Generating a scholarly argument in the humanities

academics expository writing

Many if not most humanities papers, essays, and articles require that you make a scholarly intervention into an academic conversation. The nature of this intervention varies: if you are doing advanced research, it will be expected that you have read other criticism on the text(s) or object(s) under consideration and respond to a body of criticism in some way. Other interventions are less global, and don’t require direct engagement with other critics’ works. When crafting a close reading or visual analysis paper, for example, your intervention can simply be an original take on a passage or picture. Different teachers and professors will have different expectations depending on the kind of argumentative essay they assign. But they will almost always assign essays that require that you make an argument.

The best arguments begin with a question or something that puzzles you. I would venture that the more puzzled you are, the better, if you give yourself the time to work through that puzzle. I always advise my students to choose a question that seems “live”—not rhetorical, not pat, but something that you can truly grapple with, relying on the evidence that the text or object, or secondary sources, give you. In other words, your argument—the claim you make, the answer you provide—should have stakes. Answering it should feel important.

When I assess argumentative essays, I always look for the stakes. So, what are stakes? Well, the definition is twofold. The first and most basic thing I look for is that the student has commanded enough authority and been bold enough to seize a real place in the academic conversation. That is to say, any student who is making an argument has stakes in the conversation. If you have the courage to write it, you are already part of the conversation. I take those stakes seriously at all levels, and the student should too.

The most important aspect of stakes, however, is the idea that your argument matters. Why should your reader care? How does your argument change things? No, I don’t think you should claim that your reading of Jane Eyre gives us instructions on how to form healthy relationships and should therefore read as a guide (definitely not). Those stakes are bigger than is often justifiable and too practical. But your stakes could be something like, “My argument about Jane Eyre (whatever it may be) illuminates nineteenth-century ideals of marriage.” I would be interested in reading and responding to that essay. 

If you’re stuck in coming up with an idea for an essay, here are some things you can do: 

1. Look at the text or object again

If it’s a text, go through passages that you’ve underlined or highlighted and look for what perplexes or confuses you. Think about content and form—not just the what, but also the how. If it’s an object, try to write down all the things you notice (I’ll do another blog post on this in the future). 

2. If no question immediately comes to mind, you might start with these questions:

Why is the author or artist making this choice here? Why depict or tell in this particular way? You might even allow yourself to indulge in a counterfactual question for a moment: how might things differ had the author or artist made a different choice?

3. When you arrive at a question or something you’re curious about, then ask yourself about stakes.

Why is this important to me? Why do I want to think about it? Why does it matter? Can I communicate the stakes to my reader?

4. From the questions, you can come up with a provisional argument that will structure your essay.

This argument will no doubt change as you write and revise, and that is ok. But before you get started, ask yourself a couple more questions. Is this argument arguable? An argument is not a statement of fact. It is something with which a reasonable person could disagree. If your claim is so self-evident, you can’t imagine someone challenging it, then you need to rethink. The other question you need to ask yourself is whether there is evidence to support your argument. Your argument should be original, but it shouldn’t appear out of thin air. You must always be guided by what you have in front of you. Start gathering evidence if you haven’t already.

That’s just getting started, but in my experience it’s often the hardest part. If you’re in college or grad school, go to your professors’ office hours for help with this part. We love talking about ideas. 

Natalie holds a PhD in English from Yale and a BA from the University of Maryland in English and LGBT Studies. She has served as a graduate instructor at Yale, as a visiting assistant professor at Bard College, and as a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton.

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