In Defense of the Argument

We have been talking about irony, so here is my contribution. I’m going to write an argument about why I think it’s important to teach argument in UNIV 200.

Every semester, I tell my students during the first week (and several more times thereafter) that if I had to say my most general goal for all students who take my course, it would be for each of them to leave my class knowing how to say what they believe and why they believe it. I tell them that they all MUST hope to have jobs in which this skill is vital and exercised daily, because otherwise, they are probably doing some kind of menial labor–although, of course, I know there are plenty of labor-type jobs where people have to make arguments as well. I truly believe this, and I tell my students that since they are in college, they must all want to have jobs where someone is asking for their opinions and needing them to explain why they believe what they do. I think it’s our jobs as writing and critical thinking teachers to help our students improve their ability to articulate their beliefs and explain their reasons for believing. It always surprises me, even after teaching this course  in research writing and argument for 15 years, that many (often most) students entering our classes cannot make a claim and say three reasons why they believe it. Usually, by the second or third reason, the reasons become unfocused and related to the claim in only the most tangential way. This happens in speech, and it happens just as much in writing. And it’s more noticeable in writing.

Even when we write down the claim and three reasons, many students cannot see why that second or third reason is not actually a reason why the claim is not true. Here is an example that I would say is quite typical of the way students think and write when they first enter 200.

I believe everyone should adopt dogs from the SPCA because…

  1. puppy mills employ harmful practices that are abusive to dogs
  2. puppies can be good companions for people
  3. dogs are not expensive pets

As any reader who is educated in basic argument can see, the first reason makes perfect sense but the next two are unfocused. They are reasons why people might adopt dogs, but they are not related to the argument about adopting from the SPCA. Even with the “because clause,” some students still write these types of claims and reasons and struggle to understand what is wrong with them. However, I have found that working with these “because clauses” is the best way to help students improve their focus and their logic as a whole. While some students can’t see what’s wrong with those reasons, others see it immediately and can help them. Bruce Ballenger has a good section in The Curious Researcher about this that provides a decent model for this type of thinking and writing. When we use because clauses, most students are able to write sentences that make sense, at least on the surface.

As I write this, I’m thinking how ridiculous this must sound–to say that second-year college students can’t write down a sentence asserting a belief and then write three phrases explaining why they believe what they do. We could write many blogs entries about WHY this is the case and speculate about how this has happened, but the truth is that for our purposes as teachers in 200, it doesn’t matter. This IS the state in which many students enter our courses. These are the skills they have, or don’t have, as is often the case. Happily, I believe that I achieve my goal for almost all of my students: when students leave 200, they can say what they believe and why they believe it.

Of course, I also have other goals for my students. I want them to be able to support their assertions with strong reasoning and evidence. I find that most students can find and read research in a variety of types of sources, but they do not know how to write a good paragraph. When I ask them to think about how they learned to write paragraphs, they don’t remember learning. Okay, that’s normal. When I ask them to write a paragraph, they do so without any reasoning for why they write it the way they do. They just sit down and write. Okay, well maybe that is normal too. It’s hard to reflect on one’s own reasons for writing the way one does. I couldn’t do that well until after I became a writing teacher and my teaching illuminated for me my own process. But when I ask them to analyze that paragraph that they wrote and explain why they put the sentences in the order that they did, most cannot do that. As a teacher of research writing, or just as a writing teacher, or just as a teacher in general: it is this last thing that concerns me.  In UNIV 200, I teach students how to write paragraphs. I try to help them become aware of their own writing process. I give them a basic formula for paragraph writing–claim leads to reasoning leads to evidence–and use paragraphs about many different topics to show them that all good paragraphs conform to this basic style. I believe I am successful at teaching this, and I think I am also successful, at least for some students, in showing them all the possibilities for creativity within that structure.  That is another thing that I hope my students learn about argument: writing arguments is a very creative act. If it’s not creative, it’s probably not very good writing.

Teaching students how to write paragraphs might sound like pretty dry and boring stuff. But if you think that, you are wrong. It can be fun and challenging and engaging. I frequently ask students to bring in their own essays and a pair of scissors. I have them cut up a few paragraphs into sentences and give them to their neighbor to put back together. The neighbor must explain to the writer why s/he put the sentences in the order in which s/he did. Since it’s often wrong, the writer must then make an argument for why the sentences belong in a different order. Not only does this teach paragraph writing, it teaches students to be cognizant of their choices in writing–and it also gives them practice making arguments about why the sentences belong in the order in which they say they do. This exercise transitions easily into looking at writing in other forms and considering the choices that the writer made–not just about paragraph structure but about essays a whole. In a digital course like the one we are teaching this summer, this type of exercise could be easily modified. We could do this with Youtube videos or with blurbs from an editorial or even with comments in many social media platforms. We could examine what makes some comments effective and others not so much.

I believe that students need to learn the basic fundamentals that I name above (and others as well) before they can experiment with those structures. They need to be able to write a paragraph before they can write a five paragraph essay and a five paragraph essay before they can learn to write a 10-page argument. As such, I believe they need to learn how to make a claim and explain three reasons why they believe it, with each of those subclaims following the claim–>reason–>evidence model before they can take some poetic license and make their paragraphs and essays their own.

Yes, I think it’s important for students to learn these skills because they need to learn them to be successful with writing in college. However, that is NOT the main reason that I think it’s so important to learn argument. The real reason is that students need this basic ability to say what they believe and why they believe it in order to be productive citizens. As educators, we have a responsibility to give our students this chance for effective communication. That might sound dramatic, but I honestly believe that if everyone could use basic logic and say what they believe followed by three basic “because clauses,” they world would be a better, less violent, more collaborative and far more productive place.

I’m very excited about the pilot course we are teaching this summer! I can’t wait to incorporate the digital media into the 200 class. I really mean that. But why must we do that at the expense of teaching such a fundamental skill as argument? Why can’t we incorporate the digital media and do all the cool stuff but still teach our students how to say what they mean and why they mean it? Students can write a paragraph or even a page or two, but when it comes to writing a sustained argument, most can’t do it before taking 200. And that’s okay. It is just fine, actually. That is why they take the course. But our students will not be able to compose/create/image amazing visual arguments at the end of the semester without receiving some instruction and opportunities for practice first. And they need to practice more than just writing short blurbs.  I believe in us–I think we could come up with some really cool ways to use the internet to teach some of these skills.

I know we want this course to be surprising and unusual, and I want that more than anything, but why is teaching argument automatically boring and common? It doesn’t have to be. I know that many of our 2oo faculty are doing really innovative types of instruction for teaching some of these important basic skills. No one is teaching the five paragraph essay or anything like it. And no one is getting up in front of the classroom and lecturing about Aristotle and rhetoric–or anything else, for that matter. Our classes are interactive, collaborative and engaging. They are full of active learning.  I, and  many of my colleagues, have found engaging and challenging ways to teach argument that provide students with opportunities to apply and practice what they learn.

And my students thank me at the end of each semester. For the vast majority of our students, 200 is the very last writing course they will EVER take. When I tell my students this, that after a lifetime of taking writing courses every single year, this really is the last one, they realize that, well, this really is the last one. And I think they start listening because they realize that there will not be any more chances to ask questions and learn what they don’t already know. They realize this because I tell them so, and I can actually see it sink in. It’s not meant to scare them; rather, my intent is to motivate them to action. Anyway, now I am losing my focus. But such is the nature of a blog post. Okay, I won’t go THERE right now, but I said it. And I don’t want it to be true for our students. Can’t we teach them about sustained argument AND give them this great experience with new media?

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