Essay - Approaching Argument: Different Voices, Different Perspectives (Marilyn Barry)


Writing teachers can use argument as a rich tool for training students to engage productively in civil discourse. This essay describes a series of short writing assignments that encourage students to address the same issue or problem in five different ways. Each approach achieves a different result; together they introduce students to rhetorical considerations and strategies that underlie the construc- tion of effective arguments.

Approaching Argument: Different Voices, Different Perspectives

Dr. Marilyn Barry
Academic Dean
Alaska Pacific University

The most civilized tool in the Western tradition for resolving disagreements is argument, a complex set of principles and conventions for engaging in intellectual and civil discourse. Argument belongs to the discipline of rhetoric, which seeks to describe how humans can communicate effectively with one another without recourse to violence. Rhetoric is at the heart of the Liberal Arts.

Classically defined, rhetoric is the art of discovering in a particular case what will likely be effective means of persuasion. It provides strategies for discovering defensible claims and for constructing effective arguments to convince a particular audience of the worthiness of those claims. To this end, the writer is well advised to consider a topic from multiple perspectives.

The students who enter our classrooms have already had years of practice in writing for teachers. They have learned that their target audience is the teacher who grades the paper; the reason for writing an essay is to fulfill an assignment and earn a grade. If we are going to pry them loose from such narrow expectations, we need to engage them early in discussions about audience. The more convinced they are that writing can be personally and professionally useful, reaching actual audiences and discourse communities, the more likely they are to learn and adopt rhetorical strategies that make for effective written communication.

The Communication Triangle

Early in the term I draw on the board a Communication Triangle: that elegantly simple representation communication theorists have extrapolated from Aristotle. Each angle represents a facet of the constructed world as we express it in our pronoun system, with the total being greater than the sum of its parts:

I, the writer/speaker (for Aristotle, who the writer was and how he presented himself constituted the ethos; we connect this to the notion of credibility);
You, the reader/listener (for the Greek, the point of empathic response was called pathos);
and It, the topic that engages us (the logos implies a right relationship between the “world” under discussion and the words used to describe it).
The literary form itself constitutes a fourth entity; when one gives primary focus to the form (alternately called message) we may say that the author highlights the literary aspects of communica- tion. Encircling the triangle is a circle: the context—the discourse universe—in which the particular piece of communication occurs.

Okay, so it’s a static representation of a discursive process that necessarily involves time and process, but it does lay out relationships that can be dramatized in the form a given piece of communication takes. As a visual model, it can get students thinking about the dialectic that two-way communication involves.

Rhetorical Purposes

Rhetoricians have sliced and diced kinds of communication in many different ways; the communica- tion triangle reflects only one timeworn division. Still, it’s a useful model, because it allows us to classify types of communication based on their intended purpose.

Where the focus of the writing/speaking event is on the writer or speaker as an individual, we call this personal or expressive writing. The forms it takes include journal writing and the personal essay, among others. When the primary interest is on an objective topic, the purpose of the writing may be termed informative or referential, because it points to something other than the writer and the reader; whether a narrative of an event, a description of flora in a biology text, or analysis of cause and effect in thermodynamics, the goal is accuracy in matching up the description to the described. If primary intent is to affect the reader, causing him or her to consider the topic under discussion differently, the purpose may be called persuasive.

When the primary intent is to persuade, the writer must produce an argument that observes a set of civilized expectations and verbal conventions with the goal of addressing and negotiating human conflict through language, our most intrinsically human capability. Effective arguments rely on a full array of rhetorical strategies. Aristotle went to the Forum to observe what worked and what didn’t in spoken communication. The principles he codified are applicable to both spoken and written discourse and have been refined over time by other careful observers, whose theoretical and pragmatic suggestions have influenced those of us who care about or teach writing. Like Aristotle, we are always looking for what works and what doesn’t.

Classroom Strategy

A strategy that I have used for many years to introduce argumentative writing is a riff on William Coles’ exercise from The Plural I. A series of assignments asks students to think of a problem they’d like to resolve (an experience or situation that involves at least one other person) and moves them through a series of rhetorical tasks. The full exercise consists of five assignments, spread out over several days or class periods. Each assignment corresponds to a point of emphasis in the model triangle: personal expression; informative or referential writing (in the form of a narrative); argument (a letter written in the form of an argument); literary writing; and reflection and assessment.

The first assignment asks students to choose a situation and write about it as if it were a journal entry, allowing full play to their feelings. They know I’ll read the piece, but also that they can consider it to be relatively risk-free, not subject to ordinary constraints on composition.

The second step requires the student to construct a chronological narrative of the problem, including relevant background information and circumstances. The writer is invited to describe (and thus acknowledge) the context in which the misunderstanding occurred. The focus is to produce an objective and accurate description of IT, the complicated situation that has occasioned the distress. Emotions expressed in the journal assignment should be included as objective facts in the narrative assignment. The aim is for the writer to come into a fuller understanding of the I-IT relationship.

The third assignment asks the student to think about what it is he or she wants from the reader or can persuade the reader to accept: the claim, of sorts. Then the student constructs the letter, deciding what details or lines of reasoning will be most persuasive to the reader, the YOU.

The fourth assignment asks the student to write a poem about the situation, to choose and submit to some kind of formal requirements that require a different kind of attention. Students are chal- lenged to match the form they have chosen with the meaning they wish to convey. One may choose haiku, another rhyme. Some choose an image to explore. Others set up lists. What they have in com- mon is the directive—and the permission—to play with language. Quite often this leads writers to arrive at new insights about their topics.

Finally, the last assignment calls for the student to reflect on the project and to try to locate his or her “voice” in these writings. The writer is asked, too, to assess the usefulness of the exercise in the context of the learning environment. What have they learned about their topic from viewing it in so many different ways?

How Students Respond

Through the years, I’ve noted common observations from students’ self-assessments. Almost every- one remarks positively on the chance to indulge their feelings in the journal assignment. Narrating their emotional reactions as points of fact and speculating about the feelings of others in the second assignment helps to distance students from the immediacy of their first feelings and leads them to explore solutions that might resolve the conflict. Unsurprisingly, they often find it difficult to state succinctly what it is they want from the reader when they begin to compose the argumentative letter; some acknowledge that it is harder to argue their own position reasonably while at the same time trying to imagine the reader’s response and make appropriate adaptations. More than one student has concluded that the assignment served as “an exorcism” of negative feelings that he hadn’t previously confronted.

Few object to writing a poem, and I’m surprised again and again by how seriously students take this opportunity to focus on literary qualities of form as a way to think creatively about what started for most of them as an emotional rant. Some talk of how this allows them to give their feelings expression, but differently from the way they did in the journal assignment. Perceptive students have observed that focusing on form actually gives them a new flexibility, lets them express new feelings and make new connections, and makes them feel more in control. Interestingly enough, in over 25 years of using this assignment, no student has asked how to write a poem.

Where do they locate their own voice in all this? Initially they may expect it to be the journal exercise that reflects their real, authentic voice. But one hopes that they will find other voices—different, but no less authentic—in each of the five assignments and that through this exercise they will discover the value of holding different perspectives (their own and others) in tension.

The Rhetoric of Argument

This may seem a time-consuming detour to a more direct encounter with the rhetoric of argument, but I’ve found this experiential exercise to be an effective, economical heuristic for introducing students to rhetorical considerations and strategies that underlie the construction of any effective argument. The writer must:

Confront and name his or her values and biases;
Identify the values in conflict;
Invest time in collecting, understanding, and organizing information;
Articulate as precisely as possible relationships among the parts;
Try to understand the problem and possible solutions from the point of view of the other, assuming the reader to be rational and fair-minded;
Conclude what the desirable solution might be—with whatever restrictions on the claim the evidence requires in the interests of logic and fairness; and
Craft the evidence, examples, and underlying premises in ways that will convey one’s thinking and convictions to the reader.
The exercise, while but an introductory one, allows students to experience firsthand the extraordinarily complex communication challenges involved in constructing an argument; more importantly, it gives them a handful of strategies for examining and deconstructing conflict and for beginning to construct solutions. The lengthy process of writing gives students time to wrestle with the discipline of argument and inculcates habits of thinking about conflict and resolution. These skills and insights are then at least partially transportable to more highly charged situations, where the luxuries of time and detached reflection are not so evident, where strong feelings and the immediacy of heated verbal exchanges might otherwise rout respectful and useful dialogue.