Tressie McMillan Cottom stands firm in a principled flexibility about academic writing.
As with so many across the country in the wake of Common Core, my partner and I, who share a job as middle school English coaches in our district, have been working on Argument Writing. The intrepid colleagues that we collaborate with have stretched our thinking about what argumentation looks like, how it’s taught, how it can be assessed, and what value it has. The poster is a reinterpretation of George Hillocks’ schematic representation of Stephen Toulmin’s now-classic delineation of the elements of argument, which he arrived at inductively from a study of arguments in contemporary usage (in contrast, to, say, Aristotelian logic). Trying to be conversant with the parlance of the field, we’ve used the language of claim, evidence, and reasoning. That differentiation seems to have a lot of utility and currency in Science, Social Studies, and literacy in the Common Core standards themselves. The teachers we work with now make reference to introducing “CLEVR” as a means of analyzing and evaluating arguments and of developing their own arguments.
Even as I applaud the rigorous thinking that elaborating this construct is developing, I admit I’m lukewarm on it. Yes, much academic and professional writing is conventionalized to require an explicitness in the logic, premises, criteria, and so on, that undergird an argument. The need for students to develop that facility is not lost on me. (I could probably use a good dose of it myself). Yet, consider this paragraph from Steve Coll in The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” column this week:
The Tea Party’s anti-intellectualism reflects a longer, deeper decline in the Republican Party’s ability to tolerate a diversity of iras and public-policy strategies, and to adapt to American multiculturalism. Mitt Romney’s poor showing among Latino voters in 2012 helped insure Barack Obama’s reëlection. Republican leaders, chastened and without any other obvious way to increase their vote base before 2016, pledged earlier this year to revive a comprehensive immigration-reform bill. Yet party leaders, in part because they have been tied down since July by the debt confrontation, haven’t found a way to move legislation past the nativist caucus in the House.
Try to isolate the pieces of claim, evidence, and reasoning from that paragraph and you’re likely to realize that New Yorker audiences would be insulted by such explicitness about inferences they do not need an author to make for them. Indeed, the same goes for a television sketch that would feel the need to explain why it’s funny, or virtually any other form of discourse which makes some kind of point or claim. “If I have to explain the reasoning to you, then what are you doing here?”
Of course, the very function of language of schooling is to not rely on such inferences, implicitness, innuendo, in-crowd language, inside jokes… to express all complexities on the surface of language. But I think teaching students claims, evidence, and reasoning without a concomitant attention to the irreducible element of an argument’s situated-ness in particular authorities and audiences is an incomplete education. What reasoning is good reasoning? Depends on who you’re speaking to. What evidence is good evidence? Depends on your sources of authority, your notions of truth, your epistemology. What claims are forceful claims? Who knows but those from whom we learn and to whom we speak, in the dialogicality of real-life interaction?
It seems like Toulmin extracted a nice scheme from real-life arguments. I argue that we need to teach with a relentless consciousness of putting arguments back into real life. Analyze the claims, evidence, and reasoning, but lay bare the addressivity and addressees. Identify the warrants and backing, but know those aren’t abstractions, but the narratives and worldviews of living and breathing speech communities, cultural groups, participants of discourses. And when we unfold the dimensions of claims, evidence, and reasoning that belong to the scientific community or the field of historians or the lingo of BBoys or culinary patois, we should not withhold from students reflection on all their specificity of location, politics, and development. “Copernicus derived these conclusions from these calculations. And he analyzed in this way in contrast to these predecessors for these reasons. He ultimately published in this fashion and was taken up in these ways by these proponents.” No arguments without arguers.