Trending in 2020: Have Educators Privileged Argument Writing at the Expense of Personal Narrative?

Although the Common Core State Standards have lost something of their influence over the teaching and curriculum of the English Language Arts, I think it’s undeniable that a lasting legacy of the CCSS is that they increased the centrality of the teaching of argument in the writing curriculum.  You can see the CCSS architects’ justification for this emphasis in a subsection of Appendix A aptly titled “The Special Place of Argument in the Standards” (http://www.corestandards.org/assets/Appendix_A.pdf).  You can see it also in this famous (or infamous) statement by David Coleman, the chief of those architects, that was reported in The Atlantic: “A boss would never tell an employee, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday, but before that, I need a compelling account of your childhood’” (Goldstein, 2012).  Argument, Coleman argues, should be taught because it’s practical.

And not just in the world of work.  I’ve been among those who have encouraged teachers to give arguments its special place because I recognize that argument is “the most highly prized type of academic discourse” (Andrews, 2009, p. 1), that college writing placement tests are characteristically argument based, and that the increasingly common placement of students into developmental writing classes before they can take their required English composition class is enormously costly both for the students and for their institutions.  That’s why in our work with 11th and 12th grade students in an under-resourced neighborhood urban school my students and I have focused on argument.

I’m proud of our work.  We engage students in thinking about a variety of important questions like “What does it really mean to be smart?” and “To what extent am I responsible for others?”  To prepare them for the reading, writing, and arguing they’ll be doing as we explore those big questions, we have them engage with less weighty questions, like “Who makes the best burrito?” And “What supervillain would be the best one to enlist if you want to take over the world?” Students seem to like our approach, at least for the most part, and our data demonstrate that our students have made statistically significant gains in their writing ability as measured by their responses to prompts designed to resemble those given on our university’s placement test.  (See Smith & Imbrenda, 2018 for more details about the program.)

But recently the privileged place of academic argument has begun to be questioned. Turner and Hicks (2017), for example, make the case that argument in the real world (in memes and infographics, for example) works differently than it does in the academy. Smagorinsky (2018) worries that instruction in argumentation may fail to recognize that arguments are often more emotional than rational.  Hobbs (forthcoming) is concerned that schools have neglected the study of propaganda, which she sees as vitally important, because, when it is compared to argument, it is regarded as insufficiently complex and serious to be the subject of study.

I take these critiques seriously, but I think our approach addresses these concerns, at least in some fashion.  When you engage kids in evaluating a wide variety of arguments and in thinking about if and how they work, it seems to me that you are helping them understand both formal academic argument and informal digitally-based arguments, many of which appeal to emotion rather than logic. Imagine, for example, a lesson that asked students to list all of the evidence a local college website uses to attract applicants and then to rank that evidence in terms of its effectiveness.

But another criticism of the emphasis on argument worries me more. DeStigter (2015), for example, critiques what he see as an overemphasis on argumentation because it “renders illegible other, nondominant modes of contemplation and expression.” In so doing, DeStigter continues, “the ascendance of argument limits our understandings of who we humans are and what we are capable of because it attends to only a tiny part of the communicative spectrum we occupy” (p. 20).  Johnson, the employee in the Coleman quote above, may have stories to tell as well as analyses to write.

My concern with this critique was amplified recently by reading Deborah Appleman’s remarkable new book, Words No Bars Can Hold (2019).  In it she chronicles the work she has been doing with men who are incarcerated. And she shares their writing and their thoughts about it at some length.  We hear China, a lifer, say “I write because I don’t have a choice.  Who else is going to be my voice, tell my story, and show my pain?”  And Johnny, another lifer, who says “I believe writing can heal the deepest gashes and restore a fragmented soul.” Nobody says such things about an argument, no matter how engaging.  Deborah’s book is a powerful reminder of what our work as literacy educators can mean in the lives of students.

I’m not here to say that I’m going to rewrite our curriculum.  I find the arguments for argument compelling, and as I noted above, I remain very proud of our work.  But Deborah’s book has created more than a little niggle for me.  In a time in which the privileged place of academic argument in the writing curriculum no longer goes without saying, I need to think more about the extent to which I, recognizing that time is a zero-sum game, have privileged argument at the expense of personal narrative.  I wonder whether our students would develop rich writerly identities like those of Deborah’s students if we devoted more time to helping them spin out their stories instead of just using personal anecdotes in service of their argumentative claims.  I need to make sure that in looking to the future we are serving our students appropriately in the here-and-now.


References:

Appleman, Deborah. (2019). Words No Bars Can Hold: Literacy Learning in Prison. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

DeStigter, T. (2015). “On the ascendance of argument: A critique of the assumptions of academe’s dominant form.” Research in the Teaching of English, 50, 11-34.

Goldstein, D.  (2012). The schoolmaster.  The Atlantic.  Available at https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/10/the-schoolmaster/309091/

Hobbs, Renee. (2020). Mind Over Media: Propaganda Education for a Digital Age. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Smagorinsky, P. (2018). Emotion, reason, and argument: Teaching persuasive writing in tense times. English Journal, 107, (5), 98-101.

Smith, M. W., & Imbrenda, J. (2018). Developing Writers of Argument:  Tools & Rules that Sharpen Students’ Reasoning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Turner, K. T., & Hicks. T. (2017).  Argument in the Real World.  Portsmouth, NH:  Heinemann.


Michael W. Smith is a professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning in Temple University’s College of Education. He joined the ranks of college instructors after 11 years of teaching high school English. His scholarly work focuses on understanding what motivates and supports adolescents’ reading and writing both in and out of school. He has reported his research and the instructional ideas that derive from it in 16 books, two of which he and his co-author Jeff Wilhelm received NCTE’s David H. Russell Award for Distinguished Research in the Teaching of English, as well as in a wide variety of articles and chapters.

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