Chapter 4 Teaching Inquiry & Argument in the Composition Classroom

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Chapter 4

Teaching Inquiry & Argument in

the Composition Classroom

Inquiry in Support of Academic Argumentation 3

Thesis Statements v. Arguable Claims 6

Teaching Claims 9

Claim Workshops 11

Toulmin Analysis 16

Further Reading 19

As you’ve already read in earlier chapters, English 131 is committed to teaching students rhetorical awareness and the most transferable hallmarks of academic argumentation. This chapter will focus on what is probably the most repeated of hallmarks in college-level writing: claim-based argument that has emerged from and explores a line of inquiry based in reading, research, critical analysis of evidence, and assumptions. It might appear that we are presenting a contradiction when we say that writing—academic and otherwise—is contextually bound on the one hand, but has certain key repeated features on the other. Although it is true that each communicative situation is influenced by audience, purpose, and genre conventions, and therefore somewhat unique to its context, research has shown that academic writing, despite a number of often vast disciplinary differences, is related in its practice of inquiry. This is why the EWP puts so much emphasis on developing arguments from inquiry as one of the key thinking and writing skills that will help students in their future college courses. But because the specifics of inquiry differ from discipline to discipline, this chapter cannot capture all the nuances, types of questioning, types of critical analyses of evidence, and types of argument that take place on college campuses. Instead, we will focus broadly on describing how inquiry emerges from research and reading, how to help students develop claims based on analysis rather than personal opinion, and how to use the Toulmin method—a widely used method for argument analysis and construction.

What is a line of inquiry? This is a question your students will certainly ask when presented with part 1 of Outcome 3: “the argument is appropriately complex, based in a claim that emerges from and explores a line of inquiry.” Students have difficulty with this outcome for a number of reasons. First, they aren’t comfortable with the ambiguity of what it means for an argument to be appropriately complex. Second, they tend not to question and analyze evidence on the way towards making an argument, but instead come up with a stance they would like to argue (and these usually reflect some element of a debate that goes on in media culture) and then find evidence to support what they’ve already decided to be true. Third, they haven’t been taught how to organize their essays in ways that build on and complicate ideas presented in the claim; more often, they are used to presenting a relatively straightforward demonstration of evidence through the 5-paragraph essay or a compare-and-contrast piece; these types of organizational patterns fit nicely with the “search for evidence to fit the thesis” model. Overall, the biggest challenge you will face when trying to teach students how to work with lines of inquiry will be students’ past writing and educational experiences. For the most part, students have not been taught how to ask the kinds of questions that would lead them to developing complex claims that are more than restatements of commonsense cultural assumptions. Therefore, integral to successfully engaging with practices of academic inquiry is a reorientation of thinking about how knowledge is made in the college-level context. Inquiry encourages an exploratory attitude towards reading, research, and writing. It’s important to remember that the same aspects that are exciting about such a process—discovering new ideas, questioning assumptions, and becoming comfortable with ambiguity—are sometimes the same things that make some students uncomfortable.

Although there is no set method for how to question and analyze evidence on the way to making a claim, as each discipline takes a different approach to handling its artifacts and objects of analysis, there are certain habits of mind and habits of practice that students might find helpful. You might ask students to consider the following:

  • Be mindful of the stances, points of view, and ideological and cultural contexts that inform the reading and analysis of evidence.

  • Pay close attention to detail, and keep track of how the parts relate to the whole. Students are often quick to make sweeping generalizations without closely scrutinizing and examining the object of analysis.

  • Be flexible when investigating your evidence or phenomena, and be willing to reformulate your findings and rethink connections and patterns. Students often balk at having to rework or reconsider parts of their emerging argument because it seems like the work they’ve done has been a waste of time. The key here is that students understand that they only got to that new and more interesting point in the analysis as the result of having asked the earlier questions and making the previous assertions.

  • Move beyond binaries. Because of how argument is presented in popular discourse, students often assume that the “natural” and “right” finding must present clear oppositions. At first, students may not spot certain nuances and subtleties in the evidence they are analyzing simply because they haven’t been trained in this type of reading practice. Once students develop new habits of approaching evidence, their overly simplified arguments begin to take on an appropriate level of academic complexity.

  • Learn how to ask and answer questions. Part of developing the mindset that reading and research opens up avenues for further exploration is having the ability to ask questions and push against the material.

  • Work collaboratively, with your peers and your instructor, to develop questions, hypotheses, and theories about texts you are analyzing. Often students are trapped in the individual creative genius paradigm. Organizing classroom activities that put students in dialogue with one another promotes a more diverse treatment of the evidence, and teaches students that partnerships often produce ideas and further lines of inquiry that they could never have come up with on their own.

  • Related to the previous point, have students consider how the text they are reading has itself emerged from and is engaged in a process of inquiry.

  • Use exploratory writing through the inquiry process in order to expand, complicate, amend, and process your ideas. Some students may be used to this practice, but others may think of writing as a means to present the end results of, rather than as a tool for thinking through, ideas. Getting students to understand that both reading and research is a generative act can be successfully taught by always attaching reading with writing assignments. These writing assignments could range from in-text annotation to a focused close reading of a passage to an application of a key term to an everyday practice. But by consistently having students write about the reading and other kinds of research, they begin to experience how active and engaged reading encourages thinking, raises questions, and leads to arguments that matter in academic contexts.

  • Propel inquiry forward by asking the “so what?” question. Students are often at a loss for why what they are doing matters beyond the grade for your class. Therefore, in order to cultivate student motivation, as well as getting students used to crafting arguments that matter in academic contexts, we recommend pushing students to continually ask why their analyses, their questions, or their arguments matter.

We have just described some very general strategies for teaching students how to use inquiry to develop a claim. Now, we will look at a specific challenge that you and your students may face as you try to teach them how to develop claims that emerge from a line of inquiry. The following section presents a small study done on a group of new 131 first-year students by a previous director of EWP. As you will see, these findings indicate just how entrenched non-critical and non-analytical reading practices are for students entering 131.

Inquiry in Support of Academic Argumentation

In order to give you a sense of what kinds of reading practices many students enter EWP classes with, we will now present the writing of students in English 131; we asked every student enrolled to complete the following task on the first day of class. As you will see, students tended to respond to the passage purely in relation to their own ideological stance, and not through a careful and close reading. Although this exercise is specific to textual reading, we believe the kind of thinking that students demonstrated here is indicative of how they might go about any other type of reading or research.

Read the following paragraph below, drawn from Patricia Limerick’s essay “Empire of Innocence,” a paragraph appearing early in the essay. Then write a paragraph, using a close, careful reading, explaining what the paragraph says about the white American settlement of the West. In that paragraph, include at least one example, drawn from your own knowledge, that would illustrate, complicate, or argue against Limerick’s position.

Limerick Paragraph

Among those persistent values, few have more power than the idea of innocence. The dominant motive for moving West was improvement and opportunity, not injury to others. Few White Americans went West intending to ruin the natives and despoil the continent. Even when they were trespassers, westering Americans were hardly, in their own eyes, criminals; rather, they were pioneers. The ends abundantly justified the means; personal interest in the acquisition of property coincided with national interest in the acquisition of territory, and those interests overlapped in turn with the mission to extend the domain of Christian civilization. Innocence of intention placed the course of events in a bright and positive light; only over time would the shadows compete for our attention.

“Empire of Innocence,” Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West.

New York: Norton, 1987.

Student Responses

Student 1: The paragraph explains how Americans who traveled west were misunderstood. In no way were the pioneers attempting to trespass. Their goal was not to kill or destroy but rather to reach a place of opportunity. Americans traveling west did not see themselves as if they were violating anyones spaces. They were on a conquest for their own personnel happiness. In the end, Limerick states, that the killing and exploitation was worth it. It was in countries best interests. Limericks opinion is very arrogant. He sees the Americans doing no wrong. He believes the American was not at fault and that anyone who was in the America’s pursuit for possession was not at fault.

Student 2: Limerick believes that Americans moving west were innocent. Americans were victims of the circumstances. Greed, which is a natural instinct, overlapped with the government’s desires. Americans also though they “were not criminals, but pioneers,” and what they were doing was okay. However, the innocence of mind does not make the action right. This is similar to the punishment African Americans had to endure in the South. Many white folks honestly believed prejudice was acceptable, but their innocence doesn’t make the outcome justified.

Student 3: Limerick states that the expansion west and colonization of Native American land was motivated by “innocent” values. Western pioneers did not intentionally kill and conquer the natives with evil intent; rather they believed that western colonization was a saintly act. Pioneers were creating better lives for “pagan savages” and saving lives with Christianity. Acts of violence were justified by the pioneers in their own minds for their intentions were good.

Joseph Conrad also believed all colonization led to death and destruction. When oppressors began to claim an area, things began to fall apart, and societies began to collapse. He believed man was inherently evil and though innocence may have been the conscious motive, eventually human nature won over.

Student 4: I believe that this paragraph says that the whites weren’t exactly welcome to the west. They thought they were pioneers, making a new home for themselves when they were actually taking away from the Indians. The white settlers thought of themselves as innocent and had no clue when they were trespassing. It is almost as if they thought everything was for their taking. It was all good and innocent for so long and only recently has anyone protested it. Now people are of mixed feelings as to whether it actually was innocent or not.

I disagree with what the author is saying because I believe the white man did just as much good as anything else for the Indians. When the settlers came out west, they brought luxuries that the Indians had never known. But, on the other hand, the Indians led a life of simplicity and when the white people came, they made everything complicated.

Student 5: In the passage above, Limerick portrays the idealistic frontiersman who is an entrepeneur, rugged, rugged, and freespirited. She defends these new “westerners” and their actions claiming that they are naïve and blinded from reality. In the quote “the ends abundantly justify the means” Limerick shows her own blindness to the past. Whether the authors sarcasm continues through the rest of the novel is unknown, however this passage serves as a starting point to unraveling the injustices of the Americans heading west.

Student 6: Limerick’s claim is that the motivation of white American to settle the west was innocent; that they were spurred to move west by the desire for “improvement and opportunity.” This motivation being so pure, the white American’s actions seem almost chivalrous when recounted by Limerick. Racism does not enter into Limerick’s pretty picture. I am not sure how any convincing argument could be made to show that the white American’s view of Native Americans was not racist. Nor could I see how the withdrawal by the U.S. government from honorable treaties with Native Americans could be seen as anything short of manipulative and sometimes evil. The manipulation of the Native Americans for their ancient lands and the subsequent rape of those lands by prospectors and entrepeneurs was in no way innocent or commendable. It is more along the lines of shameful.

Only about a third of our students noticed the key contrast in the last sentence between “a bright and positive light” and “the shadows,” critical to assessing Limerick’s probable position, though few of them expressed it directly. A significant number of our students treated this as an opportunity to offer their personal opinions about the primary rights of their ancestors or the good that Christianity brought to the West. Others offered their opinions about the relative merits of Native American and Western European cultures. A majority of our students included language in their responses such as “Limerick believes” or “Limerick feels,” locating the argument in a personal belief system of the writer. Perhaps relatedly, students did not notice or comment on the fact that this passage was from a book; some students refused to believe that Limerick was a woman, sometimes changing her name to Patrick, other times simply using the pronoun “he.” No one guessed that Limerick was a professional historian. One thing that students were able to do was to draw from their knowledge of Washington state history or the larger history of the United States for other examples. In short, they had some strengths, but at the same time, they brought with them their previous experiences in writing opinion papers. If their reading had been strategic and rhetorical, focused on the writing task itself, the results might have been different.

Overall, it’s likely that students couldn’t analyze this quote beyond personal experience because they were never taught how to develop and ask the necessary questions that would not only produce an interesting analysis, but that would allow them to move away from this one reading and explore other readings, other contexts, other practices through the lens and perspective of what this initial text could offer. In other words, students have not been challenged to read analytically or to use reading generatively.

Evidence & Disciplinarity

Another important aspect of analyzing evidence and working through lines of inquiry will be helping students to understand what counts as evidence. Students do not generally know that each discipline (and sometimes each subdiscipline) has various schools of thought, forms of inquiry, and important, sometimes foundational, figures. Because they have not had contact with scholarly writing, they don’t know the rules of the academic publishing game. Bringing in a scholarly journal with which you are familiar can be a means for showing how publication takes place. What organization or group of scholars publish a particular journal? Who are the people on the editorial board? Who are the peer readers? What topics does the journal take up? What other kinds of articles appear in the journal?

It will also be important to differentiate personal from professional opinion. When students begin to read academic texts, they will often have no framework for understanding what a professional opinion is. Does the author have credentials? Does the author have a degree and training in the area about which he or she writes? Does the author hold an academic appointment? Has the author written and published other work? Is this author cited by others? Have there been published reviews of the author’s work? All of these questions can assist students in understanding that they can evaluate and sort evidence on their own. Students have had to assume that whatever they were given in the classroom is authoritative and they have had no reason to think otherwise. Without the knowledge of how to evaluate the quality of what they read, it should not be surprising that they assume it is just opinion.

Thesis Statements v. Arguable Claims

Nice people don’t argue . . . but academics do.

In addition to teaching students how to explore and develop lines of inquiry through reading and other kinds of research (observations of phenomena, interviews, surveys, etc.—see chapters on primary and secondary research in Acts of Inquiry), you will also need to teach them about how to formulate and organize the arguments that emerge from that process. One of the difficulties of teaching argument in writing to students arises from a widely-held convention that nice people don’t argue. People make enemies when they argue. Arguments can lead to violence. The word itself can raise the walls of politeness. We need only think about social conventions about not raising political or religious issues in polite company—for fear that it might cause an argument. Linguist Deborah Tannen wrote an entire book entitled The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words (New York: Ballantine, 1998). So when we ask our students to stop writing thesis statements and to start making claims and arguments, we must, at the same time, ask them to redefine their understanding of the word argument.

What most non-academics mean by argument is usually a polar opposition. I win/you lose. You’re a Democrat/I’m a Republican. I’m for the death penalty/You’re a bleeding heart liberal against the death penalty. I’m pro-choice/You’re against choice. Academic arguments are something different—often more complex, specific, interested in inquiry, and detailed—and the translation from one type of argument to another is not always easy for our students. Most academic argument is bounded by what is considered debatable within a discipline, acknowledging that some questions are already settled, though they, too, may end up being debatable. What our students will find disconcerting is that the “rules” of academic argument exclude the following, which they have likely been able to “use” in the past:

  • “Because my parents say so” (or my friends, or my community)

  • “Because I read it on the editorial page of the newspaper”

  • “Because that’s what I think”

  • “Because it’s morally right” (or in some cases, religiously right)

In addition to not quite knowing how to make an academic argument, they haven’t had the chance to learn what academic argument can do and has done. For example, they usually don’t know that one of the reasons they have read some women's, African American, and Hispanic literature in their previous classes is because academic argument in the disciplines of English and education paved the way. They often don’t know that contemporary work in genetics begins in an academic argument about the structure of DNA. They often don’t know that there are years of sociological studies examining the racial differential in actual punishment for crime. You have the chance to teach your students to understand argument, both their own and those made by others, as both emerging from and contributing to a process of inquiry; indeed, as generative and opening up rather than closing down.

Following are examples of descriptive thesis statements students write in high school. Each is drawn from the top-scoring AP English Language and Composition papers posted on the College Board website, and each will be a stepping stone on which to build in your class (for reasons explained in a moment):

To be a writer, one must have an elite understanding of diction, syntax and tone. These literary devices are utilized by writers, including Eudora Welty, as a method for expressing the message that they wish to convey to readers.

In the excerpt from One Writer’s Beginnings, Eudora Welty conveys a positive tone toward her childhood experience. She accomplishes this through the use of descriptive diction, impressionable images, and unusual syntax.

The language she employs to relate anecdotes of her childhood love affair with reading is invested with the same passion and value that she applied to books.

The author’s response to nature is strong and vivid.

Oliver recognizes the overwhelming power and mystery of nature visible in this passage about the great horned owl. This concept is carried over to the reader by the effective use of detail and syntax.

Kincaid, instead of openly displaying her ideas, uses a clever mix of syntax and rhetorical structure to let us gradually realize that something is wrong is such a seeming paradise.

The two passages given describe the swamp in very different lights. Although they are in some ways similar, the styles of the authors of these paragraphs are very different.

Rather than being strong argumentative claims that set out to explore a line of inquiry throughout the essay, the strategy here is to create a thesis statement that describes what the reader will find in the essay. These are maps to the text. These are static and demonstrative statements that list in really conventional ways the obvious content of their object of analysis. As readers, it is quite difficult to find a motivation to read what’s here because none of these thesis statements make connections to anything beyond the text itself. In addition, these thesis statements make no relationships that build, complicate, or intersect with other ideas in complex or interesting ways. In other words, the writers of these thesis statements aren’t investigating anything beyond the text(s) itself. Another aspect important to notice here is the formula for describing writing: tone, diction, syntax, and rhetorical strategies. While the application of an idea—tone, diction, syntax—to a text is a step in the right direction, there is no sense of the communication of complex ideas that matter to an academic audience.

Let’s compare these thesis statements with some arguable claims produced for English 131. While the sentences listed above constitute, for the most part, the entire opening paragraphs of the essays, in the arguable claims below, students have created a context for their argument (which articulate the stakes), explained important concepts from an essay, and then, after either a lengthy paragraph or paragraphs, declared their claims:

Thus, I argue that any time a literary work is being retold by images, the story loses nothing from the original and can only give rise to a more diverse interpretation of the original story. Furthermore, the notion that a story can be tainted because it is a “reproduction” is a fallacy.

I claim that the constant training to conform into a disciplined society to avoid danger is the first step to individuals becoming more automated or compliant. Furthermore, it is this disciplinary society that is responsible for producing our robotic behavior.

Both instances, leper colony and plague town, institute processes to solve the issue of the sick, the leper through separation and the town through its meticulous segmentation. These processes are applicable to our experiences, and our public education is a modern example of Foucault’s processes of panopticism, drawing eerie parallels with Stephen King’s short story, “Quitter’s, Inc.”

While these personal accounts give people’s opinions on how contact zones are formed and supported, the Articles of Confederation was a document that actually created contact zones, instead of merely describing them. These contact zones are worthy to note because they are important in shaping early American history.

We can identify source essays students are responding to in each of these claims: articles by Berger, Foucault twice, and Pratt. In each case, the student presents an interaction between a theoretical concept and an object or objects of analysis. What makes these claims more than mere descriptions of what the student “saw” in relation to their own personal points of view is how they complicate and expand our understanding of one text through the lens of another. These claims are also rich in stakes, which the previous thesis statements lacked entirely. Here, we can see students questioning assumptions and challenging conventionally-held beliefs in order to take a stand that is at once based in close scrutiny of evidence and takes risks with that analysis. The first student’s paper compares a book and a movie, using Berger’s quarrel with the notion of reproduction decreasing the value of the original work. The second student applies Foucault to the compliant nature of contemporary behavior, while the third uses Foucault to focus on public education and a story. The fourth student draws from Mary Louise Pratt’s concept of the contact zone and applies it to a moment in U.S. history. In each case, the student either complicates, applies, or expands on concepts from one to other instances. Providing students with examples of each type can be very useful in helping them clarify what’s different about argument in college writing; check the EWP website files for examples, ask your colleagues for examples, or write some of your own.

In addition to providing examples, working to identify the difference between an opinion and an argument will likely be a theme in your course. You may want to distribute something like the following assignment in the first week of English 131. Though students sometimes mock the assignment for its simplicity at the start, it usually ends up starting a complicated conversation about what qualifies as an argument:
Example 1: Argument v. Opinion (Vidali)
OPINION: A recognizable type of statement is the opinion or personal opinion—a statement or personal taste that is intended to apply only to the person who makes it and which cannot be disputed for that reason. For example:

  • I like disco music.

  • I think Virginia Woolf is a better writer than Charles Dickens.

ARGUMENT/ARGUABLE CLAIM: The type of statement we will spend the most time and attention on in this class is the argument or arguable claim. This is a statement which intends to persuade, convince, argue, prove, or suggest something to a reader or to someone who does not necessarily agree with you initially. The basis for all of your formal academic writing will be just this type of a claim (also called a thesis, among other things). For example:

  • Disco music began a dance craze because its rhythms and beats are readily apparent, especially compared to some of its folk and guitar rock predecessors.

  • Woolf is a more effective writer than Dickens because she takes more chances in her writing, as revealed by her stream-of-consciousness style.

Notice that in each of these statements, the underlying motive is to get you to agree with the point of view behind the statement to some extent. For example, the writer of the first example is not just trying to tell you that disco music is better than all music, just that it is easier to dance to. Note that while in some respect these are opinions, there is evidence that could be used to support what the author is saying.

This is the difference between an opinion and an argument; an argument can be supported by evidence (in our case, academic evidence) while an opinion can usually only be supported by more opinion. However, realize that an argument paper does not need to be a research paper. A research paper usually picks a “safe” topic and the thesis it presents is not disputable. A research paper proves that something is a certain way. An argument paper usually has another side to it, which is what makes it both interesting and original. Rather than simply making a statement and supporting it with factual information, an arguable claim goes on to address: So what? What are the implications? At the university level, you’ll move more toward crafting your own arguments and away from safe research papers that reiterate what others have said.
Note below whether the following topics would result in a “factual” research paper, an opinion paper, or an arguable paper, as described above. Some don’t have easy answers!
___________ 1. Seattle gets more rain each year than Los Angeles.

___________ 2. Cloudy weather makes people more productive.

___________ 3. I like sunshine better than rain.

___________ 4. Playing sports is good for women’s self esteem.

___________ 5. I enjoyed “Air Force One’ more than any other Harrison Ford movie.

___________ 6. Malcolm X was in prison when he learned to read.

___________ 7. Diversity and equality don’t have to be seen as opposites.

___________ 8. I hope we will commit to giving more money to education.

___________ 9. Mental and physical ability should be the goals of primary education.

___________ 10. Traditional education helps to maintain social classes in America.

___________ 11. Human beings are basically evil.

Teaching Claims

While students may be successful in distinguishing opinion from argument in the abstract, you may find that the arguable claims they produce are somewhat obvious; though someone could argue with them, no one likely ever would. You will probably spend most of the term pushing students from these obvious claims to more arguable, complex claims that matter in academic contexts. You can never provide too many examples. Below are some claims (obtained from plagiarism websites) that illustrate various problems common in student writing (these are somewhat overblown to make the point, though they are real):

Confusing an argument with reviewing what others think.

In principle a case can be made on moral grounds both supporting and opposing capital punishment. Also, compelling arguments against capital punishment can be made on the basis of its actual administration in our society. Two different cases can be made. One is based on justice and the nature of a moral community. This leads to a defense of capital punishment. The second is based on love and the nature of an ideal spiritual community. This leads to a rejection of capital punishment.

The abuse of rhetorical questions.

If your every waking moment was consumed by pain and nausea, wouldn’t you ask for medication? What if the only medication legally available would leave you unconscious or do nothing at all? If you were the one suffering, would you resort to the only treatment that allowed you to live normally even though it was illegal? Thousands of people across the country are forced to break the law to ease their pain. They have chosen marijuana over anything legally available because it has various medicinal properties that cannot be found anywhere else. Due to these many unique medicinal uses, marijuana should be reclassified as a valid, legal form of treatment.

In addition to reviewing bad examples, students need examples of obvious and arguable claims on the same topic; this helps them to see what doesn’t quite work and what does work.
Example 2: Argument v. Opinion
At certain moments, it is important to remember that we are learning to write a particular genre: argument. Thus, there are certain features that make an argument work and that differentiate it from other sorts of writing. Some of you have surely seen this comparison before, but this time we’ll examine Foucault.

Statement of Opinion

Foucault has important ideas about power and discipline that apply to Pike Place Market.

This isn’t really saying anything, at least not anything that can be supported by academic evidence. It does not really on analysis of what we’ve read and does not posit an original argument.

Obvious Claim

Because Foucault is interested in the functioning of power, he chose to demonstrate his views mainly by discussing prisons and the plague, which are great examples as power is apparent and can be discussed in terms of Pike Place Market.

This seems arguable, but it is only rehashing Foucault’s argument and in some sense, simply proving that he does what he sets out to do, which isn’t original. With this claim, you’ll run out of information FAST. Also, this isn’t focusing enough on the site you’re supposed to be discussing.

Arguable Claim

Foucault’s discussion of how power functions seems to focus primarily on prisons and unusual situations like the plague. However, a closer examination reveals that authoritative power, as it is sometimes present in prisons today, is less important than making power seem “natural” so that people discipline themselves. While this model of power works in many ways, Foucault’s theory is (perhaps unconsciously) oriented toward Western ideals, and this was revealed when I examined a Buddhist temple and searched for evidence of panopticism. While surveillance was evident in that…[go on here to list specific points]

Now here’s an original argument that introduces Foucault and then takes the reader somewhere new and exciting. However, the claim isn’t quite done because I haven’t explained how I am going to support my over-arching argument; thus, I’d need to lay out a roadmap and more specifics.

It may be useful to have students practice making arguable claims on topics they are familiar with before asking them to make claims about complex academic texts. In-class exercises like the one below may not result in profound insights, but can help students recognize the differences between arguable claims and opinions, can open up discussions about various types of persuasion (pathos, ethos, logos), and can allow students to create claims collaboratively and in a low-stakes environment.
Example 3: In-Class Claims Exercise
You have about 20 minutes: write an arguable claim for three of the following topics. Remember that not only must a claim be arguable, but it also must be able to be argued in a paper: supporting details must be available. You can make up the supporting details for this exercise, but be sure that they would support your claim if they were verifiable. Each of your final claims must have three elements:

  • Your actual thesis statement

  • At least two pieces of support

At least two of your claims must have the following:

  • An acknowledgement of a counterargument or complexity

1.) Legalization of marijuana

2.) Athletics in college

3.) United States media coverage of the most recent Iraq invasion

4.) The composition course requirement at UW

Claim Workshops

Asking students to submit claims before launching into their entire paper is a great idea (and avoids unnecessary work on both your part and the students), and you might give a fairly unstructured assignment like the one below:

Example 4: Claims Exercise
Over the weekend, develop the claim for your next sequence. Please include:

  1. Your main argument, well-fleshed out. This will likely take more than a sentence or two to qualify as an arguable claim.

  2. An explanation of the stakes of the claim: why what is being argued matters.

  3. A description of how you plan to support your claim.

While you are certainly going to be a bountiful resource for how to write good claims, you’ll find that many of your students understand the concept of an arguable claim even when they can’t consistently write them. Thus, claim workshops (and peer review in general) can be successful and instructive for your students. Below is a fairly structured claim workshop form:

Example 5: Claims Workshop (Peer Review)

Writer: _________________________ Peer Evaluator: ________________________


Rate the claim on a scale of 1-5, 5 being the highest. Please write comments below your scores.
_____ The artifact discussed in the paper seems to be of reasonable size for the paper (not too big to be discussed specifically, not so small as to cause repetition).
_____ The argument is about the community and is not opinion-oriented (there are arguments made with evidence to support, not just opinions stated).
_____ The claim contains no “I think” phrases.
_____ The claim makes an argument. It does not make a statement of fact, an announcement, or offer a description (even if that description is “interesting”!)
_____ It is clear how Anzaldúa and/or Greenblatt will play into the argument. (This may or may not need to be stated in the claim itself; you be the judge!)
_____ The claim does not merely “vote” for or against a topic or position without explanation. There seems to be a more complex argument going on.
_____ The claim avoids vague or mysterious language. Circle words that seem vague.
What other suggestions do you have?

Addressing Fallacies

Incorporating a unit on fallacy is simply a fun way to introduce more complicated discussions of logic and reasoning into your course, and more simplistic or assumptive logic out of student writing. In the examples to follow, various sorts of fallacies are presented—some more ridiculous than others—and students can familiarize themselves with these examples in order to recognize similar patterns in their own writing and the writing of their peers.



Example: “If you have the right tools, how hard can it be to take a good photograph?

APPEAL TO PITY (rather than “reason”)

Example: “In a way, his argument is so bad that we should feel sorry for him.”

APPEAL TO POPULAR SENTIMENTS (or, everybody’s agrees so…)

Example: “If you have any doubt about joining the NRA, just remember that 5,000 join every year.”

BEGGING THE QUESTION (or, the claim simply restated!)

Example: “We can’t justify higher salaries for public school teaching positions because we can’t get good teachers.”


Example: “I want to lose weight so I’m not going to eat, which will keep me from gaining weight.”

FALSE DILEMMA (or, assuming only certain options exist)

Example: “I have to go to my Dad’s alma mater or else pay my own way through school.”

FAULTY ANALOGY (or, offering similarities between examples)

Example: “You can train a dog to fetch a stick, so how hard can it be to train a cat to come when you call it?


Example: “As car advertisements are so prevalent, it is clear that they have created the American Dream.”

HASTY GENERALIZATION (or, the few are the same as the whole)

Example: “As the immigrants from El Salvador are clearly disillusioned, all immigrants likely feel the same.”


Example: “I have pulled myself up by my bootstraps, which means that others can too if they try.”


Example: “Many childcare workers are not screen properly, so only college graduates should hold such positions.”

INCOMPLETENESS AS PROOF OF DEFECT (or, throwing away everything over one thing)

Example: “As this part of her argument seems faulty, we can safely dismiss her whole argument.”


Example: “I don’t invest in U.S. Treasury bills because there’s too much risk.”


Example: “Those who favor nuclear energy development just want to save money. That’s all that interests them.”

SHIFTING GROUND (or, subtly moving to another point without addressing the first)

Example: “The author brings up an interesting point about nuclear fission, but more interesting is that…”

STRAW MEN (or, exaggeration to make an argument seem ridiculous)

Example: “The impact of a free-trade agreement with Mexico will devastate everything from the auto industry to the clothing industry. Countless plants and businesses will shut down and a full-scale depression will begin.”


Example: “Remember, ‘All things come to those who wait.’ So don’t bother looking for a job.”


Example: “I enjoy pasta because my house is made of bricks.”


Example: “The Beatles were only popular because they were good singers.”

UNCLEAR ON ROLE OF PAST ACTIONS (or, we did it in the past so it must be right)

Example: “We’ve spent millions on gasoline every year, and there’s no reason this should stop.”

Here are some other examples of fallacies:
ignoring everything science knows about the brain

Example: People choose to be obese/gay/alcoholic because they prefer the lifestyle.

the few are the same as the whole

Example: Some Elbonians are animal rights activists. Some Elbonians wear fur coats. Therefore, Elbonians are hypocrites.

argument by bizarre definition

Example: He’s not a criminal. He just does things that are against the law.

total logical disconnect

Example: I enjoy pasta because my house is made of bricks.

judging things without comparison to alternatives

Example: I don’t invest in U.S. Treasury bills. There’s too much risk.

Ignorance of statistics

Example: I’m putting ALL of my money on the lottery this week because the jackpot is so big.

ignoring the downside risk

Example: I know that bungee jumping could kill me, but it’s three seconds of great fun!

Substituting famous quotes for common sense

Example: Remember, “All things come to those who wait.” So don’t bother looking for a job.

irrelevant comparisons

Example: A hundred dollars is a good price for a toaster, compared to buying a Ferrari.

circular reasoning

Example: I’m correct because I’m smarter than you. And I must be smarter than you because I’m correct.

incompleteness as proof of defect

Example: Your theory of gravity doesn’t address the question of why there are no unicorns, so it must be wrong.

ignoring the advice of experts without a good reason

Example: Sure, the experts think you shouldn’t ride a bicycle into the eye of a hurricane, but I have my own theory.

following the advice of known idiots

Example: Uncle Billy says pork makes you smarter. That’s good enough for me!

reaching bizarre conclusions without any information

Example: The car won’t start. I’m certain the spark plugs have been stolen by rogue clowns.

faulty pattern recognition

Example: His last six wives were murdered mysteriously. I hope to be wife number seven.

failure to recognize what’s important

Example: My house is on fire! Quick, call the post office and tell them to hold my mail!

unclear on the concept of sunk costs

Example: We’ve spent millions developing a water-powered pogo stick. We can’t stop investing now or it will all be wasted.

overapplication of occam’s razor (which says that the simplest explanation is usually right)

Example: The simplest explanation for the moon landings is that they were hoaxes.

ignoring all anecdotal evidence

Example: I always get hives immediately after eating strawberries. But without a scientifically controlled experiment, it’s not reliable data. So I continue to eat strawberries every day, since I can’t tell if they cause hives.

Remember: You Will Teach Argument Again and Again, Maybe Every Day

One student will get claims the first time around, another few in the workshop, and a decent handful in conference. But you will still be teaching claims when you get to the portfolio, so be prepared to make some good summary handouts, like the one below:
Purpose” = “Thesis” = “Roadmap”

Identifies the argument that will be developed and supported in your essay. Purpose/thesis/roadmap has three functions:

1. What the argument (point) of your paper is.

2. How you will prove your argument (identify key claims you will make to prove the argument).

3. Why your argument is significant to you. (Or, what the implications are.)

Development”  “Support”

Develops and supports your argument by using logically progressing interpretive claims and evidence from the text. You must interpret and analyze. In other words, show your readers how the claims and evidence support and develop your argument. You are not a storyteller or summarizer. You are a persuasive writer convincing (proving to) readers your argument. You are satisfying a skeptical reader.

Toulmin Analysis

Another approach to argument in the writing classroom is that of Stephen Toulmin. Toulmin is a philosopher, best known for his work on informal logic, ethics, and the history and philosophy of science. He trained at Cambridge under Ludwig Wittgenstein, among others, but he has spent most of his academic career in the U.S. Because most of the practicing academic philosophers in this country are of the analytic school (symbolic logic, mathematical reasoning), Toulmin’s work is taken more seriously outside of academic philosophy in departments like history and philosophy of science and rhetoric and communications. His approach is especially useful in responding to arguments made from within a particular discipline, or argument field as it is called in some analyses.

This model is primarily used to analyze arguments, so implementation of this model is primarily based in the reading of the essays and articles from our reader or in having our students analyze their peer’s arguments and their own. But the model helps students see how argument involves inquiry, wherein the assumptions (warrants) that underwrite a claim become the basis for another claim that needs to be argued, and so on. The basic model consists of six parts in two tiers, one primary (claim, data, and warrant) and the other secondary (qualification, reservation, and backing). The model is usually expressed visually as follows:

Data ◄__________________________________►Claim





B= Backing



A claim is something similar to a thesis statement but at this level of writing it is usually a more complex argument, beyond a single claim, perhaps taking several sentences to establish. Claims are propositions and, in complex arguments, are often followed by words like “therefore” or “thus.” They are explicit statements and a reader should be able to identify an explicit claim in an arguable paper, article, essay, or book.

Data—sometimes called grounds or evidence—are those “facts” that establish the validity of the claim, that on which the claim is based. What “counts” as a fact may differ from discipline to discipline. Data usually answer the question, “How do you know?” Like the claim, data will be explicit, though the reasons for using particular evidence may not be explicit.

Warrants represent the most difficult part for students as they indicate presuppositions, the things we have to believe are true in order for us to accept the relationship between the data and the claim. Because warrants are typically implicit, students have difficulty “finding” them as they aren’t often right there in the text. Warrants in academic arguments are often signaled by citations to relevant literature in a particular field. As such, warrants also mark disciplinary differences and can be used to teach rhetorical awareness. Part of making an effective argument requires an understanding of audiences and their assumptions. Teaching students to examine and use warrants helps them demonstrate an awareness of the strategies writers use in different rhetorical situations.

In the second tier of the model, there are three other parts: qualification, reservation and backing. Some arguments require some of these parts to be explicit; others do not. Qualification is just that—how certain are we about the claim?—and are typical in academic arguments. Specific words that often signal qualification include necessarily, certainly, presumably, in all probability, plausibly, it appears, and so it seems. Reservation is similar and will indicate when the claim should not be applied. Unless is a word often used to signal reservation. Backing indicates the body of reasoning and knowledge operating in an argument and represents the body of knowledge from which specific warrants come. Generally speaking, it is the first tier of parts that will have the most use in the writing classroom, but some discussion of backing is probably necessary when identifying an essay or article as located in a particular discipline.

The “classic” visualization from Toulmin’s The Uses of Argument involves a legal question. The representation is as follows:
Harry was born in Bermuda------------------------------► So, presumably, Harry is a British subject.

| |

| |

Since Unless

| |

A man born in Bermuda will Both his parents were aliens/he has

Generally be a British subject become a naturalized American/….


On account of



The following statutes

and other legal provisions:
The Uses of Argument (105)
“Harry was born in Bermuda” represents the data for this argument, with the claim or conclusion following “so” being that Harry is a British subject. The warrant for this connection between the data and the claim is that those born in Bermuda are generally British subjects, unless there is an exception such as having alien parents or Harry having become a U.S. citizen. The backing for the warrant is the applicable British statutes determining British citizenship or Commonwealth status.

Generally speaking, when we read academic articles, the analysis of the argument is not quite so simple. First, academic articles may indeed have primary claims, but we are also likely to find a number of subclaims, chained to the primary claim. This may be important for our students to recognize as some will not want to pursue the main claim of an article for their papers and will want to focus instead on a secondary claim. Second, because academic scholarship draws on a body of knowledge, we are likely to see multiple warrants and perhaps even separate warrants for analyzing the data. One of the difficulties of using the Toulmin analysis with nonacademic work is that the warrants may be completely implicit; academic essays tend to have at least some explicit warrants. Students who have had trouble in the past with notions of presupposition may find it easier to “see” warrants in academic reading. Third, what “counts” as data may differ from discipline to discipline, and our students may not recognize data as data because they don’t know much about the discipline. Toulmin himself has recognized that the model he proposed in 1958 is actually much more rhetorical and contingent than he originally envisioned, so the idea of multiple claims and warrants is an acceptable variant of the original.

Toulmin can be used in your classroom to help students identify parts of the argument and how these parts build on each other to produce complex claims.
Example 6: Toulmin’s Ideas about Argument
Back in 1958 a guy named Stephen Toulmin spelled out what he considered the basic element of an argument. He sees every argument as made up of three parts: the claim, support, and warrant.
Claim: The claim is the main idea, or thesis, that you are focusing on. Basically, the claim answers the question, “What’s your point? Why does it matter?”

One claim I make in my syllabus is that the portfolio system allows you to be graded on your best work.
Support: The support are the statements given to back up your claim. These can take many forms: facts, data, personal experience, expert opinion, evidence from other texts or sources, emotional appeals. The more reliable and comprehensive your support, the more likely your audience is to accept your claim.

I support my claim about the portfolio system by referring to “experts” whose actions give evidence that my argument is true, mostly gained from personal experience and the directions of my department.
Warrant: The warrants are the beliefs, values, inferences, and/or experiences that you are assuming your audience has in common with you. If your audience doesn’t have the assumptions you are making about your support, then it won’t be effective.

The syllabus relies on a number of assumptions. One is that you will trust my knowledge of writing. Another is that you wouldn’t automatically assume that the portfolio system is best. I also assume that you care about how you are graded and that you can understand the way I write.
You can see how assumptions are crucial to your argument. If any of these assumptions aren’t true, the argument breaks down. When developing an argument, it is important to think through the assumptions you’re making. Often times one of the assumptions you’re making might be just as interesting as what you’re discussing and you can make it part of your argument.
Under each statement, note the warrants.
1. If we don’t stop underpaying our teachers, fewer and fewer people will go into this field.
2. You shouldn’t major in the humanities because you’ll never find a job.
3. We don’t need to have bilingual education because everyone should learn English.

Further Reading

Toulmin, Stephen. The Uses of Argument. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1958.

Toulmin, Stephen. Human Understanding: The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1972.

In this book, Toulmin provides an extensive analysis of the differences between compact (read science) and diffuse (read English) disciplines. If you want to explore further in disciplinary formation, this is a good place to start.

Toulmin, Stephen, Richard Rieke, and Allan Janik. An Introduction to Reasoning. 2nd ed. New York: Macmillan, 1984.

This book provides numerous examples of arguments in disciplines, presented in ways that students can understand. There are specific chapters on arguing in the arts, in science, in business, and in law.

Teaching Inquiry & Argument in the Composition Classroom

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