Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Fact of the Matter is....

...that you need an argument.

The word argument gives me a serious case of the heebie jeebies.  I was raised in an old fashioned home where we were taught never ever to argue.  Instead, we were told to smile politely and do as we were told,  even if we disagreed. If we disagreed, we were grounded.  Forever.  Actually, I think I still might be grounded for the great Smurfette fiasco of 1984...

Yes, my parents did end up raising extremely polite children, but they also ended up with children who are terrified of debating and arguing - which makes me wonder if I should perhaps be changing my major from English to basket weaving.

Because when doing many types of communicating, it is imperative that you have an argument. Otherwise you are just talking to talk, or writing to write and that makes me think of those evil Furbee dolls that have made a recent comeback.  Those things just talk and talk and talk. My little sister received one for Christmas back in the late 90s, and I think it's still talking, about what I'm not sure: moral of the story - don't be a Furbee!

But I digress.

Woe betide the student who writes a paper lacking an argument. Many "add comment" icons will be clicked by professors of all disciplines, and red marks will be made at the end of an introduction that is missing an argument or boasts a weak argument.

I will admit that when I first started writing I did not understand why an argument was necessary.  I thought, "Well, I just have this assignment to write...and information to give.  That's all I need."

Silly, silly, silly.

And probably a reason why I struggled reaching those 5-7 page length requirements.  'Cause it turns out that if you have a strong argument, thus a strong thesis statement, page length requirements are a walk in the park.

No foolin'.

This past semester I had the wonderful, and I truly mean that, opportunity to teach an Enlish 101 composition course at a local community college.  What troubled most of my students at the beginning of the semester was reaching those 4-6 pages I was forcing them to write (it was for their own good!).  Now I have been writing 16-20 page papers for quite awhile, so I couldn't help but laugh a little (inwardly of course) about the cries of despair my students were voicing over the page length requirement.

But I quickly stopped that inward giggle when I saw their first papers, and I understood exactly what the problem was.

They were writing their papers based on a simple fact, not an argument.

In the first unit my students were assigned a paper that had them choose an old Grimm's Fairy tale, analyze it, and then inform their audience whether the story was a positive moral tale for youth or one that should be quickly shooed back into the dark ages.

Here are some example thesis statements I saw in their papers:
  • Snow White is a classic fairy tale, but it has negative themes.
  • Hansel and Gretel is a sad story where children are abandoned and hope is lost.
What is wrong with those statements? Well, for starters, one of them is a total slam on Hansel and Gretel...

In all seriousness, each of these statements are simply facts.

Fact: Snow White is definitely a classic.  And indeed there are negative themes in that story (what with the Prince kissing the dead girl and all...).

Fact: Hansel and Gretel are definitely abandoned. There exists a feeling of hopelessness in that story (unless you think finding a candy house is hopeful...and you might have a solid good point there).

Although these are interesting facts, it would be very hard to write a good 4-6 page paper using these as thesis statements.  After all, your thesis statement is your bottom line and also your jumping off point.  Once you have a solid thesis statement, things fall into place much more easily. And a thesis statement is basically a fancy group of words that describe your very important argument.

The word 'argument', as defined by the OED, means "A statement or fact advanced for the purpose of influencing the mind" ('argument', n).

Did you see that?  A fact that has been advanced. So basically in order to build a solid argument, you need to unpack that fact.

And that is what I helped my students to do.

What we started out doing was writing as many facts down about the chosen fairy tales as we could.

The student who had chosen Snow White and had said that it had negative themes ended up writing a list like this:

Wicked Step-mother = a bad stereotype
Beauty is emphasized as being what makes a person important
Ostricization of the other
Strong Masculine themes abound - Prince kisses Snow and she awakes = A man saves the day

After reading through that list, I can never read or watch Snow White with whimsy again.  Now it has become a very depressing and dark tale for me.  And that is because my student combined all of those facts into a strong argument (and then a very strong paper).

Here is what she came up with:

Snow White, although considered a classic fairy tale and immortalized by Disney, is not the happy romantic tale everyone thinks it is and the story itself includes themes of banishment, discourages feminism, and includes a stereo-typical evil step-mother.  Although often read to children as a heart warming romantic story, Snow White instead impacts children negatively.

No, it's not perfect.  But I reckon it is a stronger argument than what she had written before, and when she revised her paper (because revision is cool, yo!) she not only reached her page limit...but this time while reading her paper I never once felt as if she was padding it to get to the 4-6.  She produced a solid, well written, and well organized paper.

So, from then on a lot of my students started writing fact sheets about their chosen topic. After those students, who were all so totally rad, had written down a bunch of facts they would string them together to form an argument.

If you are like me and the word argument sends you into fits of worry and nail biting, simply think of it as it is defined "a statement or fact advanced."  Unpack those facts and ask them to stay a while. Hang out with them a bit and see what you come up with.

Then put that strong argument together and remember that although arguing often has negative connotations, it shouldn't. It is necessary. Because your argument is what you think, and what you think is important...right?  Right.

Arguments are necessary.

So just smile and do it politely (or my dad is gonna ground you).

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