Strategies and Structures for the CVC

If you haven’t noticed, I’m a big fan of templates. In relation to the Proposal, such guides helped organize our thoughts, providing frameworks for clever titles that dance around that central colon, suggesting options for what we might include in our intros, and presenting adaptable structures for our Dueling Thesis Statements. Such templates–especially those provided for the Dueling Ts–can seem clunky. But they are meant to inspire creativity, not limit it. The templates provide a way of saying something, a general structure. You add your own unique content to fill them out and make them shine. In the case of the Dueling Ts, a 1 or 2 sentence template should evolve into a more involved and nuanced 3-5 sentences that together sketch the contours of your research conversation and articulate how you extend that conversation in your own focused argument. As I think these templates worked pretty well for the Proposal, I want to offer some strategies and structures that you can use for the Critical Voices in Conversation (CVC) essay as well.

(1) The first major concern for us will be how revise the Proposal so that it works well to set up the CVC. Good news: the Proposal, properly revised, is the intro to the CVC.  Instead of the “so what” move with which you concluded the Proposal, you’ll have to substitute a transition that will help you get from the Dueling Ts to the body of the CVC–something that helps you get from your evolving and specific hypothesis to the first part of the conversation. Here’s a template that might work for you (X = your hypothesis, and Y = the first stage in the conversation):

Before exploring X more fully, it helps to have a better understanding of Y.

I also think a leading question could work very well.  A question, of course, invites a response. Perhaps we can try to ask a question that our first source will answer:

 But what is Y? And how will it help us to explain X?

(2) Once you get to that first source, it’s all about telling a dynamic conversational story. Unless you want to create four stacked summaries that don’t talk to one another—which is about as dynamic as four people standing in a circle talking to themselves—you have to begin thinking about how you will order your source more strategically. Which of your sources, you should ask yourself, sets the stage most broadly, or provides the most crucial info, the most useful methodological model or theoretical ideas that help drive your argument? I’d start there.

As a general rule, summarize and engage each source in 1 or 2 paragraphs. Begin by introducing the source, naming both the author and her book or article in the body of the paper itself. These are not cold, bloodless sources; they are living characters—we want to tell our reader something about them. Is this person occupying this space in your paper a psychologist? A psychoanalytic critic? A historian? A philosopher? A literary critic? Try to give each character in your conversational story a distinct identity. After setting up the source and character, offer a succinct summary of the source. Perhaps the entire argument will be useful to you, but you might find yourself strategically summarizing just part of the argument that relates most fully to your text.

After introducing and succinctly summarizing the source, it is important focus more specifically on what the author argues. Here, drill down a bit beyond the broad summary toward some more specific ideas or pointed evidence. This more focused move will aptly set up a quote or two. This requires some real work on its own: do your best to frame the quote by offering some pre-summary or paraphrase and suitable follow-up. The goal is to avoid “hit-and-run” quotes and the “merge.” The CVC is all about managing the voices that enter our papers. Even if we let the sources guide the conversation, we remain in control of the sources. We’re pulling the levers on this thing. Please review the Four Levels of Quote Integration.

Beyond introducing the source and letting it speak,  as the “moderator” of this conversation you should also feel free to engage or respond to your sources on more argumentative ground. Moments of analysis will help you distinguish your approach from their approach, or it might help you indicate certain blind spots in an argument that your own approach will then address. In short, engaging your sources argumentatively–when fitting–opens up crucial space for your own argument and also shows a different level of critical engagement within the conversation itself. It allows you to be fully present within the conversation rather than simply on the sidelines

So, we have introduced our first source–that’s a start. After thinking carefully about the order of the next three sources, we need to make sure our transitions between those sources continue to help us tell our conversational story. There are two kinds of transitions: those that pile one source on the next, and those that show more complex, substantial–almost architectural–relationships between sources. Think of a stack of lumber vs. a designer home: the former gets in the way; the latter invites movements and exploration.  If that metaphor fails to inspire, the basic idea should be clear: the best transitions show real relationships, linking deeper ideas and demonstrating crucial movement between sources rather than just unfolding the basic sequence (this, then this, then this, and furthermore). Here is a list of transitional devices to get you started–some that will just get you stacking, but others that will help you build. Reviewing Lee’s transitions can help provide models as well. She tends to offer four kinds of transitions:

  • The deictic device: using pointing words such as “this” or “those” to keep things connected. A deictic device points back to something stated at the end of the previous paragraph and promises either to pursue that something in more detail, or to pivot on that something as it shifts deliberately to something else.
  • The explicit echo: repeating key phrases from the end of one paragraph at the start of the other.
  • The explanation or follow-through: unpacking or extending complex idea or quote presented at the end of one paragraph at the start of the new one.
  • The question: asking a question at the end of one paragraph or at the start of another to keep things moving forward–questions demand responses, so this is a natural transitional move.

There are more strategies than this, but solid transitions often reflect some combination of these moves. Please refer to the transitions that I highlighted in this version of Lee’s essay for great examples of these basic moves.

Transitions offer important opportunities to keep the conversation connected and to keep the conversational arc alive. But by the time you get to the third and fourth source, it’s important to remind the reader that what we’ve already learned a few paragraphs or sources ago remains relevant. How do we do this? By bringing voices from previous sources back into the game. Transitions offer the key point of connection, but you should also forge a few small connections, a few nods, in the body paragraphs for your last two sources. Experiment with holding two or even three voices together at once.

The conclusion to the CVC–like the conclusion to almost any assignment shouldn’t just be an ending: it should also point ahead.  The CVC will lead to the Close Reading Capstone, the next crucial building block, and the one where you get to add your own voice to the conversation by providing some evidence for your argument. And so, at the end of the CVC, you might offer a succinct sentence the summarizes what came before and then ask a question that will remind us of your argument–a working hypothesis at this point–and propel us ever onward.

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