Making an argument: what it is and is not in academic writing

This post follows on from our previous post about unthinking the way we teach students to argue in their written work. We see many students every year at the Writing Centre with argumentative essays. We therefore spend a lot of time talking about how to help students understand what argument is, and how to construct arguments in their essays. We also have to talk about what it isn’t, amongst ourselves as tutors and also with students.

Several research papers within the field of academic literacies and writing look at argumentative writing, and debate student struggles with this genre and how to help them write more effective or relevant or appropriate essays. Key among the findings of the papers we have read seems to be that students come to university with a narrower understanding of what an argument is. In short, many students associate argument with arguing in the sense of having a fight with someone. Further, they also then see making an arguments as reinforcing your side of the fight or argument only, leaving someone else to oppose you. Most academics would immediately say ‘Oh no, it’s not about fighting, it’s about…’ debating, persuading, challenging, weighing up two or more sides of pertinent issues, and so on. Academic arguments are, among other things, balanced, careful, evidence-based, logical, well-structured and well-referenced. They are based on research, and weigh up different sides of an issue from the standpoint of the writer’s stance or position on that issue. Different disciplines like Law or English or Physics will make arguments in different ways, for example thinking about case summaries or literary critiques or models. However, for the most part they have many of these more general characteristics in common. They are designed to persuade more than to inform, to challenge and debate more than to simply present a position.

But explaining to students that these are some of the main things academic arguments are is not necessarily all that helpful. Students need, also, to know what they are not, and through guiding feedback on their writing to be shown what to do differently if they are not making arguments in the ways expected of them. Academic arguments, as stated, are not ‘fights’. They are not one-sided or narrow, and they do not pretend that the opposing side does not exist. They are not based on opinions, heresay and personal views, and where they are based on a writer’s personal views, these are supported and critiqued with research and evidence. Academic arguments are also not descriptions or explanations alone. A writer will use the tools of description or explanation to defend and support the stance they are taking, but an essay that merely describes or explains an issue without taking a position in relation to that issue and the evidence is not an argument.

Again, merely telling students these things does not guarantee that they will understand what you are saying clearly enough to put it all into actual practice in their own writing. They need this kind of advice on their writing as they write, through verbal or written feedback. However, explaining to students ahead of reading and writing what you as the assessor do think an argument is and is not, and what you expect from their writing and why you need or want them to write like that is an important step in making the ‘rules of the game’ clearer to novice writers especially. Having to explain these rules or guidelines to students also creates an opportunity for reflection on the part of lecturers or tutors, and possibly also an opportunity for rethinking some of the ways in which you can creatively and critically address the teaching of argumentative writing in your field or discipline. Perhaps you could share some of the ways in which you do this? We’d love to hear some new thoughts and ideas.