Friday, February 20, 2009

Voice and Purpose: On Using an Argumentative Method in the Instruction of Composition

Midterm for Composition Theory. Grade pending. update: grade A.

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins maneuvers through a set of theological arguments in an attempt to disprove the Western conception of God. He tries to do this through an examination of a variety of arguments that have been presented over the course of the last century and weaves through biology, philosophy, and even cosmology – all while ensuring that his arguments are easily understood and digestible for a variety of audiences. Regardless of the potential ethical issues that his arguments on this topic may generate, Dawkins' capacity to persuade and illuminate readers on a series of otherwise complex and often abstract arguments is incredibly well-developed. What is it about Dawkins' delivery of prose that allows for the easy consumption and understanding of its message, and how is it that, even though the message is often contentious and antagonistic, it is still able to be understood and not lost in theological misgivings?

Turning quickly to and reading any page found within The God Delusion reveals an aspect of Dawkins' work that exists almost outside of the content found within; always, in every page, in every foot note – even in every section heading – the presence of his distinctive voice is found. It's almost as if he's developed his delivery of non-fiction in the method that a novelist might develop a narrative character, and the impact that is has on the reader cannot be emphasized enough. By allowing for his personality to emerge through the text, he is providing for the reader a face, a consistent voice with which to identify, and this – at least, to me – provides great benefit in the understanding of his words. How is it that he can achieve this, and could this be used as a tool for teaching composition?

By studying writers like Dawkins that manage to effectively convey new and sometimes controversial ideas with clarity and persuasion, students, with the aide of a well-versed instructor, can learn to use his methods of delivery to enhance their own writing. Every act of dialogue with another person, whether they be a peer, superior or subordinate, is ultimately an argument; each of the parties involved has arrived at, even if only slightly, a different truth than those around them. Even when speaking on something as banal as the weather, their interpretations will be different from one another. As argumentation forms a critical component of discourse between any group of individuals, it is of utmost importance that students learn to engage in this style of communication effectively. Every student, from the English major crafting Shakespearean analysis to the business major drafting business proposals, is asserting their own, personal truth, and the effective arguing of that truth is necessary for success in either field. It is therefore important to understand not simply that writers like Dawkins are capable of effective argumentation and persuasion, but how it is that they are effective at it, and how it is that these skills can be developed in students.

In order to understand what it is about Dawkins' work that causes it to be such a worthy example of effective argumentative writing, a pair of components must be examined. The first is that of purpose; without a clear purpose and an understanding of the goals that one hopes to achieve with writing, then the composition is bound for, at best, a lack of comprehension and, at worse, an alienation of the audience. The second aspect is the audience being addressed; who are they? What do they know and believe already, and what are the weaker aspects of their arguments? How can their predispositions be overcome?

These two attributes of The God Delusion leap to the forefront as an explanation of his effectiveness at delivering his personal version of truth: his absolute and clear sense of purpose, and his delivery through a conversational, confrontational tone, which displays an intimate understanding of his audience. His purpose – that of disproving God, or at least arguments that prop Him up to desists around the world – is omnipresent in his style, and every sentence in the work demonstrates this. His conversational tone enables him to easily address issues with his arguments and potential flaws within them, permitting him to address them almost before the reader can raise them. This sort of argumentative, conversational writing is the stuff of human discourse, and provides a platform on which writers can argue the truths that they have come to find – as writing, in the end, is little more than the examination, refutation, or proving of some truth, whether abstract, concrete or whimsical, that a writer may have determined. In Donald Murray's essay “Teaching Writing as a Process Not Product,” he says that, “The students are individuals who must explore the writing process in their own way ... to find their own way to their own truth.” (p. 6) If that truth arises in the way that Murray claims – independently for each student – then some students will have conflicting truths from their peers. The most effective way for students to compare truths and strengthen their own are by way of adopting a style similar to that of Dawkins', so that they can see how to “[use] language to reveal the truth to himself so that he can tell it to others.” (p. 4)

In order for this style of composition to function, a point of contention must be first decided upon, as there can be no truth without contention. For Dawkins, this was simple: a lot of people believe in God, but he does not, and felt that their believing in God did more harm than good. Points of contention exist everywhere, although depending on the level of education, care should perhaps be taken in subject matter; instructing students to debate the relative merits of atheism or abortion in a Bible-belt state could potentially be grounds for dismissal (especially if the instructor has yet to reach tenure!), but a host of other options exist. Ideally, topics should involve a series of concerns, and the best will involve many, such as economics, ethics, feasibility and so on. Topics should also have relatively rigid lines between standpoints as well. This will encourage – force, even – the student to adopt a strong stance on one side or another, and will hopefully make it easier for the student to carry the same message throughout their compositions.

This speaks to the purpose component of using Dawkins' style in composition, but not the voice – that must come, ultimately, from the student. This can be encouraged and brought to the surface by having students, having already decided on their points of contention, converse with one another about the topic. It is important that they go over most of the components that they will be arguing, as when they finally sit down to begin composing drafts of the written works, they will have a clear audience in mind – their opponent. Although the assignment will call for them to compose it in a fashion that can be read and understood by anyone, by imagining that they are directly addressing a peer, and not just the instructor or the abstract letter grade, it will allow them to write almost as if speaking to an audience.

By speaking to a defined audience, the student will be able to more clearly understand the necessity for making their arguments lucid; if the reader of their words cannot understand them, then they will persuade no one and render the purpose of their composition irrelevant. Because a critical component of the pre-writing process is the development of points of contention with another student, then the students' will have an understanding of what points are important to address in the final composing of their arguments. By engaging in a series of similar assignments, the students will grow to understand not only how to compose confrontational and argumentative essays, but will understand also where the weak points of their arguments lie by having them pointed out by their audience – their peers. In order for the truth that Murray talks about to emerge in the works of students, they must be able to understand how to make their words into truth.

This is best accomplished by an understanding of what makes for a true statement. Although there are certain absolute truths to the world, such as space being super-scary and Mars being mostly red, most students will only rarely make use of these. Instead, they will be developing their own truths and arguing them – only generally, they will be forced to define their audience and their arguments on their own, without the benefit of having each assigned by an instructor. The understanding that absolute truths are nearly nonexistent, and the only truths relevant are those that they learn to construct, becomes increasingly important as they begin to enter the real world. The initial instruction will enable them to understand how such arguments – and truths – are made. Perhaps the most straightforward way to establish an understanding of this before the actual composing process begins is to instruct students to read argumentative works, such as Dawkins' The God Delusion, and discuss how it is that he arrives at and defends his various truths.

Although his logical structures and arguments can be dissected, it is ultimately his creation of truths, through a variety of devices, that allow him to assert himself as effectively as he does. In James Berlin's essay “Contemporary Composition: The Major Pedagogical Theories,” he quotes Ann Berthoff as saying, “As a writer, you learn to make words behave the way you want them to .... Learning to write is not a matter of learning rules that govern the use of the semicolon or the names of sentence structures, nor is it a matter of manipulating words; it is a matter of making meanings[.]” (p. 267) This – the making of new meanings and truths – is another key aspect of Dawkins' writing. He uses logic, philosophy, hard scientific data and established theory to establish this truth, and this is apparent in every paragraph found throughout The God Delusion.

For better or worse, an understanding of the mechanical aspects of the language and the forms that it follows is necessary to understand how to make those meanings. These do not necessarily have to be taught traditionally, however, and abstracting the language too far into rules and forms may prove to be detrimental to understanding. By teaching the structural rules alongside the purpose of composition – the development of truth – some of the loss of attention associated with the instruction of grammar-only may be mitigated.

One of the difficulties in teaching subjects such as algebra are the high levels of abstraction necessary to work with the problems. Often, the goal of such problems seems to be arbitrary; although most college students wouldn't struggle with the simple equation “1 + X = 5,” understanding easily that “X = 4,” they likely won't have any idea what X – or the problem as a whole – is meant to represent or accomplish. Teaching problems that seem irrelevant to students will be seen as being irrelevant, and if a problem is irrelevant to a student, then is it really a problem? Is it even worthy of attention? Although the usage of algebra in this context is unfair as the purpose is to teach skills necessary in the understanding of real problems later, such as using trigonometry to measure the optimal angle of the fin on a rocket ship, it demonstrates a problem with teaching skills that are essentially worthless on their own: that, to the students, they are useless, and therefore not worth learning.

So too is it with the instruction of composition; if the purpose of composition is to discover and assert truths, then this should be taught alongside the more technical aspects of composition. By understanding that the rules of the language are in place to facilitate effective communication, and that effective communication is necessary to establish and assert those truths, then the learning of those mechanical rules makes a great deal more sense than if they were taught in a vacuum. Unlike the teaching of basic algebra, which has applications only in mathematics and the sciences, the teaching of argumentation through purpose and voice extends far beyond the confines of the English classroom. Business proposals for executives will be met, at least occasionally, with opposition – and an effective understanding of audience and purpose can help to win those executives to your side by understanding how best to phrase the truths presented to them. Philosophical discourse relies on an understanding of the intricacies of logic and argumentation, but an understanding of your audience will allow you to structure your argument in a fashion that is potentially more palatable than that of your opponent. The political applications of these sorts of skills are limitless, and an understanding of audience is perhaps more important here than in any other field – whether or not you keep, much less get, your job is entirely dependent on this. Every paper and assignment composed in the process of college education will contain an argument – having a solid background (or even one good class) will directly benefit each and every paper.

By developing in students an understanding of how to create, manipulate, and deliver truths, it removes a layer of abstraction from the teaching of composition. Now, the composing of that six-page essay that may have been seen at one point as irrelevant now has real meaning; by creating their own truth, students establish an attachment to each assignment, and the (hopeful) drive to rigorously defend that truth. The letter grade that comes as the final result becomes more than a pass/fail mechanic, or even a “How awesome you are” gradient – it becomes an acceptance and validation of a personal truth from an exterior source, or the refutation and dismantling of an idea held dear by an external source.

Initially emulating the work of writers like Dawkins, first through reading, comprehension and discussion and, ultimately, by applying his methods of persuasion to their own written works, students will develop not only a dialectic style of writing, but an understanding that their method of delivery is equally as important as the content of their work. Although truth can exist in a vacuum for an individual student, they must learn to persuade their audience of their personal vision of truth so that it begins to hold true for the reader as well.

Works Cited:
1. Berlin, James. “Contemporary Criticism: The Major Pedagogical Theories.”
Cross-Talk in Comp Theory.Ed. Victor Villanueva. National Council of Teachers of English. 2003. 255-269.
2. Murray, Donald. “Teach Writing as a Process Not Product.” Cross-Talk in Comp Theory.
Ed. Victor Villanueva. National Council of Teachers of English. 2003. 3-6.
3. Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Bantam Press. 2006.

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