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Next Tuesday at Midnight, EST:

wiki version of your definition. Print out 3 paper versions and bring to class.

cover sheet aka benchmarks aka rubrics for your peer-reviewer, so that s/he can help you tune up your rough draft by Thursday at Midnight EST when the definitional portfolio is due.


Unit 2 Portfolios will include: your definition, your rubric, your peer-review/remix ideas offered to your peers in class and of course on the wiki.




getting started


Narrative, as we've seen, forges connections. As we resequenced and rearranged our narratives we also indulged in "thick description" of the time and place of our tales' unfoldments. The art of description is contingent on a sense of audience, and when we use concrete imagery, precising adverbs and adjectives, and colorful tropes to invoke the particular and even singular nature of a certain scene and circumstance, we actually forestall some otherwise available connections. If we continue to look or "tune" for audience via thick description (blog), we will create the conditions for composing definitions. Definition is one of the most useful strategies for finding/inventing fertile compositional terrain.



Often, when we think of definition, Webster’s dictionary comes to mind. But dictionary definitions can't attend to the exigence of a particular time and place--terms, concepts, and meanings emerge to frame issues, according to time and place. Definitions, in use, don’t usually function like perfect classical mathematical equations. Rather, in everyday situations, definitions have more to do with probabilities; therefore, writers tend to amplify certain aspects of definitions in circulation and turn down the volume on other uses. The art and science of branding illustrates the degree to which definition is an ongoing process.




Long ago, Cicero wrote that “when you have taken all the qualities of the thing you wish to define has in common with other things, you should pursue the analysis until you produce its own distinctive quality which can be transferred to no other thing” (Topics v, 28, cited in Crowley and Hawhee, 216). To illustrate this process, Cicero provided an example close to our course content. To define “inheritance,” he placed it in a class, “property.” Next, he added a vector of difference, stating that inheritance is a form of property “which comes to someone at the death of another” (vi, 29). Here, Cicero starts down a particular process of definition called “species/genus” definition: first he places the thing to be defined in a category, then he begins to list differences that distinguish the species from other members of the proposed genus. We could also call this process “defining as…,” and in this process, argumentation begins as soon as a writer sets limits on her definition by selecting a particular class, even before the procedure of selecting differences and distinctions. One group of writers may place intellectual property in a class with tangible property, and in this case, much of what we call fair use would in this case be defined as “free riding.” Of course, another series of arguments might place “free riding” in a different category, and argue that free-riding is part of creative, innovative work in markets. When competing definitions arise out of the same terrain, writers must select differences and points of distinction, but they may choose do so as a process of showing how one thing (say, free-riding) is NOT another thing (say, theft), as well. Some folks call this method “negative definition.” Furthermore, definition arguments are often more like “re-definition” arguments—re-definition processes radically displace the “it” in question into seemingly ill-suited categories, as a way of amplifying or tuning in on a specific aspect of the “it” to be defined, or leveraging a boundary-example as a means to shine a new light on an issue. For example, some readers may be unprepared to think about the Burning Man Festival in terms of gift economics, but traversing the ground between the species (the Burning Man festival) and the genus (gift economics) provides ample opportunity to turn a particular readership towards the notion.


There are other recipes for practicing persuasion via definitional processes, including but not limited to enumeration (listing the most important parts that make up a whole—not all the parts, because defining something well actually requires that we leave certain contested aspects out of the “equation,” so that we can focus our readers’ attention), etymological definition (studying the history of a concept and its uses, and then selecting and amplifying the use that will make your case persuasive), and definition by way of example. Generally speaking, definition requires us to determine when greater or less ambiguity will be more persuasive in a particular case. The simple art of telling stories usually brings about opportunities for experimenting with these (and other) techniques.


Venture a hypothesis, turn it into a question. Questions to ask when embarking on a new definitional process or when revising bloggy sentiments into definitional statements of purpose: what kind of thing is it? For example, is improvisation a form of compositional practice? Or is improv more about “dismantling” compositions? Is it a creative process that can be taught or learned? Also, to what larger class does it belong? Is improv a type of performance? Of writing? What are the essential elements of improvisation? That is, what are its divisions, its parts? What are the conditions that create improvisation? What does improvisation do? And, most importantly, where do I find counterarguments to the formulations I hope to shop to my readers?


In sum: definition is an argument that can 1. tune into a refined sense of audience, where audience itself is a network of differential connections as much as it is a collection of individuals 2. clarify controversy 3. create a heirarchy of criteria to guide further inquiry and gather forces of collective action. By answering "what matters?," definition arguments anticipate and prepare grounds for evaluation arguments.


blog generators

- transform narratives into definitions: look for "is" statements, both tacit and explicit.


a) select a term, find three things....

b) introduce counterargument

c) test: for novelty, for controversy (the stakes), for further definition arguments


unit assignment specs

Read through our blogs, and find narratives (or gaps in narratives) that anticipate definitional arguments, call for definitional exposition, or harbor implicit and even controversial definitions. Using prolepsis to engage counterarguments as part of your arrangement, make a definitional claim, and then support it using narrative methods, definitional figures and tropes, plenty of citations, and, of course, links. Include a bibliography. Length: between 1,250-1,700 words.


print sources


Crowley, Sharon and Hawhee, Debbie. Ancient Rhetorics for Contempory Students.

Weston, Anthony. A Rulebook for Argument.

Doherty, Brian. This is Burning Man. Boston, New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2004.

Lemely, Mark. “Property, Intellectual Property, and Free Riding.” Stanford Law School John M. Olin Program in Law and Economics: Working Paper number 291



Class Prompts

Definition and Branding


Kris's Attempt at Def Argument..

Cory's Definition Essay

Crystal's Definition

Sarah Mae's Definition

Brian's Def Rhetoric Jam on Grok

Tropalicious Definition, by Caitlin

Play definition - Meagan

Environmental Definition by Jessica

steve's definition

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