As a quick reminder, I am teaching two freshman writing-intensive seminars on the historical origins of contemporary problems: national gun culture and the role of Confederate symbols in American life. So far, both classes have gone well; the students are, for the most part, engaged and curious.
I have dedicated the past two weeks to the art of writing argument, which has been an enriching challenge. As historians, we take for granted arguments, understanding their crucial place in our field. We celebrate carefully articulated and well-crafted interpretations, yet we rarely take the time to think about the how to of argument. Indeed, we simply know implicitly how the process is done and we engage successfully in the practice. As I struggled to prepare my lesson plans on teaching argument, I realized that such an exercise would be synonymous to Phil Mickelson teaching someone to play golf: it's simply difficult. (Not that I am the classroom or golf course versions of Phil--quite the opposite, in fact. But you get the point). Thus, I needed instruction on instructing. I could not simply tell my students, "go write an argument that adds a new layer of interpretation to the existing literature, while using said literature as the basis of your evidence." This makes sense to me, but I have been in the field for years. These are simply foreign instructions to freshmen.
And so, just as our students do, I sought help and refuge on the Internet. The Writing Center at UNC-Chapel Hill contains wonderful, accessible resources that facilitate any discussion about writing. One article in particular was immensely helpful, and I am pleased to be able to share it here:
I used much of what is listed to craft an interactive lecture on the art of writing arguments, focusing especially on forcing students gauge the strength of their claims and developing strategies which new ideas to complement existing themes from the reading.
Most important, I emphasized the substance of an argument. Using actual thesis statements from two of my students' earlier work, I asked the class to determine the uniqueness of an argument. Here are two examples:
these three articles suggest that military and gun culture was formed in
England, it was then brought to America out of necessity, and this culture
remained after the formation of the United States because of the people's fear
of the government and standing armies."
"The distinction between law and morality is critical to the proper functioning of a society, although the balance is constantly in flux."
Obviously the context for both of these statements is missing, but the class successfully determined that both were, in fact, arguments. And, they also correctly identified that the first was a restating of an existing argument from the readings while the latter was a unique view that built on the ongoing scholarly conversation. This is precisely what I am hoping to achieve; now we will see if they succeed. Their first post-argument instruction papers are due next week.