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I try not to be outdated as a teacher.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

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I guess that at one time or another, students have voiced such blatantly insensitive comments. Teachers have taken on quite a few roles - the moral compases, the keepers of sanity, the voice of judicious thought. It's a lot easier to throw in a few rash comments to get a reaction. When I ask my students why they would even consider saying something offensive, the answer invariably is "It's true, isn't it?" or "Why sugarcoat? Tell it like it is!" The art of public discourse has lost its "artiness". Either we lack word choice or we have diminished our scope of language. In a way, I really hope students can't find the proper words - I'd hate to think what the future holds if language skills are reduced to an Orwellian level.