I’ve decided to attempt the first draft of a college-level textbook, writing it directly into my blog, bit by bit. Feedback and recommendations in the thread comments are welcome, either encouraging or critical. The first chapter is a mini-course in critical thinking for writers; the second chapter is a mini-course in rhetoric for writers. This post is part of chapter two. To have a look at other parts of chapter two–or the whole of chapter one (Concepts 1.1 – 1.10), click here.
Concept 2.5. Genre. Let’s imagine you arrive by research and reflection at a working thesis you take to be genuinely the best among those on offer or that occur to you—It’s fair to call Rome’s destruction of Carthage a genocide—and you decide that your smartest rhetorical move in this context is to put your thesis statement squarely upfront in your essay. You might thus announce that you mean to rehearse how, exactly, you arrived at your opinion:
By numerous criteria, Rome’s destruction of Carthage was a genocide.
Or you may wish to simplify your thesis even further:
Rome’s destruction of Carthage amounted to genocide.
But wait. Notice that these two sentences imply different genres (forms) of writing. The second thesis is not really a simplification of the first thesis, but a very different thesis–purpose in writing–altogether. If you pick the first thesis statement immediately above, you’re essentially boxing yourself in. You’re announcing that your genre of writing will be that of the evaluation essay (you’ll be evaluating a proposition by criteria, and from these you’ll render a judgment). But if you pick the second thesis statement, you’re implying that your genre may include evaluative criteria, but these may not, of necessity, be fleshed out. You may be signalling instead that you’ll be emphasizing argument in general, and so your essay might be classified, genre-wise, in a catch-all fashion as an expository essay (an essay that incorporates both research and argument)—or simply an argumentative essay.
In this sense, the argumentative and evaluation essays are subgenres of the expository essay, for most argumentation sooner or later points to evidence and research. By opting for the second thesis—“Rome’s destruction of Carthage amounted to a genocide”—you’re leaving yourself a lot of wiggle room for working with a broad range of arguments. Your thesis statement sets up an expectation in your reader that you will offer implicit and explicit reasons for your judgment concerning the nature of ancient Carthage’s destruction, but perhaps without an explicit explanation as to why those particular reasons themselves constitute the best criteria for drawing such a judgment.
Many genres can be deployed for tackling a single topic. But let’s say you don’t like either of these thesis statements. Perhaps rehearsing your criteria or reasons for arriving at a conclusion feels boring to you. You like your topic, but you don’t want to write an evaluation or general argument essay about it, justifying your opinion. Absent abandoning the topic altogether, what do you do?
You can pick a different genre for writing.
You might, for example, accept without argument that ancient Carthage’s destruction was indeed a genocide, trust that your audience already agrees with you (is already at yes with you), and then write an essay tracing what you take to be the causes that led up to Carthage’s destruction, and the subsequent effects it has had on the history of northern Africa. Such an essay might be described, in terms of genre, as a process essay or cause-effect essay (“this important thing happened, then this happened, and here’s why it happened, with impacts that reverberate to this day…”). That is, you’re walking your reader through a linked process, narrating and explaining how one gets from point a to point b. Such an essay becomes a type of story-telling, where choice of emphasis implies your opinion as to what is most important and worthy of attention.
But let’s say you don’t like the process essay as your genre choice either. Now what?
Well, you may wish to write a definitonal essay: in light of what happened at Carthage, what is genocide, exactly? Or perhaps you decide, after additional reflection, that the most interesting aspect of the topic for you is not in definition, but in just writing a straightforward comparison and contrast essay, thinking about Carthage in the light of, say, the Holocaust, and so you write out the following thesis statement:
Like the Nazi genocide of Jews in 20th century Germany, Rome’s destruction of Carthage also deserves to be considered a genocide, and thus comparisons and contrasts with the Holocaust illuminate it.
Now, you think, you’re cooking with gas (to echo the blind man in Raymond Carver’s short story, “Cathedral”). It’s something worth arguing about; you’re happy with your topic; you’re happy with the genre for discussing the topic; and you’ve got an explicit thesis statement around which to organize your thoughts.
The take-away here is: whatever thesis statement you settle upon, it will be implicitly accompanied by a genre—and you should make that genre explicit to yourself by asking the following: By posing this thesis statement, what genre am I actually going to be writing in?
Specific genres may constitute whole essays in themselves, or be deployed on a limited basis, as a few sentences or paragraphs within another genre (an argumentative essay that includes a paragraph of comparison, some narrative recounting, and paragraphs summarizing research). Typical genres of college essays–and genres and subgenres to be found in sentences or paragraphs within college essays–include things like the following:
reporting (summary of facts or events)
research (posing empirical questions–and trying to answer them)
narrating experiment and experience (telling a story, etc.)
argument (taking a position and supporting it, pointing to things like testimony, logic, and evidence)
evaluative and valuation claims (what’s true, good, or beautiful by some criteria, implicit or explicit)
grayscale evaluations (making arguments about what’s probable; what’s likely)
ethical and political appeals; appeals to action
placing or deflecting blame
aesthetic claims (making claims concerning art or what’s beautiful)
pointing to converging lines of evidence
comparison and contrast
cause and effect
appealing to logic
appealing to common sense
theorizing, exploring possibilities, speculating
exploring the sublunary (beneath the moon observations; wrestling with aporias–impasses; things that appear uncertain)
engaging in framing gestures
centering and decentering (bringing something regarded as marginal to the center of attention, etc.)
Such a list can be multiplied, but here’s the take-away: it can be helpful for writers to make explicit to themselves the genre or sub-genre of writing that they’re deploying, either in the broadest sense (the genre of the essay as a whole) or in a narrower sense (the genre of whatever sentence or paragraph is being worked on in the moment).
After genre choice, ask what you want to qualify and/or clarify in your thesis statement. After writing a thesis statement on Carthage, and deciding to place it toward the beginning of your essay, it might occur to you, on looking again, that your readers could have an initial objection, arresting further or sympathetic reading of the rest of the essay. Is it really reasonable, for instance, to compare the Holocaust, a historically recent, continent-wide phenomenon, to the destruction of a single, ancient city? Doesn’t the comparison amount to a faulty analogy? Anticipating this objection, you might decide your thesis statement is in need of a qualifier or clarification that signals yes, you too have thought of this objection, and yet you still affirm your thesis, and hope the reader will stay with you as you make your case:
Though the Nazi genocide of six million Jews spanned a continent, and the Roman killing of 150,000 ancient Carthaginians focused on just a single city (a community of perhaps 200-400,000 people at the time), the destruction of Carthage can nevertheless still be illuminated by comparisons and contrasts with the Holocaust, and deserves itself to be considered a genocide.
That’s a clear, genre and audience attentive statement of a writer’s purpose. Notice that you’re doing your best to keep yourself and your readers on the same page, saying yes to your propositions. Notice further how your thesis statement is getting ever more precise as you reflect, write, and revise. Also notice how your thesis statement has evolved in such a way as to set up an expectation for your readers that your essay will emphasize—and perhaps even justify, at some point—that the number of victims at Carthage is not the deciding or only factor in deploying the term genocide, but is better conditioned on other, relevant criteria. One of the things determining your success in a piece of writing is whether it delivers on its implied promises.
A good thesis statement navigates skillfully between an excess of confidence and an excess of caution. Even with the acknowledgment or tackling of an initial objection—something you and your audience can reach yes regarding right upfront—you may feel that your thesis statement is still too strongly worded, and thus you may decide to bring your confidence down a notch before proceeding:
Though the Nazi genocide of six million Jews spanned a continent, and the Roman killing of 150,000 ancient Carthaginians focused on just a single city (a community of perhaps 200-400,000 people at the time), the destruction of Carthage can nevertheless still be illuminated by comparisons and contrasts with the Holocaust, and perhaps deserves itself to be considered a genocide.
Inserting that perhaps into your thesis, however, is a gamble on your audience’s tolerance for ambiguity. Are you now being too squishy? If you’re writing for college, for instance, professors are generally open to expressions of hesitation and doubt, but your particular professor may read the perhaps in your thesis as student-level insecurity grounded in a lack of self-confidence (even though that’s not your intent.) It may also be read as an attempt to wiggle out of a commitment. The tension here, again, is in to whom you are writing and to what end–and what risks in writing you are prepared to run. Your purpose is clear—you mean to use the Holocaust to cast light on the destruction of Carthage, and to implicitly make a case for the fairness of calling the destruction of the ancient city a genocide—but as you proceed, you don’t want to oversell your level of confidence surrounding the issue. Maybe you have genuine doubts, or perhaps you feel the issue is undecidable. Yet that very last part of your gesture, though noble in its caution and humility—may not be rewarded by a professor who prefers displays of confidence. What works for one audience does not guarantee transfer to another audience.
Writing 2.5.1. Look again at the Carthage thesis. Imagine yourself as a professor. Would you keep the perhaps in the thesis—or advise the student to remove it? Or perhaps you would leave it to the student to decide, letting him or her evaluate the essay as a whole before deciding to keep it or drop it. Explain your rationale for whatever advice you would offer to the student.
Writing 2.5.2. Evaluate an essay in light of whether it announces its purpose clearly and meets its implied promises.
Writing 2.5.3. Think of a topic on which you have a strong opinion. Imagine you are going to write an essay on the topic, then write out a thesis statement regarding it. Narrow the thesis statement to something manageable for driving, say, a ten page essay. Then qualify that thesis statement, honing it into a form of ever greater precision and clarity.
Writing 2.5.4. Look at a variety of nonfiction essays or books, reading their opening paragraphs, asking, “What genre does this writing seem to be in?” Would you call the genre expository (incorporating research and argument), evaluative (having implicit or explicit criteria for judgment), argumentative, process-oriented, definitional, comparative, etc.
Writing 2.5.6. Search in a library or data base for a short expository essay—an essay that incorporates both research and argument—and read it. (Most essays are expository at some level.) Make explicit to yourself where the research likely happened for the author, and where the arguments in the essay are. What research did the author conduct to bring about this particular piece of writing? Did the author perhaps locate an article in a data base, then comment on it? Did the author do any original research or have an experience the she recounts?