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Teaching argument

Teaching Argument to First-Year Students: Problems and Solutions

Many professors are frustrated with first-year students' inability to craft a balanced, reasoned argument. Professors most often observe that:
  • First-year students too often confuse argument with opinion -- that is, they write papers that are subjective and self-oriented rather than objective and reader-based.

  • First-year students are sometimes black and white thinkers, unable or unwilling to address the complexities of an issue.

  • First-year students who are inexperienced with a certain topic or discipline can jump on the first "band wagon" they find, citing an authority with almost blind reverence, and ignoring all other points of view.

  • First-year students are sometimes overwhelmed by the complexity of an intellectual problem, finding that it's impossible to take a stand.

  • First-year students will sometimes defend a weakly supported or poorly reasoned argument because it is, after all, their opinion, and they have a right to it.
How does one work against these tendencies in our students' thinking? We might begin by trying to better understand these problems. A helpful model for understanding why our students get "stuck" in any one of these intellectual positions can be found in William Perry's Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years: A Scheme (1970). In this work, Perry argues that college learners pass through three stages of intellectual development before becoming sophisticated critical thinkers.
  • Dualism. Very young or unsophisticated thinkers tend to see the world in polar terms: black and white, good and bad, and so on. These students also have what Perry calls a "cognitive egocentrism" -- that is, they find it difficult to entertain points of view other than the ones they themselves embrace. If they have no strong beliefs on a topic, they tend to ally themselves absolutely to whatever authority they find appealing. At this stage in their development, students believe that there is a "right" side, and they want to be on it. They believe that their arguments are undermined by the consideration of other points of view.

  • Relativism. As students progress in their academic careers, they come to understand that there often is no single right answer to a problem, and that some questions have no answers. Students who enter the stage of relativism are beginning to contextualize knowledge and to understand the complexities of any intellectual position. However, the phase of relativism has some pitfalls -- among them that students in this phase sometimes give themselves over to a kind of skepticism. For the young relativist, if there is no Truth, then every opinion is as good as another. At its worst, relativism leads students to believe that opinion is attached to nothing but the person who has it, and that evidence, logic, and clarity have little to do with an argument's value.

  • Reflectivism. If students are properly led through the phase of relativism, they will eventually come to see that, indeed, some opinions are better than others. They will begin to be interested in what makes one argument better than another. Is it well reasoned? Well supported? Balanced? Sufficiently complex? When students learn to evaluate others' points of view, they will begin to evaluate their own. In the end, they will be able to commit themselves to a point of view that is objective, well reasoned, sophisticated -- one that, in short, meets all the requirements of an academic argument.
But how can we help our students to grow from dualistic thinkers to reflective thinkers? We can challenge our students to overcome black and white thinking and to avoid the indecision of relativism by designing courses that help them to understand argument in all of its complexities. Of course, there are countless ways to teach argument, but for the sake of discussion we've isolated three:
    1) Encourage a "Cognitive Shift." In other words, design reading and writing assignments so that students "shift" from subjective, personal understandings of a subject to new understandings that are more deeply, fully and reasonably considered.

    2) Use the Socratic Method. Guide students to clear thinking by asking questions of texts (or of students) and pointing out inconsistencies in their answers. Plato is optional.

    3) Teach Formal Logic and Argument. Familiarize students with the basics of argument and logic, and encourage them to evaluate an argument based on the formal principles of reason.

Example: Encouraging a Cognitive Shift -- Donald Sheehan's English 2-3

In his English 2-3 course, Professor Donald Sheehan's primary goal is to encourage his students to develop their critical thinking skills by moving them through some cognitive or ontological shift. In this course, students are initiated not only into the conventions and expectations of academic writing, but also into a new way of thinking about themselves and their world.

Professor Sheehan's English 2-3 is a theme-based course with a theoretical bent. The theme of the course is violence, and the theoretical basis belongs to Rene Girard. Professor Sheehan has chosen violence as his theme because he feels that it is one of a few topics that can move students to think and feel deeply enough to bring about a shift in their understanding of themselves, the texts they read, and the world around them. He has chosen to teach this theme according to Girard's critical perspective because he wants to provide students with an objective, analytical lens through which they might view both the texts and their own personal experiences.

The power of violence to unsettle students, both personally and critically, is important to the writing instruction that takes place in this composition classroom. Professor Sheehan believes that this "unsettling" is a necessary step in turning students into writers: "Students need to think far more deeply, and bravely, and 'risk-ily'... in order to write .... Every part of your being is involved in writing; [to do it well,] there have to be changes on all levels." Professor Sheehan's course is designed to effect these changes.

Of course, to lead students to this sort of cognitive shift, a professor must manage a student's progress from the personal to the analytical. He must pay careful attention to the ways in which he's accessing the personal, and to the larger academic purposes that the personal will serve. Professor Sheehan has carefully considered this movement, planning in detail the cognitive experience his students will undergo in his course. Because violence is a risky topic, Professor Sheehan does not begin his course by asking students to explore their own experiences. Rather, he asks them to read Peter Maass' Love Thy Neighbor, a book that chronicles the Bosnian experience with violence. This book locates violence "out there, in the world," and so offers students an opportunity to have an initial look at violence in a context that is not threatening to them.

After they have some context in which to begin thinking about violence, Professor Sheehan asks students to write two personal essays: the first a narrative of violence that occurred in their own families in the previous generation, and the second a narrative of violence in which they themselves participated, either as victims or as perpetrators. When the students have completed these two essays, Professor Sheehan asks them to gather the two narratives together and to write both an introduction that finds a common theme between the two episodes and a conclusion that explores the causes and consequences of violence. In this way, Professor Sheehan asks students to analyze personal and family experiences with violence, with the dual aim of enriching their understandings of themselves and of deepening their perspectives on the topic at hand.

Throughout his two-term course, Professor Sheehan moves students back and forth between the personal and the analytical. In English 3, students begin the course by reading excerpts from Violence Unveiled, by Gil Bailie, who was a student of Girard's. These excerpts give students' their first opportunity to read critical theory. According to Professor Sheehan, students have explored violence in their own experience; now they are asked to consider it "within a deliberate intellectual construction."

Students are also required to write an essay that reconsiders Peter Maass' book in light of the Girardian theory they are reading. In this assignment, students are asked to consider those moments in which Maass finds himself unable to explain the violence he is witnessing in Bosnia, and to apply Girardian theory in an attempt to articulate an explanation. With the theory in hand, then, students are asked to "complete" what seems incomplete in Maass' understanding of violence.

This exercise in revisiting Maass also serves to provoke students to understand the incompleteness of their own intellectual positions. Furthermore, it prepares students to reconsider their personal experiences with violence: at this point, students write another autobiographical essay about an incident in which they averted or succeeded in "unmaking" violence. At the same time, they read a short passage from an essay by Girard -- the first and only encounter they will have with Girard's own writing. The passage they read is dense, but it gives students a model of how the personal and the theoretical might intersect in academic work.

The final paper for Professor Sheehan's course is a long academic paper requiring research on Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov. The novel, as Professor Sheehan understands it, "takes all of our sociological and anthropological and personal and theoretical reflections and grabs them in a fictional framework...[allowing students to explore] a Christian theory of resolution [of violence]: that you don't resolve the problem; you endure it. You suffer."

In their final papers, in which they are encouraged to choose any one of the novel's complex ideas and to explore it more fully, students are asked to do more than simply synthesize what they have learned in the course. By working closely with Professor Sheehan and the course tutor to review, rethink, and revise their ideas, students continue to create shifts in their ways of knowing.

Professor Sheehan expects that the cognitive process that he has initiated in this course is far from finished, and that students will continue to deepen their understanding -- both personal and academic -- through the models for thinking, reading, and writing with which he has equipped them in his course.

Example: Monika Otter's English 5

Though Professor Monika Otter does not teach Plato's Protagoras until the middle of the term, Socrates and his method serve as the "anchor" of her English 5 course. In the four weeks of the term preceding Protagoras, Professor Otter uses many innovative reading and writing assignments to lay the groundwork for the formal introduction to the Socratic method.

What is striking about the first half of Professor Otter's syllabus is that there are no long works of literature. Instead, in the first four weeks of her course, Professor Otter assigns short readings, many of them non-fiction, using these texts to encourage her students to consider specific aspects of argument. For example, Professor Otter might assign op-ed pieces in order to show students how to compare and contrast ideas, how to see both sides of an argument, how to anticipate opposing arguments, and so on. Or she might assign a chapter from what she calls a "rather stupid handbook for MBA's," which gives advice on how to conduct a successful job interview. She uses this piece of text not for its ideas, but in order to discuss tone, attitude, audience, and the impact of these elements on the piece's argument.

What's remarkable about Professor Otter's method is that most professors teaching English 2-3 and 5 use literature as a way of bringing students to understand argument. Professor Otter, on the other hand, uses argument as a way of bringing students to understand literature. She uses her short reading assignments to outline the fundamentals of argument, thereby giving her students the tools they need to read longer, literary texts.

The writing assignments that Professor Otter makes in the first four weeks of the course are similarly concerned with finding ways to bring students to a more sophisticated understanding of argument. These assignments require students to challenge their assumptions and to break the habit of formulaic thinking. For example, in her first assignment, Professor Otter asks students to go to the Hood Museum and to find two objects to compare. She advises students to find two very different pieces -- for example, an African mask and a religious kitsch painting. Professor Otter argues that these sorts of comparisons are interesting because they don't allow students to come up with a pre-established thesis. Rather, students must struggle to find (sometimes obscure) connections between the two objects, thereby breaking the habit of easy observations and formulaic thinking.

Professor Otter's second assignment, a definition paper, is equally unusual: students are asked to make up a word, or to describe an unusual word that is used by their families or in their neighborhoods. They must not simply define the word; they must come up with something critical to say about it, thereby bringing the tools of analysis to operate on personal experience. Professor Otter argues that these assignments are "designed to shake [students] out of the AP model on the one hand, which is what half of them come in [to Dartmouth] with, and on the other hand, the free-writing-you-can't-touch-what-I-say-because-it's- personal model, which is what the other half come in with."

In short, Professor Otter's early assignments are created to push students beyond habitual ways of knowing and to approach analytical thinking with ideas that are new. By the fifth week of her course, students have -- through their reading and writing assignments -- developed the analytical skills they need to attempt argument and literary analysis.

Students are now ready to begin their study of Plato's Protagoras. Professor Otter acknowledges Protagoras as the "anchor" of her course, because "it's about knowledge and manners of arriving at knowledge in discussion." She also sees the book as exposing students to various modes of discourse and elements of rhetoric: "It's comparative; it's about definition and about attacking each other on definitions; it's about arguments and poking holes in each other's arguments; and it is, in a very big way, about audience. So [using the book] has a real logic to it ... [establishing] independent thinking, dialectic thinking, and making decisions on the basis of knowledge."

Furthermore, Professor Otter uses Protagoras to provide models for Socratic dialogue, illustrating for her students the drama that can exist in the debate over important ideas. This drama also takes place in the classroom: not only do students debate the very issues that Socrates and his contemporaries were debating, they also question and challenge one another to produce sound arguments.

The writing assignment for Protagoras asks students to look critically at the Socratic method. For this assignment, students read carefully a passage in which Plato describes Socrates' views on "the proper way to conduct a philosophical investigation." They then analyze Socrates' arguments by his own criteria. This assignment is key in sharpening students' understanding of how arguments are created and analyzed. Armed with this understanding, students are ready to analyze the course's two remaining literary works.

In short, Professor Otter's course equips her students with the techniques of argument and analysis. Clearly, instruction in the Socratic Method helps students become better readers, better thinkers, better writers, and better contributors to the ongoing discussions of scholarship.

Analyzing Argument at the Upper Levels

First-year students are not the only students who have trouble constructing sound arguments. While many upper-level students have indeed broken the bad habits of black and white thinking or arguing through emotion, they still sometimes inappropriately suppress their premises, or commit a logical fallacy now and then. Many times professors are faced with arguments that, though well-expressed, go awry. Sometimes, though, it is difficult to say precisely when or how. At these times, the methods and vocabulary of informal and formal logic come in very handy.

The course, we are about to consider -- Philosophy 3 -- trains students to be able to analyze an argument by breaking it down into its component parts, and then to evaluate an argument by determining if the reasoning is valid and all of the component "parts" are true. Professors interested in learning more about how they might translate the methods of Philosophy 3 to their classrooms might want to look at Understanding Arguments: An Introduction to Informal Logic, by Robert J. Fogelin and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (whose method of teaching Philosophy 3 is summarized below).

Example: Teaching Logic -- Walter Sinnott-Armstrong's Philosophy 3

Philosophy 3 is a course in Logic and Argument, offered to students at all levels. While it is not, in its current incarnation, a "writing course" (the course requires only one paper), it stands as an excellent illustration of how students might be taught the fundamentals necessary to the successful analysis and creation of arguments.

The course, as Professor Sinnott-Armstrong teaches it, is divided into three different sections. In the first two weeks, students are taught how they might analyze arguments by translating them into a standard form -- that is, they transform prose into premises and conclusions so that they can understand, in very clear terms, the argument that is being presented.

Before this work can really begin, though, students must also understand some of the "slippery" qualities of language -- for example, that they must be abel to analyze a statement not only for what it says, but also for what it implies. In these weeks, students are taught to look behind what someone is literally saying and to see what other meanings a speaker might intend.

Students will spend the next few weeks learning how to break down arguments into their component parts, identifying premises and conclusions throughout an argument. In order to facilitate this process, Professor Sinnott-Armstrong likes to give students transcripts of speeches on a matter that no one really cares about -- for example, whether the members of the House of Representatives should be allowed to increase the number of clerks they have working for them. These kinds of texts tend not to rouse emotion and so make logical analysis easier.

Using these texts, Professor Sinnott-Armstrong models for students how to put an argument into its standard form of premises and conclusions. Students also label the rhetoric in each sentence according to the terms that they have been learning. Students then come to understand the many things going on within a paragraph and within language itself to make an argument persuasive. Texts employ assumptions and deflections, declarations and rhetorical devices that together add to the argument. When students put an argument into standard form they can really see what the writer is arguing.

Once all of the explicit premises are stated in standard form, Professor Sinnott-Armstrong instructs his students to look for the implicit or suppressed premises: "Well, if the speaker says A, he must be assuming B, taking C for granted. Why doesn't he come right out and state his premise? Either he knows that everybody already agrees with his premise, or he is trying to suppress a premise that is very controversial." In this way, Professor Sinnott-Armstrong equips his students with the tools of analysis.

So far, students have been shown how to analyze (or break down) an argument. The second part of the course teaches students how to evaluate argument, both deductively and inductively.

First, students are taught how to test an argument for deductive validity -- that is, for whether the conclusion follows from the premises. Students are here introduced to the terms "validity," "truth," and "soundness" -- noting that an argument might be valid (in that the conclusion does indeed follow from the premises) without being sound (which also requires that the premises are true). Students must carefully probe each premise to determine its truth before they can declare an argument sound.

After showing students how to evaluate a deductive argument, Professor Sinnott-Armstrong devotes a couple of weeks to evaluating inductive reasoning. Here, students are presented with arguments that are not deductively valid, but that still provide convincing reasons to believe their conclusions. Students discuss these reasons, weighing their strengths and weaknesses, thereby evaluating the argument at hand. They also examine the argument for any of the logical fallacies -- such as equivocation, begging the question, and so on -- that can undermine an argument's validity. By the end of this part of the course, students are well equipped to evaluate any argument -- deductive or inductive.

In the final section of the course, Professor Sinnott-Armstrong instructs his students in the process of constructing an argument. Here, Professor Sinnott-Armstrong assigns articles that are for and against controversial positions, such as abortion, affirmative action, whether machines can think, what killed the dinosaurs, and so on. Students are asked to take a stand on these controversial matters, and to write an essay in which they construct the best argument that they can. When they've finished, students then write an analysis of their own arguments, breaking them down into the premise-premise-conclusion model that they learned in the first weeks of the class. Professor Sinnott-Armstrong then evaluates students' arguments, pointing out where they commit a fallacy, overlook possible objections, ignore needed qualifications, and so on.

This method of writing instruction has some real benefits -- especially in terms of coherence and clarity. Making students aware of the components of their arguments helps them to keep track of how these components work together. Organization tends to be better at the paragraph and sentence levels, and irrelevancies and redundancies tend to disappear -- two important benefits of training in informal logic.

María López Ponce Elementary School of Puerto Rico