors agree and disagree; and your argument should include your own response to the issues the two essays raise (“I say”).  The “I say” is your own argument concerning the issues.  

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  • Make sure you include a naysayer to show possible objections to your own argument, and address the “so what” factor: why does this issue matter?  
  • Make sure you use proper formatting (MLA or APA style, double-spaced, Times or Times New Roman font, 12 point, paragraphs indented).  
  • Make sure you have a proper heading at the top of the first page (name, etc.)
  • Your paper should be about 4 pages.  
  • Plagiarism will not be tolerated.  
  • I recommend you take a look at the Grading Guide (below), which explains how I will grade your papers.
  • MWP 2 is due Friday, January 12, by 11:59pm.  Click the link below to submit your paper.

Recommended structure:  For this paper you have four pages to work with and you need to include, in effect, five major parts:

Entering a Conversation
  1. Introduction: includes basic information about authors, a very brief summary of authors’ ideas (a sentence or two), a brief statement of your argument (or thesis statement), and a brief explanation of why your argument matters
  2. Summary of 2 authors, with quotes as evidence
  3. Summary of how they agree/disagree; provide quotes if necessary
  4. Your own opinion and your reasons for your opinion (which includes at least one naysayer); provide quotes as evidence
  5. Conclusion:  includes a return sentence, a restatement of your argument, and a developed explanation of why your argument matters

Note that those are five parts, not paragraphs (exceptions: the introduction and the conclusion are usually one paragraph each).  What could this look like?  Here’s an example:  After the brief introductory paragraph (where you introduce your topic, basic information about your authors with brief summaries of authors’ ideas, a sense of your argument and perhaps why your argument matters), you might have a summary of one author (1 paragraph), then a summary of the second author (1 paragraph).  Then you might have one paragraph that explains how they agree or disagree (though you can already allude to that in the summary paragraphs through phrases like “Unlike Turkle, Wortham asserts that…”).  Note that the paragraph that explains how the two authors agree or disagree is still “they say,” since you’re not yet putting forward your own opinion on the issues.  At that point you’ll have written about 2 pages.  Then you write your own argument (“I say”) in relation to what they say (about a page and a half).  At that point you’ve written about 3.5 pages.  Then you end with one short concluding paragraph, where you wrap it up with a return sentence and again explain why it matters. 

Entering a Conversation

Keep in mind: this way of structuring this assignment is only a suggestion; it doesn’t have to be exactly like that.  But hopefully this gives you an idea of what this kind of paper could look like.


Set 1:

Kevin Kelly, “Better than Human: Why Robots Will – and Must – Take Our Jobs” (299)

Brooke Gladstone and Josh Neufeld, “The Influencing Machines” (330)

Set 2:

Nicholas Carr, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (313)

Clive Thompson, “Smarter than You Think:  How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better” (340)

Set 3:

Sherry Turkle, “No Need to Call” (373)

Jenna Wortham, “I Had a Nice Time with You Tonight.  On the App.” (393)

Set 4:

Michaela Cullington, “Does Texting Affect Writing?” (361)

Malcolm Gladwell, “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted” (399)

Grading Guide: I will use the following grading guide to grade your papers.  Think of it as a “cheat sheet,” but without the “cheating” part.  It’ll help you figure out how to get a good grade on MWP 2.

Introduction (10 points)

Includes basic information about the authors as well as the full titles of essays; includes a brief summary statement about essays; includes a clear thesis statement (summary of “I say” in relation to “They Say”).

“They say” inhabits world-view of each author (20 points)

Each summary does not agree or disagree with author (summary inhabits worldview of author); each summary uses sophisticated signal verbs to summarize author’s points; no listing of author’s points or “closest cliché” (pp. 31, 35, 33)

Quoting: Uses quotes correctly and appropriately (20 points)

Quotes used to present “proof of evidence” (p. 42) in summary of authors’ arguments — Quotes should not be “orphans” (p. 43) — Quotes should be framed appropriately (“quotation sandwich”) (p. 46) — Quotes should be Introduced with appropriate verb (p. 47) – Indicates page number of quote (p. 48)

“I say” clearly agrees, disagrees, or combination of agrees and disagrees (20 points)

Entering a Conversation

Clear “I say” statement in introduction, placed in relation to authors – Clear statements of agreement, disagreement, or both (use at least one template per author on pp. 60, 62, 64-66) – Clearly distinguishes “they say” from “I say” – Clearly signals who is saying what: Uses at least one template from pp. 72-75 – “I say” includes clear reasons for argument that are not simply summaries of authors’ arguments – Clearly plants naysayer to support “I say” argument (use at least one template from pp. 82, 83,84-85, 89).

Clearly states why the argument matters (10 points)

Uses at least one “who cares?” template from pp. 95-96; Uses at least one “so what?” template from pp. 98-99, 101 — statement why argument matters should be included in either introductory paragraph or concluding paragraph (or both)

Conclusion (10 points)

Includes at least one “return sentence” in the conclusion to remind reader of what “they say” (p. 27); includes a restatement of thesis or “I say”

Editing and tone (10 points)

No editing errors (spelling, grammar, punctuation, and formatting); Uses proper tone (formal where appropriate, informal where appropriate)


1. Read the following passage by the cultural critic Eric Schlosser. As you’ll see, he hasn’t planted any naysayers in this text. Do it for him. Insert a brief paragraph stating an objection to his argument and then responding to the objection as he might.

The United States must declare an end to the war on drugs. This war has filled the nation’s prisons with poor drug addicts and small- time drug dealers. It has created a multibillion-dollar black market, enriched organized crime groups and promoted the corruption of government officials throughout the world. And it has not stemmed the widespread use of illegal drugs. By any rational measure, this war has been a total failure. We must develop public policies on substance abuse that are guided not by moral righteousness or political expediency but by common sense. The United States should immediately decriminal- ize the cultivation and possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use. Marijuana should no longer be classified as a Sched- ule I narcotic, and those who seek to use marijuana as medicine

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should no longer face criminal sanctions. We must shift our entire approach to drug abuse from the criminal justice system to the public health system. Congress should appoint an independent commission to study the harm-reduction policies that have been adopted in Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands. The commission should recommend policies for the United States based on one important criterion: what works. In a nation where pharmaceutical companies advertise powerful antidepressants on billboards and where alcohol companies run amus- ing beer ads during the Super Bowl, the idea of a “drug-free society” is absurd. Like the rest of American society, our drug policy would greatly benefit from less punishment and more compassion.

Eric Schlosser, “A People’s Democratic Platform”

2. Look over something you’ve written that makes an argu- ment. Check to see if you’ve anticipated and responded to any objections. If not, revise your text to do so. If so, have you anticipated all the likely objections? Who if anyone have you attributed the objections to? Have you represented the objections fairly? Have you answered them well enough, or do you think you now need to qualify your own argu- ment? Could you use any of the language suggested in this chapter? Does the introduction of a naysayer strengthen your argument? Why, or why not?

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“so what? who cares?”

Saying Why It Matters


Baseball is the national pastime. Bernini was the best sculptor of the baroque period. All writing is conversational. So what? Who cares? Why does any of this matter? How many times have you had reason to ask these ques- tions? Regardless of how interesting a topic may be to you as a writer, readers always need to know what is at stake in a text and why they should care. All too often, however, these ques- tions are left unanswered—mainly because writers and speakers assume that audiences will know the answers already or will figure them out on their own. As a result, students come away from lectures feeling like outsiders to what they’ve just heard, just as many of us feel left hanging after talks we’ve attended. The problem is not necessarily that the speakers lack a clear, well-focused thesis or that the thesis is inadequately supported with evidence. Instead, the problem is that the speakers don’t address the crucial question of why their arguments matter. That this question is so often left unaddressed is unfortunate since the speakers generally could offer interesting, engaging answers. When pressed, for instance, most academics will tell you that their lectures and articles matter because they address

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some belief that needs to be corrected or updated—and because their arguments have important, real-world consequences. Yet many academics fail to identify these reasons and consequences explicitly in what they say and write. Rather than assume that audiences will know why their claims matter, all writers need to answer the “so what?” and “who cares?” questions up front. Not everyone can claim to have a cure for cancer or a solution to end poverty. But writers who fail to show that others should care or already do care about their claims will ultimately lose their audiences’ interest. This chapter focuses on various moves that you can make to answer the “who cares?” and “so what?” questions in your own writing. In one sense, the two questions get at the same thing: the relevance or importance of what you are saying. Yet they get at this significance in different ways. Whereas “who cares?” literally asks you to identify a person or group who cares about your claims, “so what?” asks about the real-world applications and consequences of those claims—what difference it would make if they were accepted. We’ll look first at ways of making clear who cares.

“who cares?”

To see how one writer answers the “who cares?” question, consider the following passage from the science writer Denise Grady. Writing in the New York Times, she explains some of the latest research into fat cells.

Scientists used to think body fat and the cells it was made of were pretty much inert, just an oily storage compartment. But within the past decade research has shown that fat cells act like chemical factories and that body fat is potent stuff: a highly active

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tissue that secretes hormones and other substances with profound and sometimes harmful effects. . . . In recent years, biologists have begun calling fat an “endocrine organ,” comparing it to glands like the thyroid and pituitary, which also release hormones straight into the bloodstream.

Denise Grady, “The Secret Life of a Potent Cell”

Notice how Grady’s writing reflects the central advice we give in this book, offering a clear claim and also framing that claim as a response to what someone else has said. In so doing, Grady immediately identifies at least one group with a stake in the new research that sees fat as “active,” “potent stuff ”: namely, the scientific community, which formerly believed that body fat is inert. By referring to these scientists, Grady implicitly acknowledges that her text is part of a larger con- versation and shows who besides herself has an interest in what she says. Consider, however, how the passage would read had Grady left out what “scientists used to think” and simply explained the new findings in isolation.

Within the past few decades research has shown that fat cells act like chemical factories and that body fat is potent stuff: a highly active tissue that secretes hormones and other substances. In recent years, biologists have begun calling fat an “endocrine organ,” com- paring it to glands like the thyroid and pituitary, which also release hormones straight into the bloodstream.

Though this statement is clear and easy to follow, it lacks any indication that anyone needs to hear it. Okay, one nods while reading this passage, fat is an active, potent thing. Sounds plau- sible enough; no reason to think it’s not true. But does anyone really care? Who, if anyone, is interested?

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templates for indicating who cares

To address “who cares?” questions in your own writing, we suggest using templates like the following, which echo Grady in refuting earlier thinking.

j Parents used to think spanking was necessary. But recently

[or within the past few decades] experts suggest that it can be


j This interpretation challenges the work of those critics who have

long assumed that .

j These findings challenge the work of earlier researchers, who

tended to assume that .

j Recent studies like these shed new light on , which

previous studies had not addressed.

Grady might have been more explicit by writing the “who cares?” question directly into her text, as in the following template.

j But who really cares? Who besides me and a handful of recent

researchers has a stake in these claims? At the very least, the

researchers who formerly believed should care.

To gain greater authority as a writer, it can help to name spe- cific people or groups who have a stake in your claims and to go into some detail about their views.

j Researchers have long assumed that . For instance,

one eminent scholar of cell biology, , assumed

in , her seminal work on cell structures and functions,

that fat cells . As herself put it, “ ”

(2012). Another leading scientist, , argued that fat

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cells “ ” (2011). Ultimately, when it came to the nature

of fat, the basic assumption was that .

But a new body of research shows that fat cells are far more

complex and that .

In other cases, you might refer to certain people or groups who should care about your claims.

j If sports enthusiasts stopped to think about it, many of them

might simply assume that the most successful athletes

. However, new research shows .

j These findings challenge neoliberals’ common assumption

that .

j At first glance, teenagers might say . But on closer

inspection .

As these templates suggest, answering the “who cares?” question involves establishing the type of contrast between what others say and what you say that is central to this book. Ultimately, such templates help you create a dramatic tension or clash of views in your writing that readers will feel invested in and want to see resolved.

“so what?”

Although answering the “who cares?” question is crucial, in many cases it is not enough, especially if you are writing for general readers who don’t necessarily have a strong investment in the particular clash of views you are setting up. In the case of Grady’s argument about fat cells, such readers may still wonder why it matters that some researchers think fat cells are active,

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while others think they’re inert. Or, to move to a different field of study, American literature, so what if some scholars disagree about Huck Finn’s relationship with the runaway slave Jim in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? Why should anyone besides a few specialists in the field care about such disputes? What, if anything, hinges on them? The best way to answer such questions about the larger con- sequences of your claims is to appeal to something that your audience already figures to care about. Whereas the “who cares?” question asks you to identify an interested person or group, the “so what?” question asks you to link your argument to some larger matter that readers already deem important. Thus in analyzing Huckleberry Finn, a writer could argue that seemingly narrow disputes about the hero’s relationship with Jim actually shed light on whether Twain’s canonical, widely read novel is a critique of racism in America or is itself marred by it. Let’s see how Grady invokes such broad, general concerns in her article on fat cells. Her first move is to link researchers’ interest in fat cells to a general concern with obesity and health.

Researchers trying to decipher the biology of fat cells hope to find new ways to help people get rid of excess fat or, at least, prevent obesity from destroying their health. In an increasingly obese world, their efforts have taken on added importance.

Further showing why readers should care, Grady’s next move is to demonstrate the even broader relevance and urgency of her subject matter.

Internationally, more than a billion people are overweight. Obesity and two illnesses linked to it, heart disease and high blood pressure, are on the World Health Organization’s list of the top 10 global health risks. In the United States, 65 percent of adults weigh too much,

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compared with about 56 percent a decade ago, and government researchers blame obesity for at least 300,000 deaths a year.

What Grady implicitly says here is “Look, dear reader, you may think that these questions about the nature of fat cells I’ve been pursuing have little to do with everyday life. In fact, however, these questions are extremely important—particularly in our ‘increasingly obese world’ in which we need to prevent obesity from destroying our health.” Notice that Grady’s phrase “in an increasingly world”

can be adapted as a strategic move to address the “so what?” question in other fields as well. For example, a sociologist analyzing back-to-nature movements of the past thirty years might make the following statement.

In a world increasingly dominated by cellphones and sophisticated computer technologies, these attempts to return to nature appear futile.

This type of move can be readily applied to other disciplines because no matter how much disciplines may differ from one another, the need to justify the importance of one’s concerns is common to them all.

templates for establishing why your claims matter

j Huckleberry Finn matters/is important because it is one of the

most widely taught novels in the American school system.

j Although X may seem trivial, it is in fact crucial in terms of today’s

concern over .

Ellen Ullman uses the “so

what” move on p. 729, ¶13–15.

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j Ultimately, what is at stake here is .

j These findings have important implications for the broader

domain of .

j If we are right about , then major consequences fol-

low for .

j These conclusions/This discovery will have significant applica-

tions in as well as in .

Finally, you can also treat the “so what?” question as a related aspect of the “who cares?” question.

j Although X may seem of concern to only a small group

of , it should in fact concern anyone who cares

about .

All these templates help you hook your readers. By suggesting the real-world applications of your claims, the templates not only demonstrate that others care about your claims but also tell your readers why they should care. Again, it bears repeating that simply stating and proving your thesis isn’t enough. You also need to frame it in a way that helps readers care about it.

what about readers who already know why it matters?

At this point, you might wonder if you need to answer the “who cares?” and “so what?” questions in everything you write. Is it really necessary to address these questions if you’re propos- ing something so obviously consequential as, say, a treatment for autism or a program to eliminate illiteracy? Isn’t it obvious

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that everyone cares about such problems? Does it really need to be spelled out? And what about when you’re writing for audiences who you know are already interested in your claims and who understand perfectly well why they’re important? In other words, do you always need to address the “so what?” and “who cares?” questions? As a rule, yes—although it’s true that you can’t keep answering them forever and at a certain point must say enough is enough. Although a determined skeptic can infinitely ask why

something matters—“Why should I care about earning a salary? And why should I care about supporting a fam- ily?”—you have to stop answering at some point in your text. Nevertheless, we urge you to go as far as possible in answering such questions. If you take it for granted

that readers will somehow intuit the answers to “so what?” and “who cares?” on their own, you may make your work seem less interesting than it actually is, and you run the risk that read- ers will dismiss your text as irrelevant and unimportant. By contrast, when you are careful to explain who cares and why, it’s a little like bringing a cheerleading squad into your text. And though some expert readers might already know why your claims matter, even they need to be reminded. Thus the safest move is to be as explicit as possible in answering the “so what?” question, even for those already in the know. When you step back from the text and explain why it matters, you are urging your audience to keep reading, pay attention, and care.

See how Monica Potts explains why one woman’s life reflects a

greater societal problem on

p. 593, ¶7.

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1. Find several texts (scholarly essays, newspaper articles, emails, memos, blogs, etc.) and see whether they answer the “so what?” and “who cares?” questions. Probably some do, some don’t. What difference does it make whether they do or do not? How do the authors who answer these questions do so? Do they use any strategies or techniques that you could borrow for your own writing? Are there any strategies or techniques recommended in this chapter, or that you’ve found or developed on your own, that you’d recommend to these authors?

2. Look over something you’ve written yourself. Do you indi- cate “so what?” and “who cares”? If not, revise your text to do so. You might use the following template to get started.

My point here (that ) should interest those who

. Beyond this limited audience, however, my point

should speak to anyone who cares about the larger issue of


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3 H


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“as a result”

Connecting the Parts


We once had a student named Bill, whose characteristic sentence pattern went something like this.

Spot is a good dog. He has fleas.

“Connect your sentences,” we urged in the margins of Bill’s papers. “What does Spot being good have to do with his fleas?” “These two statements seem unrelated. Can you connect them in some logical way?” When comments like these yielded no results, we tried inking in suggested connections for him.

Spot is a good dog, but he has fleas. Spot is a good dog, even though he has fleas.

But our message failed to get across, and Bill’s disconnected sentence pattern persisted to the end of the semester. And yet Bill did focus well on his subjects. When he men- tioned Spot the dog (or Plato, or any other topic) in one sen- tence, we could count on Spot (or Plato) being the topic of the following sentence as well. This was not the case with

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some of Bill’s classmates, who sometimes changed topic from sentence to sentence or even from clause to clause within a single sentence. But because Bill neglected to mark his con- nections, his writing was as frustrating to read as theirs. In all these cases, we had to struggle to figure out on our own how the sentences and paragraphs connected or failed to connect with one another. What makes such writers so hard to read, in other words, is that they never gesture back to what they have just said or forward to what they plan to say. “Never look back” might be their motto, almost as if they see writing as a process of think- ing of something to say about a topic and writing it down, then thinking of something else to say about the topic and writing that down too, and on and on until they’ve filled the assigned number of pages and can hand the paper in. Each sentence basically starts a new thought, rather than growing out of or extending the thought of the previous sentence. When Bill talked about his writing habits, he acknowl- edged that he never went back and read what he had written. Indeed, he told us that, other than using his computer software to check for spelling errors and make sure that his tenses were all aligned, he never actually reread what he wrote before turn- ing it in. As Bill seemed to picture it, writing was something one did while sitting at a computer, whereas reading was a separate activity generally reserved for an easy chair, book in hand. It had never occurred to Bill that to write a good sentence he had to think about how it connected to those that came before and after; that he had to think hard about how that sentence fit into the sentences that surrounded it. Each sentence for Bill existed in a sort of tunnel isolated from every other sentence on the page. He never bothered to fit all the parts of his essay

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together because he apparently thought of writing as a matter of piling up information or observations rather than building a sustained argument. What we suggest in this chapter, then, is that you converse not only with others in your writing but with yourself: that you establish clear relations between one statement and the next by connecting those statements. This chapter addresses the issue of how to connect all the parts of your writing. The best compositions establish a sense of momentum and direction by making explicit connections among their different parts, so that what is said in one sentence (or paragraph) both sets up what is to come and is clearly informed by what has already been said. When you write a sentence, you create an expectation in the reader’s mind that the next sentence will in some way echo and extend it, even if—especially if—that next sentence takes your argument in a new direction. It may help to think of each sentence you write as having arms that reach backward and forward, as the figure below suggests. When your sentences reach outward like this, they establish con- nections that help your writing flow smoothly in a way readers appreciate. Conversely, when writing lacks such connections and moves in fits and starts, readers repeatedly have to go back over the sentences and guess at the connections on their own. To pre- vent such disconnection and make your writing flow, we advise

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following a “do it yourself ” principle, which means that it is your job as a writer to do the hard work of making the connections rather than, as Bill did, leaving this work to your readers. This chapter offers several strategies you can use to put this principle into action: (1) using transition terms (like “there- fore” and “as a result”); (2) adding pointing words (like “this” or “such”); (3) developing a set of key terms and phrases for each text you write; and (4) repeating yourself, but with a difference—a move that involves repeating what you’ve said, but with enough variation to avoid being redundant. All these moves require that you always look back and, in crafting any one sentence, think hard about those that precede it. Notice how we ourselves have used such connecting devices thus far in this chapter. The second paragraph of this chapter, for example, opens with the transitional “And yet,” signaling a change in direction, while the opening sentence of the third includes the phrase “in other words,” telling you to expect a restatement of a point we’ve just made. If you look through this book, you should be able to find many sentences that contain some word or phrase that explicitly hooks them back to some- thing said earlier, to something about to be said, or both. And many sentences in this chapter repeat key terms related to the idea of connection: “connect,” “disconnect,” “link,” “relate,” “forward,” and “backward.”

use transitions

For readers to follow your train of thought, you need not only to connect your sentences and paragraphs to each other, but also to mark the kind of connection you are making. One of the easiest ways to make this move is to use transitions (from

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the Latin root trans, “across”), which help you cross from one point to another in your text. Transitions are usually placed at or near the start of sentences so they can signal to readers where your text is going: in the same direction it has been moving, or in a new direction. More specifically, transitions tell readers whether your text is echoing a previous sentence or paragraph (“in other words”), adding something to it (“in addi- tion”), offering an example of it (“for example”), generalizing from it (“as a result”), or modifying it (“and yet”). The following is a list of commonly used transitions, catego- rized according to their different functions.


also indeed and in fact besides moreover furthermore so too in addition


actually to put it another way by extension to put it bluntly in other words to put it succinctly in short ultimately that is


after all for instance as an illustration specifically consider to take a case in point for example

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cause and effect

accordingly so as a result then consequently therefore hence thus since


along the same lines likewise in the same way similarly


although nevertheless but nonetheless by contrast on the contrary conversely on the other hand despite regardless even though whereas however while yet in contrast


admittedly naturally although it is true of course granted to be sure


as a result in sum consequently therefore hence thus in conclusion to sum up in short to summarize

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Ideally, transitions should operate so unobtrusively in a piece of writing that they recede into the background and readers do not even notice that they are there. It’s a bit like what happens when drivers use their turn signals before turning right or left: just as other drivers recognize such signals almost unconsciously, readers should process transition terms with a minimum of thought. But even though such terms should function unobtrusively in your writing, they can be among the most powerful tools in your vocabulary. Think how your heart sinks when someone, immediately after praising you, begins a sentence with “but” or “however.” No matter what follows, you know it won’t be good. Notice that some transitions can help you not only to move from one sentence to another, but to combine two or more sen- tences into one. Combining sentences in this way helps prevent the choppy, staccato effect that arises when too many short sen- tences are strung together, one after the other. For instance, to combine Bill’s two choppy sentences (“Spot is a good dog. He has fleas.”) into one, better-flowing sentence, we suggested that he rewrite them as “Spot is a good dog, even though he has fleas.” Transitions like these not only guide readers through the twists and turns of your argument but also help ensure that you have an argument in the first place. In fact, we think of words like “but,” “yet,” “nevertheless,” “besides,” and others as argu- ment words, since it’s hard to use them without making some kind of argument. The word “therefore,” for instance, commits you to making sure that the claims preceding it lead logically to the conclusion that it introduces. “For example” also assumes an argument, since it requires the material you are introducing to stand as an instance or proof of some preceding generalization. As a result, the more you use transitions, the more you’ll be able not only to connect the parts of your text but also to construct

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a strong argument in the first place. And if you draw on them frequently enough, using them should eventually become sec- ond nature. To be sure, it is possible to overuse transitions, so take time to read over your drafts carefully and eliminate any transitions

that are unnecessary. But following the maxim that you need to learn the basic moves of argument before you can deliberately depart from them, we advise you not to

forgo explicit transition terms until you’ve first mastered their use. In all our years of teaching, we’ve read countless essays that suffered from having few or no transitions, but cannot recall one in which the transitions were overused. Seasoned writers sometimes omit explicit transitions, but only because they rely heavily on the other types of connecting devices that we turn to in the rest of this chapter. Before doing so, however, let us warn you about inserting tran- sitions without really thinking through their meanings—using “therefore,” say, when your text’s logic actually requires “nev- ertheless” or “however.” So beware. Choosing transition terms should involve a bit of mental sweat, since the whole point of using them is to make your writing more reader-friendly, not less. The only thing more frustrating than reading Bill-style passages like “Spot is a good dog. He has fleas” is reading mis-connected sentences like “Spot is a good dog. For example, he has fleas.”

use pointing words

Another way to connect the parts of your argument is by using pointing words—which, as their name implies, point or refer backward to some concept in the previous sentence. The most common of these pointing words include “this,” “these,” “that,”

See how Mary Maxfield uses transitions on

p. 443.

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“those,” “their,” and “such” (as in “these pointing words” near the start of this sentence) and simple pronouns like “his,” “he,” “her,” “she,” “it,” and “their.” Such terms help you create the flow we spoke of earlier that enables readers to move effortlessly through your text. In a sense, these terms are like an invisible hand reaching out of your sentence, grabbing what’s needed in the previous sentences and pulling it along. Like transitions, however, pointing words need to be used carefully. It’s dangerously easy to insert pointing words into your text that don’t refer to a clearly defined object, assuming that because the object you have in mind is clear to you it will also be clear to your readers. For example, consider the use of “this” in the following passage.

Alexis de Tocqueville was highly critical of democratic societ- ies, which he saw as tending toward mob rule. At the same time, he accorded democratic societies grudging respect. This is seen in Tocqueville’s statement that . . .

When “this” is used in such a way it becomes an ambiguous or free-floating pointer, since readers can’t tell if it refers to Tocque- ville’s critical attitude toward democratic societies, his grudging respect for them, or some combination of both. “This what?” readers mutter as they go back over such passages and try to figure them out. It’s also tempting to try to cheat with pointing words, hoping that they will conceal or make up for conceptual confusions that may lurk in your argument. By referring to a fuzzy idea as “this” or “that,” you might hope the fuzziness will somehow come across as clearer than it is. You can fix problems caused by a free-floating pointer by making sure there is one and only one possible object in the vicinity that the pointer could be referring to. It also often helps

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to name the object the pointer is referring to at the same time that you point to it, replacing the bald “this” in the example above with a more precise phrase like “this ambivalence toward democratic societies” or “this grudging respect.”

repeat key terms and phrases

A third strategy for connecting the parts of your argument is to develop a constellation of key terms and phrases, including their synonyms and antonyms, that you repeat throughout your text. When used effectively, your key terms should be items that readers could extract from your text in order to get a solid sense of your topic. Playing with key terms also can be a good way to come up with a title and appropriate section headings for your text. Notice how often Martin Luther King Jr. uses the key words “criticism,” “statement,” “answer,” and “correspondence” in the opening paragraph of his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

Dear Fellow Clergymen: While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

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Even though King uses the terms “criticism” and “answer” three times each and “statement” twice, the effect is not overly repeti- tive. In fact, these key terms help build a sense of momentum in the paragraph and bind it together. For another example of the effective use of key terms, con- sider the following passage, in which the historian Susan Doug- las develops a constellation of sharply contrasting key terms around the concept of “cultural schizophrenics”: women like herself who, Douglas claims, have mixed feelings about the images of ideal femininity with which they are constantly bom- barded by the media.

In a variety of ways, the mass media helped make us the cultural schizophrenics we are today, women who rebel against yet submit to prevailing images about what a desirable, worthwhile woman should be. . . . [T]he mass media has engendered in many women a kind of cultural identity crisis. We are ambivalent toward feminin- ity on the one hand and feminism on the other. Pulled in opposite directions—told we were equal, yet told we were subordinate; told we could change history but told we were trapped by history—we got the bends at an early age, and we’ve never gotten rid of them. When I open Vogue, for example, I am simultaneously infu- riated and seduced. . . . I adore the materialism; I despise the materialism. . . . I want to look beautiful; I think wanting to look beautiful is about the most dumb-ass goal you could have. The magazine stokes my desire; the magazine triggers my bile. And this doesn’t only happen when I’m reading Vogue; it happens all the time. . . . On the one hand, on the other hand—that’s not just me—that’s what it means to be a woman in America. To explain this schizophrenia . . .

Susan Douglas, Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media

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In this passage, Douglas establishes “schizophrenia” as a key concept and then echoes it through synonyms like “identity crisis,” “ambivalent,” “the bends”—and even demonstrates it through a series of contrasting words and phrases:

rebel against / submit told we were equal / told we were subordinate told we could change history / told we were trapped by history infuriated / seduced I adore / I despise I want / I think wanting . . . is about the most dumb-ass goal stokes my desire / triggers my bile on the one hand / on the other hand

These contrasting phrases help flesh out Douglas’s claim that women are being pulled in two directions at once. In so doing, they bind the passage together into a unified whole that, despite its complexity and sophistication, stays focused over its entire length.

repeat yourself—but with a difference

The last technique we offer for connecting the parts of your text involves repeating yourself, but with a difference—which basically means saying the same thing you’ve just said, but in a slightly different way that avoids sounding monotonous. To effectively connect the parts of your argument and keep it mov- ing forward, be careful not to leap from one idea to a different idea or introduce new ideas cold. Instead, try to build bridges between your ideas by echoing what you’ve just said while simultaneously moving your text into new territory.

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Several of the connecting devices discussed in this chapter are ways of repeating yourself in this special way. Key terms, pointing terms, and even many transitions can be used in a way that not only brings something forward from the previous sentence but in some way alters it. When Douglas, for instance, uses the key term “ambivalent” to echo her earlier reference to schizophrenics, she is repeating herself with a difference— repeating the same concept, but with a different word that adds new associations. In addition, when you use transition phrases like “in other words” and “to put it another way,” you repeat yourself with a difference, since these phrases help you restate earlier claims but in a different register. When you open a sentence with “in other words,” you are basically telling your readers that in case they didn’t fully understand what you meant in the last sentence, you are now coming at it again from a slightly different angle, or that since you’re presenting a very important idea, you’re not going to skip over it quickly but will explore it further to make sure your readers grasp all its aspects. We would even go so far as to suggest that after your first sentence, almost every sentence you write should refer back to previous statements in some way. Whether you are writing a “furthermore” comment that adds to what you have just said or a “for example” statement that illustrates it, each sentence should echo at least one element of the previous sentence in some discernible way. Even when your text changes direction and requires transitions like “in contrast,” “however,” or “but,” you still need to mark that shift by linking the sentence to the one just before it, as in the following example.

Cheyenne loved basketball. Nevertheless, she feared her height would put her at a disadvantage.

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These sentences work because even though the second sen- tence changes course and qualifies the first, it still echoes key concepts from the first. Not only does “she” echo “Cheyenne,” since both refer to the same person, but “feared” echoes “loved” by establishing the contrast mandated by the term “neverthe- less.” “Nevertheless,” then, is not an excuse for changing sub- jects radically. It too requires repetition to help readers shift gears with you and follow your train of thought. Repetition, in short, is the central means by which you can move from point A to point B in a text. To introduce one last analogy, think of the way experienced rock climbers move up a steep slope. Instead of jumping or lurching from one handhold to the next, good climbers get a secure handhold on the position they have established before reaching for the next ledge. The same thing applies to writing. To move smoothly from point to point in your argument, you need to firmly ground what you say in what you’ve already said. In this way, your writing remains focused while simultaneously moving forward. “But hold on,” you may be thinking. “Isn’t repetition pre- cisely what sophisticated writers should avoid, on the grounds that it will make their writing sound simplistic—as if they are belaboring the obvious?” Yes and no. On the one hand, writers certainly can run into trouble if they merely repeat themselves and nothing more. On the other hand, repetition is key to creat- ing continuity in writing. It is impossible to stay on track in a piece of writing if you don’t repeat your points throughout the length of the text. Furthermore, writers would never make an impact on readers if they didn’t repeat their main points often enough to reinforce those points and make them stand out above subordinate points. The trick therefore is not to avoid repeating yourself but to repeat yourself in varied and interesting enough ways that you advance your argument without sounding tedious.

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1. Read the following opening to Chapter 2 of The Road to Wigan Pier, by George Orwell. Annotate the connecting devices by underlining the transitions, circling the key terms, and putting boxes around the pointing terms.

Our civilisation . . . is founded on coal, more completely than one realises until one stops to think about it. The machines that keep us alive, and the machines that make the machines, are all directly or indirectly dependent upon coal. In the metabolism of the Western world the coal-miner is second in importance only to the man who ploughs the soil. He is a sort of grimy cary- atid upon whose shoulders nearly everything that is not grimy is supported. For this reason the actual process by which coal is extracted is well worth watching, if you get the chance and are willing to take the trouble. When you go down a coal-mine it is important to try and get to the coal face when the “fillers” are at work. This is not easy, because when the mine is working visitors are a nuisance and are not encouraged, but if you go at any other time, it is possible to come away with a totally wrong impression. On a Sunday, for instance, a mine seems almost peaceful. The time to go there is when the machines are roaring and the air is black with coal dust, and when you can actually see what the miners have to do. At those times the place is like hell, or at any rate like my own mental picture of hell. Most of the things one imagines in hell are there—heat, noise, confusion, darkness, foul air, and, above all, unbearably cramped space. Everything except the fire, for there is no fire down there except the feeble beams of Davy lamps and electric torches which scarcely penetrate the clouds of coal dust.

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When you have finally got there—and getting there is a job in itself: I will explain that in a moment—you crawl through the last line of pit props and see opposite you a shiny black wall three or four feet high. This is the coal face. Overhead is the smooth ceiling made by the rock from which the coal has been cut; underneath is the rock again, so that the gallery you are in is only as high as the ledge of coal itself, probably not much more than a yard. The first impression of all, overmastering everything else for a while, is the frightful, deafening din from the conveyor belt which carries the coal away. You cannot see very far, because the fog of coal dust throws back the beam of your lamp, but you can see on either side of you the line of half-naked kneeling men, one to every four or five yards, driving their shovels under the fallen coal and flinging it swiftly over their left shoulders. . . .

George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier

2. Read over something you’ve written with an eye for the devices you’ve used to connect the parts. Underline all the transitions, pointing terms, key terms, and repetition. Do you see any patterns? Do you rely on certain devices more than others? Are there any passages that are hard to follow—and if so, can you make them easier to read by trying any of the other devices discussed in this chapter?

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“ain’t so / is not”

Academic Writing Doesn’t Always Mean

Setting Aside Your Own Voice


Have you ever gotten the impression that writing well in college means setting aside the kind of language you use in everyday conversation? That to impress your instructors you need to use big words, long sentences, and complex sentence structures? If so, then we’re here to tell you that it ain’t neces- sarily so. On the contrary, academic writing can—and in our view should—be relaxed, easy to follow, and even a little bit fun. Although we don’t want to suggest that you avoid using sophisticated, academic terms in your writing, we encourage you to draw upon the kinds of expressions and turns of phrase that you use every day when texting or conversing with family and friends. In this chapter, we want to show you how you can write effective academic arguments while holding on to some of your own voice. This point is important, since you may well become turned off from writing if you think your everyday language practices have to be checked at the classroom door. You may end up feeling like a student we know who, when asked how she felt

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about the writing she does in college, answered, “I do it because I have to, but it’s just not me!” This is not to suggest that any language you use among friends has a place in academic writing. Nor is it to suggest that you may fall back on colloquial usage as an excuse for not learning more rigorous forms of expression. After all, learning these more rigorous forms of expression and developing a more intellectual self is a major reason for getting an education. We do, however, wish to suggest that relaxed, colloquial language can often enliven academic writing and even enhance its rigor and precision. Such informal language also helps you connect with readers in a personal as well as an intellectual way. In our view, then, it is a mistake to assume that the academic and the everyday are completely separate languages that can never be used together.

mix academic and colloquial styles

Many successful writers blend academic, professional language with popular expressions and sayings. Consider, for instance, the following passage from a scholarly article about the way teachers respond to errors in student writing.

Marking and judging formal and mechanical errors in student papers is one area in which composition studies seems to have a multiple-personality disorder. On the one hand, our mellow, student-centered, process-based selves tend to condemn mark- ing formal errors at all. Doing it represents the Bad Old Days. Ms. Fidditch and Mr. Flutesnoot with sharpened red pencils, spill- ing innocent blood across the page. Useless detail work. Inhumane, perfectionist standards, making our students feel stupid, wrong,

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trivial, misunderstood. Joseph Williams has pointed out how arbi- trary and context-bound our judgments of formal error are. And certainly our noting of errors on student papers gives no one any great joy; as Peter Elbow says, English is most often associated either with grammar or with high literature—“two things designed to make folks feel most out of it.”

Robert Connors and Andrea Lunsford, “Frequency of Formal Errors in Current College Writing,

or Ma and Pa Kettle Do Research”

This passage blends writing styles in several ways. First, it places informal, relaxed expressions like “mellow,” “the Bad Old Days,” and “folks” alongside more formal, academic phrases like “multiple-personality disorder,” “student-centered,” “process- based,” and “arbitrary and context-bound.” Even the title of the piece, “Frequency of Formal Errors in Current College Writing, or Ma and Pa Kettle Do Research,” blends formal, academic usage on the left side of the comma with a popular- culture reference to the fictional movie characters Ma and Pa Kettle on the right. Second, to give vivid, concrete form to their discussion of grading disciplinarians, Connors and Lunsford conjure up such archetypal, imaginary figures as the stuffy, old-fashioned taskmasters Ms. Fidditch and Mr. Flutes- noot. Through such imaginative uses of language, Connors and Lunsford inject greater force into what might otherwise have been dry, scholarly prose. Formal/informal mixings like this can be found in countless other texts, though more frequently in the humanities than the sciences, and more frequently still in journalism. Notice how the food industry critic Eric Schlosser describes some changes in the city of Colorado Springs in his best-selling book on fast foods in the United States.

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The loopiness once associated with Los Angeles has come full blown to Colorado Springs—the strange, creative energy that crops up where the future’s consciously being made, where people walk the fine line separating a visionary from a total nutcase.

Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation

Schlosser could have played it safe and referred not to the “loopiness” but to the “eccentricity” associated with Los Ange- les, or to “the fine line separating a visionary from a lunatic” instead of “ . . . a total nutcase.” His decision, however, to go with the more adventuresome, colorful terms gives a liveliness to his writing that would have been lacking with the more conventional terms. Another example of writing that blends the informal with the formal comes from an essay on the American novelist Willa Cather by the literary critic Judith Fetterley. Discussing “how very successful Cather has been in controlling how we think about her,” Fetterley, building on the work of another scholar, writes as follows.

As Merrill Skaggs has put it, “She is neurotically controlling and self-conscious about her work, but she knows at all points what she is doing. Above all else, she is self-conscious.” Without question, Cather was a control freak.

Judith Fetterley, “Willa Cather and the Question of Sympathy: The Unofficial Story”

This passage demonstrates not only that specialized phrases from psychology like “self-conscious” and “neurotically control- ling” are compatible with everyday, popular expressions like “control freak,” but also that translating the one type of lan- guage into the other, the specialized into the everyday, can help

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drive home a point. By translating Skaggs’s polysyllabic description of Cather as “neurotically controlling and self-conscious” into the succinct, if blunt, claim that “Without question, Cather was a control freak,” Fetter- ley suggests that one need not choose between rarified, academic ways of talking and the everyday language of casual con- versation. Indeed, her passage offers a simple recipe for blending the high and the low: first make your point in the language of a professional field, and then make it again in everyday language—a great trick, we think, for underscoring a point. While one effect of blending languages like this is to give your writing more punch, another is to make a political statement— about the way, for example, society unfairly overvalues some dialects and devalues others. For instance, in the titles of two of her books, Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America and Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner, the language scholar Geneva Smitherman mixes African American vernacular phrases with more scholarly language in order to suggest, as she explicitly argues in these books, that black English vernacular is as legitimate a variety of language as “standard” English. Here are three typical passages.

In Black America, the oral tradition has served as a fundamen- tal vehicle for gittin ovuh. That tradition preserves the Afro- American heritage and reflects the collective spirit of the race.

Blacks are quick to ridicule “educated fools,” people who done gone to school and read all dem books and still don’t know nothin!

. . . it is a socially approved verbal strategy for black rappers to talk about how bad they is.

Geneva Smitherman, Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America

See p. 264 for an essay that mixes colloquial and academic styles.

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In these examples, Smitherman blends the standard written English of phrases like “oral tradition” and “fundamental vehi- cle” with black oral vernacular like “gittin ovuh,” “dem books,” and “how bad they is.” Indeed, she even blends standard English spelling with that of black English variants like “dem” and “ovuh,” thus mimicking what some black English vernacular actually sounds like. Although some scholars might object to these unconventional practices, this is precisely Smitherman’s point: that our habitual language practices need to be opened up, and that the number of participants in the academic con- versation needs to be expanded. Along similar lines, the writer and activist Gloria Anzaldúa mixes standard English with Tex-Mex, a hybrid blend of English, Castilian Spanish, a North Mexican dialect, and the Indian language Nahuatl, to make a political point about the suppression of the Spanish language in the United States.

From this racial, ideological, cultural, and biological cross- pollinization, an “alien” consciousness is presently in the making— a new mestiza consciousness, una conciencia de mujer.

Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza

Like Smitherman, Anzaldúa gets her point across not only through what she says but through the way she says it, liter- ally showing that the new hybrid, or mestiza, consciousness that she describes is, as she puts it, “presently in the making.” Ultimately, these passages suggest that blending languages— what Vershawn Ashanti Young calls “code meshing”—can call into question the very idea that the languages are distinct and separate.

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when to mix styles? consider your audience and purpose

Because there are so many options in writing, you should never feel limited in your choice of words, as if such choices are set in stone. You can always experiment with your language and improve it. You can always dress it up, dress it down, or some combination of both. In dressing down your language, for exam- ple, you can make the claim that somebody “failed to notice” something by saying instead that it “flew under the radar.” Or you can state that the person was “unaware” of something by saying that he was “out to lunch.” You could even recast the title of this book, “They Say / I Say,” as a teenager might say it: “She Goes / I’m Like.” But how do you know when it is better to play things straight and stick to standard English, and when to be more adventure- some and mix things up? When, in other words, should you write “failed to notice” and when is it okay (or more effective) to write “flew under the radar”? Is it always appropriate to mix styles? And when you do so, how do you know when enough is enough? In all situations, think carefully about your audience and purpose. When you write a letter applying for a job, for instance, or submit a grant proposal, where your words will be weighed by an official screening body, using language that’s too colloquial or slangy may well jeopardize your chances of success. On such occasions, it is usually best to err on the safe side, conforming as closely as possible to the conventions of standard written English. In other situations for other audiences, however, there is room to be more creative—in this book, for example. Ulti- mately, your judgments about the appropriate language for the

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situation should always take into account your likely audience and your purpose in writing. Although it may have been in the past, academic writing in most disciplines today is no longer the linguistic equivalent of a black-tie affair. To succeed as a writer in college, then, you need not always limit your language to the strictly formal. Although academic writing does rely on complex sentence patterns and on specialized, disciplinary vocabularies, it is surprising how often such writing draws on the languages of the street, popular culture, our ethnic communities, and home. It is by blending these languages that what counts as “standard” En glish changes over time and the range of possibilities open to academic writers continues to grow.


1. Take a paragraph from this book and dress it down, rewrit- ing it in informal colloquial language. Then rewrite the same paragraph again by dressing it up, making it much more for- mal. Then rewrite the paragraph one more time in a way that blends the two styles. Share your paragraphs with a classmate, and discuss which versions are most effective and why.

2. Find something you’ve written for a course, and study it to see whether you’ve used any of your own everyday expressions, any words or structures that are not “academic.” If by chance you don’t find any, see if there’s a place or two where shifting into more casual or unexpected language would help you make a point, get your reader’s attention, or just add liveliness to your text. Be sure to keep your audience and purpose in mind, and use language that will be appropriate to both.

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“but don’t get me wrong”

The Art of Metacommentary


When we tell people that we are writing a chapter on the art of metacommentary, they often give us a puzzled look and tell us that they have no idea what “metacommen tary” is. “We know what commentary is,” they’ll sometimes say, “but what does it mean when it’s meta?” Our answer is that whether or not they know the term, they practice the art of metacommen- tary on a daily basis whenever they make a point of explain- ing something they’ve said or written: “What I meant to say was ,” “My point was not , but ,” or “You’re probably not going to like what I’m about to say, but .” In such cases, they are not offering new points but telling an audience how to interpret what they have already said or are about to say. In short, then, metacommentary is a way of commenting on your claims and telling others how—and how not—to think about them. It may help to think of metacommentary as being like the chorus in a Greek play that stands to the side of the drama unfolding on the stage and explains its meaning to the audience—or like a voice-over narrator who comments on

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and explains the action in a television show or movie. Think of metacommentary as a sort of second text that stands along- side your main text and explains what it means. In the main text you say something; in the metatext you guide your readers in interpreting and processing what you’ve said. What we are suggesting, then, is that you think of your text as two texts joined at the hip: a main text in which you make your argument and another in which you “work” your ideas, distinguishing your views from others they may be confused with, anticipating and answering objections, connecting one point to another, explaining why your claim might be contro- versial, and so forth. The figure below demonstrates what we mean.







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use metacommentary to clarify and elaborate

But why do you need metacommentary to tell readers what you mean and guide them through your text? Can’t you just clearly say what you mean up front? The answer is that, no matter how clear and precise your writing is, readers can still fail to under- stand it in any number of ways. Even the best writers can provoke reactions in readers that they didn’t intend, and even good readers can get lost in a complicated argument or fail to see how one point connects with another. Readers may also fail to see what follows from your argument, or they may follow your reasoning and examples yet fail to see the larger conclusion you draw from them. They may fail to see your argument’s overall significance, or mistake what you are saying for a related argument that they have heard before but that you want to distance yourself from. As a result, no mat- ter how straightforward a writer you are, readers still need you to help them grasp what you really mean. Because the written word is prone to so much mischief and can be interpreted in so many different ways, we need metacommentary to keep misinterpreta- tions and other communication misfires at bay. Another reason to master the art of metacommentary is that it will help you develop your ideas and generate more text. If you have ever had trouble producing the required number of pages for a writing project, metacommentary can help you add both length and depth to your writing. We’ve seen many students who try to produce a five-page paper sputter to a halt at two or three pages, complaining they’ve said everything they can think of about their topic. “I’ve stated my thesis and presented my reasons and evidence,” students have told us. “What else is there to do?” It’s almost as if such writers have generated a thesis and

Jonathan Safran Foer uses lots of metacommentary; see, e.g., p. 457, ¶45.

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don’t know what to do with it. When these students learn to use metacommentary, however, they get more out of their ideas and write longer, more substantial texts. In sum, metacommentary can help you extract the full potential from your ideas, draw- ing out important implications, explaining ideas from different perspectives, and so forth. So even when you may think you’ve said everything pos- sible in an argument, try inserting the following types of metacommentary.

j In other words, she doesn’t realize how right she is.

j What really means is .

j My point is not but .

j Ultimately, then, my goal is to demonstrate that .

Ideally, such metacommentary should help you recognize some implications of your ideas that you didn’t initially realize were there. Let’s look at how the cultural critic Neil Postman uses meta- commentary in the following passage describing the shift in American culture when it began to move from print and read- ing to television and movies.

It is my intention in this book to show that a great . . . shift has taken place in America, with the result that the content of much of our public discourse has become dangerous nonsense. With this in view, my task in the chapters ahead is straightforward. I must, first, demonstrate how, under the governance of the printing press, discourse in America was different from what it is now— generally coherent, serious and rational; and then how, under the

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governance of television, it has become shriveled and absurd. But to avoid the possibility that my analysis will be interpreted as standard-brand academic whimpering, a kind of elitist complaint against “junk” on television, I must first explain that . . . I appreci- ate junk as much as the next fellow, and I know full well that the printing press has generated enough of it to fill the Grand Canyon to overflowing. Television is not old enough to have matched printing’s output of junk.

Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

To see what we mean by metacommentary, look at the phrases above that we have italicized. With these moves, Postman essentially stands apart from his main ideas to help readers follow and understand what he is arguing.

He previews what he will argue: It is my intention in this book to show . . .

He spells out how he will make his argument: With this in view, my task in these chapters . . . is. . . . I must, first, dem- onstrate . . . and then . . .

He distinguishes his argument from other arguments it may easily be confused with: But to avoid the possibility that my analysis will be interpreted as . . . I must first explain that . . .

titles as metacommentary

Even the title of Postman’s book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, functions as a form of metacommentary since, like all titles, it stands apart from

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the text itself and tells readers the book’s main point: that the very pleasure provided by contemporary show business is destructive. Titles, in fact, are one of the most important forms of metacommentary, functioning rather like carnival barkers telling passersby what they can expect if they go inside. Sub- titles, too, function as metacommentary, further explaining or elaborating on the main title. The subtitle of this book, for example, not only explains that it is about “the moves that matter in academic writing,” but indicates that “they say / I say” is one of these moves. Thinking of a title as metacommentary can actually help you develop sharper titles, ones that, like Postman’s, give readers a hint of what your argument will be. Contrast such titles with unhelpfully open-ended ones like “Shakespeare” or “Steroids” or “English Essay,” or essays with no titles at all. Essays with vague titles (or no titles) send the message that the writer has simply not bothered to reflect on what he or she is saying and is uninterested in guiding or orienting readers.

use other moves as metacommentary

Many of the other moves covered in this book function as metacommentary: entertaining objections, adding transitions, framing quotations, answering “so what?” and “who cares?” When you entertain objections, you stand outside of your text and imagine what a critic might say; when you add transitions, you essentially explain the relationship between various claims. And when you answer the “so what?” and “who cares?” ques- tions, you look beyond your central argument and explain who should be interested in it and why.

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templates for introducing metacommentary

to ward off potential misunderstandings

The following moves help you differentiate certain views from ones they might be mistaken for.

j Essentially, I am arguing not that we should give up the policy,

but that we should monitor effects far more closely.

j This is not to say , but rather .

j X is concerned less with than with .

to elaborate on a previous idea

The following moves elaborate on a previous point, saying to readers: “In case you didn’t get it the first time, I’ll try saying the same thing in a different way.”

j In other words, .

j To put it another way, .

j What X is saying here is that .

to provide a roadmap to your text

This move orients readers, clarifying where you have been and where you are going—and making it easier for them to process and follow your text.

j Chapter 2 explores , while Chapter 3 examines


j Having just argued that , I want now to complicate the

point by .

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to move from a general claim to a specific example

These moves help you explain a general point by providing a concrete example that illustrates what you’re saying.

j For example, .

j , for instance, demonstrates .

j Consider , for example.

j To take a case in point, .

to indicate that a claim is more, less, or equally important

The following templates help you give relative emphasis to the claim that you are introducing, showing whether that claim is of more or less weight than the previous one, or equal to it.

j Even more important, .

j But above all, .

j Incidentally, we will briefly note, .

j Just as important, .

j Equally, .

j Finally, .

to explain a claim when you anticipate objections

Here’s a template to help you anticipate and respond to pos- sible objections.

j Although some readers may object that , I would

answer that .

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to guide readers to your most general point

These moves show that you are wrapping things up and tying up various subpoints previously made.

j In sum, then, .

j My conclusion, then, is that .

j In short, .

In this chapter we have tried to show that the most persuasive writing often doubles back and comments on its own claims in ways that help readers negotiate and process them. Instead of simply piling claim upon claim, effective writers are constantly “stage managing” how their claims will be recieved. It’s true of course that to be persuasive a text has to have strong claims to argue in the first place. But even the strongest arguments will flounder unless writers use metacommentary to prevent potential misreadings and make their arguments shine.


1. Read an essay or article and annotate it to indicate the different ways the author uses metacommentary. Use the templates on pp. 135–37 as your guide. For example, you may want to circle transitional phrases and write “trans” in the margins, to put brackets around sentences that elaborate on earlier sentences and mark them “elab,” or underline sentences in which the author sums up what he or she has been saying, writing “sum” in the margins.

How does the author use metacommentary? Does the author follow any of the templates provided in this book

Chapter 6 has more templates for anticipating objections.

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word for word? Did you find any forms of metacommentary not discussed in this chapter? If so, can you identify them, name them, and perhaps devise templates based on them for use in your own writing? And finally, how do you think the author’s use of metacommentary enhances (or harms) his or her writing?

2. Complete each of the following metacommentary templates in any way that makes sense.

j In making a case for the medical use of marijuana, I am not

saying that .

j But my argument will do more than prove that one particular

industrial chemical has certain toxic properties. In this article,

I will also .

j My point about the national obsessions with sports reinforces

the belief held by many that .

j I believe, therefore, that the war is completely unjustified.

But let me back up and explain how I arrived at this conclu-

sion: . In this way, I came to believe that this war is

a big mistake.

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“he says contends”

Using the Templates to Revise


One of the most important stages of the writing process is revision, when you look at a draft with an eye for how well you’ve made your argument and what you need to do to make it better. The challenge is to figure out what needs work—and then what exactly you need to do. Sometimes you’ll have specific comments and suggestions from a teacher, noting that you need to state your position more explicitly, that your point is unclear, that you’ve misunderstood an author you’re summarizing, and so forth. But what if you don’t have any such guidance, or aren’t sure what to do with it? The list of guidelines below offers help and points you back to relevant advice and templates in this book. Do you present your argument as a response to what others say? Do you make reference to other views besides your own? Do you use voice markers to distinguish clearly for readers between your views and those of others? In order to make your argument as convincing as possible, would it help to add more concessions to opposing views, using “yes but” templates?

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Asking yourself these large-scale revision questions will help you see how well you’ve managed the “they say / I say” framework and this in turn should help you see where further revisions are needed. The checklist below follows the order of chapters in this book.

How Do You Represent What Others Say?

Do you start with what others say? If not, try revising to do so. See pp. 23–26 for templates that can help.

Do you summarize or paraphrase what they’ve said? If so, have you represented their views accurately—and adequately?

Do you quote others? Do you frame each quotation successfully, integrating it into your text? Does the quotation support your argument? Have you introduced each quotation adequately, naming the person you’re quoting (and saying who that per- son is if your readers won’t know)? Do you explain in your own words what the quotation means? Do you then clearly indicate how the quotation bears on your own argument? See pp. 44–46 for tips on creating a “quotation sandwich.”

Check the verbs you use to introduce any summaries and quo- tations: do they express accurately what was said? If you’ve used common signal phrases such as “X said” or “Y believes,” is there a verb that reflects more accurately what was said? See pp. 39–40 for a list of verbs for introducing summaries and quotations.

Have you documented all summaries and quotations, both with parenthetical documentation in your text and a references or works cited list?

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Using the Templates to Revise

Do you remind readers of what others say at various points throughout your text? If not, see pp. 27–28 for help revising in order to do so.

What Do You Say?

Do you agree, disagree, or both with those you’re responding to? Have you said so explicitly?

If you disagree, do you give reasons why you disagree? If you agree, what more have you added to the conversation? If you both agree and disagree, do you do so without confusing readers or seeming evasive?

Have you stated your position and the one it responds to as a connected unit?

What reasons and evidence do you offer to support your “I say”? In other words, do your argument and the argument you are responding to—your “I say” and “they say”—address the same topic or issue, or does a switch occur that takes you on a tan- gent that will confuse readers? One way to ensure that your “I say” and “they say” are aligned rather than seeming like ships passing in the night is to use the same key terms in both. See Chapter 8 for tips on how to do so.

Will readers be able to distinguish what you say from what others say? See Chapter 5 for advice about using voice markers to make that distinction clear, especially at moments when you are moving from your view to someone else’s view or back.

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Have You Introduced Any Naysayers?

Have you acknowledged likely objections to your argument? If so, have you represented these views fairly—and responded to them persuasively? See Chapter 6 for tips on how to do so.

If not, think about what other perspectives exist on your topic, and incorporate them into your draft.

Have You Used Metacommentary to Clarify What You Do or Don’t Mean?

No matter how clearly you’ve explained your points, it’s a good idea to explain what you mean—or don’t mean—with phrases like “in other words” or “don’t get me wrong.” See Chapter 10 for examples of how to do so.

Do you have a title? If so, does it tell readers what your main point or issue is, and does it do so in a lively manner? Should you add a subtitle to elaborate on the title?

Have You Tied It All Together?

Can readers follow your argument from one sentence and para- graph to the next and see how each successive point supports your overall argument?

Check your use of transitions, words like “however” and “therefore.” Such words make clear how your ideas relate to one another; if you need to add transitions, see pp. 109–10 for a complete list.

Check your use of pointing words. Do you use common pointers like “this” and “that,” which help lead readers from one sentence

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Using the Templates to Revise

to the next? If so, is it always clear what “this” and “that” refer to, or do you need to add nouns in order to avoid ambiguity? See pp. 112–14 for help working with pointing words.

Have you used what we call “repetition with a difference” to help connect parts of your argument? See pp. 114–18 for examples of how to do so.

Have You Shown Why Your Argument Matters?

Don’t assume that readers will see why your argument is important—or why they should care. Be sure that you have told them why. See Chapter 7 if you need help.

a revised student essay

Here is an example of how one student, Antonia Peacocke, used this book to revise an essay. Starting with an article she’d written for her high school newspaper, Peacocke then followed the advice in our book as she turned her article into a college level academic essay. Her original article was a brief account of why she liked Family Guy, and her first step in revising was to open with a “they say” and an “I say,” previewing her overall argument in brief form at the essay’s beginning. While her original version had acknowledged that many find the show “objectionable,” she hadn’t named these people or indicated why they didn’t like the show. In her revised version, after doing further research, Peacocke identified those with whom she disagreed and responded to them at length, as the essay itself illustrates.

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In addition, Peacocke strengthened existing transitions, added new ones, and clarified the stakes of her argument, saying more explicitly why readers should care about whether Family Guy is good or bad. In making these revisions she gave her own spin to several templates in this book. We’ve annotated Peacocke’s essay in the margins to point out particular rhetorical moves discussed in our book and the chapters in which those discussions appear. We hope studying her essay and our annotations will suggest how you might craft and revise your own writing. Antonia Peacocke wrote this essay in the summer between high school and her first year at Harvard. She is now a PhD student in philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley.

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Family Guy and Freud: Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious



While slouching in front of the television after a long day, you probably don’t think a lot about famous psychologists of the twentieth century. Somehow, these figures don’t come up often in prime-time—or even daytime—TV programming. Whether you’re watching Living Lohan or the NewsHour, the likelihood is that you are not thinking of Sigmund Freud, even if you’ve heard of his book Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. I say that you should be.

What made me think of Freud in the first place, actually, was Family Guy, the cartoon created by Seth MacFarlane. (Seriously—stay with me here.) Any of my friends can tell you that this program holds endless fascination for me; as a matter of fact, my high school rag-sheet “perfect mate” was the baby Stewie Griffin, a character on the show (see Fig. 1). Embarrassingly enough, I have almost reached the point at which I can perform

Responds to what they say (Chapter 4)

Metacomment- ary wards off potential skepticism (Chapter 10)

Starts with what others are saying (Chapter 1)

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one-woman versions of several episodes. I know every website that streams the show for free, and I still refuse to return the five Family Guy DVDs a friend lent me in 2006. Before I was such a devotee, however, I was adamantly opposed to the program for its particular brand of humor.

It will come as no surprise that I was not alone in this view; many still denounce Family Guy as bigoted and crude. New York Times journalist Stuart Elliott claimed just this year that “the characters on the Fox television series Family Guy . . . purposely offen[d] just about every group of people

Quotes and summarizes what others

say (Chapters 2 and 3)

Fig 1. Peter and Stewie Griffin (Everett Collection)

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you could name.” Likewise Stephen Dubner, co-author of Freakonomics, called Family Guy “a cartoon comedy that packs more gags per minute about race, sex, incest, bestiality, etc. than any other show [he] can think of.” Comparing its level of offense to that of Don Imus’s infamous comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team in the same year, comments that threw the popular CBS radio talk-show host off the air, Dubner said he wondered why Imus couldn’t get away with as much as Family Guy could.

Dubner did not know about all the trouble Family Guy has had. In fact, it must be one of the few television shows in history that has been canceled not just once, but twice. After its premiere in April 1999, the show ran until August 2000, but was besieged by so many complaints, some of them from MacFarlane’s old high school headmaster, Rev. Richardson W. Schell, that Fox shelved it until July 2001 (Weinraub). Still afraid of causing a commotion, though, Fox had the cartoon censored and irregularly scheduled; as a result, its ratings fell so low that 2002 saw its second cancellation (Weinraub). But then it came back with a vengeance—I’ll get into that later.

Family Guy has found trouble more recently, too. In 2007, comedian Carol Burnett sued Fox for 6 million dol- lars, claiming that the show’s parody of the Charwoman, a character that she had created for The Carol Burnett Show, not only violated copyright but also besmirched the

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character’s name in revenge for Burnett’s refusal to grant permission to use her theme song (“Carol Burnett Sues”). The suit came after MacFarlane had made the Charwoman into a cleaning woman for a pornography store in one episode of Family Guy. Burnett lost, but U.S. district judge Dean Pregerson agreed that he could “fully appreciate how distasteful and offensive the segment [was] to Ms. Burnett” (qtd. in Grossberg).

I must admit, I can see how parts of the show might seem offensive if taken at face value. Look, for example, at the mock fifties instructional video that features in the episode “I Am Peter, Hear Me Roar.”

[The screen becomes black and white. Vapid music plays in the background. The screen reads “WOMEN IN THE WORKPLACE ca. 1956,” then switches to a shot of an office with various women working on typewriters. A businessman speaks to the camera.]

businessman : Irrational and emotionally fragile by nature, female coworkers are a peculiar animal. They are very insecure about their appearance. Be sure to tell them how good they look every day, even if they’re homely and unkempt. [He turns to an unattractive female typist.] You’re doing a great job, Muriel, and you’re prettier than Mamie van Doren! [She smiles. He grins at the camera, raising one eyebrow knowingly, and winks.]

Represents a naysayer’s

objections fairly

(Chapter 6)

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And remember, nothing says “Good job!” like a firm open-palm slap on the behind. [He walks past a woman bent over a file cabinet and demonstrates enthusiastically. She smiles, looking flattered. He grins at the camera again as the music comes to an end.]

Laughing at something so blatantly sexist could cause anyone a pang of guilt, and before I thought more about the show this seemed to be a huge problem. I agreed with Dubner, and I failed to see how anyone could laugh at such jokes without feeling at least slightly ashamed.

Soon, though, I found myself forced to give Family Guy a chance. It was simply everywhere: my brother and many of my friends watched it religiously, and its devoted fans relent- lessly proselytized for it. In case you have any doubts about its immense popularity, consider these facts. On Facebook, the universal forum for my generation, there are currently 23 separate Family Guy fan groups with a combined member- ship of 1,669 people (compared with only 6 groups protesting against Family Guy, with 105 members total). Users of the well-respected Internet Movie Database rate the show 8.8 out of 10. The box-set DVDs were the best-selling television DVDs of 2003 in the United States (Moloney). Among the public and within the industry, the show receives fantastic acclaim; it has won eight awards, including three prime- time Emmys (IMDb). Most importantly, each time it was cancelled fans provided the brute force necessary to get it

Agrees, but with a difference (Chapter 4)

Anticipates a naysayer’s skepticism (Chapter 6)

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back on the air. In 2000, online campaigns did the trick; in 2002, devotees demonstrated outside Fox Studios, refused to watch the Fox network, and boycotted any companies that advertised on it (Moloney). Given the show’s high profile, both with my friends and family and in the world at large, it would have been more work for me to avoid the Griffin fam- ily than to let myself sink into their animated world.

With more exposure, I found myself crafting a more pos- itive view of Family Guy. Those who don’t often watch the program, as Dubner admits he doesn’t, could easily come to think that the cartoon takes pleasure in controversial humor just for its own sake. But those who pay more attention and think about the creators’ intentions can see that Family Guy intelligently satirizes some aspects of American culture.

Some of this satire is actually quite obvious. Take, for instance, a quip Brian the dog makes about Stewie’s liter- ary choices in a fourth-season episode, “PTV.” (Never mind that a dog and a baby can both read and hold lengthy conversations.)

[The Griffins are in their car. Brian turns to Stewie, who sits reading in his car seat.]

brian : East of Eden? So you, you, you pretty much do whatever Oprah tells you to, huh? stewie : You know, this book’s been around for fifty years. It’s a classic.

Distinguishes between what others say and what she says

(Chapter 5)

Mixes academic and

colloquial styles

(Chapter 9)

Uses a quotation sandwich

to explicate this excerpt (Chapter 3)

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brian : But you just got it last week. And there’s a giant Oprah sticker on the front. stewie : Oh—oh—oh, is that what that is? Oh, lemme just peel that right off. brian : So, uh, what are you gonna read after that one? stewie : Well, she hasn’t told us yet—damn!

Brian and Stewie demonstrate insightfully and comically how Americans are willing to follow the instructions of a celebrity blindly—and less willing to admit that they are doing so.

The more off-color jokes, though, those that give Family Guy a bad name, attract a different kind of viewer. Such viewers are not “rats in a behaviorist’s maze,” as Slate writer Dana Stevens labels modern American televi- sion consumers in her article “Thinking Outside the Idiot Box.” They are conscious and critical viewers, akin to the “screenagers” identified by Douglas Rushkoff in an essay entitled “Bart Simpson: Prince of Irreverence” (294). They are not—and this I cannot stress enough, self-serving as it may seem—immoral or easily manipulated people.

Rushkoff’s piece analyzes the humor of The Simpsons, a show criticized for many of the same reasons as Family Guy. “The people I call ‘screenagers,’ ” Rushkoff explains, “. . . speak the media language better than their parents do and they see through clumsy attempts to program them into submission” (294). He claims that gaming technology has

Distinguishes what others say from what she says (Chapter 5)

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made my generation realize that television is programmed for us with certain intentions; since we can control characters in the virtual world, we are more aware that characters on TV are similarly controlled. “Sure, [these ‘screenagers’] might sit back and watch a program now and again,” Rushkoff explains, “but they do so voluntarily, and with full knowledge of their complicity. It is not an invol- untary surrender” (294). In his opinion, our critical eyes and our unwillingness to be programmed by the program- mers make for an entirely new relationship with the shows we watch. Thus we enjoy The Simpsons’ parodies of mass media culture since we are skeptical of it ourselves.

Rushkoff’s argument about The Simpsons actually applies to Family Guy as well, except in one dimen- sion: Rushkoff writes that The Simpsons’ creators do “not comment on social issues as much as they [do on] the media imagery around a particular social issue” (296). MacFarlane and company seem to do the reverse. Trusting in their viewers’ ability to analyze what they are watch- ing, the creators of Family Guy point out the weaknesses and defects of US society in a mocking and sometimes intolerant way.

Taken in this light, the “instructional video” quoted above becomes not only funny but also insightful. In its sat- ire, viewers can recognize the sickly sweet and falsely sensi- tive sexism of the 1950s in observing just how conveniently

Uses transitions to connect

the parts (Chapter 8)

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self-serving the speaker of the video appears. The message of the clip denounces and ridicules sexism rather than condoning it. It is an excerpt that perfectly exemplifies the bold-faced candor of the show, from which it derives a lot of its appeal.

Making such comically outrageous remarks on the air also serves to expose certain prejudiced attitudes as outra- geous themselves. Taking these comments at face value would be as foolish as taking Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal” seriously. Furthermore, while they put bigoted words into the mouths of their characters, the show’s writers cannot be accused of portraying these characters positively. Peter Griffin, the “family guy” of the show’s title, probably says and does the most offensive things of all—but as a lazy, overweight, and insensitive failure of a man, he is hardly presented as someone to admire. Nobody in his or her right mind would observe Peter’s behavior and deem it worth emulation.

Family Guy has its own responses to accusations of crudity. In the episode “PTV,” Peter sets up his own television station broadcasting from home and the Griffin family finds itself confronting the Federal Communications Commission directly (see Fig. 2 for a picture of the whole family). The episode makes many tongue-in-cheek jabs at the FCC, some of which are sung in a rousing musical number, but also sneaks in some of the creator’s own

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opinions. The plot comes to a climax when the FCC begins to censor “real life” in the town of Quahog; officials place black censor bars in front of newly showered Griffins and blow foghorns whenever characters curse. MacFarlane makes an important point: that no amount of television censorship will ever change the harsh nature of reality— and to censor reality is mere folly. Likewise, he puts explicit arguments about censorship into lines spoken by his

Fig 2. The Griffin Family Watches TV. (Everett Collection)

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characters, as when Brian says that “responsibility lies with the parents [and] there are plenty of things that are much worse for children than television.”

It must be said too that not all of Family Guy’s humor could be construed as offensive. Some of its jokes are more tame and insightful, the kind you might expect from The New Yorker. The following light commentary on the useful- ness of high school algebra from “When You Wish Upon a Weinstein” could hardly be accused of upsetting anyone— except, perhaps, a few high school math teachers.

[Shot of Peter on the couch and his son Chris lying at his feet and doing homework.]

chris : Dad, can you help me with my math? [My teacher] says if I don’t learn it, I won’t be able to func- tion in the real world.

[Shot of Chris standing holding a map in a run-down gas station next to an attendant in overalls and a trucker cap reading “PUMP THIS.” The attendant speaks with a Southern accent and gestures casually to show the different road configurations.]

attendant : Okay, now what you gotta do is go down the road past the old Johnson place, and you’re gonna find two roads, one parallel and one perpendicular. Now keep going until you come to a highway that

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bisects it at a 45-degree angle. [Crosses his arms.] Solve for x.

[Shot of Chris lying on the ground next to the attendant in fetal position, sucking his thumb. His map lies abandoned near him.]

In fact, Family Guy does not aim to hurt, and its creators take certain measures to keep it from hitting too hard. In an interview on Access Hollywood, Seth MacFarlane plainly states that there are certain jokes too upsetting to certain groups to go on the air. Similarly, to ensure that the easily misunderstood show doesn’t fall into the hands of those too young to understand it, Fox will not license Family Guy rights to any products intended for children under the age of fourteen (Elliott).

However, this is not to say that MacFarlane’s mission is corrective or noble. It is worth remembering that he wants only to amuse, a goal for which he was criticized by several of his professors at the Rhode Island School of Design (Weinraub). For this reason, his humor can be dan- gerous. On the one hand, I don’t agree with George Will’s reductive and generalized statement in his article “Reality Television: Oxymoron” that “entertainment seeking a mass audience is ratcheting up the violence, sexuality, and deg- radation, becoming increasingly coarse and trying to be . . . shocking in an unshockable society.” I believe Family Guy

Uses transitions to connect

the parts (Chapter 8)

Agrees and disagrees;

makes concessions

while standing her ground (Chapters 4

and 6)

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has its intelligent points, and some of its seemingly “coarse” scenes often have hidden merit. I must concede, though, that a few of the show’s scenes seem to be doing just what Will claims; sometimes the creators do seem to cross—or, perhaps, eagerly race past—the line of indecency. In one such crude scene, an elderly dog slowly races a paraplegic and Peter, who has just been hit by a car, to get to a sev- ered finger belonging to Peter himself (“Whistle While Your Wife Works”). Nor do I find it particularly funny when Stewie physically abuses Brian in a bloody fight over gambling money (“Patriot Games”).

Thus, while Family Guy can provide a sort of relief by breaking down taboos, we must still wonder whether or not these taboos exist for a reason. An excess of offensive jokes, especially those that are often misconstrued, can seem to grant tacit permission to think offensively if it’s done for comedy— and laughing at others’ expense can be cruel, no matter how funny. Jokes all have their origins, and the funniest ones are those that hit home the hardest; if we listen to Freud, these are the ones that let our animalistic and aggressive impulses surface from the unconscious. The distinction between a shamelessly candid but insightful joke and a merely shameless joke is a slight but important one. While I love Family Guy as much as any fan, it’s important not to lose sight of what’s truly unfunny in real life—even as we appreciate what is hilarious in fiction.

Concludes by showing who cares and why her argument matters (Chapter 7)

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Works Cited “Carole Burnett Sues over Family Guy Parody.” CBC, 16 Mar.

2007, www.cbc.ca/news/arts/carol-burnett-sues-over- family-guy-parody-1.693570. Accessed 14 July 2008.

Dubner, Stephen J. “Why Is Family Guy Okay When Imus Wasn’t?” Freakonomics Blog, 3 Dec. 2007, freakonomics.com. Accessed 14 July 2008.

Elliott, Stuart. “Crude? So What? These Characters Still Find Work in Ads.” New York Times, 19 June 2008, nyti.ms/2bZWSAs. Accessed 14 July 2008.

Facebook search for Family Guy under “Groups.” www .facebook.com. Accessed 14 July 2008.

Freud, Sigmund. Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. 1905. Translated by James Strachey, W. W. Norton, 1989.

Grossberg, Josh. “Carole Burnett Can’t Stop Stewie.” E! News, Entertainment Television, 5 June 2007, www.eonline.com. Accessed 14 July 2008.

“I Am Peter, Hear Me Roar.” Family Guy, season 2, episode 8, 20th Century Fox, 28 Mar. 2000. Hulu, www.hulu.com/ watch/171050. Accessed 14 July 2008.

“Family Guy.” IMDb, IMDb, 1999–2016, www.imdb.com/ title/tt0182576. Accessed 14 July 2008.

MacFarlane, Seth. Interview. Access Hollywood, NBC Universal, 8 May 2007. YouTube, www.youtube.com/ watch?v=rKURWCicyQU. Accessed 14 July 2008.

Moloney, Ben Adam. “Family Guy.” BBC.com, 30 Sept. 2004, www.bbc.com. Accessed 14 July 2008.

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“Patriot Games.” Family Guy, season 4, episode 20, 20th Century Fox, 29 Jan. 2006. Hulu, www.hulu.com/ watch/171089. Accessed 22 July 2008.

“PVT.” Family Guy, season 4, episode 14, 20th Century Fox, 6 Nov. 2005. Hulu, www.hulu.com/watch/171083. Accessed 14 July 2008.

Rushkoff, Douglas. “Bart Simpson: Prince of Irreverence.” Leaving Springfield: The Simpsons and the Possibility of Oppositional Culture, edited by John Alberti, Wayne State UP, 2004, pp. 292–301.

Stevens, Dana. “Thinking Outside the Idiot Box.” Slate, 25 Mar. 2005, www.slate.com/articles/news_and_ politics/surfergirl/2005/04/thinkingoutside_the_ idiot_box.html. Accessed 14 July 2008.

Weinraub, Bernard. “The Young Guy of ‘Family Guy’: A 30-Year-Old’s Cartoon Hit Makes an Unexpected Comeback.” New York Times, 7 July 2004, nyti.ms/ 1IEBiUA. Accessed 14 July 2008.

“When You Wish Upon a Weinstein.” Family Guy, season 3, episode 22, 20th Century Fox, 9 Nov. 2003. Hulu, www.hulu.com/watch/171136. Accessed 22 July 2008.

“Whistle While Your Wife Works.” Family Guy, season 5, episode 5, 20th Century Fox, 12 Nov. 2006. Hulu, www.hulu.com/watch/171160. Accessed 22 July 2008.

Will, George F. “Reality Television: Oxymoron.” Washington Post, 21 June 2001, p. A25.

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4 H


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“i take your point”

Entering Class Discussions


Have you ever been in a class discussion that feels less like a genuine meeting of the minds than like a series of discrete, disconnected monologues? You make a comment, say, that seems provocative to you, but the classmate who speaks after you makes no reference to what you said, instead going off in an entirely different direction. Then, the classmate who speaks next makes no reference either to you or to any one else, making it seem as if everyone in the conversation is more interested in their own ideas than in actually conversing with anyone else. We like to think that the principles this book advances can help improve class discussions, which increasingly include various forms of online communication. Particularly important for class discussion is the point that our own ideas become more cogent and powerful the more responsive we are to others, and the more we frame our claims not in isolation but as responses to what others before us have said. Ultimately, then, a good face-to-face classroom discussion (or online communication) doesn’t just hap- pen spontaneously. It requires the same sorts of disciplined moves and practices used in many writing situations, particularly that of identifying to what and to whom you are responding.

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frame your comments as a response to something that has already been said

The single most important thing you need to do when joining a class discussion is to link what you are about to say to something that has already been said.

j I really liked Aaron’s point about the two sides being closer than

they seem. I’d add that both seem rather moderate.

j I take your point, Nadia, that . Still . . .

j Though Sheila and Ryan seem to be at odds about ,

they may actually not be all that far apart.

In framing your comments this way, it is usually best to name both the person and the idea you’re responding to. If you name the person alone (“I agree with Aaron because ”), it may not be clear to listeners what part of what Aaron said you are referring to. Conversely, if you only summa- rize what Aaron said without naming him, you’ll probably leave your classmates wondering whose comments you’re referring to. But won’t you sound stilted and deeply redundant in class if you try to restate the point your classmate just made? After all, in the case of the first template above, the entire class will have just heard Aaron’s point about the two sides being closer than they seem. Why then would you need to restate it? We agree that in oral situations, it does often sound artificial to restate what others just said precisely because they just said it. It would be awkward if, on being asked to pass the salt at

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lunch, one were to reply: “If I understand you correctly, you have asked me to pass the salt. Yes, I can, and here it is.” But in oral discussions about complicated issues that are open to multiple interpretations, we usually do need to resummarize what others have said to make sure that everyone is on the same page. Since Aaron may have made several points when he spoke and may have been followed by other commentators, the class will probably need you to summarize which point of his you are referring to. And even if Aaron made only one point, restating that point is helpful, not only to remind the group what his point was (since some may have missed or forgotten it) but also to make sure that he, you, and others have interpreted his point in the same way.

to change the subject, indicate explicitly that you are doing so

It is fine to try to change the conversation’s direction. There’s just one catch: you need to make clear to listeners that this is what you are doing. For example:

j So far we have been talking about the characters in the film. But

isn’t the real issue here the cinematography?

j I’d like to change the subject to one that hasn’t yet been


You can try to change the subject without indicating that you are doing so. But you risk that your comment will come across as irrelevant rather than as a thoughtful contribution that moves the conversation forward.

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be even more explicit than you would be in writing

Because listeners in an oral discussion can’t go back and reread what you just said, they are more easily overloaded than are readers of a print text. For this reason, in a class discussion you will do well to take some extra steps to help listeners follow your train of thought. (1) When you make a comment, limit yourself to one point only though you can elaborate on this point, fleshing it out with examples and evidence. If you feel you must make two points, either unite them under one larger umbrella point, or make one point first and save the other for later. Trying to bundle two or more claims into one comment can result in neither getting the attention it deserves. (2) Use metacommentary to highlight your key point so that listeners can readily grasp it.

j In other words, what I’m trying to get at here is .

j My point is this: .

j My point, though, is not , but .

j This distinction is important because .

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Is Digital Communication

Good or Bad—or Both?


You may wonder what our advice in this book about enter- ing conversations and debates has to do with one of the major innovations in our society, the online technologies through which we now do much of our reading and writing. You may have heard parents and journalists complain that smartphones, iPads, and other electronic devices that seem almost wired into our brains are destroying our ability to think, communicate, and interact with others. At the same time, you’ve also prob- ably heard counterarguments to the effect that, on the con- trary, these digital technologies actually stretch the mind, bring people together, and even make us better writers. These arguments are part of a set of interrelated debates that are taking place today, sometimes in the blogosphere itself, among journalists, academic researchers, and other commenta- tors. In some of these debates, those who extol their virtues argue that today’s new online technologies make us smarter by

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exposing us to a wide range of perspectives and giving us instant access to massive stores of new information. Whereas once we would have had to spend hours burrowing through dusty library shelves to find the information we need, today we can access the same information with a click of a mouse in the comfort of our homes. Thanks to the internet, our potential knowledge is now thousands of times greater than ever before. How could such a development not be a huge plus for any writer? The critics, however, retort that, far from making us smarter, online technologies are actually making us dumber, even in our capacity as writers. According to these critics, many online researchers end their investigations at the first entry that comes up in a Google search (often in Wikipedia), and the constraints of email, text messaging, and tweeting force us to communicate in reductive sound bites and inane abbreviations (OMG! LOL! IMHO!). The critics also charge that the very volume of new information that the web makes so easily available overwhelms us and prevents us from thinking clearly. So much comes at us so fast from electronic sources that we can no longer think straight or organize our thoughts into clear writing. The greater the mountain of information we have at our fingertips, say the critics, the less chance there is that we will find the fraction of it that is most valuable and useful to focus on and respond to. As a result, according to one critic, researcher Clifford Nass, the multitasking encouraged by the web and other digital tech- nologies is making student writers less able to sustain a “big idea” in an essay and more prone to write in “little bursts and snippets.” Yet many challenge this pessimistic view. Rhetoric and composition professor Andrea Lunsford rejects the notion that “Google is making us stupid,” that “Facebook is frying our

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brains,” and that the web is depriving students of the ability to express ideas (qtd. in Haven). According to Lunsford, reporting on a five-year research project, the Stanford Study of Writing, student writers today are remarkably “adept at crafting messages that will reach their intended audience because of their con- stant use of social media” (Lunsford). That is, today’s students are proficient “at what rhetoricians call kairos—assessing their audience and adapting their tone and technique to best get their point across” (Thompson). There is also disagreement over whether online technolo- gies create or undermine genuine conversation and commu- nity. On the one hand, some praise the web for its ability to bring people from distant places together who otherwise would remain strangers, enabling them to interact more easily with others through such mediums as email, blogs, videochat, and social networking sites. Those who make this argument might claim that our advice in this book to present your ideas as a response to the ideas of others lends itself well to online com- munication. After all, the internet allows us to post something and then get quick, even instantaneous responses. It also allows us more easily to access multiple perspectives on any topic and then directly insert the voices of others into our text in links that readers can click on. Critics, on the other hand, question the quality of the conver- sations that take place online, arguing that these conversations are rarely genuine meetings of minds and noting that online writers often speak past rather than to or with one another. Because online writers can hit “send” before reflecting, as writ- ers more likely would using slower and more deliberate print media, these critics charge that true debate in which the vari- ous parties really listen to one another is exceedingly rare on

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the web. In other words, communicating online tends to under- mine true conversation because writers can too easily dismiss or ignore other points of view, and thus are more likely to engage in egotistical monologues in which they use what others say as a pretext for expounding their own already established opinions. So go some of the arguments pro and con about the impact of online technologies on our thinking and our communicative habits, including our writing. Though we agree that the internet has given us access to previously unimaginable stores of infor- mation and greatly expanded our range of communication— and that it potentially broadens our perspectives—we think the critics have a point in noting that many conversations on the web are not exchanges so much as monologues in which writers pass one another without intersecting. We ourselves have been dismayed when our own online articles have drawn comments that begin, “I haven’t read Graff and Birkenstein’s article, but in my opinion. . . .” In our view, the best remedy for such failures of communication is to improve the listening and summarizing skills we emphasize in this book, whether these skills are practiced online, offline, or even on a stone tablet. As for how these digital technologies have influenced stu- dent writing, our own view, based on the writing we have seen in our combined seventy years of teaching, is that that this influence is neither disastrous, as the critics fear, nor won- derfully revolutionary, as the proponents claim. Contrary to Nass, student writers found it challenging to sustain a “big idea” long before the advent of the worldwide web, and, contrary to Lunsford, we see no evidence that tweeting and posting have made writers more adept at reaching audiences. As we see it,

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online technologies only recycle any difficulties writers have reaching audiences; if a writer has trouble reaching audiences in one medium, he or she will have it in another. A student of ours, for example, writing to an audience of his classmates on a course listserv, began a post in the following way:

“Going off what Meg said, I would argue…”

His audience was mystified, since nobody, including Meg herself, could remember what she had said. As this incident illustrates, the immediacy of online writing—not just in course listservs, but in emails, social media, and so forth—makes it appear so much like oral communication that we are seduced into forgetting that it is still a form of writing and therefore very often requires the mastery of formal conventions, in this case that of summarizing what has previously been said. It is hard to imagine any writer, as we have already suggested, who does not struggle with the rhetorical moves of argument, from sum- marizing, explaining, and quoting what others say to responding to what they say, and the myriad other competencies covered in this book. Our purpose in this brief chapter, however, is not to try to settle these debates, but to invite you to think about how digital technologies affect your work as a reader and writer. Do these technologies make it easier to join conversations? Do they improve or degrade your thinking and writing? What is your opinion and why? To help you answer these questions, we conclude, then, with a couple of exercises that invite you to pick up where we have left off—and, as Kenneth Burke said, to put in your own oar.

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Works Cited

Haven, Cynthia. “The New Literacy: Stanford Study Finds Richness and Complexity in Students’ Writing.” Stanford Report, Stanford University, 12 Oct. 2009, news.stanford.edu/pr/2009/pr-lunsford-writing-101209 .html. Accessed 14 Nov. 2013.

Lunsford, Andrea. “Everyone’s an Author.” W. W. Norton Sales Conference, 5 Aug. 2012, Park City.

Nass, Clifford. Interview. Frontline, WBGH, 1 Dec. 2009. PBS, www.pbs.org/ wgbh/pages/frontline/digitalnation/interviews/nass.html. Accessed 14 Nov. 2013.

Thompson, Clive. “Clive Thompson on the New Literacy.” Wired, 24 Aug. 2009, www.wired.com/2009/08/st-thompson-7. Accessed 14 Nov. 2013.


1. Have we formulated the debatable issues above in a useful way? Have we left out anything important? Write an essay in which you summarize some of our commentary as your “they say” and offer your own response, whether to disagree, agree with a difference, or reframe the issues in some way.

2. As a test case for thinking about the questions raised in this chapter, go to the blog that accompanies this book, theysayiblog.com. Examine some of the exchanges that appear there and evaluate the quality of the responses. For example, how well do the participants in these exchanges summarize one another’s claims before making their own responses? How would you characterize any discussion? Is there a true meeting of the minds or are writers sometimes caricatured or treated as straw men? How do these online dis- cussions compare with the face-to-face discussions you have in class? What advantages does each offer? Go to other blogs on topics that interest you and ask these same questions.

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“what’s motivating this writer?”

Reading for the Conversation


“What is the author’s argument? What is he or she trying to say?” For many years, these were the first questions we would ask our classes in a discussion of an assigned reading. The discussion that resulted was often halting, as our students strug- gled to get a handle on the argument, but eventually, after some awkward silences, the class would come up with something we could all agree was an accurate summary of the author’s main thesis. Even after we’d gotten over that hurdle, however, the discussion would often still seem forced, and would limp along as we all struggled with the question that naturally arose next: Now that we had determined what the author was saying, what did we ourselves have to say? For a long time we didn’t worry much about these halting discussions, justifying them to ourselves as the predictable result of assigning difficult, challenging readings. Several years ago, however, as we started writing this book and began thinking about writing as the art of entering conversations, we latched onto the idea of leading with some different questions: “What other argument(s) is the writer responding to?” “Is the writer

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disagreeing or agreeing with something, and if so what?” “What is motivating the writer’s argument?” “Are there other ideas that you have encountered in this class or elsewhere that might be pertinent?” The results were often striking. The discussions that followed tended to be far livelier and to draw in a greater number of students. We were still asking students to look for the main argument, but we were now asking them to see that argument as a response to some other argument that provoked it, gave it a reason for being, and helped all of us see why we should care about it. What had happened, we realized, was that by changing the opening question, we changed the way our students approached reading, and perhaps the way they thought about academic work in general. Instead of thinking of the argu- ment of a text as an isolated entity, they now thought of that argument as one that responded to and provoked other argu- ments. Since they were now dealing not with one argument but at least two (the author’s argument and the one[s] he or she was responding to), they now had alternative ways of see- ing the topic at hand. This meant that, instead of just trying to understand the view presented by the author, they were more able to question that view intelligently and engage in the type of discussion and debate that is the hallmark of a college education. In our discussions, animated debates often arose between students who found the author’s argument con- vincing and others who were more convinced by the view it was challenging. In the best of these debates, the binary posi- tions would be questioned by other students, who suggested each was too simple, that both might be right or that a third alternative was possible. Still other students might object that the discussion thus far had missed the author’s real point and

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suggest that we all go back to the text and pay closer attention to what it actually said. We eventually realized that the move from reading for the author’s argument in isolation to reading for how the author’s argument is in conversation with the arguments of others helps readers become active, critical readers rather than passive recip- ients of knowledge. On some level, reading for the conversa- tion is more rigorous and demanding than reading for what one author says. It asks that you determine not only what the author thinks, but how what the author thinks fits with what others think, and ultimately with what you yourself think. Yet on another level, reading this way is a lot simpler and more familiar than reading for the thesis alone, since it returns writ- ing to the familiar, everyday act of communicating with other people about real issues.

deciphering the conversation

We suggest, then, that when assigned a reading, you imagine the author not as sitting alone in an empty room hunched over a desk or staring at a screen, but as sitting in a crowded coffee shop talking to others who are making claims that he or she is engaging with. In other words, imagine the author as participating in an ongoing, multisided, conversation in which everyone is trying to persuade others to agree or at least to take his or her position seriously. The trick in reading for the conversation is to figure out what views the author is responding to and what the author’s own argument is—or, to put it in the terms used in this book, to determine the “they say” and how the author responds to it.

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One of the challenges in reading for the “they say” and “I say” can be figuring out which is which, since it may not be obvious when writers are summarizing others and when they are speak- ing for themselves. Readers need to be alert for any changes in voice that a writer might make, since instead of using explicit road-mapping phrases like “although many believe,” authors may simply summarize the view that they want to engage with and indicate only subtly that it is not their own. Consider again the opening to the selection by David Zinczenko on p. 462.

If ever there were a newspaper headline custom made for Jay Leno’s monologue, this was it. Kids taking on McDonald’s this week, suing the company for making them fat. Isn’t that like middle-aged men suing Porsche for making them get speeding tickets? Whatever happened to personal responsibility? I tend to sympathize with these portly fast-food patrons, though. Maybe that’s because I used to be one of them.

David Zinczenko, “Don’t Blame the Eater”

Whenever we teach this passage, some students inevitably assume that Zinczenko must be espousing the view expressed

in his first paragraph: that suing McDonald’s is ridicu- lous. When their reading is challenged by their class- mates, these students point to the page and reply,

“Look. It’s right here on the page. This is what Zinczenko wrote. These are his exact words.” The assumption these stu- dents are making is that if something appears on the page, the author must endorse it. In fact, however, we ventrilo- quize views that we don’t believe in, and may in fact pas- sionately disagree with, all the time. The central clues that Zinczenko disagrees with the view expressed in his opening

See Chapter 6 for more

discussion of naysayers.

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paragraph come in the second paragraph, when he finally offers a first-person declaration and uses a constrastive transi- tion, “though,” thereby resolving any questions about where he stands.

when the “they say” is unstated

Another challenge can be identifying the “they say” when it is not explicitly identified. Whereas Zinczenko offers an up-front summary of the view he is responding to, other writers assume that their readers are so familiar with these views that they need not name or summarize them. In such cases, you the reader have to reconstruct the unstated “they say” that is motivating the text through a process of inference. See, for instance, if you can reconstruct the position that Tamara Draut is challenging in the opening paragraph of her essay “The Growing College Gap.”

“The first in her family to graduate from college.” How many times have we heard that phrase, or one like it, used to describe a success- ful American with a modest background? In today’s United States, a four-year degree has become the all-but-official ticket to middle-class security. But if your parents don’t have much money or higher edu- cation in their own right, the road to college—and beyond—looks increasingly treacherous. Despite a sharp increase in the proportion of high school graduates going on to some form of postsecondary educa- tion, socio-economic status continues to exert a powerful influence on college admission and completion; in fact, gaps in enrollment by class and race, after declining in the 1960s and 1970s, are once again as wide as they were thirty years ago, and getting wider, even as college has become far more crucial to lifetime fortunes.

Tamara Draut, “The Growing College Gap”

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You might think that the “they say” here is embedded in the third sentence: They say (or we all think) that a four-year degree is “the all-but-official ticket to middle-class security,” and you might assume that Draut will go on to disagree. If you read the passage this way, however, you would be mistaken. Draut is not questioning whether a college degree has become “the ticket to middle-class security,” but whether most Americans can obtain that ticket, whether college is within the financial reach of most American families. You may have been thrown off by the “but” following the statement that college has become a prerequisite for middle-class security. However, unlike the “though” in Zinczenko’s opening, this “but” does not signal that Draut will be disagreeing with the view she has just summarized, a view that in fact she takes as a given. What Draut disagrees with is that this ticket to middle-class security is still readily available to the middle and working classes. Were one to imagine Draut in a room talking with others with strong views on this topic, one would need to picture her challenging not those who think college is a ticket to financial security (something she agrees with and takes for granted), but those who think the doors of college are open to anyone willing to put forth the effort to walk through them. The view that Draut is challenging, then, is not summarized in her opening. Instead, she assumes that readers are already so familiar with this view that it need not be stated. Draut’s example suggests that in texts where the central “they say” is not immediately identified, you have to construct it your- self based on the clues the text provides. You have to start by locating the writer’s thesis and then imagine some of the argu- ments that might be made against it. What would it look like to disagree with this view? In Draut’s case, it is relatively easy to construct a counterargument: it is the familiar faith in the

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American Dream of equal opportunity when it comes to access to college. Figuring out the counterargument not only reveals what motivated Draut as a writer but helps you respond to her essay as an active, critical reader. Constructing this counter- argument can also help you recognize how Draut challenges your own views, questioning opinions that you previously took for granted.

when the “they say” is about something “nobody has talked about”

Another challenge in reading for the conversation is that writ- ers sometimes build their arguments by responding to a lack of discussion. These writers build their case not by playing off views that can be identified (like faith in the American Dream or the idea that we are responsible for our body weight), but by pointing to something others have overlooked. As the writing theorists John M. Swales and Christine B. Feak point out, one effective way to “create a research space” and “establish a niche” in the academic world is “by indicating a gap in . . . previous research.” Much research in the sciences and humanities takes this “Nobody has noticed X” form. In such cases, the writer may be responding to scientists, for example, who have overlooked an obscure plant that offers insights into global warming, or to literary critics who have been so busy focusing on the lead character in a play that they have overlooked something important about the minor characters.

reading particularly challenging texts

Sometimes it is difficult to figure out the views that writers are responding to not because these writers do not identify

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those views but because their language and the concepts they are dealing with are particularly challenging. Consider, for instance, the first two sentences of Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, a book by the feminist philosopher and literary theorist Judith Butler, thought by many to be a particularly difficult academic writer.

Contemporary feminist debates over the meaning of gender lead time and again to a certain sense of trouble, as if the indeterminacy of gender might eventually culminate in the failure of feminism. Perhaps trouble need not carry such a negative valence.

Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity

There are many reasons readers may stumble over this relatively short passage, not the least of which is that Butler does not explicitly indicate where her own view begins and the view she is responding to ends. Unlike Zinczenko, Butler does not use the first-person “I” or a phrase such as “in my own view” to show that the position in the second sentence is her own. Nor does Butler offer a clear transition such as “but” or “however” at the start of the second sentence to indicate, as Zinczenko does with “though,” that in the second sentence she is questioning the argument she has summarized in the first. And finally, like many academic writers, Butler uses abstract, unfamiliar words that many readers may need to look up, like “gender” (sexual identity, male or female), “indeterminacy” (the quality of being impossible to define or pin down), “culminate” (finally result in), and “negative valence” (a term borrowed from chemistry, roughly denoting “negative significance” or “meaning”). For all

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these reasons, we can imagine many readers feeling intimidated before they reach the third sentence of Butler’s book. But readers who break down this passage into its essential parts will find that it is actually a lucid piece of writing that conforms to the classic “they say / I say” pattern. Though it can be difficult to spot the clashing arguments in the two sentences, close analysis reveals that the first sentence offers a way of looking at a certain type of “trouble” in the realm of feminist politics that is being challenged in the second. To understand difficult passages of this kind, you need to translate them into your own words—to build a bridge, in effect, between the passage’s unfamiliar terms and ones more familiar to you. Building such a bridge should help you connect what you already know to what the author is saying—and will then help you move from reading to writing, providing you with some of the language you will need to summarize the text. One major challenge in translating the author’s words into your own, however, is to stay true to what the author is actually saying, avoiding what we call “the closest cliché syndrome,” in which one mistakes a commonplace idea for an author’s more complex one (mistaking Butler’s critique of the concept of “woman,” for instance, for the common idea that women must have equal rights). The work of complex writers like Butler, who frequently challenge conventional thinking, cannot always be collapsed into the types of ideas most of us are already familiar with. Therefore, when you translate, do not try to fit the ideas of such writers into your preexisting beliefs, but instead allow your own views to be challenged. In building a bridge to the writers you read, it is often necessary to meet those writers more than halfway. So what, then, does Butler’s opening say? Translating But- ler’s words into terms that are easier to understand, we can

For more on the closest cliché syndrome, see Chapter 2.

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see that the first sentence says that for many feminists today, “the indeterminacy of gender”—the inability to define the essence of sexual identity—spells the end of feminism; that for many feminists the inability to define “gender,” presumably the building block of the feminist movement, means serious “trouble” for feminist politics. In contrast, the second sen- tence suggests that this same “trouble” need not be thought of in such “negative” terms, that the inability to define feminin- ity, or “gender trouble” as Butler calls it in her book’s title, may not be such a bad thing—and, as she goes on to argue in the pages that follow, may even be something that femi- nist activists can profit from. In other words, Butler suggests, highlighting uncertainties about masculinity and femininity can be a powerful feminist tool. Pulling all these inferences together, then, the opening sen- tences can be translated as follows: “While many contempo- rary feminists believe that uncertainty about what it means to be a woman will undermine feminist politics, I, Judith Butler, believe that this uncertainty can actually help strengthen femi- nist politics.” Translating Butler’s point into our own book’s basic move: “They say that if we cannot define ‘woman,’ femi- nism is in big trouble. But I say that this type of trouble is precisely what feminism needs.” Despite its difficulty, then, we hope you agree that this initially intimidating passage does make sense if you stay with it. We hope it is clear that critical reading is a two-way street. It is just as much about being open to the way that writers can challenge you, maybe even transform you, as it is about questioning those writers. And if you translate a writer’s argu- ment into your own words as you read, you should allow the text to take you outside the ideas that you already hold and to introduce you to new terms and concepts. Even if you end

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up disagreeing with an author, you first have to show that you have really listened to what he or she is saying, have fully grasped his or her arguments, and can accurately summarize those arguments. Without such deep, attentive listening, any critique you make will be superficial and decidedly uncritical. It will be a critique that says more about you than about the writer or idea you’re supposedly responding to. In this chapter we have tried to show that reading for the conversation means looking not just for the thesis of a text in isolation but for the view or views that motivate that thesis— the “they say.” We have also tried to show that reading for the conversation means being alert for the different strategies writers use to engage the view(s) that are motivating them, since not all writers engage other perspectives in the same way. Some writers explicitly identify and summarize a view they are responding to at the outset of their text and then return to it frequently as their text unfolds. Some refer only obliquely to a view that is motivating them, assuming that readers will be able to reconstruct that view on their own. Other writers may not explicitly distinguish their own view from the views they are questioning in ways that all of us find clear, leaving some readers to wonder whether a given view is the writer’s own or one that he or she is challenging. And some writers push off against the “they say” that is motivating them in a challeng- ing academic language that requires readers to translate what they are saying into more accessible, everyday terms. In sum, then, though most persuasive writers do follow a conversational “they say / I say” pattern, they do so in a great variety of ways. What this means for readers is that they need to be armed with various strategies for detecting the conversations in what they read, even when those conversations are not self-evident.

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“analyze this”

Writing in the Social Sciences



Social science is the study of people—how they behave and relate to one another, and the organizations and institu- tions that facilitate these interactions. People are complicated, so any study of human behavior is at best partial, taking into account some elements of what people do and why, but not always explaining those actions definitively. As a result, it is the subject of constant conversation and argument. Consider some of the topics studied in the social sciences: minimum wage laws, immigration policy, health care, employ- ment discrimination. Got an opinion on any of these topics? You aren’t alone. But in the writing you do as a student of the social sciences, you need to write about more than just

Erin Ackerman is the Social Sciences Librarian at the College of New Jersey and formerly taught political science at John Jay College, City University of New York. Her research and teaching interests include women and American law, the law and politics of reproductive health, and information literacy in the social sciences.

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your opinions. Good writing in the social sciences, as in other academic disciplines, requires that you demonstrate that you have thought about what it is you think. The best way to do that is to bring your views into conversation with those expressed by others and to test what you and others think against a review of data. In other words, you’ll need to start with what others say and then present what you say as a response. Consider the following example from a book about contem- porary American political culture:

Claims of deep national division were standard fare after the 2000 elections, and to our knowledge few commentators have publicly challenged them. . . . In sum, contemporary observers of American politics have apparently reached a new consensus around the proposition that old disagreements about economics now pale in comparison to new divisions based on sexuality, morality, and religion, divisions so deep as to justify fears of violence and talk of war in describing them. This short book advocates a contrary thesis: the sentiments expressed in the previously quoted pronouncements of scholars, journalists, and politicos range from simple exaggeration to sheer nonsense. . . . Many of the activists in the political parties and vari- ous cause groups do, in fact, hate each other and regard themselves as combatants in a war. But their hatreds and battles are not shared by the great mass of the American people. . . .

Morris P. Fiorina, Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America

In other words, “they” (journalists, pundits, other political scientists) say that the American public is deeply divided, whereas Fiorina replies that they have misinterpreted the evidence—specifically, that they have generalized from a few

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exceptional cases (activists). Even the title of the book calls into question an idea held by others, one Fiorina labels a “myth.” This chapter explores some of the basic moves social sci- ence writers make. In addition, writing in the social sciences generally includes several core components: a strong intro- duction and thesis, a literature review, and the writer’s own analysis, including presentation of data and consideration of implications. Much of your own writing will include one or more of these components as well. The introduction sets out the thesis, or point, of the paper, briefly explaining what you will say in your text and how it fits into the preexisting conversa- tion. The literature review summarizes what has already been said on your topic. Your analysis allows you to present data—the information about human behavior you are measuring or test- ing against what other people have said—and to explain the conclusions you have drawn based on your investigation. Do you agree, disagree, or some combination of both, with what has been said by others? What reasons can you give for why you feel that way? And so what? Who should be interested in what you have to say, and why?

the introduction and thesis: “this paper challenges . . .”

Your introduction sets forth what you plan to say in your essay. You might evaluate the work of earlier scholars or cer- tain widely held assumptions and find them incorrect when measured against new data. Alternatively, you might point out that an author’s work is largely correct, but that it could use some qualifications or be extended in some way. Or you might identify a gap in our knowledge—we know a great deal about

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topic X but almost nothing about some other closely related topic. In each of these instances, your introduction needs to cover both “they say” and “I say” perspectives. If you stop after the “they say,” your readers won’t know what you are bringing to the conversation. Similarly, if you were to jump right to the “I say” portion of your argument, readers might wonder why you need to say anything at all. Sometimes you join the conversation at a point where the discussion seems settled. One or more views about a topic have become so widely accepted among a group of scholars or society at large that these views are essentially the conventional way of thinking about the topic. You may wish to offer new reasons to support this interpretation, or you may wish to call these standard views into question. To do so, you must first introduce and iden- tify these widely held beliefs and then pre sent your own view. In fact, much of the writing in the social sciences takes the form of calling into question that which we think we already know. Consider the following example from an article in The Journal of Economic Perspectives:

Fifteen years ago, Milton Friedman’s 1957 treatise A Theory of the Consumption Function seemed badly dated. Dynamic optimization theory had not been employed much in economics when Fried- man wrote, and utility theory was still comparatively primitive, so his statement of the “permanent income hypothesis” never actu- ally specified a formal mathematical model of behavior derived explicitly from utility maximization . . . [W]hen other economists subsequently found multiperiod maximizing models that could be solved explicitly, the implications of those models differed sharply from Friedman’s intuitive description of his “model.” Furthermore, empirical tests in the 1970s and 1980s often rejected these rigor- ous versions of the permanent income hypothesis in favor of an

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alternative hypothesis that many households simply spent all of their current income. Today, with the benefit of a further round of mathematical (and computational) advances, Friedman’s (1957) original analysis looks more prescient than primitive . . .

Christopher D. Carroll, “A Theory of Consumption Function, With and Without Liquidity Constraints,”

The Journal of Economic Perspectives

This introduction makes clear that Carroll will defend Milton Friedman against some major criticisms of his work. Carroll mentions what has been said about Friedman’s work and then goes on to say that the critiques turn out to be wrong and to suggest that Friedman’s work reemerges as persuasive. A tem- plate of Carroll’s introduction might look something like this: Economics research in the last fifteen years suggested Fried- man’s 1957 treatise was because . In other words, they say that Friedman’s work is not accurate because of , , and . Recent research convinces me, however, that Friedman’s work makes sense. In some cases, however, there may not be a strong consensus among experts on a topic. You might enter the ongoing debate by casting your vote with one side or another or by offering an alternative view. In the following example, Shari Berman iden- tifies two competing accounts of how to explain world events in the twentieth century and then puts forth a third view.

Conventional wisdom about twentieth-century ideologies rests on two simple narratives. One focuses on the struggle for dominance between democracy and its alternatives. . . . The other narrative focuses on the competition between free-market capitalism and its rivals. . . . Both of these narratives obviously contain some

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truth. . . . Yet both only tell part of the story, which is why their common conclusion—neoliberalism as the “end of History”—is unsatisfying and misleading. What the two conventional narratives fail to mention is that a third struggle was also going on: between those ideologies that believed in the primacy of economics and those that believed in the primacy of politics.

Shari Berman, “The Primacy of Economics versus the Primacy of Politics: Understanding the Ideological Dynamics

of the Twentieth Century,” Perspectives on Politics

After identifying the two competing narratives, Berman sug- gests a third view—and later goes on to argue that this third view explains current debates over globalization. A template for this type of introduction might look something like this: In recent discussions of , a controversial aspect has been . On the one hand, some argue that . On the other hand, others argue that . Neither of these arguments, however, considers the alternative view that . Given the complexity of many of the issues studied in the social sciences, however, you may sometimes agree and disagree with existing views—pointing out things that you believe are correct or have merit, while disagreeing with or refin- ing other points. In the example below, anthropologist Sally Engle Merry agrees with another scholar about something that is a key trait of modern society but argues that this trait has a different origin than the other author identifies.

Although I agree with Rose that an increasing emphasis on governing the soul is characteristic of modern society, I see the

For more on different ways of responding, see Chapter 4.

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transformation not as evolutionary but as the product of social mobilization and political struggle.

Sally Engle Merry, “Rights, Religion, and Community: Approaches to Violence against Women in the

Context of Globalization,” Law and Society Review

Here are some templates for agreeing and disagreeing:

j Although I agree with X up to a point, I cannot accept his overall

conclusion that .

j Although I disagree with X on and , I agree

with her conclusion that .

j Political scientists studying have argued that it

is caused by . While contributes to the

problem, is also an important factor.

In the process of examining people from different angles, social scientists sometimes identify gaps—areas that have not been explored in previous research. In an article on African American neighborhoods, sociologist Mary Pattillo identifies such a gap.

The research on African Americans is dominated by inquiries into the lives of the black poor. Contemporary ethnographies and jour- nalistic descriptions have thoroughly described deviance, gangs, drugs, intergender relations and sexuality, stymied aspiration, and family patterns in poor neighborhoods (Dash 1989; Hagedorn 1988; Kotlowitz 1991; Lemann 1991; MacLeoad 1995; Sullivan 1989; Williams 1989). Yet, the majority of African Americans are not

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poor (Billingsley 1992). A significant part of the black experience, namely that of working and middle-class blacks, remains unex- plored. We have little information about what black middle-class neighborhoods look like and how social life is organized within them. . . . this article begins to fill this empirical and theoretical gap using ethnographic data collected in Groveland, a middle-class black neighborhood in Chicago.

Mary E. Pattillo, “Sweet Mothers and Gangbangers: Managing Crime

in a Black Middle-Class Neighborhood,” Social Forces

Pattillo explains that much has been said about poor African American neighborhoods. But, she says, we have little infor- mation about the experience of working-class and middle-class black neighborhoods—a gap that her article will address. Here are some templates for introducing gaps in the existing research:

j Studies of X have indicated . It is not clear, however,

that this conclusion applies to .

j often take for granted that . Few have

investigated this assumption, however.

j X’s work tells us a great deal about . Can this work

be generalized to ?

Again, a good introduction indicates what you have to say in the larger context of what others have said. Throughout the rest of your paper, you will move back and forth between the “they say” and the “I say,” adding more details.

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the literature review: “prior research indicates . . .”

In the literature review, you explain what “they say” in more detail, summarizing, paraphrasing, or quoting the viewpoints to which you are responding. But you need to balance what they are saying with your own focus. You need to characterize someone else’s work fairly and accurately but set up the points you yourself want to make by selecting the details that are relevant to your own perspective and observations. It is common in the social sciences to summarize several arguments at once, identifying their major arguments or find- ings in a single paragraph.

How do employers in a low-wage labor market respond to an increase in the minimum wage? The prediction from conventional economic theory is unambiguous: a rise in the minimum wage leads perfectly competitive employers to cut employment (George J. Stigler, 1946). Although studies in the 1970’s based on aggregate teenage employ- ment rates usually confirmed this prediction, earlier studies based on comparisons of employment at affected and unaffected establish- ments often did not (e.g., Richard A. Lester, 1960, 1964). Several recent studies that rely on a similar comparative methodology have failed to detect a negative employment effect of higher minimum wages. Analyses of the 1990–1991 increases in the federal minimum wage (Lawrence F. Katz and Krueger, 1992; Card, 1992a) and of an earlier increase in the minimum wage in California (Card, 1992b) find no adverse employment impact.

David Card and Alan Krueger, “Minimum Wages and Employment: A Case Study of the

Fast-Food Industry in New Jersey and Pennsylvania,” The American Economic Review

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Card and Krueger cite the key findings and conclusions of works that are relevant to the question they are investigating and the point they plan to address, asking “How do employers in a low-wage labor market respond to an increase in the mini- mum wage?” They go on, as good writers should, to answer the question they ask. And they do so by reviewing others who have answered that question, noting that this question has been answered in different, sometimes contradictory, ways. Such summaries are brief, bringing together relevant argu- ments by several scholars to provide an overview of scholarly work on a particular topic. In writing such a summary, you need to ask yourself how the authors themselves might describe their positions and also consider what in their work is relevant for the point you wish to make. This kind of summary is especially appropriate when you have a large amount of research material on a topic and want to identify the major strands of a debate or to show how the work of one author builds on that of another. Here are some templates for overview summaries:

j In addressing the question of , political scientists

have considered several explanations for . X argues

that . According to Y and Z, another plausible expla-

nation is .

j What is the effect of on ? Previous work

on by X and by Y and Z supports .

Sometimes you may need to say more about the works you cite. On a midterm or final exam, for example, you may need to demonstrate that you have a deep familiarity with a par- ticular work. And in some disciplines of the social sciences, longer, more detailed literature reviews are the standard. Your instructor and the articles he or she has assigned are your best

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guides for the length and level of detail of your literature review. Other times, the work of certain authors is especially important for your argument, and therefore you need to provide more details to explain what these authors have said. See how Martha Derthick summarizes an argument that is central to her book about the politics of tobacco regulation.

The idea that governments could sue to reclaim health care costs from cigarette manufacturers might be traced to “Cigarettes and Welfare Reform,” an article published in the Emory Law Journal in 1977 by Donald Gasner, a law professor at the University of Southern Illinois. Garner suggested that state governments could get a cigarette manufacturer to pay the direct medical costs “of looking after patients with smoking diseases.” He drew an analogy to the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, under which coal mine operators are required to pay certain disability benefits for coal miners suffering from pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease.

Martha Derthick, Up In Smoke: From Legislation to Litigation in Tobacco Politics

Note that Derthick identifies the argument she is summariz- ing, quoting its author directly and then adding details about a precedent for the argument. You may want to include direct quotations of what others have said, as Derthick does. Using an author’s exact words helps you demonstrate that you are representing him or her fairly. But you cannot simply insert a quotation; you need to explain to your readers what it means for your point. Consider the following example drawn from a political science book on the debate over tort reform.

The essence of agenda setting was well enunciated by E. E. Schattschneider: “In politics as in everything else, it makes a great

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difference whose game we play” (1960, 47). In short, the ability to define or control the rules, terms, or perceived options in a contest over policy greatly affects the prospects for winning.

William Haltom and Michael McCann, Distorting the Law: Politics, Media, and the Litigation Crisis

Notice how Haltom and McCann first quote Schattschneider and then explain in their own words how political agenda set- ting can be thought of as a game, with winners and losers. Remember that whenever you summarize, quote, or paraphrase the work of others, credit must be given in the form of a citation to the original work. The words may be your own, but if the idea comes from someone else you must give credit to the original work. There are several formats for documenting sources. Consult your instructor for help choosing which citation style to use.

the analysis

The literature review covers what others have said on your topic. The analysis allows you to present and support your own response. In the introduction you indicate whether you agree, disagree, or some combination of both with what others have said. You will want to expand on how you have formed your opinion and why others should care about your topic.

“The Data Indicate . . .”

The social sciences use data to develop and test explanations. Data can be quantitative or qualitative and can come from a number of sources. You might use statistics related to GDP growth, unemployment, voting rates, or demographics. Or you could use surveys, interviews, or other first-person accounts.

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Regardless of the type of data used, it is important to do three things: define your data, indicate where you got the data, and then say what you have done with your data. In a journal article, political scientist Joshua C. Wilson examines a court case about protests at an abortion clinic and asks whether each side of the conflict acts in a way consistent with their general views on freedom of speech.

[T]his paper relies on close readings of in-person, semi-structured interviews with the participants involved in the real controversy that was the Williams case. Thirteen interviews ranging in length from 40 minutes to 1 hour and 50 minutes were conducted for this paper. Of those interviewed, all would be considered “elites” in terms of political psychology / political attitude research—six were active members of Solano Citizens for Life . . . ; two were members of Planned Parenthood Shasta-Diablo management; one was the lawyer who obtained the restraining order, temporary injunction, and perma- nent injunction for Planned Parenthood; one was the lawyer for the duration of the case for Solano Citizens for Life; two were lawyers for Planned Parenthood on appeal; and one was the Supe- rior Court judge who heard arguments for, and finally crafted, the restraining order and injunctions against Solano Citizens for Life. During the course of the interviews, participants were asked a range of questions about their experiences and thoughts in relation to the Williams case, as well as their beliefs about the interpretation and limits of the First Amendment right to free speech—both in general, and in relation to the Williams case.

Joshua C. Wilson. “When Rights Collide: Anti-Abortion Protests and the Ideological Dilemma in Planned Parenthood Shasta-Diablo, Inc. v. Williams,”

Studies in Law, Politics, and Society

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Writing in the Social Sciences

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Wilson identifies and describes his qualitative data—interviews conducted with key parties in the conflict—and explains the nature of the questions he asked. If your data are quantitative, you will need to explain them similarly. See how political scientist Brian Arbour explains the quantitative data he used to study for an article in The Forum how a change of rules might have affected the outcome of the 2008 Democratic primary contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

I evaluate these five concerns about the Democratic system of delegate allocation by “rerunning” the Obama-Clinton contest with a different set of allocation rules, those in effect for the 2008 Republican presidential contest. . . . Republicans allow each state to make their own rules, leading to “a plethora of selection plans” (Shapiro & Bello 2008, 5) . . . To “rerun” the Democratic pri- mary under Republican rules, I need data on the results of the Democratic primary for each state and congressional district and on the Republican delegate allocation rules for each state. The Green Papers (www.thegreenpapers.com), a website that serves as an almanac of election procedures, rules, and results, provides each of these data sources. By “rerunning” the Democratic primaries and caucuses, I use the exact results of each contest.

Brian Arbour, “Even Closer, Even Longer: What If the 2008 Democratic Primary Used Republican Rules?” The Forum

Note that Arbour identifies his data as primary voting results and the rules for Republican primaries. In the rest of the paper, Arbour shows how his use of these data suggests that political commentators who thought Republican rules would have clari- fied the close race between Clinton and Obama were wrong and the race would have been “even closer, even longer.”

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f i f t e e n f i f t e e n “ A N A LY Z E T H I S ”

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Here are some templates for discussing data:

j In order to test the hypothesis that , we assessed

. Our calculations suggest .

j I used to investigate . The results of this

investigation indicate .

“But Others May Object . . .”

No matter how strongly your data support your argument, there are almost surely other perspectives (and thus other data) that you need to acknowledge. By considering possible objections to your argument and taking them seriously, you demonstrate that you’ve done your work and that you’re aware of other perspectives—and most important, you present your own argu- ment as part of an ongoing conversation. See how economist Christopher Carroll acknowledges that there may be objections to his argument about how people allocate their income between consumption and savings.

I have argued here that the modern version of the dynamically opti- mizing consumption model is able to match many of the important features of the empirical data on consumption and saving behavior. There are, however, several remaining reasons for discomfort with the model.

Christopher D. Carroll, “A Theory of Consumption Function, With and Without Liquidity Constraints,”

The Journal of Economic Perspectives

Carroll then goes on to identify the possible limitations of his mathematical analysis.

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Writing in the Social Sciences

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Someone may object because there are related phenomena that your analysis does not explain or because you do not have the right data to investigate a particular question. Or perhaps someone may object to assumptions underlying your argument or how you handled your data. Here are some templates for considering naysayers:

j might object that .

j Is my claim realistic? I have argued , but readers may

question .

j My explanation accounts for but does not explain

. This is because .

“Why Should We Care?”

Who should care about your research, and why? Since the social sciences attempt to explain human behavior, it is important to consider how your research affects the assump- tions we make about human behavior. In addition, you might offer recommendations for how other social scientists might continue to explore an issue, or what actions policymakers should take. In the following example, sociologist Devah Pager identi- fies the implications of her study of the way having a criminal record affects a person applying for jobs.

[I]n terms of policy implications, this research has troubling con- clusions. In our frenzy of locking people up, our “crime control” policies may in fact exacerbate the very conditions that lead to crime in the first place. Research consistently shows that finding

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f i f t e e n f i f t e e n “ A N A LY Z E T H I S ”

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quality steady employment is one of the strongest predictors of desistance from crime (Shover 1996; Sampson and Laub 1993; Uggen 2000). The fact that a criminal record severely limits employment opportunities—particularly among blacks—suggests that these individuals are left with few viable alternatives.

Devah Pager, “The Mark of a Criminal Record,” The American Journal of Sociology

Pager’s conclusion that a criminal record negatively affects employment chances creates a vicious circle, she says: steady employment discourages recidivism, but a criminal record makes it harder to get a job. In answering the “so what?” question, you need to explain why your readers should care. Although sometimes the impli- cations of your work may be so broad that they would be of interest to almost anyone, it’s never a bad idea to iden- tify explicitly any groups of people who will find your work important. Templates for establishing why your claims matter:

j X is important because .

j Ultimately, what is at stake here is .

j The finding that should be of interest to

because .

As noted at the beginning of this chapter, the complexity of people allows us to look at their behavior from many different viewpoints. Much has been, and will be, said about how and why people do the things they do. As a result, we can look at writing in the social sciences as an ongoing conversation.

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Writing in the Social Sciences

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When you join this conversation, the “they say / I say” frame- work will help you figure out what has already been said (they say) and what you can add (I say). The components of social science writing presented in this chapter are tools to help you join that conversation.

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is college the best option?


American society may be divided in many ways, but not when it comes to college. From a very early age, we get the message that going to college is a crucial step in life. We hear this message regularly from our families, our schools, our com- munities. We see it constantly in the media: movies, television shows, sports broadcasts, newspapers, magazines, and websites all show the allure and advantages of going to college. Even on the highways, billboards portray attractive, smiling, confident, intelligent-looking students on tree-lined campuses promoting the virtues of particular colleges: strong academics, excellent career opportunities, affordable tuition. Indeed, most young people in the United States grow up to see college as inevitable. But in addition to the success stories, we see occasional glimpses of another side of the college story: graduates unable to find good jobs, or any job at all; students with large college debts that can take years, even decades, to pay off; uncaring pro- fessors, huge classes, maze-like bureaucracies, distracted advi- sors; students who for a variety of reasons find themselves in academic trouble. As with all paths in life, it’s possible to take

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I S C O L L E G E T H E B E S T O P T I O N ?

a wrong turn in college, so it’s advisable for anyone who’s con- templating attending college to have specific, well-considered reasons for pursuing a so-called higher education, as well as a plan, regularly checked and updated, for how best to succeed. The readings in this chapter focus on the present state of higher education in the United States and examine the poten- tial benefits and pitfalls of going to college. The chapter begins with a report on a study showing that while college graduates on average make significantly more money than high-school graduates do, there is large variation in the return on invest- ment based on such factors as college attended, major, whether or not the student graduates, and occupation. This report is fol- lowed by an essay by Sanford Ungar, a former college president, about the value of a college education steeped in the liberal arts, as opposed to the preprofessional training that many students now prefer. Political scientist Charles Murray advances the view that far too many American students currently go on to college but would be better off attending a vocational program or going right to work after high school. Liz Addison, drawing upon her own experience, articulates the often underappreci- ated value of a community college education. Several other authors focus on ways that the faculty and the institution as a whole can support student success. Col- lege president Freeman Hrabowski argues that while it’s easy to lament how expensive and dubious a college degree is, that degree ultimately prepares people not just for a career, but for life. And First Lady Michelle Obama pays tribute to the gradu- ates of one university for their commitment to education and to helping others find opportunities to succeed.

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Is College the Best Option?

Finally, two pieces argue that education can take place in settings other than college and about topics other than “aca- demic” ones. Gerald Graff suggests that it matters less whether we read Macbeth or a Marvel comic book, as long as we approach what we read with a critical eye and question it in analytical, intellectual ways. And Mike Rose makes the case that people in blue-collar occupations who never attend college nonetheless develop sophisticated knowledge of how to do their work. As a college student yourself, you’ll find plenty to think about in this chapter—and on its companion blog, theysayiblog.com.

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Should Everyone Go to College?

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