Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Writing a Precis and Co-Facilitating Discussion

One of the key assignments for our course will be your co-facilitation of class discussion of one of the assigned texts. This assignment also requires that you generate a précis (pronounced "prey-see," dude) of the text you are taking responsibility for. This precis should provide a point of departure for your contribution to the discussion in class, and you should publish it to the blog the day before class (at least!) to give everybody a chance to think about the text in the terms that interest you.

Think of a precis as a basic paraphrase of the argumentative content of a text.

Here is a broad and informal guide for writing a precis, consisting of questions you should always ask of a text as you are reading it, and again after you have finished reading it.

A precis should try to answer fairly basic questions such as:

1. What, in your own words, is the basic gist of the argument. Or, if a text contains more than one argument, what is the gist of the one you think is most important or interesting (and why, by the way, did you pick that one)?

2. To what audience is the argument pitched primarily in your view? (Do you see yourself as part of that intended audience, and how does your answer impact your reading of the argument?) Does it anticipate and respond to possible objections?

3. What do you think are the argument's stakes in general? Why does this text matter to the author? Is your sense of the relevant stakes different from the ones you take to be the author's? To what end is its argument made?

a. To call assumptions into question?
b. To change convictions?
c. To alter conduct?
d. To find acceptable compromises between contending positions?

4. Does it have an explicit thesis? If not, could you provide one in your own words for it?

5. What are the reasons and evidence offered up in the argument to support what you take to be its primary end? What crucial or questionable warrants (unstated assumptions the argument takes to be shared by its audience, often general attitudes of a political, moral, social, cultural nature) does the argument seem to depend on? Are any of these reasons, evidences, or warrants questionable in your view? Do they support one another or introduce tensions under closer scrutiny?

6. What, if any, kind of argumentative work is being done by metaphors and other figurative language in the piece? Do the metaphors collaborate to paint a consistent picture, or do they clash with one another? What impact does this have on their argumentative force?

7. Are there key terms in the piece that seem to have idiosyncratic definitions, or whose usages seem to change over the course of the argument?

8. Does the text live up to the expectations announced in its title? Why or why not? What does this tell you about the project of the text?

As you see, a piece that interrogates a text from these angles of view will yield something between a general book report and a close reading, but one that focuses on the argumentative force of a text. For the purposes of our class, such a precis succeeds if it manages

(1) to convey the basic flavor of the argument and
(2) provides a good point of departure for a class discussion.

A precis can, but need not, take the form of a conventional essay. It can make a coherent case or it can offer scattered speculations. Often a precis will form the point of departure for what will be a more conventional analytic piece. It's not a bad idea to use this guide in an informal way as you read every text in the class, because it will help you form questions and engage with the text in a more critical way. Definitely producing such a precis is a good exercise early on in your writing process when the time comes to produce your mid-term and final essays.


  1. Sorry if this is a silly question:
    Should we do the precis on the text we signed up for or is that separate and we should freely choose a second text?

  2. You write the precis on the text you signed up for. And try to post it the day before class at least so we have the benefit of your observations before class discussion.


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