Friday, September 08, 2006

Argument Culture

Reading Deborah Tannen's very interesting The Argument Culturebook, I see what I can use for my upcoming class in Argument. As Tannen points out, contemporary American society has a notion of fairness that seeks "both sides" of an argument or an issue. The problem, as she says, is that many issues have many more than just two sides - the abortion or death with dignity issues, for example -- while other issues, as expressed in student papers, only have a single side. Consider the student determined to argue that people should neuter their pets. Well, yes, of course. Who, other than breeders, says no? Or what about the student writing an argument that people should quit smoking because it is unhealthy and inexpensive, and who cannot find "opposition." He was determined to write the paper despite advice to change the slant. All I could help him with for opposition was Dorianne Laux's poem "Smoke" and Billy Collins' poem "The Best Cigarette". And in fact these two poems bring up the point of Aristotlean appeals that we discuss - that is, that while the Greeks wished that rhetoric could be based on logos-logic, that in fact people were swayed by emotion or pathos. Or as I like to tell the class (and I hope I'm right) about the episode of Star Trek in which Mr. Spock says "But Captain, that is not logical", and I conclude by saying, "That's because people are not (only, primarily) logical, but psycho - - logical. [This is always good for a laugh.] So it is psychological reasons why people smoke, not logical ones. So to convince smokers to quit, an argument would have to address the emotional aspect.

Here's another interesting argument: Evolution and(versus??) Creationism. Stephen Jay Gould's excellent essay "Evolution as Fact and Theory" - which addresses the simplistic use of the word "theory" to mean "just an assumption" - the way we use it in casual conversation.

Gould's essay is a great example, by the way, of the "They Say, I Say" configuration of argument, recently made explicit in an extremely helpful brand new textbook by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein They Say, I Say, which we are using this fall at Oregon State for our First Year Composition course (called WR 121 here). We are excited that Graff and Birkenstein will visit OSU in October and deliver a lecture called "Demystifying Academia," drawn somewhat from Graff's excellent book Clueless in Academe. I'll say more about this later. But here is what my friend Michael said about the book in his Recent Post on his BlogCollage of Citations, which I highly recomend.


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