Argument Set-Up: you got a problem with that?

With help from Joseph Harris and Gerald Graff, we have begun to think and rethink argument as something both social and dynamic–something that moves and responds to other arguments, other ideas. I agree with Joseph Harris–this is a crucial element of intellectual or (if we must call it this) “academic writing,” and this stands in stark contrast to the kinds of static essay writing many of us have come to associate with a “thesis statement.” Here is a basic definition of a thesis statement, provided by the writing center at UNC:

A thesis statement:

  • tells the reader how you will interpret the significance of the subject matter under discussion.
  • is a road map for the paper; in other words, it tells the reader what to expect from the rest of the paper.
  • directly answers the question asked of you. A thesis is an interpretation of a question or subject, not the subject itself. The subject, or topic, of an essay might be World War II or Moby Dick; a thesis must then offer a way to understand the war or the novel.
  • makes a claim that others might dispute.
  • is usually a single sentence somewhere in your first paragraph that presents your argument to the reader. The rest of the paper, the body of the essay, gathers and organizes evidence that will persuade the reader of the logic of your interpretation.

That works for me. However, a problem I often encounter with student writing: students can quote this definition but have difficulty getting two key elements of a thesis into their argument: that it is a matter of interpretation (not a statement of a topic); that it is a matter for disputation. In other words, a thesis is an argument, it must be arguable. It’s not a fixed answer: rather, it’s the pursuit of a possible answer or resolution in response to a question, a problem. Responding to a problem is what makes an argument dynamic rather than static.

Consider the ways Harvard University Press emphasizes this as basic for any type of scholarship they might publish:

Questions to consider as you prepare a book proposal:
  • What problems are you setting out to solve?
  • What confusions do you wish to clarify?
  • What previously unknown or unfortunately neglected story are you planning to tell?
  • How is this book different from all other books?
  • Why does that matter? To whom?

We can also think about the “problem” that an argument needs, and needs to focus its response, its purpose, as the “stakes”: what’s “at stake” in the argument, as we (academics) like to ask? I also refer to this as the “urgency” for the argument–we spoke of the urgency that Birkerts introduces in the opening paragraphs of his book. Here are some options for ways to address the stakes.

A related way to think of this more dynamic kind of academic argument (it’s also the vision Graff has) as opposed to what you might have encountered previously in school–where ‘academic’ as an adjective unfortunately meant ‘dry’ or ‘boring’: think of what we value in the liberal arts, and think of how that contrasts with a focus on narrow specialization. A good argument has the flexibility of moving and responding. Here is a recent description of the liberal arts that made me think of our discussion of the elements of academic argument and writing:

The second, slightly less utilitarian defense of a liberal-arts education is that it hones the mind, teaching focus, critical thinking, and the ability to express oneself clearly both in writing and speaking—skills that are of great value no matter what profession you may choose. It’s not just that you are taught specific materials in a liberally designed context, but more generally, the way your mind is shaped, the habits of thought that you develop.

These skills were well described by a former dean of the Harvard Law School, Erwin Griswold, cited in a recent speech by the current dean, Martha Minow. Griswold was discussing an ideal vision of the law school, but his arguments fit a liberal education wherever it is provided: “You go to a great school not so much for knowledge as for arts or habits; for the art of expression, for the art of entering quickly into another person’s thoughts, for the art of assuming at a moment’s notice a new intellectual position, for the habit of submitting to censure and refutation, for the art of indicating assent or dissent in graduated terms, for the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy, for the art of working out what is possible in a given time; for taste, for discrimination, for mental courage, and mental soberness.” [The Liberal Arts as Guideposts in the 21st Century, Nannerl Keohane]

Artful argument of this sort needs a structure, a set-up; it can’t emerge out of a vacuum. In order to be set up effectively, to be dynamic and responsive, it needs three things: a conventional view (the sources, what others have previously argued), a problem with that conventional view, and a response to that problem (the argument or thesis that leads to the resolution of the problem). One of the central limitations professors often find with student essay writing: a writer delves into the argument without identifying the problem. In other words, there is no thesis. Recall that I indicated that I have found this even amongst advanced student writers–including a student writing a senior thesis.

To help visualize this set-up structure, and particularly the importance of a problem, I suggest we consider film–a dramatic structure that builds on conflict and its resolution. We will later in the semester consider the full structure of a film’s text, that is, the screenplay, as a structure for our writing project. For now, let’s focus on the beginning: the introduction or set-up of a film in relation to the introduction of an argument.

Basically, the introduction of a film (Act 1), the first 15-20 minutes leading up to the ‘thesis statement’ of a film, known as the turning point or promise (sometimes called the “hook”) follows this three step structure.

  1. Given/Conventional View [the normal world of the protagonist]

    1. think of this as the conventional view, the context of the argument–where things stand right now with the particular topic
  2. Problem [in film, a disruption or problem that confronts the protagonist, disturbs the normal world]

    1. think of this as some initial problems with the conventional view of things, perhaps emerging more recently, something that has been neglected by others, not fully considered, etc.
  3. Response [in film, a real but surprising or unusual/unconventional way of thinking about the problem, responding to it, and leading the viewer through the various plot complications that will have to be solved by the end]

    1. your thesis: your response to the problem, also an unconventional or surprising way of re-thinking things, leading to a resolution of the problem and new understanding of the topic. Recall how we saw Gerald Graff’s version of this in “Hidden Intellectualism”: intellectualism is more complicated than the intellectual vs. anti-intellectual terms we tend to use, a complication he argues for by way of this surprise–he realizes that he wasn’t the anti-intellectual as a child that he thought he was.
For practice, we can apply this structure to one or more of the chapters in Birkerts, see how he sets up his argument in each case. I want you to think about this basic rhetorical structure as you being to compost and then draft your first writing project.
Some examples for further reading…

As an example of the set up of an argument that we have begun to discuss in class, consider the following example, an Op-Ed from the NY Times by Lawrence Summers. While an Op-Ed has features that differ from essays and academic research (namely, much shorter, with less quotation of text, no citations), we can see that Summers focuses his “opinion” as an argument in setting up [1]a given issue; [2]a problem with that given; [3]his response to that problem.

A PARADOX of American higher education is this: The expectations of leading universities do much to define what secondary schools teach, and much to establish a template for what it means to be an educated man or woman. College campuses are seen as the source for the newest thinking and for the generation of new ideas, as society’s cutting edge.

And the world is changing very rapidly. Think social networking, gay marriage, stem cells or the rise of China. Most companies look nothing like they did 50 years ago. Think General Motors, AT&T or Goldman Sachs.

Yet undergraduate education changes remarkably little over time. My predecessor as Harvard president, Derek Bok, famously compared the difficulty of reforming a curriculum with the difficulty of moving a cemetery. With few exceptions, just as in the middle of the 20th century, students take four courses a term, each meeting for about three hours a week, usually with a teacher standing in front of the room. Students are evaluated on the basis of examination essays handwritten in blue books and relatively short research papers. Instructors are organized into departments, most of which bear the same names they did when the grandparents of today’s students were undergraduates. A vast majority of students still major in one or two disciplines centered on a particular department.

It may be that inertia is appropriate. Part of universities’ function is to keep alive man’s greatest creations, passing them from generation to generation. Certainly anyone urging reform does well to remember that in higher education the United States remains an example to the world, and that American universities compete for foreign students more successfully than almost any other American industry competes for foreign customers.

Nonetheless, it is interesting to speculate: Suppose the educational system is drastically altered to reflect the structure of society and what we now understand about how people learn. How will what universities teach be different? Here are some guesses and hopes.

Summers provides a useful example for us in the signals he uses to establish his argument: [1]the given is the understanding that the world is changing; and the [2] problem is the “paradox” that (“and yet”) undergraduate education has changed little; his [3] argument in response is to “speculate” and “suppose” (recall I suggested a thesis is a sort of “What if? we find in film) that the educational system could/should be different.

You will note that in this example, Summers doesn’t offer a thesis statement ahead of his “guesses and hopes” (the supporting examples or body of his argument). It is, in effect, half of his thesis, guided by his rhetorical question, with the second half of the thesis (his answer to his question) to come at the end. That’s one model for a thesis statement. The model more familiar to you is the one where the last sentence would answer the question, identify the key elements of his argument that will be explored in the body (we see Sven Birkerts doing this in his introduction to The Gutenberg Elegies). Though I invite you to try some alternative approaches to stating your thesis, since there is more than one way to state one, I will be emphasizing the importance of providing a map of your argument to your reader, giving the reader some keywords for your argument, language that will reappear in your body paragraphs and in transition sentences. In this case, given the brevity of an Op-Ed, Summers has more flexibility in not indicating specifically where he’s going. He does, however, clearly tell us what he is responding to–that he is arguing for change.

In other words, a key to establishing the “thesis” (however it may be stated) is to engage the reader’s focus on a problem and response. This example shows us how one does that very basically and simply–even in the pages of the NY Times by the former president of Harvard. In fact, one of my favorite examples of the set up of the problem/conflict needed for an academic argument comes from Summers. I read once that he set up an economics paper that argues against the convention of the “efficient market hypothesis” (the prevailing view that markets are rational because people are rational) with the following two sentences: “There are idiots. Look around.”

Here is another example, a case where the author forwards two contrasting conversations, one as the conventional view, one as the problem, and then proposes the less conventional view as his thesis. It is the introduction to Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death:

We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

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3 Comments on “Argument Set-Up: you got a problem with that?”

  1. […] Argument Set-Up: you got a problem with that? (comppost.wordpress.com) Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  2. […] Argument Set-Up: you got a problem with that? (comppost.wordpress.com) […]

  3. […] For further discussion of the ways that a good argument is built upon the response to a problem, you can read this post from my English 101 blog. […]


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