Friday, May 22, 2009

So What?

Yesterday I asked each of my Business Communication students to stand up in front of the class and say four specific things about the term papers they are going to turn in on Tuesday:

* State your thesis/findings/proposal.
* Briefly describe the evidence you used to support your assertions.
* Explain why your evidence supports your assertions.
* Tell us why your assertions are important.

Students saw the first three requests coming, but when I asked them to explain the importance of their work, several of them looked confused - enough of them that I decided to explain I meant by 'important.'

To do so, I borrowed a lesson from my one-time fiction writing professor, Lynn Freed. Back when I was walking the halls of Voorhies at UC Davis, Lynn's name evoked anxiety in many of the fiction writers. We liked hearing what she had to say, but what she said often hurt. She's not one to pull punches during workshop. If she thinks your being a lazy writer, she'll call you out on it. If she thinks you've lost control of the story, she'll tell you just that. But the reason she was feared - the reason people were nervous about enrolling in her workshop was not what she said in the classroom; it was what she wrote on the final page of so many people's submissions that scared us. She scratched two words across the whole page: "So what?"

A young man might be drawing on deeply personal experiences to write about how a girlfriend humiliated his fictional self in front of family and friends, and at the end of the story all Lynn wanted to know was, "So what?"

She explained that this is the most important question a writer can ever ask about his or her work. If a writer is going to take up a reader's time and energy, then there sure as hell better be a pay off. And Lynn carries herself in such a way that you know she probably has better things to do than read your short story. That really drives the point home.

And so, in my classroom I asked my students to explain why their term paper was important. "Why should I spend my time reading it? How will my life be affected if I accept or reject your assertion? In short, so what?" The class laughed. Then the presentations began.

Then just before the first break, I had to push one presenter a bit on the "so what" issue. I asked her, "Why should I read your paper?"

Before she could answer, one of the other students exclaimed, "I hate that question." He was adamant. I asked him why, and he told us that whenever there is a message, there is always a 'sender' and a 'reciever,' and that relationship is defined by pre-established positions of power. He suggested that you shouldn't compose a message if you are not in a position to make someone read that message. The relationship must be in place before the reader's eyes fall upon the first word: Boss & subordinate, journalist & news customer, politician & citizen, parent & child, and the list goes on.

It was a fascinating misconception of the reader-writer relationship, and I think it's one many students have. After all, many students only read because they are told to read. Reluctant readers get to school where they are told what to read, and if they fail to read the book, an authority punishes them. This 'teaches' reluctant readers that "We read because we have to."

Now, I don't want to do away with that system. I think teachers should force reluctant readers to read. The Great Gasby may feel like 'eating your vegetables' to a 15-year-old, but it's good for you AND eventually we all learn how delicious asparagus is (it's in season here, and soooo good).

But we also need to teach about the reader-writer relationship. The reader is giving time and thought to a writer's work. That writer better bring something to the table - something worth the time and energy - something that offers a satisfying answer to the question, "So what?"

Friday, May 08, 2009

Troubles Teaching Argument


It's been an interesting week. I'm reading a lot of Composition Studies literature for my research project, and that's got my head in an odd place. I keep thinking in jargon, which is uncomfortable.

Anyway, I was on the receiving end of a couple of interesting ideas this week, and it got me to thinking about the challenges of teaching effective arguments. I know from my reading and experience why it's a challenge:

* Many students often struggle in their attempts to understand the opposition's point of view.
* Many students have been taught to argue using vague or unsubstantiated evidence, a lesson imparted by various media and often by the family/community.
* Many students believe generalizations and emotional appeals are more effective tools of persuasion because they are easy to create.
* Many students don't hang out with people who disagree with them very often.

But what struck me this week is this:
* Many people often struggle in their attempts to understand the opposition's point of view.
* Many people have been taught to argue using vague or unsubstantiated evidence, a lesson imparted by various media and often by the family/community.
* Many people believe generalizations and emotional appeals are more effective tools of persuasion because they are easy to create.
* Many people don't hang out with people who disagree with them very often.

Let me offer this article from CBS News as an example. The article tells of the Hawaii State Senate's recent passage of a bill that established "Islam Day." My friend Dan sent me the article, and pointed out that someone in Hawaii had clearly forgotten about the separation of Church and State. And I'm with him on that, but to me the article is interesting for a different reason. There was partisan debate on the issue, and the way arguments were framed put both parties in a bad light.

Two quotes struck me:
"...objections of [Republican] lawmakers who said they didn't want to honor a religion connected to Sept. 11, 2001."

Okay, there are a ton of arguments against "Islam Day." Dan's Church/State point is the strongest, but there are others. The 'holiday' should've been shot down before before leaving the lips of whatever ass-head thought of it.

But, if you're a Republican forced to argue against Islam Day by a power-drunk member of the far left, the best way to expose the left's folly is to retaliate from the center. Even if you don't want to bring the Church/State debate to the table (Don't upset the base!), I think a toned down version of "Islam Day is a stupid idea, and we are wasting time and oxygen talking about it," ought to settle the issue.

But that is not the tactic the Hawaii Republicans chose. Instead they went with the one argument that makes them look either obtuse or mildly racist: "Some members of Islam are evil (those who carried out the 9/11 attacks), so we shouldn't celebrate Islam." That's the stupidest argument I've ever heard. Aside from being poor inductive reasoning, the only people who would rally behind that argument are already loyal to the position of 'No Islam Day.'
If you want change people's minds, then you argue from a position they can identify with. That's Rhetoric 101, people.

And at the end of the article, there's this gem:

"The lone Democrat voting against the bill opposed it on church-state separation fears."

Really? Just one Democrat remembered that the separation of Church and State is important? One? Come on, guys. The First Amendment is a pretty good amendment. I actually think it's one of the best (although 23's granting of presidential electors to DC is a close second). Defending the 1st is a principled position that helps support other Democratic views. Most Democrats, Independents, and many Republicans would like to keep law makers out of our bedrooms and religion out of the science classroom; the 1st Amendment is the best protection against the many clamoring at those gates. Focus, people. Focus.

This article illustrates with disturbing clarity how poorly people reason. These senators have a job that is largely concerned with having, holding and defending positions in an argument.

So my question to readers this week is this: Where can we find examples of people constructing and delivering well composed arguments?

Two of my answers:
Intelligence Squared US
George Orwell