what the text says; tell me something specific about what it means. Developing your own argument is a challenge. Here are some additional suggestions regarding the kind of questions you might consider. You do not have to answer all of these questions. Instead, think of them as possible starting points to help develop the argument that you want to make. 1. How does the language of the text reflect or reinforce the text’s meaning? If you adopt this approach, you will want to think about form: not just what the text says but how it is written. Consider symbolism, word choice, repetition, narrative structure (plot), tone, and voice. In other words, think about language, and about rhetoric. Then explain how these elements add something to the text’s meaning. If you were writing about Equiano, for example, you might develop an argument about the symbolic function of the ocean; about the ways in which Equiano uses language to suggest that the Middle Passage was psychological and existential, not just physical. 1 2. What does the text reveal to us about a historical theme discussed in the class? Under this approach, you will analyze the text as a primary source, and explain what it tells us about a specific historical development, transformation, or concept. Again, using Equiano as an example, you might ask, “what does Equiano’s autobiography reveal to us about the character of antislavery thought?” Then, in providing an answer, you would develop a specific argument, for example about the role of domestic ideals, or religious concepts, in antislavery advocacy. The key is be specific, and to dig deeply into the text. It would not be enough, for example, to state that Equiano’s text shows that some in the late-eighteenth century came to oppose slavery. Instead, you need to say more about how and why; about how we should understand “antislavery;” about how Equiano and other antislavery advocates understood and represented the world. 3. Does the text articulate or promote a specific political vision, or a set of political ideals? Many of the assigned readings in the class are political theories in the broad sense we discussed in lecture. Which is to say, many of them make claims about how government and society should be organized, and then try to justify those claims. A third option for you, then, is to develop an argument explaining the political theory your text articulates. The danger here is being too general. If you were to write about J.S. Mill, for example, it would not be enough to say that his text, On Liberty, advocates in favor of “liberalism” or articulates a “liberal view of politics.” Instead, you would want to ask and answer more specific questions. Exactly what, according to Mill, did “liberalism” mean? What and whom did it include? Whom did it exclude? Where does civil liberty come from, and on what basis, according to Mill, should civil liberty be granted? Answering questions like these would lead you to an original argument. OUTLINE YOUR ESSAY AND CRAFT A THESIS Once you have selected a topic and developed your argument, you should outline your essay and craft a “thesis.” A thesis is a short statement of your principal point (i.e., your argument) that should appear at the beginning of your essay. As you outline the various sections of your essay, think about how each section relates to your thesis and overall argument. Let’s say, for example, that your argument is that Equiano’s text reveals a key feature of antislavery thought for three reasons. (As in, “Equiano’s autobiography reveals the importance of family relationships in antislavery argument in three ways.”) Each of those reasons will likely be a separate section, which you should plan in your outline. CITE SPECIFIC EXAMPLES FROM THE TEXT To develop a compelling, detailed argument, you have to cite specific examples from the text you’re interpreting. Let’s say you’re making an argument about how your text portrays the notion of liberty. It would not be enough to say that a text describes liberty as freedom from restraint. You would also have to point to specific examples in the text, and interpret those examples, explain them, to prove your point. 2 Whenever quote or refer to specific passages in your text, you should include a citation to the text and page number. If you have questions about how to properly cite a source, be sure to ask. You are not required to do outside reading for this essay. If you do, however, or if you want to refer to another text, aside from the one you are interpreting, you must also cite that text, again with specific page numbers. EDITING IS WRITING Once you have a draft of your essay, it’s time to edit. Editing will help correct typos and mistakes, but it is actually much more than that. Editing is a valuable part of the writing process. It is often the case that new ideas are generated as you write. That you realize fully and manage to articulate what you mean as you write. That is okay (it is good!), but when that happens, you will have to edit to make sure those new ideas are clear from the beginning. Think of this kind of editing as structural editing. Make sure that the introduction to your essay states your thesis clearly. Then pay close attention to the sentences introducing each new paragraph—and make sure that those sentences follow a logical structure. Small changes at this final editing stage can often mean tremendous improvement for the essay as a whole. FINAL THOUGHTS As a reminder, you have the opportunity to select a text and topic that most interests you. You don’t have to follow the specific examples outlined above, and you are allowed to combine the three approaches I’ve suggested to you. For example, you might write an essay explaining the political theory of a given text, and you might also, as part of that essay, explain how the text’s rhetoric reinforces its politics. In this guide, I’ve frequently used Equiano as an example. I’ve done this simply because Equiano’s autobiography, as our first assigned reading in the course, is something we are all already familiar with. You are welcome to write about Equiano, but equally welcome to write about a text assigned later in the course. Finally, writing is hard. For everyone. But it should also be fun, and like everything in this course, it is an opportunity to learn. I look forward to hearing what you have to say. 3
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