Tell Me Something

I’m beginning to think I’m just an incorrigible old crank, a conclusion that many people surely reached a long time ago. Still, as long as I have responsibility for teaching and evaluating students, I’m going to stick with this one. I’ll add it to the “How To Exegesis?” series somewhere, but for now I can’t contain my impatience (‘My heart was hot within me; while I pondered, the fire burst into flame; I spoke out with my tongue’).

If you want to make a positive impression on me in my role as a scholar, show me that you understand the concept of an ‘argument’. Indicate that you have a point, to which you want to win my assent or at least my respect; structure your presentation, or your essay, or your manuscript-submitted-for-refereeing, or your book, or whatever, with a view to establishing that point. Don’t burden my already-complicated life with copious distracting information that doesn’t pertain clearly to the point you’re discussing. Don’t leave it up to me to guess what you want to demonstrate; that’s not my job, it’s your job to make your point unmistakably clear (‘that he who runs may read it’). You may want to summarise other scholars’ work to support your point; fine, well done, but there’s no need to cover their entire oeuvre. Epitomise the relevant part of their scholarship, make explicit the relevance you propose for it, and move on. Imagine you’re in a courtroom, with a grumpy, bewigged QC scolding you for wasting the court’s time, or with an eager opposing advocate who persistently interrupts with cries of ‘Relevance!’ You may know and admire another scholar’s work, or you may have put in laborious hours of study and note-taking for which you want some benefit, but unless the summarisation actually contributes to establishing your point, I don’t want to read about it, and I will take a less favourable view of your position (extraneous summarisation suggests that you yourself don’t know the difference between what’s pertinent and what isn’t).

You’re 100% entitled to not care what I think — plenty of people share that sentiment! But if you want to win my approval, it serves your own interests to show me a genuine argument: a specific claim, supporting evidence, and sound reasoning. I may agree or disagree in the end, but I always admire a strong argument — and I am always disappointed by poor argumentation, even when I think it aims at a conclusion I deem correct.

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