How to Break Down a Scholarly Argument

Cotten Seiler’s essay “African-American Automobility and Cold War Liberalism” is a real-world example of rhetorical analysis, and a useful model you can (ahem, should) refer to as you work on the RA. As you read, notice how the emphasis of Seiler’s argument is not just on the meaning of the guidebooks, but how these guidebooks help us understand something about America in the 1940s and 1950s. Notice also how Seiler integrates different kinds of sources to serve different purposes in his argument.
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This exercise will help you learn how to break down an academic article. Please follow the directions carefully.
1) For each paragraph in Seiler’s essay, write a ONE-SENTENCE paraphrase of the main idea.
Number your list—there should be 31 sentences total.

2) Below EACH main idea, briefly summarize in your own words the main evidence the writer uses to support the main idea. BE SPECIFIC (1-2 sentences).

3) Below each summary, briefly describe what kind of evidence this is. For example:
• Historical description
• Explanation/definition of key concept
• Quotation/summary from primary source
• Argument from a secondary source
• Visual evidence

4) Next, describe how EACH paragraph contributes to the essay as a whole. For example:
• Introducing, defining, or explaining an important concept
• Providing background information (historical, cultural, intellectual context)
• Articulating a claim (thesis or supporting idea)
• Qualifying a claim (setting or conceding limits to the main idea)
• Analyzing or interpreting examples (from primary source or historical record)
• Citing an authority (argument from secondary source)
• Responding to an authority (counter-argument, rebuttal)
• Making a comparison (analysis)
• Making a generalization (analysis)
• Making an inference (X signals or implies Y–analysis)
• Establishing cause/effect (analysis)
• Transitioning to a new idea
• Explaining the argument’s significance (“the stakes” or “so what?”)

5) Choose the passage that you think best expresses Seiler’s main thesis and summarize it in your own words here.

6) Seiler’s article belongs to the genre of academic essay, which is written by a scholar for an audience of fellow scholars (in this case, American Studies). List at least five rhetorical strategies (or conventions of academic writing) that Seiler uses to establish his credibility/authority as an expert and persuade his audience of fellow experts.
*Hint: Scholars not only care about the quality of a writer’s ideas, but also the quality of the evidence supporting those ideas, and how that evidence is gathered, presented, and treated.

7) Finally, choose up to three passages that would be useful to quote or paraphrase if you were citing this essay in your own writing. Paste these passages here and explain briefly how they could be used to support a point you were making (see the list under #4).

ACED ESSAYS