The topic for the day is argument. I was up late trying to figure out a fresh way to approach this topic with my students (suffering from a little teacher’s block). I wanted to balance my desire for a more democratic classroom (one that resists heavy-handed lecture) and the practical need to get them quickly to an understanding of the basic principles behind effective argumentation and persuasion. The thing is I didn’t want to tell them anything and I didn’t want to presume to know all there is on the subject. I wanted them to create the content for the day’s lesson, at least partly. Here’s what I came up with.

    slide show to facilitate a discussion on argument

  1. Students formed groups of three and were given large sheets of paper along with the requisite crayons and magic markers. They were instructed to make a top-ten list (Letterman-style) of tips on how to argue. (In other words, how do you get other people to listen to you and accept what you’ve got to say?) I stressed that they have fun with it.
  2. After some time, students posted their lists on the walls around the classroom. Then each group presented their lists to the class, and we used the lists as departure points for discussion on what works and what doesn’t when arguing. Invariably, some of what students put on their lists is way out there (designed to be funny), but is very useful to discuss things like logical fallacies and unethical or tyrannical communication tactics.
  3. During the presentations of each groups list, I found it interesting and helpful to work towards some discussion of the difference between quarreling and academic argument. Also, I pushed a recent interest of mine regarding the popular assumption that argument must be agonistic–that argument must strive for the defeat of one’s opponent rather than for achieving common understanding and for revealing the truth of the matter. The discussion can be very interesting and enlightening around this subject.
  4. Ok, eventually (in the next class meeting), we were able to segue to a discussion of Aristotle’s artist proofs or persuasive appeals (logos, pathos, and ethos), as just one useful way to talk about persuasive tactics. As a class, we went through several examples or arguments in various media (assuming that all things are arguments), and asked the question “How is this argument constructed?” for each. The three examples that were particularly useful were a video clip regarding school from Professor Michael Wesch of Kansas State, a clip from Elie Wiesel’s speech “The Perils of Indifference,” and the slam poem “Totally Like Whatever” by Taylor Mali.
  5. As an extension of this discussion (given the theme in each of the arguments mentioned above), I found it useful to discuss the general sense of apathy or indifference I often observe in students. This, of course, can be tied directly to argument making, but can also be a much broader discussion. I chose to make it a little broader as it connected to the larger theme of our course–the aims of education.