Argument: creating a coherent whole out of the parts of your essay

One of things many undergraduate students I have worked with over the years have always battled with is understanding the difference between an essay that makes an argument, and an essay that has useful information in it that is not tied together around a central thread or point. In my former role as the coordinator of a university writing centre, I spent a great deal of time thinking about how to help students understand and address this struggle through writing workshops and tutorials, and in my work with their lecturers and tutors.

Getting your head around what an argument is, and how to craft and make substantive and coherent arguments, is key to succeeding at your higher education studies and beyond, and not just in the humanities and social sciences. Although they may do it in different ways and in different forms, all fields make and defend arguments for and against things: this design for a footbridge rather than that one for this community; this method for building a hydrology model rather than that one in this project site; this theory of neoliberal capitalism and its effects on modern society and not a different one; and so on.

From gigya.com

From gigya.com

The argument is the answer to the ‘So what?’ question you don’t want your readers to ask at the end of your essay. It is the ‘golden thread’ if you like, that takes the strands of your argument and pulls them into a defined shape to substantiate and develop the central claim your essay wants to make. This is often called ‘the thesis statement’. It needs to be clearly made, often in the introductory part of your writing, so that your reader knows what it is that is helping you to select and organise the parts of your essay or paper that will follow. What follows the introduction will be a connected selection of sub-claims, supported by relevant evidence, that further develop and substantiate the central claim, and all of these sub-claims must make up this golden thread – they need to connect, in a logical and coherent order, to create an argument that is persuasive and makes sense.

From pinterest.com

From pinterest.com

You could think of these sub-claims, and the evidence you have selected from literature or empirical data, or both, as strands of coloured wool. On their own, side-by-side, they just make up a collection of strands of coloured wool. Without a purpose or aim to draw them together into a blanket or a scarf or similar, they are just pretty strands of wool. They need a knitter and the knitter needs a pattern to follow. In undergraduate and early postgraduate studies, where students are completing coursework, they are given their ‘knitting patterns’ in the form of task questions and instructions to respond to. Later on, in independent research, students need to design their own patterns, or research tasks.

Students, as the knitters, will read (or devise) the task, decide on what research needs to be done to generate the information needed to respond appropriately to the task, and using their prior learning as well as the thinking, reading and writing practice they have had thus far, they will ideally weave or knit the information together to create something new, that represents (hopefully in their own creative way) the pattern they were asked to follow. They will create new knowledge from existing knowledge, even in a small way, by taking a position on an issue and advancing a substantiated argument. Without the argument to tie the strands together into a pattern, the essay will likely end up looking a bit like the picture above – a collection of paragraphs, each with their own point, but together not quite managing to create something coherent or sensible. The essay may well leave the reader wondering: ‘So what? What is the point of all of this?’

A tool I recently learnt on a writing retreat has really helped me to create a define my own ‘pattern’ for my writing, and is helping me to make sure that I am actually knitting together arguments in my papers that make sense, and are properly substantiated. Taken from a book called The Craft of Research, the tool helps writers to plot out the golden thread by asking them to think carefully about the main claim, the sub-claims, the reasons for those claims, and the evidence needed to substantiate them. Claims and evidence are probably quite obvious – of course we need both of these elements to write a paper worth its salt. But what of reasons? According to the authors, reasons are important because they outline the logic of the argument you want to make. I have learned, using this tool, that I am quite good at generating many reasons for the research I want to write about, but I am less adept at pinning down my claims. This tool has been helping me to work on this.

This (below) is my version of the tool in action: an argument for a paper I am working on plotted out in my research journal on stickies. Following the retreat facilitator’s advice, I use stickies to avoid writing long-winded claims and reasons. This is not the plan for your paper, this is the plan for your argument, and you need to be able to identify and state your claims, reasons, and related evidence fairly concisely. If it takes you 7 or 8 stickies to state one claim, you have some more thinking and refining to do before you are ready to plot out your paper and knit your strands together.

photo 2

I start with my main claim, and then identify any sub-claims that are part of that. I then write out the reasons for the claims I am making, and follow with the evidence I either have, or need to have, to support these claims. The orange stickies at the end contain my ‘take-home message’ or the answer to the ‘So what?’ question (which will be part of my conclusion) as well as the limitations on the argument I want to make. Not every paper will include limitations, but all papers need to have claims, reasons, evidence, and a clear answer to the ‘So what?’ question. All papers we write, whether as undergrads, postgrads or professionals, need to have a point – and the point is the argument, and the way in which we are weaving that golden thread through the writing to create something new from all the strands of research, reading and thinking we have been doing.

From dreamstime.com

From dreamstime.com

If you are a writing teacher or tutor: consider using or adapting a tool like this to help students you work with understand the link between the research they are doing and the information they are gathering, and the ways in which this information and research need to be pulled together selectively around a central argument that knits all the paragraphs or parts together into a coherent, persuasive whole.

If you are a writer: try this tool out, and look for others that can help you to make clearer the ways in which your arguments are constructed and crafted, to ensure that your own writing is a clear, persuasive and makes as much sense as possible.

Reference: Booth, C., Colomb, G. and Williams, J. (Eds) 2003. The Craft of Research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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.

Can we unthink the way we think about writing? Part 2

This post follows on from my previous post about beginning the year challenging ourselves to ‘unthink’ some of the ways in which we think about academic writing conventions in higher education. The first post dealt with how we teach students to avoid plagiarising the work of others, and how we might go about teaching referencing differently. This post discusses another way in which I think we can rethink academic writing: by rethinking our approach to teaching different forms of written tasks, in particular argumentative essays.

I must preface the rest of this post by saying that I think this is a tough topic. It’s difficult to write good argumentative essays as an undergraduate and as a teacher of undergraduates I know that it is also difficult to teach students how to write these kinds of essays well. We see students at the Writing Centre all year long who are really confused about what is expected of them and what they need to be doing with their research, reading, thinking and writing in order to produce these kinds of essays. We find it hard to help them beyond a certain point because what it is to argue, and what counts as evidence and also as the appropriate use of evidence in support of claims made differs from discipline to discipline.

However,  disciplinary lecturers and tutors are themselves not always clear about what a good argument looks and sounds like, or have fuzzy ideas about how to write good arguments or explain how to do this using clear and unambiguous language. Many academic literacies and writing centre practitioners and scholars have written about this, but I am going to draw particularly here on a recent paper by Ursula Wingate (‘Argument!’ helping students understand what essay writing is about). In this paper, Wingate looks at samples of students’ work and at comments from tutors, and also talks to students about writing argumentative essays in an effort to understand what students think an argument is coming into university and how they are helped, through feedback on their writing, to begin to write the kinds of argumentative essays required by their disciplines.  What she found, in short, were gaps between what students thought an argument was, and what the discipline required of them, and further, she found that tutors were largely unable to communicate clearly the shifts and moves students needed to make in their thinking and writing through their feedback. The tutors themselves did not seem to have a clear understanding of what argument looked like or how to communicate this to students.

This is perhaps not a very surprising finding, although it is worrying for students as many of them rely on their lecturers and tutors to help them through this maze. As many scholars like Wingate have argued, we need to be careful of assuming that all lecturers and tutors know how to explain the process of producing an argument in clear, accessible terms to novice student writers. As I said earlier on, arguments in academic discourse are difficult to make, and there are so many steps that go into the process.

Think about it: you first need to read and understand the question you have to respond to. Then you need to work out what search terms to use so that you can search the library databases and the Web for relevant information on that topic. Then you need to read all of that information, understand it, summarise it, synthesise it into a coherent whole of understanding so that you can relate it to a reader in your own words. You also need to keep track of where it all comes from so you can reference it. Then you need to go back to the question and formulate a structured, organised and logical response using all of that information. But this is not all. You can’t just create a patchwork quilt of other people’s words and ideas, even if you are not plagiarising. You also, and Wingate makes this point so clearly, need to take a position. You need to have a ‘voice’ in that paper, and you need to direct the information, using it to support the claims you are making as part of the position you have chosen.

Often though, this process is not understood by students as being this obviously complex and many of the students we see in our writing centre don’t really understand all these steps or how to carry them out effectively. So, I think there needs to be some unthinking here, or perhaps rather just different thinking about how we teach students to write essays like this.

In the first place, while at the Writing Centre we can talk to students about the fact that they need to take a position, and we can help them think through their logical and structured response to the question, we cannot always give in-depth insight into exactly how they need to relate their position and the supporting reasons and arguments and why they need to do it like this and not like that. Thus, disciplinary lecturers really need to understand what they are asking of students in terms of the process, and they need to work backwards to build in time to teach students some of these relevant skills, if you like, or academic practices as they also teach them the substantive knowledge of the discipline. Students also need opportunities to practice writing in these new ways, and get feedback that guides them. It’s not always easy to do, but it is necessary.

Another thing that we need to unthink is the language we use. Wingate and also Lillis and Turner (2001)  argue that the words we use to speak about argument which seem clear to us as insiders to this academic discourse and more often than not jargon to students and impenetrable. Words like ‘structure’, ‘coherence’, ‘cohesion’ and also ‘argument’, ‘evidence’ and ‘position’ are all fairly dense words with a lot of meaning packed into them. We need to unpack these with our students and help them to see what we mean, what we need them to do and why we need them to do it in that way.

Once we begin to unthink the way we think about argumentative writing we can see that what we are asking of undergraduate students is a lot, and it is not surprising that so many struggle with writing and research at this level. We can also see more clearly what we can be doing to light their path and equip them with the knowledge and practice they need to understand what they are doing and begin to improve and grow in confidence too.

Lillis, T., & Turner, J. 2001. Student Writing in Higher Education: contemporary confusion, traditional concerns. Teaching in Higher Education, 6:1, 57-67.

Wingate, U. 2012. ‘Argument!’ helping students understand what essay writing is about. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 11, 145-154.