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Today’s guest blogger is Gene Melton, a Senior Lecturer in the English Department at North Carolina State University, where he teaches courses in composition and rhetoric and in British, American, and LGBTQ literature. In Spring 2017, he will begin serving as academic advisor for the Department’s Literature majors. He earned his PhD in 19th- and 20th-century American literature at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Opening Classical Argument
The foundational assignment for my WID-based first-year academic writing and research course is a classical argument on a topic the students choose based on their individual interests and current base of knowledge. While I do allow students to conduct outside research for this classical argument, I do not require them to do so, nor do I expect them at this early point to be at all aware of academic, peer-reviewed sources. I begin with this assignment because it centers argument as a key intellectual activity on which I can build tothe further work of the course, which asks students to engage with texts from a variety of academic disciplines and to explore the pleasures and pitfalls of conducting research at the undergraduate level.
One of the first challenges this assignment presents is the choice of topic. Students often do not recognize the merit in writing about their very specific interests, initially opting in favor of rather sweeping, “trendy” issues. For example, a student might at first propose a paper on a vague notion of gun control when she is really invested in proposing regulations on hunting in her home state. Indeed, I find that I must conference with the students one-on-one as they are generating ideas to help them see that they can find viable topics within their personal interests and to help them develop the courage to risk doing so. I hope that students take from this part of the process the recognition that their interests can (and should) motivate their academic work and that they need to narrow down any topic to a scope reasonable for the parameters of a given writing situation.
Another challenge the students confront in this assignment is conceptualizing what exactly is at stake regarding the issue/topic they have identified and just how far they can go in supporting their assertions on the matter, given their current level of knowledge about the issue and access to evidence to support their claims. To help students work through their ideas, I ask them to think in terms of articulating a precise claim that does not go beyond the bounds of what they can defend through specific reasons and credible, concrete supporting evidence. We also examine assumptions (especially unstated ones) and consider how to respond to potential opposing views, elements of argument that often seem to have been overlooked or under-emphasized in students’ prior writing instruction. While most of their final drafts still rest on limited evidence and lack fully nuanced understanding of the issue(s) involved, they nevertheless demonstrate an evolving sense of what informed academic audiences demand of serious intellectual inquiry and argumentation.
Integrating Knowledge from Academic Domains
Once the students have completed this first project, they turn next to learning to read scholarly articles from three broad domains of academic inquiry: humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences. As part of this study, I ask the students to practice analyzing the rhetorical features of sample articles I provide and to discuss the similarities and differences in the way scholars in the various domains write about the knowledge they are generating and how those scholars articulate and support their claims in their essays and reports. At this time, the students also begin to explore formal academic research as they develop an annotated bibliography of peer-reviewed articles related to the topic about which they wrote their classical argument. They will also eventually write a comparative rhetorical analysis of two of the articles they collect as part of their research, demonstrating in the process not only their understanding of the rhetorical features in their representative disciplinary texts, but also their own evolving knowledge of argument in general.
Revised Classical Argument
As a final, capstone project for the course, students return to their initial classical argument and revise it in light of the research they have conducted and their increased awareness of the range of rhetorical possibilities available to them. It is rewarding to see students articulate the same argument from a more informed, nuanced perspective, complete with substantive evidence and precise, formal documentation. Equally (if not sometimes more) rewarding are those times when, after having spent three months researching and reflecting on their topic, students adopt a position on the issue that is completely opposite to the one they championed at the beginning of the semester. Either way, I find that the recursive nature of this sequence helps students to recognize their own growth as writers of academic arguments.
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