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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Contexts and Frames

All good scholarly arguments, at least in the kind of work I do, are contextual. The context, however, is never simply given: it is a frame that the scholar must construct.

A paragraph at the beginning of a paper giving a summary of the author's life, or some sociopolitical information, is not good contextual framing--if what follow has no relation to this information.

A little better would be an argument that relates the context to the analysis of texts using a kind of one-to-one correspondence. Here the context enters the argument rather than remaining apart from it, but the argument itself remains simplistic.

The next step might be crafting a more subtle or surprising argument, constructing the context as a frame for the argument rather than as something simply provided by the available information. After a certain point in literary criticism it is assumed anyone can do a close reading of something; the trick is making this reading meaningful. Close readings that aren't connected to larger arguments just sort of sit there on the page inertly. The trick is relating the reading convincingly to a meaningful context.

In graduate students I like to see the arguments that are interesting but not yet convincing. This shows that the student is stretching a bit, getting the idea of what needs to be doing and maybe trying a little too hard.

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