• College Ready Writing

    A blog about education, higher ed, teaching, and trying to re-imagine how we provide education.


The Argument Sketch

Sometimes the only appropriate way to respond to ridiculousness is with more ridiculousness that is actually insightful.

September 27, 2012

The title refers to an old Monty Python sketch, originally from Flying Circus, but I remember it from their Live at the Hollywood Bowl show (which I watched religiously as a child and loved). The premise is as absurd as it is insightful; a man comes to a place of business looking for a good argument and is willing to pay. Instead, he is confronted by a man who simply disagrees with whatever he says. The first man insists that an argument isn’t simply a series of contradictions, but instead “a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition” and “an intellectual process.”


I like to use this video to introduce my students to the finer points of an argument or persuasive essay. We often forget (or misremember) that arguing is supposed to be an intellectual exchange, not a knee-jerk emotional response that is by nature oppositional and confrontational. No one “wins” this argument, unless you count the second man who makes a tidy profit off of the first.

Another exercise I like to do when we begin to think through how to write argument or persuasive essays is to ask the students (collectively) to come up with arguments that would convince first their classmates and then their professor to cancel the final exam. This helps them think through the importance of audience, as well as the different kinds of appeals and how they can be used (many appeals to pathos for the fellow students, while logos is the focus for the professor). I, however, throw them a curve-ball by coming up with counter-arguments from both the students’ and the professor’s perspectives, which they usually aren’t prepared for. Again, this forces them to reconsider their audiences and their audiences’ position and perspective.

Eventually, confronted with my continuing counter-arguments (I need to evaluate your learning, thus we have a final exam!), they start coming up with compromise positions and suggestions (how about a take home exam? Or a project? Or smaller evaluations spread out throughout the semester?). Here is another element that we sorely lack in public discourse today: the willingness to find middle ground and compromise. The word compromise itself now seems to carry too much of a negative connotation; it is synonymous with losing. But, as my students see in the example I use, with the right compromise and middle ground, everyone wins; the students will no longer have to do a final exam and the professor has a way or ways to evaluate the students’ learning.

One of my students, hearing my explanation about compromise, confronted me with what another one of their professors recently told them, that compromise is essentially a losing proposition. The example given: “I believe pigs can fly. He believes pigs can’t fly. What is the compromise? Some pigs can fly?” I was stunned by the example; that one of my colleagues would use such a misleading and overly-simplistic example to try and dissuade their students from trying to do the hard work of seeing all sides of the debate, however, was not as surprising as it should have been. It was, however, an excellent teachable moment about logical fallacies.

I bring this example up not just to return to the namesake of this blog, but to question the rhetoric that I often find in the comments to (some) of my posts and the posts of my colleagues at University of Venus. Comments, one would rightly assume, that are being made by fellow academics or people closely associated with higher education. On Wednesday, because I suggested that my search for professional fulfillment is a battle and that this is unfortunate, I was accused of being an entitled and spoiled academic who expected everything to be handed to me, which of course I did not deserve or could ever expect.

As I observed in another post that same day, we (as workers) have essentially acquiesced to being treated like cattle by our employers specifically and by the job market more generally. But maybe cattle, passively being lead to the slaughter, was the wrong choice of animal. No, perhaps a more accurate metaphor would be that we have embraced the fight-or-flight attitude; we either are in it to the death or we flee the battle like some sort of coward.

Either way, I’m not suggesting that I (or anyone else) be handed anything that we haven’t earned. But I do think that what is required/demanded of us in order to prove that we have indeed “earned” a job has crossed over into the inhumane. And I’m not just talking about higher education, either. I don’t think there is a situation where the hazing rituals are so long, drawn out, and ultimately (for most) futile, than the attempt to join the ranks of the tenure-track. What I seek is a more humane, transparent, and (here it comes) equitable system. A system that doesn’t implicitly punish you for being poor, female, a visible minority, or disabled. A system that makes reasonable demands of the applicants and eventual employees (some of my worst treatment as an academic came while I was on the tenure-track) and rewards them accordingly.

And before you scream from the hilltops that academia has already been taken over by the leftists and the progressives and that I am looking for preferential treatment, go back and read the comments on my blog posts and those of my colleagues that dare to bring up gender, race, and class issues. Check the list of bloggers (who don’t have tenure) who write about these issues under their own name and not anonymously. There are trolls in academia, trolls who not only (anonymously) comment in these forums, but who decide who gets hired and promoted in higher education, who set and implement policy. And the trolls demand conformity and silence.

I have a certain amount of privilege. So I speak and I blog. Others hide behind pseudonyms to try and shame me into silence again, often using my privilege against me. I also use my privilege to teach my students the finer points of not only how to win an argument, but to redefine what it means to “win” an argument in the first place.

You’re all welcome to sit in on my class if you like. 


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