Processes of study in the arts and humanities
Processes of study in the arts and humanities

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Processes of study in the arts and humanities

6 Commmunicating your ideas

6.1 Making a convincing case

If you were talking to a friend about a picture hanging on your living-room wall, you might say: ‘I really like that portrait because the man looks so lifelike’. That is, you'd make some kind of judgement about the painting. (I've never heard anyone say ‘I really like that portrait because of that little white brush stroke in the top right-hand corner’.) So, in effect, you turn the process we have just been through on its head. When you are communicating your ideas to other people, you start with what were the conclusions of that process – and you go on to present an argument in support of your judgements that draws on the detail you discovered in the text. Having previously taken the roles of investigator and judge (or ‘critic’) of the text, you now have to take on the role of advocate for your interpretation of it. As an advocate, you try to make a case for your view of the text's meanings and values that will convince other people.

Let's suppose you wanted to argue in support of the ‘stem’ of the first argument in Section 5.1. Here it is again, broken down into its component parts.

  • (a) The poem (i) evokes, (ii) beautifies and (iii) celebrates an ‘ideal’ of the romantic, sexual relationship.

  • (b) In doing so, it draws our attention to the possibilities of intense human passion – (i) the energy, (ii) our willingness to risk, (iii) the heightening of our senses involved.

  • (c) And so, it espouses values that are positively life enhancing.

This is an outline sketch of the argument for, say, an essay. There are three main points (a, b, c), the first two of which contain several different claims (i, ii, iii.). All these claims have to be demonstrated in order to make both main points in a convincing way. In the process you will have demonstrated point (c), your conclusion, so at that stage you would just need to sum up.

But how do you ‘demonstrate’ a claim convincingly? If you look back to what we did in Section 3.2 you will see how. You have to explain what you mean, using examples from the text to illustrate your meaning; and you have to provide some evidence from the text that shows you are right to say what you do about it.

Let's take the first claim in point (a), that the poem ‘evokes’ the romantic, sexual relationship. Earlier (in Section 5.2) we saw that this depends on the poem's success in engaging our feelings and appealing to our senses. So you could demonstrate the claim by referring to:

  • the romantic setting, of sea and landscape bathed in moonlight – offering textual detail as illustration

  • the languorous movement of the verse – quoting some of the words of the poem to illustrate long vowel sounds and soft-sounding consonants

  • the syntax – quoting a word or phrase that appeals to each of our senses, as illustration; the significance of the shift in verb tenses between the verses – explaining and illustrating this

  • the imagery (‘ringlets’ and ‘prow’) – offering textual detail as illustration and explanation.

In each case you are also providing evidence in support of this claim, by referring to precise details of the text and/or quoting relevant words and phrases directly from it (see Section 6.2). As a result, your reader should both understand what you are saying and find your argument convincing.

As you actually write the essay, the main difficulty you face is keeping this argument going forward while also including as much detailed reference as you need to explain, illustrate and justify what you say at each stage. So, at the points when you ‘interrupt’ the onward flow of the argument in order to provide this textual detail, you need to remind your readers where they have got to and where they are headed next, before you set off again. That is because, when you present a case in writing, you can't ‘check’ with your readers to make sure they are following your meaning. You need to keep ‘signposting’ the direction your argument is taking.

Why communicate?

Studying arts and humanities subjects involves learning particular ways of expressing ideas, and of ‘arguing a case’ that is supported by appropriate kinds of ‘evidence’. That is, we learn to think, speak and write in the terms and ways that are appropriate to the subject we are studying. Those are the terms and ways in which everyone who has studied the subject speaks, so that we can understand each other and learn from each other. In short, we learn how to join in that ongoing discourse.

Indeed, each subject in the arts and humanities is itself a different kind of discourse (a way of using language and other symbolic forms (such as pictures and music) communicatively, so as to produce meaning and understanding). Poetry is one way in which human beings communicate with each other and art is another, different, way; so is music; so is a legal document or an Act of Parliament; and so is a philosophical argument. When we are actively reading and thinking about these texts, then, we engage in a kind of ‘communication’ with them.

Similarly, when you discuss your interpretations and judgements of these texts or write an essay, you become a participant in the academic discourses that are related to them – that produce meaning and understanding about the different subjects we study. You are making your own enquiries and producing your own ‘texts’. The essays you write are judged according to how close you come to ‘speaking’ appropriately, within the terms of the academic discourse concerned.

The upshot is that, in the arts and humanities, the knowledge we have is what we have made and continue making through our discourse, past and present. Whichever way you turn, communication is the name of the game.

So, as an advocate for your interpretations and judgements of the text, you have to present a clear and consistent line of argument, that is well explained and illustrated and also supported by appropriate kinds of evidence. And you have to try to write simply and directly to your readers in order to engage their minds.

Key points

When you are communicating your interpretations and judgements of a text you have to make a convincing case in support of them.

At each stage of a written argument, you should:

  • explain yourself clearly and give examples of what you mean by what you say (illustrations drawn from the text)

  • provide appropriate evidence from the text

  • use the appropriate language of communication

  • 'signpost’ the direction your argument is taking.

But what exactly is ‘appropriate’ evidence? And how do you know what terms are the ‘appropriate’ ones to use?


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