First Try at Teaching Argument to First Years

Thursday’s seminar started plainly. I gave a mini lecture on argument: how to identify and dissect them, how to construct them. (I need to post my notes as promised.) The students went into semi-sleep mode, that is, they seemed to slump back in their seats, perhaps because this was the first lecture, per se, I’ve given. Then I asked them to deconstruct two articles from the Washington Post. The first article I chose because it was a straightforward argument; the second I chose because it was a good example of a poor argument – the thesis made sense, but the reasoning didn’t lead one there. For the first article I asked them to work in pairs, while the second we did as a whole.

I found that the students weren’t very disciplined at this. They didn’t want to identify the key elements in the argument. Rather, after gleaning the key assertion, they wanted to jump straight to criticize or accept it. I wonder if this is typical of first year students learning argumentation. My research methodology students, typically juniors, seem to find it easier to do this. Something to think about and work on.

P.S. Martha came to class today, not because she was presenting anything, but just because she could. Thanks!

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3 Responses to First Try at Teaching Argument to First Years

  1. Isaac says:

    A little symbolic logic training went a long way in teaching me to dissect arguments. Otherwise, I think it is something you generally learn by doing. The problem is that MOST gen ed courses do not actually teach critical reading, nor do most academic deparatments, I suspect, explicitly focus on teaching students to do it. Though most give lip service, it is unlikely a professor will fail a student just because he/she failed to properly analyze/form arguments: it’s all about memorizing facts and spitting them back out at the proper time. Prof. Humphrey would probably call that the result of the third party enforcer’s (the professor) separate utility curve, which does not necessarily sync up with the stated goals of the institution.

    Incidentally, I really like the fact that the Econ Analysis class has no exam: the real test is whether you can effectively identify and utilize the tools at your disposal to a meaningful and productive end. The goal is to add and articulate a bit of knowledge to the world, rather than to simply reproduce what has already been done. I like that.

  2. Gardner says:

    Another factor may be at work here: our culture is loudly skeptical of efforts at fairness, impartiality, truth-seeking, and the like. To get beyond agree/disagree and pay close attention to the argument and the evidence may seem to be an exercise in futility to those who believe reason is never part of a persuasive strategy, that no one is convinced by a carefully reasoned argument.

    If there’s nothing beyond the partisan, then most of education is a waste of time, and “critical thinking” means little more than “shoring up one’s biases.” I continue to hold out hope for transcendence, as you know!

  3. Isaac says:

    I think Gardner makes a good point, but I’m not sure that isn’t a problem in any culture when an argument challenges the accepted thinking either popularly or in the narrower band of academia. The argument for getting a higher education is predicated on the idea that everything you’ve been taught up to now is but a gloss over of underlying principles. Further, only a knowledge of those principles, combined with a knowledge of how we investigate and arrive at them, are essential to achieving undersatnding of any natural or cultural phenomena. Perhaps I would be a hellcat of a professor, hated by all but the most industrious student, but failure to recognize this on the part of either teacher or pupil invalidates the purpose of a higher education.

    In my humble opinion.

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