Monday, October 20, 2008

Structural Thinking

I met a young woman, an undergraduate at Cal, and asked her what she was studying. "Rhetoric," she said, sighing, "a completely worthless degree." I was obliged to disagree.

What is rhetoric? "The art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing," says one dictionary; "the study of the elements used in literature and public speaking, such as content, structure, cadence and style," says another. In short, it is the study of how to effectively present ideas, distinct from the question of whether the idea is good or not. This has led to rhetoric getting a bad rap--"language designed to have a persuasive or impressive effect on its audience, but is often regarded as lacking in sincerity or meaningful content," says the first dictionary; "affectation or exaggeration...unsupported or inflated discourse," says the second.

Bad rap or not, we have to learn how to think in these terms. the five paragraph essay that they used to teach in elementary school or junior high--that gets a bad rap now, too. But it is an elegant example of basic rhetorical principles. You have an opening paragraph that introduces the idea to the reader, you have three examples, and you have a conclusion that ties everything up. This is, in simple form, the basic structure of a lot of really effective speaking and writing. Yes, there are those who wish to create emotional effects of surprise or blind enthusiasm who might not wish to present material this way, but as academic writers we want to follow the basic paradigm: introduce the ideas, give details/examples that develop the ideas presented in the introduction, and then wrap up the discussion by summarizing the main points and talking about what the point of the whole exercise was--what you take moving forward.

Whether talking about a paragraph, a section, a chapter, or the whole work, we can always use the same basic paradigm for thinking about how we are presenting our ideas to an audience. We can always rely on the template:
First I introduce the ideas I discuss in this [paragraph|section|chapter|dissertation]
Second I present materials that develop the ideas of the [paragraph|section|etc.]
Finally, I draw conclusions from the material I presented in the [paragraph|etc.].

At the level of the academic writer, with the scope of the dissertation, there are certainly structural liberties one can take, if one is a confident writer. But if one is struggling to write, using a worthy template can help simplify the problem--by simplifying the rhetorical aspect of the argument, one can focus on the logic, theory and analysis and use of data.

Thinking about the rhetorical aspect--how do I present this to an audience? how do I draw the audience in? how do I ensure that they will follow me where I want to go?--can provide an extra angle by which to help organize material. Sometimes ideas don't organize themselves in linear forms--for example some ideas face chicken-and-egg problems: you can't understand one without understanding the other, so which do you present first? A template can help somewhat, if you think of it as a way of imposing order on the ideas--an additional order that doesn't exist in the ideas themselves, but that serves your rhetorical purposes.

For example, when presenting material that has the aforementioned chicken-and-egg problem, you can think in terms of roles. Suppose you have four parts to the main idea. you can impose roles on the ideas: one part is presented first an an introduction: it defines ideas and sets up the rest of the discussion. The second part will still do some defining of ideas, but it will also start to go into greater depth; it presumes familiarity with the basics (provided by the first part), so it can look more at complexities; the third part then begins the process of closing up the argument: it brings out the details and the full depth of the argument, so that all the main detail and complexity of the has been brought out before the final section. The final part (of this hypothetical four-part idea) is used to summarize and conclude; what details you discuss of the fourth part of the idea can be used to bring together the details from the other parts to highlight the points that you want to make.

Ok, I've obviously simplified this example. There may not be four parts, and they may not want to work the way I've described, but whatever you write can follow the simple elegant template of introducing, giving details, and concluding. This template provides a way to think about how to communicate with your audience. If you can see a way to use it, it could make writing easier.

You may be saying something like "oh no, something else to think about; this just makes it more complicated. I don't have time for this." On one level that's like saying "I don't have time to look in the rearview mirror when driving": the consequences may not be as dire, but it's something you have to think about to write well. On another level, even though it may seem like it makes it more complicated at first, I believe that it helps simplify the project: by looking at the work from the additional perspective, by adding additional conditions to satisfy, you limit what the final piece will look like, thus giving you better direction and reducing the number of possibilities that you need to consider.

In order to effectively communicate our ideas--which is our goal in writing--it helps to think of the rhetorical aspects: how is the work going to be presented? By thinking about the role structure will play in communicating our ideas to an audience, we can give ourselves valuable guidance that will help organize our writing.

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