Are We Doing It Wrong?

How, in a polarized nation, Steph Liberatore asks, should we be teaching argument in the academy? Should we be focusing less on persuasion and more on understanding?

August 31, 2022
A woman with dark hair holds up one finger to a man who has his back to the camera. She seems to be lecturing him or telling him to wait just a moment.
(DMEPhotography/istock/getty images plus)

It’s late at night, not long before the semester ends, and I’ve graded 42 annotated bibliographies in the last 48 hours. I’m bleary-eyed and exhausted—not just from reading so many assignments in a row but also from the ways my students are thinking about their final projects.

The advanced composition course I teach requires them to do rhetorical analysis, research and writing in their disciplines. And for this final project, they’ve selected an issue in their field of study they want to explore. They’ve done pre-research to develop a good research question about it. And they’ve tracked their understanding and any gaps they’ve found in the literature through the annotated bibliographies I just graded.

“Identify an issue you actually want to know more about,” I tell them when I introduce the assignment in Week 6. “That will make the project more meaningful—and maybe even fun!”

My students look at me, panicked—because they hate choosing their own topics—but over the next few weeks, we work through the selection process together. We have a visit from our class librarian. They read the publications in their fields. And eventually, they find things happening there that they want to explore.

As we move through the research process, I encourage students to be open-minded. “That’s the point of research, after all,” I often say. “To let it shape the way you think about something,”

I don’t ask them to develop a thesis for their final project until after the annotated bibliography assignment, hoping they’ll suspend judgment for a while and be open to what they find. But when those annotated bibliographies roll in that fateful week each semester, their annotations often say things like, “This source will support my argument because …”

One student even listed his argument at the top of his annotated bib instead of his research question, as the assignment requires.

I’d met with this student to discuss his project a few weeks earlier. He was quarantining because he’d been exposed to someone with COVID-19 and was falling behind in class. He’d missed the proposal assignment, where students pitch an issue that interests them and some questions they might ask about it, so I asked him to tell me what he found interesting in his field of economics and what questions they might raise.

“I want to challenge the conventional wisdom that the housing bubble caused the 2008 financial crisis,” he said without missing a beat.

Related Stories

I hesitated.

“But that’s not really a question, is it?” I asked.

“Oh, right,” he said.

We talked about how to reframe his idea as a question, and I encouraged him to be open to reading sources that confirmed his preconceptions and those that challenged them, and even some different perspectives altogether.

But I could tell this student had already made up his mind. He was excited about the assignment, and I didn’t want to discourage that.

“I just go into attack mode when I get assignments like this,” he said, as I was thinking about what to say next. “I’ve just written so many of them.”

And I thought well, shoot. Maybe the problem is me.

Is Everything an Argument?

I’ve been teaching full-time at a large public university in Virginia for the last seven years, and every semester, I teach at least one, and often three or four, advanced composition courses. For two years before that, I taught first-year composition as a TA as the instructor of record. And in every composition course I taught my first few years, I assigned a researched-argument assignment as the final project: one about a local issue for a local magazine in first-year comp and one for a trade magazine in their field (mostly business) in my advanced composition courses.

Nowadays, my university’s learning goals for these courses don’t use the word “argument” at all. They are focused, as many are, on rhetorical awareness, synthesis, critical reading and writing as a process. But I always felt the need to teach thesis statements and argument. Students would need it in their other classes and in their lives as citizens, I reasoned. And other instructors in my department taught these kinds of researched-argument assignments when I was just starting out, so I thought I should, too.

The emphasis on argument in my discipline—and in colleges and universities in general—goes way back, all the way to the Greeks and Romans, to Sophists and to Aristotle, of course. And it’s been taught in composition courses since we moved away from the modes-based model—focused on exposition, description, process and so on—in the ’80s.

Today, most college textbook publishers offer at least one textbook on argument. The one that comes immediately to mind is the best-selling Everything’s an Argument series, by leading thinkers and scholars Andrea Lunsford and John Ruszkiewicz—a new edition of which is being released this year. And there are more than 100 textbooks in the Argument and Persuasion section of Textbooks.com.

But living where we are now, still struggling with—one hopes—the final stages of a global pandemic, with the insurrection at our Capitol again on folks’ minds thanks to the recent hearings, and a nation so polarized bringing up politics is as uncomfortable as it’s ever been, I have to ask myself: Is this partly our fault?

Is it partly my fault?

Should I have pushed that student, for example, to ask a more open-ended question, even if he was excited about the one he ended up with?

Should I be teaching a more expansive version of argument that focuses less on persuasion and more on understanding?

Instead of persuading, would the focus on analysis, on sifting through information and making sense of it for themselves, be more helpful for my students than having them try to persuade someone who probably won’t listen anyway?

To our credit, I know that I, and other professors like me who have taught argument, don’t teach it in the bilateral way it’s often expressed in our hostile argument culture, where the word “argument” has become synonymous with “fight.” I know that we talk about counterargument in our classes, about putting yourself in others’ shoes. About being open to all sides of an issue, not just one or two, before taking a position.

But maybe the fact that we’re focusing on argument so much is part of the problem. That for the last 40 years, we’ve taught our students that everything is an argument, and they’ve acted accordingly.

As I revised my materials this last year, I got rid of my old researched-argument assignment. And I focused my new ones less on argument and intervention and more on listening and understanding, as these, too, are ways to engage. Of course, I want my students to see themselves as part of the larger conversations happening in our world. To know that they can enter them with civility. That they can—and should—add something to those conversations.

But maybe that thing doesn’t have to be an argument in the traditional sense.

Maybe it can be a kind of meaning-making, of deciding for themselves what to do with that listening instead.

Share Article

Steph Liberatore is a term associate professor in the English department at George Mason University.

Read more by

Steph Liberatore

Back to Top