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Pedagogy 3.3 (2003) 427-430

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Argument, Evidence, and Engagement:
Training Students As Critical Investigators and Interpreters of Rhetoric and Culture

Allyson D. Polsky

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When students first arrive on campus, even at academically elite institutions, it is highly unlikely that they come with the recognition that all academic writing is argument-based and that all knowledge claims require substantiation. They have often been educationally and culturally conditioned to grant authors too much authority, and for the most part they are quite aware of their position in the knowledge hierarchy. While harshly critical of their own logic leaps, sloppy support, organization flaws, and other cardinal sins, most students are reluctant to acknowledge similar failings in any established author, particularly one assigned by their professor. It is rare, then, that they see themselves as the audience being addressed or as an audience even worth addressing, much less as one that an author is actively attempting to persuade to believe or to act in a certain way.

Pedagogically, I have been hesitant to organize argument courses around familiar public debates (capital punishment, drug policy, etc.) for two main reasons. First, these debates tend to produce sides too sharply drawn and arguments too obviously and clearly formulated. Students may choose sides solely because of their emotional response, their perception of which side will be easier to defend, or their sense of where the teacher stands. Second, and more significantly, to restrict the scope of an argument course to explicit debates is to neglect the relationship between argument and knowledge production, a relationship that pervades academic writing across the disciplines but is rarely acknowledged. [End Page 427]

For these reasons, I use not an argument-based composition text but a broad range of modern nonfiction prose in my writing- and revision-intensive undergraduate course at Yale University. In the first part of the course, I introduce the students to texts that theorize how rather than just what words and images mean. Reading and writing projects enable them to become aware of how we interpret the interaction of words and images to make sense of the world and how that interaction is embedded in relations of knowledge and power. The second part of the course builds on this foundation and applies it to the analysis of contemporary topics including racial profiling, abortion politics, and pornography.

The first reading is an excerpt from a collection of Jules David Prown's (2002) seminal writings titled Art As Evidence: Writings on Art and Material Culture. Widely regarded as the father of material-culture studies, Prown champions artifacts, which he defines as man-made or man-modified objects, as primary data. He believes that by analyzing artifacts, "the only historical occurrences that continue to exist in the present" (73), we can gain firsthand access to the cultures that produced and consumed them.

Prown proposes a systematic method for the study of material culture. This method privileges objectivity and follows a sequential progression from description of what can be observed from the object itself, to empathetic deduction of the relationship between the object and its users, to speculation and the formulation of hypotheses. Inasmuch as he is concerned with approaching an artifact on its own terms, Prown seeks to overcome cultural perspective by encouraging awareness of bias and prioritizing sensory engagement over mental interpretation.

There are excellent reasons to begin the course with Prown. His text emphasizes that seeing and perceiving are key components of intellectual engagement, forces careful consideration of the relationship between observation and language, and discourages the rush to reach conclusions before considering all of the evidence. There is also an element of risk in beginning with Prown, however. His text can be tricky for students to recognize as an argument, because his approach "aspires to the objectivity of scientific method" (Prown 2002: 75). Furthermore, his legendary status as an eminent (Yale) art historian and my having selected his book as the one with which to initiate the course may contribute to my students' unquestioning acceptance of his authority.

In the...


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