The Essentials of Argument
Marvelously diverse groups of students populate our classes—American-born, immigrant, and international undergraduates. My own students have ranged from faltering to fluent in English, and come from inner city public schools as well as private religious schools. They have included several future engineers from East Bay suburbs, a junior from an elite English-based school in Istanbul, a book-deprived daughter of Vietnamese boat people, the daughter of a Fresno farm worker. Regardless of life circumstances, all of my students have struggled to identify the major claims of authors. Yet over the course of each term, with guidance in identifying the elements of argument and repeated practice, most have learned to read texts in new ways, to write rhetorical analyses, and to construct convincing arguments.
I begin my segment in argument by asking students to define the term. Most give the commonplace meaning: a dispute between two or more parties, often involving anger and maybe even violence. I then introduce Stephen Toulmin's less passionate definition of argument as a claim, supported by evidence, with a warrant that connects claim to support. For example, if you learn while waiting for your free cholesterol test that your reading is over 200 (evidence), you should go to the doctor (claim). What goes unstated is the warrant: that a cholesterol count over 200 could indicate obstructed arteries. One may also include qualifications which limit the particular claim: further analysis of your cholesterol count may indicate that your HDL well exceeds your LDL, and in that case, prospects look good. Some stretch the definition of argument even further to include all speech or writing which attempts to change the attitudes or ideas of the audience or move it to action by the use of reason and evidence.
Obviously, textual claims are far more complex than the cholesterol example, involving multiple issues, explored with several lines of reasoning, supported by different categories of evidence. How deeply instructors choose to explore particular elements of argument with students depends on their purpose, but in most content courses a brief introduction will probably suffice to give students the vocabulary and method for breaking into arguments and exploring how they are built. Most essential, students must be able to identify the kinds of issues they will encounter as they read, research, and write arguments because each kind of issue implies particular methods of investigation and the use of particular kinds of evidence.
Students may understand that the major claim and sub-claims in an argument all constitute issues, or points of controversy. They may not have considered that an issue (or question) may fall into four categories—first laid out in classical rhetoric as a means for lawyers to distinguish between issues in court cases. The four categories are issues of fact (whether something is so); of value (the relative merit of something), of policy (what is to be done, including questions of cause and effect), and of definition (the meaning, or nature, of something).
Each of these categories of issue contains a slippery slope. It may be quite possible in controversies of fact to determine whether something exists, has happened, or is verifiable. But personal bias may distort perception of fact, as most dramatically revealed in eyewitness testimony. Or the methods or measurements used to resolve factual disputes may themselves be controversial, such as whether mammograms effectively detect cancer, a question lately taken up by the federal government and "resolved" in favor of the procedure. Obviously, questions of value are the thorniest category because one must first establish the criteria of judgment against which the idea, action, policy, institution, or public figure will be evaluated. And these criteria are relative to the field of inquiry (e.g., rules or standards in law, science, medicine, history, literature) and to individuals, group, or cultures. For example, whether a machine works or not may constitute a simple assessment of value. But disputes about whether a film or painting is "good" or a policy is beneficial (genetic engineering of food, for example) can show the full force of clashing criteria.
Issues of policy are inherently value-laden, and judging whether a proposed policy will be effective depends on how well we assess facts, conditions or causes, and anticipate consequences—causes and consequences being notoriously complex and difficult to determine. Finally, in all questions of fact, value, and policy, we encounter disputes over definition. How can we determine how something came to be, whether it has merit, or what course of action to take, without knowing what we are talking about? Language, itself arbitrary, must be used to define social reality, which is itself socially constructed. How arbitrary or relative are the definitions we embrace? How do we achieve consensus on definitions in order even to be able to discuss issues of fact, value or policy? We have no choice but to try to define our terms and seek enough common ground to engage in debate—acknowledging the limitations of our perspectives. Just asking students to make a claim instead of using that hazy term thesis led one of my colleague's students to more forceful, committed positions.
Ask students to study each piece of evidence and decide what kind it is: a fact (example, statistic, assorted data) or opinion or interpretation of facts. Then ask them to decide if they can tell whether the evidence is primary or secondary; recent, contemporaneous, or outdated; representative or unrepresentative; biased or relatively unbiased, and where the source is apparent, whether it is authoritative. Again, this kind of practice raises significant questions about the difficulty of evaluating evidence outside of its context and without a sense of the author's intent—or demonstrates how one can make a judgment anyway. It reinforces critical method and can be done equally well with examples of common logical fallacies.
Our students are trying to negotiate the streams, hills, and dense woods of classic, contemporary, and academic texts as a prelude to writing papers, and their success depends upon how well they can make sense of written arguments.
Teri Crisp is a doctoral candidate, and a G.S.I in the College Writing Programs.
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