Argumentative Alchemy: Writing to Persuade an Opposition Audience
How do we transform leaden argument into golden insight?
We've all had the experience of sharpening our ideas and deepening our knowledge as we attempt to convince a colleague whose opinion differs from our own. In like manner, our students can sharpen their ideas and deepen their knowledge by writing papers to persuade an opposition audience.
To successfully persuade such an audience, students must consider more than their own sometimes-hazy opinion:
How do we set up such an assignment? We can begin by using course readings to model effective rhetorical strategies. A class on race relations might assign Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail," which can be read not only for its historical content but also for strategies that bond with and persuade an opposition audience. The list of acceptable strategies will vary from discipline to discipline, from era to era, and from audience to audience—which is, in itself, a valuable lesson.
We can assign students a specific opposition audience to address in their papers or ask students to choose from a list of audiences we have given them. If course readings include authors with a variety of opinions, students can attempt to persuade one of those authors to accept a different point of view. If students disagree with one another about issues covered in the course, they can write papers to convince their classmates. Or we can ask them to choose their own opposition audience from people they encounter outside the classroom or discover in independent research. Giving them the widest possible choice gives them greater investment in the paper, as they attempt to persuade an audience they care about. They are no longer just presenting both (or all) sides of an issue to the instructor.
Before they write the paper, we can ask students to hand in a written description of their audience and their own intent, encouraging them to be detailed in their description of the audience: to describe not only the audience's opinion and reasons and evidence but also that audience's related likes and dislikes. We can have the students paint a vivid verbal picture of the opposition as real, breathing people and instruct them to keep this description in mind as they state their intent. What claims do they want their audience to accept by the end of the paper? What actions do they want their audience to take? What emotions, if any, do they want their audience to feel?
Most important, as students formulate and refine their paper's thesis—the main claim of their paper—we can have them clearly articulate the reasons that support that claim and examine the premises that underlie it. Why? Because if that premise and reasoning are unacceptable to the opposition, the paper will fail to persuade that audience. Students must look at the subject from the audience's point of view, not just from their own: arguing for a policy because it will save money won't persuade an audience who opposes that policy on environmental grounds; arguing against an analysis because it conflicts with one theory won't persuade an audience who subscribes to another theory.
Students' views about a subject often change as they draft and revise papers to persuade an opposition audience. Indeed, they may come to share some of the audience's opinions, or even convert completely to the opposition's point of view. As they engage in on-going mental dialogue with the audience, for a brief moment they are transformed: they become that audience, and their ideas are filtered through the alembic of the opposition. They truly comprehend their audience's opinions, even as they refine and become more knowledgeable about their own. Such is the alchemy of argument; it produces a flexible, civil mind.
Carolyn Hill is a Lecturer in the College Writing Programs.
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