Saturday, 30 April 2005

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How to Open an Academic Essay, Part I: Hostile Habilis Dear Stan Slanders, I spent this morning reading over my buddy's excellent first chapter. It was very good. I think he is smart. But his chapter begins with an argument. He assumes his readers will be interested in that argument because, well, because he is. I know my buddy wants people to read his chapter, but I don't know how to tell him that most people find arguments boring. What should I do? Best, A Colleague Enraged that People Hang Academics Living Outside the United States Stan Slanders Replies: Thanks for sharing, A.C.E.P.H.A.L.O.U.S. I've enclosed a check for $7.50 American (or $8,987.64 Canadian). Maybe we can save a couple Canadian scholars from the roaming Quebecois hordes. Your question, however, demands a thoughtful response, but this'll have to suffice: Of the many ways to open an academic essay, clearly the most traditional (among undergraduates) is to recapitulate in words the opening scenes of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Inform your reader that they're witnessing The Dawn of Man. Talk about this (figurative) primitive human society--e.g. America before the advent of academic feminism or Western Culture before the fall of imperialism--and show some (figurative) ape-men fiddling around with some (figurative) bones. Discuss how violent these (figurative) ape-men became after the arrival of something strange, unusual or otherwise discomfiting. Cue Also Sprach Zarathustra. Show how the new thing provokes a frenzied rage from the (figurative) ape-men. Loose the bone! Seamlessly jump-cut to a (figurative) spaceship following the same graceful trajectory and you have written the mother of all introductions. (Essays introduced in this manner are often difficult to conclude. Final paragraphs alternately baffle, entrance and stupify readers.) Yours in Academic Vice, Virtue and Vitriol, Stan Slanders
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How to Open an Academic Essay, Part II, Part II: Know Thyself, Field Surveyor In considering the relationship between the introductory paragraph of an academic essay and the logic of the argument that follows--and I am asserting that such a relationship exists and that, therefore, some combinations of intro. and argument are more felicitous than others--I think it might be instructive to think about how the introductions I've written affect the material which follows them. To continue yesterday's inadequate analysis of the State of the Field intro., I dip into my archives and produce one of the approximately 17,491 introductory paragraphs I've written for the first chapter of my dissertation. Comments on its shortcomings follow: In his review of three recent books on American literary naturalism in the latest Modern Fiction Studies, Jeffory Clymer wonders whether “the withdrawal from organizing interpretations around naturalism per se may…represent a critical exhaustion with reconciling the genre’s inconsistencies.” These inconsistencies, Clymer argues, undermine “certain strands of Foucauldian New Historicism” by “demonstrating how brittle, monolithic, and ultimately unrevealing [they] can be.” The brittle quality of these monolithic accounts of naturalism result, Clymer implies, from the genre’s foundational inconsistency: its desire to depict a deterministic world in which the individual is governed by nature and its frequent, didactic appeals to individualism and human freedom. From a philosophical perspective, as John Conder ably demonstrated in Naturalism in American Fiction: The Classic Phase (1984), pessimistic determinism and an optimistic belief in free will and the possibility of moral improvement are reconcilable positions. Employing Hobbes’ notion that freedom works within inscribed terms and Bergson’s notion of a durational self, Conder reconciles determinism and individualism by arguing that the former produces the latter. Though philosophically sound, Conder’s argument relies on individual Americans naturalists developing in toto theories that would catapult Bergson to international celebrity when they were first published in 1907. In this dissertation I will focus on the theories of human and social development available to American literary naturalists at the time they were writing. Produced by the “evolution vogue” following the publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859), these models embraced or refused Darwin’s advances with wildly different degrees of enthusiasm or opprobrium. Over the next 50 years, these systems would develop in an echo chamber, the cacophony of each contributing to the cacophony of the whole. Deafened by too many incompatible propositions voiced so intelligently and authoritatively, fin de siècle authors cherry-picked individual propositions from larger theoretical schemes. Each author created his or her own idiosyncratic combination of essentialist, determinist, individualist and developmental principles drawn from the representative set of evolutionary concerns. The necessarily idiosyncratic nature of these selections, as well as their rationale, has been obscured by the presentism of the historians and historians of science whose work granted literary scholars access to the Gilded Age and Progressive Era’s intellectual milieu. This introduction, like Dawes', opens with a subtle assertion about the timeliness of the article to follow. Weathered hat in humble hands, eyes sounding the floor for evidence of structural uncomformities, this intro....

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