I spend a lot of time thinking about arguments. In part because so much of the media we consume today is full of arguments (stick a pin in that idea) but primarily because it is very much my job. Teaching argumentation is fundamental to teaching rhetoric and the business of composition classes. Contrary to popular opinion, effective written communication is so much more than style (grammar, rules, word choice, etc.). Style is, of course. important, but without substance style serves no purpose and good writing should have a purpose to at least the writer and hopefully beyond the writer. I am much more concerned about authentic writing and good thinking than “good” writing.
Now about those arguments. Argumentation is the examination of an idea or question. It is a quest for understanding and that is why I consider its study so foundational to becoming an effective writer and why I build my college writing classes around writing and studying arguments in the long tradition of writing instruction. While every unit in my foundational writing classes centers around argument, my students quickly learn that arguments are not a one-size-fits-all proposition. They also learn that the “arguments” we see play out in the media are not really arguments at all and much more akin to shouting into the void. Of course, that journey is long and fraught because we are battling against a fire hose of misinformation and human nature being what it is, but that is exactly why we should all spend more time contemplating (and teaching) good faith arguments.
In my classes we begin our argument journey with the narrative argument because understanding how our stories influence our thinking and our beliefs is key. We then conduct rhetorical analyses because understanding the depth and breadth of texts we can employ for our arguments is essential as is understanding how arguments work. Both of these exercises are preparation for crafting our own arguments. I tend to focus on a more traditional formal academic argument in part because the program within which I teach requires them as does the weight of tradition and habit (on my part as well as that of students and their parents) but more and more I would like to create something less formal and something more dynamic — perhaps a multi-genre piece of some sort although I do content myself with letting that play out in our final project unit. Some parts of the process, such as finding, selecting, and evaluating sources, are beneficial, but I truly resent the amount of time I”m forced to spend teaching MLA.
However, even after decades of teaching argument writing, my classes are still works in progress. This spring I focused my students’ formal arguments and our reading on social justice arguments. I wanted my students to look more deeply at the world, their place within it, and the ways that we can make it better for everyone. Many students did take that journey, but others chose arguments that troubled me because they reflected the kind of arguments we see play out on social media. You know the kind of arguments I mean: arguments that take an extreme position and lack any examination of nuance or consideration for those who do not share their viewpoint. Some of these problems were the result of pandemic teaching (I suspect this thinking could have mitigated these with in-person just-in-time conversations either in class groups or individual conference), but others were simply a natural byproduct of the first iteration of teaching which is something within my control to correct. Recently, my PLN helped me understand why I found those arguments troubling — and more importantly how I can better address the situation in the future to help such simplistic arguments develop (or at least consider) more complexity.
First, is the simple idea of the good faith argument. This lack of good faith when arguing is one of the singular most problematic roots at our currently divided society. We see it in our leaders. We see it in our neighbors. We see it in ourselves. No one is without guilt because it is human nature. However, helping us confront and manage our human weaknesses is precisely the purpose of civilization which makes it the business of education. My goal will be to build an understanding of good faith arguments into my narrative argument unit to help my students recognize this tendency (toward bad faith arguments) early so we address it in our writing and help other writers avoid this trap. I know that I could use this regular reminder and so, I suspect, my students can as well.
While developing this understanding of good faith (rather than bad faith) arguments is crucial, it is also essential to better develop our understanding of basic humanism. I thought focusing on social justice would help me achieve this end, but I had (naively) not reckoned with the baggage the term social justice brought into our classroom. One of my students wrote an excellent argument examining the baggage surrounding the term social justice warrior and it was a reminder to me.
But I have, through both study and serendipity, found what I hope will be a remedy. I have always struggled with the response of many of my friends and family (and students) to inequality. I blamed it in part on zero-sum beliefs which are perpetrated upon us by political leaders and the elite who want to protect the status quo. Of course, zero sum thinking is based on an economic fallacy, but it is much more than that. There are very real human reasons that we are so susceptible to zero-sum thinking. A recent sermon series on the lessons of Job (coupled with this article about humanism) helped me understand a lot more about our American (and human) tendency toward victim blaming which seems to go hand-in-hand with zero-sum thinking. As noted in the Psychology Today article I linked, this human tendency is because it gives us a sense of control over own world. We do not like the idea that the universe is random and that bad things can happen to anyone, so we resist that idea by looking for a cause for a crime, for poverty, for a disease. This is a very human tendency and understandable. Just as understandable, if you base your world view on the zero-sum thinking that there are only limited resources available, then of course we don’t want to reduce our resources by giving them to others. We are even less interested in doing so when we see that these “others” are less deserving in some way. Thinking about these ideas has helped me better understand how/why so many conservatives are resistant to certain liberal policies. While zero-sum thinking is clearly at play, there is also a great deal of victim blaming at the root because conservatives and liberals react differently to threats. Humans. We are such complicated beings.
All this makes sense to me, and it is important to remember that a healthy system requires both liberal and conservative thinkers to apply gas and brakes (to borrow a metaphor from Pantsuit Politics) which is why this examination is so important. Liberals and conservatives both have a duty to our communities, our institutions, and our country (as well as our world) to spend more time trying to understand each other so we can solve the myriad of catastrophic problems facing us today. I’m trying to do better and I want my students to do better, too.
One contradiction that I have always struggled with is the faithful conservative. How do conservative Christians reconcile their conservative beliefs with the Golden Rule? As a liberal Christian this is a foundational principal that I use to guide my life. (note: while less a concern for those who teach in other contexts this is very relevant for a teacher in Eastern Kentucky and I suspect other conservative communities) A recent sermon series has helped me understand this as well. If you view the world through the lens of a greater-sensitivity to threat combined with the need to make sense of a chaotic universe then victim-blaming is an even stronger response than expected. Of course (despite what many conservatives believe), it is not my job to transform conservatives into liberals, but rather to train students to think and to inquire and to help all of us confront our habits of the mind that cloud our thinking. My pastor recommended we (individuals) take two steps to overcome the tendency toward victim-blaming (which we can trace back to the Old Testament and Job) and both focus on our individual responsibility and action. First, be the change that we want to see in the world, and second, follow the rules. Obviously he was speaking of leading a Christian life guided by these principles, but I think if we similarly led a human life guided by these principles then American and the world would be a better place. I very much believe that helping my students become better people so we can all live in a better world is exactly my job.
Here in Kentucky, and other more conservative regions, I think there is a tendency to spend too much time victim-blaming when we interpret the Bible’s teachings. I have come to believe that the 10 Commandments are meant as individual instructions – not as instructions for us to monitor and punish others. Too often we like to interpret the “you” as plural so we can use it as a cudgel to punish others when it is actually meant as a singular you intended to help us individually be better people so our collective society will be better as a result. I’m not yet certain how this thinking will help shape my argument instruction next year in either my American Literacy or Games and Writing classes, but I look forward to the philosophical discussions that could be sparked by these ideas. An important part of crafting arguments is understanding the motivations and world-view of others and I hope that these conversations will help us on that path. I know that considering these issues with a different lens has certainly informed my own thinking. But, and this is why it matters so much to me as a teacher, it will also make for better arguments. Just think about how much better our world would be if we spent more time approaching life’s challenges with a good faith examination of the ideas offered by a variety of perspectives.
I am clearer about how it will work for my Games class as that is the most recent in my memory (I tend to teach American Literacy in the fall and Games in the spring). It is also very easy to use games as a jumping off point for many humanist ideas and values. Cooperation and inter-connection are easily explained and understood when it comes to games. I already have some resources that introduce these ideas and I suspect I can find more (such as this Inquiry podcast episode). Similarly, it is easy to introduce the good/bad faith argument into a discussion of game play. I think weaving in some of this thinking will help make the transition to the creation of our class reading list and then argument unit smoother and the resulting arguments stronger. However, I will need to be much more careful about integrating these ideas into my American Literacy class. I hope that I can rely on some of the writing left by our founding fathers to guide this work, but that will need to be a project for this summer. Do you think we can make Hamilton a required text for the class? I do have a great inspiration to begin this work with this poem by Tracy K Smith and the accompanying Teach This Poem lesson. I suspect I will hack it a bit more to line up with my previous Re-Vision creative writing prompt. i think we can take a page from Smith and do some interesting work with the Constitution as well as the Declaration. I was already going to rethink that class in light of future pandemic teaching to make it more flexible (and forgiving) and I think this project will make the class more fun and creative than our delve into the foundational documents last time around.
In the end, my goal when I teach argumentation is to help my students develop greater insight into their thought processes and belief systems so they can better understand the world and the other humans who inhabit it. This insight and understanding, coupled with, of course, lots of writing practice, will make them better writers. I also hope it will make them better people, citizens, and workers. What are your primary considerations when teaching argument?
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