A First Look at Argumentation
Some Beginning Thoughts
- A huge difference between high school writing and college writing is argumentation. Many high school assignments were "How do you feel about this?" or "What was your personal experience of this?" or "Report all the stuff you could find about this topic." A great deal of college writing (probably 90% or more) is either "Here is something new I have learned and I want you to pay attention to it" or "Based on what we now know, we need to do this."
- American academic writing tends to be very straight-line and looks for a change in the reader. To people from other cultures (Asian, in particular), this "listen to me because I'm right" approach seems incredibly rude. But that's how we are.
- There is a big difference between an academic argument and a fight. Good academic arguments sound like this: "Here are five reasons that we should switch to electric automobiles" or "Based on our data, this new worm-like creature deserves to be in a distinct, separate species."
- One does not "win" an academic argument when the other side is broken and bloody or gives up. A writer "wins" an academic argument when the reader says, "Hmmm. That's an interesting point. I should give it some thought and follow up on it."
- The academic world is always open to listening to the other side—if it has good data and logic. There might be good reasons not to switch entirely to electric automobiles. This new worm-like creature might really be part of a group we already know about.
- The reason we argue the point is that some experts disagree (or might be unaware of the data), so my paper tries to bring them to my side.
- If you disagree, the right approach is to write a paper that argues the other side. Perhaps electric automobiles will put too much stress on the generating systems. Perhaps the researchers missed important clues about that worm.
- You students do not have too many good models for argumentation. Politics, television, and social media give us a lot of "arguments" that persuade nobody (often they are "preaching to the choir"), so you have very few examples to help you figure out how to write (or speak) a helpful argument. The pyramid illustration shows what I mean. As I work my way through, from bottom to top, you can probably recognize the style of some public speakers you have heard. (I am using the electric automobile argument as an example.)
- Lowest level: Name calling. "People who want us to switch to electric cars are Communists who hate the USA." (This persuades nobody. If you point out that Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors, is funny-looking, nobody will change their car-buying strategy, and no government policy will change.)
- Ad Hominem (which means "against the person") "Elon Musk has a lavish lifestyle and was born in South Africa, so there's no reason to listen to his ideas about electric automobiles."
- Responding to tone. "Musk's accent makes him sound really pretentious. Why can't he speak with a good old American accent? And besides, all of his ideas just sound so goofy."
- Contradiction without evidence "Gasoline powered cars are just better and everyone understands them. We don't need a change because everything seems to be working so well."
- Counterargument. NOTE: This is the first time in this list where we see academically-respectable argumentation! "Here are several reasons why a wholesale switch to electric automobiles will cause more problems than it will solve."
- Refutation. "Here is data that shows why both the air pollution argument and the argument about fossil fuel depletion are overstated."
- Refuting the Central Point. "Switching to electric cars doesn't really solve the problems of our cities because we will still have millions of cars crowding our streets and tons of pollution from electric generating plants. The real solution is modern mass transit and city design to promote pedestrian and bicycle usage."
Writing a good argument
Back to the basics
Begin by asking two very clear questions: What am I trying to do? and Who am I trying to do it to?
Using the worm example, am I trying to show that this surprising new creature is something totally distinct? Am I trying to entertain people with a tale of my journey to the Amazon rain forest? Am I trying to destroy the reputation of scientists who disagree with me? Knowing the what will give you a tool to know what you should include and what you should leave out.
The who is often a problem for college freshman writers. I get a lot of papers that seem to be pitched to very young children: "I'll bet you didn't know that the dictionary defines 'worm' as 'any of a number of creeping or burrowing invertebrate animals with long, slender soft bodies and no limbs.' " (Well that didn't work! The 4- and 5-year-old crowd didn't understand "invertebrate" and the rest of us already knew that worms don't have legs.) You need to ask yourself questions about age and experience of your audience (and for college writing, I suggest at least high school graduates!) as well as such issues as political affiliation and cultural background.
- Some college freshmen go the other direction and attempt to dazzle the reader with incredible dictionary exercises. One of my students wrote about the "plethoric rambunctiousness of the intellect" of a prominent scientist. I'm not even sure what that means. I don't think the student knew either. Don't wander around the dictionary, trying to find words to knock the socks off a PhD.
The best evidence falls into two categories: good information and good logic.
The best information is quality data that was gathered from objective sources. A university study of cost savings related to switching from gasoline automobiles to electric automobiles might be an example of good information. "I don't think electric cars sound like much fun because I like the sound of a Mustang's exhaust" does not count as a "information from a good, objective source."
Much of what went wrong with the lower levels of that pyramid relates to faulty logic. "Elon Musk spread misinformation about Covid-19; therefore electric automobiles are a fraud" is an example of faulty logic on several levels—but that's an example of the sort of complaint you might see in print.
Clear essay structure
Though you might hate the 5-paragraph essay structure, it's got a lot of good things going for it. Many academic arguments look a lot like 5-paragraph essays:
- A clear introduction that defines the issue, orients the reader to the discussion, and leads into the main body of the piece.
- A clear thesis that says in one sentence what the piece will intend to prove (and yes, it's often right at the end of the introduction).
- Several body paragraphs that deal with pieces of the thesis assertion and explain them clearly, showing how they all fit together and prove the thesis.
- A wrap-up paragraph that closes everything, draws it together, and shows how this argument fits into the larger body of knowledge.
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The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by Ashland University.
Revised 8/5/21 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: email@example.com.