On The Special Topoi of Literary Criticism

In “Sharing the Tacit Rhetorical Knowledge of the Literary Scholar: The Effects of Making Disciplinary Conventions Explicit in Undergraduate Writing about Literature Courses”, a study published by Laura Wilder and Joanna Wolfe, two researchers devise a study to prove whether or not teaching implicit facets of literary discourse would ultimately help the students’ ability to write in that discipline.

First, if you don’t know what topoi means, you’re not alone–I definitely had to look it up. It’s the plural of the Greek topos, which loosely translates to topic. So, in essence, the study aimed to teach the main elements of writing literary criticism to a group of students and compared them to a control group (who were not taught these same elements). To me, teaching rhetoric is a no-brainer, so I was not surprised that the group that was taught the proper rhetoric was the group who produced better papers at the end of the study.

I think it’s analogous to building a house. It’s great if you know how to paint the house, put on the siding, insulate it, decorate the inside–all of which are necessary for the house to be a house–but if you can’t actually build the structure, the house will be unlivable. The same can be said here; if you don’t know how to properly structure an argument in the way the discipline demands, no amount of brilliantly observed criticism will cover that up.

I thought this was a valuable study to read for two simple reasons: A. the topoi were actually listed and explained, and B. the writers gave examples as to how the topoi were taught and demonstrated in the study. Both pieces of information were beneficial for someone starting the journey of writing a paper in this particular discipline. So if you’re in the same situation as I am and you can get your hands on this study, I’d recommend reading the beginning and end sections. I definitely think they’ll prove useful.

Commenting on Craft: Part One

As I mentioned in my previous post, a lot of what I’m going to be blogging about for the next few months is the process by which one goes about conducting research. I’ll likely be providing some commentary about the field of English language and literature as well. This shift is all part of my English Senior Seminar for my undergraduate degree, so while it may be a little dry and more formal, I hope you’ll at least find some of it useful.

This particular series, which I’m calling Commenting on Craft, contains responses to, appropriately enough, The Craft of Research, a great tool written by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams. I’ll take two or three quotes from each section of the book and give a short response, partially so that I can sort out what’s going on and partially so that you all can get a gist of the book.

These quotes come from the introduction as well as the first two chapters of the book. The beginning is mostly concerned with A) choosing a topic that will interest you and B) making sure that topic will also be interesting to the reader.

But it would be a feeble education that did not change you at all, and the deeper your education, the more it will change the ‘you’ that you are or want to be.

I love this. Many people get hung up on research projects because they feel that their voices are lost under a sea of work done by other people, or maybe they’re frustrated that they have to conform to a certain style of writing that doesn’t seem like theirs. While it’s valid, for sure, to feel that way, Booth et al. would like you to think of it as changing your writing for the better–making it something that will guide you into the career you’ll ultimately choose. (And, really, the quote by itself is pretty powerful, isn’t it?)

[…] it would be a mistake to think that learning to write sound research reports must threaten your true identity. It will change the way you think, but only by giving you more ways of thinking.

Again, this addresses the idea of losing one’s own voice in the process of writing academically, but I think it ultimately answers the question we all have when starting a project like this: “Why is it necessary for me to do research in the first place?” It’s necessary, say the authors, because it gives you a whole array of tools you otherwise wouldn’t have found.

You establish your side of the relationship with your readers when you adopt one of those three roles–I have information for you; I can help you fix a problem; I can help you understand something better. You must, however, cast your readers in a complementary role by offering them a social contract: I’ll play my part if you play yours. But that means you have to understand their role. If you cast them in a role they won’t accept, you’re likely to lose them entirely.

This speaks for itself. Writing for the proper audience is important no matter what kind of writing you’re doing, but in academic writing, it’s especially important to consider if you want to have ethos. You don’t just want to write a bunch of information, wipe your hands of it, and walk away; you want your reader to get something out of it. Otherwise, what’s the point?

I hope, if you’re someone who finds yourself in the position of having to write an extensive research project, that this (and other posts in the series) will help you along the way. Cheers!

Updates, New Things, Etc.

I’ve been MIA. A lot of this has been deliberate; most literary agencies close for the entire month of December, so I haven’t had much to report. For those of you keeping score, the other two full requests I had out came back as no’s. I think part of me needed to digest that before starting with a fresh slate in 2015.

And so I have. In the past week I’ve sent out maybe ten more query letters–a brand-new query letter, mind you–and have once again taken the knife to my beloved novel.

This blog was started for the sole purpose of documenting my harrowing (read: long) journey through the querying process. However, as I’m also a college student gearing up to do my final research paper for my major (ten points for whoever can guess the major), the focus is going to change. Well, maybe it’s better to say that I’m adding a second focus: how to do research.

I’m taking a class called Senior Seminar, which is essentially a class that teaches life skills to English majors (did you guess it?) who are about to spread their wings and fly into the scary job world. As part of the class, I’m required to keep a blog of my assignments, most of which are geared toward how to do research, how to read academically, etc.

So, if you’re into that sort of thing, stick around! I’ll still be posting about the querying process, but now you get the added bonus (FOR FREE) of gaining insight into the completely opposite form of writing. Yes, creative writers can write research! At least I’m hoping that’s the case. We’ll find out.

This is still a writing¬† blog. See? I haven’t lied to you. Yet.