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.

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1 Comment

  1. Pingback: This is Water: A Response to Wallace’s Commencement Address | The Ugly Truth

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