Monday, December 10, 2007

Day 2

In Day 2 of class this term I started working on argument analysis. We read an essay titled "Class Struggle: Is Homework Really So Terrible?" by Jay Mathews. A bit of snooping found that Jay Mathews writes a column for the Washington Post called "Class Struggle," and the title of one of the columns was "Is Homework Really So Terrible?" Hm, a bit misleading there, Bedford Guide to College Writers. One of the things I'm trying to teach students is to use the title as a tool to help them understand the essay, so I'd like the text to use the title as originally written by the author.

Anyway, Mathews' essay follows a familiar structure of a newspaper column:
Tell a personal story.
Raise a question.
Research the question.
Discuss conclusions.
Relate the conclusions to the personal story told at the beginning.

I asked the students to freewrite for a few minutes on the following questions/prompts:
1. Summarize the essay
2. Did they agree with the essay's main point?
3. Did they think it was a good argument?
4. Did the essay tell them anything they hadn't know before?
5. Was there anything in the essay they didn't believe?

I was surprised how many of the students agreed with the essay's main point (that homework isn't a bad thing). But I was surprised how few students noticed Mathews' neat little rhetorical trick. He investigates two books on the subject of homework. The first (opposed to homework) he heartily mocks for relating the practice of homework to social and economic justice issues. The second (supports homework) he describes as "intriguing." Then he states "having established that homework is necessary...." Ha. My students didn't notice that.

I also told the class that I was surprised by his contempt for the first book, so I looked up reviews and found that it received very positive reviews on Amazon. Furthermore, Harvard featured a debate between the very two authors mentioned in this essay. It was a great way to show students how easily readers can be manipulated by writers when readers are underinformed.

This will end up being a recurring issue. It's difficult to get students to question sources/evidence. And it's difficult to get across the point that even if the source is questionable, they still have a right to agree with it. They just need to understand that there are weak arguments and strong arguments, persuasive arguments and not-so-persuasive arguments.

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