Archive for the ‘Argument’ Category

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Elements of the Argument Puzzle

posted: 9.30.11 by Donna Winchell

2975322282_4137534801_mThe protestors’ signs were indirect claims of policy. The claim, simply put: Troy Davis should not be executed. In spite of last-ditch efforts that went as far as the Supreme Court, Davis died by lethal injection recently for shooting an off-duty police officer in Georgia in 1989. The possibility that he could have been innocent led to worldwide protests as his execution date approached and to the renewed claim that capital punishment should not be legal.

Capital punishment is one of those topics that most writing teachers put at the top of their list of topics to avoid. A discussion of why, though, can be fruitful. What support, for instance, would you offer to prove that there should be no death penalty? For some, it is as simple as the belief that all killing is wrong. A convincing argument? Not for all audiences. Does capital punishment seem justified in the case of  Lawrence Brewer, which was playing out in Texas at almost exactly the same time that Davis’s was in Georgia? Brewer was convicted of the dragging death of James Byrd, an African American, and the day before his death by lethal injection he made this statement: “As far as any regrets, no, I have no regrets. No, I’d do it all over again, to tell you the truth.” In contrast, among Davis’s last words was the statement “I am innocent.”

Consider the capital punishment debate in light of these elements of argument:

Definition. Edward DuBose, a leader of the Georgia branch of the NAACP, reports a conversation he had with Davis the night before he died in which Davis said he wanted his death to be an example “that the death penalty in this country needs to end. They call it execution; we call it murder.” Supporters of Davis called his death “the planned judicial killing of an innocent man.” [read more]

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Categories: Argument
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Teaching from the Headlines

posted: 9.16.11 by Donna Winchell

The fun part of writing an argument text is compiling the readings to illustrate the concepts I teach. The challenging part is keeping the readings timely. The time it takes for a book to go from final manuscript to finished book is about the same as the gestation period for humans—nine months. That means even the essays I slip in just under the wire could be outdated before the book appears in print or before the next edition if I don’t choose carefully. All it takes is a look back at recent events in Egypt, Libya, Syria, or Japan to remind us how much can happen in a matter of months. I was in Cairo in May of 2010. The streets were a mass of cabs moving with total disregard for traffic lanes or even for the fact that two other cars were trying to occupy the same space at the same time. A few months later, the cabs were gone from Tahrir Square, and the streets were a mass of people summoned via social media to join a revolt against Moammar Gadhafi.

This social medium is my means of keeping discussion of argument up to the minute—or at least up to the headlines of the last week or two, which are such a rich source of discussion in a class on argumentation. Even before President Obama finished his speech on jobs last week, his claim of policy was the headline on Internet news outlets. He told Congress, “You should pass this jobs plan right away.” Republicans immediately came back with their own claims of value and claims of policy, and the battle was on. Interestingly, CNN contributor John Avlon, writing on, pointed out Obama’s appeal to common ground, a technique crucial to effective argument. He wrote, “The biggest takeaway is that all the major policies the president proposed were rooted in past bipartisan support. That good faith effort to bridge the deep partisan divides in Washington deserves something more than predictable spin—and, in turn, the American people deserve some concerted action on the economy from Congress.” [read more]

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Categories: Argument, Rhetorical Situation
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Thinking Gray

posted: 12.9.09 by Barclay Barrios

I recently chatted with a group of teachers at a nearby institution who were going to test the readings in Emerging, Appiah’s “Making Conversation” and “The Primacy of Practice.”  One of the things we talked about is that students always want to flatten what they read, a particular problem when it comes to essays with subtle and complex ideas like Appiah’s.  After reading these selections, students will want to say, “We should all just get along,” or “We just need to talk more and that will solve things.”  And, yes, those reflect Appiah’s ideas.  But things are not so simple, so black and white.  Sometimes the challenge of teaching writing is getting students to think gray—to deal with the messiness of complexity, and to think their own way through it.

I shared with those teachers some of the techniques I use to get students thinking gray.  For example, the class will gravitate to certain sections of an essay or certain quotations; these will probably be the key sections of the reading, but they will also probably be the ones students “get.”  I try to direct students to the ignored parts of an essay.  If a section feels unimportant, then why is it there?  What does it do for the argument?  Along these lines, I ask peer editors to find quotations from the essay that challenge a student author’s argument.

But sometimes the best way to think gray is to pay very close attention to the text.  That was my suggestion for Appiah.  Students will want to dismiss him as all “kumbaya” and “Let’s all get along.”  But then I direct them to a small but crucial quotation from Appiah’s text: “Cosmopolitanism is the name not of the solution but of the challenge.”  Asking students to explain what Appiah means, to account for this quotation within his larger argument, to see cosmopolitanism as both a challenge and a solution… that is the stuff of thinking gray.

What are your methods for engaging students in a “messy” reading?

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Categories: Argument, Critical Reading, Critical Thinking, Emerging, Rhetorical Situation, Working with Sources
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Stasis, Movement, and "A Place to Stand"

posted: 12.1.09 by archived

In the spirit of recent posts by Barclay Barrios and Traci Gardner that described secret formulae and favorite lessons, I thought I would write about an activity that has become a favorite of mine.

I have used this activity to introduce the idea of stasis.  In argument theory stasis means a “stand,” from the Greek “standing still.”  In rhetoric, stasis calls for the rhetor to consider key questions that might clarify an issue.  In this way, a “stand” also calls for us to decide what might make an audience move in one direction or another.  When we are in a state of stasis, we might be sitting on the fence, we might be “standing still,” but we are also perhaps curious about where we might move next.  When we identify stases we see where and why people take a stand on an issue, why they disagree, and what might make them change their minds. The Sophists taught that identifying stasis was the best way to understand where an argument should begin.

I like to talk about stasis when teaching argument because I think stasis theory sometimes nicely frames the way I feel about an issue, and the way students may feel too: We aren’t sure yet exactly where we weigh in, we don’t have a “side,” but we are interested in knowing why others take a stand on the issue.  Looking for stasis is a way to value the process of questioning, exploring, and researching the aspects of an issue that lead people to argue or act.

Stasis theory and teaching based on it doesn’t devalue having a strong opinion or taking a strong stance.  Instead, this approach looks at why people take such stands, and what questions and arguments lead to changes in position.

Okay, so the above definition may still leave many wondering what exactly stasis is.  Maybe I haven’t defined it very well!  Or maybe it is just a tricky concept to explain.  Because of this, I try to illustrate the concept through active learning.  If you have an open classroom, then you’ll need to move some desks and chairs; I’ve also moved into the hallway to do this activity if I’ve needed more room.

I choose an issue that is contentious—but not totally divisive.  Issues like year-round schooling, or a four-day workweek might be good examples (the death penalty might not be the best issue for this activity).  Then, I ask students to arrange themselves in the space according to their opinions: take a “stand.”  If you are for year-round schooling, stand to the left of the room (or hall); if you are against it, stand to the right.  If you are really against it, move all the way to the farthest right; stand near the middle if you don’t have much of an opinion yet.  Then, each student states why they are standing where they are standing—what aspect of the issue makes them stand where they are?  Other students can then move if this reasoning makes them change their own position. If I say that I am against year-round schooling because I loved all of the freedom and I learned so much from just playing during my summers as a kid, this opinion may sway some classmates to move over in my direction, or it might not.  Another student might say that he or she is against year-round schooling because children forget much of what they have learned from year-to-year.  This may or may not cause others to move.  We can pay attention to small positional differences, too—why are we just slightly to the left or right of one another?

In this way, as a group, we see what the key questions are, and we see how opinions are formed and altered.  The “debate” is embodied through our movements.  We come to see where an argument begins, and what makes people form opinions.  Whether we call this stasis or not, this is an interesting way to reveal the complexity of an issue, and set students up to identify this complexity when they choose their own issues to research and write about.

Later, once students have begun working on their own research or argumentative essays, they can workshop their topics through this “place to stand” activity—the whole class can again occupy a range of positions, and the student can list key questions, considerations, and viewpoints while the class responds by moving and putting the issue into action.

If you want to go further with this activity, you could also use the true classical categories for stasis analysis. Dorinda Fox (in an awesome blog on comedy and rhetoric) also has excellent analyses of Chris Rock’s and George Carlin’s uses of stasis, for further reading.  Helen Foster’s article in Composition Forum also looks at how stasis theory can be used in the contemporary classroom.

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Categories: Argument, How to Write Anything, Jay Dolmage, Rhetorical Situation
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Argument Haiku

posted: 11.19.09 by Barclay Barrios

One of the teachers in our writing program stopped me in the hall to share his success using argument haiku in class.  I have to admit that it’s one of my favorite activities.  In the book I’ve paired it with a Kwame Anthony Appiah selection, but it’s a versatile tool.  I’ve used it with any number of readings and have used it in peer review exercises as well.

The actual activity is simple: take an argument from a paper or a reading and summarize it as a haiku—three lines of seven, then five, then seven syllables.

I’ve always found anything vaguely creative or arts-and-crafty tends to engage students.  In part I think it gets students excited because it breaks up the usual atmosphere of the writing classroom and in part I think it’s because students love doing something different and in part everyone loves writing haiku (especially bad ones).  But the secret is that it takes a lot of thinking to make this exercise happen and that’s why it is so useful.  Students need to identify the very core idea of an essay to break it into seventeen syllables.  And when used in peer review, authors quickly learn whether or not they’ve successfully expressed and supported their arguments.

We’re reading Thomas Friedman’s “The Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention” right now in our standard assignment sequence.  If I had to make a haiku for that essay I would try:

Global supply chains
Bring peace; terrorists use them
Too. Ai-yah!  Flat world!

Or maybe:

In the flat world works both ways:
Both for peace and war.

Are there any specific readings you would pair with this assignment?

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Categories: Argument, Assignment Idea, Emerging, Rhetorical Situation
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Rebutter in Chief

posted: 8.12.09 by Nick Carbone

This post by Steve Benen at the Washington Monthly blog features excerpts from a New Hampshire Town Hall conducted by President Obama.

It occurs to me, on reading Benen’s summary and having listened to some of Obama’s press conferences and speeches, that Obama’s legal training combined with his writing ability make him a master of rebutting the critiques of his policies and positions through explicit counter-arguments, no matter–in the case of the illogical and demagogic claim that the health plan under debate in Congress calls for “death camps”–how disingenuous and dishonest the criticism is.

Compare, for example, Obama’s response to the “death panel” claim to one of the most prominent assertions of that claim, Sarah Palin’s.

Palin wrote in Facebook:

The Democrats promise that a government health care system will reduce the cost of health care, but as the economist Thomas Sowell has pointed out, government health care will not reduce the cost; it will simply refuse to pay the cost. And who will suffer the most when they ration care? The sick, the elderly, and the disabled, of course. The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s “death panel” so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their “level of productivity in society,” whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.

Health care by definition involves life and death decisions. Human rights and human dignity must be at the center of any health care discussion.

What is the logic of her paragraph? What is the train of thought? Can it be mapped by students? Are her claims fair? Is there a “death panel” clause in any of the proposed bills now in Congress?

What is the purpose of the final two sentences? They are statements no one will disagree with; is she using them to assert that the plans in Congress don’t care about dignity?

With those questions in mind, now look at Obama’s explicit rebuttal of this argument as represented by Palin. Obama said in New Hampshire:

“The rumor that’s been circulating a lot lately is this idea that somehow the House of Representatives voted for ‘death panels’ that will basically pull the plug on grandma because we’ve decided that we don’t — it’s too expensive to let her live anymore. And there are various — there are some variations on this theme. It turns out that I guess this arose out of a provision in one of the House bills that allowed Medicare to reimburse people for consultations about end-of-life care, setting up living wills, the availability of hospice, et cetera. So the intention of the members of Congress was to give people more information so that they could handle issues of end-of-life care when they’re ready, on their own terms. It wasn’t forcing anybody to do anything. This is I guess where the rumor came from.”The irony is that actually one of the chief sponsors of this bill originally was a Republican — then House member, now senator, named Johnny Isakson from Georgia — who very sensibly thought this is something that would expand people’s options. And somehow it’s gotten spun into this idea of ‘death panels.’ I am not in favor of that. So just I want to clear the air here.”

Obama first categorically rejects the charge that he wants “death panels,” and then looks to the bill in question, to the item in the bill his opponents have distorted, and explains its origins.

How does the use of logic and evidence in the two arguments compare? Which statement is more factually accurate?

Questions such as these make the current debate on health care in our country a useful one for studying and analyzing argument and rhetoric. It might also lead to a good discussion of civil discourse and how to tell it from inflammatory discourse and violent discourse.

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Categories: Argument, Assignment Idea, Genre, Popular Culture, Rhetorical Situation
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5 ways I approach visual argument in the classroom

posted: 4.17.08 by Barclay Barrios

Visual argument (or, more generally, visual rhetoric) seems to be an increasingly important part of the composition classroom. I’ve never taught a class devoted to visual argument, but I have given visual argument assignments and I often ask students to consider the role that the visual plays in culture. There are of course whole textbooks on visual argument, but since the visual plays only a supporting role in my course, I tend to use a variety of websites instead. For example:

1. PostSecret
PostSecret is my favorite way to have students think about visual argument. This public art project started when its founder, Frank Warren, invited people to design and submit postcards that revealed secrets their authors had never shared before. Each Sunday, Warren posts a new set of secret-revealing postcards; in the process, he offers a wide-ranging display of visual argument, as each postcard design reflects the secret it contains. I’ve found that students can analyze these visual texts readily, providing them good practice at reading, decoding, and then designing their own visual arguments.

2. Ikea
You may be familiar with this home furnishings company from Sweden if you’re lucky enough to have an Ikea store near you (we’re getting ours here in South Florida this summer—yay!). But even if you’re never heard of Ikea, the company’s website offers a great way to explore cultural assumptions about design. That’s because it has separate sites for countries around the world. Ask students to explore some of these different sites (such as Saudi Arabia and Malaysia), taking note of how language and culture influence visual argument and design. Ask them then to view the site for the United States and look for the same sorts of cultural assumptions. This assignment, of course, could be done with the main site of many global corporations. I choose Ikea to help students see that globalization is not purely an American phenomenon.

3. The Ebay Conceptual Art Gallery
Justin Jorgensen turns photographs of items auctioned on Ebay into a kind of found art. Have students explore the site and consider questions of both visual design/arrangement and art. Then have them explore Ebay itself. What’s the relationship between design and sales? What’s the economic impact of a good visual argument?

4. MySpace
Chances are your students are already familiar with MySpace. Many students have pages on this popular social networking site, using it to keep in touch with friends old and new. Yet most the pages on MySpace are designed extremely poorly. But in doing so, they also make important visual arguments about the person making the page. Ask students to locate or bring in examples of overly designed or badly designed pages. How does the design reflect and represent the author of the page? How does effective visual argument diverge from effective visual design?

5. Comeeko
Comeeko allows you to upload photos and add captions to create a web-based comic strip. Students can use this tool to create compositions in the style of graphic novels.

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Categories: Argument, Document Design, Learning Styles, Popular Culture, Teaching with Technology, Visual Argument, Visual Rhetoric
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Stop Dihydrogen Monoxide!

posted: 4.14.08 by Barclay Barrios

As an exercise in getting students to evaluate Web sources with a critical eye, have them review the Web site for the Dihydrogen Monoxide Research Division. This site details the dangers of this chemical, which include death from inhalation and severe burns from its gaseous form. The punch line is that the chemical is water. See if your students can decode this hoax and then prompt a discussion of the reliability of Web sources in research projects.

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Categories: Argument, Assignment Idea, Critical Reading, Finding Sources, Rhetorical Situation, Teaching with Technology
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5 ways I help students with organization

posted: 1.31.08 by Barclay Barrios

I find that students often have trouble writing papers with strong organization. Sometimes, in fact, it feels like they could swap around all the body paragraphs and it would be the same paper—they don’t logically lead one to the other. Here are some exercises I use to help students focus on the organization of their papers:

1. Paragraph to Paragraph Transition
The most solid transitions, I suggest to students, comes from a statement that directly ties together two paragraphs. Start by having students review the material on transitions in the handbook. Then try this exercise. Have students take two paragraphs from their drafts. Ask them to write a one sentence summary of the first paragraph and then another one sentence summary of the second paragraph. Students should combine these two sentences into one, forming a strong and specific transition.

2. Rearrange the Order
Strong organization is self-evident. That is, when a paper is well-organized each paragraph clearly has a place in the whole. Have students test their organization by bringing in a draft for peer revision with the paragraph order switched around. If their peers cannot reassemble the original order then they need to work on transitions and organization.

3. Model Transitions
Have students locate examples of effective transitions in the current reading. Discuss what makes them effective—is it just the use of transitional words and phrases or is there a sentence pattern at work here? Have students apply what they learn by modeling one of these effective transitions in their current drafts.

4. Trail Markers
Trail markers make sure you don’t get lost in the woods; students can use the same technique to mark the trail of their arguments in their papers. Have students underline key sentences in each paragraph that “point the way” to the larger argument and/or to the next paragraph. If they can’t find sentences that work in that way, then that paragraph might represent someplace their readers might get lost.

5. All Outta Outlines
The strongest organization feels inevitable. Help students to locate that level of organization by having them produce multiple pre- or post-draft outlines, each with a different possible organization; you might in fact ask them to outline until they can’t outline any more. Do some points always need to come before others? Do they need to introduce a term, for example, before discussing it? Looking at multiple organizations can help students see the one that makes the most sense, the one that seems most inevitable.

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Categories: Argument, Assignment Idea, Document Design, Grammar & Style, Writing Process
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Draw the Argument

posted: 1.7.08 by Barclay Barrios

Switching to a visual register is a great way to get students thinking about a text in new ways. When discussing an essay, put students into groups and ask them to draw the argument, finding quotations from the text to support their representation. Groups can then re-draw these on the board to prompt class discussion.

Listen to this Post! An Audio Bits Podcast (0:31 min)

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Categories: Argument, Integrating sources, Visual Rhetoric
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