Language & Composition

Mr. Eure | Brewster High School

Feedback: YVA02 + YVA03

We tackled these questions on rhetoric and style before the winter holidays, and our approach was a bit different: You had the first part of the week to read and respond to the text in class; on 12/20, after you ostensibly completed the questions on rhetoric and style, you were given about 25 minutes to complete two responses. During those 25 minutes, you had to write alone, but you could use any notes you took, including ones prepared by your group ahead of time.

Overall, speed was secondary to preparation. 10-15 minutes is more than enough time to write effective responses to these questions after two days of collaboration with your peers; many of you, however, didn’t focus your efforts during that preparatory time. So let’s just get this out there: When you waste time in class, you perform more poorly on whatever assignment follows.

I took up these responses and scored each holistically out of 100 points. You completed QORAS #4 and QORAS #7; the former asks you to identify and analyze Church’s definition of “real,” and the latter asks you to evaluate the argument as a whole.  (Here is another link to the text, if you’d like to revisit it before reading this post.) Your scores are online only; you’ll need to visit the Portal to check them, after which you should refer to the usual general scoring scale to determine your relative effectiveness.

As with the last set of general commentary, you can earn up to 50% of the deficit in your grade back by writing a thorough reflection on this assignment. This reflection, however, must incorporate application of the commentary in this post to your responses. You must, in other words, explain what you’d fix if you could. Be specific, thoughtful, and honest. Treat the reflection as an explication and as a vehicle for metacognition, not just a rote summary of what I’ve said here, and you will see an increase: A 70 might improve to an 85; an 80, to a 90; a 90, to a 95; and so on. You can only earn up to 50% of the missing points back. Finish this by the time class starts on Friday (1/11), and submit it to me typed and printed.

As for the general commentary that follows: These are approximations of what an exemplary response would contain, so you are applying this understanding to your own work. In other words, this is what an effective response looks like; if you want to earn credit back, however, you need to do more than just repeat what I’ve written here.

The definitional argument (QORAS #4)

“Real” gets two specific mentions in the editorial.  First, in paragraph three:

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

And then in paragraph four:

You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

The first distinction drawn, then, is between what we can perceive with our senses—what we might call tangible or solid—and what we cannot.  Church seems to be defining “real” in terms of impact, or how something warps the surrounding space.  (This is Santa-as-black-hole logic.)  We can feel a kiss, but that is not love; it is the expression of a feeling only.

The second distinction drawn (still in paragraph three) can be called an argument from ignorance.  This is related to the abstract implication of warped informational space—i.e., the idea that we can see the effects of love, even if we never see love itself—but it is much more childish in its logic; remember, however, that this is an editorial with many audiences, including an eight-year-old girl.  That last line in paragraph three shifts the burden of proof onto the cynics and skeptics: Prove there isn’t a Santa Claus, or that there aren’t wonders left to discover in this world.  “Real,” in this case, is a matter of anticipation.

Paragraph four offers specifically “real” concepts: faith, fancy, poetry, love, and romance.  Church has defined the term through examples, and those examples are tools that reveal a deeper truth, behind the “veil covering the unseen world.”  For him, what is real is what “push[es] aside that curtain” to “view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond.”  To use the word “abiding” is interesting, as well; it suggests that the objects surrounding us will decay or deform, but the childlike faith and wonder that makes Santa Claus “real” will survive forever.

The policy argument (QORAS #7)

Quite a few of you botched the definition of cogent during your responses, which suggests that you did not avail yourself of a dictionary or your notes from the beginning of the year as you worked in class.  30 seconds is all you need to look up cogent or fallacious online, but that’s not really the point: These are the terms you should have begun to internalize in September, when they were taught to you. At this point, you should memorize them, because they are the most precise terms for evaluating arguments in the way this question requires.

To understand that Church’s editorial is cogent, you must consider his audience—not really Virginia or her “little friends,” but the adult readership of The Sun, many of whom would be struggling with “the skepticism of a skeptical age.”  This was 1897, and the world was changing. The references to magic and faith have to be read as challenges to the various paradigm shifts in play, especially in science and industry; Church argues that we can’t lose our sense of wonder, because our faith will always be more real than the tangible world around us.  Santa Claus is a symbol of that childlike joy in the unseen. Church is careful to blend references to things we stop believing in as we age (e.g., fairies) with abstract ideas that are timeless (e.g., love and devotion); the implication is that we have to rekindle our inner child’s delight in the unknown.

Santa Claus isn’t the point at all, once we step away from the editorial.  His audience is meant to be galvanized more generally, to be prompted to reevaluate how it approaches the world—taken today, it’s a call to suspend our disbelief and cynicism and embrace those magical aspects of the world.  We can do this vicariously, fostering a belief in Santa Claus and fairies in the children we know, but we must also embrace the mysterious and mystical aspects of our adult worlds; the more we try to break them apart for some kind of mechanical understanding, the more of ourselves we lose.  Church even goes as far as to say that we can’t break apart the “veil covering the unseen world.”

The only real fallacious aspect of this argument is the underlying assumption—often called a warrant—that understanding how something works robs it of its magic. There is a debate to be had here. I will suggest that it is possible as we age to walk a line: We can delve into the machinery and pull back the curtain without destroying our sense of wonder, and it does not have to be an act of doublethink.  Knowing how a song is constructed, understanding that a poem is built from component parts, parsing the elements of a beautiful speech: It is possible to do all this and still allow ourselves to be transported and transformed by the more ineffable qualities they contain.

Of course, Church isn’t talking about the machinery of the world, nor the construction of any artifact.  To assess his argument, you must eventually grapple with this line: “Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that [veil covering the unseen world] and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond.”  For him, the only way to experience the ineffable beauty in life is through faith, not science or logic.  It’s the capacity to believe that we are losing.

Brief notes on other aspects

Some of the lower scores resulted from basic errors in comprehension. For example, there were a handful of students who wrote personal responses without analysis, some who summarized Church’s ideas without analysis or insight, and then a handful who wrote about the church, not Francis Church. I bring these errors to everyone’s attention because you must all read the prompts you are given carefully; you must also, without exception, read over what you write as you write. The errors in comprehension should be as obvious to you at this point as the dropped words and misspellings and run-on sentences (all of which, unfortunately, I saw on these responses).

As always, email me or see me after class with any questions you have.

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