Academic Argument as Process

6 Oct

Kathi R. Griffin, Instructor of English and Director of the Richard Wright Center for Writing, Rhetoric, and Research – Jackson State University

During our first discussion of a reading in Comp I this fall, a student asserted, “I’m entitled to my opinion!” and his classmates whipped their heads in my direction: “Yes, you are,” I said, and they relaxed, “but,” I added, “in the academic world, more is required.”

While the simple word more hides a complexity of skills, the word academic hides a complexity of definitions. For many students, the word academic itself may present a problem.

In the third week of class, a student asked, “When do we get a break?” I replied, “In November.” Another student asked, “You mean we have to read and write for every class?” “Yep.” After a short pause, I asked, “Why don’t you think you should read and write for every class? We only meet twice a week.”

The most engaged response this semester bursts forth from across the room: “I hate to read,” “I hate to write,” “I hate to read and write.” And I am thinking, “for school,” because many students are sneaking to read and write on their phones! When I asked, “Why are you in college then?” I got a few furrowed brows, but I also got an equally energetic response, “To get a good job.” It’s not necessarily that they hate to read and write; it seems more likely that they hate to read and write for school. They have trouble seeing the purpose for what they are being asked to read and write.

At this early stage in their academic careers, academic seems to mean “not practical; not directly useful; conforming to rules and standards” – rather than entering a “learned or scholarly” community. They know about the parts of an essay and the steps to produce one, but they remain focused on the text as product rather than as a means for engaging in a larger conversation. In addition, their reading for school has primarily been for information, so being asked to read for a different purpose also confuses them. Before they can write an “academic argument,” however, they must learn to read critically, to critique, to analyze. As I try to persuade them, to engage them, to inform them, to challenge them in a variety of ways, I cannot always be sure the struggle is worth it.

But it is. This past week I was asked to address a group of first-semester graduate students on “writing in graduate school,” and a former student asked, “How do I only write 5 pages when I have 10 already written?” How different that is from where he began just a few semesters ago. Laughing he said, “Yeah, I used to struggle to fill the page limit, and now I have too much to say.” All I could do was smile and remind him about focusing on the purpose for his argument – and, of course, invite him to make an appointment in the writing center.

In the session on “Academic Argument,” Amber and I will share strategies for engaging students as they learn to read and write academic arguments and discuss related issues, such as how we might use technology to help us in the process of engaging students.

See you Friday!

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