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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Argumentative Styles

We all know academic arguments come in different flavors. For example:

(1) X and Y have always been lumped into the same category, but actually Y has distinctive qualities that make it very different.

(2) People have claimed that Z is superior to A, but actually Z is just a subcategory of the larger category A.

(3) A particular quality (didacticism, sentimentalism, ornament) has often denigrated because it is associated with a particular group of people (women, people of the lower class, etc...). Therefore we should no longer denigrate this quality.

(4) A work that seems safe and conservative is actually subversive (or vice-versa: the power of a subversive work has been overrated, and a conservative ideology underlies it.

(5) The key to this literary work is the philosophical tradition of P. The author studied P as a young student in T. Previous critics have overlooked this, preferring to attribute his interest in Q to his training in U.

I could go on and on. It's not that any of these argumentative forms is inherently flawed, but I think we need to be a bit more self-conscious about them. An argument that takes a cliché form ready-made without an interesting twist will seem kind of lame. It also might be helpful to analyze your argument and see what it's type is.

Our graduate students sometimes come up with argument like

(6) This work is a feminist work that subverts the patriarchy.

Worse, sometimes they don't have an argument, only a description.

I think getting to know one's argumentative style is important. What kind of arguments do you favor? Do you always go after the same kind of point? I should actually try this with myself and see whether I have varied arguments or whether I'm pretty much stuck with a single style.

1 comment:

Clarissa said...

My students often favor the argument that goes as follows, "The writer had problems with his mother and an absent father, so this is why he wrote XYZ." This got so bad that I now put "Don't try to psychoanalyze the writer" on the sheet with the instructions on how to write the final essay.