When I wasn’t MOOC’ing my heart out this semester, I was trying to help my students improve their writing. In my classes that means: writing fairly short essays that are supposed to contain arguments. The real challenge is getting through to the students who are very bad at this, despite really trying. Good, hardworking students are easy to teach. You point out what’s wrong and they don’t do it anymore, most days. But the hardworking student who persists in submitting terrible stuff can be a real puzzle. You pin and label individual errors. But they just do it again. Teaching ‘informal reasoning’ doesn’t help, mostly. Students who have trouble seeing that there are major problems with their arguments – up to and including: you have no argument – are not assisted by lists of fallacies.
Teaching fallacies is mostly helpful for good students, even though it seems very basic. You are giving names to things they already get, thereby sharpening existing perception. The bad students, by contrast, have more of an ‘if it were a bear, it would have bitten you’ problem. Providing labels – brown, black, grizzly – is not going to help with ‘why did you completely miss it?’
To those of us with the practiced knack for making (and breaking!) arguments (we can’t stop ourselves, except by going to sleep! or watching TV!) it is hard to know what to say to someone who seems to miss the obvious. What more obvious thing can be pointed out, to make the obvious obvious? How can you think you have made an argument, in a short paper, when you haven’t even made a bad one? Isn’t that the sort of mistake that you would have to notice yourself making, while you were in the process of making it? (We all make stupid mistakes in our writing and thinking, of course. This is an important clue. But it still isn’t an answer.)
I took a very bad course in college. It was kind of an ‘intro music appreciation’ something-or-other. I was slumming, as I had been playing French horn for years, and the course didn’t even list ‘ability to read music’ as a prereq. The instructor really wanted us to listen to Mozart and appreciate sonata form. Fair enough. He clearly felt he couldn’t talk about Mozart, in any minimally substantive way, if we didn’t ‘get’ sonata, on some baby-ish level. Again, fair enough. But then the maniac assigned us to write these little sub-sonata sonata compositions. He got around that whole ‘not able to read music’ problem by teaching where middle-C is. From there you just count up or down, right? You can ‘hear’ whether it’s sonata form, right? How hard could it be, if you’ve got ears? Well, everyone failed. I think I got a B-. He yelled at us, blamed us for failing at this simplest of all possible things. His problem was that, for him, ‘creature that can listen to Mozart and sort of hear that it’s a sonata yet can’t analyze sonata form, let alone write the world’s simplest sonata’ was a real ‘what is it like to be a bat?’ problem. He couldn’t imagine what it was like to be us, and he blamed us for it. (Asshole!)
[UPDATE: Now that I think about it, that class was sort of like this.]
This isn’t a perfect analogy. Everyone can make an argument, even though everyone can’t write a sonata. If you’ve misplaced your keys and tried to figure out where you must have left them – congratulations! you’ve made an argument! (We all tell our nervous students this stuff, to give them courage in making arguments.) Even so, the moral applies: don’t get annoyed if students can’t do something that is very intuitive to you. It’s your job to go to them, if they can’t come to you. (Just because someone can look for his keys, doesn’t mean he can write 3-pages on Kant, even though the transcendental deduction really is an argument to the best explanation, and that’s what looking for your keys is!)
What are students doing, when they aren’t making arguments? Here’s one helpful diagnosis, via Jonathan Haidt. (I happened to be teaching Haidt this semester, and when I told students that the following passage amounted to excellent advice about how not to write, some of them found it quite helpful.)
When people are given difficult questions to think about — for example, whether the minimum wage should be raised — they generally lean one way or the other right away, and then put a call in to reasoning to see whether support for that position is forthcoming. For example, a person whose first instinct is that the minimum wage should be raised looks around for supporting evidence. If she thinks of her Aunt Flo who is working for the minimum wage and can’t support her family on it then yes, that means the minimum wage should be raised. All done. Deanna Kuhn, a cognitive psychologist who has studied such everyday reasoning, found that most people readily offered “pseudoevidence” like the anecdote about Aunt Flo. Most people gave no real evidence for their positions, and most made no effort to look for evidence opposing their initial positions. David Perkins, a Harvard psychologist who has devoted his career to improving reasoning, found the same thing. He says that thinking generally uses the “makessense” stopping rule. We take a position, look for evidence that supports it, and if we find some evidence — enough so that our position “makes sense” — we stop thinking.
Haidt, Jonathan (2006-12-26). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (pp. 64-65). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.
This isn’t rocket science, but it’s better than teaching fallacies because it’s closer to how the actual wheels turn. Students confront a topic. A question you have set them. Point out to your students that, psychologically, they often don’t investigate what they should say, in answer to your question, prior to starting to write. Often, they just pick an answer (maybe one that you have told them is one of several possible, reasonable positions.) Then they write in defense of whatever they picked. This isn’t necessarily a bad method. Just picking a side and seeing how much can be said for it is one way to tackle a many-sided issue. This approach may be the beginning of something systematic. But if you do this without a sense of how basically arbitrary your ‘pick’ was, you distort your own thinking in predictable ways. Specifically, this produces an endowment effect, which can be surprisingly strong. Picking your thesis is kind of like being given a coffee mug. Suddenly, you like your thesis. You are a bit biased towards it. Even though that’s crazy. Five minutes ago you had no opinion about Descartes’ dream argument. Now you ‘know’ you want to defend radical skepticism. Or attack it. Which is kind of nuts.
What does this endowment effect do to your writing? It turns you into a kind of public relations officer for your thesis statement. It’s easy to start spinning and story-telling. You do a little ‘makessense stop’ number, per the passage. The thing that’s important to get across to students is how and why ‘makessense stop’ feels like making an argument. It feels like premises, then conclusion. But it’s not. You have to get the students to see how they mentally baited-and-switched themselves from one form of sense-making to a different kind, usually of a more ‘narrative’ sort. (Not that there’s anything wrong with being a flack, certainly not with being a storyteller.)
One way to fight this, which is very traditional, is to tell students that they have to counter-argue against their own argument, whatever it is. This is good advice. But it often fails. What you get, instead of solid counter-argument, which really ought to shape up the argument, is a kind of low or no-contact ‘combat’. A kind of Rashomon fu, with dueling ‘makesense stop’ narratives circling around each other, trying to sound impressive and convincing (as Dale Carnegie says). You get pseudoevidence on both sides. Then the student rather arbitrarily declares a winner. To the student it really looks like, formally, they did what was asked. They made an argument. They argued against their argument. They drew a conclusion.
Here’s something that I tried with a couple students who really were having a great deal of trouble getting past this sort of Rashomon effect problem. Ask them what their thesis is. Then assign them to compose the most attractive-distractorish sort of bad, ‘makessense stop’ argument for their thesis they can think of. Assign them to do the thing they always do anyway – only this time on purpose. Then assign them to explain how and why what they did isn’t a proper argument. You don’t need to make them do this on paper (although that would work, too). This is a good thing to do in office hours, or as a general group exercise in discussion. Just ask the class: ‘give me a really bad, ‘makesense stop’ argument for utilitarianism. Why is it bad? Now another. Why is it bad? Now another. Why is it bad? Now give me a GOOD argument for utilitarianism.’ In addition to making it likely that you will get a good argument, in the end, this is a good way to get discussion going. Telling people to offer a bad argument is more likely to get shy students to talk than asking for good arguments. You aren’t at risk of sounding like a real idiot if you’ve been assigned to pretend to be an idiot.
Forced ‘makessense stop’ is kind of like cognitive therapy for people who don’t argue, but have a hard time seeing this about themselves.
There are lots of interesting, related issues about storytelling vs. argument, which can be profitably discussed at this point. It isn’t clear where the line is between story and argument – or even that there is one. But, before getting on to that more advanced issue, keep it simple. Mostly students don’t write bad arguments because they are superadvanced students of Richard Rorty.