From Rhetorical Analysis to Evaluative Analysis - Three Levels of Evaluation
Think Like a Judge - Evaluation and Rhetorical Aim - 16 Evaluative Categories
Weak and Strong Argument - Sample Thesis Statements
From Rhetorical Analysis to Evaluative Analysis
In rhetorical analysis you explain form (how something is written), whereas in evaluation you gauge quality and effectiveness (how effective the rhetoric is in light of reasoning and outside information).
In rhetorical analysis you ask, How does the author make the point? In evaluative analysis you ask, How convincingly or effectively does the author make the point?
Evaluation involves using a larger context of reasoning, information, and judgment to determine how well rhetoric is put to use. In a rhetorical analysis, if an author uses comparison, you’ll ask: For what purpose does the author use the comparison and how — in specific detail — does the author use it to achieve that purpose? In an evaluative analysis, you'll try to distance yourself from the strategy, and ask a wider range of questions: Is the comparison appropriate, that is, does it help to delineate and illuminate the original situation or does it distort and obscure the original? Are there other analogies that would be more helpful? Is the comparison archaic or up to date? Is it offensive or engaging, boring or lively? Is comparison itself the problem? Would the writer be better off using logic, example, description, or statistics?
It’s imperative that you bring in outside information and context. You must ask questions such as the following: Are the ideas presented accurate in light of outside context and research? Do they agree or are they at odds with practical observation, logic, case studies, and expert opinion? What crucial factors are included or left out?
Below is an example of how one can take into account rhetoric (in this case the rhetorical strategy of comparison or analogy), yet focus on evaluation. The sample is on a fictitious essay, “The Battle of the Sexes.”
Brown’s analogy between gender relations and battle is used effectively throughout the essay because the analogy clarifies the focus on hostility and because it's connected to concrete examples and research. By starting with an analogy, Brown directs us to see sexual relations as potentially violent. She takes us quickly from a peaceful scenario to a minefield where the partner or ally becomes the enemy. This could be a problem if Brown was trying to define the nature of gender relationships in general, yet it isn’t a problem here since Brown’s topic is very specifically conflict in relationships. One could object that Brown should at some point examine the ways one can broker peace, yet Brown’s aim is to give a precise account of escalating conflict, not of the ways it can be prevented. Her battle of the sexes analogy also works well in terms of research, since she draws on five studies, ranging from 1950 to 2019, all of which show that hostility in relationships escalates incrementally. Brown emphasizes the findings of a 2011 study by Stokes, which is particularly convincing because it draws on the accounts of 300 couples over a ten-year period, is extensive (23 pages), includes statistical data, and has been cited by Thorpe (2014), Bowers and Weinstein (2016), and Konkle et. al. (2017). Brown also quotes Stokes effectively: “as the battle of the sexes heats up, couples draw from an increasingly gender-oriented arsenal that takes them further and further from the specifics of their relationship.” Brown uses Stokes’ notion to explain and extend her own conceit: in a minefield, one sees oneself in relation to a nearby explosive piece of ground, yet in a battlefield one loses one’s individuality and starts to operate on a broader, more impersonal terrain. This ties into Brown's main argument: when one reacts violently, when one is on the battle plain of the relationship, one no longer sees the other in an immediate, personal way. There is less likelihood of a humane understanding. Rather, one sees the other as just another soldier in an opposing army. She said this because she’s a typical women. He said that because he’s a typical man. Brown’s essay is effective because she illustrates, extends, and supports her basic analogy, which simplifies the situation and helps us see how couples get "from the close dangers of a minefield to the distant devastation of a battle-field.”
Three Levels of Evaluation
Level 1: Text. You can evaluate the argument of a text by limiting yourself to the text itself. In this case, you could look at things such as as presentation of ideas, internal logic, integration of argument, tone, metaphor, counter-argument, slippery slope, false dichotomy, etc.
Level 2: Context. You can evaluate by using a contextual strategy, that is, by seeing the argument in light of other ideas, arguments, sources, or theories.
Level 3: Integrated Framework or Theory. You can evaluate by creating an integrated framework, interpretation, or theory to explain the success or failure of the original argument. Try bringing in an idea or theory from Sociology, Psychology, Anthropology, Biology, History, Gender Studies, or Media Studies. Or, try coming up with your own theory (this will be good practice for your final research essay). You don't have to use this third level of integrated framework, yet if you're a confident writer and a strong critical thinker this is a worthwhile challenge.
Limiting yourself to the primary text (level 1) has severe limitations. Even if you successfully show that an argument is strong or weak, you still haven’t shown whether or not there are better or worse arguments. You haven’t supplied your reader with a sense of how good the argument is in the context of the larger debate about the topic. It’s preferable to combine 1) dealing with the primary text and 2) examining the context of the argument — other ideas, arguments, sources, or theories.
There's no exact ratio about how much emphasis you should put on the primary text and how much emphasis you should put on contexts or alternative frameworks. This ratio will depend on how solid the argument is and on how helpful the outside contexts and frameworks are.
Think Like a Judge
Exercises in evaluation require a strong use of critical faculties. The exercises cultivate judgment, that is, the ability to judge a piece carefully within a wider context. While in rhetorical analysis you try to think like a lawyer and build an argument about how the rhetoric works in a given case, in evaluation you try to think like a judge and come to a conclusion after careful consideration of other possible cases.
Like a judge, you want to be fair and impartial. If you feel strongly about a point of view, you need to work hard to see other perspectives. This is difficult, but in terms of evaluation it pays off: once you seriously consider opposing arguments, you're in a better position to counter them effectively. Your final judgment, however, still needs to be couched in diplomatic, scholarly, academic terms. Avoid ranting, belittling, etc.
Evaluation and Rhetorical Aim
For a refresher in the three rhetorical aims, see CS Rhetoric.
There's one question you can ask when evaluating all three rhetorical aims: Is the piece effective? In other ways, however, the evaluative questions you ask will depend on the aim of the rhetoric. This is obvious if you think about how you approach media: in general, you don’t expect a novel or TV show to explain something or to convince you about something. The aim of novels and shows is to express and — through expression — to entertain you, and to make you think and feel. In evaluating a novel or TV show, you would usually ask questions such as Are the characters realistic or engaging? Is the plot believable? Is the piece effective in making people laugh (if it's comedy) or in making people feel intrigued (if it's a mystery)?
While argument and expository essays often use such things as logic, example, and process analysis, stories and films generally use a narrative which follows one extended example or scenario. It's thus more appropriate to evaluate whether an expressive work is effective or insightful rather than logical or conclusive.
All three forms of rhetoric can also be approached — some more and some less — with the question: Is the piece believable or convincing? This question isn't always as relevant to expression pieces as it is to exposition and argument pieces. For example, an evaluation of Gandhi and Dunkirk will be affected by whether or not we think the films believable or convincing in light of history, but our evaluation of Lord of the Rings and Thor: Ragnarok won't be affected by this question — although we still expect the characters to be believable in the sense that a hobbit shouldn't act like an elf. Even if we found that Thor: Ragnarok completely distorted crucial sources (such as Snorri Sturluson's 12th-13th century versions of Norse mythology), the film could still be convincing within its own frames of reference.
Just as you wouldn't judge a romance film according to whether or not it's methodical or logical, so you wouldn’t judge a textbook — the aim of which is exposition (to explain or educate) — according to whether or not it's entertaining or makes a good argument. While it's helpful if the textbook is in some way entertaining (or at least keeps you awake) and while it's crucial that it contain valid facts and arguments (we often assume that it does), the primary aim isn't to convince you that the ideas it contains are in fact accurate. The following questions would be more helpful in an evaluation of a textbook: Is it accurate in its information? Is it clear? Does it use illustrative examples effectively? What illustrative examples would have been more effective?
The question Is it believable? is more applicable to argument than to exposition, given that in most cases of exposition, the focus tends to be on mechanics or dynamics that are practical or proven. If the mechanics or dynamics are in question, then the piece will discuss the possible options — the different arguments — and then usually get back to explaining what's practical or proven.
In this course you’ll be evaluating argument — specifically, Cox's argument about feminism in the expressive work, Mad Men. Evaluating argument requires many of the same questions as evaluating exposition, such as Is it accurate in its information? Is it clear? Yet in terms of illustrative examples, try to focus less on how the examples work (in terms of the reader or viewer understanding the material) than on comparing these examples with a wider range of examples that could have been used, and on developing a wider frame of reference within which you can evaluate the particular piece. In general, evaluating argument requires that you go further outside the piece than evaluating expression or exposition.
16 Evaluative Categories
The following categories were used in rhetorical analysis and can also be used in evaluation and research. Since these categories overlap, I’ve put in parentheses the numbers of related categories.
1. Space or Setting. Does the piece describe a place accurately or inaccurately? Does it assume that an argument that makes sense in one location will necessarily make sense in another? This question holds true for regions of culture, language, politics, etc.
2. Time or Chronology. Does the piece manipulate or confuse a given sequence of events? Does it provide an accurate historical chronology? Could you set up a historical framework that would provide a larger historical perspective? Often pieces use cause and effect (9) to set up a pattern in history that explains how we got from the past to the present. What other pattern could have been used? Are the patterns in the piece appropriate, or are they suspiciously convenient?
3. Ethos (moral character or authority). Does the piece only use authorities who agree, and omit other authorities who don’t agree? Does the piece misplace authority — for example, have a rock star give advice that a doctor should give — hoping that we’ll transfer the status of one to another? Or does a piece accurately place authority, for instance having an expert on nuclear energy (rather than Bono) comment on whether or not Iran has the capacity to make nuclear weapons. This is a tricky area, because you need to be sure that the “expert” is respected in his field and that those who you say are inexpert are in fact not knowledgeable (perhaps Bono does know a lot about nuclear weapons; in which case, you need to see what he uses — apart from his fame — to back up his arguments).
4. Pathos (emotion). Provoking an emotional reaction makes sense at times, yet you need to ask if emotion is being substituting for logic and other more relevant appeals. For example does an appeal to send more money to Africa rely solely on images of starving children and leave out information about foreign debt, disease, creating sustainable markets, clean water projects, etc.? Appeals to prejudice or patriotism are often called ad populum (“to the people”) appeals, and these can be very effective. Yet, for arguments to be satisfying intellectually, authors should question prejudices and ascribe limits to patriotism.
5. Logos (logic and reasoning). Are authors using logic convincingly or are they using such things as slippery slope, non sequitur, misplaced authority, prejudice, stereotype, skewed definition, doubtful premise, illogical cause and effect, incompatible geographical comparison, inaccurate chronology? The misuse of logic is often covered in textbooks under the category of logical fallacies or fallacies of argument. I deal with these in "Strong and Weak Arguments" below.
Note: Ethos, pathos, and logos are very large categories that overlap with many of the other categories in this list and in my list of strong and weak arguments. For instance, cause and effect (9) provides a logical structure to events in time (2). Categories overlap because we’re a complex mix of thinking and emotion, and because we all have different ways of perceiving the complex world around and within us. Don't worry if you stray from one category to another; analyze the relation between the two categories, and then come back to your main category.
6. Definition. Are definitions accurate or are they used as faulty premises, convenient points of departure? For example, do authors start off their arguments against nuclear arms by defining arms as weapons used to defend one’s country? Why would this definition skew their arguments? Often writers start off with a convenient definition then provide an argument that fits with this definition.
7. Categorization. Do authors lay out their categories accurately, according to some accepted or logical schema? Or do the categories seem to be illogical or to fit too conveniently into their argument? If authors divide the criminal justice system into 1) committing offences and 2) punishment, and leave out 3) rehabilitation, this would be a flaw based on inadequate consideration of categories.
8. Process and sequence. Is a process or sequence inverted, distorted or incomplete, or is it logically developed, accurately reflected, and fully covered?
9. Cause and effect. Do authors divide a sequence in two parts when in reality there are other intermediary stages? What are the intermediary stages and how do these work for or against the binary division? When there is an implied cause and effect, ask if it is inevitable or logical to infer the link, or is there some other cause that may have produced the effect?
10. Description. Is the description both specific and faithful to the original? Does it try to manipulate the emotions, as in the detailed picture of a crying baby in an essay on world hunger? Is this manipulation selective or manipulative (or a bit of both)?
- Do writers give examples that are appropriate, that prove the point? For instance, in arguing against marijuana, do writers give examples of depression or anxiety produced by other drugs, such as crack or heroin? Do the examples too conveniently prove the argument? How many examples do authors give? Is the range sufficient to prove the point? What other examples would support or contradict the authors? Why are certain examples more applicable than others? If you can establish a rationale for why certain examples are legitimate, then you can gauge the argument in light of this rationale.
- Be careful in using examples and insufficient sources as evaluative categories. Authors can’t possibly cover all relevant examples; most work within word constraints and don’t want to tire their readers. Being selective is not a fault in itself. Selective examples only become a problem when the points authors make are seriously weakened or contradicted by omitting examples.
In many types of writing, sources are neither expected nor required. Arguments are of course more convincing when backed up with references and examples. But in short pieces or in essays where writers want to cover alot of ground, they can’t prove every point they make. If they're doing a book-length study then they have the space to back up their points with references and sources. The difference between “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and “The Juggler’s Brain” is instructive here: in the former Carr is writing a magazine article for a general audience and is not expected to give all his sources; in the latter he is writing an entire book on one theme and is expected to provide an extensive array of sources.
12. Comparison and Contrast. If authors are asking you to compare two examples, ask yourself why these two are chosen: do they fit all-too conveniently into their argument? Do the authors leave out other examples? Do they create a false dichotomy? Do the authors make comparisons or contrasts based on ultra-selective features, or do they show how features used are relevant to the overall case being made?
Does the metaphor help us to understand the idea? Or does it distort the idea in some crucial way? Is it overused? Or does the writer discard it at some point to show us that the issue is more complex than the metaphor? For instance, when Carr uses deep vs. shallow it may help us understand what he’s saying yet it may also distort or manipulate us in a negative and counter-productive way.
14, 15. Stylistic Devices and Genre Devices. Does the device fit the situation? Is it overused, or underused? Do authors confuse devices with situations? Are authors too negative or too positive in using tone, image etc., or do they maintain a respectful, objective distance? Remember that you should try to think like a judge who is impartial and who doesn't have an ax to grind.
16. Narration. What other narratives might provide a larger context? Is the narrative too personal or limited to make the larger point, or does it help us to see the larger picture? Remember that a single narrative isn’t necessarily trying to cover all angles or cases. How can it? Evaluating it negatively because it doesn’t cover this or that case may not be fair. You need to see if the case it explores is realistic, insightful, and helpful, or whether it doesn’t correspond to reality, distorts the issue at hand, and gets in the way of understanding the bigger picture.
WEAK AND STRONG ARGUMENT
Writing texts usually focus on weak or invalid arguments — called fallacies of argument — but don’t supply the names or characteristics of valid arguments (they often assume that the valid argument lies in not committing the error). Given that you are writing an essay in which you take into account strengths as well as weaknesses, I have supplied terms and phrases that denote strengths as well.
It’s also worth rethinking whether or not ‘logical fallacies’ are sometimes applied too rigidly. For instance, it makes sense to ‘argue against the man’ (argumentum ad hominem) if we can determine such things as hypocrisy by doing so. If someone argues against environmentalism yet drives a Hummer to work, this may not effect our evaluation of his argument about environmentalism, yet we might question his sincerity or the degree to which we can change human nature.
The list below should be considered in addition to the sixteen categories of argument above. Some of the categories below overlap with the sixteen categories and with each other. Don’t worry about such overlaps, as long as you are focusing on the reason why arguments are strong or weak.
Most of the categories below are sub-categories of reasoning — logical vs. illogical, balanced vs. biased, accurate vs. distorted, narrow vs. exhaustive, etc.
False Dichotomy; Either/or Option: Giving an unfairly limited choice of two options, when there are more than two options that ought to be considered: You’re either with us or against us. It’s either illegal prostitution or a whorehouse on every block. VS. Fair Range of Options: Providing a reasonable range of options: You’re either with us, against us, or you agree with us in this but not in that. Bordellos could be restricted to certain areas.
Using Over-selective Examples or Evidence: Only using examples that prove your point: American politicians are dishonest because Nixon didn't tell the whole truth. VS. Supplying a Fair Range of Examples or Evidence: Taking into account a range of examples, including those that don’t prove your point: On one hand, Nixon mislead the nation (about his knowledge of Watergate and about the secret bombing of Vietnam and Cambodia), Clinton bent the truth about his extra-marital activities, and George W. Bush mislead the nation about the WMDs. On the other hand, Carter, Bush senior, and Obama are not known for having mislead the nation. Including examples that work against your argument provides you with an opportunity to pre-empt counter arguments. If you merely leave out inconvenient examples, your reader will supply them for you!
Ignoring Contrary Arguments or Evidence: One of the main reasons arguments fail is that they don’t consider contrary points of view. The worst strategy is to ignore opposing arguments and hope no one will notice. The best way is to face the opposing arguments and show why they're limited, inapplicable, or otherwise overpowered by other considerations.The U.S. is a negative force in the world because it interferes in the domestic affairs of other countries — such as Guatemala, Vietnam, and Nicaragua. VS. Taking into Account Contrary Arguments or Evidence: While the U.S. fought against German Nazism and the communist dictatorship of the Soviet Union, it had a negative impact in Vietnam, Nicaragua, and Iraq.
Begging the Question: Making a statement which assumes that an important question has already been answered: The 20-40 billion dollars for the new F-35 jet fighters should be paid through a special levy rather than through an increase in income tax. Here, it is assumed that we have already answered affirmatively questions such as, ‘Do we need these jets?’ ‘Can we get less expensive jets?’ ‘Where else might such money go?’ VS. Examining Assumptions: We ought to weigh many factors in determining whether or not to spend 20-40 billion dollars on F-35 jet fighters.
Ignoring or Distorting Context: Leaving out information that's important in the context you're discussing, or twisting this information so it conveniently helps your argument seem better. In my sample evaluative essay on Atwood's "Canadians," I argue that in discussing Canadian identity vis á vis the American Empire, Atwood sidelines Canada’s relation with the British Empire. VS. Supplying Appropriate Context: In the same sample essay I also argue that Atwood supplies helpful context by including references to Mexico.
Exaggerating or Making Unrealistic Claims: Marijuana shouldn’t be legalized because then everyone will be stoned all the time — this exaggerates or is unrealistic because everyone won’t want to do this (just as everyone won’t want to be drunk all the time). If someone argues that communism is better than capitalism because it allows everyone to share everything, you could observe that people don’t generally want to share what they have. If someone argues that a completely open market is the best form of economy because it allows a free and benevolent interplay of economic forces, you could observe that companies can be as ruthless as individuals and must therefore be subject to restrictive laws. VS. Making Realistic Claims.
Making Inaccurate Statements: Stating something that can be clearly contradicted. Often flimsy information is masked by the way the speaker is writing or by appeals to biases, authority, etc. Often it's necessary to discern if writers are asserting their opinions or asserting facts. The statement, “Vancouver is the best city in the world,” is simply an opinion, yet if it's followed by reasons then it becomes an argument. In this case, it's easy to think of many places with better beaches and less rain (Southern California, Southern Spain, etc.). VS. Making Accurate Statements: Presenting perspectives that can be backed up: Vancouver lies at the feet of beautiful mountains and has many beaches and ocean walkways, yet it can be rainy and cold in the winter.
Omitting Sources or References: Making statements that need corroboration yet have none. Barack Obama was in fact born into a fundamentalist family in Waziristan. VS. Including Sources or References: Making statements and then backing them up with authoritative sources.: According to his State of Hawaii Certificate of Live Birth, Barack Hussein Obama was born in Honolulu on August 4, 1961.
False or Inappropriate Analogies: Using analogies that don’t fit, are over-extended, or otherwise distort the original; often this involves comparing the original to something that it is similar to in only one way, yet different from in a crucial and unacknowledged way: The universe is like a sand bag: full of shifting particles. VS. Appropriate Analogy: Using analogies that help readers see the nature and functioning of the original: Deists see God as a Clockmaker: He creates the universe, yet then does not constantly involve Himself in its day to day functioning.
Doubtful Cause: Saying one thing causes another without showing how or why: Westerners want to exoticize India because they want to promote their own market values. VS. Clear Cause and Effect Logic: Showing how one thing causes another: Rushdie argues that the reason the British portray Gandhi as a saint is because they want to stress peaceful disobedience, which discourages more dangerous forms of direct action and keeps British economic interests in place.
Circular Logic: Arguing for an effect based on a predetermined or unexamined cause; begging the question is a type of this: I agree with him because he is always right. VS. Linear Logic: Showing how an effect derives from an examined cause: I agreed with him because he backed up his statement with context, logic, andfact.
Using a predetermined system or point of view to prove your point only works if your audience shares that system or point of view. If they don’t, your argument may appear circular. You could, for example, argue to a group of fundamentalist Christians that capitalist greed would disappear if people converted to Christianity. Yet a different audience may not agree with the assumption that Christianity will root out greed. In academic prose, it is best to avoid religious or ideological assumptions and vocabulary. Rather, assume that your audience is a secular — but not an anti-religious — one. Religious content is completely valid if you’re writing about a particular group of people — as in, “fundamentalist Christians will probably not go for capital punishment because of their belief in the commandment, Thou shalt not kill.” In this scenario you’re not assuming that your audience is either for or against Christianity.
Slippery Slope: Saying that if you take one step in a direction, then another step is inevitable: If you legalize marijuana then you have to legalize cocaine. VS. Contextualized Projection or Defining Limits: Showing where a certain trend or direction is likely to go, or where it can, should, or will stop: You can legalize marijuana and keep cocaine illegal.
Argumentum ad Hominem: ‘Argument against the man’ rather than against what the man says: What does Oprah know about Shakespeare? VS. Avoiding Pre-judgment or Citing Experts: Judging by what is said not by who is saying it; using known authorities: Oprah pointed out that Westside Story is largely a reworking of Romeo and Juliet.
Straw Man: Setting up a contrary argument that is easy to knock down, and ignoring a more difficult and relevant contrary argument: Christianity is full of hypocrisy and zealots; just look at Jim Bakker and Jim Jones! VS. Tackling the Real Issue: Christianity may have its share of hypocrites and zealots, yet figures such as Saint Francis of Assisi and Bartolomé de las Casas seem to have been helpful and sincere.
False Appeal to Tradition: Arguing that if something was done or believed in the past it should therefore be continued: Smacking a child was good enough for my parents so it’s good enough for me. VS. Re-evaluation or Appropriate Use of Tradition: Many parents used to discipline their children by hitting them, yet today many parents try to find other ways to alter their children’s behaviour.
Non Sequitur: A statement that doesn’t logically follow another statement: Guns often cause deaths, and those who portray gun usage in films should be fined or imprisoned. VS. Proper Cause and Effect Logic: Guns often cause deaths, and as a result several organizations are trying to limit gun access and restrict the ownership of semi-automatics.
SAMPLE THESIS STATEMENTS
Here’s a range of thesis statements, starting with unconvincing statements and finishing with convincing statements. You can use alternative words for unconvincing (wrong, inaccurate, misguided, deceptive, uninformed, etc.) and for convincing (right, accurate, clear-headed, honest, informed, etc.). Use the categories of deceptive and honest sparingly, as these imply motives that you often can’t be sure about.
Be sure to make a final judgment. Imagine that you’re an administrator or judge, and need to make a decision. This will force you to consider which factors are most important.
You’ll always need to consider counter arguments in your essays, although you won’t always need to put these in your thesis statement.
Greene is completely wrong because she uses doubtful cause, illogical development, selective examples, and an exaggerated conclusion.
O’Rourke is very unconvincing because he makes the basic mistake of ignoring historical context.
While Sousa makes a few accurate statements, she’s unconvincing because she uses these to force the reader into a false dichotomy.
While Webster makes several strong points about delinquency, he is unconvincing because he has an unrealistic view of the social welfare system.
While Parnell gives some accurate dates and statistics, she is ultimately not convincing because her basic analogy is confusing.
While Wang’s main argument about bureaucracy is unconvincing, he does make some good secondary points regarding administrative process.
While Tramonti is accurate in his view of language, he’s unconvincing in the more important areas of communication and behaviour.
Exaggeration and selective examples are not enough to harm the overall strengths of Hunter’s analogies and historical perspective.
While Bhose uses two examples that are not completely accurate, his argument is convincing because she gives six accurate examples and a wealth of scientific facts.
While some factual inaccuracies mar parts of Tahara’s argument about poverty and violence, her overall cause and effect scenario is more than adequately backed up with references to a wide range of demographic studies and historical precedent.
Despite some problems involving too strong an appeal to emotional scenarios, Macron’s argument about the need for Third World aid is strongly backed up with economic studies, cultural background, and historical context.
Cheng’s argument is strong not only in terms of historical context and insightful analogies, but also in terms of logical argument and countering objections.