Home Page Description Exercise

An exercise in method and description.

In chapter 3, Stoner and Perkins start to outline a critical method - a critical practice, a way of doing rhetorical criticism. The general idea is to start with neutral description, use that description as a ground for analysis. Analysis brings in a set of terms to look with - a theory or search method. From what you discover in analysis, you construct an interpretation, which may or may not include an evaluation. That's chapter 3 in a nutshell.

This is the reverse of what we tend to do in everyday encounters with rhetorical messages. We tend to start with evaluation - a gut reaction - "I like that." or "Ug. That's ugly...', and then work backwards to justify the gut reaction by drawing on a convenient pseudo-theory and finding specifics in the message as "evidence." You can see this happening in your work with the BalconyViewExercise, especially the first version but often in the second and third, too. Very like, too, you were taught to work this way in school, especially in work with literature, where you were asked to "analyze" a work in an essay. As in everyday responses to rhetorical messages, you worked in reverse. Rather than starting with a close look at the object - a description - you started with a gut reaction (typically one of appropriate character), then used a theory of literature to justify that reaction. Generally high school and college essays on literature are justifications of gut reactions, expressed as thesis statements, assembled as essays.

Which is to say that this critical viewpoint stuff requires some unlearning of a well-practiced method - a well-practiced method I'm asking you to set aside.

This exercise asks you to isolate one kind of viewing - description. It demands close observation, awareness of what you’re doing, a focus on the thing you’re looking at rather than your impression of it, and withholding evaluation.

This exercise doesn't call for an essay or a summary. You're not making an argument. You're not being asked to come up with ideas or evaluate anything. You're getting some practice in a method - describing the text and context - and in seeing rhetorical elements in that text. The exercise asks you to compose a set of notes first, and from those notes, a 300 word or so description of the message, including a characterization of the message (See Stoner and Perkins, pp 43-4, from which I'm borrowing this exercise.)

Take your time, and get in close. This won't yield to a superficial treatment, and there is no answer key out there to draw on.

The reading

Read S&P Chap 3. Pay special attention to the examples and comment on those examples that S&P present in two columns. Considering the examples of how description is done will help you do it yourself. Also useful is Fig 3.2 on p 42, which summarizes what each stage does and what it's marked by. For this exercise, you're engaging Description, so focus on that.

Method is learned in practice, so I'm asking you to use notes so I can look over your shoulder. As the course progresses, it will come more readily. Find that you won't have to spend 2 - 3 hrs describing.

The method

Start a new page on your wikiname page: WebPageDescription - followed by your initials.

Create three headings in your page, like this:

Use the MIT homepage at http://mit.edu. Take notes towards developing a 300 - 500 word description of this page, concluding with a paragraph characterizing the message and its rhetorical context: name the implied rhetor, the intended audience, the specific situation(s) it addresses, and the rhetorical purposes the page is serving.

Don't jump straight into drafting paragraphs or even sentences. Record your notes - a list of observations, brief descriptions - that you later refine into a prose description. (Maybe 30 - 60 mins of notes + 20 - 30 minutes to refine selected notes into the two paragraphs). These notes aren't part of the 300 - 500 word description and characterization: notes tend to be longer than the final description.

I've often found that the notes are at least as long if not longer than the 300 word description. A brief set of notes tells you you haven't looked yet. (Maybe 30 - 60 mins of notes + 20 - 30 minutes to refine selected notes into the two paragraphs).

You can re-use material from your notes in composing the description and characterization - and probably should.

Be systematic in your observing. You might work from top down. Or start with the overall layout of the page, then work to describing the elements of the page, such as images, links, menus, and so on. Spend some time on the text, too: those links are text elements: words, titles, phrases, even sentences. Describe how text on the page is used.

By all means

Description, as a process, amounts to characterizing the message under analysis. That is, as you look long and hard at a message, you want to be able to grasp the message in such a way that you can present to another person the essential characteristics and patterns within the message. Describing is not "retelling" the message, but bringing to the foreground the most important dimensions of the particular message you are examining. S&P, p 28

You may have to explore the site a little in order to take notes on and get a sense of some of the elements I'm asking you to describe, focus your 300 - 500 word final description on this home page.

Be forewarned: Parts of this page change regularly, as MIT mentions here. That MIT changes the page is part of your description of the page.


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