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Rhetorical Perspective, part 2: Op-Ed, Blog, Stalking

September 7, 2017

The key element of any argument, as I have defined it, has three parts: given (conventional view); problem (question, concern, confusion); response (answer to question, clarification, solution to problem). These three parts form the argument, also called a thesis or a claim. You then develop and support that argument or claim with reasons and evidence.

Your blog is a place that you begin to practice this argumentation. The Stalking is where you expand it with more grounding (for the reasons and evidence) in the materials you are studying in the Chesapeake courses.

You can think of your blog much like an Op-Ed, a compressed argument. For example, this one on the health of the Chesapeake Bay. An op-ed writer, Bret Stephens, recently identified various rhetorical and stylistic elements that make for a good op-ed.[“Tips for Aspiring Op-Ed Writers,” Bret Stephens, The New York Times] Though focused on the mechanics of a good, 700-word op-ed essay, Stephens provides brief but persuasive (in good, op-ed fashion) tips that identify rhetorical and stylistic elements for any argument. Stephens mentions one element that particularly stands out: the fact that an effective argument in an op-ed provides “standing with surprise.” That is, the ethos or authority of the writer matters, but the argument must provide new or unexpected ways of thinking about what the writer knows. This builds into the argument a counterargument and its response (another point he makes); this also gets the reader’s attention–Stephens’s first rule.

A wise editor once observed that the easiest decision a reader can make is to stop reading. This means that every sentence has to count in grabbing the reader’s attention, starting with the first. Get to the point: Why does your topic matter? Why should it matter today? And why should the reader care what you, of all people, have to say about it?

The “surprise” Stephens emphasizes can be compared to the irony and complication that we have begun to explore in readings by Tom Horton and Wendell Berry. Such surprise does more than get attention; it supports the rhetorical project, which is to rethink or revise or reclaim or renew one’s understanding or perspective on the topic. In this way, Horton argues, we can approach “fuller context.” An argument’s response to a problem might even be simpler (surprise doesn’t mean entirely original)–providing new ways for thinking about old questions and problems. Consider these questions as the basis for a good argument (provided by Harvard University Press):

Questions to consider as you prepare a book proposal:
  • What problems are you setting out to solve?
  • What confusions do you wish to clarify?
  • What previously unknown or unfortunately neglected story are you planning to tell?
  • How is this book different from all other books?
  • Why does that matter? To whom?

To consider some examples of emerging argument from the first week of blogging. Emily’s post does a good job setting up and exploring variations on a problem–the tensions between what she knows and a new place that she doesn’t know. The post is the beginnings of an effort (with some help from Wendell Berry), to rethink the Chesapeake as a place, in large part by living in it this semester. Kai’s focus on homesickness presents a good example, I think, of standing with surprise. The surprise is the turn at the end that emphasizes the response of the argument, the claim: becoming homesick for a place that was previously resisted.

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