At the heart of it, UNIV 200 is a process course where all of the work throughout builds in some way as a sustained, researched, argumentative response to a conceptual problem you establish. This goes beyond how some people may think about argument–as mere disagreement, taking a stance or a position, or binary debate. What we are striving for in this class, much like what you will strive for whenever you need to make an argument, is much more sophisticated, complex, and important to the your field of discovery. Isn’t that cool?
Whenever we engage in a process of inquiry, we must figure out what we specifically want to study and how we will approach the phenomenon, or primary text. “Primary text” here means the first-hand relationship between the author of the text and the data that is being provided. That means you must analyze the data before they will be useful to you. These are objects, images, videos, websites, GIFs, legal documents, songs, poems, speeches, and many, many more things. So for right now! here’s a bit about primary texts and the rationale for their importance when discussing analysis.
It’s no crazy secret that people view common material differently given who they are and their interests. Academic pursuits are no different. For instance, philosophers and psychologists often look at the same topics and texts but ask different questions about them. Consider the topic of lying. Many psychologists are interested in lying, though they care about things like cognitive considerations (i.e. what’s going on in the brain when we lie?) and frequency (how often do we lie?); many philosophers are interested in lying, though they ask questions about the nature of lying (what exactly is a lie?) or the ethical implications lying may have (when is it right to life, if ever?). It’s not that the philosophers have it right and the psychologists don’t, but that different disciplines look at things differently than others given particular interests.
Given these data–the image itself, how it is ranked on reddit, the picture’s subject line, etc–we can ask various questions about reddit itself and how it operates (e.g. what does it take to get popular on reddit if such an adorable picture only has four points (or “karma”)?), or other questions about the picture itself (animal rights? people’s fascination with animal costumes for their pets?). Though, my experience with the image is distinct given that I know a lot more about the particular instance and animal—the pug is Emma, my loving companion. I can discuss the text in a differently than anyone else: I am acquainted with the data in a unique way. Unless I’m not, which would be weird.
A Key Point: primary texts can be interpreted many ways, and the evidence to support the point can range greatly. Consider the RVA sticker. As Richmonders, we know what this is, have seen it frequently in various instances, and perhaps even own one. Yet, how we understand what the sticker represents varies. We interpret the sticker differently—or similarly—for many reasons: our views of Richmond, our understanding of where the sticker is located, how we get one, what it looks like, how it can be manipulated, the variations of the sticker, etc. For instance, one could make a case for the the sticker representing brilliant unity within the city. For one, they are free, so anyone who wants to have one can, but they’re also everywhere. Additionally, the sticker itself provides a space (the white of it all) to fill in with whatever you want, demonstrating personal preference of whatever you’d like. This helps show that while we are all a part of a dynamic community, we are nevertheless diverse individuals, and very much like the sticker which allows for individual tastes and views, Richmond also welcomes them. (Note: all of this is based on our experience of Richmond and the sticker.)
Though, not everyone will interpret the sticker this way. One could see the sticker representing growing gentrification within the city. Here’s how that argument could go: The white of the sticker represents the increasing population inhabiting neighborhoods once deemed unsuitable for many occupants and have been predominately and historically black. True, there may be a lot of “empty space” to fill and make new and unique, but it can only be accessed by certain dominant groups. This growing space represents the push to revamp neighborhoods like Jackson Ward, Church Hill, Carver, and Randolph for the past decade (and longer, really). These communities are disrupted by dominant groups inhabiting the revamped, developed neighborhoods while original members are pushed out. The thin black outline of the sticker represents this: subordinate citizens pushed outside of the city, further and further to the outskirts.
Of course, this is just one way of interpreting the sticker. The point is that there are many ways to interpret texts. However, this does not mean that texts can be interpreted in any way. One must make a compelling case with a strong argument.
Personal experience can be useful, but remember that everyone can analyze any text if they have provided themselves with a suitable context for their interpretations. The more precise you can get with primary text also adds to the richness of the analysis and discussion. Also remember that the creator of the primary text did not necessarily intend to create any particular argument, nor pinpoint exactly how you think the primary text should be understood. For instance, when we watch this video
we can safely assume that the Dancing Guy or anyone a part of dancing along the way did not start dancing to demonstrate the importance of the “First Follower” as Derek Sivers, the person who is doing the analyzing, interprets from the video. Though, he argues a convincing case for how the formation of the group dance demonstrates the importance of the “First Follower” theory, and does so only using the evidence from the primary text (the video). But we don’t have to agree with his interpretation if we have good reasons to doubt its soundness, and we can think interpret in many different ways beyond what has been provided. We want to concentrate our own interpretations of the primary text given what we see and, because of what we see (i.e. the evidence itself), how we think the text should be understood.
I leave you with three important parameters Dr. Coats has established for primary textual analysis:
- Anything can be a suitable object of academic study, given certain boundaries. But not every object will necessarily lead to an interesting claim.
- Anything can be a source of meaning, but that meaning is dependent on the observer and the context (disciplinary / methodological lens, other critical warrants) of his or her observation.
- Knowing more about the origins, history, and value of a text can lead to richer interpretations, but everyone can analyze any text if they have provided themselves with a suitable rationale for their analyses.