Monday, November 26, 2007

Argument Analysis

As I mentioned on 11D's comments section, I'm going to blog about my course on Persuasive Writing. My university has two required English courses, an intro course and an advanced course, whose focus is persuasion. I've learned a lot about persuasion from teaching this course. I slid through college and graduate school mostly on my, well, not good looks so much as my mad skillz in literary analysis, but I find myself less interested in the *teaching* of literature so much as I am in teaching the skills of writing. I am essentially quite pragmatic.

Our advanced course has several required assignments: a review, an argument analysis, a "commentary," a problem-solution paper, and a portfolio. I ... adapt these requirements to my own needs. In the past, I started with the review assignment (although Bloom puts evaluation higher on his taxonomy), asking students to review two items in any category, i.e., movies, CDs, computers, hotels, etc. This was a fun assignment that students enjoyed doing, and I had a lot of models for them to work with. The second assignment I would work on was argument analysis, and I had several essays for them to read and analyze, figuring out the author's claim, evidence, and what Toulmin calls the "warrant." We also discussed rhetorical appeals, such as pathos, ethos and logos. The so-called "commentary" is an invention of the textbooks we are required to use. Some might call this "taking a stand" on an issue. I used to have them write essays similar to op-ed pieces, but then I started doing debates (the debates would work as panels, but each student would write an individual essay). The culminating project would be a problem-solution assignment done in a group. In many ways, this worked out very well. Most groups gelled well and would vigorously research the problem and work out possible solutions. I also introduced the concept of "stakeholders" to discuss feasibility of solutions and remind them that persuasive writing always has a specific audience in mind. Finally, we would close with the portfolio, which gave them a chance to reflect on their writing all term and to write one last persuasive piece, a cover letter that, I'd tell them, should in essence persuade me to give them a good grade. They always aced that assignment. :)

Sounds like a great plan, huh. After 4 years of teaching the course, I have it down to a science. And now I'm going to blow it all up and start over. This is why I love teaching. :)

This year, a few things:
1. We will meet in the computer lab once a week.
2. We will begin with critical reading and argument analysis. How do you recognize a claim? What is evidence? How do you know if the evidence is true? Why is it that sometimes you can't disagree with the evidence but you still think you're reading a bad argument?
3. They will work on one topic through most of the term so they can really get in depth. Since our terms are only 10 weeks long that won't be so bad. They will approach the topic from different angles.
4. Their portfolio assignment will ask them to reflect on what they have learned about persuasion.

The thing is this: I like "real-life" types of assignments. And I used to combine this course with a service-learning component and work with a community partner to find real-life problems in need of analysis. But I want to work more on in-depth analysis of persuasion. Maybe I am doing more with critical thinking than with writing skills, but I want to try it this way for a while and see how it goes.

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