Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Writing a Precis

One of the key requirements for our course involves the writing of a précis. Think of this précis as a basic paraphrase of the argumentative content of a text (or of a key chapter or section of a longer or especially complex text).

Here is a broad and informal guide for a précis, but it also provides a pretty good guide for the sorts of questions you should always ask of a text as you are reading it critically, and again after you have finished reading it. Don't treat this as an ironclad template, but as a rough approach to producing a précis -- a truly fine and useful précis need not necessarily satisfy all of these interventions.

A précis should provide answers to fairly basic questions such as:

1. What, in your own words, is the basic gist of the argument?

2. To what audience is it pitched primarily? (Do you see yourself as part of that intended audience, and how does your answer impact your reading of the argument?) 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? How has this end shaped the argument in your view?
a. To call assumptions into question?
b. To change convictions?
c. To alter conduct?
d. To find acceptable compromises between contending positions?
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? Do these implicit assumptions clash with explicit claims made elsewhere in the text?

6. What, if any, kind of argumentative work is being done by metaphors and other figurative language in the piece? Do the metaphors collaborate to paint a consistent picture, or do they clash with one another? What impact does this have on their argumentative force?

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 précis succeeds if it manages

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

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