Monday, 02 May 2005

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How to Open an Academic Essay, Part III: Good Sir, I Implore You! vs. The Historical Anecdote Since John Holbo over at the Valve was kind enough to mention my humble little project I thought it best to hop back on the horse and continue working on it. Today I'll discuss two more introductions to my dissertation that differ not in content but in the way they address the reader. Good Sir, I Implore You! entails forcing a particular series of impressions upon the reader in the most obvious possible manner: Imagine an educated reader, a contemporary of Charles Darwin, glancing past the soft leather spine of a first edition On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859) and briefly mulling its ambiguous title. A student of philosophy might think it a treatment of the Platonic Ideas, Forms, or Species, an examination of the apodictic reality beyond the illusions of human experience. A logician might expect a discussion of the second of the five Predicables, that “Term affirmed of several things, which must express their whole essence, which is called a Species”; a Catholic, a treatise on the transubstantiation of bread and wine, the Eucharistic species, into the Very Body and Blood of Christ Himself; a politician, a banker, or a metallurgist, an account of “the different Rates at which the same Species of Foreign Coins do pass,” or of how “paper securities [are] held out as a currency … in lieu of the two great recognized species [gold and silver] that represent the lasting conventional credit of mankind.” Darwin frustrates potential readers, then as now, because, as John Dewey says, “few words in our language foreshorten intellectual history as much as does the word species.” In the Aristotelian tradition, ειδοσ—later translated into Latin, then English, as species—referred to the “formal activity which operates through a series of changes and holds them to a single course; which subordinates their aimless flux to its own perfect manifestation; which, leaping the boundaries of space and time, keeps individuals distant in space and remote in time to a uniform type of structure and function." The Scholastics “deepened the force of the term” by applying it “to everything that in the universe observes order in flux and manifests consistency through change,” including the Platonic Forms, the second of the five Predicables, and the Very Body and Blood of Christ Himself. For readability reasons I've omitted the citations, but I assure you of their existence and commend you on that tiny twinge of doubt you felt when you realized I hadn't reproduced them. By forcing my readers to imagine the confusion felt by a hypothetical contemporary of Darwin, I'm able to traverse, quickly, the history of "species" as a term and melt its various possible meanings into the confusing pulp with which Darwin's contemporaries would've been confronted. The intent is to militate against the associations that normally accompany discussions of Darwin and the species concept; that is, I'm out to confuse the reader in a manner that's compelling and historically accurate. The problem with this approach is that it's...
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Anecdotes Personal and Professional and Awful [Skip to elsewhere if you prefer your whining in small doses.] Today's been a busy day in these headless quarters. I'm debating whether the Academic Introductions Project should continue straddling the fence between utter buffonery and responsible cataloguing because, despite my best efforts, I'm now categorizing every introduction I read. Don't misunderstand me: I finish the essays. But an inordinate number of my reading notes now focus on the first paragraph. Sometimes this approach produces some interesting (if obvious) insights, as when reading Cathy Davidson's "No! In Thunder" in the most recent American Literature I noticed that she introduces the essay with an anecdote, constructs a narrative by stringing together anecdotes, but then dismisses the evidentiary value of the anecdote the moment the ideological opposition shares some. Davidson is probably correct, as you'll see, but the logic subtending her claim poses some problems for her argument. Davidson counters the way conservatives "use the word 'harassment' to describe what happens to conservatives on our nation's campuses" by saying "Let me tell you about harassment." And she does, convincingly, with an anecdote about the death threats she received after she accepted the editorial helm of American Literature. Despite the number of complaints by conservative professors across the country, however, she determines that their "whining" is illegitimate because the evidence of systemic liberal bias is entirely local and anecdotal. How does she know these anecdotal complaints are illegitimate? As she says, "I have never heard any Republican colleague report anything similar [to death threats], despite some current whining about 'harassment' of conservatives. Let's get real, folks." Granted, this article is more personal essay than academic article. Granted, she knows she stands before the choir. And, as I already granted, her points hit the mark. I grant all that and am still bothered by her belief that the only representative anecdotes are the ones she believes are representative. The unrepresentative anecdotes ideological opponents repeat ad nauseam are easily dismissed because they don't jive with her equally unrepresentative anecdotes. Could she provide intelligent conservatives with a better portrait of the clubby quality of left intellectual thought? "I can't step out of my office without tripping over Republicans," she argues, "so they ought to stop whining about being unrepresented in academia. Let's get real, folks." Doesn't she recognize that her appeal to "folks" validates the very point she's condescendingly dismissing? Doesn't she recognize that if she's arguing with anecdotes then anecdotes are fair game? These are the sorts of observations I'm making now that I'm concentrating on the formal and stylistic characteristics of academic introductions. I could huff and puff in this sober tone at length, and I think recognizing and criticizing problem claims in arguments with which you otherwise fundamentally agree is time well spent. But I don't want to be the Bill Hicks of academia, spouting the things people generally believe and loved to be reminded they believe. (Bill Maher veers in this general direction on occasion, or at least he did before he...

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