Stereotypes & Assumptions

I’m not a deep thinker or writer, despite my background, education, and training.  This may seem odd from someone with a PhD in an arts/humanities field given the reputations of said fields.  We’re expected to be thinking and writing deep, meaningful, philosophical things.

That’s not me.

Maybe that comes from being the grandkid of working class families.  Maybe it comes from my Polish lineage (though we have Copernicus and John Paul II, so maybe not entirely).

I think this is the big reason I rejected doing literary theory in grad school.  Most of the things we read and discussed were doing pure theory, theory for the sake of theory.  People like Roland Barthes, Toril Moi, and Stanley Fish who were totally divorced from texts, just developing theory to further theory drove me crazy.  Meanwhile, I embraced, halfheartedly because theory was required, New Historicism, in short studying a text’s historical context or the historical context in which it was and is received.  It seemed, and still does, the most practical of the theories out there.

I remember being in a graduate level Shakespeare course, during my MA.  We were reading Othello and a fellow student asked, “Why is Othello so obsessed with his reputation?”  As I recall, a few theories were posited, some “I don’t knows” floated around.  Then I spoke up (and I usually didn’t talk much in class), saying, “Othello’s a mercenary, the commander of a company of mercenaries.  His reputation is literally his life.  It’s how he gets jobs for himself and his men.  That would be important enough, but he’s also a Moor, a Black Muslim, working in Catholic Italy.  That makes his reputation at least twice as important as it is for other mercenary captains.”  To me, this seemed obvious.  From the looks I got, it seemed to be a revelation to many others in the class.  It’s not a deep, philosophical interpretation, but a practical, historically important one, I think.

During a decade as a student in higher ed, I concluded that  students sometimes forget about the practical side of critical thinking and get too caught up in some skewed sense of how they think they should be responding and thinking, trying to “sound college”.  The problem is that “sounding college” is built on a stereotype, maybe an idealization, possibly fueled by pop culture (especially movies), in which the faculty are almost invariably the enemy who need to be appeased and outwitted (often by presenting convoluted responses, answers, and thoughts that really make no sense in the light of day).  Often, we just want a straight response that seems likely (at least I do).

Was Shakespeare using Othello as a commentary on hyper-masculinity?  I don’t know.  Possibly.  It’s perfectly valid for modern audiences to read the character that way.  But, I think, for an audience that was being reminded of the War of the Roses, had survived the Spanish Armada, was dealing with the Succession Question, and had the Vatican & Papists fomenting insurrection . . . I suspect they’d understand Othello’s obsession with reputation as part and parcel of being a mercenary captain and an outsider by faith and appearance.

Maybe that all means I’m not a deep enough or philosophical enough thinker for this field or academia.  I don’t know.  Maybe the stereotype & expectation are just false.

Writer Advice: Getting from A to B, or Transitions

A common issue for early stage writers, although it appears with more experienced people as well, is transitions. These are the sentences and phrases that link paragraphs together. They serve to demonstrate how we are moving from one point to the next; they connect points A and B.

In short, transitions show the chain of logic that the writer is making.

Transitions can be seen akin to middle school algebra.

For example, a teacher writes: X + 5 = 10

Most people say, “X = 5”

Teacher says, “Show your work.”

Most people grumble and groan.

But, the teacher wants to see X + 5 – 5 = 10 -5; X = 5 because it shows the chain of logic. That becomes important when we get 2X + 3Y = Z – 5.

That chain of logic is important for linking evidence to claims and shifting between claims.

This is one reason that I like outlining before writing. With a formal outline, there is a good, visual representation of the main claims. These can be manipulated and moved around to where they best fit, compared to the other claims. It is, in my experience, always best to group claims based on what relationship they have to each other. That is, putting related claims next to each other. With that sort of organization, the transitions tend to be smoother, because the points are more closely related.

The chain of logic, aided by the transitions, or as shown by the transitions, makes the argument easier for the reader to follow. If the reader has a difficult time following the argument, then they aren’t focusing on the content, they’re focusing on the structure and trying to figure out what’s going on. This, obviously, is not good for convincing the reader. Rather, we want to make things easy for the reader to follow, so they don’t have to work so hard trying to figure out structural elements—ex. organization, syntax—and can spend more time chewing on the argument itself. Ultimately, that will produce a more convincing argument, or a more productive discussion.

Personally, I find that one of the easiest ways to create a smooth transition is the use of echoing language.  By echoing, I mean using one or two similar terms (or concepts) in the last sentence of paragraph A and the first sentence of paragraph B.

For example:

Her concern comes after years of knowing Lupin, the clearest exception to the prejudicial stereotype, and at a time far removed from a full moon.

The source of this prejudiced view, and its racial connotations, is nowhere more evident than in the words of Dolores Umbridge . . .

(Note the echoing of “prejudicial” and “prejudiced”.)

Alternately, referring to the next main point can create a smoother transition.

For example:

the medieval construct of sympathetic versus monstrous werewolf forms a lens through which Rowling discusses Lupin’s lessons as well as a historical connection to our literary past.

In Rowling’s work, the primary werewolf—Lupin—serves to directly educate key characters . . .

Here the last sentence of paragraph A links the idea of an old dichotomy to the concept of learning/education, with the first sentence of paragraph B moving straight into education.


Writer Advice: Intros and Such (Non-Fic)

Tail end of the semester has started (one week until finals here) and I’ve been focusing my writing time on some fiction/world pieces rather than blog stuff, so I thought I’d take a quick break from story posting to put up some advice.  A lot of the advice I give regarding writing, particularly non-fiction, comes from things I’ve seen crop up often over the last 13 years of teaching and tutoring.

Introductions & Theses

One of the most difficult things for a lot of writers, especially new ones, to do is introductions.

 Each introduction, in a formal non-fiction essay, needs to have three things:

1) Something to get the reader’s attention.

2) A brief outline of the major claims.

3) The thesis.

 There are many ways to get the reader’s attention from telling a joke or an anecdote to inserting a surprising statistic or a rhetorical question. Sometimes the thesis itself gets the reader’s attention.

 Outlining the claims is relatively easy, just a one sentence list (for shorter works) of the main points.

 The thesis can be the really difficult part.

 A thesis is also known as a hypothesis or theory. It is the overarching idea and argument of the paper. Alternatively, we can think of the thesis as the roof of the house—the roof covers the house and is supported by the claims (walls) which are, in turn, supported by the evidence (foundation). A thesis is always a sentence and always answers a question. It is, in effect, a theoretical answer that the writer will attempt to prove with claims and evidence.

 The simplest way to produce a thesis, in my experience, is to figure out what question you’re asking as a writer/researcher. Without the core question, developing a thesis becomes very difficult. With the question in mind, creating a thesis becomes infinitely easier.

 A couple analogies that I use for introductions follow:

 1) Think of the introduction as a movie trailer or TV preview. The two minute version of the movie is designed to get the reader interested, but not give away so much that they refuse to pay for a ticket.

 2) As a researcher, you have 10 articles that you found. Each article is 20 pages long. So, as a writer, ask yourself: would you rather read 200 pages to determine if the articles are useful or would you rather read 10 paragraphs? I’m guessing most people would prefer 10 paragraphs. So the introduction should provide enough information for a casual reader to decide whether the essay should go in the “Useful”, “Not Useful”, or “Maybe” piles of their research.

Circles Within Circles: Everything’s Interconnected

Over the last couple days, I’ve been involved in a couple conversations both online and off that got me thinking about a few things.  The thing that really stands out in my mind is the interconnectedness of all areas of knowledge and study.

We’ve artificially divided knowledge and learning into discrete areas during the last century or so.  The reasons are understandable; it makes specialty and expertise easier to define, it makes them easier to teach, and all that.

However, it also causes problems.

Recently one person I know asked how I remembered “so much” history.  Another pulled out the “I’m an X major, not a Y major” thing when confronted about a questionable analogy (s)he made.  The latter really annoyed me for a few reasons (it reinforces stereotypes and is intellectually lazy, IMO).

But, they got me thinking about how every area of knowledge is interrelated.

I thought about my own undergrad days.  I started as a bio major, so had biology and chemistry.  At the same time, I did some psychology, Spanish, classical mythology, and comparative theology.  Then I became an English major, covering a range of literature and history of English language materials with an History minor focusing on medieval and Renaissance history with some military and Chinese history.  At the same time, I was continuing formal study of comparative theology and dabbled in cultural studies.  In grad school, English language and literature was the focus, but the history study continued and developmental psychology (for literacy study) and Jungian psychoanalysis were added alongside comparative mythology.  (And remained interested sciences and moderately good at math.)

And I didn’t think any of this was odd, or unusual.  It was natural.

A comment from a student a few years back comes to mind.  (S)He was smiling after class and we started talking.  (S)He said something to the effect of being amused by “how little we talked about writing” in the class.  That had me thinking, as I replied.

When we study writing, literature, what is it that we’re studying?  What is it that people are writing about (in fiction and nonfiction)?

They’re writing about, and we’re studying: history, sociology, culture, law, life.  Literature is about history, society, culture, politics, philosophy, people (psychology), life (biology).  Many of those are in turn connected to chemistry, physics, fashion, architecture, art, music, math, etc. which eventually come full circle back to literature, history, philosophy, and so on.