Monday, March 23, 2009

My Argument is Your Opinion

"The gap between what someone tells you and what you know [to be] true--that's where the jokes are."
--Bill Maher, "Religulous"

The beauty of words is that, if arranged correctly, they can convey thoughts and moods from one person to another. The challenge comes in making the listener’s ears and mind hear and understand what you’re trying to convey. I find this to be especially true with students. This week, I’ve been meeting one-on-one with my students about their research argumentative essays. I was amazed at the number of them who, instead of presenting arguments on a specific issue, wrote reports on their topics. For example, if they wanted to write about abortion, they were to pick a side and argue that side, not merely tell me what it is and the many ways it can be done.

When I mentioned this to them, they said, “oh, so you want me to write my opinion?” That one word opinion conveyed to them what we’d spent the whole first part of the semester talking and testing about. I kept wondering to myself, “what did they think I meant by persuasion and argumentation?” What did they think I meant by “argumentative essay?” What did they think I meant by “take a side on a particular issue?” I think part of the communication gap stemmed from 2 words, one I used and one I didn’t.

The first was “research.” No matter what I said leading up to or after it, their idea of a research paper did not extend beyond being an informative essay. The second word was “opinion.” For some reason, “argumentative,” “persuasion,” or “rhetorical” does not resonate with students like the word “opinion.” From now on, when I teach argumentative essays (especially research ones), argument and opinion will be ubiquitous. I want the words to be inseperable in their minds.

Relearning connotations takes time. A word like “rhetoric” sounds so ancient and foreign that they’ve probably never really bothered to think much about its meaning, and “argument” is connected so deeply with verbal fighting that shaking loose these mindsets can’t be easily done in a semester. Likewise, the word opinion is so closely associated with being a position that another person can legitimately disagree with that introducing them to another word that’s already linked to a related, yet altogether different concept is no mean task. My comfort comes in that, eventually, they will get it, that I don’t have to teach them everything. Other professors in other classes are fighting the same battles, and at some point, intellectual development will occur.

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