For the past three and a half years, I have been trying ways of teaching my students about argumentative writing. How should we distinguish an argument from a non-argument? Why is it useful to practice writing arguments?
Sometimes students challenge me: “What you consider to be an argument isn’t the only possible form of argument.” Usually, this happens after someone submits a very well-done literature review, expecting a good grade. It can also happen when a student gets attached or very comfortable with a non-argumentative style of writing (e.g., listing a set of facts). What if what they are doing is actually a form of argument? Perhaps I could see it, if I were just open-minded enough.
Fair point. But I don’t want to fall into the position of saying, “Anything and everything can be an argument.” There is a big distance between, “maybe X is also an argument,” and saying “who knows what an argument is. Therefore, anything goes!” We should remain open-minded about the former, while avoiding the latter (i.e., we shouldn’t let go of standards of good argumentation).
I found myself saying to the students, “A shopping list isn’t an argument.” Can we agree on this? A list of instructions (step-by-step bullet points) is also not an argument. It is important to find a type of writing that we can claim (with certainty) is not an argument. This is our common ground. Our starting point. In addition, we can begin to explore why a shopping list or an instruction manual is not an argument. What is it that these forms of writing lack? Let’s leave that for the next post.