Consider a sampling of the things we might be asked to respond to--an individual event, experience, or feeling; a series of events, experiences, or feelings; a person or several persons; objects, attitudes, trends, art, film, literature, historical artifact, cultural practice-and this is just a beginning. All of these, for purposes of our discussion here, can be thought of as "texts" to be responded to and all of them can provide occasion for the writing of a response essay.
Consider the range of texts that might be grounds for a response assignment, and remember, this is just a sampling.
Primary documents from any period, a moment from history, the biography of an historical figure, an artifact, an autobiography.
Literature and Art
A novel, short story, poem, essay, book, a passage from any piece of literature, a book review, literary criticism, a specialized lexicon, biography, autobiography; any art object, any criticism of an art object, a series of objects by an individual artist.
Film or Theater
A feature-length film, a full theater production, a one-woman show, a commercial advertisement, a clip, an individual performance within film or theater, stage features: scenery, lighting, costuming, etc.
A case study, an observation of a subject, an interview with a subject, a testing procedure, a developmental model, a treatment model, developmental transitions, group practices, individual practices, a statistical analysis.
A cultural practice or tradition, cultural norms or taboos, a case study, an ethnography, a rite of passage, funereal or baptismal practices-rituals, games and play, group processes.
A Supreme Court ruling, a political speech, a demonstration, role of the media in public life, definitions in constitutional issues such as the definitions of "obscenity" and "pornography".
Lab report, household experiment, biography of a scientist, history of a scientific notion, lay writings on technical topics, funding sources for research, experimental procedures, science and culture interface/overlap, breakthroughs and slowdowns, research methodologies, professional/technical journal articles on groundbreaking research, data.
Am I Qualified to Respond?
Responses allow writers, even novice writers, the opportunity to do original thinking and writing. In fact, the writing of academic responses is one way to enter the conversation of the academic community. Arguably, it is an obligatory part of being a college student.
Goals of Academic Response
The goal of dialogue in academe, of responses and responses to the responses, is less about ratification, or confirmation of what we already know and more about risk-taking, or what is sometimes called "reading against the grain" or functioning as the "loyal opposition." Implicit here is the assumption that we learn by keeping an open and enlarging mind, and that at the same time we acknowledge the incomplete nature of each of our perspectives. We do the best we can at any given time, with the material and resources available to us, and the way we respond today may differ from the way we respond tomorrow.
Further, because no two people are alike, neither are their ways of responding to "texts." Yet the power to interpret belongs to everyone. So even though we may not feel qualified to respond to a text, may not believe we possess sufficient background or expertise on a topic, nevertheless we find ourselves capable of responding to it and, in fact, often are required to do so.
Becoming Informed and Staying That Way
It has always been challenging to become informed, but as information proliferates and knowledge grows more complex and specialized, it becomes increasingly difficult to stay informed. Therefore, the struggle you are engaged today as a novice is not so much different than the struggle you'll be engaged in throughout your professional career.
Do not despair! More to the point, do not allow your incomplete grasp of all aspects of a situation (or of a text) to deter you from entering the conversation or providing your own best response at any given time.
In a sense, we are all in the same boat, even your professors--and increasingly so given the rapid expansion of knowledge and its transmittal in the Information Age. Embrace your membership in this community-college--which supports an evolution or development of response from basic to sophisticated; further, continue to approach your responses with the candor and openness of the novitiate and you'll go far in academe. You probably are that novice right now, and yet you are simultaneously an important voice whose point of view is valued. As a novice, you do well to approach your role as did the villagers of Ballybran, who entered the conversation out of desire and necessity and then busied to make themselves knowledgeable. Then, as you learn more about subjects, approach your knowledge with the same fresh approach as the learned Stanford anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes, who, in studying the villagers of Ballybran, was unafraid to look at her own area of expertise with fresh eyes. That is the nature of academic inquiry when it is functioning well.
Take Courage From an Example: The Anthropologist and the Ballybrans
Stanford anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes, went to a village in western Ireland, Ballybran, to study the relationship there between longstanding social customs and mental illness. Scheper-Hughes lived amongst the Ballybrans, engaging in a kind of study known as ethnography. As a result of her study, some of the inhabitants of the village became angry about the way Scheper-Hughes depicted them. They spoke out about it, even argued about it. Others began to examine some of the complicated problems of their community and started discussing them. In any case, the inhabitants of this village were changed by having been studied, and they looked at their circumstances with fresh eyes, with a perspective gained from having a foreign observer in their midst.
Similarly, because Scheper-Hughes was concerned about the way her new friends in the village became bitter about her findings, she reexamined the purposes and methods of her field. She began to challenge some of anthropology's ethical obligations to the people it studies.
Thus, both the villagers and the visiting expert were changed; they learned from each other. Further, there can be little doubt that both were qualified to respond to the study, and they did so, though in quite different ways.
Reading to Respond: Encountering the Text
In preparing to respond there's no substitute for coming face-to-face with the text you'll be responding to and opening yourself up to it fully. Don't be one of those people who "reads around" the text, reading criticism of the text but never quite getting to the text itself. Eventually you may want to look at some of the secondary sources, the criticism, but start with the primary text. Immerse yourself in it. Know it, inside and out. Think of "reading" the text, regardless of whether it's a written text or a piece of art or a film or an historical artifact. Resolve from the beginning that this is going to take some time.
Survey or Preview the Text
Try to begin your encounter with the text by surveying or previewing it, which is to say, coming at it with a wide-angle lens, looking it over in its entirety, and activating your schema (your storehouse of accumulated knowledge and experience). Think of this encounter as similar to the strategy you take when downhill skiing at a new location, when shopping at a new mall, or when visiting a city for the first time. You want to get the lay of the land, know what you're getting into before you take a lift at the ski resort, before buying shoes at the mall, or before trying to traverse the city. You could waste precious time taking a lift to slopes you've no interest in; you could spend too much money by not doing comparison shopping; and you could get lost in traffic if you don't know where you're going. A little time up front can save you a lot of time over the long haul, so learn to get the broad view of a text before you try to read, analyze, and respond to it, and know that taking a look at your text this way is one of the most valuable skills you can learn as a writer, as a reader, and as a life-long learner.
Formulate Questions About the Text
Based upon your initial survey and upon the response assignment you've been given, develop questions that are pertinent to the reading you are about to do. These questions should help you focus and stay active during your reading. Use your predictive capabilities to forecast what the text will say and the questions you will have. Think more in terms of "Why" questions than "What" questions. Think of the "connective tissue" of the text, the margins, the movements from point to point, or those areas where relationships among ideas are explored, exceptions taken, distinctions made, and then ask how the text proceeds from point to point, paying particular attention to these boundary areas.
When an active reader prepares to read and as he or she reads, an act of prediction often occurs. The reader develops expectations, logical guesses about where the text is taking him or her. This predictive capacity is not something to avoid but something to develop. Doing so suggests your engagement with the material, and even a wrong prediction is a valuable one, because the correction to your expectation is often the source of new knowledge that surprises and informs you.
Read the Text
Read the text all the way through, perhaps making some quick checks in the margin for places that surprise or challenge you. As you read, look for answers to the questions you developed after you surveyed the text.
Now read the text again with pen in hand, prepared to do some serious marking this time around. This will involve a slower re-reading. Notice that you do not annotate (or highlight for that matter) on the first reading. Doing so tends to produce wanton, or indiscriminate, marking and highlighting, and the pen and highlighter tend to become pacers leading you through the text and turning a nice white page into a nice yellow one. Don't deceive yourself into thinking that this sort of activity is what is meant by textbook marking!
Before you start this more careful re-reading, return again to the questions you formulated after your initial survey. Develop a shorthand for your annotations, perhaps always using a double underline on the text to indicate a thesis or main focusing statement. Try writing marginal summaries as you go along as well, since the ability to summarize a text is the surest way to show your command or "ownership" of the material. Also, respond intuitively in the margins; after all, your feelings as you read are important and sometimes provide the most important insights, even suggesting your overall reaction to the text. The more you interact with the text the better able you will be to do your response to it. You will know the text well.
Special Problems of The Non-Print Text
Doing these activities is a much simpler notion when you have a written text in front of you than if you are watching a film or studying a work of art. However, there are ways to record your reactions even with non-written texts, ways to keep a running log as you experience the "text." (One notable difficulty may be if you're sitting in a dimly lit theater; there it will be difficult to take notes so you'll want to make some mental notes and then record your ideas immediately after the viewing. Keep your notebook handy! Anything you can learn about the production before you see it will also help, so read the reviews and the synopses and the production notes and the handbill before watching a production in film or theater.)
Some people refer to the process we're describing here as multi-pass reading. On your first pass, you're getting the lay of the land, thinking about the audience for the text, its apparent approach. On your next pass you're reading all the way through a text but you're not responding but are instead coming to terms with the text as a whole document. On the next pass you're re-reading and responding through annotations and text marking and marginal summary, essentially coming to terms with the text's message. On yet another reading you're skimming and scanning and thinking about the speaker (the name we sometimes give to the human being, the writer, behind the words you're reading). You ask yourself what you know about the speaker in terms of facts, whether directly stated or alluded to, (gender, race, age, affiliations, etc.), emotions (evidence in the text of the speaker's emotional response to his or her topic), and attitudes (evidence from the text of the speaker's intellectual response to his or her topic and conveyed as judgments or conclusions). Think throughout your multiple reading about audience and purpose. For whom did the writer write? What purpose(s) did the text serve? These kinds of questions can help you move from an objective restatement of a text's substance toward more penetrating observation and analysis of the text's aims and accomplishments. How did the writer hope to influence his or her readers' way of thinking or acting? And why?
Write In My Book? No Way!
As a final note here, the idea of annotating a written text sometimes causes consternation among students. They say they plan to return their textbooks at the end of the semester for a refund. This is a foolhardy approach, a false economy of a most dangerous kind. It simply won't work for the serious college student who knows that texts are returned to throughout an education, not read and then discarded. Real encounters with written texts are a messy business. Further, you are building a library, and if that image doesn't appeal to you, think of it this way: you're being invited to deface a published document. Have fun, be a rebel, make it yours! Someday you can show your children the outrageous things you once wrote in the margins of your texts. And by that time you may well appreciate the library you began to build back there during your college days.
For our purposes, a text will be defined as anything we study closely for purposes of an academic response. When we respond to a text, we make inferences from a text.
An inference is a conclusion based upon available information. We infer all the time, sometimes less wisely than others. For instance, we are pulled over by a policeman when driving across town and infer that we've made a moving violation. Or this: we receive a phone call from the Internal Revenue Service and infer that we're about to be audited. But we can't properly infer anything from the sketchy information provided here. The policeman could be looking for a lost child and hoping that we've seen her. The IRS could be calling to send us a lifetime achievement award for our conscientious income tax reporting. (All right, so that last one is unlikely, but you get the idea.) In order to convince an audience that an inference is correct, we must provide evidence sufficient to support our claims or suppositions.
The Inferential Thesis
To give a response is a way of talking back to a text-and remember a text can be any number of things, even an experience you've had which can be "read" or interpreted and reinterpreted through response. Notice the use of the phrase "talking back." Think of the response as a way of conversing, of engaging in dialogue, but think also of the slightly rebellious possibilities of talking back to someone. When you "talk back" there is an element of challenge, of healthy questioning, of constructive criticism. Something is out there, a text of some sort, and then there is a long pause, the silence that anticipates a response. The response you give will no doubt be expressive but probably it also will be persuasive. It should reflect what you know or have learned about a topic. It will take the conversation forward, not simply repeat what has already been said in the text itself. It will involve some risk, not mere ratification. It will question boundaries and will suggest a position, or what is sometimes called a "critical stance" or "critical position."
That is why a critical stance or position is the written demonstration of critical thinking, the goal of which is new intellectual territory. When you think critically you view a text in its entirety. You see the text via its parts, but you ask how it all adds up. The result is a thorough examination that captures the essence of the text and responds to it, resulting in a whole new shaping of the topic.
Sometimes in the early stages of developing an inferential thesis we may call it a working message. That sends the message that we're working on it, attempting in our drafts to state clearly and simply the position we're taking in our response and why we are taking it.
More on Evidence: Making Choices
Your response is only as good as your evidence, and your effectiveness as a response writer, your authority as it is sometimes called, will depend in large part upon your evidence. The kind of evidence you choose to use will vary according to the thesis you are proposing and the subject you are addressing. If, for instance, you are comparing two texts, then some of your evidence will be drawn from each of those texts and will no doubt require summary of both texts.
In general, a response is only as good as its understanding of the text being responded to. Therefore, thorough familiarity with the text is absolutely necessary, and the text itself provides the first and most important evidence for your thesis. Beyond that, however, your own experiences, observations, and knowledge can inform your thesis. Information gleaned from additional sources and experts in the field can form a further pillar of support.
When you select the evidence that best contributes to and develops your thesis, remember that simple summary at this point will not do. Rather, analysis of the material is needed. You are always endeavoring to explain how the evidence contributes to or develops your thesis, your line of thinking.
Further, strive to be both concrete and analytical. Refer back frequently to the text itself, providing brief, concrete details from the text to support your thesis. From these concrete pieces of evidence, derive analytical conclusions. As you write from these analytical conclusions, provide ample examples from the text, clarifying how those examples support your thesis. Strive to be thorough but not repetitive.
How Do I Get Started? Preliminary Considerations
Ask questions. Ask questions that probe beyond the obvious, the clearly stated, the facts. Instead the questions should ask "why," "how," "what does this mean," and "how does this connect to (or differ from or relate similarly to)" other things I know or think. You ask yourself about the context of the text and its author, suppositions inherent to that context. Then you go back to the original, skimming or scanning for places that address your questions. You look for specific kinds of information, rather like scanning a telephone book until you find what you're looking for. Once you find an area that looks promising, then you read the text more closely, looking for cues that answer the probing questions you've developed.
Do I Need Outside Sources?
Studying the original alone may be enough for purposes of your response, or you may need to draw upon outside or additional sources to provide the context and the contrast that you need for your analysis. The answer to the question depends upon many factors, including, perhaps most importantly, the expectations of your teacher for this assignment.
It is always appropriate to ask yourself what you know about a topic, activating your schema, your storehouse of accumulated knowledge, perhaps even personal experience with the topic if you have any. Then you ask yourself how the text you're studying challenges your experience, your expectations, your additional sources, your understanding because you're hoping to do something beyond mere reporting. Having found these challenges, these distinguishing features, distinctions, or areas of debate, you have also found the area(s) most promising for a response from you. For here, where you notice either surprise, contrast, movement into new space, or tension, lies the material waiting for a response from you, a response that is authentically yours. And now you get a sense of why response can be a creative and original act, which is not in any way to suggest that creativity and originality cannot also be collaboratively derived. The next step is to mine your response for an inferential thesis that will guide your formal, written response.
The Connection of Summary and Comprehension
To begin a critical stance or position you must first be able to summarize the thing being responded to. Critical thinking and the development of a critical position is movement from true understanding to original statement. You might use reporting expressions such as she "claims," he "recommends," and they "argue" to suggest in summary what the text has seemed to say. Keep in mind, too, that you simply must know the original text well before you can begin to respond in an informed way.
Your Context: The Assignment
Refer to the assignment you've been given. This should clarify the audience and purpose for the response you are giving. Since so much depends upon audience and purpose, it is wise to spend some dedicated time making this evaluation. Ask yourself these kinds of questions: Who is my audience? What is the purpose of this assignment? What can I safely assume about my audience's knowledge? What might I have to offer to the conversation on this topic, or how might I further the thinking on this topic, given what I know and what my audience knows? What are the expectations for this assignment? Is there a specific task implied by the assignment-for instance, a comparison of two texts? There may be other questions that come to mind for you, and since no one knows the context of the assignment better than you, we would expect your questions to differ somewhat from the suggested ones given here.
The Text's Context
Then step back from the reporting and ask some questions about the text, such as "Why would he/she/they say this/do this/make this, etc? What do I know about this source? What is its context? Its author's context? Is the text predictable? What would you expect from this context, or does it somehow surprise? What position would be taken by persons coming from other contexts? These kinds of questions can begin the formulation of your own critical stance or position.
Ideas for Finding and Developing a Critical Stance
Next, think back to your summarization process. If there were places where you had difficulty summarizing, these problematic areas may provide clue as to one or more weaknesses in the text's statement or argument or they may suggest areas of new information for you. With any text, you can ask:
1) Are the connections of the parts to the whole reasonable and clear?
2) Are all the parts of the text easily made to fit, to follow, or developed as logically and reasonably as you might expect
3) Is the evidence appropriate and sufficient?
You might also think of these questions as tests-tests for logical consistency, for inherent assumptions, for degree of examination.
If Your Tests Reveal Weaknesses
If, upon further examination of the text, you are able to discern weaknesses in argument, or use of evidence or something else, then you may well have begun to find your critical stance. There may be questions the studied text failed to respond to fully. There may be an underrepresented or misrepresented side of the story with which you are familiar. There may be one or more faults in logic or use of evidence. You may be aware of these problems from your own life experiences or you may find that in doing further reading there are issues on which the text is inadequate.
If Your Tests Reveal Few Weaknesses or You Essentially Concur With the Text
What if you find yourself agreeing completely with the text you are responding to? Is it still possible to respond? The answer is yes. Even agreement can yield an important critical position or stance. By having looked closely, you should be able to describe what is there, and your reader will appreciate your thorough knowledge of the text. Further, an aggressive counterpoint to the text is not always necessary; sometimes, in fact, you may choose to support and enlarge or amplify a text's claims, rather than to refute them. In other words, perhaps you could extend a text with which you essentially agree, suggest through your own evidence ways to beef up the author's presentation.
Other Ideas for Developing a Critical Stance
- Construct a different side to the text's position, even if this construction involves some imagination on your part and is not really in keeping with your beliefs. Try writing this conflicting view in a single draft called "The Other Side."
- Ask yourself what the contribution of the text is to a body of knowledge, the text's contribution to general knowledge. Locate the text within a larger framework. How does this text differ or appear to be the same as previous texts?
- Read the text for tone. What does the text additionally communicate via subtle (or not so subtle) cues?
- Read the text for structural decisions and overall intent. Ask yourself: Is this text, as a whole, reflecting, reporting, explaining, persuading? Is it composed of a series of structural decisions-in other words, does it report, then explain, and finally persuade?
Use of 'I'
The injection of one's own thoughts distinguishes response from summary. Remember that with summary you remain true, or close, to the original text. As such you remind your reader over and over (through author tags, for instance) that the ideas you are representing are not your own but belong to someone else.
When summary ends and response begins, you should provide some clear markers. One clear way to do this is with a paragraph change. Additionally, it is a good idea to declare your presence through use of the first person "I," as in "I believe," "I think," "I have found." Do not be shy about this; despite the familiar advice to keep your academic writing away from the first person, there are occasions where first person is not only acceptable but desirable. A response essay can be one such occasion. If, however, you are nervous about this, the best recommendation is always to check with the individual instructor for whom the response is being completed.
Collaboration and Conversation
When it comes to response there are few strategies more powerful for generating ideas and a solid response than collaboration through conversation. When we converse we engage in a dynamic give and take of minds that is aided by our proximity to others, especially when that dialogue occurs in person and, though to a lesser degree, also when we converse via telephonic or electronic exchange. Talking alongside another we gain the benefit of facial expressions, gestures, interruptions for clarification, inflections of voice, and other nonverbal forms of communication. Additionally, we are the beneficiaries of adjustments and accommodations that are made almost instantaneously as we tailor our response to the audience we confront. Clarification is done almost without thinking, and we are nearly without limitation as to our ability to modify spontaneously.
Perhaps most importantly, when we converse we reap immediate benefit from the ideas of others around us. Thus, conversation serves a broad social function as we strive in our dialogue with others to work out cooperative understanding, or what is sometimes called "negotiated meaning." We extend our understanding by hearing other voices and alternative perspectives, and, in turn, those others benefit from hearing us. Conversation is thus a powerful mechanism for furthering insight.
When you can, you should seek out small groups for just this purpose, especially when you are initially dealing with new texts. Exploration, divergence, discussion, examination, interpretation, and resolution are some of the things a member of a conversing small group might hope to gain from such an experience. And with both amplification and challenge, your responses will improve-almost certainly.
Internalized Audience: Strive to Develop
By the same token, it will not always be possible for you to engage in conversation regarding every text you respond to in your college career. On those occasions when dialogue is not possible, you lose all the benefits of hearing outside interpretations, and this can be a significant handicap. However, it is possible to develop a voice of dissension, what we might call the voice of the loyal opposition, that voice or internalized audience whose position you are able to imagine and hence profit from. Since your own response will stand up better after being subjected to the imagined criticism of others, it is always wise to engage in dialogue with at least your internalized audience.
Developing a Response
Depending upon the assignment and upon your preferences, one or more of the following approaches to response should get you started on a suitable response.
- Development Approaches
- Kinds of Evidence
- Structuring the Response
- Inductive and Deductive Presentations of Response
- Interpolating and Extrapolating
- Analyze the effectiveness of the text. Here the response focuses on the most important elements of the text and evaluates their effectiveness (the clarity of the main idea, the organization of the argument, the quality of the evidence, the overall effect of the text, conveyed through tone and apparent attitude of the text's author.) We might also think of this option as critique or review.
- Agree or disagree with the ideas in the text. Here the response focuses on a respondent's reaction to the ideas or effect of the text. It is important to note here that often it is not necessary (or even desirable) to completely agree or complete disagree. In fact, a quite reasonable and credible response will agree with some points and disagree with others.
- Interpret and reflect on the text. Here the respondent explains, examines, and/or theorizes on the meaning of the whole and the parts of the text, its implications and its contributions to understanding of the topic.
Kinds of Evidence
Different kinds of evidence can be chosen to support these response types. You might well use:
- evidence from the text itself
- personal experience
- outside sources
- or some combination of these.
It is rarely necessary to use all three of these kinds of evidence, but the important thing is to have sufficient evidence to support the ideas you're proposing, the point you're making, and to ensure that you are indeed providing a main, overall point-the inferential thesis--that is coherent. A simple laundry list will not do.
Structuring the Response
Typically a response will take one of the forms suggested below in outline or skeletal form.
- Introduction to text(s)
- Summary of text(s)
- Point 1
- Point 2
- Point 3, etc.
Or here's another format. Notice the initial focus upon key issues.
- Introduction to key issues
- Summary of relevant text(s) Response(s)
- Point 1
- Point 2
- Point 2, etc.
Or here's another, integrating summary and response.
- Introduction to issues and/or text(s)
- Summary of text's point 1/response to point 1
- Summary of text's point 2/response to point 2
- Summary of text's point 3/response to point 3, etc.
Inductive and Deductive Presentations of Response
Sometimes it also helps to think of sequencing or arranging your response in either an inductive format or a deductive format. An inductive format builds toward a conclusion, since an inductive process is "emergent," one thing leading to another, building upon another, like scaffolding. The inferential thesis with an inductive approach would come near the end of the essay. With a deductive format, the inferential thesis is delivered at the beginning, right up front. Think of this approach as "spilling the beans," essentially telling all that you know from the beginning and then using the rest of the essay to support or defend (provide evidence for) your thesis. In theory, either development is suitable, but it should also be said that there is a rather strong preference in much of college writing for the deductive approach.
Interpolating and Extrapolating
Another way to think about the development of your response is to consider the concepts of interpolation and extrapolation. To interpolate is to bring external ideas to a text so that these external ideas inform, enlarge, elucidate, or even refute the text. To extrapolate is to take what you learn in one place or one text and apply it to a different context, one that perhaps seems to bear little resemblance to the original context.
Example of Interpolation and Extrapolation
Consider an example of Sally Smith, college student. She is taking several humanities courses and has recently learned in a philosophy course that a human's interpretation of experience can vary widely and according to the cultural background and context of the person. Among other things Sally is studying in this philosophy course are Native American representations of the relationship between humans and the earth. At the same time Sally is assigned to read and respond to Moby Dick along with selected secondary sources for her American Lit class. She finds that none of the assigned secondary sources was written from a Native American perspective.
As a point of fact, the philosophy course and Native American culture really have no direct relationship to Sally's American Lit course, but she sees a relationship between what isn't being discussed there and what she is learning in another class. Further, she feels she has been changed by studying a non-European way of looking at and living in nature, and she believes her audience might be newly informed themselves if she were to bring something of her new perspective to her response paper. Increasingly she believes that she can't ignore her increasingly sophisticated ways of viewing the world, is gaining confidence as she learns and connects her learning among classes. As a matter of course, then, Sally finds she can't help but "extrapolate" some of this new-found knowledge, as she reflects upon the novel from what she thinks would be a Native American perspective, or at least as close as she can come to that from her admittedly limited knowledge. During a discussion period of the literature class Sally finds herself wondering how differently the discussion might go if a Native American perspective were articulated.
Sally is extrapolating, applying newfound knowledge to a novel situation.
Then comes the next step, the paper Sally must write. As she applies her newly informed knowledge of the sacredness of non-human living things to her response to Moby Dick (and its secondary sources) she is interpolating, bringing an external idea into the text she's studying. Perhaps she even winds up questioning how "American" this American classic is.
A Process for Writing a Response
There is no one correct process, only approaches and strategies as varied as people. However, some practices seem to work well for many people, and so an example is presented here to get you started. This is not a prescription; adapt and adjust the process to meet your needs, your best practices, and your assignment requirements.
Because response always comes as a result of something, some text that precedes it, which must be read and responded to, the process of writing a response actually begins with reading. Don't shortchange this part of the process because your success throughout the process will depend on your initial attentiveness to the text you are responding to.
One important thing to think about as you begin a response process is the assignment itself. What do you know about the audience and the purpose of the response you are about to write? What more do you need to find out?
A second thing to consider is the deadline for the assignment. Be clear in your own mind about due dates, and then backward plan from that due date to the current date. Divide up the tasks of the response, allowing yourself time to read, react, draft, collaborate, revise, and even seek a full-scale peer response or workshop opportunity.
Don't allow yourself to procrastinate simply because the task seems overwhelming; instead, chip away at it, a little bit at a time, and you may be surprised at how smoothly things go. Among other things, when you address the assignment early and give yourself time to think (and actually do that thinking instead of avoiding it) you actually end up incubating ideas even when you're not fully conscious that you are doing so. This mulling over of your response will tend to make the writing of the response go much more easily and should actually help you produce a better response because of your full engagement with the material. Starting early will help you filter out less good responses over the course of the assignment period.
Just as soon as your initial reading of the text has been accomplished, then critical thinking can begin, and this is perhaps the most essential component of your pre-writing efforts. A good place to start is with a double-entry journal.
Consider using a journal to first explore your initial and individual responses to the text. One particularly helpful form of journal for responses is called the dialectic or double-entry journal. In this kind of journal, you divide a standard piece of notebook paper down the middle and first record your summary of a text in one column and your ideas, questions, and reactions in the second column. If you have trouble getting started or are worried about getting full coverage with a double-entry journal, try thinking of the text in terms of four elements:
- the text's audience
- the text's main idea or main effect
- the text's organization, its forms and features of support used to create, enhance, and amplify the main idea or effect
- the text's style and tone
Early Collaboration Strategies: The Importance of Peers
Even at this stage it is not too early to begin collaborating and conversing with peers to strengthen and enlarge your response. In fact, you could begin even before you have made your first entry into your journal. Instead, you could read the text in a small group, stopping ever few paragraphs to record together what has happened so far and to predict where the text is going.
Try Collaborative Prediction as a group strategy. With this approach, the group reads a text for the first time together. A member reads two paragraphs aloud and then stops. Members of the group summarize aloud what has happened in the text and discuss what the group predicts will happen next. Then the group reads a full page, stops and predicts again. Do this a third time, reading another full page and summarizing in one sentence what has happened and predicting the next step. Now the group stops and writes a forecast for the whole essay. The group then reads through to the end to see how close they've come to anticipating the text's direction.
Once your initial journal entry is complete, try doing a Collaborative Annotation of the text. First, each member records (probably before class) his or her response in the margins of the individual's text; then each member of the group reads (one paragraph at a time) his or her response aloud and the group collaborates to choose the best of the responses. The group then records a consensus response (selecting best responses as you go along) in the margins of a common copy of the text.
Alternatively, your group could debate the strengths and weaknesses of the text.
No matter how or when you do a collaboration or conversation, however, make sure to record your personal reflections on the collaborative subject. What new responses did you hear in the discussion? How has the conversation affected your initial response? Where might you revise your reactions? How will your focus be altered by exposure to these other responses?
The Exploratory Draft
You're at the point now of trying an exploratory draft, writing just for yourself, to find out how you feel and what you have to say in response to the text at hand. At this stage, you are not thinking about communicating with others so much as you are writing to think, or to discover what you think.
Once you have an exploratory draft, you're at another juncture where collaborating and conversing with a peer may be helpful. When you involve a peer or a small group of peers in reading your exploratory draft, you can direct their reading by asking them to tell you what they find to be your central point as well as what they find most surprising or intriguing. By directing their reading, your peers will be less likely to treat your exploratory draft as a finished product and will seek instead to answer your questions. You might ask your collaborators to name their concerns about the things you have said in the response, to take issue where they disagree and say a bit about their beliefs. Taking into account such additional information will inform and improve your subsequent drafts.
You may find that you need several exploratory drafts before you really know what it is you mostly want to say.
A Rough Draft of Your Response
Perhaps you have now written several exploratory drafts, have collaborated and conversed with peers until you have a fairly good idea of what you want to do in the response paper. Now you can begin to plan your draft, thinking more concretely about your audience, about the work you'll need to do to convey your main idea, to enlarge and amplify the supporting points, to reduce and cut and less important information, to rearrange and sequence your points.
Now you are thinking less about focus because that is clear in your mind. You are beginning to think more about presentation. The goal now is to provide sufficient support of the right kind and to organize it in such a way that you achieve maximum effect.
At this point you will also want to think about your tone in the response, whether you are conveying the attitude you intend. Your collaborators may be better judges of the overall effect of your writing than you are. Ask your peers to read this draft for that issue only. Do I sound smug? Sarcastic? Unnecessarily hostile? Inappropriate humorous or flip? Does my tone fit my message and my subject?
You may also be ready at this point to start putting final touches on things so by all means do the very best job you can with proofreading and mechanics, and then do not hesitate to ask a peer reader to look at your response for these matters as well.
Checking Your Inferential Thesis
Ask yourself if you have an inferential thesis, a statement of your critical stance regarding this text. Remember that an inference is a conclusion based upon available information. Reliable inferences are grounded in the text itself and demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the text. Remember that your audience will not believe your inference, regardless of how true it is, unless you are able to show why the inference is reasonable and accurate. Your job essentially is to persuade your reader, using evidence which supports your conclusion or inference.
Checking Your Development Decisions
A hundred different developments might well be possible for your response, and so it should not be concluded that a rigid format for response is a reliable tool. It's not as simple as taking a formatted approach and simply plugging in your data, your evidence. Rather, the subject, the assignment, the audience, and the text itself should inform your decisions about the development options for your response. Given this caution, however, three of the most common methods of responding include:
- agree or disagreeing with text's points or presentation
- interpreting or analyzing the text's points or presentation
- critiqueing or reviewing the text's effectiveness
Checking Your Evidence
The development of your response is completely dependent upon the kinds of evidence you choose to use to support your inferential thesis. Typical kinds of evidence for responses are drawn from personal experience, from outside sources, and, most importantly, from the text itself. It is not necessary to include all of three of these kinds of evidence for every kind of response, but almost certainly your evidence will include references to the text itself.
Choose the kind of evidence that makes sense for your essay. There is nothing wrong with drawing upon personal experience unless it really doesn't cast light on the topic or unless other forms of evidence would work better. Outside sources can often provide perspectives you might not have possessed before reading them; however, the use of outside sources does not eliminate the need for you to formulate your own conclusions and your own inferential thesis. Use outside sources, if you choose to use them at all, to add credibility and authority to your points.
Most importantly, remember that your primary task in a response is to react to the text itself. Stay close to the text, whatever form it may take, in formulating and delivering your response. Regardless of the other kinds of evidence you select for your response, your first and more important one is always the text itself.
Late Collaboration: Formalized Peer Response
It may not be possible to engage your peers for as many responses to your paper as this process suggests, but having completed your rough draft with all the thoughts of focus, organization, and mechanics at the forefront of your mind, you may wish for one last peer response, and this one might take a more formal, wholistic approach. At this point you might seek out an in-class workshop in which the entire class or a small group responds to your paper, or you might engage in a reciprocal take-home review with a peer, or you may want to send a computer copy to one or more people in your class.
At this stage, since you will probably not seek additional peer assistance after this point, you want to get the most you can from your peers. On your draft, label summary and label response. Underline your thesis statement. Perhaps underline the topic sentences for the paragraphs that introduce the main lines of development or support of that thesis. Accompany the draft with the one or two most important questions you have at this point regarding your paper. Write your most urgent questions for your readers at either the top or the bottom of your response.
Draft One and Draft Two Questions: Another Way to Approach Process
Here's another idea that may help you think further about your response. Try a Draft One that provides your response from the point of view you are inclined to take and then follow this draft with a Draft Two that introduces a new perspective into the discussion. A Draft One/Draft Two approach ensures that you are looking at your topic from multiple perspectives, which is not only good for enlarging your way of looking at things but is also practical and effective at helping you write a better paper. Deep knowledge of another perspective will help you anticipate the possible questions and doubts of your audience. Deep knowledge of another perspective also will tend to help you develop better explanations for your judgments.
The Final Draft
In truth there are no final drafts, only final deadlines, so as you complete the last draft you will be able to do before your deadline, return to your original assignment and goals for the response assignment. Think one last time about your audience. Have you responded to the assignment and its implicit audience?
Review your thesis. Is it clearly stated? Do all of your supporting points really support your thesis? What method of response did you select-agree/disagree, interpret/analyze, critique/review? What forms of evidence or support did you choose to use in addition to the text itself-personal experience, additional sources?
Take a final look at your level of amplification. Did you say enough? Is there proper balance among the parts, or are the proportions right for the points you are making? Did you sequence these points to maximum effect?
How about sentences and paragraphs? Are your paragraphs unified and coherent? Do they all contribute to your points? Are your sentences varied and emphatic? Does each contribute to the paragraph to which it belongs? What about proofreading? Did you use the spell check function on your word processing software and then follow up with a rereading to catch words spell check misses? How about punctuation? Have you gone back over your draft and considered the patterns of mechanical error you typically have problems with and attempted to correct them? If you have printed out your final draft and it's due in ten minutes, pencil in changes rather than turn in a paper that has errors. Most of your professors would rather see that you've attempted to make corrections than see a pristinely typed, though uncorrected manuscript.
Doe, Sue. (2004). Responding. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University. https://writing.colostate.edu/guides/guide.cfm?guideid=34