Excerpts from

Professor Paisley Currah's Writing Guide

Professor Currah's Home Page

THE IMPORTANCE OF PRECISION

What is society?

Sometimes students identify "society" as the cause of a social problem they are analyzing, or the  potential solution to that social problem.  As term of analysis, however, "society" is so vague that it serves no useful purpose in this kind of analysis.  For example, consider the following sentences:

Society has treated women differently than men for hundreds of years.

Until society comes to grips with racism, we will always have racial discrimination.

But who, or what, precisely, is "society" in these sentences? Institutions of government? People? And if society means people, which people precisely?  Naming "society" as the cause and/or solution to a social or political phenomenon means that the writer doesn't have to actually name the specific agents, policies, structures, historical patterns, or ideologies--this list of potential agents could go on forever--as the cause of the problem.  The term society also suggests a false unity: society in fact is comprised of many many different groups of people, and thus its use masks important disagreements and conflicts between groups in society.

Who is "the government"?

Similarly, students are often too quick to pin the blame on "government" as the cause of some social ill, without being more specific about what they mean by "government." 

The government decided to intern Japanese-Americans during the Second World War.

While the sentence above is technically true, it's not very helpful. Which institutions of the government carried out the policy?  Which institution found it constitutional?  And more importantly, what other factors played a role in supporting this decision?  (For example, why did most Americans not protest the internship of tens of thousands of fellow citizens even though they had committed no crime?)

In general, government is too broad a term to be very useful.  It would be better to speak more specifically to particular policies and then identify the particular institution that supported those policies.  Not only is our federal government divided into three branches--the executive, the judiciary, and the bi-cameral legislature--at least the legislature is also divided ideologically, between Republicans and Democrats, between centrists and right-wing extremists, for example. Furthermore, every policy initiative has a set of interested private parties lobbying for or against it.  Who are they?  What role did they play?  In addition, those working to change the laws or create new policies also often deploy ideological arguments to the people through the media. What arguments do they make?  (For example, an anti-enviroment lobbyist or politician might argue, "Environmental regulations are unjust intrusions on the part of the federal government, undermine the right to private property, and are contrary to the Fifth Amendment.") How and why is a particular argument effective? What ideologies does it rest upon?  What chords does it strike with at least some of the American people and why?  As you can see, "the government" is not a static idea, but a fluid constellation of interacting institutions and interests.

Most importantly, identifying "government" as the source of a problem also tends to minimize or skip over completely the fact that the government's authority and legitimacy ultimately is based on the decision of the majority of voters, a decision exercised through the franchise. So it was not just the government that was ultimately responsible for the internship of Japanese-Americans during World War II. 

Writers who use these type of shorthand words lack of precision in their argument. They're not taking the time to think more carefully about the actual identity of the causal agent of the social problem they're trying to explain, and so their analysis suffers as a result.

WHAT IS AN ARGUMENT?

Evidence + analysis = argument

Many students ask if they are allowed to write about their "opinions" on a subject. In fact, informed opinion is fundamental to any argumentative paper; uninformed opinion, however, should not make an appearance in your paper. One develops an informed opinion by finding evidence and then analyzing that evidence.

Example of an argument:

What does an argument look like? Here is a sample beginning to a coherent argument:

"The Metropolitan Transit Authority and Governor Pataki discriminated against the subway and bus riders of the City of New York when they decided to favor suburban commuters more than the city bus and subway riders in the allocation of mass transit subsidies. Because the majority of bus and subway riders are black, Asian, and Hispanic, and the vast majority of suburban commuters are white, this policy has had a disparate impact on black New York city residents (cite source). In this paper, I argue that this type more subtle discrimination, "institutional racism," has replaced the blatant prejudice of the Jim Crow era.

This student has a real reason to write her paper because she's motivated by an argument: she has something important to say about an issue. The student has collected information and evidence on her topic, analyzed it, and then developed an argument (informed opinion). Moreover, she has begun to analyze her topic conceptually -- in this case, by referring to the difference between old-fashioned Jim Crow type individual racist prejudice and more insidious modern-day institutional racism.

THE THESIS

What is a "crux" and what does it have to do with writing?

According to Pat Carden:

"Crux" comes from the Latin word for "cross. In terms of writing, it refers to a point where things come together, an intellectual knot, an apparent paradox or contradiction ("the crux of the matter"). Analytical writing deals with cruxes. It seeks to untie them and show their strands to the reader. We call this re-knotting "the resolution of the crux." You may be familiar with the term 'thesis.' A crux may be said to be a thesis, but it demands more rigor. A thesis may be wan and descriptive and may lead to a paper with weak argumentation. To write a good argumentative paper, the kind sought in this course, you need to look for a strong thesis or crux, a genuine problem that requires explanation. The more fascinating, challenging and paradoxical the problem you identify in your thesis, the more sophisticated your paper will be. If you set yourself an easy goal by arguing a simple, obvious thesis your paper will inevitably be mundane. Having a strong thesis means the difference between an 'A' and a 'B' paper in most courses.

So think of theses as answering the questions, What? How? and Why? A strong thesis, or a crux, answers all three questions.

The "What" thesis:

A thesis that only answers the question "What" will invariably lead to a pedestrian discussion that merely identifies questions or problems in the material at hand. (Or, even worse, fails to identify a real problem in the text.) This type of thesis inevitably limits itself to description.

Example of a "what" thesis:

"The Metropolitan Transit Authority's decision to raise the bus and subway fares so much while keeping the commuter fare increase low is racist."

Note the underlying structure of this sentence/thesis: X is Y. This thesis lacks an assertion of causation. Moreover, the writer does not fully define the term racist.

The "How" thesis:

A thesis that also answers the question "How" will show exactly how the phenomena you identified in the "what" question actually works. "How" theses are always more specific, more focussed. This kind of thesis calls forth explanatory, analytical writing -- as well as descriptive writing. This type of thesis, although usually a vast improvement on the "what" thesis, still lacks a larger outlook, a political analysis, or a resolution.

Example of a "how" thesis:

"The fare increase imposed on the bus and subway riders of New York city provides a clear example of the insidious way institutionalized racism operates -- through the lack of access to political power and through geographic segregation."

This thesis is saying much more than the one above, and will lead to a more powerful analysis that examines not just what is going on (institutional racism) but exactly how institutional racism operates. This argument is more complex and will be more engaging for the reader.

The "Why" thesis:

A strong thesis or crux that engages the "Why" question also considers larger questions: What might be at stake in the problem? What are the effects of this problem? How can it be resolved? What are the politics of this phenomenon? A "why" thesis implicitly contains the "what" and "how" questions; but a "why" thesis not only elicits descriptive and explanatory writing, it also elicits writing that seeks to resolve. A strong thesis or crux identifies and describes a significant paradox, explains how it operates, and finally resolves the paradox, tackling the larger implications. The goal of all writing in the social sciences is to further our understanding of the world. And that's what a paper that contains within it a resolution to a complex problem accomplishes.

Example of a "why" thesis:

"The fare increase imposed on the bus and subway riders of New York city provides a clear example of the insidious way institutionalized racism operates -- through the lack of access to political power and through geographic segregation. Racism, in its institutional variety, does not have to be thought up by some evil mastermind in order to come into existence. Instead, racist effects are brought about by historical, structural, institutional practices or ways of doing things that are not explicitly or intentionally racist. This means, however, that institutional racism cannot be combated by the simple anti-racist goodwill of policy-makers; instead, combating institutional racism may require a radical restructuring of the institutions of our society."

This "why" thesis tells us that the writer will look at institutional racism as exemplified in the MTA policies ("what"), how institutional racism works in this specific case ("how"), and the larger implications of this analysis ("why").

ESSAY PITFALLS

Don't just state your disagreement with the author.

Many students tend to make unsubstantiated critiques rather than coherent arguments that engage directly with the reading/author. For example:

i) "I believe that Marx's scheme can't work because people are lazy, and won't work unless they are forced..."

ii) "I happen to disagree with Madison; I think we can rise above self-interest..."

These are perfectly reasonable responses to the readings, but you must follow through on them, with evidence that you analyze.

Avoid excess summarizing

You will always need to summarize and synthesize other people's arguments and descriptions of events in constructing your argument. These summaries, however, should serve your own argument, and not stand in place of it. After you have finished your rough draft, try constructing a brief abstract of your argument; then go through your paper to identify and eliminate summaries that seem superfluous to the argument.

Avoid too much story-telling

Many writers get caught up describing the subject of their paper and spend too little time on their actual analysis. One clue that a paper has too much narration, and not enough analysis, is found in the transition words in the topic sentences of paragraphs.

For example, if your transitions are chronological, you're probably spending too much time describing a phenomenon. Check to see if your paragraphs begin with dates, or "then," "after," etc. Even if you're incorporating analysis into a chronologically-structured paper, more likely than not your argument will be driven by the story, rather than the analysis.  Restructure your paragraphs so that they highlight the analysis, not the narrative.

WHEN AND HOW TO QUOTE

(Part of this section was written by Bill Weinberg.)

Don't let quotations tell the story

As in this example:

"Joe Feagin and Clairece Boohr Feagin write that, `once a colonial system is established historically, those in the superior position seek to monopolize basic resources.' They continue: `In this process, privilege becomes institutionalized, that is, it becomes imbedded in the norms (regulations and informal rules) and roles (social positions and their attendant duties and rights) in a variety of social, economic, and political organizations.'"

The problem here should be clear: the student is merely representing the text. However, the solution is not simply to paraphrase the quotation after presenting it, as this student does:

"Joe Feagin and Clairece Boohr Feagin write that, `once a colonial system is established historically, those in the superior position seek to monopolize basic resources.' According to Feagin and Feagin, then, the people who have gained power through the establishment of a colonial system will try to take control over the basic resources also."

Rather, you should be synthesizing the material in a way that is meaningful to you and faithful to the text. Here is an example of a good synthesis:

"Feagin and Feagin describe three theories of discrimination: the interest theory of discrimination, internal colonialism, and institutional racism. Interestingly, these three theories of discrimination are characterized by different approaches to the role of human agency in bringing about racist practices and structures. For example, proponents of the interest theory of discrimination argue that discrimination is a rational attempt on the part of white people to protect their dominant position in a society of scarce resources. In contrast, the internal colonialism theory of discrimination emphasizes broader historical forces, such as European expansionism, rather than individual prejudice. Finally, the proponents of the third theory of discrimination assert that institutional racism also does not depend on 'conscious bigotry.' Instead, institutionally racist structures can result from unintentional social and political mechanisms: thus this conceptual approach focuses more on racist effects of policy rather than on the intentions of the individual policy-makers (Feagin 1995, 199-203)."

This student has given a lot of thought to her paper: she has spend some time trying to figure out the differences between the theories of discrimination that Feagin and Feagin discuss. Because she understands the material so well, she is able to go beyond paraphrasing it. It is clear from the way she has organized her thoughts in the paragraph above that she has digested and synthesized the material in order to give it her own twist.

As a rule, provide quotations only:

i) when they say something pithy, elegant, provocative, unusual, or historically important, in language that your own summary could not capture. For example:

"Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life" (Marx).

"Ideology, like halitosis, is...what the other person has" (Terry Eagleton).

ii) when they provide stronger evidence than your summary could.

iii) when you are doing a close reading of a text.

As a rule, quotations should account for no more than 10 percent of your entire paper.

But not quoting a writer directly does not mean that you shouldn't cite them. Always cite the source: in a parenthetical reference or footnote/endnote at the end of the sentence. For information on correct citation styles, see the section below on citation guides.

ACADEMIC INTEGRITY

The Brooklyn College statement on academic integrity contains clear examples of plagiarism, from quoting without attribution and quotation marks to paraphrasing without citation. Plagiarized papers will receive an "F" grade; students who plagiarize may fail the course.