CCCC 2001 in Review: I.6 Inquiry, Argument, and Change: Building Contexts for Discovery, Analysis and Transformation

Richard Fulkerson: Chair
Warren Neal presented "Establishing a Balance between Argument and Persuasion."
Barbara Jo Krieger presented "Argument: A Tool for Effective Thinking."
Paul Saint-Armand presented "Arguing to Create Change."

A collection of handouts, heuristics, and adaptations of Toulmin are proposed as effective means of changing students' thinking about their writing. Several factors combined to make this presentation confusing, but underlying all of it is the sense that it packages pedagogy that has been around for a long, long time.

Warren Neal began this panel with two observations based in his long experience of teaching writing at the college level. First, he sees a fundamental contradiction between "process," which he finds most suitable for personal, reflective writing, and "argument," which is driven by logic. Second, he marks a tension between teaching and learning, i.e., what students take away from our courses is far more important that what we think we are teaching them. Nevertheless, we writing teachers hope to teach our students transferable skills-we really do want them to take those skills out of our courses and apply them elsewhere. For Neal and his colleagues, the way to reconcile these two difficulties is to combine process with "inquiry" to help insure that students can transfer process to other writing situations. The combination, they assert, supports students' instinct toward rational choices.

To present the method, Neal passed the speaking baton to Barbara Krieger, who explained that she was quite ill but determined to make the presentation regardless. Using an example drawn from a wall hanging in her office, she offered the insight that teacherly styles of argument reflect the ways that we really think-via inquiry, not just as a means of winning assent. This view of human cognition was termed the norm, and the rest of her talk was geared toward helping students surface this technique in their own thinking, recognize how and when to apply it, and use a writing course to practice it. She distributed some handouts with prompts for beginning inquiry through asking questions and creating answers.

Paul Saint-Amand continued the panel with more handouts designed as heuristics to help students articulate and refine the questions that help advance understanding as they prepare argument strategies. Through these questions, he argues, students can examine their own thinking and determine whether they mean to win assent, test ideas, or perform some other rhetorical act. (During his presentation, Krieger collapsed and had to be helped from the room, which was worrisome and distracting, to say the least. As a result, my notes and recollection are less complete than I would like.)

Finally, Warren Neal returned to wrap up with a modified version of the Toulmin model of argument that actually complicates Toulmin's scheme by adding qualifiers and exceptions for the arguer's consideration.

The members of this panel seem to have the best, most generous intentions for students at heart. Nevertheless, as noted above, the program they advocate seems founded on a rhetorical modes approach that has persisted in higher education for at least the past twenty-five years. The most disturbing feature of this panel was a patronizing assumption that students probably contain within them kernels of good thinking, but they need to be shown how and what they think before they can manage to produce prose that makes any rhetorical sense. I have no doubt that the panelists would fiercely reject my reading of their assumption; however, the presentation struck me as grounded in a view of students as essentially defective beings. To their credit, the panelists do seem to believe that genuine learning is possible-deficiencies can be corrected. At the same time, the panel was oblivious to the audience for their own argument, i.e., a presentation to professional colleagues with wide experience of students and pedagogy. Presenting their model of teaching and learning as normative carried some risk, but they seemed unconcerned.

I found myself haunted by Neal's framing assumption that process and argument were incompatible, and I was relieved to hear from others who attended this session that the proposed conflict represented a specific reading of "process" that excluded much of the writing behaviors that we, as writing professionals, exhibit consistently. Unless one is the kind of writer whose prose is perfected internally before hitting the page or screen, process is an inevitable feature of any writing activity of consequence, including argument. [CR]

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