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Discerning a Writer’s Intellectual Agenda

Before you can fully respond to another writer’s work, especially as you determine whether you fully or partially agree or disagree with another’s claim or argument, it is important that you treat the discourse fairly, on its own terms. As a careful reader, you’ll want to discern a writer’s intellectual agenda, to get a clear sense of what interpretive or analytic work a writer is attempting to accomplish by writing as he or she does. Sometimes, to show that you have approached another’s argument fairly, you will describe (either briefly or in some detail) another writer’s agenda near the front of your paper. The length and depth of this description will depend on the demands of particular assignments. If you are writing an essay that makes a claim that calls into question another writer’s claim or argument, you’ll want to summarize that writer’s argument in order to show readers that you have taken it seriously and understood its dimensions, which will show up in your non-tendentious summary. If you are composing a literature review that calls for summary, your representation of another writer’s agenda will need to be presented with perspecuity and efficiency. If another’s work is the main or one of the main objects of attention in your essay, that writer’s intellectual agenda may be described in greater detail.  Our advice here has been adapted from Joseph Harris, Rewriting: How to Do Things with Texts (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2006).

Questions for Getting at Another Writer’s Intellectual Agenda

  • What issues drive this essay?
  • What ideas does it explore?
  • What lines of inquiry does it develop?
  • What is the writer trying to do in this text?
  • What is the writer trying to accomplish by saying what he/she does?


The Elements of an Intellectual Agenda


Where does the writer go for examples and evidence? What texts are cited and discussed? What experiences or events are described? What experiments were undertaken and what components did they involve?


How does the writer relate examples to ideas? How does he or she connect one claim to the next, build a sense of continuity and flow? What theories or hypotheses informed the analysis? What professional or disciplinary perspectives and practices wee brought to bear on the analysis?


What does the writer conclude? How is this conclusion related to earlier findings? Where does the writer finally stand on the issue under consideration? What are the implications of this writer’s findings?

An Example

Here, a writer summarizes an historian’s intellectual agenda, cluing readers into the scholar’s materials (“Drawing upon U.S. historical archives”) her method (“discerns through close reading”) and yield (her finding that the public expression of homesickness has changed over the centuries). The work being summarized is a scholarly article: Susan Matt, “You Can’t Go Home Again: Homesickness and Nostalgia in U.S. History,” The Journal of American History 92.2 (2007): 469-497.

Drawing upon U.S. historical archives (of medical records, letters, and journalistic writings) from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, Susan Matt discerns through close reading the ways in which the public expression of homesickness has gradually evolved from being fully accepted as a positive social value in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to our contemporary moment’s dismissal of homesickness as a pathology which runs counter to the culture’s preference for individual freedom and upward mobility. Matt questions the way in which nostalgia has been understood as mostly a private feeling, reminding of the social dynamics in which individual feelings can (and cannot) be publicly expressed.

Typical Questions and Formulations Used to Unearth an Intellectual Agenda

Noting Keywords, Passages, Data

  • What aspects of this text stand out for me as a reader?
  • Which terms, phrases, passages, or data strike me as interesting, troubling, ambiguous, or suggestive?
  • Which terms, phrases, passages, or data represent “flashpoints” in the text, moments given a special intensity or importance

Comparing this Writer’s Work to Other (or Previous) Work on the Subject 

  • Previous work on the subject has typically explored X, but this writer takes up a different challenge: _______.
  • X distinguishes her project from earlier investigations, which generally tend to_______.
  • X’s work fits squarely within Y tradition of inquiry because _______.
  • X calls into question previous work on the subject, finding it _______.
  • X differentiates her work on the subject from others’ analyses in this way: _______.

What Materials and Methods Does this Writer Use?

  • X unearths important evidence in the form of _______.
  • X’s analysis of the evidence is guided by _______ tradition of inquiry/theory/methodology.
  • X’s method can best be described as _______ because she deploys certain terms/makes certain distinctions/carries out certain experiments.

How Might the Project Best Be Characterized?

  • If there is a single term that is indispensable to X’s investigation, it is _______.
  • A cluster of related terms emerge again and again: _______ and _______ and _______.
  • _______ is a constituent question posed throughout.
  • At one point, X characterizes her overall project as _______.

Recognizing a Project’s Boundary and Shape

  • Rather than focus on _______ or _______, X is more interested in highlighting _______.
  • Readers shouldn’t expect _______; instead, X treats _______in depth, focusing on _______.
  • By focusing on _______rather than _______, X is able to carefully focus on _______.


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