Sunday, May 02, 2010

A Question of Style

I have a question for other academic writers. It's really just a matter of curiosity more than anything:

Do you think it is best or most effective in academic writing (in the humanities, but literary studies to be precise) to put one's own argument forth first, then clarify it within the terms of an existing critical debate, OR should the reverse be the case, with an explanation of the critical debate followed by one's contribution to it?

I appreciate when other scholars offer a brief summary of the existing threads of inquiry and debate surrounding the topic at hand before moving on to discuss to particulars of their argument, ideas, etc. Now, I'm all in favor of "signposting" for readers what the argument or thesis is at the beginning of a paper, article, or chapter. But, once a writer moves on to do the work of close reading and/or discussion of the subject literature, I want to know a tiny bit about what's been said by others. When writers do this, do you think it make them sound dependent or unoriginal? Does it diminish their approach and make their contribution nothing more than a correction of previous arguments?


Jennie said...

I don't think references to the existing literature make you unoriginal or diminish your approach. All academic work is an extension of previous academic work, and to show how your argument/contribution connects to and extends existing research is what makes it scholarship rather than journalism in my opinion. It won't detract from your own contribution unless, of course, you have nothing of real substance to add.

Anonymous said...

I'm all for putting your own arguments first, then adding in the outside critics as support and/or clarification, or in order to rip them to shreds with your superior wisdom. A lot of the outside stuff ends up in footnotes eventually... the "lit review" dissertationy stuff that you put in to prove you've done your reading, done your homework. Once you start publishing, a lot of the lit-reviewy stuff comes out, and what is left is meat and potatoes, no extra fluff.

You need to signpost a bit. It doesn't make you unoriginal; it makes you part of an academic conversation. It's important that you present how your work fits into that conversation. You can't do that without bringing in those other voices, just so long as you don't go off on a long "here's a summary of what everyone else has said" jag that distracts from the argument you are making about the text.

OK, so it's finals week here, my analogies are a bit pathetic, but I think you get what I mean!

Anonymous said...

Knowledge is power.......................................................