In my last two posts (Part 1 and Part 2), I introduced a writing about writing assignment for students enrolled in both my FYC course and an ESL co-requisite support course. In a course-long project, students are researching a discourse community, using Joseph Bizup’s 2008 article, “BEAM: A Rhetorical Vocabulary for Teaching Research-Based Writing” as the theoretical framework guiding their selection and analysis of source material.
Students first looked for a general description of the discourse, or a background (B) source. Next, they searched for sources that would illustrate common communication practices within the discourse, including professional organization websites, social media sites, newsletters, and professional or academic journals. These texts will serve as exhibit (E) sources.
This past week, students began looking for examples of argument (A) sources, which we are actually using as exhibits through which students investigate the language of argument within their target discourse. As with exhibit sources, the search for argument sources has created some challenges for the students. Several students, for example, had simplified or idiosyncratic definitions of argument. Some believed that argument requires a combative tone, while others assumed that articles which present research and evidence must be, by definition, informative only, and not argumentative.
In addition to re-conceptualizing argument, students also had to come to terms with the idea that all discourses and communities practice argumentation; several students initially questioned whether members of various professions actually argue (although a reminder that any presentation of reasons and evidence in support of position of a claim or proposal constitutes argument helped most of them envision how argument might function within their particular target discourse community).
We next tackled methods of searching that might lead to argument texts, including use of terms such as editorial, op-ed, or “response to” (in the title). Some students had identified current controversial issues in the process of finding their exhibit sources, and they were able to use that information to find appropriate argument texts. Moreover, since some students are researching professional organizations with legislative advocacy or social justice teams, they found argument texts in the form of briefs, white papers, and position statements, many addressed to those outside of the particular discourse. We also discussed the ways that different discourse groups might use multimodal arguments: ad campaigns, slogans, memes, and other visual or audio texts.
Having found appropriate argument texts, students next grappled with reading the arguments so that they could develop a summary. Vocabulary often proved difficult, as did seeing how the argument terms we have worked to define (claim, counterclaim, reason, evidence, concession, rebuttal, credential, ethos, pathos, etc.) can be applied within this discourse context.
But what I found heartening—even as I found myself repeating, reminding, clarifying, and debunking—is that the majority of my students are determined to understand the texts they have uncovered in their research. When I suspected a source might be too difficult, students did not opt for an easier, more obvious text. “This is my field, Dr. Moore,” they would say. “I want to read this now; I plan to be writing it some day.”
This poster, developed by the Newseum, is another tool to remind students that sources have a discourse context and a provenance; taking time to examine that context can lead to more confidence about the information they find. I plan to share it with students as they continue their semester research project.
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