Thursday, May 6, 2004

Cooper/George/Lynch, 1998, "Moments of Argument"

 Cooper, Marilyn, Diana George, and Dennis Lynch. "Moments of Argument: Agonistic Inquiry and Confrontational Cooperation." On Writing Research: The Braddock Essays, 1975-1998. Ed. Lisa Ede. New York: Bedford St. Martin's, 1999. 390-412.

Big Idea
George, Cooper and Lynch, teaching from Michigan Tech, call for more sophisticated argument pedagogies in this essay.  They begin by waving off the slew of textbooks that introduce argument as a simplistic binary, a scheme of either/or, right and wrong, often setting up hypothetical tensions and straw-thin oppositions.  The trio historicizes cooperative models for argument, juxtaposing them with caustic models.  They invoke Susan Jarratt, citing, at length, her call for "composition instructors to rethink their objections to agonistic rhetoric and conflict-based pedagogy" (391), and John Gage, for his concern that "the real conflicts are already there at the outset of a disagreement" and that teachers ought to draw students toward cooperative, collaborative interchanges toward a shared sense of social resolve (394).  The authors also acknowledge the rootedness of their central research question--toward an improved model of argument in writing pedagogy--in their own teaching.  To that end, George, Cooper and Lynch, propose the blend of "agonistic inquiry" and "confrontational cooperation" so that teachers and students might see "argumentation as a crucial social responsibility--an activity that requires us to position ourselves within complicated and interconnected issues" (411). 

Monday Morning
Before wrapping these notes up and putting them to blog (this is the bit I'm doing last), just wanted to make a few pieces about my experiences teaching argument as argument.  Once I inherited an argument-based course.  Last minute appointment, two-alarm shortage.  Usual adjunct drill.  The syllabus was already written (ugh!) and the text already ordered.  I don't remember the name of the textbook, but I do recall its onerous simplicity with respect to polarized arguments.  

Sample assignment: Pick a side:  For war or for peace.  Go.  

I didn't have a good time of it.  Deep down, I think I was in favor of the kind of elaborative heuristics, question layers added atop question layers toward new perspectives, redirection, altered relationships, improved understandings.  But it broke down because the textbook didn't ask it of the students, and the students didn't ask it of each other.  

The approach in this essay--learn the legacy, understand that arguments are bound up in webs and forces, read historically to think futuristically--all of these factors make me think about Cultural Conversations: The Presence of the Past--a textbook I use for the online EN106 course I put together.  I know one of the editors well, and I admire the way the book builds a sense of legacy and patterns of language, then asks students to move outward from there.  I suppose there are other textbooks like it, but it seems to me that it encourages the work this essay describes.

The first question I had was about how this works differently in a classroom abundant with diversity. Specifically, I wondered what this approach would mean for the student--or group of students--who come to the course with a deep, personal (familial, cultural) attachment to the legacy of the issue debated.  In other words, if students don't regard the contested issue as naturally occurring to them in their extracurricular lives, then the issue is an academic construct--a piece glowing institutionally for its curricular situatedness. Make any sense?  

The contested issue's institutionalized situation doesn't necessarily weaken the potential to teach argument (as style or as cultural negotiation?), but it might.  In other words, students enter the course with various stakes in issues.  And we, as teachers, cannot always see inside of those stakes sufficiently to anticipate the dispositional oscillations that might lead to silence, discomfort or other forms of suffering.  Perhaps this is less of a problem when working with homogenous student populations as is suggested in the essay's postlude notes: "Our students combine the characteristics of relatively homogenous backgrounds, a willingness to investigate the world, a suspicion of new points of view, and a tendency to pull back rather than engage others" (412).  I hardly want to sit up here on my blog and renounce the good, provocative work of this award-winning essay.  But it leans into a contestation-loaded middle between Gage and Jarrett--a space where the rules are murkier, the consequences shadier, and the student experiences subtler with respect to their pre-course orientations.  Most specifically, I wondered how the teachers in the course on Native American naming of mascots knew whether they had any indigenous students among them.  Did they know?  Should they have known? How?

2. Sites and formality

"We need to see it as a complex and often extended human activity, or, rather, as an array of human activities, including institutionalized formal debate, legal trials, shouting matches that threaten to end in fist fights, conversational games of one-upmanship, disagreements among friends, and extended deliberations within a community over what course of action to pursue" (411).

This excerpt comes near the end of the essay.  It suggests a wide range of sites where the "human activity" of argument might manifest, governed in some cases by authoritative ordinance and in other cases by informal social codes.  It's quite a list; among these sites, argument emerges with vast, various differences.  But I wanted to push against the authors' claim that "first-year students often seem to dismiss the many issues that surround them daily, in the news, in classes, in work situations, even in the most mundane kinds of arenas--like what to name a football team" (398).  There are reasons for dismissal, to be sure.  Many dismissals stem from peer networks, social hierarchies, and the sense of value in expounding views aloud (which also brings up the place of intensional argument--the contemplative, self-ward negotiations and flux layered in all of this, never separate).  It's just that mundane arenas are capable of germinating richer and more dynamic arguments because the knowledge unfolds more naturally, less as an academic exercise.  This reminds me of Jabari Mahiri's work in Shooting for Excellence; his ethnographic studies present challenges to the idea that "students seem to dismiss the many issues that surround them daily" or that, following this logic, that they tend to argue poorly as a result. 

One other point stemming from this quotation: "Such a conception can remove argument from the (televised) boxing ring and return it not to the private domestic sphere but to the many ambiguous public spaces--meeting rooms, hallways, cafeterias, and, yes, classrooms--where it has a chance to become more productive" (392). I'm not sure the "ambiguous public spaces" ought to become more productive sites."  For them to be classifiably productive, they might rely on formal affirmations, measures, assessments, etc.  Argument in ambiguous public spaces is potentially richer than the official sort--the "institutionalized formal debate, legal trials," because it is informal, boundless in a sense, experimental, guided by deep wonder more than formal structure.  I'm more comfortable with the justification of argument-based pedagogies that points to civic discourse, the aims of democracy, and the vitality of critical consciousness that upholds freedom.  But I'm not sure the mundane sites and ambiguous public spaces would be helped by formalization.

Passages Passages
"What is important, to our minds, in teaching students to deal with conflict is that they experience the process of constructing a complex, historically knowledgeable position in light of what matters to, and what will arise for, those affected by the positions taken" (410).

"But when arguments are entered into hastily, the complexity of the issues is often lost, and with it (we might add) the basis for introducing important, higher level concepts such as ideology, multiple subjectivity, and contingent foundation" (410).

"Too many classroom strategies, too many textbooks, insist that students learn to take hold of and argue a position long before they understand the dimensions of a given issue" (402).

"From our perspective, though, the risk is not merely that your social position and identity may be challenged, or not merely that someone may disagree with your intellectual position, or not even that you may lose the argument; the risk is also that you may become different than you were before the argument began" (396).

"What we are seeking is a way of reconceiving argument that includes both confrontational and cooperative perspectives, a multifaceted process that includes moments of conflict and agonistic positioning as well as moments of understanding and communication" (392).

"Emulating others' classroom practice is tricky: you always need to determine what exactly in the practice is appropriate and applicable to your own teaching situation" (411).

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