Many students question tutors on the nature of analytical writing and how the student knows when they are accomplishing it. “What is analysis?”, “ What separates analysis from detailed description of evidence?”, or “How do I know if my analysis is correct?” are typical questions that could go on to shape multiple weeks of tutoring or the direction of weekly tutoring support, as the tutor works with the student to diagnose and address academic struggles. These questions can be summarily answered, as can be read below, but teaching analysis is not about applying a singular reproducible body of practice. Tutors often find that no two particular students are known to successfully analyze using the same methods and teaching a method that was useful to one student is guaranteed to work for the next. For this reason, many tutors find it necessary to teach comprehensive reading, evaluation, inference and other commonly supportive skills to developing analysis. But before we can explore these skills, let’s address the above questions.
What is analysis? Agreed upon within the Humanities, but differing in use between literature-focused and various social science courses, analysis is understood to be the reasoned support of a claim using evidence. In English, language arts, and literature courses, analysis is usually supported through textual evidence from a document, though historical events can play some role in contextualizing, interpretation, and supporting inference. In social science and history courses, evidence of historical record is the primary focus, though artistic and poetic writing might be used as a supporting artifact (as well as many forms of visual and material arts). In accordance with state curriculum standards, secondary school students are taught to make claims, cite evidence that supports their claims, and analyze in order to make an argument for their claim. For that reason, argumentation is also an important skill for a broad application of analysis, often taught descriptively in terms of argument type and as various layers of rebuttal. No matter the exact curriculum, students find their argumentation is improved by the study, classification, and effective rebuttal of logical fallacies.
Analysis is reliant on, but different from description of evidence. Many teachers, but not all, teach students to separate sentences of evidence and analysis with a boundary sentence that describes the specific aspect of the evidence that is about to be analyzed. Sentences of detailed description draw the reader’s attention to the direction to be furthered through analysis, and provide a solid link between what the student has read and what the student thinks about what they have read. While this technique is not required by all teachers, it illustrates the gradual movement of thought from one sentence to the next, such as in the example below:
“ ‘‘So she dropped the lump into my lap just at that moment, and I clapped my legs together on it and she went on talking. But only about a minute. Then she took off the hank and looked me straight in the face, and very pleasant, and says: “Come, now, what’s your real name?’
Huckleberry Finn is caught in his feminine disguise by the girl, as she drops an object in his lap and tests his instinct to catch it, determining him to be used to wearing pants and consequently calling him Huck out. Huckleberry’s lies are limited by his ignorance, and he is often caught by those who realize what he does not.”
Notice that the evidence is bound in quotation marks, the descriptive sentence is in bold, while the analytical sentence is in italics.
But how is a student to know if their analysis is correct? Generally, in the humanities, the goal of analysis is not to find a hidden “correct” interpretation, but to build a reasonably sound, clearly stated, and effectively argued interpretation. While empathetically talented students might pick up on a teacher’s preferred take on a subject, this academic hack is not universally applicable academically or professionally, as we are often unable to assess the beliefs of our audience before we enter a conversation and students are likely to have a self-aware teacher who does not grade flattery well, eventually.
Instead, students can point that particular intelligence inward, to hone their intuition. Intuition can be vastly important to analysis, especially when analyzing under the timed pressure of an exam. As people are not presently focused on everything they know or can correlate about a subject, intuition can be a time-saving indicator on whether an argument is profound or deeply flawed. Note that the use of intuition is not in blindly following it’s every warming, but listening and self-reflecting judiciously, so that the sneaking suspicion caused by a single misspelled proper noun doesn’t lead to the tossing out of a reasonably argued paragraph more broadly speaking, intuition can be the student’s most powerful means of forging new inferences, and exploring such a hint through writing out one’s thoughts can demonstrate to a student that they know far more about the material than they had realized.
A visual metaphor that has been found useful in teaching students to asses their own analysis is a great circle. Everything that the evidence literally says is the perimeter of that circle. Everything a writer or historical actor chose to quite literally say and do within the evidence is the surface of that circle. The contents of that circle, the area within, is everything the writer/actor could have meant, thought about, been inspired by, or engaged with in the act of creating the evidence. This inner area is all the possible paths of analysis that the literal evidence will support, while:
- Comprehensive Reading is the student’s approach to the circumference of Literal Evidence, noticing specific points and angles from which to dig into analysis
- Detailed Description serves as the exact coordinates and angle of approach for the analytical path inside the circle (covered above)
- Evaluation tells the student how deep to plunge into the circle using their argument, inquiring how much does the evidence support this inference
- Inference describes the progress and direction that the path of analysis takes within the whole area of what could be argued about the evidence.
- Argumentation is the structural integrity, strength of the bonds between the individual ideas of, and overall effect of the path of analysis which the student explores in writing.
Let’s explore these skills in more depth, using examples.
Comprehensive reading is a critical task for students hoping to make effective use of their evidence. When we read comprehensively, we thinking critically about what we are reading as we read. Different disciplines ask students to notice related but differently emphasized details. History classes ask students to read sources while keeping in mind the document’s historical context, intended audience, purpose, point of view, and to correlate what they are reading to historical details not contained within the document. English language and literature classes ask students to note: tone, theme, plot, characterization, point of view of the narration, and any other literary devices the author wrote into the document. Any of these details could provide the student with a jumping off point from which to explore their analysis.
Consider the example text from The Great Gatsby and reading notes:
“This is a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of grey cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-grey men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud which screens their obscure operations from your sight. But above the grey land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic—their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose.”
A student’s comprehensive reading notes:
- Imagery of the ashen and industrial marred landscape
- Juxtaposition of impenetrable clouds and the eyeglasses billboard
- PoV First-person limited perspective centered on Nick
- Tone: dreary, oppressive, hopeless, judged
- Metaphor: billboard eyes always watching like judgmental deity
Using these to start, the student could next begin a detailed description of the portion of the above text they wish to analyze.
As previously mentioned, detailed descriptions are not required by all teachers, but are quite helpful in gradually developing the thought of your analysis. Detailed descriptions are sentences that usually follow the quotation of evidence, and they serve to call out or draw attention to the details of the evidence most relevant to your claim. The above example served for a literature class, so the following will focus more on a historical example:
Claim: The Civil War was instigated by Southern desire for the preservation of Slavery.
Document: Vice President Alexander Steven’s of the Confederacy’s Cornerstone speech:
“The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”
Detailed Description: “Here, Stevens claims that differing stances on the equality of African people to European people is the key division that caused the secession, and that the Confederate Government’s purpose is to enshrine in law that principle of inequality.”
The student could use this sentence to then analyze the importance of slavery to the Confederate cause. Such an analysis would have to evaluate the extent to which this evidence demonstrates that idea. The next section addresses that skill.
Evaluation is the analytical ability to determine how much an idea is present in or relevant to the text or to what extent a text effectively accomplishes an analyzed purpose. Not all analytical assignments require students to evaluate, however evaluation is a skill that can aid any analysis. This is because students must evaluate the extent to which their evidence supports their claim and the extent to which their claim is manifested in the evidence in order to analyze effectively.
Take the above example, the Cornerstone Speech very much communicated the importance of slavery to the Confederacy, but does not readily support the claim that the Confederacy wished to impose their government on the Union states and bring about a universal norm of practicing chattel slavery. To note the difference in connection these two claims have to the document is an act of evaluation.
Generally, teachers want students to have strong claims that do not require a lot of writing on the student’s part to simply connect this claim to the evidence. This can mean that the less explanation an analysis requires to connect to the claim, the better, but does not mean that analytical points explored through many sentences are bad. A student’s true limit to the amount of written attention they should give to each portion of analysis is that portion’s share of the assignment’s word count. A single long analytical treatment in one paragraph can make reading the entire essay unbalanced. Students should attempt to make reading their assignment as easy to read and understand as possible.
Inference is, perhaps, the most essential part of analysis, so it is not surprising that many educators treat one as synonymous with the other. A paper that focuses on a piece of evidence, but does make any inferences fails to distinguish itself from merely describing the document. To infer is to consider, whether believed or not, a claim about evidence that is not directly manifest in the evidence. A strong inference is supported by many aspects of a text, a student could make a single strong inference of their claim, and then use many points of evidence to back up that inferred claim. A weak inference may have fewer portions of the text that are agreeable to that idea, or may be supported by multiple instances of evidence in the document, but so indirectly that there are many competing inferences that could be made. Confused? Let’s look at an example:
Evidence: “He [Winston] hated her [Julia] because she was young and pretty and sexless, because he wanted to go to bed with her and would never do so, because round her sweet supple waist, which seemed to ask you to encircle it with your arm, there was only the odious scarlet sash, aggressive symbol of chastity. “ -1984
Strong inference that leaves little room for student argumentation: “Orwell’s choice to have Winston think of Julia during the 2-minute Hate event demonstrates how effectively the party can get citizens to feel hatred towards people they might otherwise get along with, as Winston and Julia later do.”
Strong inference that requires a strong argument: “Orwell’s choice to depict Winston’s initial thoughts on Julia demonstrates the extent to which the party has trained him to hate those he desires for the sole reason that he desires them, twisting his lust into murderous hatred during the 2-minute hate.
Weak inference that a strong argument would not improve: “Orwell’s depiction of Winston’s feelings toward Julia during the 2-minute Hate demonstrates the theme that physical desire is destructive, an example of the writer’s puritan beliefs.
Inferences are always “jumps to conclusions,” but the distance of the jump and whether your reader will follow you on that leap of faith depends on the strength of your argumentation, which we will address next.
If inference is the essence of analysis, then argumentation is its body. Arguing is perhaps the skill requiring the least amount of explanation here, as so many schools teach it, and yet it is too important to go unmentioned. To argue is to advance a position in a conversation, written or otherwise, using a line or reading meant to be convincing to the reader. Argumentation is usually taught as having three varieties: logos, or the use of forensic reasoning on evidence to make a probable claim, ethos, or the repetition of an argument made by an authority the reader would take as trustworthy on the topic, and pathos, or the appeal to an emotional experience of the reader or to induce in the reader an agreement via sympathy. The teaching of rebuttal of a counterargument, logic, and logical fallacies is often paired with teaching argument development
Most educators place a lot of stress and focus on logos arguments, as the goal is to train students to be able to understand and make use of textual evidence, however the other two forms of argumentation are not useless to a student writing analysis. Take for example, evidence that exists only as a person’s emotional experience, such as suffering in the face of oppression and micro-aggressions, which may come up in both literature and in historical artifacts, both such examples would benefit from a pathos argument. Ethos arguments are also important when citing an author’s own thoughts on their written work and when citing authorities on the historical record. A wise student does not discount arguments made outside the boundaries of logic, but is wary of the logical fallacies that might creep into their writing.
Claim: “Tolkien’s use of Christian themes in his Middle Earth Fiction shows the culture in which he wrote, but does not carry specific allegories into his writing.”
Logos argument: “Tolkien’s mythological Valar as the spiritual powers of his setting take some inspiration from Christian ideas of angels, but not solely, as the Valar act as gods and spirits do in many non-Christians, polytheistic mythologies.”
Ethos Argument: “Tolkien is quoted as saying ‘I cordially dislike allegory and all its manifestations … I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of the readers’ And further that his stories are neither ‘allegorical nor topical’. “
Pathos Argument: “Tolkien, an ardent linguistic historian, engaged in writing Lord of the Rings to express his love for language, the constructed lexicons of Middle Earth being devised first and fictional histories written to support them. Therefore, it is language, not allegory, that is primary in Tolkien’s motivations in writing.”
While analytical writing has many parts, the practice of writing analysis does not require arduous care for each of these skills. Much like with intuition, the act of practicing analytical writing can cause unintentional development and mastery of these abilities. In all cases, having examples of analytical writing to critique and evaluate for quality can give students quite a boost in developing their ability to produce these examples. While in tutoring, students may be encouraged to produce examples of writing for the purposes of having something to work with, improve upon, and set against an even better attempt. Tutors might, depending on need, have students practice a single skill with which the student struggles repeatedly on different sources of evidence, so that the student can refine that single skill through practice. While there may not be one standard means by which all students can copy to learn how to analyze, a good tutor can help students identify the exact steps and aspects with which they struggle, so that the student can overcome this personal adversity.
If you or your student is struggling in the attempt to produce analytical writing that earns the grade you desire, an AJ Tutor qualified in writing can artfully apply the above knowledge to aid the student in achieving their academic goals. Give us a call to discuss!