Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Conclusions, part II: so what?

Can we do better than "so what"?

Last week, I posted some thoughts about teaching the art of the conclusion--that is, about explaining the elusive something more that teachers often ask their students to provide. Here I continue my search for the language and examples that will help my students write conclusions. The next and probably final installment of this series will address the journalistic kicker, a subject Michael raised in the comments last week.

Today, however, I ponder the question, "so what?" When I was a student, I saw many teachers tell students that papers should convey answers to that question. When my undergraduate thesis adviser, Patricia Meyer Spacks, received a set of term paper drafts that disappointed her, she gently explained what she was looking for and wrote on the chalkboard in dramatically ungentle four-foot letters, "SO WHAT?"

When essays do find ways to answer the question, the effects can be wonderful. Take, for example, this striking little essay by Phillip Davis about the neurological effects of reading Shakespeare. Having set up a series of problems at the beginning of the piece, Davis shares a few data points in the middle, and about two-thirds of the way in, he writes--as its own paragraph--"so what?"

Davis answers the question powerfully, with a series of insights that expand in scope until they culminate in this final paragraph:

It is early days. But I am getting a greater sense of how and why Shakespeare really does something to our inner reality, making me feel more alive in more unpredictable mental ways when I read or see his work. I am also getting a sense of an underlying shape to experience, as though the syntax in front of my eyes were keying into mental pathways behind them, and shifting and reconfiguring them dramatically in the theatre of the brain.

Yes, that will do nicely as the something more.

All this said in favor of the "so what" approach, however, I must come to an anticlimax: in my own teaching, I have not found that asking "so what?"--or suggesting that students ask it of themselves--does much good. The question may be too vague, or it may be too hard to unburden it of its commonly dismissive inflection: "Yeah, well, so what if it is?"

My current idea is to revise the "so what" approach in two ways: first by switching the language to "and what does that mean?"--with the suggestion that the best essays will find ways to answer the question multiple times. And what does that mean? And second, I want to make the function of the conclusion more concrete by saying that it releases the pain the introduction has inflicted--an approach I'll explore when I come to ponder introductions within the next week or two.

A cliffhanger!


Harry said...

I have to admit that your example of a good answer to "so what?" was so unexpected to me that I realized I really have often misunderstood the question. My non-literature writing experience, namely in biology and political science, has always geared me towards more of a "so what does this mean towards future research" or "what does this say about how we are pursuing research in this field?" I've always started out literary analysis by trying to answer something like "so what does this mean to the method in which we are approaching this text?" Indeed, it makes far more sense, especially in the context of the aim of literature in contrast to the aim of biology or political science, to look for, as you say, the "something more" in how it moves you and not necessarily the field. Besides, in literature, isn't that in fact the field?

When discussing this blog post with Josh Tetenbaum, I realized that my best writings on literature had, unbeknown to me, already reflected this. My best papers (and indeed, the ones that you and other instructors graded the highest) were always the ones that I was most invested in and about the works that I was most moved by (I still fondly remember writing my favorite paper on Citizen Kane and Orson Welles's clothes). Josh perfectly summed it up when he said, "Coming to vaster philosophical conclusions only works when you really care about the subject enough to, uh, come to vaster philosophical conclusions."

Of course, this may shift the blame for boring conclusions away from students and unduly place it on professors and the works they select. I guess this opens up a whole other can of worms as to whether everyone can be moved by the same works and to what extent professors can better facilitate the process by giving students the tools to see the, uh, underlying logic, of a work such that they are better able to appreciate it and be moved.

Tim Jarrett said...

You outline my number one rule for blogging: unless you can provide the personal connection to what you're posting about -- a reaction, a connection, an opinion -- what's the reason for writing about it?

Reminds me of Double Dee and Steinski's "Lesson One," where at the end of creating the very first hip-hop sample-fest track, they mix in a sample of Fiorello LaGuardia asking "And say, children, what does it all mean?" And what it meant was the creation of the sampling culture along with foreshadowing serious questions about the role of intellectual property.

So it's fundamentally a question you can ask about everything.