Audio Version: Click to stream recording of page (June 2020):
What is college about if not about ideas? How do we respond to others' ideas and form our own?
I am an engaged citizen, a partner, a writer, and a mother who feels good about many decisions I’ve made in my life, but I often don’t have my own ideas clear. Sometimes I feel a little despairing about how much I'm unsure of. I listen to the news or I read the voter booklet or I mull over a disagreement between colleagues and a million questions come into my head.
At other times I have a strong sense of my opinion but a hard time explaining it. When I try to write, I struggle. Every time, I hope that for once writing will come easy, and every time, I end up frustrated. I have to remind myself that I have been through this struggle many times before and that certain practices help. If I stick with the process, both my ideas and my writing get clearer. And I feel satisfaction in that increasing clarity. The aha moments bring relief and some sense of wonder.
In college, we are faced with so much pressure to perform and figure out our futures. It's easy to forget that academia also ensures that we are not alone. We don't have to do our thinking or our writing in isolation; it wouldn't make sense to try. Thinking and writing happen in conversation, in relationship. On almost any given topic, there is a rich, contentious community of ideas out there, ideas that build on and often contradict each other. We could start from scratch, but why? We contribute more if we find a way to enter the conversation.
This book is meant as a practical guide to help students join that conversation. Joining it means moving through a series of steps, from understanding and describing others' arguments, to deciding whether or to what extent we agree, to articulating our own points in response. These steps match up with the following typical college writing assignments:
- Summaries describe the ideas in an argument we have read.
- Assessments offer a judgment on how strong the argument is.
- Response papers make recommendations in response to the strengths or weaknesses of the argument.
- Research-based arguments describe and assess multiple sources in order to arrive at a new perspective.
This book follows that sequence. Chapter 2 describes how to figure out the logical structure of an argument, Chapter 3 explains how to summarize it, and Chapter 4 explores how to test the strength of the argument and make a judgment about it. Chapter 5 suggests ways to offer something new in response. Chapter 6 describes how to find and examine multiple sources on a topic, and Chapter 7 shows how research can lead us to develop an argument of our own.
My how-to approach is inspired by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein's popular text They Say I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. They write, "What makes writers masters of their trade is...their mastery of an inventory of basic moves that they probably picked up by reading a wide range of other accomplished writers." Here, I have tried to extend their approach to investigate the hows and whys and whens of specific argumentative strategies for a course that goes beyond introductory composition. Graff and Birkenstein themselves question the usefulness of learning "logical principles of argument" such as "syllogisms, warrants, logical fallacies, or the differences between inductive and deductive reasoning." However, I argue that we can frame many logical principles in terms of practical templates. We can study how to make better arguments without getting bogged down in rhetorical terminology. For example, this book does not describe the "post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy," but it does teach us to question the assumption that an earlier event causes a later event.
In addition to preparing students to enter the academic conversation, this book aims to teach them how to recognize and use appeals that go beyond logic. I consider that persuasion happens in the context of an imagined relationship between writer and reader. Chapter 8 looks at how arguments move us and Chapter 9 explores how they establish trust and a sense of connection. Chapter 10 on the argument analysis essay discusses how we can give a picture of an argument as a whole, finding connections between its appeals to emotion and trust and its logical structure. Finally, Chapter 11 considers techniques for shaping individual sentences to make our arguments clearer and more powerful.
As writers, we all have to feel at times that we are struggling in the dark. My hope is that this book offers practices that will help students find their way. I hope it helps them gain confidence about putting their own two cents into the academic conversation.
Thumbnail: Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay