Establishing Relevance and Evaluating Purpose

Barry Mauer and John Venecek

We discuss the following topics on this page:

We also provide the following:

Establishing Relevance [1]

We enter the scholarly conversation by establishing relevance; we ask, “how is this work of literature, or my research about it, relevant and significant to my audience?” For example, Jada might ask why James Baldwin and “Sonny’s Blues” are still relevant to audiences today. What lessons can contemporary audiences learn from a story written in 1957? Conversely, how can new perspectives that we bring to old stories keep them relevant? Relevance is established by explaining why something matters, and things matter to us now because we have problems today that we want to solve (or address). Such problems may have broader implications for society, or for a specific group of readers such as scholars of African-American literature.

We don’t want to propose overly simplistic answers to the question of relevance. For example, it is not enough to say that racism was a problem in 1957, and that it is still a problem today. The issue demands specificity. How is the past relevant to understanding the present? For example, do we see information or perspectives in “Sonny’s Blues” that could help us address how black people deal with black history and preserve and develop black culture? Conversely, does knowing about the current movement against systemic racism help us better understand what Baldwin was writing in 1957? Can we read the story as a message to future generations? Is there a problem related to scholarship about “Sonny’s Blues,” Baldwin, African- American literature, or literature of the 1950s that your work can help us better understand? For instance, what kinds of intergenerational trauma affect black families and can we learn from “Sonny’s Blues” how best to identify and mitigate it? Becoming familiar with the conversations among scholars and the general public can help you assess whether or not, and how much, your claims are relevant.

Establishing Relevance [Refresher]

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Identifying Criteria

Relevance and significance in literary studies are measured against established criteria. Every field of knowledge establishes criteria. For instance, medicine establishes criteria to determine what counts as health. Political science establishes criteria for what constitutes a democracy. Mathematics establishes criteria for what counts as a formal proof. We advance in our fields by learning these criteria and making use of them in strategic ways. People who are very advanced in their fields may introduce changes to these criteria or may even introduce new ones.

Example [Identifying Criteria]

In scholar Ann Dobie’s chapter “More Cultural Studies: Postcolonialism and Multiculturalism,”[2] she discusses the Black Aesthetic, a concept that artists involved in the Black Arts Movement[3] established in the 1960s when James Baldwin was in his prime as a prominent author and activist. The Black Aesthetic established criteria for determining what counts as “good” literature (at least among literary works that addressed black experience) and what doesn’t. In her text, Dobie discusses three key criteria for the Black Aesthetic: the materials its artists work with, the purpose of their work, and how they go about it.

  • Materials: Black history is the source material, which Dobie says is unique because it creates a dual identity, “one that both partakes of America and doesn’t, one that shares the American experience but is denied it.”
  • Purpose: Dobie says, “African American artists have a strong imperative to reclaim their culture by defining what is of value to them. Such a reclamation takes place by remembering history, defining identity, gaining recognition, and celebrating blackness.”
  • Method: Dobie notes that while African American artists may not go about their work differently from others, they are unique in that they draw from “folk traditions that express their beliefs, values, and social mores.” She also cites Ron Karenga who states that the purpose of African-American art is “to make revolution. Its collective nature is evident in its presentation of real life and real people, and it is committed to permanent revolution.”

Dobie adds, “To approach a text from a multicultural perspective, a reader must look for more than material, purpose, and method.” Readers must also “anticipate specific characteristics that distinguish their work.” These characteristics could include issues such as voice and narration.

Thus, when reading “Sonny’s Blues,” we can read it with these specific criteria in mind and assess the story according to the criteria. Doing so is not the end of the research process for a critical paper, but it is a crucial part. Keep in mind that the Black Aesthetic is one set of criteria but it is far from the only one you could apply to “Sonny’s Blues.”

We assess things, like literary works, against a set of standards. Many literary theories establish criteria for evaluating literary works. Another set of criteria we could apply to Baldwin’s work comes from Cleanth Brooks and the formalist critics.

  • Organic unity – all the parts of the literary work are interrelated and support its central idea.
  • Tensions – paradoxes, ironies, and ambiguities that the literary work resolves into a thematic unity. In “Sonny’s Blues,” we might say that Sonny sought to destroy himself through drugs yet he also sought to express himself through music. The tension between self-destruction and self-expression is thematically unified in the blues.

You can create your own criteria. Before doing so, find out what criteria for assessing literary works are already out there and whether they will work for your purposes. When creating your own criteria, you need to justify it; explain why it’s needed, and how it differs from existing criteria.

In literary theories, which we discuss in another chapter, we find many sets of criteria that we can use in our literary criticism (notice the shared root of the word “criteria” and “criticism”). Your paper should explain and justify why you chose a set of criteria and excluded others.

Considering the Stakes

Another way to establish relevance is by considering the stakes of an argument. The “stakes” means the consequences of an argument being accepted or rejected. What could be won or lost if the argument is accepted? For instance, could an argument about a particular literary work (or works) change the paradigm of how we study literature? If so, these are enormous stakes because it means established perspectives and methods might be abandoned and new perspectives and methods adopted.

Example [Considering the Stakes]

  1. Henry Louis Gates’ Study of “signifyin'” black tradition in literary works such as  Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo.
  2. Edward Said’s study of “Orientalism”  in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
  3. Mikhail Bakhtin’s study of “dialogism” in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novels.
  4. Viktor Shklovsky’s reading of “defamiliarization”  in Leo Tolstoy’s novels.
  5. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s identification of a “minor literature”  in the works of Franz Kafka.
  6. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s study of the “Madwoman in the Attic”  in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.
  7. Marjorie Garber’s study of “transvestite logic”  in the works of William Shakespeare.

These works are now anthologized in collections of literary theory and criticism but were once seen as radical shifts or groundbreaking new directions in literary studies research. They achieved their exalted position because they were recognized as highly relevant to the problems of their day. These literary researchers played for high stakes and won. But because the stakes of their work are high, it is not uncommon for other critics to challenge their work. For example, Gilbert and Gubar’s work has been challenged by Judith Butler, Mary Daly, and Tori Moi, among others.

“Low stakes” problems are still important to address. The size of the stakes are determined by the possible outcome. Generally, we ask “if X is true, what are the consequences”? So, for instance, if we produce a new interpretation of a Shakespeare sonnet, is it the kind of interpretation that changes our mind about one poem, about Shakespeare’s poetry, about poetry in general, about literature in general, or about life in general? A small stake would be an answer that revises our thinking about one poem but not so much beyond that.

Thomas Kuhn wrote a widely cited book titled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in which he argued that most scientific research is “normal science,” meaning it doesn’t change our fundamental understanding of the world but just elaborates on it or solves smaller problems. “Revolutionary science,” by contrast, changes the way we see the world in fundamental ways. So, Darwin’s theory of evolution is revolutionary, whereas a particular study within that paradigm – such as a study about the evolution of a fruit fly population – would be normal science. Normal science is still extremely important. Maybe it matters a great deal that we know how fruit flies evolve, but the answer probably does not involve a paradigm shift.

Basically, the higher the stakes, the greater the relevance. Darwin’s theory of evolution was extremely high stakes and extremely relevant to all of science, particularly biology, as well as to almost all human thought. The “problem” Darwin was addressing seemed to be fairly low stakes at first; why do finches on one island have short beaks while finches on another island have longer beaks? Yet the answer – that species changed through natural selection – was enormously relevant to many other problems. Low stakes means the research has narrow implications and high stakes means the research has broad implications. Your assignment may not require you to aim for low or high stakes, but it is good for you to know where you are aiming.

We will discuss the importance of establishing relevance more in-depth once we get into the “Refining Your Research Question” portion of this book, but it is important to keep relevance in mind during your early research process.

Evaluating Purpose [4]

Joining the scholarly conversation about literature involves more than just stating an interesting fact or making an appropriate observation here and there. The conversation moves along rhetorical lines (it aims to persuade); therefore, to join the conversation, we need to think rhetorically. The major purposes in rhetoric are:

  1. Docere – teaching on an intellectual level.
  2. Movere – touching the feelings.
  3. Delectare – keeping interest alive.

Skilled literary theorists and critics treat these purposes as interrelated. Thus, to succeed at docere, we also need to succeed at movere and delectare. We need to know our audience: what pleases one audience may upset another, and what interests one audience may bore or annoy another. For example, humor may be useful to express feelings and keep an audience interested, but if the audience has strong feelings about a subject, you should know which kind of humor (i.e. ironic humor, parodic humor, witty humor) is most likely to work, or whether it’s appropriate to use humor at all.

Beyond these general aims, you should have a specific purpose related to one of the three types of rhetoric, which are (according to Aristotle):

  1. Deliberative (or Political) – future oriented, it persuades people into action or dissuades them from action.
  2. Judicial (or Forensic) – past oriented, it persuades people to judge an action as justifiable or unjustifiable.
  3. Epideictic (or Ceremonial) – present oriented, it persuades people to praise or blame a person or work.

Let’s look at an example of a work of literary theory and criticism – Victor Shklovsky’s essay, “Art as Technique” – to understand its rhetorical practices. Shklovsky discusses Leo Tolstoy’s novels. He praises Tolstoy’s artfulness (epideictic/present) and persuades us to judge Tolstoy’s work (judicial/past) in terms of its masterful techniques:

“Tolstoy makes the familiar seem strange by not naming the familiar object. He describes an object as if he were seeing it for the first time, an event as if it were happening for the first time. In describing something he avoids the accepted names of its parts and instead names corresponding parts of other objects.”

In terms of its effects, Shklovsky says they “[prick] the conscience.” Overall, Shklovsky’s main purpose seems to be deliberative (political/future oriented):

“There is ‘order’ in art, yet not a single column of a Greek temple stands exactly in its proper order; poetic rhythm is similarly disordered rhythm. Attempts to systematize the irregularities have been made, and such attempts are part of the current problem in the theory of rhythm. It is obvious that the systematization will not work, for in reality the problem is not one of complicating the rhythm but of disordering the rhythm – a disordering which cannot be predicted. Should the disordering of rhythm become a convention, it would be ineffective as a procedure for the roughening of language.”

Shklovsky’s purpose, in other words, is to persuade artists to keep inventing new techniques for “making things strange” and to dissuade theorists from attempting to systematize such efforts. We might take Shklovsky’s essay and translate it into two columns: a set of things he tries to persuade us to do and a set of things he tries to persuade us not to do. His lessons apply not just to art but also to life itself.

Example [Schklovsky’s Dos and Dont’s, generated from his essay]

Do These Things:
Don’t Do These Things:
Live consciously Live unconsciously
Value Perception Value Knowledge
Notice more detail in an object Stop at recognizing an object
Recover sensation Avoid sensation
Make the familiar seem strange Keep perceiving the familiar as only familiar
Make art that impedes perception Make art that speeds up perception
Disorder the rhythm of art Order the rhythm of art
If any defamiliarization convention becomes conventional, stop using it If a defamiliarization technique becomes conventional, keep using it

Kinds of Purposes

When you plan your research project, develop a statement of purpose that answers the question “what is my goal?” until it is clear in your mind and makes sense to other people. In the discipline of literary studies, there are any number of purposes you can choose or develop. Among them are the following kinds:

  1. Historical: improve our understanding and appreciation of the past. Here we might seek to
    • Elevate an overlooked figure or literary work
    • Better understand major shifts around new literary forms, genres, and movements
    • Understand the relationship of literature to historical realities such as colonialism, industrialism, and information technologies
  2. Theoretical: improve our understanding of major principles used to study literature. Such goals might be to
    • Better understand narrative, metaphor, and argument
    • Explain the relationship of literature to other kinds of writing, to life, and to thought
    • Explore the relevance of philosophy, psychology, sociology, and anthropology to literature
  3. Pedagogical: improve the ways we teach literature, literary research, and writing about literature. Here we might seek to
    • Argue about which literary works should be included or excluded from the literary canon
    • Understand the value of literature within education
    • Develop better teaching strategies
  4. Social: improve the fortunes of society or of particular groups of people through literature and literary study. Our goals might be to
    • Reclaim identity for marginalized groups by celebrating their literature
    • Build a more just and equitable society by highlighting worthy traditions within literary cultures
    • Consider literary works as reflecting society, revealing its flaws and its potential
  5. Experimental: improve our understanding and appreciation of literature as an art form and a way of knowing. Such goals might be to
    • Discover and experiment with poetics (ways of making) found in literature
    • Apply new practices to literature and literary studies: for example, by creating literary-critical hybrids
    • Experiment with new information technologies (such as text-generating Artificial Intelligence) to test approaches to literary or critical prompt engineering.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, more possible purposes for work in literary studies. Your goal is to articulate your purpose clearly, concisely, and directly in such a way that it guides your work. Of course, you are allowed to change your purpose along the way since the research process is iterative and doesn’t always go in a straight line, but you should work with an end in mind.

Michael Baxandall, an art historian, provided some terminology that can help us think constructively about developing our own purpose.[5] The key terms Baxandall uses are chargebrief, and troc.

  • Charge: The charge is your primary purpose. Your purpose relates to a problem you choose to address. Baxandall discusses the relationship of these things to the bridge-builder Benjamin Baker, who designed the Forth Bridge in Scotland. The problem Baker faced was straightforward; the previous bridge, the Tay Bridge, had been destroyed in a storm and now there was no bridge. Baker’s charge was to span a distance over a body of water (additionally, he had to span it in such a way that the new bridge would not collapse). The charge for a literary scholar might be similarly broad: understandelevate, and teach come to mind.
  • Brief: the specific local conditions, or the situation, that you found yourself in. The brief includes the resources available to you. Baxandall classifies these as “resources of medium, of models (both positive and negative), and of ‘aesthetic'” (35). To grossly oversimplify, Baker’s medium was structurally-deployed metal, his positive model was the Oriental cantilever system, his negative model (an example of what not to do) was the Tay Bridge, which was blown down by side winds, and his aesthetic was ‘functional expressionism.’ Your brief is to contribute something valuable to the discipline of literary studies, as it exists currently. Your resources include not just literary works but ideas about literature. These ideas can include both positive and negative models. The positive models are the works of literary scholars that you wish to emulate. The negative models are works you wish to push against. These negative models are not necessarily “bad”; they may simply constitute resources that don’t fit your goal. For instance, you may wish to pursue historical ends and therefore push against formalist ideas about literature.  
  • Troc: Baxandall defines troc as “no more than the form of relation in which two classes of people, both within the same culture, are free to make choices in the course of an exchange, any choice affecting the universe of the exchange and so the other participants” (48). The troc is a market model, “a coming into contact of producers and consumers for the purpose of exchange” (47). In our field, literary scholars are like Baxandall’s producers and our readers are like his consumers. (In reality, scholarship usually involves a degree of co-creation between scholars, who are both readers and writers). Baxandall explains that, within a market, there is “a degree of competition among both producers and consumers” and “parties on either side can make statements with their feet, as it were, by participating or abstaining” (47). A troc includes the cultural resources available to a literary scholar (which, when selected, become elements of the scholar’s Brief), as well as the rewards a scholar may find for their work. Such rewards include belonging to a community of literary scholars, recognition, and career advancement.

When you think about your own purpose for the literary research project you are undertaking, consider charge, brief, and troc.


Relevance and purpose are not fixed and stable categories. What is relevant one moment might be irrelevant the next (for instance, “what are we having for dinner?” is a relevant question but is irrelevant once we have eaten it). Our purpose is related to relevance, so it can change too. There’s no purpose to making dinner once it’s already eaten (unless you are making it for another evening).

When it comes to writing about literary works, it is a bit different: the potential audience is much bigger than a dinner party, and literature can be consumed more than once. We might consider the possibility, also, that some literature, like some food, is past its “expiration date” and would only be interesting to historians.

Relevance is a key question for scholars. We discover relevance and we make relevance. To that end, our purpose is to be like a “relevance detective” or even a “relevance inventor.” What we are looking for is the “aha!” moment that tells us we are on to something that we want to share with others.

In terms of relevance changing, one issue that has appeared lately is text-generating AI technology, such as GPT-3. We can ask it to write something in the style of a particular author, but how close is it? Typically, the closest it can get is very superficial. The failures of such machinery to capture the brilliance of literary authors raises a relevant question – what is the gap between an author’s work and a machine’s imitation of it? What is missing?

Evaluating a Purpose [Refresher]

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Key Takeaways

Establishing relevance:



Make a case for why the research matters to audiences today. Assume your audience will see the relevance without your help.
Be specific about how it matters. Leave things vague as in “racism still exists.”
Recognize the “stakes” of your argument.

Establish relevance in terms of recognized criteria such as the Black Aesthetic.

Ignore the stakes of your argument.

Argue relevance without referring to recognized criteria.

Evaluating purpose:



Choose a primary purpose: deliberative, judicial, or epideictic. Write without choosing a primary purpose, or by leaving it vague.
Aim to persuade your audience. Provide information to your audience without aiming to persuade.
Teach your audience while touching their feelings and keeping their interest.

Know your audience, their thoughts, and their feelings about a subject before you attempt to persuade them.

Aim to teach without touching the feelings or keeping the audience’s interest, or aim to amuse without teaching.

Attempt to persuade your audience without knowing how they think and feel.

Establishing Relevance & Evaluating Purpose [Refresher]

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  1. How does the issue of relevance change your understanding of the research process?
  2. Notice the ways that literary critics and theorists try to persuade their audiences. Choose one work of literary criticism or theory and discuss its rhetorical purpose. Evaluate the work and assess it using the rubric below.
  3. If there are any elements of your assignment that need clarification, please list them.
  4. What was the most important lesson you learned from this page? What point was confusing or difficult to understand?
Above Satisfactory (A/B) Satisfactory (C) Below Satisfactory (D/F)
Answers “So What?” Question Argues convincingly why the topic and claim should matter to the audience. Argues somewhat convincingly why the topic and claim should matter to the audience. Relevance was not established. It does not explain why the topic or claim should matter to the audience.
Specificity Proposes specific answers to the question of relevance. Proposes generic and/or generalized answers to the question of relevance. Proposes overly simplistic answers (or no answers) to the question of relevance.
Consideration of Audience Target audience was carefully considered. Target audience was only somewhat considered. The target audience was not considered.


MLA or APA was used correctly while establishing relevance. Sentence structure as well as grammar, punctuation, and capitalization were used correctly with minimal to no errors. Generally, MLA or APA format is used correctly while establishing relevance; however, there are some mistakes. Some awkward sentences appear as well as some grammar, punctuation, and capitalization errors. There are multiple incorrect sentence structures used while establishing relevance. It also lacks the use of correct MLA or APA format. There are significant errors in grammar, punctuation, and capitalization.

  1. In the “Back Matter” of this book, you will find a page titled “Rubrics.” On that page, we provide a rubric for Establishing Relevance.
  2. Dobie, Ann. "More Cultural Studies: Postcolonialism and Multiculturalism," Theory into Practice: An Introduction to Literary Criticism. Third Edition. Boston, MA. Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2012. 216-226.
  3. Note: This course uses Wikipedia (and other open sources) to provide background information on a variety of topics. Wikipedia, like any source, does have deficiencies, some of which are discussed on their own site. Wikipedia articles also include links to other sources, which makes them good places to start the research process.
  4. In the “Back Matter” of this book, you will find a page titled “Rubrics.” On that page, we provide a rubric for Evaluating Purpose
  5. Baxandall, Michael. Patterns of Intention: On the Historical Explanation of Pictures. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1985.


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