Information Sheet # 115

September 15, 1998


[On a Friday, August 21, a group of 18 faculty spent the day in the Alumni House attempting to understand a common academic assignment which asks students to compose an “argumentative paper.”  To assist in that effort, I prepared a series of handouts with various descriptions of argumentative writing from current composition textbooks that focus on teaching argumentation.  Many faculty felt the most useful handout was an adaptation of The Aims of Argument, 2nd edition, by Timothy W. Crusius & Carolyn E. Channell (Mayfield Publishing, 1998), the same handout which serves as the primary source for this Information Sheet.  Following the Crusius & Channell material are excerpts from the participants’ responses to the final question of the workshop:   “What, if anything, did you find useful in this workshop on assigning argumentative papers?”  --Bob Marrs]

Argument can be defined as a process of making what we think clear to ourselves and to others.  The definition derives from the word’s Latin origin, arguere, meaning “to make clear.”  Engaging in argument involves moving from a private, often vague viewpoint to a clearly stated position that we can publicly defend in speech or writing.  To undertake this process means to pursue the truth with honesty and openness.

Argument in this sense of seeking clarity has a two-part form or structure:

            (1) The statement of an opinion;

            (2) The statement of one or more reasons for holding that opinion.

Argument is not in itself an end or a purpose of communication.  It is rather a means of discourse, a way of developing what we have to say.  We can identify four primary aims or purposes that argument helps us accomplish:

            • Inquiry

            • Conviction

            • Persuasion

            • Negotiation

Arguing to Inquire: Forming our opinions or questioning those we already have.

The ancient Greeks used the word dialectic to identify an argument as inquiry; a more common term might be dialogue or conversation.  Arguing to inquire helps us accomplish the following:

            • to form opinions

            • to question opinions

            • to reason our way through conflicts or contradictions

It requires an attitude of patient questioning under non-threatening circumstances, usually done alone or among trusted friends and associates.  The primary purpose is a search for the truth.  The primary audience is often the writer and fellow inquirers concerned with the same issues.

Examples: Classroom discussions; journal writing; exploratory essays; letters; late-night bull sessions in a dorm.

Arguing to Convince: Gaining assent from others through case-making.

While some inquiry may be never ending, the goal of most inquiry is to reach a conclusion, a conviction.  We seek an “earned opinion,” achieved through careful thought, research, and discussion.  And then we usually want others to share this conviction, to secure the assent of an audience by means of reason rather than by force.

Arguing to inquire centers on asking questions: we want to expose and examine what we think.  Arguing to convince requires us to make a case, to get others to agree with what we think. While inquiry is a cooperative use of argument, convincing is competitive.  We put our case against the case of others in an effort to win the assent of readers.

Examples: a lawyer’s brief; newspaper editorials; case studies; most academic writing

Arguing to Persuade: Moving others to action through rational, emotional, personal, and stylistic appeals.

While arguing to convince seeks to earn the assent of readers or listeners, arguing to persuade attempts to influence their behavior, to move them to act upon the conviction. Persuasion aims to close the gap between assent and action.  To convince focuses on the logic of an argument; to persuade will often rely on the personal appeal of the writer (what Aristotle called ethos) and involve an appeal to an audience’s emotions (pathos).  In addition to these personal and emotional appeals, persuasion exploits the resources of language more fully than convincing does.

In general, the more academic the audience or the more purely intellectual the issue, the more likely that the writing task involves an argument to convince rather than to persuade.  In most philosophy or science assignments, for example, the writer would usually focus on conviction rather than persuasion, confining the argument primarily to thesis, reasons, and evidence.  But when you are working with public issues, with matters of policy or questions of right and wrong, persuasion’s fuller range of appeal is usually appropriate.

Persuasion begins with difference and, when it works, ends with identity.  We expect that before reading our argument, readers will differ from us in beliefs, attitudes, and/or desires.  A successful persuasive argument brings readers and writer together, creating a sense of connection between parties.

Examples: Political speeches, sermons, advertising

Arguing to Negotiate: Exploring differences of opinion in the hope of reaching agreement and/or cooperation.

If efforts to convince and/or persuade the audience have failed, the participants must often turn to negotiation, resolving the conflict in order to maintain a satisfactory working relationship.  Each side must listen closely to understand the other side’s case and the emotional commitments and values that support that case.  The aim of negotiation is to build consensus, usually by making and asking for concessions.  Dialogue plays a key role, bringing us full circle back to argument as inquiry.  Negotiation often depends on collaborative problem-solving.

Examples: Diplomatic negotiations, labor relations, documents in organizational decision-making; essays seeking resolution of conflict between competing parties; also frequent in private life when dealing with disagreements among friends and family members.

* * * * * * *

Workshop Participants: Reflections on Assigning Argumentative Papers

• Importance of using examples & giving direction (initially) with writing assignments.

• Pyramid technique [for sequencing writing assignments] - Build the foundation:

            Review the literature

            Write the paper

            Write the intro

• I appreciated hearing about--esp. in my small group--the idea of analysis and inquiry before the actual argumentative paper is written.  This could be done as a preliminary paper prior to the full-flight argument.  Also the idea of putting the “lit” review type information prior to the statement of purpose.

• The need to justify why a paper should be written (other than an assignment for a grade).

• Have students do a diary in which they reflect upon the research process and short papers in which they reflect on peer evaluations.

• Changing seating arrangement in the class [requesting students to sit in different locations in each class period] to encourage student retention [of information and ideas from that class].

• Giving students a structure for argumentative papers is appealing & useful but should be balanced with explanation.

• The emphasis on making assignments meaningful to students is something I need to think more about.

• Discovered there are lots of forms of the “argumentative essay.”

• An argumentative essay assignment is a several step process (inquire, convince, persuade) via looking & reading other argumentative essays first before asking students to write their own.

• Begin by having students share summaries of articles and information about topic.

• Seeing my assignment through others’ eyes.

• The widely diverse manner in which one can approach an argumentative paper.

• There is a tension between imposing structure on an essay and the chance that creativity may be stifled.

• There is more benefit in multiple assignments than in a single argumentative assignment.

• Reason vs. evidence in argumentative writing.

• Have students work together on a literature search - split up the work.

• Reminder that students should read examples of articles/papers that use the style I’m assigning.

• Thinking of the teaching of argument as an “iterative” process.

“Truth is not simply ‘out there’ in some wordless place waiting to be discovered; rather, our opinion is what we discover or uncover as we grapple with a controversial issue and results largely from how we interpret ourselves and our world.  We agree. . . with Wayne Booth that truth claims ought to be provisional and subject to revision, held for good reasons until better ones change our minds.  Moreover, we agree with Plato that rhetoric divorced from inquiry is dangerous and morally suspect.  The truth . . . must count for more than sheer technical skill in argumentation.”  Crusius & Channell

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