Owning the Intangible: Possession, Theft, and (Mis)Appropriation of Ideas


At Grinnell and in this Tutorial, you will do a lot of reading. You are likely to find that you have significantly more reading than you did in high school and that your faculty have different expectations of what you derive from your reading. In particular, when you read argumentative writing, you will likely need to have a good understanding of not only the claims authors make, but also the structure of their arguments. (I don't teach literature courses, but my impression is that you need an even more detailed understanding of texts for those classes, since you will be often asked in class to find portions of those texts that correspond to claims you or your colleagues make.)

Preliminary Processes

Before you begin reading any work, you should consider what kind of work it is and what that means about how your faculty will expect you to have read the work. I tend to classify work as argumentative (the author has a point to make), informative (although there may be a point in the work, the primary goal is to convey factual information), and literary (which, while possibly informative and argumentative, focuses primarily on careful use of language in its expression of ideas). In my classes, we focus on argumentative and informative works, so my process points also emphasize those kinds of works.

Before you begin reading, you should also have some resources available. These include highlighters (to highlight key passages), pencils (to take notes in the book or on paper), paper or notecards (for notes), and a dictionary (printed or electronic).

I recommend that before undertaking a thorough reading, you should do a more cursory reading of that work that work to identify some key issues.

Reading Argumentative Writing

This section was written after a wonderful lecture by Sandy Goldberg, formerly of Grinnell's Department of Philosophy, on talking to students about reading. Note that Sandy often assigns better writers than I do, so not everything may apply in all readings for this course.

How should you read the argumentative work (those with a strong thesis) for this class? Carefully, accurately, repeatedly, and thoughtfully.

You should read each work carefully. Most authors have placed considerable effort and care into their writing, precisely structuring their arguments. You owe it to yourself and to the author to make sure that you understand the argument.

You should read each work accurately. Strive to understand what the author intends at each place. Note that most authors of argumentative texts will use a number of forms to support their arguments. These include

I expect that you will eventually be able to classify each part of any writing I assign. That is, I may choose a section of the writing (e.g., a sentence or paragraph) and ask you whether it is a claim, evidence, objection, response, summary, or conclusion. You should also understand the relationship of that piece of text to the larger argument.

When possible, you should read each work repeatedly. Often, it is not possible to understand a serious work on the first (or second or third) reading. Through repeated readings, you familiarize yourself with the author's perspective, the structure of his or her argument, and the ideas he or she raises.

Finally, you should read each work thoughtfully. Once you begin to understand a work, you should begin to consider its implications. As you read, you are likely to develop questions.


When you are finished reading an argumentative work, I expect you to be able to do many things when talking about the work. You can probably tell many of them from the description above, but I've found that it doesn't hurt to remind students of my expectations. In particular, you should be able to:

I also expect you to understand the form of the argument, although perhaps in a little less detail. Ideally, you should be able to

Unfortunately, not all authors have carefully structured their works, so you may find some aspects of these latter requirements more difficult. Do the best you can.



Monday, 22 March 1999 [Samuel A. Rebelsky]

Saturday, 21 August 1999 [Samuel A. Rebelsky]

Saturday, 23 August 2003 [Samuel A. Rebelsky]

Sunday, 21 August 2005 [Samuel A. Rebelsky]

Sunday, 20 August 2007 [Samuel A. Rebelsky]


Disclaimer: I usually create these pages on the fly, which means that I rarely proofread them and they may contain bad grammar and incorrect details. It also means that I tend to update them regularly (see the history for more details). Feel free to contact me with any suggestions for changes.

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Samuel A. Rebelsky, rebelsky@grinnell.edu