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Complementary, Not Contending Theories

posted: 2.1.13 by Donna Winchell

In teaching argument, we tend to want to cover all the bases. We want to introduce our students to classical rhetoric, but we don’t want to leave out Toulmin or Rogers. Stasis theory is an expansion of Toulmin, offering five types of claims instead of three, and some authors introduce the rhetorical situation as an approach different from the classical modes of appeal.

Instead of teaching our students these theories as separate approaches to argumentation, we might give them a clearer understanding of how to read and write arguments if we showed them how the theories can be viewed as overlays upon each other.

Take classical rhetoric and the Toulmin model. I see a number of current texts teaching them as separate entities. Here is If we teach the communication triangle of writer, audience, and subject that goes back to Aristotle, I like James Moffett’s idea of focusing on the legs of the triangle. The writer-audience leg represents the rhetorical relationship. The writer-subject leg represents the referential relationship. I don’t recall that Moffett gave a name to the third leg, the audience-subject relationship, but I have started to see that those three legs or relationships in the context of the Toulmin model. [read more]

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Argumentation and Gun Control

posted: 1.18.13 by Donna Winchell

Raise your hand if you have a list of banned writing topics in your first-year writing class, and gun control is on it. Those of us who have been around long enough remember readers in which a unit on gun control was standard. Maybe we started steering students away from the topic because the arguments pro and con didn’t change from year to year, while the students did. We got tired of correcting the same logical fallacies and trying to control the heated class debate. But that was long before the rash of recent school shootings.

Now, I see no reason to avoid gun control as a writing topic not only because it is such a serious issue in America but also because there is enough bad logic out there to base a whole semester on. Every concept in almost any rhetoric text could be applied to the issue, and using some key terms to guide discussion can impose some order on the current chaos of ideas.

So much depends on such a short piece of prose:

“A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

That short statement exemplifies the significance of definition in argument. What is a “well-regulated militia”? How is the definition of “arms” different in the twenty-first century than in the eighteenth? What did the framers of the Bill of Rights have in mind when they referred to “the security of a free state”? [read more]

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Black Friday Eve

posted: 11.30.12 by Donna Winchell

Nordstrom’s department store has for the seventh year done its part to keep consumerism from consuming Thanksgiving. In mid-November they posted on their Facebook page and in their stores copies of a sign reading, “From our family to yours, Happy Thanksgiving. We won’t be decking our halls until Friday, November 23. Why? We just like the idea of celebrating one holiday at a time. Our stores will be closed on Thursday for Thanksgiving festivities. On Friday, our doors will open to ring in the new season in style.” As Thanksgiving approached, over 23,000 people “liked” the idea.

At the other extreme are stores who are pushing Black Friday back into Thanksgiving Day. This year, Target moved the mad rush of hunting for bargains back to 9 pm on Thanksgiving, while Walmart moved it to 8 PM, causing protests from both shoppers and workers who feel that employees should not be denied the opportunity to celebrate with their families. Behind the headline, though, there is much more to the Walmart protest than the very reasonable desire of the workers to be at home with their families on Thanksgiving. A union-backed group called OUR Walmart organized protests at many Walmart stores on Black Friday because it is the year’s busiest shopping day and because they wanted to bring attention to what they claim are Walmart’s illegal labor practices. According to the New York Times, however, there is even more to the situation than that. Steven Greenhouse and Stephanie Clifford write, “The food and commercial workers union has made Wal-Mart a target because the company has helped put many unionized supermarkets out of business and helped push down wages at many competitors.” [read more]

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Either/Or Politics

posted: 11.12.12 by Donna Winchell

Rogerian argument doesn’t have a chance in a nation where red and blue replace black and white as the either/or of politics. In teaching rhetoric, we discuss the either/or fallacy. The fallacy is that there are often more than two possible options, and to present your case as if there are only two is fallacious reasoning. Our election of a president has long been essentially a two-party affair in spite of the fact that a few more names may appear on the ballot. So it had to be Obama or Romney. That was a fact. But does that mean we had to prove ourselves a red nation or a blue nation? Is there no other option?

Because of our outdated Electoral College, we vote as states, not as individuals. It’s easy for those who are “red” but live in a “blue” state to feel disenfranchised, and vice versa. It’s easy to say “why vote?” when the media have long since called the election for your state, as if all  but those in a few battleground states might as well not vote at all. We learned a number of years ago that calling the presidential election in Eastern states before polls even closed in the West was disastrous for those running for state or local office because so many potential voters didn’t bother to vote. [read more]

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What a Difference a Word Makes

posted: 10.26.12 by Donna Winchell

My son recently reviewed End of Watch for his college newspaper. In it he observed that in the hard-hitting crime drama, the LA police partners who are the focus of the movie must face a Mexican drug cartel led by Big Evil, “who uses the f-word literally every third word.” His editors–okay, they are both women–revised it to have the cartel led by Big Evil, “who is defined by his obscene potty mouth.” My son was horrified to have his readers think he would ever use the term “potty mouth.”

Word choice can be even more critical in political arguments. Witness the second presidential debate, where the exact words chosen by the candidates inspired almost as much controversy as the gist of what they were saying. Romney’s points about women and jobs may have been objectionable in and of themselves, but his phrase “binders of women” is what became the laughingstock of Facebook and Twitter. Lots of other points that Romney made during the debate were lost in the brouhaha over his word choice.

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Elements of argument and the first Presidential debate

posted: 10.12.12 by Donna Winchell

Much of the early spin on the first 2012 presidential debate focused on delivery style. The oversimplified version was that Romney was aggressive and looked Obama in the eye, while Obama seemed preoccupied and looked primarily at his podium.

What does our knowledge of the elements of argument contribute to our understanding of the candidates’ strategies? A debate does not have a single thesis or claim, but audience members both in Denver and at home could tell that each candidate had key points he wanted to make (and was going to make) whether they were in response to a question from the moderator or not. That’s not unusual in presidential debates, and it’s why debaters train and practice.

The types of evidence the candidates offered to support their claims were not that different from those used in student writing. Each candidate used specific examples to personalize his general statements. Obama referred to the economic plight of his grandparents. Both men referred to “typical” Americans they had met in their travels. Both used statistical support and a lot of numbers, but the examples made the hardships and successes more real and more human. [read more]

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Your Identification, Please

posted: 9.28.12 by Donna Winchell

On the surface, they seem like fairly inocuous laws, requiring a voter to present identification. Who would have thought the issue would become so politicized? If critics’ claims are correct, those who proposed the laws knew exactly what they were doing when they acted to protect their political interests, not to prevent voter fraud, as they have claimed.

In writing about voter ID laws, you have to define your key term, and it’s not as simple as it might seem. If you want to get an idea of how complex the issue is, one place you can go to get an up-to-date account of voter ID laws is the website of the National Conference of State Legislatures.  Thirty-three states have voter ID laws; of those, Mississippi and Wisconsin have yet to put the laws into place. The existing laws are complicated by the distinctions between strict versus non strict and photo versus non photo. As recently as last week, South Carolina was still fighting for the right to enact a stricter law than its current one, but opponents have labeled the new law racist. Other states are still fighting legal battles over their voter ID laws as the election draws nearer.

Comedian Sarah Silverman got involved recently when she did an ad encouraging voters in voter ID states to get the identification they need so that they will be able to vote come November. In her characteristic foul-mouthed manner she criticizes the laws, saying they are “presented as a way to prevent voter fraud, but are in fact designed to make it hard for specific people to vote: black people, elderly people, poor people and students.” Pause. “’Hmm, wonder what those demographics have in common,’ she says, scratching her chin.” Pause. “’Oh yeah, they are probably going to vote for this guy,’ she says as the screen shows images of President Obama.”

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