As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m spending a fair bit of my professional time lately thinking in terms of argument, debate, and persuasion.
This morning, I introduced the concept of rhetorical argument to my high school juniors and seniors, and I’m fairly sure that they really didn’t get it.
If you haven’t had much experience with them, allow me to explain that, in general, teenagers are a very sensitive and emotional lot. Further, they are very often prone to the exaggerated and the dramatic; if it’s worth doing, it seems, it’s worth doing BIG.
I probably should have remembered this when I tried the same tactic with them that I did with my L.U. kids; I came into class and wrote “arguing” and “fighting” on the board, then I asked them to discern a difference. Not only did they have trouble keeping their consideration grounded in the rhetorical (they wanted to explain that “fighting” necessarily involved some sort of physical altercation), but they had a tough time drawing a distinction between what one does when arguing with someone and what one does when fighting.
It took a while, but I managed to get them around to the ideas that my favorite LU kid came up with in terms of the goals of the different activities; the CHS kids were able to comprehend that, in this scenario, anyway, the goal of argument is agreement, where the goal of fighting is power.
They’re still firmly in the realm of fighting, though, so my aim for this week is to get them to understand the difference between reasoned and careful argument and, well, ranting. To that end, their homework assignment for tonight is to go online and find a couple of different rants; one with which they agree and one with which they don’t (I gave them some suggestions for where to look). Their task is to work through an analysis of each of these presentations; to determine the message and the intended audience, to see and explain the organizational structure of the piece, to recognize and respond to the way the opposition is addressed (and characterized), and to evaluate the piece as a whole in terms of its efficacy.
Tomorrow’s class will be about the structure of argumentative pieces and the ethical use of information. The kids are going to go out of their minds in this unit, I think; I’m fairly certain they’ve never been pressed to present their thinking – especially about things they feel strongly about – in ways that are organized, careful, and logical. Keeping them from rolling their eyes at each other and engaging in ad hominem attacks is going to be my biggest challenge, I think. Wish me luck.