Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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Developing complex arguments

Posted: Nov 16, 2010 13:11;
Last Modified: Mar 04, 2015 05:03

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This is an exercise intended to give students techniques in developing complex literary theses. The problem it addresses is the tendency many students have to argue the obvious: either argue that the plot unfolds the way it does or that certain fairly obvious topics and themes are present in a work. It probably works best at the beginning of a unit on a given work, before any lectures or other directed discussion.

  1. Put the students in groups of 4 or 5.
  2. Ask the students for the most striking things they saw in the work: what it was about, any obvious themes, striking things about the characters, striking events or speeches. In a recent discussion of O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night we came up with things like: the play takes place in a day; all the main characters show an addiction to something; the family seems to be very disfunctional; there is no resolution—they sound like they’ve been having this argument forever.
  3. Take a couple of these observations either simultaneously (assigned each to a different group) or collectively (each handled by all the groups in turn) and ask the group to argue the opposite of the observation—in the case of O’Neill’s play, for example, that it is wrong to see the play as taking place all in one day, or that the familiy isn’t disfunctional, or alcohol and drugs aren’t the problem in the story. In constructing their arguments, the groups need to observe the following rules:
    1. They can’t deny actual facts: so you can’t argue, for example, that the characters in Long Day’s Journey into Night are only hallucinating that it is a single day.
    2. They can’t use “might be” or “could be”: all arguments need to be demonstrable textually.
  4. As usual, go round the groups asking for arguments and evidence. Ask other groups for ways of expanding, improving, or contradicting proposals.
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Developing Essay Topics in Class

Posted: Oct 07, 2010 17:10;
Last Modified: Mar 04, 2015 05:03

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This is a method I use with some success to develop essay topics collectively, in-class.

  1. Ask each student in the class to prepare in advance an essay topic that would be helpful to somebody else in the class.
  2. On the class day, divide the class into groups of four and ask each group to review all the members’ topics.
    1. Optional: before asking the class to discuss the topics amongst themselves, ask them about essay topics they have had in the past that have worked or not. Try to build a sense of what types of topics exist and what makes for a good (and bad) topic. If discussion falters, ask the groups to come up with something.
  3. After reviewing and discussing the topics amongst themselves, each group is to come up with a single essay topic for the rest of the class. This can be based on one of the four proposals, modified from a proposal, or completely new based on their discussions.
  4. Go through each of the groups in turn, asking to hear what their best topic is. Write up the topic on the board.
  5. After all groups have been heard from, go back through the topics, this time asking others to comment on strengths, weaknesses, ways of extending the topic, focussing it, etc.
  6. At the end of the exercise ask each group to nominate a secretary, whose job it is to mail a single topic to the class based on their group’s proposal and the commentary they received.
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