Friday, October 30, 2009

Teaching Civil Argument in today’s America

I’ve just finished grading my students’ argument essays. In third person voice, students are asked to argue a point of view using three quotations from an assigned reading. I’ve done some variation of this assignment each of my fifteen years of teaching writing. Across that time, I’ve seen students’ arguments grow more…well, more bullying.

I teach my students that the goal of an academic argument is to persuade people who don’t already agree. I encourage them to strike a tone that acknowledges the opposing point of view while refuting it with examples and evidence. Lately, as recent as the last few years, a growing percentage of students (not all of them), try to vilify the other side in their arguments. Now, hyperbole is not new to novice writers, but the tenor seems uglier to me. Gross generalizations characterize their enemies: “Parents today are fat and lazy.” “Everybody’s a pervert on the Internet.” “Stupid people deserve what credit card companies do to them.” Yikes!

As I spent this past week writing comments that asked how those remarks would persuade rather than alienate an audience who recognized themselves in the statements, I thought about the current media climate in which my students are growing up. Polarity and anger seem to be the modern media’s cash cow. Regardless of party affiliation, blogs and cable news channels teem with bile and anger. Gone are the David Brinkleys of my own coming of age. Phil Donahue, once considered such a hot head because he leaned forward in his chair and even stood up and ran around his audience, strikes me now as a gentle journalistic hippie. When I think of the people they see as models of “academic argument,” I realize my students might just be imitating the nation’s model for argumentative discourse.

I try not to be outdated as a teacher. I don’t teach MLA the way it was in my day (end notes, anyone?), and I don’t require that all their sources in a research essay come from hard copy sources. One of my responsibilities is to prepare my students for the current marketplace they face—and yet? I don’t know if I can change here. I might just retreat to my ivory tower and teach students the civil argumentative discourse I believe is the root of understanding and change in the world and trust that our current ravings will pass.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Saturday, October 10, 2009


According to the ever-venerable Wikipedia, “okay” is a word “denoting approval, assent, or acknowledgment.” I think I need to post that definition where I can see it prominently. I often use “okay” for acknowledgment; my students hear approval, and between those two uses stretches a field of misunderstanding.

Here’s how the scenario usually goes down:

“Ms. K?”


“I’m not going to be here for the test tomorrow because I have to pick up my uncle’s second cousin from the airport because my grandmother has diabetes, and my father’s car is in the shop and I have to be at work on time or I’ll lose all the fingers on my left hand.” *Details have been changed to protect identities, but please note that the convoluted and urgent nature of the student scenario has been retained.


“Great, bye!”

Weeks later after grades have been posted.

”Ms. K?”


“I have a zero for that test I missed and when I told you I was going to miss it, you said it was fine.”

“I’m sure I never said it was fine. You need to make up that test.”

“You said it was okay! I would have made it up weeks ago when I still knew that story if I’d known it wasn’t okay! Why did you say it was okay?”

“Uh. Hmm.”

Note to self: eradicate “okay” from teaching language. I need a new verbal filler for that scenario. It’s not “okay” with me that the student will be absent, but these aren’t scenarios where I’m being asked for permission. I’m being informed of a decision. Nodding seems like approval, too. I feel rude not saying anything. What else would signify acknowledgment without approval? “Gotcha.” “Sounds complicated.” “I see.” Yes, maybe “I see.” Or maybe, “See me when you get back.” Leave the ball clearly in the student’s corner…I may need to snap a rubber band on my wrist for a while to change this habit…

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher