A Cute Argument Against Obtuse Argument

I promise the title is the last of the math-related humor in this piece.

I’ve already profiled the big Narrative Journalism unit my PLC does every year, but I had an interesting experience today that made me think that maybe one element of that writing project is worth revisiting in a bit more detail.  

A local journalist contacted our department earlier this week to do a story about the state of reading in area schools and so we had her come visit for an interview (how can you turn down getting to chat with an authentic writer, even if she’s the one who gets to ask all the questions?!).  As I walked her up to my classroom to chat, she immediately dove into an overview of what sorts of information she was after, and the first statement out of her mouth was music to my ears: “I haven’t completely settled on an angle yet, but I have some ideas.”  I think she said something about her editor after that but all I was hearing was the title song from The Sound of Music echoing through my head.  

Why?  Because “angle” is the centerpiece of our Narrative Journalism piece.  In place of a preconceived structure or a *shudder* constricting graphic organizer, we ask the kids to partake in a new experience and then make choices (like a writer!) about how to best tell that story and convey what they learned about the experience from their research.  

While other genres of writing might use other terms for it, I want to explore the idea of empowering student writers to not only select topics, but to carefully consider their perspectives and approaches to writing about them.  Whether you choose to call such considerations their “angle” or something entirely different, I want to suggest that the conversation itself is essential to developing independent writers.

angle brainstorm

The False Simplicity of “Argument”

When we ask students to consider their angle for the NJ paper, we use a simple graphic organizer and a “contract” of sorts that asks them to give consideration to multiple perspectives for their topic.  Once topics are chosen, we ask them why anyone would want to read about it. While the simple answer might be “human interest,” the more complicated answer should take into account things like entertainment value, informative value, and possibly thematic or political perspectives.  

Journalism aside, such considerations exist in many forms of writing…like when presenting an argument.  Hyper-structured argumentative writing assignments sometimes trap kids into a simplistic line of thinking:  Thesis-evidence-counterclaim-rebuttal-etc. The majority of writing time is thus spent tracking down evidence (by which we usually mean “quotes”–a term which poisons many a good writing task) and coming up with redundant phrases that tether it to a flat thesis statement.

The reality of argument is much more complicated:  Perhaps we should spend some time buttering up our audience first?  Perhaps the paper’s angle needs to be “You’re mostly right about what you think of Topic X, but reconsider this ooonnne little thing…”  This is perhaps the most effective approach to a politically-charged argument.

Or perhaps an argument needs to be framed around its intended outcomes instead of its central premise?  If we ultimately want an audience to reconsider something, maybe the argument is best framed around WHY this is important more than WHAT perspective we want them to arrive at.  Take, for example, some of the more interesting arguments about current Canon in literature. Is To Kill a Mockingbird a problematic White Savior narrative or a powerful anti-racist text?  If you want to present either of those passionate arguments to a doubtful audience, I’d argue your best angle isn’t to bombard the enemy (see how bad it sounds when you make it into an outright “fight”) with your “facts” but to help them consider your perspective.  

To challenge a beloved classic, I might begin by offering an extensive explanation of WHY a reconsideration of the text matters at all:  Do we ever think about how children with different backgrounds than our own see characters? Do we give them a chance to explain how the text really makes them feel?  If a book really did make one of your students feel ashamed or frustrated or worse because of systemic failures, wouldn’t you WANT to react to that accordingly?

An actual point of argument started to creep in there at the end, but that’s sort of the point–framing an argument matters as much as the “proof.”

A New Path(os) Forward

When we only teach students to carpet bomb their audience with “facts” and “quotes” we aren’t really helping them become effective writers.  And while pathos, logos, ethos, and other -oses we prescribe as writing teachers are certainly a step in the right direction, I think kids often think of them as discrete, momentary considerations.  Or worse, they think of them as fancy-ass (I’m thinking from a kid perspective here) teacher things that nobody else in the world really talks about.

Having a larger conversation about the perspective the writer hopes to share with their readers might be a more natural–and therefore more meaningful–conversation for them.  Of course, none of this is possible without a separate consideration:  Students must have the freedom to explore challenging topics to begin with.  Before you can ask a student to consider what angle or perspective might help a reader share their point of view, you have to make sure your writing assignments ask them to have one in the first place.

2 Comments

  1. Oh, timing! I just bought M. Colleen Cruz’s book Writers Read Better, and the first three chapters deal with these aspects of argument, especially Lesson 3. Stance, perspective matters! Thanks for this.

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