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Beyond Our Classrooms

posted: 5.8.15 by Donna Winchell

All teachers hope that their students will make use of the knowledge and skills taught in their courses–in spite of the students’ protestations that “I’ll never use this after the class ends!” One example from a writing course:  “I’ll have a secretary to catch grammar and punctuation errors for me.” I must admit that I don’t see either of my sons ever using the advanced math they were learning by the end of high school. But as teachers of writing, we can rest assured that more of our students will make use of the skills we teach than will ever make use of imaginary numbers. As teachers of critical thinking, our hope is that all of them will take that skill out into the world and put it to use as workers, voters, parents, community members, and just as people alive in the world.

I focus in this space on how our students can learn to look at today’s headlines and the stories behind them as critical thinkers. I may not use that term regularly, but whenever we ask students to look as dispassionately as possible at the stories behind the headlines, we are not asking them not to be passionate. Not at all. We would be less than human if we could read about the evil and injustice that exist in our world without passion. We have seen too often recently, though, the consequences of letting passion rule over reason.

Michael N. Di Gregorio explains how Aristotle identified anger as “the distressed desire for conspicuous retaliation; passion necessitates a reaction. Unfortunately, it is not a clear-headed, rational reaction but one taken under ‘mental and physical distress,’ and we are presumably prone to overreact or react mistakenly.” Aristotle identifies “a kind of ‘pleasure’ that ‘follows all experience of anger from the hope of getting retaliation..’ We tend to dwell on this hope for retaliation until its pleasure swells in the mind so as to become dreamlike: We do not necessarily want to retaliate because it is deserved, or justifiable, but because we take pleasure in imagining ourselves carrying out the retaliation.” We have seen passion overcome reason in Ferguson, and more recently in Baltimore. Looters in Baltimore went beyond protest to seek the pleasure of material gain.

We want our students not to replace passion with reason, but to see the rational behind the passion. We would hope that the jury members deciding not to press charges in the Ferguson case were looking at the facts. We would hope those making the opposite decision to press charges in Baltimore were as well. If nothing else, we want our students to learn to look at more than one side of an argument, to understand what different parties in a disagreement are supporting, what support they are offering, and what sort of values underlie their reasoning. We want them to have a vocabulary to use in discussing disagreements. In our world they need that. We all get into arguments. Part of being educated is being able to back away from the argument and analyze it. Headlines from around the world daily give our students and us opportunities to practice this skill.

[Photo Source: Christopher Sessums, “UF Norman Hall Classroom Desks Old Norman Orange and Blue“]

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Freedom: A Definition Issue?

posted: 4.10.15 by Donna Winchell

Indiana’s controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act reminds us once again of the role that definition can play in argumentation. The case has been made that the recent Indiana law is no different from the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act signed into law by President Clinton in 1993. One crucial difference, however, is a matter of definition. The federal RFRA states, “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.” The wording of the state law is identical except that the term “governmental entity” replaces “government.” That is not the crucial difference, however. What is crucial is that where the federal law does not define the word “person,” the Indiana law explicitly gives it a much broader definition than most people would expect. A person is not just an individual, but “an organization, a religious society, a church, a body of communicants . . . . a partnership, a limited liability company, a corporation, a company, a firm, a society, a joint-stock company . . . .”  By stipulating that broad—and unexpected—definition of a person, Indiana has changed the whole interpretation of the law—or opened it up to a much broader range of interpretation. It would be useful for our students to consider how that stipulated definition changes the law.

The Indiana controversy is reminiscent of the controversy that revolved around Chick-Fil-A not too long ago. In that case, not an individual, but a company, was making decisions based on religion. That company drew criticism and boycotts because it donated to organizations opposed to same-sex marriage. It neither refused to hire or to serve gay or lesbian individuals. A question for students to consider is how the Indiana law would apply to that situation.

The key term “exercise of religion,” of course, is open to interpretation, and it is the discriminatory forms that the exercise of religion can take in this day of broader acceptance of same-sex marriage that have led to most of the outcry against the law. The owners of a bakery refuse to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple because they view homosexuality as a sin. Not a life-threatening exercise of religion, but how far should exercise of religion go in a world where members of ISIS use religion as justification for their atrocities?

[Image source: Hoosier Hospitality by Mike Licht]

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What a Difference a Word Makes

posted: 3.6.15 by Donna Winchell

Language has made the headlines once again. We teach our students that word choice affects their arguments. President Obama has drawn criticism over the last few weeks, mostly from Republicans, for being what some critics consider overly cautious. He has chosen to carefully avoid use of the word “Islamic” in referring to ISIS terrorists who have horrified the world by beheading individual British, American, and Japanese captives, by burning alive a Jordanian pilot, and by beheading en masse twenty-one Coptic Christians.

Doyle McManus has written clearly and succinctly about the wisdom of Obama’s choice in an LA Times article entitled “’Islamic’ extremists or ‘violent’ extremists? The president is mincing words and there’s a reason for that.”  McManus quotes Ted Cruz (R—Texas): “The president and his administration dogmatically refuse to utter the words ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’ You cannot defeat an enemy if you refuse to acknowledge what it is.” McManus lets Obama explain in his own words why he is doing what McManus calls “walking on semantic eggshells”: “Al Qaeda and ISIL [Islamic State] and groups like it are desperate for legitimacy. They try to portray themselves as religious leaders — holy warriors in defense of Islam,” Obama said. “[They] do draw, selectively, from the Islamic texts. They do depend upon the misperception around the world that they speak in some fashion for people of the Muslim faith.” His main point: “We are not at war with Islam.” If the battle against ISIS is to be won, it will be with the help of Muslim-led countries that do not share the radical beliefs of ISIS. Cruz may be right that you must acknowledge your enemy to defeat it, but you do not want to lump together under the same label that enemy and those who share your horror at what is done in the name of religion.

We teach our students that it may be necessary to stipulate the meaning of a term in the context in which they are using it. If communication is to take place, a reader or listener has to understand how a term is being used if there is to be any hope of reaching common ground, starting with agreement about what key words mean. Sometimes terms that seem to be cut and dried are the basis of heated argument. Is a child a child from the moment of conception? If not, when can that term be applied? Such questions affect legal and moral decisions. Is passive euthanasia equivalent to murder? Again, there are profound legal and moral implications.

By choosing NOT to use the term “Islamic,” Obama is making a conscious decision not to group the brutal members of ISIS with the much larger group that is all Muslims. We teach our students that the destructive power of stereotypes is the fact that they lump all members of a group together, in spite of individual differences. Cruz stated, “You cannot defeat an enemy if you refuse to acknowledge what it is.” What Obama is refusing to do is to suggest that all Muslims are America’s enemies. Whatever our students’ politics, they need to understand word choice as part of rhetorical strategy.

Source for photo: [Bird Eye, “Muslims in Mumbai protest against terrorism” on Flikr]


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The Movie Review as a Claim-of-Value Essay

posted: 2.13.15 by Donna Winchell

Because my son Jonathan is a film scholar, I am probably even more aware than most that this is awards season. The Academy Awards ceremony each year is for our household what the Super Bowl is for others. Jonathan recently posted on Facebook that in his lifetime he has seen 2,502 movies. The fact that he knows that speaks volumes about his obsession, along with the fact that he was watching classic silent movies before he could read the subtitles. I came naturally to use the movie review as a means of teaching the claim of value, but my approach can be adapted to other types of evaluative writing as well. 

First, I ask my students to bring in or upload examples of movie reviews that are essay length. My goal is to let my students discover the conventions of the genre. I put them into groups to share the reviews and ask them to come up with a list of rules for writing movie reviews. An example would be that one never gives away the ending. More useful is the observation that a good review is focused—it has a point more specific than that the movie is good or bad. After the group work, we work as a class to come up with a master list of rules, and I ask them to share some of the best examples of claims that they discovered. They can use the list of rules as they write their own reviews and can model claims for their own writing on the best examples we have discovered.

Second, I find it useful to check students’ claims before they write their essays so that I can head off problems such as claims that are too broad or that are not actually claims of value.

Third, I have them write their review for a specific publication. It makes a difference if a review would appear in Parents magazine rather than Rolling Stone. They can adapt their content and their language to their audience, and I can evaluate their writing accordingly.

Through this process I am trying to teach them an important point about all evaluative writing—that a work of art, or anything else, is evaluated according to a set of standards.  Readers are not going to agree with a review if they do not agree with the standards the writer uses to judge it. It is widely believed that the Academy Awards are slanted to the perspective of “old white guys” because of the make-up of the organization. They are more conservative, for example, than professional critics, who err on the side of rewarding risk taking. Whatever the audience, whatever the standards being used to judge a work of art, it is ultimately the responsibility of the reviewer to build a convincing case, using specific references to the work, that it meets or does not meet a clearly established set of standards.

[Photo source: Loren Javier, “Academy Award…“]

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Teaching the Tensions

posted: 1.30.15 by Donna Winchell

The last few weeks have seen two threats to freedom of speech that have generated international attention. The first was North Korea’s threats against Sony if the movie The Interview was released because the comedy was about the assassination of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un. Although the threats were enough to delay the release, within days the movie opened peacefully nationwide and was soon available on demand. It may have been only a movie—and a mediocre one at best—but it was a matter of principle. Threats to freedom of speech became much more serious with the massacre of twelve journalists at the French weekly Charlie Hebdo following the publication of cartoons mocking the prophet Mohammed. They may have been only cartoons, but twelve people died for the right to publish them, and hundreds of thousands marched in support of that right.

How can these episodes become teaching points rather than simply the triggers for either heated renunciation of those parties seen to be in the wrong or unexamined championing of those seen to be in the right? That’s where the terminology of argumentation can be used to force students to examine and talk about arguments instead of simply arguing.

In the Sony movie controversy, North Korea’s claim was simply that the movie should not be released. (The North Koreans had earlier argued that the movie should not be made.) The other side of that argument was that it should. North Korea backed up its argument not with rhetoric, but with threats. Once those threats were made, even to the point of hints of 9/11-style retaliation, Americans were divided about whether or not the movie should open in spite of the possible danger. Most argued that it should. In class discussion or in a writing assignment, ask students to consider the following: What type of support was offered in support of the claim that The Interview should open? In support of the claim that it should not? What needs and values were being appealed to in each case? What warrants were behind each?

We hope that no right-minded individuals would argue that people should be killed for publishing cartoons, although clearly an extreme minority hold that view. Ask students, What is the argument to analyze in the Charlie Hebdo tragedy? Consider how the elements of argument apply in that case.

[Photo by H.Kopp, Flikr]

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Holiday Appeals

posted: 12.12.14 by Donna Winchell

I just read on about the Hendersons of Hurricane, Utah, who have cancelled Christmas in an effort to teach their three children to stop being disrespectful and to stop acting entitled. They will celebrate the religious meaning of Christmas, but Santa won’t be visiting their house this year.

Ads also appeal to their audience’s values, and during the Christmas season, there is an extra push to remind people to exhibit the spirit of Christmas by sharing with the less fortunate. If you’ve ever dropped some money into a Salvation Army bucket–or felt guilty for not doing so–you have been targeted by one of the most visible of the season’s appeals to values.We all know the common complaints about the commercialization of Christmas. In fact, the Christmas season is a good time to look at the commercials that start showing up around Halloween. If we think about commercials as arguments designed to convince us to buy a product or act in a certain way, we can analyze the needs and values that they are appealing to. In Elements of Argument and The Structure of Argument, we use Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to examine how arguments affect an audience–from appealing to the most basic physiological needs of food, drink, health, and sex (think recent commercials for Viagra) through appeal to safety needs, social needs, esteem needs, and self-actualization needs. Your students should be able to come up with examples of ads that appeal to any or all of these.

There are scores of legitimate charities that benefit from the seasonal reminders to share our plenty during the holidays with those who lack the basics and who might otherwise not be able to provide gifts for their children. Unfortunately, we have to be careful about being too quick to trust appeals to our emotions. Just last month, St. Joseph’s Indian School, which raised $51 million last year through its mass mailings, was forced by a CNN investigative report to admit that the children who wrote moving letters to potential donors about their difficult lives were fictional.

The holidays can bring out the best in people or the worst. We can teach our students to be more aware of the tactics used by those who market the spirit of the season.

[Photo: by John Martinez Pavliga, on Flikr]

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Oh, What a Tangled Web!

posted: 11.14.14 by Donna Winchell

I don’t share a lot of articles on Facebook. In fact, I share more cat and dog videos, usually in private messages to family members. When I ran across a posting of some remarks made by Ben Stein about the term “Holiday Trees” versus “Christmas Trees,” though, I thought it made some good points and naively shared it. One friend had already complained about how limiting Stein’s view of prayer is when I took the time to read some of the many comments that have been posted in response to the piece. I still think the article can be used to discuss argumentation, but I also discovered how much it has to offer as a means of teaching the dangers of trusting what you read on the Internet.

It seems, as one comment pointed out, that the piece was not written by Stein—or at least not all of it. Others pointed out warning signs that I had missed in a quick read. One, for instance, pointed out that Stein would not have misspelled the name of Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Another was incensed by a factual error that “Stein” had made when he stated that the son of famous baby doctor Benjamin Spock had committed suicide (offered as evidence that Spock’s permissive baby raising techniques don’t work).  Stein did make a version of the opening statements of the piece, in 2005, not in 2012, as indicated, but much of the piece attributed to him is simply not his. Nor can it be considered a response to the suggestion that the White House had started calling its Christmas trees holiday trees, since that suggestion was not made until 2006, and that change in terminology has actually never taken place.

Consider the complexity of the Internet’s role in this controversy.  I shared the article because I saw it posted on Facebook. Other comments shared, however, sent me to to investigate its authenticity. I am not saying that is always correct either, but it can send up red flags. In this case it led me to other articles that break down what is Stein’s and what isn’t. I even learned that Spock’s grandson, who was schizophrenic, was the one who committed suicide. How cautiously we must tread! Ironically, the Internet that makes it possible for wrongly attributed comments to go viral also allows us to be sleuths investigating the authenticity of what we read.

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Claims and the Research Essay

posted: 10.31.14 by Donna Winchell

A significant part of many argumentation courses is the research essay. We teach our students how to find and evaluate sources and how to use them to support a claim. When a substantial amount of time is spent on the research unit, a sequence of assignments based on the same body of research provides a way to use course time more efficiently and reinforces the differences among the different types of claims taught when using the Toulmin Model.

While students are researching a controversial subject, they can do an essay based on a claim of fact before they take on the more difficult task of supporting a claim of value or policy. That initial assignment is useful as well because it forces them to consider what the facts of the case are. Students, like the rest of us, are tempted to attend in their research only to those sources that support opinions they already hold. Writing a claim of fact paper on their subject won’t solve that problem entirely, but it will emphasize the difference between fact and opinion. A claim of fact essay might establish that a problem exists, what the results of past attempts at change have been, or how much change has occurred over time–for example, it might explore the side effects of a drug, the legal status of same-sex marriage in the U. S., the number of school shootings and the increase over time, or the effects of immunizing our children against childhood diseases—or not.

The next step in the sequence could  have the students take a stand, using the same body of research to support a claim of value or a claim of policy on their subject. They may even use portions of their previous essay for support. Practically speaking, having a second essay based on their sources also gives them a second chance to practice incorporating sources correctly. Students don’t learn as much from one large research paper returned on the last day of class or on final exam day as they do if they have two chances to get the documentation right.

A third assignment answers more directly the question of what can or should be done about a problem situation. I have even made this my final exam because by that time conscientious students have become pretty knowledgeable about their subjects. I ask them to write a letter to a person in a position to do something about the problem. I have to explain that this time they will not be using parenthetical documentation; any supporting information they provide will have to be incorporated into their own text.

To make this sequence work, I ask my students to speculate when they propose their topic how they will do these three assignments on that topic. That steers them away from topics that are not controversial in the sense that there is nothing to be done to change what occurred in the past: “Clinton should not have . . . .” They may revise their plan as necessary, but they are discouraged from tackling a subject that just won’t work and that will not lead to good writing.

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Generalizing from the Headlines

posted: 10.3.14 by Donna Winchell

The headlines about Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice and the accompanying video of him knocking his then-fiancée unconscious in an Atlantic City hotel elevator sparked national debate about domestic violence.  Rice is awaiting appeal of his indefinite suspension by the NFL. He has already been judged in the court of public opinion. Widely publicized events like this one, however, provide compelling examples that can be used in teaching argumentation. One of the most valuable lessons our students can learn is how to generalize from such situations in a useful way instead of getting into heated discussions of individual cases.

Rice’s arbitrator and any lawyers involved in future cases growing out of the incident may have to be able to support whether Rice was justified or not in what he did, whether his wife was right or wrong in defending him, and what his punishment should have been. In some classes, the discussion of these questions could go on endlessly. They can also go on uselessly. The value in relating argumentation to today’s headlines is to use the headlines to teach, not to take sides in a specific case.

Aristotle recognized three types of rhetoric, designed for three types of occasions:

  • Epideictic rhetoric is rhetoric of praise or blame, but present-oriented—the rhetoric of ceremonies such as weddings and funerals. It will be appropriate at some point in the future in evaluating the totality of Rice’s career and his life. His wife claims even now that he is a good husband and father.
  • Judicial or forensic rhetoric is the rhetoric of the law court, and past-oriented. This is the language that Rice will use in arbitration and a lawyer would use in court to defend what he did. The past will certainly affect his future in football, but the focus will be on what he did one night in March.
  • Deliberative or legislative rhetoric addresses what should be done in the future, or what should be done in situations of a certain type. That is where a specific case in the headlines can be useful in class discussion. Even more useful is a series of related examples such as the ones we have seen in the NFL recently. Our students in argumentation classes do not need to learn how to write about what happened in the past except as it provides support for what we propose for the future.

We teach our students that a single example is seldom enough but can be combined with others to lead to a generalization. Anything less is a hasty generalization or a stereotype. There is little point in arguing what should have been done except as it shapes what is done in the future. These recent episodes will most likely make the NFL rethink its policies about what constitutes appropriate punishment for personal conduct violations, and that is a suitable subject for argumentation.  So is what should be done about school violence. So is whether or not children should be taught how to use firearms. So are subjects such as what can be done to protect unsuspecting customers from predators who use Craigslist to lure them to an isolated location or who lure a realtor to an empty house by pretending to be a potential buyer or who convince a child to stab another child by means of a fake online persona. All of these questions have arisen from cases in the headlines recently.  We can use such cases and others to teach argumentation, but our role as teachers is not to encourage our students to serve as judge and jury.

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Why “Argument in the Headlines”?

posted: 9.19.14 by Donna Winchell

Although Elements of Argument and Structure of Argument are grounded primarily in the theories of Stephen Toulmin, Annette Rottenberg and I have tried to illustrate how the theories of Aristotle and of Carl Rogers can provide additional means of analyzing an argument. The approaches are not contradictory but complementary.
Aristotle gives us the terminology to think of an argument as a combination of logical and emotional appeals affected by our assumptions about the speaker or writer making the argument. He also emphasizes the syllogism as a model for logical thought. His major premise, minor premise, and conclusion in Toulmin’s model become warrant, support, and claim. Rogers’s ideas are most useful in looking at those controversial subjects where those with differing opinions are so far apart in their thinking that the most one can hope for is common ground followed by compromise.

This fall, as usual, I will be looking at today’s headlines with Aristotle, Rogers, and particularly Toulmin as my guides. Everything from the significance of defining key terms to considering the warrant behind a line of reasoning can be illustrated by looking at and listening to the news. Obama’s recent speech on America’s response to the beheading of two American journalists raised the issue whether or not our country’s involvement is really at war. Some in the Obama administration use the term “war” for our involvement, but not John Kerry, who speaks instead of “a very significant counterterrorism operation.” There is even disagreement as to whom we are at war with, if we are—the ISIS or the ISIL.

Students can easily practice identifying an argument’s claim—or, in Aristotle’s terminology, its conclusion—by summing up in one sentence what each of two opposing sides in an argument is trying to prove: Oscar Pistorius intentionally killed Reeva Steenkamp, or he accidentally killed her. Behind those claims are the broader assumptions, or the warrants, on which each is based: A man awakened in a locked bedroom with his girlfriend would not fire four shots into the bathroom door without checking to see where his girlfriend was, or in a neighborhood plagued by burglaries, a man might assume a noise in the middle of the night was caused by burglars. What constitutes support for the claims on both sides of the argument that has torn apart the town of Ferguson, Missouri, for over a month? What evidence is there to support each claim? Are the witnesses ethical men or not?

Classroom discussions of controversial recent events can degenerate into the worst kind of unsupported arguments if ideas are tossed around at random. What can structure a useful discussion of those events is to force the students to use the terminology taught in the argument course to explain both their positions and others’. Throughout the year, I will be using this column to offer examples.

[Photo The Purpose of Argument by jon collier on Flikr]

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