This week I had the great pleasure of doing an hour-long Google Hangout with fifty 9th and 11th grade students at a high school in the Bay Area. They were full of interesting observations and great questions: Did I ever struggle with writing? When and why did I decide I wanted to teach writing? What can I suggest to overcome writer’s block? What tips can I give for doing a good job on timed writing tasks? How do I define good writing? Several students asked about analysis, since they were currently working on rhetorical analyses, first of a passage from an article or memoir and then one of an entire piece. “What is analysis for?” they asked. “What does a good analysis do?” “How is analysis related to our everyday lives?”
We spoke the day after the first Presidential Debate, and so that subject came up, and gave me a very good way to talk about what analysis is and why I think it’s so important today. It’s sometimes hard to analyze spoken discourse: you really need to record, to watch over and over, or to take notes. But spoken discourse—and especially discourse associated with presidential aspirations—demands analysis: the results of that discourse will leave the U.S. with one kind of president or another, so the stakes are particularly high.
I talked at some length about how to go about analysis: “with so much information coming at us, it can be overwhelming, and we often don’t have time to really pay attention, much less analyze,” I said. So the first thing to know about analysis is that we need to SLOW DOWN for it. We need time to think carefully through whatever we are analyzing. “Look for the major claims,” I urged, “and then break the discourse down into those major claims; then look for support offered for each claim as well as for the way the speaker is appealing to your mind and heart. If you can’t find support for the claims, or if the support is weak, ask what the speaker has in mind in leaving it out.”
I didn’t talk specifically about Donald Trump’s or Hillary Clinton’s debate performances, but I pointed out that body language, facial expression, tone, and style have a big impact on listeners/viewers and that those things need to be included in an analysis. And I reiterated that analysis is absolutely necessary if voters are going to make sound choices.
I have a lot of fears around this election; it seems to me the most dangerous one in my lifetime, and that’s saying something. What I fear most, however, are voters who seem incapable of analysis, who seem to base their decisions on something as vague as “Trump tells it like it is!” (Really???) or “I feel like he’s got my back” (almost surely not) or “he’s tough and will make us great.” (How, exactly???) What I HOPE is that teachers and students all over the country are analyzing such claims—and that they will know when those claims are without support, or indeed, even without truth.
We have never needed analysis more than we do right now!