Artifice and Agency

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Co-facilitating Discussions and Writing a Precis

One of the key assignments for our course will be your
co-facilitation of class discussion of an assigned text.
This assignment also requires that you generate a precis
of the text you are taking responsibility for. This
precis should provide a point of departure for your
contribution to the discussion in class, and you will
also hand it in to me at the end of the session.

Think of this precis as a basic paraphrase of the
argumentative content of a text. Here is a broad and
informal guide for a precis, consisting of question you
should ask of a text as you are reading it, and again
after you have finished reading it. Don't treat this as
an ironclad template, but as a rough approach to producing
a precis -- knowing that a truly fine and useful precis
need not necessarily satisfy all of these interventions.

A precis should try to answer fairly basic questions
such as:

1. What is the basic gist of the argument?

2. To what audience is it pitched primarily? Does
it anticipate and respond to possible objections?

3. What do you think are the argument's stakes in general?
To what end is the argument made?

a. To call assumptions into question?
b. To change convictions?
c. To alter conduct?
d. To find acceptable compromises between contending

4. Does it have an explicit thesis? If not, could you
provide one in your own words for it?

5. What are the reasons and evidence offered up in the
argument to support what you take to be its primary end?
What crucial or questionable warrants (unstated assumptions
the argument takes to be shared by its audience, often
general attitudes of a political, moral, social, cultural
nature) does the argument seem to depend on? Are any of
these reasons, evidences, or warrants questionable in your
view? Do they support one another or introduce tensions
under closer scrutiny?

6. What, if any, kind of argumentative work is being done
by metaphors and other figurative language in the piece?

7. Are there key terms in the piece that seem to have
idiosyncratic definitions, or whose usages seem to change
over the course of the argument?

As you see, a piece that interrogates a text from these
angles of view will yield something between a general book
report and a close reading, but one that focuses on the
argumentative force of a text. For the purposes of our
class, such a precis succeeds if it manages

(1) to convey the basic flavor of the argument and
(2) provides a good point of departure for a class discussion.


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