Everything isn’t an argument. I know this isn’t popular to say or think in our modern era of writing instruction. I used to agree though. It made sense. The voice of effective writing has an edge to it. It possesses some view, perspective, or insight that I’m trying to convey to a larger audience, someone outside my own head. So, in that sense, in my attempt to convey my uniqueness I’m trying to alter your way of thinking. Trying to reimage the way you see the world. Convince you that my way of thinking is more profound than yours. The word “convince” or “justify” is what gets us in trouble. The common understanding of words like “convince”, “justify” and “argue” are relatively synonymous with each other. And therein lays the slippery slope. When we make the leap from “convince” to “argue” and misconstrue these terms to represent the same types of thinking, that’s when we begin to make statements like “everything’s an argument”.
In the classical rhetorical sense, the three modes of writing, narration, argumentation, and expository, are all attempts at the ultimate goal of rhetoric, which is persuasion. Each mode has specific criteria and characteristics which make them unique from one another, but what has begun to create the confusion is that the purpose of each of these modes is closely linked. The purpose of each mode is to convey to an audience the writer’s unique perspective of the world. How the writer chooses to do this is what creates the characteristics of the mode.
But, what I’m seeing in classrooms is that each specialty or field of knowledge defines and characterizes these modes in very different ways. What I’m concerned about is that students are getting mixed messages because we, as educators, haven’t really decided what we mean when we say “argument”. When we ask students to development an argument, are we asking them to follow the classical rhetorical process of warrant, claim, evidence, concession, and refutation? Or are we asking them to “convince”? You may be saying to yourself right about now, “Well, yeah, I’m asking them to do both.” Here is the danger in that thought. “Convince” can be accomplished through any of the three modes. If I’m asking students to “convince” then we are asking students to make decisions about the audience, the information, and the results in order to select the mode that works best for the writer’s purpose. I can convince you without writing an “argument”. Confused yet? Our kids are too.
I believe the Common Core writing standards clearly makes this distinction. The problem is arising due to a translation error. The CCSS clearly use the rhetorical definition of argumentative writing, but when educators not well-versed in this field, and I’m one of those, interpret the word to mean its more common definition the problems start. That’s when the connection between “argument” and “convince” begins. That’s when kids get confused. We must be careful in our language. Students deserve to have clear expectations and experiences so that they may learn to utilize and manipulate the three modes of writing.
As writing becomes integral components of all classrooms for all students, the potential for confusion may only grow. We need experts from the field and the classroom to come together and articulate what narration, argumentation, and exposition look like in the social sciences, chemistry, physics, biology, mathematics, and the technical fields so that our students are given a clear message. We need to rectify the confusion before we have an entire generation of students that truly thinks everything is an argument.
As the path continues to reveal itself, I plan on continuing the conversation. If you have already traveled this road, please, reach out and give me the shortcut. You can find us on Twitter at @the_explicator (me) or @kastidham (Kelly).
Again, thanks for reading. And arguing.