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Arguing with Myself

posted: 11.18.11 by archived

After nearly ten years of teaching composition, it’s depressing to find myself struggling with the many of the same issues semester after semester. Right now the issue is how best to handle argument. I’m not sure whether it’s my temperamental aversion to conflict or my creative writing background, but I chafe against the contention that all academic writing is (or should be) argumentative; at the same time, I do feel an obligation to “teach argument,” whatever I mean by that. I (sort of) know what I want out of student arguments, but there seems to be a yawning gap between what I’d like to see and what students are able to produce.

Here’s what I’d like students to do:

  • Engage with a topic about which they do not already hold a committed position.
  • Take on a fresh topic or offer a fresh perspective on a familiar topic.
  • Consider (in an open-minded, believing-and-doubting way) opposing viewpoints.
  • Recognize the limits of their own authority and the necessity for various sorts of evidence.
  • Understand something of the context and implications of their chosen issue.

As I pause to look over these goals, I notice that they involve not the actual drafting process and structure of the argument, but rather the thinking processes that occur before and during research. I remind myself that students’ development as writers and thinkers (if one can separate the two roles) is ongoing. I fully recognize the limitations my students face (as do we all) in terms of time and curiosity and investment in a course that for many is merely a requirement they must reluctantly hurdle. So are my goals foolishly ambitious? Should I settle for introducing students “merely” to the form that academic argument takes, with its thesis statement neatly shoe-horned into the end of the first paragraph, the skeleton of its reasoning laid out in clear topic sentences, its in-text citations conforming to some officially sanctioned format?

I suppose I’m trying to figure out what I want my students to gain from the arguments I ask them to write, what my purpose is in making such assignments at all. It’s a question that involves negotiation and setting priorities.  I guess this is where I’m stuck now, the same place I get stuck every semester, trying to figure out which of those bullet points above are most important, most possible, most teachable—and realizing yet again, with a start, that these are three different questions. That’s where my thoughts stagnate. But what and how I chose to teach argument depends on both those questions and their answers.

Still, come August and January there are syllabi to write, and even if the Big Questions remain unanswered, I still need something to try, some combination of reading and thinking and writing activities to keep my students productively engaged. So I’ve been thinking over the options:

  • A theme-based class that will help provide the context students need (but that runs the risk of being a theme they don’t care about)
  • A nonfiction book to serve as the centerpiece, which will provide context as well as practice in reading and responding, and, maybe, stimulate some curiosity
  • A case-study approach (groups of three or four related articles), which would allow more flexibility and variety
  • An emphasis on brainstorming activities
  • A bombardment of what I call arguments against convention to try to inspire a fresh approach

Care to weigh in on questions large or small? What do you see as the role of argument in first year composition? Is summary-response-synthesis of secondary sources the key sequence, or is there some other skill sequence you hope to teach? Does it matter that I teach at a community college? How do you balance the teaching of form with my more amorphous goals of habit of mind?

Categories: Argument, Holly Pappas
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