I have a tender spot for students who struggle to find their tone as they enter an academic conversation. I remember writing my first (terrible) essay in college with no idea how to assert my heartfelt (and weak) claim: “Shakespeare’s Hamlet is brilliant!”
So, ham-handedly, I conjured an antagonist and self-righteously typed on my IBM Selectric something like: “While some people fail to recognize Shakespeare’s brilliance, I will argue that Hamlet proves Shakespeare is indeed a brilliant playwright.” The comments and grade on that paper were sobering, and (thanks to a skilled instructor) helpful to my growth as a thinker and writer. But I remember well the late-night struggle to enter a serious conversation about literature.
Early in each semester, my own writing students often reach for outrage as a conversational entree (“X’s idea is ridiculous!”) or sarcasm (“X claims to be a social justice advocate but totally fails to recognize their own privilege!”). In a recent accidentally amusing malapropism, a student trashed an author for being “totally hippocratical.” (Alas, the author in question was not a doctor.)
But who can blame students for assuming an "argument" must be built on forceful disagreement? Most of what we hear in the public sphere are gut-level judgments rather than reasoned analysis. Students can be forgiven for mistaking agreement with weakness, or believing that generous and empathetic readers simply are not tough enough to take a stand.
Our task, as writing instructors, is to model the tone of academic conversations, and to make the syntax of engagement transparent, so students can practice it. In 2019, I’ve found the Burkean metaphor (“Imagine a parlor!”) doesn’t take our students very far. So, in our book, From Inquiry to Academic Writing my co-author, Stuart Greene, and I offer steps to help demystify the process:
Steps to Writing Yourself into an Academic Conversation:
- Retrace the conversation, including the relevance of the topic and situation, for readers by briefly discussing an author’s key claims and ideas. This discussion can be as brief as a sentence or two and include a quotation for each author you cite.
- Respond to the ideas of others by helping readers understand the context in which another’s claims make sense. “I understand this if I consider it from this perspective.”
- Discuss possible implications by putting problems aside, at least temporarily, and asking, “Do their claims make sense?”
- Introduce conflicting points of view and raise possible criticisms to indicate something the authors may have overlooked.
- Formulate your own claim to assert what you think.
- Ensure that your own purpose as a writer is clear to readers.
You may have other steps you’d add to this list, and, certainly, as we close-read texts with students, we can name and “close write” additional rhetorical moves that academic writers make. Providing students the opportunity to name and practice these moves helps them see that syntax itself can guide their tone, helps them generate ideas, and provides structures for nuanced analysis.
Ultimately, our goal is to foster thinkers and writers who are inspired to engage meaningfully with ideas, as Bedford New Scholar Cecilia Shelton’s recent post demonstrates so powerfully.
By modeling thoughtful engagement with writers’ ideas inside our classroom, we can give our students the practice they will need to engage thoughtfully in the public sphere, too.
Photo Credit: April Lidinsky