The Language of Argument


 

Academic Argument
Identify/Generate the principle
Time: 20-30 minutes

This is a good exercise for the opening days of class, one that helps students to understand what constitutes an academic argument.
 
 
Explain to the class that the group needs to define its mission for the semester: writing academic arguments. To do this, the class is going to consider how most people talk about arguments--and what that language reveals about how we think about arguments.

Use the handout below or just ask the questions on the handout to elicit responses. You can also go around the room and ask each student to give you one word or phrase in response to the question, as quickly as possible.

Most of the responses are likely to imply argument as war (I was invincible/I crushed him/she wouldn't give an inch/she had a lot of ammunition/my defenses were too strong/etc.). Explain that this kind of language comes from a notion of argument as a kind of trench warfare. Discuss how that might shape the ways that people argue: how should people behave, if argument is war (they think of themselves as enemies, they have no mercy, they don't want to give in at all or they will have to surrender and give up all power).

Explain that this is in fact not the kind of argument the class will be practicing. Instead, academic arguments are much closer to the kinds of conversations that we all have every day, when we're trying to persuade people to agree with us (Let's go to Runk for dinner) or trying to learn what other people think (Which professors are the best for calculus?). We exchange ideas and try to figure out the value of other people's reasons and evidence, without much hostility, trying to anticipate and respond to other people's possible objections (I know Runk is far away, but the food's pretty good). Academic arguments are rational (they force us to look for evidence, and to imagine possible inconsistencies and contradictions); they help us to form rational communities (in which people's arguments are respected, if not univerally accepted), and they imagine themselves in the context a larger, ongoing conversation.
 
Variation:
Show clips from "Jerry Springer," "The McLaughlin Group," PBS' "The News Hour." Ask students to compare the kinds of arguments they see: how do the people involved deal with conflict? what do they think the purpose of having an argument is? how do they attempt to persuade one another? what are their attitudes towards one another? what do they do when they disagree with one another strongly? From student responses, develop definitions of argument as war and academic argument as above.
 
Worksheet:
 
 
The Language of Argument
 
When telling a friend about a job interview in which you have done well, you might say that you "aced it" or that the interviewers "were powerless to resist my charm." What sort of language do you use to tell a friend about your successful arguments?
 
1. When you've skillfully forwarded and defended an argument, what are three things you might say that you've done to or with the other side?
 
" I nuked her." 

a)
 
b)
 
c)
 
 

2. If the person you are arguing with won't be swayed by your reasons or evidence, what are some terms we use to describe that behavior?
 
" I built a perfect argument, but Robin dug in her heels."

 
a)
 
b)
 
c)
 
  3. If the person with whom you are arguing forwards slippery assertions and you rebut them, how do you describe that exchange to a friend?
 
" Sam made some sketchy claims, but I pinned him down." 

a)
 
b)
 
c)