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Pedagogy 5.1 (2005) 37-60

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Arguing Differently

When I chose "Arguing Differently" as the title for a first-year seminar I offered recently, I thought it suggested—rather nicely, to my mind—that the focus would be on alternative approaches to arguing about controversial issues. Because students could choose a seminar from a slate of offerings, I hoped my course would attract a group that was willing, perhaps even eager, to pursue something fresh and challenging. I did get a class of motivated and talented students, but it was soon apparent that most of them had enrolled because they wanted to hone their skills of arguing, not because they were interested in anything very "different." These students, a fairly typical group at my institution—mostly native born, white, and middle class—came into the course assuming that argument is, by definition, an oppositional and adversarial enterprise, where the goal is to defeat opponents and win disputes. Such expectations are hardly surprising. As Deborah Tannen (1998: 3-4) explains in The Argument Culture, most Americans tend to think about argument in the same framework as sporting events, courtroom battles, policy debates, and political contests. Tannen describes a culture that fosters an "adversarial frame of mind," a society in which people believe that "opposition is the best way to get anything done" and in which "nearly everything is framed as a battle or a game in which winning or losing is the main concern."1

If cultural experiences disposed my students to think about argument in an adversarial framework, their previous instruction reinforced this conception. In most cases students are taught that the aim when writing arguments is to persuade readers, and that the best way to convince others [End Page 37] is to assert a position in a thesis statement, ideally near the beginning of the essay, and then to support one's own views, refute any objections, and attack rival positions.2 In my course, students would be encouraged to argue differently—differently, that is, from the ways they'd seen argument represented in the media, displayed in public venues, and taught in previous courses.

My students were skeptical: if the adversarial approach is so prevalent, why would anyone need or want to argue differently? To set the stage for answering this question, I asked students to visualize three scenarios. In the first, I asked them to imagine themselves as participants in an argument about a controversial issue, perhaps positioned on one side of a room, looking across to the other side where those who hold the opposite viewpoint have assembled, like a team waiting for the contest to begin. The challenge in this situation is to motivate those on the far side of the room to listen to what you have to say, even though their first impulse may be to dispute your arguments and proclaim their own. In a second scenario, the writer is positioned in the middle of the room, no longer on one side but halfway between two disputing factions. The goal is to get both sides to come together, so that they can reach some agreements. In the third scenario, the people in the room are sitting around a table, talking about what to do about a problem that concerns them all. Although no longer opponents ranged along two sides of the room, the discussants have distinct viewpoints and raise multiple proposals for consideration. The challenge is to arrive at a decision that most of them will accept as the best option available. I devoted a unit lasting three or four weeks to each of these scenarios, asking students to consider approaches that I called the conciliatory, the integrative, and the deliberative.3

In the first unit, we explored a situation in which the writer has a fairly strong commitment to one of the positions in an argument that has become polarized around opposing viewpoints. What's the best way to approach this situation, where people disagree and have a strong stake in their positions? One approach would be to come out swinging: the writer advances and supports his...


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