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Commonplace - Chapter 1.pdf
Commonplace - Chapter 1.pdf
Ohio State University - All Campuses
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chapter 1 the importance of being timely experts, research, and the idea of the university We all need experts: people who actually know something about something, people whose opinions we trust, people who can make sense of this complicated world when it all hits the fan. Expertise comes from a lot of places ? on questions of life and family and happiness, we often rely on our personal experiences rather than book knowledge ? but the truth is, a great deal of expertise is demonstrated by what one learns in school: the initials PhD and MD and MBA mean something in this world. BAs and BSs mean something too, and as much as some folks would like you to buy into the cliché that college degrees are the new chapter 1: the importance of being timely 2 high school diplomas ?because everybody has one,? it?s really not accurate. More and more people may be graduating from college in recent years, but only 29% of adults in the United States between the ages of 25 and 29 have a college degree. 1 What this all boils down to is that as a college degree holder, you will not only be part of a minority of citizens in the United States, but you will necessarily, whether you like it or not, be looked upon as an expert and expected to perform as such. Of course, you aren?t thinking about any of that right now, and we don?t blame you. You?re in college to increase your chances of finding a better job and making some decent money some day. Or maybe you just figured you needed to know a bit about the world before you begin the rest of your life. Regardless, you probably came to college with fairly high expectations, but with these expectations come the most sobering consequences of having a college education: obligation. The fact is, you did not get here by yourself. In a strange way, while colleges make all kinds of promises about what will happen to you after you get your degree, you really aren?t entitled to or owed anything. In fact, it?s the exact opposite: when you finish college, you are actually more indebted ? literally and figuratively ? for the support provided to you by friends, parents, teachers, and even total strangers who paid their taxes. How you repay these people (and to make sure that you get paid back in the process) is by owning up to the fact that you are now supposed to act and sound like someone with a college degree, i.e., someone who knows things. 2 You are going to leave college in four (or five, or seven) years with a piece of paper that says you have expertise in art or architecture or agriculture or accounting or archeology or agronomy or whatever, and people are going to expect you to be able to explain this stuff to them, whether you are in a professional setting, or at a family reunion, or trying to look smart on a date. Moreover, people are going to look to you for well-reasoned opinions on lots of topics and trust your ability to separate good arguments from bad ones. (Or at least assume that you are able to explain how and why you do or do not believe certain things.) The purpose of your college education is then not only to develop expertise in a particular subject matter, but also to learn how to be convincing and persuasive about that subject?and your own personal expertise?in a variety 1 US Census Bureau, ?Educational Attainment in the United States, 2003? 2 Or to put it more bluntly: If nothing else, and for the sake of everyone else holding an Ohio State degree, you have forfeited your right to willfully sound like a complete moron. chapter 1: the importance of being timely 3 of situations. The first situation is the University itself: if you have any interest in graduating from college, you have to figure out?and the sooner the better--what it is that professors want to see when evaluating student ideas. On the other hand, if you want to actually do anything with these ideas?your own research or the smart and interesting things you really learn in college courses?you have to figure out how to make this information persuasive and interesting to the general public. These two audiences?the academic and the public?are very, very different, and each has particular expectations about evidence, style, and what a persuasive argument looks and sounds like. But academic and public writing are also tightly inter-related, and you should really not think about one without thinking about the other. In fact, practicing both will make your arguments in either arena much stronger and will help you to see that the common ground uniting the academy and the public is timeliness. Timing really is everything On some level, timely is a pretty obvious concept: timely means now, timely means current. But when you are talking about arguments, ?timely has a more specific meaning: the time that is right for a particular group of people to be convinced of something. The ancient Greeks, who were the first people to seriously consider how persuasion works, actually called this idea of time kairos, which meant ?in due time and due measure.? The importance of making arguments at the ?right time? is fairly straightforward: no one wants to read a review for a movie that came out seven years ago, or hear a play-by-play of a Cavs game that happened in 1998. However, opportune moments don?t last forever. You have no control over time (despite what Google might lead you to believe) and this makes being timely--which you must be in order to be persuasive?difficult: The world keeps moving forward, newsworthy things happen and then become old news, trends are popular and then they are not, ideas seem smart and then they don?t, the kids sitting next to you in 8th grade are wearing head-to-toe Abercrombie and Fitch and the kids sitting next to you in Biology 101 are wearing?uh, never mind. (Some things stay timely for a long time.) chapter 1: the importance of being timely 4 In a weird sense, timeliness is probably just another way of talking about being cool. Listen to your favorite song from when you were fourteen today and you might be sorely disappointed; it just can?t connect with you in the same way because you?and the world?have moved on. Likewise, try making an argument that was groundbreaking five or ten years ago, and you might find that the audience starts yawning because the ideas are totally played out. Above all, timeliness is about real audiences making real decisions about what is or is not persuasive to them. The ?right time? for an argument is when it can change minds, when there is something at stake, and when ignoring an idea means ignoring something important. There is an easy way to always make sure your arguments are timely, and that is to only write or research actual arguments about actual things that you actually care about. If you are genuinely interested in an idea, and you genuinely think it matters, then there is a good chance others will, too. If you are not genuinely interested in an idea?if it doesn?t matter to you whether it is true or not, or whether others are convinced by it, or if it is just a rehash of an old and obvious argument--in other words, if you are just bullshitting-- then there is little chance that anyone is going to be persuaded by what you are doing. One more quick word about timeliness and ?played out? arguments: often the best arguments become victims of their own success. Have you ever listened to a teacher?and trust us, we love teachers or we wouldn?t write this book?go on and on about how politicians are manipulative, or advertisers use sex to sell stuff, or multinational corporations maybe, just maybe, are profit-motivated? Have you ever listened to this and thought: well, duh; any fifth grader who watches South Park knows that much. 3 3 Please don?t let fourth graders watch South Park. chapter 1: the importance of being timely 5 Well, once upon a time, these arguments were timely because?believe it or not?most people did not believe them. And it is a testimony to all the teachers who correctly identified these issues as timely, and changed people?s minds that now we all more of less assume that we should be skeptical of advertising and shrewd when listening to a Fortune 500 company?s public relations campaign. But to continue being timely about these topics means to draw on this already available knowledge and come up with fresher, more interesting, more nuanced arguments on these topics ? or even to identify new topics altogether. Emphasizing actual arguments about actual things that actually do something necessarily calls attention to pretend arguments that don?t do anything, and it is no secret that many people think that this is exactly what ?academic? writing is. This is a naïve view. It is hard to think of a single facet of 21 st century human existence? from dairy farming to modern dance to diabetes treatment to the Department of Defense--that has not been touched by, improved upon, and/or better understood due to the efforts of the scholars who work within universities. Academic writing is a critical part of this process, as it is how researchers develop and test out their ideas amongst each other before they send these ideas out into the public. In a way, academic writing is a laboratory for knowledge. However, this laboratory only works if all the participants keep an eye on what is timely. So let?s consider timeliness in the context of the academy. Joining the conversation, Part I: Academic expertise and timeliness You don?t have to be in college very long to notice that your professors place a great deal of value on researchable ideas?doing experiments, testing hypotheses, publishing findings in books and articles ? which means if you are going to do well in college, you are also going to have to put a great deal of value on research. Research, though, is only half of the story. The other half?the other thing Universities produce?is expertise. Universities pride themselves on creating people who not only know a lot about some particular area of knowledge (the human genome, children?s language acquisition, the history of American cinema, and so on) but chapter 1: the importance of being timely 6 who also actively contribute to and transform what we know about these subjects. We stereotypically think of these university experts as kindly but eccentric men and women who devote their lives to studying and teaching and who don?t really acknowledge life outside of the library or laboratory. We are not going to deny certain professors? proclivities for weird hair, too many cats, and, um, unique social skills, but in 2008, the stereotype of the hermit academic hiding away in the Ivory Towers doesn?t hold water. Universities today value professors and students who can make their ideas heard beyond the classroom and who can explain their insights to the general public in a timely fashion when the need arises. News broadcasts depend on prominent scholars to lend credibility and authority to a journalist?s story, whether it?s on a looming food crisis, rising gas prices, or crime rates. To take examples from just The Ohio State University, when The New York Times or The Columbus Dispatch reports on the 2008 Presidential election, they often call Professor Paul Beck from the Department of Political Science; when the Associated Press does a story on the complex structure of The Sopranos, they reach out to Professor Sean O?Sullivan from the Department of English; and when the Wall Street Journal reports on recent decisions by the Supreme Court, Douglas Berman, Professor of Law, is brought in for his expert opinion. In order to make their complex research interesting and intelligible to the general public, these scholars often have to master a whole new kind of writing, one that is very different than the sort that goes on in the university. (Some academics, like Susan Fisher of Ohio State University?s Department of Biology, master very different kinds of persuasion to make their ideas known to the public.) Academic experts take part in interviews and seminars, write guest columns, and participate in documentaries to bring their expertise and research to a public audience. A great example is Elizabeth Warren, a Professor of Law at Harvard who is one of the country?s foremost scholars in the area of bankruptcy law. Not only has Warren contributed editorials to The Washington Post, but she has also appeared on shows like NPR?s ?Fresh Air? and in the film chapter 1: the importance of being timely 7 Maxed Out, which tells the story of increasing American credit card debt. (A short clip from the film?s website features her as ?The Professor? alongside others, such as ?The Advocate,? ?The Debt Collectors,? and ?The Mothers.?) By taking their ideas out into the public sphere, these academics are playing to a wider audience than just their students and colleagues, putting their ideas into contact with more people whose minds they can change. As recognized experts, they are trusted and listened to by the public. But the question is: how did they get to be experts? How did they convince their colleagues or their university--or whoever it is who decides such things-- that they were such authorities on a subject that they should not only be respected, but given the name ?Professor?? As someone new to college, you can probably relate to this problem, as you might be finding it difficult to figure out what exactly is expected of you. On the one hand, you are taking a number of general education and introductory courses in your major. The message: You are a beginner, and you need a strong foundation before you can set out on your own. On the other hand, in these classes you are often given writing and research assignments that demand a certain level of expertise?you are supposed to prove that you know something about something. What are you supposed to do? It?s an often nerve-wracking question and it?s one that your professors have all had to wrestle with as well. The answer they have come up with is that you need to join the conversation. By ?conversation,? we?re not talking about a group of people sitting together in a room talking to one another, but the academic research conversations that take place, over years and years, on particular topics and ideas. These conversations involve many people?some living, some dead?who have put their ideas on medicine, law, or sports psychology into dialogue with one another via books, articles, and conference presentations. Everyone working in that particular field reads what the other researchers and thinkers have said, and then respond, argue, and agree in order to advance the group?s collective knowledge of the topic. People jump in and out, ideas win and lose favor, but one thing holds constant: everyone who is allowed to contribute to the conversation is aware of and understands what has already been said so that they are able to make an interesting, timely contribution to the conversation. chapter 1: the importance of being timely 8 Contributing to the conversation is a common sense idea, so let?s put it in everyday terms. Say it?s Thanksgiving dinner and your family is having a discussion about the presidential election. Grandma likes Obama, Uncle Steve is voting McCain, cousin Johnny always writes in Ozzy Osbourne. At some point they turn to you and ask what you think about Obama?s connections with black churches in Southside Chicago, whether it ultimately hurt his campaign, and whether, in the future, voters should count the remarks of a candidate?s supporters against them. Now, there are two ways this scenario can go badly for you. The first is you have not been paying attention to the conversation, if you have actually never heard of any of the candidates, and you begin babbling incoherently about the economy, the War in Iraq, and, the KISS Army, in such a way that, to quote Billy Madison, ?everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it.? The second way things can go sour is if you have been following the conversation but you have nothing original to contribute to it, if in lieu of your own analysis you start regurgitating all the sound bytes and editorials you?ve heard about the election, simply repeating what everyone in the room already saw on 60 Minutes, and making everyone think?even if they are too polite to say it??Damn, boy, don?t you have a thought of your own in that college- educated head?? Making a timely contribution to an ongoing academic conversation is a bit tricky, but there is a sweet spot there, and it is one that all of your professors?if they have made it this far in their careers?have managed to hit. They know that they have become valued members of the conversation because their colleagues have told them. And their colleagues have told them using a very particular, and specialized, academic process. chapter 1: the importance of being timely 9 Joining the conversation, Part II: Peer review and your academic conversation When your professors?and this is true for most disciplines and departments ? decide that they are ready to contribute to the conversation, they send their work off to an academic journal or publisher. What makes a journal or publisher academic? One thing: all the articles and books in it are peer reviewed. This means that the professors? colleagues confirm that their ideas are timely and decide whether or not they are moving the conversation forward in an intriguing and useful way. Since this process of peer-review is what turns ideas into academic research, it is obviously a big deal and carries a lot of responsibility. First, these reviewers are scholars in the field who are familiar with current research and who can recognize innovative work that is both informed by past scholarship and that promises to forge new territory in the field. Next, to ensure that these peer-review processes are fair and honest (which will ultimately produce the most timely research), academic presses usually use a system of anonymous peer review to assess submissions. They have no idea who wrote the article they are reading, and the writers have no idea who is reviewing their manuscript. Finally, the reviewers are charged with the task of deciding whether or not a piece of scholarship should be published. (The best presses, the ones that produce the scholarship with the best reputation, have the lowest rates of acceptance.) The hope is that anonymous peer review results in a more honest, frank, and open examination of the research, and creates scholarship that meets the highest standards in the discipline. But enough about professors. Let?s talk about you. Since you?unlike your professor?will be researching a topic for only a few weeks, it would be unrealistic to expect you to be able to enter into the full-blown academic conversation on a given topic. In this way, thinking about academic research as a conversation should be a relief: you are not expected?really, you are not expected?to know everything about some huge and imposing subject like cancer, ancient Near Eastern architecture, or global terrorism. But you are expected to know what an expert conversation in a given subject sounds like: you are expected to listen in to get a sense of what is timely and current and to pay attention long enough to learn the terminology and recognize the key players. Once you?ve done this, you need to do what your professors do: carve out a small niche of these conversations in which you could be an expert. chapter 1: the importance of being timely 10 So what sort of expertise are we expecting from you, and what conversation are we looking to have you enter? What are you qualified to write about? Congratulations, you?re a rhetorician. Students sometimes aren?t sure what they are doing in English classes, and it is partially because English classes are a bit schizophrenic. Sometimes English involves reading and discussing literature: Shakespeare, Toni Morrison, David Sedaris, Twelve Angry Men, etc. Other times, English classes are about composition: learning to write more effectively, learning the rules of grammar, and more recently, using audio, video, and ?new media? to explore ways to communicate. But there is another side to English?one that isn?t explicitly talked about as much?that splits the difference between reading texts and composing them: rhetoric. Rhetoric is the 2,500 year old study of how persuasion happens, how to make people think certain things and how people came to think the things that they do. Given its wide scope, rhetoric is obviously a complex discipline (your instructor may decide to tell you exactly how complex it is). But rhetoric is also a discipline in which you can begin to assert your expertise because, at its heart, the study of rhetoric boils down to three simple questions: 1) What are the available means of persuasion in a given situation? 2) What were the available means of persuasion in a given situation? 3) What ethical considerations shape or limit the available means of persuasion in a given situation? Or, to put the questions more conversationally: 1) ?How do I get that group of people over there to believe in something I want them to believe in?? 2) ?How the heck did that thing?that person, that book, that movie, that website, that protest, that pair of shoes?get that group of people to believe in something?? 3) ?Should x have used y to get z to believe in something? And if so, why?? chapter 1: the importance of being timely 11 Question one deals with how to do something in the future (i.e., what are my available options to convince people in this situation?). The remaining chapters of this book will deal with this idea. Not surprisingly, however, one of the best ways to figure out how to be persuasive is to examine the ways that people have tried to be persuasive in the past. This brings us to questions two and three, which deal with interpretive and ethical issues regarding communication that has already happened. The process of investigating persuasive acts that have already occurred is usually referred to as rhetorical analysis, and they involve taking a ?text??which can be: a newspaper editorial, a visual advertisement, a poem, a video game, the lyrics to a song, an audio documentary, a scene from a film, a historic essay, a government document, a public service announcement, a web site, an interview transcript, or really anything else that tries to communicate between two people ? and analyzing the living daylights out of it. When doing rhetorical analysis, the general question you are asking yourself is not ?What is this?? but instead ?How does this text work?? By breaking texts down into smaller, analyzable parts, you are better positioned to make educated arguments about the purpose a composer was trying to achieve, which is an interpretive question. You are also able to make informed claims about the choices a composer made?rightly or wrongly, morally or unjustly?which are, more or less, ethical questions. chapter 1: the importance of being timely 12 Rhetorical analysis, by itself, is interesting for a lot of reasons. Sometimes authors are particularly skilled at getting their point across. Other times, the purposes an author has in mind are not so apparent at first glance. And sometimes you are sitting there trying to deal with the fact that everyone on Earth has somehow come to believe in something that you not only do not believe in but that you do not get, and you are trying to figure out how this thing ever came to be seen?by anyone ? as a good idea. The reason rhetorical analysis is a great way to practice both academic research and asserting expertise ? is that you are uniquely qualified to think about how you have or have not been persuaded by a particular text. No one can be more informed than you on how politicians, teachers, advertisers, movies, news broadcasts, blogs, podcasts, billboards, spam and/or chalk drawing on a sidewalk have tried?successfully or unsuccessfully, rightly or wrongly?to change your mind about Iraq or Indiana Jones or Islamic fundamentalism or intelligent design. More to the point, we think that your expert opinion on how you?and college students like you-- came to be persuaded or not persuaded by these phenomena is infinitely more valuable, and timely, than any hypotheses that your professor, or the authors of this book, could ever come up with. That said, while rhetorical analysis is your take on ?how? an act of persuasion works, you still need to convince people that your analysis is correct. More precisely, you have to first convince your professor that your rhetorical analysis is sound, and you do this through an academic essay. This is going to require all the steps we have already mentioned: developing a reasonable sense of expertise on your research topic, ensuring that your approach and topic is timely, and joining the conversation by balancing your insights and expertise with the insights and expertise of established academics. Consider the following scenario. Imagine you are enrolled in a writing seminar that is looking broadly at representation of diversity in advertising, and you?ve been given the opportunity to analyze an advertising campaign of your choice. Your goal is to make claims about the campaign?s choice of strategies in reaching its intended audience and achieving its intended purpose. On your way to campus each morning, you pass a storefront that serves as the chapter 1: the importance of being timely 13 sales office for a new residential complex?apartments and condominiums?geared toward young, urban professionals. The ad campaigns are slick and make obvious attempts to represent racial and gender diversity in the renters and buyers the new development is hoping to attract. The more time you spend analyzing the language and the visual elements of the ad campaign, and the more you read about advertisement and issues of diversity, the more you begin to wonder how discrimination in the housing industry plays a role in who will actually be able to live in this new complex. Behind this wondering, deep down in your gut, there?s something that?s bothering you about what you?re seeing. You don?t know what exactly is causing you to pause, but you want to know more about this subject, and you want to inform others of what you discover. But in order to learn how to analyze this ? or any other text ? and compose an influential response, you?ll need to conduct the right kind of research?the kind that connects underlying research questions of your academic essay to the broader conversations and debates occurring outside of your class. Doing so will allow you to have a clearer sense of the subject matter you are writing about, leading to a clearer sense of what others have already written about that subject matter. It will also allow you?just like the newspapers, news broadcasts, court trials, and documentaries we discussed earlier in the chapter?to rely on an expert?s opinion to fill in the gaps where your own knowledge and expertise fall short. Weaving together your rhetorical analysis with the broader perspective gained through researching what others have already written about a subject gives you the chance to articulate why your analysis and writing matters -- why people should care about how you gained your own insight! During your research, you find that there is no dearth of material on the topic of discrimination and housing. In fact, it?s obvious that you?ll need to narrow your search using more strategic terms and possibly limiting the inclusive dates of material you?d like to read. Regardless of how interesting its history is, for this paper, it?s probably not all that important to understand chapter 1: the importance of being timely 14 housing and discrimination in 1985. Since you?re supposed to be concentrating on a current advertising campaign, a more recent and well-researched article will still likely contain a brief overview of previously published work on the topic. In a writing seminar, your job is not to read every written word on the broad topic of housing discrimination, but it also isn?t to find sources for the sole purpose of meeting your assignment?s requirements or to find a tidy statistic or fact to merely decorate your paper. There is middle ground to discover here. As you?re looking at the results of a search you?ve done, you notice almost immediately a source that, by its bibliographic information alone, should prove helpful in your research: Tester, Griff M. "An Intersectional Analysis of Sexual Harassment in Housing." Gender & Society June 2008: 349-66. First, you notice the date. This article is current (a.k.a timely). With a little more searching, you also learn the journal in which the article appears is from the field of sociology, whereas everything else from your search comes from journals in the field of urban development, economics, and psychology. You may not be sure what that means right now, but it?s significant to realize that not only is this current work, but also this is work new in the field of sociology, and more than likely, the article will make claims to that effect establishing its own timeliness. In other words, this single piece of scholarship should stand out in your mind as research that is worthy of your consideration when you look at it in relationship to the big picture of your search results. As with any scholarly work you find through your research, you have access to the author?s ? in this case, Tester?s ? bibliography. This, of course, provides a list of the scholarship he consulted, but more importantly, offers you a sense of how he framed his study in the field of sociology despite a scarcity of material on this topic. His research models for you how he immersed himself in a conversation among scholars from a variety of disciplines, and how he started a new conversation among scholars in the field of sociology with an original contribution to that body of knowledge. And remember, this bibliography outlines Tester?s chapter 1: the importance of being timely 15 navigation of the research process, and it should help you appreciate how, just like yours, his process began as a chaotic, disorderly mix of questions, theories, and resources. Looking at research in this way also allows you to imagine where the conversation will go. If you were to continue doing research in this area for years to come, you might begin to see other publications that cite Tester?s work as a determining sociological text in sexual harassment and housing discrimination, and you might begin to see other scholars argue with his methodology and his conclusions. Diving into the current (and sometimes historical) thinking about a given research topic allows you to see the big picture, or how people are invested in the questions being asked in a particular field. The more you do it, the more you come to understand the work and ideas that are shaping the directions of a discipline. Because we believe that you can develop expertise in rhetorical analysis, and you are capable of producing timely research and arguments, we want your ideas to go beyond the classroom and into the public. And because your peers can become similarly qualified to judge rhetorical research, we want them involved in vetting, judging, discussing, and shaping your ideas and public arguments. What Commonplace provides is a venue where all of these things can happen. Commonplace and rhetoric: Making your research matter As we explained in the introduction, Commonplace is not an academic journal. Nor is it a ?public? publication where anyone can contribute. Instead, it?s a hybrid publication of peer-reviewed researched ideas and insights. This would be a productive time for you to get a sense of what all of this means. As you read your peers? work at commonplaceuniversity.com ? all of which made it through the peer-review network and was accepted for publication ? we hope you will begin to see how scholarly research informed their writing for Commonplace?s public audience. The earlier you recognize the critical role that academic research plays in Commonplace?s chapter 1: the importance of being timely 16 publication process, the sooner you will get a sense of how these writers learned to rework their academic research papers for a public audience. Understanding this is key to being an author for Commonplace. Understanding this is also key to being an editor on Commonplace, which you will be when you complete the Commonplace training. Akin to an academic editorial board, Commonplace editors ? and, once again, they are you ? determine whether a given piece should enter the Commonplace conversation. These are not arbitrary decisions, however. Commonplace editors have complete control over which essays appear on Commonplace, but these decisions must be guided by Commonplace?s three thematic principles: essays must be timely, compelling, and relevant to Commonplace?s student and public audiences. These principles, coupled with the Commonplace training, ensure integrity in the editorial process. They also ensure that Commonplace is a thriving intellectual community, providing a live and authentic conversation amongst you and your peers. We have spent this chapter explaining Commonplace?s commitment to timeliness and why it is important to how you should think about expertise and research. The next three chapters will explore Commonplace?s commitment to being compelling and relevant and how these thematic commitments can shape how you think about rhetorical analysis, production, and judgment. chapter 1: the importance of being timely 17 Copyright © 2008 by Scott Lloyd DeWitt, Michael Harker, and Aaron McKain Any reproduction or distribution of this material is prohibited without the express permission of the authors. Scott Lloyd DeWitt Commonplace: Research
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