Anticipating the Author’s Purpose

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The first and foremost thing to remember about approaching an RC passage is a core skill we have already learned when practicing Logic Reasoning Questions: We must be aware of the passage structurally.

Most LR stimuli consisted of arguments. In an argument, there will be a main conclusion and supporting premises. When approaching an LR argument, we consistently ask ourselves, “what is the author’s main point?” or “what is the main conclusion of this argument?” This applied not only to Find the Conclusion Questions but to every question type from the Assumption Family (Flaw, SA, NA, Strengthen, Weaken, etc.) and more. When reading an RC passage, we should take the same approach. As we go through the passage, we are constantly asking ourselves, “what is the Main Point of this passage? What is the author trying to convey, and what kind of supporting information are they using?”

On the other hand, RC passages are much longer than the arguments we see in LR. As a result, many of us end up mindlessly reading/browsing through the passage without really thinking about what the author is trying to say. We end up finishing the passage but can’t remember anything. The bits and pieces of information we recall are fragmented and piecemeal. When we finally get to the questions, we have no specific evidence to lean on and rely on our intuition instead.

Because time is so limited on the RC section, we don’t have the luxury of wasting any of it. We must engage with the passage from the beginning and practice active reading. Rather than mindlessly wander through the passage as we read, we need to be asking ourselves questions, find the answers in the passage, and reorganize the information we just read structurally.

But how?

We start by anticipating the Author’s Purpose. In other words, as soon as we begin reading a passage, we ask ourselves, “why is the author writing this passage?” Just like how each LR argument will contain a main conclusion, and all that information will start to make sense once you have isolated what the conclusion is; if we can figure out the main point/conclusion of a passage, then reading and understanding the passage will become so much easier.

To illustrate my point, look at the following passage. As soon as you finish, try to recollect what it’s about without referring back. For realism’s sake, try to limit yourself to 3 minutes.

PT29 Passage 4

Until about 1970, anyone who wanted to write a comprehensive history of medieval English law as it actually affected women would have found a dearth of published books or articles concerned with specific legal topics relating to women and derived from extensive research in actual court records. This is a serious deficiency, since court records are of vital importance in discovering how the law actually affected women, as opposed to how the law was intended to affect them or thought to affect them. These latter questions can be answered by consulting such sources as treatises, commentaries, and statutes; such texts were what most scholars of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries concentrated on whenever they did write about medieval law. But these sources are of little help in determining, for example, how often women’s special statutory privileges were thwarted by intimidation or harassment, or how often women managed to evade special statutory limitations. And, quite apart from provisions designed to apply only, or especially, to women, they cannot tell us how general law affected the female half of the population—how women defendants and plaintiffs were treated in the courts in practice when they tried to exercise the rights they shared with men. Only quantitative studies of large numbers of cases would allow even a guess at the answers to these questions, and this scholarly work has been attempted by few.

One can easily imagine why. Most medieval English court records are written in Latin or Anglo-Norman French and have never been published. The sheer volume of material to be sifted is daunting: there are over 27,500 parchment pages in the common plea rolls of the thirteenth century alone, every page nearly three feet long, and written often front and back in highly stylized court hand. But the difficulty of the sources, while it might appear to explain why the relevant scholarship has not been undertaken, seems actually to have deterred few: the fact is that few historians have wanted to write anything approaching women’s legal history in the first place. Most modern legal historians who have written on one aspect or another of special laws pertaining to women have begun with an interest in a legal idea or event or institution, not with a concern for how it affected women. Very few legal historians have started with an interest in women’s history that they might have elected to pursue through various areas of general law. And the result of all this is that the current state of our scholarly knowledge relating to law and the medieval Englishwoman is still fragmentary at best, though the situation is slowly improving.

 

That was a dense passage. When I went over this passage with my students, many were so focused on the details that they forgot to think about the passage’s main point. So, go ahead; without looking back at the passage, can you summarize what the author talked about?

Students with strong reading skills can probably come up with a good response. But for the rest of us, it was probably quite a struggle. Chances are that you forgot as quickly as you read, there were some keywords and bits and pieces of information that you remembered, but if I asked you to summarize the passage in two to three sentences, you’d have to go back and look at the passage again.

Remember what we talked about before. If by some miracle you already knew what the author’s main point was as soon as you started reading, then everything will automatically make sense. Armed with that knowledge, you can now categorize each sentence as you read them, and by the time you finish the passage, your understanding of the passage will be organized and coherent.

So let’s try that again, go back and re-read the passage, but this time I will tell you the author’s main point/thesis:

Because of the scarcity of scholarship based on real cases, we know little about how the law actually affected women from the Middle Ages. This situation arose because most legal historians are more interested in general ideas rather than how real women were affected.

Once you know what the passage was going to talk about, reading all that convoluted information became much easier, right? Now, you can process the details as soon as you read them, you can organize them in your mind, you can categorize them based on what you knew about the passage.

1.1.1 The Author’s Purpose

But wait, you say, on the actual exam itself; we have no way of knowing what the author’s main point is until the very end! We still have no choice but to read through the passage, all muddled and confused, hoping that clarity and understanding will eventually come to us. We will still get lost in the details, unable to retain the information we’ve just read, and still unable to organize all that information coherently.

You are right. There’s no way to know what the author’s main point is for sure until we’ve finished reading the entire passage. Sometimes it’s stated outright near the end of the passage, but most times, we need to derive it ourselves. So we can’t use the author’s main point as an aid as we read through the passage. But we have the next best thing:

The Author’s Purpose

Simply put, the Author’s Purpose tells us WHY the author wrote the passage. None of the passages that appear on the LSAT are there randomly. Each passage and even the paragraphs within each passage are there for a reason. Think about real-life situations; we give speeches or write essays to explain, persuade, incite, attack opponents, defend a position, or justify and provide a rationale for our actions. All writers write with a purpose in mind, unless you are making a shopping list/laundry list, and even then we make lists to help us remember things. In other words, there is a purpose behind every piece of writing.

If the main point/thesis is WHAT the author is trying to get across to the readers, the Author’s Purpose is WHY the author is penning this passage in the first place. These are essentially two sides of the same coin, but more on that in a later chapter, when we look at Main Point and Purpose questions.

As we read through the passage, hints and clues will be scattered or hidden, giving us a rough idea of the WHY. When approaching a passage, our first task is to constantly ask ourselves why the author is writing what they did.

Let’s return to PT29 Passage 4; only this time we will ask ourselves the question “WHY?”

Until about 1970, anyone who wanted to write a comprehensive history of medieval English law as it actually affected women would have found a dearth of published books or articles concerned with specific legal topics relating to women and derived from extensive research in actual court records.

Dearth: so there is a lack of material. Why is the author pointing this out? Why is the author writing this passage in the first place?

Hmmm, I’m not too sure; maybe the author wants to offer a solution to this by proposing alternative sources? Maybe they will tell us why there is so little scholarship. Maybe they are drawing awareness to the issue by calling for more focus on this field. I guess I will keep on reading to find out.

This is a serious deficiency, since court records are of vital importance in discovering how the law actually affected women, as opposed to how the law was intended to affect them or thought to affect them. These latter questions can be answered by consulting such sources as treatises, commentaries, and statutes; such texts were what most scholars of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries concentrated on whenever they did write about medieval law. But these sources are of little help in determining, for example, how often women’s special statutory privileges were thwarted by intimidation or harassment, or how often women managed to evade special statutory limitations. And, quite apart from provisions designed to apply only, or especially, to women, they cannot tell us how general law affected the female half of the population—how women defendants and plaintiffs were treated in the courts in practice when they tried to exercise the rights they shared with men. Only quantitative studies of large numbers of cases would allow even a guess at the answers to these questions, and this scholarly work has been attempted by few.

So the lack of scholarship is a “serious deficiency,” and what materials that are available are “of little help.”

Ok, so the situation is pretty bad. But WHY is the author saying this?

So far, the author has only highlighted the problems; is that their purpose? To highlight the problems plaguing an academic field? Or is it something more? Perhaps the author will propose a solution in the next paragraph?

One can easily imagine why.

Nice! So the author is going to tell us why scholarship is so limited. Maybe this is the Author’s Purpose after all.

Most medieval English court records are written in Latin or Anglo-Norman French and have never been published. The sheer volume of material to be sifted is daunting: there are over 27,500 parchment pages in the common plea rolls of the thirteenth century alone, every page nearly three feet long, and written often front and back in highly stylized court hand.

Is it because there are too many inaccessible sources?

But the difficulty of the sources, while it might appear to explain why the relevant scholarship has not been undertaken, seems actually to have deterred few:

Nope, that’s not the reason. Let’s see what the author thinks the real reason is.

the fact is that few historians have wanted to write anything approaching women’s legal history in the first place. Most modern legal historians who have written on one aspect or another of special laws pertaining to women have begun with an interest in a legal idea or event or institution, not with a concern for how it affected women. Very few legal historians have started with an interest in women’s history that they might have elected to pursue through various areas of general law. And the result of all this is that the current state of our scholarly knowledge relating to law and the medieval Englishwoman is still fragmentary at best, though the situation is slowly improving.

This is unfortunate. The real reason is that historians don’t care enough about the issue.

As it should be clear by now, the Author’s Purpose in this passage is to highlight a problem in an academic field and explain how it came to pass. I’m amazed that the author didn’t propose a tentative solution to the problem. Most RC passages that highlight a problem will usually offer a potential solution.

Compare this to the main point of the passage:

The scarcity of scholarship based on real cases meant we know little about how the law actually affected women from the Middle Ages, this situation arose because most legal historians are more interested in general ideas rather than how women were affected.

Notice how closely related the Author’s Purpose is to the passage’s Main Point? As we read the passage and try to figure out the purpose, the main point should also come naturally to us. (More on this later)

1.1.2 The Hypothesis-Validation Framework

Notice how as we read through the passage, we were constantly asking ourselves WHY the author wrote this passage, and we were also constantly coming up with potential answers? At first, as soon as we realized that the first paragraph was talking about a problematic situation, we started to propose potential answers to the WHY question. We thought it might be to offer a way to solve the problem; maybe the author is simply highlighting the problem to bring awareness to it or explain how this problem arose in the first place?

By the second paragraph, we realized that the author is going to tell us the reason behind this problematic situation. So the author isn’t simply highlighting a deficiency. Similarly, the author never provided a solution to this problem, so that can’t be the purpose of this passage.

Think about RC reading as a scientific experiment. In a scientific experiment, we would develop an initial hypothesis, and with additional evidence, we would either modify, confirm, or replace our hypothesis. RC reading is very similar. As soon as we start reading a passage, we ask ourselves what’s the Author’s Purpose in writing this passage. As we keep reading, we find details and words that serve as our scientific evidence. We continuously modify, confirm, or even replace our initial hypothesis entirely. Eventually, by the time we have finished reading the passage, we will have a much better understanding of the Author’s Purpose, the passage’s main point, and the role of the rest of the information we’ve just read.

This is a reading habit that I’ve named the Hypothesis-Validation Framework, and it has worked wonders for both my students and me, especially in the most complex passages. In short, we start the reading and try to brainstorm some of the reasons why the author is writing the passage, or what the passage will talk about (hypothesis). As we read through the passage, we use the additional information to validate our initial hypothesis. If the hypothesis isn’t fully validated, then we modify it accordingly.

This framework also works in non-LSAT readings. In my RC class and privately, I tried it with dense passages from Clifford Geertz, Kant, Foucault, Habermas, and jurists like Hart and Dworkin. The results were extraordinary.