Thursday, September 4, 2008

Framing (2)

Sarah asks:

I'm looking back at my text and thinking to myself "I have 9 pages of revised single spaced text (with several more to follow) and no where in here do I feel I have shared with my reader why this long digression in detail is important."

When should we tell the readers about our framing? How often do we need to remind them of it? What are some graceful and tactful ways of doing this without it feeling out of place?
The most important place for framing is right near the beginning. It seems to me that you want your reader to know the general purpose and context of your work right from the start. As I said yesterday, this framing is related to the sense of purpose, and I have previously (on Aug. 18, in a post titled "Sense of Purpose: Explicit statements") noted how these explicit statements of purpose are placed in the preface--that is to say the first piece the reader is to read. This is true for the entire work, and it's true for pieces of the larger work: as you begin a new section, you frame that section within its context.

You might start an entire work saying "Our goal is to trace the history of X, in order to better understand what X is like today." Or maybe "The goal of this work is to trace the history of X, in order to provide an example of the general process Y." Or, to take an example from a book I revere: "The following essay is written in the conviction that anarchism, while perhaps not the most attractive political philosophy, is certainly excellent medicine for epistemology, and for the philosophy of science." (From Paul Feyerabend's Against Method. The italics are Feyerabend's.) Of course, when you start a work, the need to frame it is greatest.
When you are beginning a section of a larger work, you want to frame that section in terms of the larger work. This can be done by explaining to the reader the transition and flow of the work. For example: "This section discusses issues related to a specific aspect of X." Or "Having defined the basic parameters of X, we will look at some of the effects of process Y on X." Or maybe "In order to discuss X, we need to take a look at what came before X; therefore we must first examine W, which will serve as a foil for X."
To return to Sarah's question, as you open those nine pages, do you reference the main question of your study? Do you reference the section that comes before those nine pages? Do you discuss what will follow those nine pages? If not, then I suggest adding a couple of sentences to tell the reader right up front something like "The history of the ABC commission played a crucial role in the development of the 123 department, which set the general parameters for who would be counted as receiving DEF benefits." This kind of statement only comes at the beginning of a section that is, in a way a self-contained unit in the larger work. This kind of framing requires your having a sense of actual purpose for including the discussion: why did you choose to include this discussion in your work? What does this specific discussion--whether it be a discussion of an event, of a theory, of a term, a person, etc.--what purpose does this discussion have in the context of the larger work?

Beyond that opening statement, I think that you want to start to work framing in through the use of simple sentences later in the section and at transitions within the section. As you start to wrap up the section you want to say to the reader stuff like "this detail that we just discussed is one of the key factors in stuff that I'm going to tell you about later," or maybe "this detail is one of the keys in understanding the stuff I discussed in the previous chapter."

Good methods of framing often rely on mentioning what has just been discussed or what will next be discussed in relation to the current section: how does this section relate to what comes before and after? What is the transition and what the logic? If you just finished discussing theory A and you're currently discussing theory B, how do those theories compare to each other? Are they in conflict or in agreement? where are they alike and where similar? If you framed the previous section well, then you can frame the current section in terms of the previous section. If you are trying to frame the current section with respect to what will come next, it helps to make some reference back to the main question, too.

How often do you need to remind the reader? I think the answer to that is: whenever the link starts to seem tenuous. I know that's not really clear. But what I'm thinking of is that sometimes, as we write about a subject we've been thinking about, it is easy to make leaps of reasoning and follow them--those are the places the reader gets lost. So, if you're working to tie your chain of reasoning together so the reader can follow it, then a lot of framing will naturally develop.

The most important framing of all is in your head: you, the writer, need to be able to explain to yourself what role a given section serves in relating to the main question of your work. If you are framing the ideas yourself--and you write about the things that you see the importance of--then the ideas will naturally come out framed.

If you want to show, for example, how the development of enumeration practices in government, business and charity, led to an entire segment of the population suffering from a series of problems, then each discussion of government policy, of business practice, of theory, etc., will naturally be imbued with framing because you, the writer, will be motivated. If you discuss a government commission, it will be because that commission had an impact in some way; if you discuss a theory, it is because that theory shaped some aspects of the phenomenon you're studying, and so on.

As a final note, the hardest things to frame are things that you need to include to satisfy others. In my dissertation, I was primarily interested in ideas of science and the practical implications of these ideas and how to improve on those ideas given things that we've learned about human cognition. But I included discussion of architectural aesthetics largely at the prompting of my committee; I was interested in the aesthetic questions, and I had a lot to say about them, but it was not quite as directly germane to my main sense of purpose, and so framing it was very difficult. One can't just drop the material in and say "oh by the way: here's 20 pages on some tangential issue," or at least it doesn't feel confident. I guess in such situations, I would recommend making sure that you have a strong vision of what you would like to include, and then it becomes easier, at least, to encapsulate difficult material, or to maybe work in little bits of it in unobtrusive manners, perhaps as a subtheme.

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