In Praise of Nuance in Argument and Ethos

1 0 635

Upwards view of blue spruce tree against bright blue sky.jpgA recent wintery visit to my home state Colorado reminded me that, while the cacophony of fall foliage has its delights, the subtlety of winter’s colors can draw a person into deep contemplation. This blue spruce against a clear blue sky stopped me on a frosty walk with my father. The nuanced play of azure on blue-gray-green needles held my gaze, inviting me to consider the array of tones I would have missed with a bolder contrast of colors.

Because most of my brain these days is consumed with student drafts (yours, too?), this encounter with nature reminded me of the many conversations I’m having in the margins of my students’ writing about the value of nuance in scholarly arguments. New college writers tend turn the dial to 11 (thanks, This is Spinal Tap!) when it comes to constructing arguments. Perhaps this is because of the bombastic models of “argument” we so often hear on political talk shows, where speakers launch arguments like bombs: absolute, totalizing, and designed to demolish the opposition. So, it can be a challenge for students to see nuance and humility in scholarly arguments as a strength rather than a weakness. 

Andrea Lunsford reminds us that humility is essential to listening in academic conversations. I have written before, too, about humility as a strength in scholarly ethos. I understand, though, why nervous students might try to over-perform confidence, and bolster their ethos, with outsized claims. You’ve seen these totalizing claims in drafts, too, I’m sure: “College sports are destructive to students;” “Social media is driving adolescents into despair;” “Students want majors that lead directly to jobs.” Without nuance, qualification, or complexity, all these claims remain fundamentally open to critique.

In From Inquiry to Academic Writing: A Text and Reader, my co-author Stuart Greene and I offer a chapter on building responsible scholarly arguments. Among the guidelines are:

  • Acknowledging points of view that differ from the writer’s own, reflecting the complexity of an issue and,
  • Demonstrating an awareness of the readers’ assumptions and anticipating possible counterarguments. (164)

These practices signal to readers that the writer is taking on an issue with nuance and humility, rather than bludgeoning the reader with simplistic bombast.

We also provide steps for students to develop a nuanced ethos in their appeals to readers, since cultivating this presence on the page is essential to making effective academic arguments:

Steps to Appealing to Ethos:

  1. Establish that you have good judgment. Identify an issue your readers will agree is worth addressing, and demonstrate that you are fair minded and have the best interests of your readers in mind when you address it.
  2. Convey to readers that you are knowledgeable. Support your claims with credible evidence that shows you have read widely on, thought about, and understand the issue.
  3. Show that you understand the complexity of the issue. Demonstrate that you understand the variety of viewpoints your readers may bring—or may not be able to bring—to the issue. (289)

All of these habits of mind and practices on the page take time to establish, of course. I’m still honing these skills, myself. What has worked best in your classes as you guide students toward the nuance and humility we value in scholarly conversations?


Photo by April Lidinsky (2022)

About the Author
April Lidinsky (PhD, Literatures in English, Rutgers) is Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Indiana University South Bend. She has published and delivered numerous conference papers on writing pedagogy, women's autobiography, and creative nonfiction, and has contributed to several textbooks on writing. She has served as acting director of the University Writing Program at Notre Dame and has won several awards for her teaching and research including the 2015 Indiana University South Bend Distinguished Teaching Award, the 2017 Indiana University South Bend Eldon F. Lundquist Award for excellence in teaching and scholarly achievement, and the All-Indiana University 2017 Frederic Bachman Lieber Memorial Award for Teaching Excellence.