The Case For Narrative Argument

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When I first began teaching college-level writing in 1999 I taught the modes because that seemed to be the prevailing thought among my colleagues (first at Eastern Kentucky University and later at Morehead State University) and it was certainly the theory of teaching writing espoused by the texts I was supplied or encouraged to adopt. As I gained more experience and read rhetorical theory more broadly (and deeply) I moved away from the modes to embrace a more pedagogical focus that began with writing about writing and was further influenced by my work with the National Writing Project.

This led to a shift from opening my writing classes with a personal narrative to crafting literacy narratives for our first assignment. I still find literacy narratives to be a powerful assignment, especially for those struggling with their identity as a writer or the narrative of themselves as a writer that they have been told (and taught through experience). As my experience with teaching literacy narratives grew I discovered that the most powerful narratives were those with a message, narratives that made an argument about literacy and education and agency and that is when I began assigning literacy narratives with a variety of approaches. These literacy narratives bridged the gap between the personal narratives I had once assigned to the writing about writing rhetorical studies that so intrigued me and introduced me to the interesting idea of transliteracy.

During this time frame, writing instruction at large and definitely at Morehead State University took a hard turn toward argument. While I had always taught argument, it had tended to be a culminating assignment rather than the focus for the entire semester. Combine this shift to argument with my introduction to the National Writing Project’s College, Career, and Community Writer’s Program and I began working C3WP lessons into the preparation work for all my assignments. My C3WP work reminded me yet again how powerful arguments can be if they evolve from the writer’s personal life and cares.

That is when I decided to shift my opening assignment from a literacy narrative to a narrative argument. A narrative argument is a melding of the personal narrative and the argument. While my literacy narrative assignment had evolved into a narrative argument, I wanted a narrative argument assignment that fit with the theme of my classes (as part of my new Less is More goal). This led to crafting American Creed essays in my American Literacy themed class and Gaming Narratives in my game themed class. For both essays students used This I Believe essays as mentor texts because my goal is to introduce students to the idea of a focused personal argument with little or no outside evidence. The effect of starting here is that developing writers must focus on their claim and the argument they craft to support it and are not distracted by the research process and the fire hose of information available to them. Instead we focus on the writer’s thinking, the writer’s ideas, and the writer’s experience then harness the personal narrative to a specific purpose — the narrative argument.

In legal circles, a case theory is “a detailed, coherent, accurate story of what occurred” involving both a legal theory and a factual theory. My theory of the case for teaching narrative argument is based on my experience and education as a rhetorician which includes decades of study of the theory and teaching of writing (comprising my pedagogical theory) as well as working as professional writer and editor (making up my factual theory). My theory of the case for using narrative argument to teach writing is simply that narrative argument offers tremendous opportunity for authentic writing that can serve the writer in a wide range of future writing situations in school, in the workplace, and in the world. Narrative argument is an essential building block for many genres of community and professional writing. Learning to craft an argument is an essential writing skill, but weaving that argument using narrative gives it life and meaning — and that is why teaching narrative argument is an important part of my teaching end game.

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