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What to do with reading

Say you just happen to be passing the reading calendar (this could be for any course where reading and discussion of that reading is required) and you notice that Larry Kudlow’s piece on Mitt Romney (and) is due for discussion in a few days. You can do any number of things: avoid the assignment (the reading requirement is an assignment after all, and who likes those?), take a shower and find other things to do, dig in and get ready for discussion of the work. This may be an alien concept. Here are some ways of doing the assignment.

Title, Context, and Frames

Break open your trusty browser and click on the link (ha ha) to the article, which was published at National Review. Then read the article. You might want to spend some time thinking about the title and any sort of meaning that the author intends by it. In this case the title is: Romney Didn’t Make the Sale. Consider how this sets up the type of article it is: a persuasive or informative piece? Consider also how the title sets up the subject’s context: Romney is, for example and according to the author, trying to sell something, and the title would seem to imply that he failed at it. Maybe it’s underwear or pizza or Facebook stock Mr. Romney is supposed to be selling. Consider how Kudlow’s first paragraphs clears up the mystery:

Did Mitt Romney make the economic sale at the Republican National Convention? Did he convince people who are living at the margin or are unemployed and discouraged that he has the answers to the economy? Frankly, I don’t think so.

The first paragraph gets right to Kudlow’s proposal or claim or position: he does not think Mitt Romney convinced people “living at the margin or are unemployed and discouraged” that “he has the answers.” Here’s the speech he’s referring to on YouTube. Typically, I’ll ask people in class to identify an author’s purpose, claim, or main point. So, one of things to prep for and write notes about is this: identify the author’s claim. In this case, it’s pretty simple as Kudlow wants us to know his verdict. Some writers prefer to develop their proposal or main point from individual arguments or from examples, which makes things harder to figure out. In this case, Kudlow writes, “Frankly, I don’t think so.” Why does he need the word “Frankly”? That’s something to note too about the author’s style and attitude (sincere disappointment). It’s also important to think about the “framing” of the piece. It’s put into a “sales” frame is the short answer and sales are either successful or unsuccessful, I suppose.

Typically, to follow the “patterns” of persuasive writing, we want to ask a question of the proposal: why does Kudlow think Romney failed to convince “people who are living at the margin or are unemployed and discouraged”? We can respond to this question like this: “what are Kudlow’s reasons for concluding as he does” or “what are Kudlow’s arguments in support of his claim”? In Kudlow’s case he wastes no time. Look at the second and third paragraph.

I do not understand why he did not talk about his 20 percent across-the-board personal-tax-cut plan that would help the middle class enormously. He never mentioned it, and he went into no detail on the business tax-cut plan. This plan is terrific for competition and global investment.

Instead, he talked about a jobs tour. I frankly have no idea what a “jobs tour” is. I do know that 23 million Americans need jobs. I don’t know that they need a president on a jobs tour to inspect them.

The first reason why Kudlow think’s Romney’s speech failed is that Romney “did not talk about his 20 percent across-the-board personal-tax-cut plan” and  “…went into no detail on the business tax-cut plan.” (Take a look at how I weave a quote into a sentence. I could also have written it this way: The first reason why Kudlow think’s Romney’s speech failed is that the candidate did not mention important policies intended to persuade. Kudlow writes, “I do not understand why he did not talk about his 20 percent across-the-board personal-tax-cut plan that would help the middle class enormously.”) It’s important to consider that Kudlow is being accurate here: it is true that Romney did not mention specific plans. It’s not Kudlow’s purpose to explore why, but that in not mentioning these things, Kudlow concludes that the speech did not persuade “…people who are living at the margin or are unemployed and discouraged.” While Kudlow’s use of evidence is accurate, his conclusions based on those evidence may not be. For example, does Kudlow present any evidence that “people who are living at the margin or are unemployed and discouraged” or, later in the piece, “independents, the so-called Reagan Democrats, or the Clinton Democrats” (par 4) were not convinced by what Romney actually said? We would need to conclude from this reading that, from Kudlow’s view, Romney needed to identify specific economic policies to convince “people who are living at the margin or are unemployed and discouraged” and “independents, the so-called Reagan Democrats, or the Clinton Democrats.”

There is an actual persuasive writing concept that goes to this: there’s always a relationship between an argument and the evidence used to support it. It’s from this relationship that we derive evaluative standards and can weigh the success or effectiveness of conclusions. In this case, Kudlow is applying a standard of sufficiency and a standard of relevance. Romney, according to Kudlow, did not use enough evidence and he didn’t use the right kind of evidence. Technically speaking, the Romney speech used “appeals” rather than examples or facts. Whether Kudlow is right or wrong is hard to nail down, though, but, we as readers, should know what he’s trying to do.

When the arguments become more complex or the subjects more difficult, the need to perceive relationships between appeals, evidence, and arguments is even more critical. Go back to Kudlow. Does Kudlow in the article ever try to convince his reader that the forms of evidence he thinks are convincing would actually be relevant to Romney’s case? There’s a reason for this. He’s writing to an audience that may not require that level of relationship building because they would probably agree with him. This nuance is important to understand and marks a difference between opinion pieces in a magazine and academic arguments that come with a high degree of standard of proof. Having an opinion about the effectiveness of a speech is much different than proposing a change to how people are taxed or educated or transported. But, an opinion on a speech uses the same techniques as the latter.

In this case, taking lots of time with all of our readings: identifying claims and main points, identifying arguments and evidence and how they relate is something you should get into the habit of doing as a “habit of reading.” Even if you think you’re not all that good at it, practice will help. It’s especially important that you do this prior to class and with all the readings because your principle research and writing for the course will be done with materials you read and evaluate on your own. Class prep and discussion is about modeling these habits of reading.

Okay, but what about the frame?

Let’s explore the frame a little more. What do I mean by that? Consider the word “sales” used by Kudlow. What does the word bring to mind for you in your experience. I can’t answer that question. I can only tell you what it implies to me. And I’m not going to do that. The images you think of when you hear a word, like “dog,” define a frame in all kinds of complex ways. A frame has “moral” weight. Something is wrong or right, most of the time. It’s right to ingest less sugar because too much sugar is bad. So, you have a friend who drinks ten 12oz. cokes a day. Is that right or wrong. Some people will think of sugar and have negative impressions. Other people will have positive impressions, especially those who sell sugar, and so, sugar sellers will  frame their arguments in favor of sugar in a way that reflects the image sugar has to them. Fine. The fact that Kudlow uses the word sales would imply that “selling” is good.

If you grew up in the woods, then the woods “are” the shape of your world. If you grew up in downtown, then downtown is where people grow up, unless you get out some and meet people who grew up in the woods. Seeing how other people grow on television or the net doesn’t quite work the same way, but it does provide perspective. I know this sounds odd. But you should think about that and what this contributes to the way people shape complex ideas and their themes. Kudlow, for example, is an economist with a successful career both in government and business. How might his professional life shape his view of what makes arguments successful in this regard? This influence does not make a person right about something. It does, however, contribute to their authority (ethical appeal), their ability to weigh other opinions and contributions, but it might also limit their view to other possibilities.