Monday, September 14, 2009

Co-facilitating Discussions and Writing a Precis

One of the key assignments for our course will be your co-facilitation of class discussion of one of the assigned texts. This assignment also requires that you generate a précis of the text you are taking responsibility for. This precis should provide a point of departure for your contribution to the discussion in class, and you should publish it to the blog the day before class to give everybody a chance to think about the text in the terms that interest you.

Think of this precis as a basic paraphrase of the argumentative content of a text. Here is a broad and informal guide for a precis, consisting of questions you should always ask of a text as you are reading it, and again after you have finished reading it. Don't treat this as an ironclad template, but as a rough approach to producing a precis -- knowing that a truly fine and useful précis need not necessarily satisfy all of these interventions.

A precis should try to answer fairly basic questions such as:

1. What, in your own words, is the basic gist of the argument?

2. To what audience is it pitched primarily? (Do you see yourself as part of that intended audience, and how does your answer impact your reading of the argument?) Does it anticipate and respond to possible objections?

3. What do you think are the argument's stakes in general? To what end is the argument made?

a. To call assumptions into question?
b. To change convictions?
c. To alter conduct?
d. To find acceptable compromises between contending positions?

4. Does it have an explicit thesis? If not, could you provide one in your own words for it?

5. What are the reasons and evidence offered up in the argument to support what you take to be its primary end? What crucial or questionable warrants (unstated assumptions the argument takes to be shared by its audience, often general attitudes of a political, moral, social, cultural nature) does the argument seem to depend on? Are any of these reasons, evidences, or warrants questionable in your view? Do they support one another or introduce tensions under closer scrutiny?

6. What, if any, kind of argumentative work is being done by metaphors and other figurative language in the piece? Do the metaphors collaborate to paint a consistent picture, or do they clash with one another? What impact does this have on their argumentative force?

7. Are there key terms in the piece that seem to have idiosyncratic definitions, or whose usages seem to change over the course of the argument?

As you see, a piece that interrogates a text from these angles of view will yield something between a general book report and a close reading, but one that focuses on the argumentative force of a text. For the purposes of our class, such a precis succeeds if it manages

(1) to convey the basic flavor of the argument and
(2) provides a good point of departure for a class discussion.

Needless to say, in our course it will always be in point to direct our attention to the interplay of the discourses of nature we have been elaborating, to point out the ways in which argumentative strategies, assumptions, problems, figures, frames recur in the piece under discussion in variations familiar from earlier texts, and so on.

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