English 213

Introduction to Poetry

American Poetry

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Critical Article Synopsis Assignment ("Précis")

Being able to write a Précis of a critical article is one of the skills that you are expected to master as an English student at Reed. In fact it is one of the three basic skills that you are asked to perform on the Junior Qualifying Exam (the other two are explication and analysis of poetry, and analysis of narrative).

On days that are marked “Critical Article Synopsis Due” ALL Group Members MUST write a one-page review of the article rather than a close reading of the poem. This review MUST include both a short paragraph summarizing the argument of the article and a long paragraph discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the argument. This is a crucial skill to learn in this course and you must complete this assignment.

Before class you should read at least two of the Précises your classmates have sent you. To assess the Précises' strengths and weaknesses ask yourself:

1. Is the documentation of the article correct in form and content? What bibliographic information needs to be added?
2. (After reading the article) Does this Précis convey the most important parts of the author's argument?
3. What information would you delete? add?
4. Are there any instances of wordiness? any instances of confused syntax or meaning?

Here are some more suggestions to get you started as you write your Précis.

Before writing your summary of the article, you should decide what the author's main claims are, prioritize and summarize them, and mention some of the most important evidence the author offers to prove his or her main claims.

Pay attention to topic sentences and repetition, and try to determine when the author is introducing a new argument, and when she is simply providing examples or explaining the evidence he has offered. Your summary should be
as "objective" as possible. That is, you should try your best to represent the argument as you think the author would and reserve your commentary for the critique section of the paper.

One of the most common mistakes I find in student Précises is that a student has read the opening of the essay carefully and then skimmed the rest of it. While in some disciplines, you might be lucky enough to find a summary of the argument (an abstract) at the beginning, this is unusual (unfortunately) in Literary Criticism articles. Often, the summary of the argument is at the end of the article. A second trick to remember is that authors often justify their article's existence at the opening by explaining how it fits into a critical debate. You should take note of what what the author thinks is the larger significance of his or her work.

As Joseph Williams pointed out in his recent visit to Reed, most academic arguments have at least these four basic components:

(1) Common Ground: What is the context that the author intends to qualify or question. This may be either a commonly held belief (some people...) or an argument made by a specific critic.
(2) But...: Introduces a question about something key that is not known or fully understood or contradicts this common ground
(3) So What? States the significance of the question raised
(4) Thesis: the answer to problem/question. States the author’s main claim.

You should make sure that you have looked for these aspects of the argument. If they are in your article identify them.

Writing a Critique
This is your chance to express your opinion about what you have read and to show off your analytical abilities. In your response you might consider some of the following. Remember, use specifics to back your claims:

* What did you find particularly interesting or useful about the critique?
* Is this a valid/good/bad way to approach the poem for the day?
* How might the scholar's arguments help us in our previous discussions?
* How does this piece relate to others we have read?
* Is the author's argument logically sound?
* Did the author use evidence persuasively to support this argument?

* Who do you think was the original audience for this article? How do you know? If you (or students like you) are not the intended audience is there any jargon that you did not know that you need to define for your readers?
* Is there any information or evidence that you wish had been included in the article that wasn't there?

One of the most common mistakes I find in students' analyses of arguments is that people assume if they didn't understand the argument the first time they read it it, it is either poorly written or uninteresting. Since articles are mostly written for specialists in the field, you can assume that they will be difficult and will require at least a second reading. It is also highly likely that they will contain jargon (specialized language) that is unfamiliar to you, but is part of the common knowledge of specialists. You will want to keep a dictionary or a dictionary of literary terms on hand to help you as you read the work. Similarly, the author probably assumes that almost all of her readers will have a Ph.D. in English or American literature and hence she will most likely make reference to works you have not read. You may find it useful to look up allusions or whole texts of poems as you are reading if you feel that the argument requires it.



Examples of Student Précises

Please note that these are just examples. They are not perfect, nor are they intended as models to be followed slavishly. Rather you should read each one critically and assess its strengths and weaknesses.


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2003 Prof. Laura Leibman, Dept. of English, Reed College Print SyllabusInfoAssignmentsGroups
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