In part one of this blog series, I focused on the importance of getting students to read widely and deeply before they form arguments themselves, a paradigm shift from cursory reading and regurgitation of other authors’ claims and reasons. Another essential paradigm shift for students is that evolving an argument starts with essential questions. It is possible for students to learn the skills of argumentation without actually learning how to participate in academic controversy. A disservice frequently done in the classroom is assigning argumentative topics for students, essentially answering the initial questions of argumentation for them. How are students to learn how to participate in civic discourse if they do not know how to generate topics of relevance themselves?
Instead of being assigned topics, students should go through the process of identifying specific points of contention within an issue and consider whether the question is one of fact, value, definition, or policy. In general, this inventive prewriting process is known as stasis theory. Without applying stasis theory to their writing, even when assigned topics, students run the risk of writing arguments that do not match their purposes (e.g., writing claims of fact when they intend to write claims of policy), or even worse, developing expository writing when they are attempting argumentative writing.
Soon (if it has not started already) teachers will start planning for the upcoming school year. If argumentation is part of your curriculum, consider how you might use stasis theory to teach students to develop their own topics effectively. The nature of stasis theory is nebulous as definitions and characteristics of it vary greatly among sources; however, it does not have to be complex for students. In fact, I often do not even define stasis theory for them, opting instead to engage them in three tasks that reflect stasis theory as they develop their topics:
- What topics are relevant right now? Here students are establishing their kairos, the social situation that makes their topic immediately relevant to an audience. At first students will think topics are then limited to issues they have seen appear in national news. While these topics are valid, and many civic minded students choose them, it is also important to guide students in considering certain topics that might have narrower audiences with their own social situations that make an issue highly relevant. For example, a student athlete of mine last year ended up writing an opinion column arguing which workouts were best to help taper for peak performance two weeks prior to an important race. This student’s kairos was the upcoming state cross country championships. The fact that cross country coaches and athletes would be fine tuning their training plans during this time made this topic immediately relevant. This student would never have originated this topic without going through this step of the stasis theory process.
- What are the points of contention within an issue? Students need to spend significant time reading different texts related to the topic. This helps them ascertain what the sticking points are within a topic. Failure to spend time getting the pulse of the argument can lead to writings that are not actually argumentative. For example, I had a student last year who wanted to write on the topic of yoga. Her original claim stated yoga had many health benefits; however, the idea that yoga has health benefits is not a point of contention among academics. I asked her to find several articles related to her topic and spend time considering what other authors were saying. Once she did, she noticed many authors were arguing whether or not yoga or another exercise such as pilates was the best cross training for different sports. She was then able to combine this with her passion for dance and write her argument claiming yoga was more beneficial for ballet dancers to use for cross training.
- Do you want a claim of fact, value, definition, or policy? Often students write claims that do not align with their purposes as writers. Part of stasis theory involves those participating in an argument agreeing on what they are trying to determine—fact, value, definition, or policy. Teaching students the different types of claims and how to write each helps them participate in the arguments they intend. For example, a student of mine last year wanted to write an argument positing that skateboarding should not be in The Olympic Games; however, his main claim read, “The roots of skateboarding as a sport are not competitive.” This claim did not match his purpose as a writer since instead of influencing policy of which sports should be included in the games, it focused on defining the nature of skateboarding. After reviewing the types of claims and revising his claim, he was able to write a claim of policy: “Since skateboarding started as and continues to mostly be a noncompetitive sport, it should not be in The Olympic Games.”
In Teaching Arguments, Jennifer Fletcher clarifies that argumentation begins with asking questions. If students are assigned topics and given texts, then they are not arguing, they are repeating other peoples’ arguments. How can the argumentation your students do be more question based?
When outside of the classroom, I enjoy mtn. biking, skiing, running, and grilling good food, but don’t enjoy karaoke or green beans, mainly because I can’t sing and was afraid of the Jolly Green Giant as a kid.
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