We know what composition curricula looked like as far back as Aristotle’s time. Students were taught to present their compositions orally, but the compositions themselves, even that far back, were introduced in an order that matched the development of cognition. The narrative and descriptive assignments we used to teach at the beginning of the first-year writing course are now relegated to the first twelve years of education, but there has long been the acknowledgment that these assignments are the least challenging cognitively. Then comes exposition, followed by argumentation.
James Moffett, in works such as Teaching the Universe of Discourse, taught us to constantly cycle back through the easier modes of writing as we built into the increasingly challenging ones. He reminded us why some assignments are harder than others, relating each to time. A narrative looks at the past—what happened. Exposition looks at the enduring present—what happens. Argumentation looks at the future—what could or should happen. No wonder writing arguments is challenging. A part of argumentation is establishing that a problem exists; the other part is predicting how a suggested change would solve the problem. Having come of age as a teacher under Moffett’s influence, I tend to have students write three essays on the topic they choose to research. Having inherited Annette Rottenberg’s Toulmin method with Elements of Argument, I have to adapt that sequence to accommodate claims of fact, value, and policy. It’s not too much of a stretch to see that writing a claim-of-policy essay is the most challenging because of its future orientation, while claims of fact and value are less challenging. Students can accumulate a body of research and first write an essay supporting a factual claim about it, incorporating as few as two sources to start to establish their knowledge of the subject. Then they can support a value claim about it, going beyond the basic information to express an opinion. With those preliminaries behind them, they are better prepared to support a claim of policy—and to have worked out problems with documenting sources before the last assignment in the course comes along and it’s too late.
An example: One of my students wanted to write about the use of thalidomide as a treatment for cancer. Anyone tackling that subject must know the history of thalidomide’s use. If nothing else, the writer must be aware of, and inform the reader, that in the 1950s and early 1960s thalidomide caused thousands of birth defects when it was taken during pregnancy. An essay supporting a claim of fact could establish why the drug, understandably, fell out of favor. An essay supporting a claim of value could argue that the use of thalidomide under carefully controlled circumstances is worth the risk. An essay supporting a claim of policy would turn this research into an argument in favor for or against the use of thalidomide. There would be similarities among the essays. They would draw on the same body of research. Whole sections of an earlier essay might be incorporated into a later one. And they would get more practice getting the documentation right.
Too often in the “real world” we find out the hard way what should have been done. There is seldom an opportunity to write about the should-haves, to practice getting it right. It’s hard to write a policy against possible future outcomes. I think of the tragic death of a young student at the University of South Carolina who got into the wrong car, thinking it was her Uber. Along with his condolences, the university president sent USC students and parents a list of ways to avoid a similar tragedy. Students may have gotten similar warnings when they arrived on campus. Lyft and Uber are implementing new safety policies. However, the narrative of Samantha Josephson’s death and the generalization that it could have happened to anyone reinforced what should be done in the future. It’s clear now – too late – what claims of policy should be implemented.
Photo credit: “Summ()n – Exploring Possible Futures” by cea+ on Flickr, 2/7/12 via a CC BY 2.0 license.