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1.7 Introducing an Academic Argument

In order to better understand the broad strokes of academic argument, we will read and analyze an undergraduate paper about Washington Irving’s short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”Washington Irving, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and the Spectre Bridegroom: From the “Sketch Book” (London: J. B. Lippincott, 1875; University of Virginia Library Electronic Text Center, 2000), http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=IrvLege.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/parsed&tag=public&part=1&division=div1.

Your Process

  1. As you work through this text, these process descriptions will make more sense if you’ve read the literary work under discussion. For this section, you should read Washington Irving’s short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Our discussion of student research and writing will reveal important plot details that you may want to discover on your own first. You can read this as an e-text provided by the University of Virginia (http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=IrvLege.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/parsed&tag=public&part=1&division=div1).

    You can also listen to a free audiobook of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” at Librivox (http://librivox.org/the-legend-of-sleepy-hollow-by-washington-irving).

Monica submitted this paper for an introductory literature class after the students read Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” during their unit on short fiction. Let’s look at her introduction first:

When one hears the title “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” a reader might shiver a little and think of the infamous spectre, “the apparition of a figure on horseback without a head … known, at all the country firesides, by the name of The Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow” (Irving 966). It is this legendary phantom that grants Washington Irving’s tale the label of ghost story. As such, readers would expect the legend to be overflowing with superstition and opposing forces—good vs. evil, known vs. unknown, supernatural vs. reality. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is in fact meant to be a tale of opposing forces, but not in the same way as ghost story. It is a legend of rivalry, a rivalry between the characters Ichabod Crane and Brom Van Brunt. Readers must understand that the opposing forces presented here are these two characters, the victim and the victor, the underdog and the front-runner—not those of supernatural and reality—in order to understand the true significance of Irving’s tale. Ichabod Crane and Brom Van Brunt are meant to be more than just two characters with a rivalry—they are actually representations of the young American nation and its “motherland,” Great Britain. When these allegories are understood, and the true opposing forces are revealed, readers will finally be able to understand the ultimate message behind Irving’s tale—it is an allegory for the goals, the problems, and the livelihood of an adolescent America.

Your Process

After you finish Monica’s introduction, jot down the answer to these questions:

  1. How does this introduction entice you to read on? What lines grab your attention? Can you articulate why they do?
  2. Are any of the statements overly strong? “Must” we read the story in this particular way to understand it? Are there ways to tone down the language?
  3. What do you think will come next in this paper? You have just read “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”—are there details from the story that you think Monica will cite in the longer paper?

What makes Monica’s introduction so effective? Note first the way she summarizes one way that many readers interpret the story: “readers would expect the legend to be overflowing with superstition and opposing forces—good vs. evil, known vs. unknown, supernatural vs. reality.” In her argument, Monica will challenge this reading, but she does so subtly. “‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ is in fact meant to be a tale of opposing forces,” she writes, “but not in the same way as ghost story.” Monica establishes common ground with those who read the tale as a ghost story, noting that it “is…a tale of opposing forces.” By working from common ground toward a new understanding of the story, Monica follows the principles of argument laid out by Carl Rogers, a psychologist who insisted that effective argument is based not on conflict, but on compromise and negotiation between reader and writer.

However, a reader may sense that Monica is presenting her reading as the most authoritative or the best interpretation of the story, which can make a reader a bit defensive, especially if he or she does not necessarily agree with Monica’s claim. Notice the subtle revision (highlighted in bold) that makes the opening even more persuasive because it is less totalizing:

When one hears the title “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” a reader might shiver a little and think of the infamous spectre, “the apparition of a figure on horseback without a head … known, at all the country firesides, by the name of The Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow” (Irving 966). It is this legendary phantom that grants Washington Irving’s tale the label of ghost story. As such, readers would expect the legend to be overflowing with superstition and opposing forces—good vs. evil, known vs. unknown, supernatural vs. reality. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” can be read as a tale of opposing forces, but not in the same way as ghost story. It is a legend of rivalry, a rivalry between the characters Ichabod Crane and Brom Van Brunt. Readers may benefit by understanding that the opposing forces presented here are these two characters, the victim and the victor, the underdog and the front-runner—not those of supernatural and reality—in order to understand a major significance of Irving’s tale. Ichabod Crane and Brom Van Brunt are meant to be more than just two characters with a rivalry—they are actually representations of the young American nation and its “motherland,” Great Britain. When these allegories are understood, and these opposing forces are revealed, readers will finally be able to understand a central message behind Irving’s tale—it is an allegory for the goals, the problems, and the livelihood of an adolescent America.

After establishing the common ground more subtly using the principles of nonthreatening argumentA philosophy of argument developed by Carl Rogers that is based on the notion that strong statements lead to strong responses, thus creating conflict and decreasing the effectiveness of the debate or argument., Monica then turns to her own ideas about the story: the tale, she insists, does focus on opposing forces, “but not in the same way as a ghost story” (our emphasis). Monica prepares the reader for her new claims about “Sleepy Hollow” by shifting her focus from the broad theme of opposition to the specific, nonsupernatural opposition of two characters’ rivalry. She writes, “It is a legend of rivalry, a rivalry between the characters Ichabod Crane and Brom Van Brunt.” Monica introduces a fact from the story—a small piece of textual evidence—that doesn’t quite fit with the common view. Readers who have interpreted “Sleepy Hollow” through the lens of the ghost story want to read on and see how Monica’s focus on rivalry will change their view of Irving’s tale.

Of course, most readers are skeptical: for each claim a writer makes, readers ask “So what?” Monica answers that “So what?” question by demonstrating a potential problem with her readers’ interpretations of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” In the next sentence of her introduction, Monica shows her readers why her interpretation of the story is significant. “Readers must understand,” she writes, “that the opposing forces presented here are these two characters, the victim and the victor, the underdog and the front-runner—not those of supernatural and reality—in order to understand the true significance of Irving’s tale.” Effective introductions to literary interpretations focus on interpretive problems—not for the writer, but for the readers of the paper. Keep in mind that a literary interpretation may not seem significant to every person who reads it. Monica assumes, as you should assume when you write papers for your literature classes, that her readers care about literary works and want to understand them fully and well. For readers who do care about literature, however, the stakes Monica proposes are significant: readers who insist on interpreting “Sleepy Hollow” as a ghost story will miss the tale’s “true significance.”

Your Process

The University of Virginia provides a number of free modules to help college writers understand the parts of argument we discuss here. To better understand the parts of an effective introduction, you might work through the following modules:

  1. “Problem Frames Start Here”: http://redschoolhouse.org/drupal/?q=problem-frames/motivate/LRSintheWild.
  2. “Problem Frame Elements”: http://redschoolhouse.org/drupal/?q=problem-frames/frame/LRSintheWild.
  3. “State the Consequences of a Conceptual Problem by Answering ‘So What?’”: http://redschoolhouse.org/drupal/?q=problem-frames/consequences/LRSintheWild.

Once a writer introduces a problem, however, readers expect him or her to also propose a solution to that problem. The first big question readers are likely to ask a writer is, “What do you think?” In the final lines of her introduction, Monica tells her readers what she thinks about this story by making the central claim of her argument. Her claim explains what she believes to be the central opposition in Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”: “Ichabod Crane and Brom Van Brunt are meant to be more than just two characters with a rivalry—they are actually representations of the young American nation and its ‘motherland,’ Great Britain. When these allegories are understood, and the true opposing forces are revealed, readers will finally be able to understand the ultimate message behind Irving’s tale—it is an allegory for the goals, the problems, and the livelihood of an adolescent America.” Monica offers a historicized reading of Irving’s tale (for more on historical theories about literature, see Chapter 7 "Writing about History and Culture from a New Historical Perspective"), arguing that the story’s true significance can be found by looking more closely at the time of the story’s composition, when America was an “adolescent” nation still at odds with Great Britain. Monica’s claim is specific, debatable, and significant (at least to readers who care about this story). In the body of her paper, Monica will unpack her claim, using subclaims and reasons to demonstrate to her readers why they should follow her interpretation of the story.

Your Process

  1. You can practice developing an effective subclaim using the module “Build Your Argument around a Significant Claim” (http://redschoolhouse.org/drupal/?q=claims/significant/LRSintheWild).
  2. Choose a literary work to analyze, preferably a short story or short lyric poem.
  3. Develop a working thesis that makes a claim about the work, knowing that this thesis claim may be revised.
  4. Create an informal outline that highlights the major stages of your argument—the evidence that you will use to support your thesis claim.