Challenging our Underlying Assumptions

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In several of the earlier editions of Elements of Argument, we made use of the Stephen Toulmin term warrant. It proved to be a difficult term, even for some of us who were trying to teach it. It was easy enough for students to link the term claim to the term thesis statement and to link support with the term evidence.  The concept is no easier now that we have adopted the term assumption to replace warrant, but at least the word is familiar. Whatever we call it, this link between claim and support is critical to understanding others’ arguments and our own.

Every day, millions of headlines are published in response to the events happening around us. These headlines are littered with the writer's assumptions about the outcome of an event. Having students explore assumptions in the headlines can help them to understand how a writer’s beliefs shape their argument. However, students should be aware that as readers, they will also establish their own assumptions about the content of the article based on its headline.

Here’s an activity that you can use to have students explore their biases when reading headlines. Collect about 4-5 headlines and share them on the board. Here are a few examples of interesting headlines this week:

  • Retirees lost 23% of their 401(k) savings in 2022, Fidelity says (from CNBC)
  • Ohio train derailment happened moments after crew warned of axle overheating, NTSB says (from USA Today)
  • Chile readies major earthquakes insurance with World Bank (from Reuters)
  • London activists paint Ukraine’s flag in front of Russian Embassy (from The Washington Post)

Then as a class, have students list what they assume the articles would address. Next, divide the class into 4-5 groups and assign each group an article. After reading, each group should explore whether their assumptions about the article were correct or incorrect and how their assumptions shaped their reading experience.

This activity will help students to understand how their biases contribute to how they approach and navigate articles, which is important for them to keep in consideration when conducting research. Using assumptions to guide their research can cause students to only use articles that support their argument, creating a skewed discussion of a topic. You can use this activity to stress the importance of understanding all sides of an argument to effectively support and validate a thesis.

Additionally, this activity can be used to connect with and understand your students. Our classrooms are more diverse now than ever before. Each student has their own intersectionality, experiences, and beliefs that can influence their assumptions. Understanding how students navigate headlines and the media can help you provide research resources for students, create guidance on how to frame their claims and support to bolster their arguments, and discern what motivated students to choose a specific topic to write about.

Navigating the assumptions made in the headlines and our assumptions is the first step in finding the heart of a topic. Although arguments in the media are portrayed with a harsh right or wrong binary, as professors we must continue to remind students that argumentation is not about proving yourself right or someone wrong. Argumentation is simply a tool used to impact the people and world around us with the best uses of argumentation being when it is used to advocate for democracy, human rights, and our planet.

"Question mark made of puzzle pieces"  by Old Photo Profile is licensed under CC BY 2.0

About the Author
Donna Haisty Winchell directed the first-year writing program and codirected Digital Portfolio Institutes at Clemson University before her retirement in 2008. She edited several freshman writing anthologies and continues to write about argumentative writing and about fiction by African-American women. She is the author of The Elements of Argument and The Structure of Argument with Annette T. Rottenberg.