Expository Writing 8.1: Workshopping Gladwell’s “Thresholds of Violence”

Today’s plan:

  • Homework
  • Gladwell


For next session, I want you to read one more chapter from Jenkins’ book. I will leave the choice of chapter up to you. In Thursday’s class, I will ask each of you to write 300 to 400 words that summarizes Jenkins and turns him into a prompt, or an analytical tool, for talking about online writing. I will discuss more of what I mean by this in Thursday’s class–for now, I would ask you to be ready to write about Jenkins, and to try and read a chapter on your own in the manner that I read a chapter with you last Thursday (that is, attempt to identify claims he makes of digital communication or fan communities that you can apply to your writing).


In class today, I want to workshop a recent essay by Malcolm Gladwell. As you read, I want you to think about the following “big questions”:

  • What are the major claims Gladwell makes in this piece?
  • How would you describe the purpose of this essay?
  • What other voices does he bring in? How does he build ethos for these voices?

I’ve set up a discussion thread on Canvas. In the thread, I want you to copy and paste a sentence that sparks a thought. Then write about that sentence. What makes it work?

Since it is long, I’ll give you 40 minutes to read the piece, think about the questions above, and post to Canvas. Then we’ll talk about it.

What I like about that opening paragraph: the use of idiosyncratic details to create mood. “He walked through puddles, not around them.”

“On the day of the attack, he would start with a .22-calibre rifle and move on to a shotgun, in order to prove that high-capacity assault-style rifles were unnecessary for an effective school attack.”

Possible purpose: to explain that the notion of “copycat” killers is too naive, and fails to capture the dynamics at play. I am thinking of this sentence:

That’s what Paton and Larkin mean: the effect of Harris and Klebold’s example was to make it possible for people with far higher thresholds—boys who would ordinarily never think of firing a weapon at their classmates—to join in the riot.

And later:

The second problem was more complicated. The prosecution saw someone who wanted to be Eric Harris and plainly assumed that meant he must be like Eric Harris, that there must be a dark heart below LaDue’s benign exterior. But the lesson of the Granovetterian progression, of course, is that this isn’t necessarily true: the longer a riot goes on, the less the people who join it resemble the people who started it.

A great way to summarize this angle: “But at every turn his reluctance and ambivalence was apparent: he was the ninety-ninth person in, warily eying the rock”

Or the haunting use of understatement in this sentence (and the immediate implications, the anticipation of what we might do, i.e., give more tests):

He had, furthermore, been given the full battery of tests for someone in his position—the Structured Assessment of Violence Risk in Youth (SAVRY), the youth version of the Psychopathy Checklists (PCL), and the Risk Sophistication Treatment Inventory (R.S.T.I.)—and the results didn’t raise any red flags. He wasn’t violent or mentally ill. His problem was something far more benign. He was simply a little off.

This paragraph suggests another purpose, or motive, at play:

The LaDue case does not resolve this puzzle. LaDue doesn’t hear voices. He isn’t emotional or malicious or angry or vindictive. Schroeder asks him about violent games, and he says he hasn’t been playing them much recently. Then they talk about violent music, and LaDue says he’s been playing guitar for eight years and has little patience for the “retarded” music of “bands like Bullet for My Valentine or Asking Alexandria or some crap like that.” He likes Metallica: solid, normal, old-school heavy metal. “I was not bullied at all,” LaDue tells Schroeder. “I don’t think I have ever been bullied in my life. . . . I have good parents. I live in a good town.”

Another purpose / dynamic: All this normalcy intensifies the terror. We want these killers to be ill. We need them to be ill. We must assign a reason. The anecdote of David LaDue confirms this, and the inadequacy.

Great sentence for a rather weak argument: “A school shooter, it appears, could be someone who had been brutally abused by the world or someone who imagined that the world brutally abused him or someone who wanted to brutally abuse the world himself.” The parallel structure here is a nice way to summarize the three cases studied. But is three cases really enough to make this kind of claim? What about the other 137 shootings since Sandy Hook?

Gladwell is a master at the anti-transition, a sudden jump from an anecdotal scene to a piece of theory or science that can be used to understand that scene–the jump to Granovetter is a nice example of this.

If I had to isolate a sentence, I would look at this one: “LaDue is a scholar of the genre, who speaks of his influences the way a budding filmmaker might talk about Fellini or Bergman.”

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