What the heck do profs and TAs mean when they say “develop your argument” or “delve deeper”?

By far the most common theme in both TAs’ comments on the reports and in my own grading went something like this: “you have good ideas but you need to explain/develop/back up your claims.” What does this mean?

Usually, it means that a good, plausible or intriguing general claim has been made, but that there is little more. Often, after making such a claim, the student moves on to the next point. This is equivalent to a lawyer saying “There’s no way my client is guilty” and saying nothing more about it. In one sense, the most important thing has been said. But obviously it’s not enough to convince a jury.

So the first way to follow a statement, especially an argument like the example above, is to add an initial causal explanation: “There is no way my client is guilty because he was nowhere near the scene of the crime,” for example. This is better, but still not quite enough. The jury will want to see evidence. In court this could be video footage showing the defendant going to an adult movie theatre miles away from the crime-scene (or whatever). In an English paper, the evidence is more usually quoted passages from the text you’re analyzing.

If your claim is a description rather than an argument (for example, “the tone of the passage changes when the first-person narrator becomes a third-person narrator), you can probably skip straight to the evidence. But my specific example here brings me to another point: what does it even mean to say “the tone changes”? Actually, what do I even mean by “tone”? The quotations you choose to back up your claim should be chosen to help you illustrate what you mean by “tone,” which should then allow you to show how different it is in the two versions.

Let’s look briefly at the excerpt from Daisy Miller that we went over in class:

“Take care you don’t hurt your teeth,” he said, paternally.

    “I haven’t got any teeth to hurt. They have all come out. I have only got seven teeth. My mother counted them last night, and one came out right afterward. She said she’d slap me if any more came out. I can’t help it. It’s this old Europe. It’s the climate that makes them come out. In America they didn’t come out. It’s these hotels.” (Henry James. Daisy Miller. New York: Dover, 1995.)

 

The hypothetical question I asked about this was something like “How does this passage act as a microcosm of the novella as a whole?” Or, more basically, I might ask for a close-reading of this passage and its significance to Daisy Miller generally. If you remember the lecture on Daisy Miller, you’ll remember that one of the main conflicts in the story is the culture clash between Old Europe (who’s mentioned in the excerpt) and Young America. With this general knowledge about the novella, and this specific passage from it, you can begin to build an analysis. (It doesn’t have to be the Young-America/Old-Europe theme; it could be any other aspect of the text.)

Now, this is a good time to remember what I said about narrative in opposition to real life. In narrative, everything means. We might not always know what the meaning of a specific word or allusion is; or we may not care. But everything is always potentially there to aid us in our analysis. This should be welcome news. It means that you get to choose what will serve your argument, and ignore what doesn’t.

Okay, back to the Henry James passage. If we focus on the Young-America/Old-Europe conflict, there are already several avenues we might take: the age difference between Winterbourne and Randolph permits Henry James to rehearse some of the character dynamics we’ll later find between Winterbourne and Daisy. I’m thinking particularly of Winterbourne’s interested but aloof and superior attitude towards Daisy. We see it anticipated in the fact that he speaks “paternally” to Randolph (though he’s hardly old enough to be the boy’s father, and, furthermore, does not know him). And then there’s the issue of losing teeth–a developmental milestone for many children, in many ways the first physical sign of becoming a grown up (it precedes puberty by several years). As Randolph sees it, losing teeth is an effect of leaving America–the land of youth, if we follow the story’s governing allegory; in other words, it’s a traumatic symptom brought about by being in Old Europe. This is effectively what Christine was arguing, most persuasively I think.

Let’s keep pushing on it, though. Now the fact that Mrs. Miller (i.e., Randolph and Daisy’s mother) threatens to slap Randolph if he loses more teeth hints at her naivety. It is a completely powerless threat, but it reveals the extent of her cluelessness about the dangers of the expatriate social scene in Europe. Rather than preparing Randolph for the realities behind his tooth-loss (his growing up, his over-indulging in rock-candy)–that is, rather than helping him cope with the changes of leaving childhood–Mrs. Miller impotently tries to force him to remain a child. This is obviously an overreading of the dialogue with Randolph, but it does seem reasonable to me once we see how well it illuminates not Randolph but Daisy’s situation.

More generally, here’s a reliable trick for testing out whether you might need to say more about your individual claims. It’s reliable, but it only works if you’re ruthless about it. It involves trying out two questions on every claim you make. The first question is “so what?” In the example above, if your claim is that the passage from Daisy Miller is significant because it illustrates the Young America/Old Europe theme, you’d read that claim and then say “so what?” If you find that you haven’t answered that question in the sentence(s) that follows, then you should. This question won’t always make sense, depending on the context, so the alternative question is to ask “what do you mean by that?” The next steps are the same as above. If what follows doesn’t clarify what you meant by your claim, then that is a gap in need of filling. Students often assume that their TAs or profs can follow every step they worked through in the minds as they were writing; but this is a rather unsafe assumption, and it is better to be over-clear than unclear.

This technique is not easy, of course. But it’s relatively straightforward, and if you actually force yourself to do it, it can be very successful. The Final Report is a perfect assignment for putting this technique in practice, and chances are the practice will help with the exam.

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