The Problem with “Winning” in Academic Argument

2 Oct

Amber Nichols-Buckley, Instructor of Writing 100/101, Department of Writing and Rhetoric, University of Mississippi

Academic writing is often described as a kind of conversation…This metaphor of writing as conversation has several strengths.  It highlights the social aspects of intellectual work, the ways in which academic writing responds to the texts and ideas of others.  It suggests that the goal of such writing is not to have the final word on a subject, to bring the discussion to a close, but to push it forward, to say something new, something that seems to call for further talk or writing…You don’t win a conversation, you add to it, push it ahead, keep it going, “put your oar in,” and maybe even sometimes redirect or divert the flow of talk.  But you rarely win over a person you are speaking with by first refuting what she or he has just said.  The arts of conversation are subtler than those of debate; they join our need to articulate the differences among us with our need to keep talking with one another.

-“Forwarding,” Rewriting:  How to do Things with Texts, Joseph Harris

I have a three year old daughter named Jane.  Jane loves to win.  Whether it’s a race to the potty or a flower drawing contest, she demands the top spot.  In fact, the only time my husband and I witness the infamous toddler tantrum is when our Jane loses a “battle.”  And, of course, as parents we have to teach her how to deal with loss.  How to take something from it—a lesson, a new way of thought, a wrinkle of experience to use the next time a “battle” occurs.

Becoming a parent has given me so much insight into why my students think the way they do.  We live in a society where winning is everything.  To quote the famous Ricky Bobby, in today’s world, “If you’re not first, you’re last.”  But what has this obsession with winning done to our ability to engage in meaningful discourse about the world?

In Joseph Harris’ words, “A dialogue is not a debate.  You don’t win a conversation.”  How do we teach our students that to think academically, they must think conversationally?  To write an academic argument, they must understand all facets of that argument (even the dreadful “other side”).  They must question the authority of the opposing view, sure, but more importantly, they must question their own authority.  So much of engaging in academic discourse is putting our own vanity aside and realizing that we, in fact, could be wrong.  That we can lose.  And through this loss, we can push ourselves to find the better stance, to further our own beliefs, to engage in new and exciting ways, to find solutions even.  To realize that losing is really winning.  This is what I want to encourage, at home, at school, even within myself.

This is why I believe that the best kinds of learning can happen in composition courses.  When we teach students to argue, we teach them to become a part of the conversation.  Not dominating it.  Not sitting back and letting others control it.  But entering it, without fear of rejection or fear of being wrong.  I worry that we’ve conditioned students to win so much in their young lives that we’ve inhibited their ability to enter the conversation.  Hopefully through continued dialogue with peers, such as the opportunity to join this conversation at the Transitioning symposium, we will find more ways to help students explore the challenge and the benefits of losing.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.