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Sunday, June 11, 2017

Social and Cultural Theory Letter Assignment, Autumn 2017

On this date on Round and Square's History 

[a] Text and illustration RF
Social and Cultural Theory 
Anthropology 206 
Autumn 2017

Preliminary Writing Assignment 
Theory: The Letter
By choosing the letter format for your first writing assignment, I am asking you to build upon the skills you have already begun to develop in analyzing (and providing examples for) theoretical constructions. You have already reached a point where you have some experience with “theory,” and your job will be to explain it to an intelligent non-specialist.
[b] Reaching, teaching RF

Teach it, really.

Letters from “the field” (or our modified “archive” of theoretical works in Moore) are a good way to refine your thoughts about ethnographic and historical study, and they are a useful medium for beginning the intellectual “framing process” that will accelerate as we move through the next two-thirds of the course. The letter writing exercise is especially useful while studying theoretical source materials. 

The nonfiction writer John McPhee explains to his students that a letter is often precisely the solution to problems of interpretation or clarity—when in doubt, write to mother, he says. In this case, it is not a plea of “send money” that the letter contains, but a reworking, rethinking, and contextualization of your work. You need not limit yourself to kinfolk, but you need to think about who the recipient will be (ideally someone who will welcome a letter about “doing theory”).

You owe it to yourself to listen to this long interview with McPhee (but I know that you are pressed for time). At the very least, though, listen to the first few minutes. It is the very purpose that lies behind this assignment.

John McPhee NPR (1978) 22:40
Click on the second blue circle on the right side of the page (it is worth it)

Now start writing. Toward that end, you should pay attention to the following issues.

1. The letter needs to be “long enough” to get you deeply into several issues regarding social and cultural theory, including particular approaches and a few examples.  There is no absolute upper limit, but I am going to make an absolute lower limit of 2,000 words (about three pages). Realistically, your letter should probably be somewhere in the 3,000 word range (about ten pages). 2,000 words (about six pages) is the bare minimum. Do not turn in an assignment shorter than that.
2. I am asking you to connect with a very specific reader, and to explain “social and cultural theory” in a level of detail that she will find satisfying. You are the expert, and your “audience” is the person who will be reading your letter (think of my role as reading over her shoulder). I have found that this kind of assignment helps students to explain even abstruse matters, because the personal relationship they have with their readers demands an attention to patient explanation that is often lacking in more “academic” forms of writing, in which they assume that a professor already knows what they are writing about.

Your reader probably doesn't. 

Make it make sense.

3. You may approach your materials from any angle that you like, but you will need to “cover” at least the following items, no matter what order you choose.

          a. You must discuss the “what is theory?” question. Provide your reader with 
              at least a few ways of thinking about it.

          b. Give your reader a sense of what you have learned up to this point about 
              how to “apply” theory. Use examples, either from the course or your own work.

          c. Finally, give your reader some sense of what it is like to “learn theory” by 
              discussing the literary and historical dimensions of some of our texts.  It 
              might be useful to think of the “pragmatic/historical” dimensions that are 
              explained on the syllabus.

          d. You must have at least one illustration. Think about "the rhetorical role of 
               illustrations" in the New York Review of Books.
4. The best way to approach the writing process is in three parts (this is a friendly suggestion). First, jot down some notes for each of the “sections” of your letter. Second, using those notes as a guide, write a rough draft of the whole letter. Third, revise, polish, and refine.  

Voilà you will have something not unlike what Alexis de Tocqueville might have written about understanding a complex, foreign culture that baffled and enticed him 180 years ago. While your letter won’t be as long as Democracy in America, it is likely—if it is done well—to be much like Tocqueville’s rich and evocative letters back to his family about encountering people, texts, and institutions in a strange land called the United States. 

You get the idea. If you don't, just raise your hand and ask me (or send me an e-mail message). I'll be happy to help.
***  ***
Letters are Due (as .pdf files—attach to an e-mail to lafleur@beloit.edu)
by 5:00 p.m. on Sunday, September 24.

Add the word count and your box number to all papers!
[e] And then you may rest RF

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