Presenting the 2016 Common Read: Our Declaration

The Composition Common Read committee has selected Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence by Danielle Allen as our 2016-2017 text.

Our Declaration chronicles Allen’s experiences teaching a close reading the 1,337 words of our nation’s founding document with her non-traditional students at the University of Chicago.

It was the first time Allen, now director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard OurdeclaraitionUniversity,  had read the Declaration so carefully and closely. Through the process of analyzing the short text with her students,  she came to understand it as a sturdy, persuasive document which uses rhetorical techniques to stake a claim of separation from mighty England.

More importantly, she and her students drew important conclusions about the main tenets of the Declaration which are often at odds– freedom and equality.  They are, Allen and her students found,  necessary to one another.

Through her analysis, Allen shows us how the Declaration’s language was perverted and distorted over time (especially after the Civil War), as key phrases like “separate and equal,” became “separate but equal.”

Reading and analyzing the Declaration of Independence closely , Allen tells us, is the means by which we can “bring back to life our national commitment to equality.”

Our Declaration can be used in many ways in our Composition I and Composition II courses.

First and foremost, the book is about writing and drafting an argument that creates a change. How did this group of writers led by Thomas Jefferson lay out their case against King George? How did they argue their case for equality? Allen shows us her analysis.

The November presidential election is also ripe for discussions of American ideals of equality, rights, and political empowerment.

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The book allows for

  • discussions of audience, genre and purpose when drafting an argument. Allen covers these briefly when making her argument that the Declaration is a memo addressed to multiple audiences (those in England and those in the colonies who would sign it).
  • lessons in rhetorical devices and choices. Allen points out that the Declaration is underscored by the narrative of King George’s wrongs and the colonist’s futile attempts to right them. The writers of the document made careful word and organization choices in order to make their logical case.
  • lessons in the revision process. Allen extensively covers multiple revisions of the text and includes images of various drafts with words and passages crossed out.
  • the study of group writing, an act of equality in the “relationships of the participants.” Allen focuses on the founders’ collaborative writing process,  which she terms “the art of democratic writing.”
  • an examination of the power of language and the power of “words as actions.” For instance, Allen devotes several pages to defining the words  “tyranny” and “tyrannt”–an exercise in word-precision. The founders used language to define the King as such, and thus, seal their argument.
  • lessons in close reading and analysis that will serve our students through their academic careers and into their roles as citizens.

Desk copies are on order. Instructors interested in participating in the Composition Common Read should contact a committee member by university email.