In this week’s post, I’m sharing a formal writing assignment I developed for an upper-level topical writing seminar during the Spring 2019 semester. This particular assignment was inspired by Rogerian Rhetoric and Barry Kroll’s 2005 Pedagogy article “Arguing Differently.” Kroll writes that, “In an integrative argument, the assumption is that if you dig deep enough, both sides are concerned about some of the same things and that those shared interests or goals provide a basis for coming to some agreements” (39). I wanted to create an assignment that asked students to think beyond the combative style of argument (or should I say, contradiction?) exhibited so prominently in politics and media today: argument that leads to a solution that benefits both parties rather than framing participants as either “winners” or “losers.”
Why Integrative Argument?
I tasked students with selecting a food-related problem or issue (this was a food-themed course) and locating two articles that had different perspectives on solving the problem. I emphasize different because the goal was not necessarily for students to choose opposing arguments (although some students did, and I will discuss that in the Challenges section), as part of my purpose for teaching this style of argument was to help students move beyond the combative style of argument that sees any concession or compromise by a side as “losing.” However, if the two articles agreed on every point, there wouldn’t be much reason for them to “argue.”
The articles, then, were to function as stand-ins for two “people” or “parties” who care about a problem but disagreed on how to solve it and were turning to the student group for mediation. Students were tasked with “helping” the “parties” find a solution to the problem that was agreeable to both. To reach this end, each group needed to identify the article writers’ shared interests, compatible goals, and common values that could serve as a basis for urging them to reach a mutually-agreeable solution. They also needed to locate the relevant stakeholders that the articles may–or may not–have identified. As a result, students needed to be driven by a process of inquiry into the articles themselves and the rhetoric underlying their positions before they could argue for a solution to the problem that would satisfy both parties.
Why a Group Paper?
As I explained to students in the assignment sheet, I designed a group paper in part because group writing is becoming increasingly common in the workplace; yet, in composition classes we traditionally assign single-authored formal papers–even if we assign collaborative in-class writing exercises or group work. While students might very well be exposed to collaborative writing in other classes, a writing class places the writing at the forefront, rather than other discipline-specific concepts.
But I had another reason. I intentionally positioned this assignment early in the semester with the hope that a group paper would allow students to share their individual writing strengths and be supported in their weaknesses. For example, a student who struggled with MLA citation style might learn something from a group member who was skilled in this area–and the student who struggled with MLA might very well be excellent at writing thesis statements (you get the idea). Unfortunately, I was not scientific in measuring this outcome, although I believe there was some benefit.
Overall, the final papers were a bit of a mixed bag. Of the five groups, I initially refused to grade one of the papers until they met with me and made significant revisions (primarily because I realized the students had switched their articles last-minute–literally the night before the paper was due–and therefore did not have enough time to write an adequate paper). The other groups performed quite well on the assignment, particularly for an early-semester paper. In some cases, their ability to synthesize the articles, find common ground, and develop innovative solutions was exceptional.
I think one of the advantages of this paper is that the requirement to find a mutually-agreeable solution limits the possible solutions to the problem. In other words, students are not tasked with arguing for a solution to a complicated problem from amid all possible solutions; rather, they are constricted by what they learn about the two “parties'” positions, values, and common ground. I think this positioning limits students’ ability to propose a solution that they already believed in before doing any research or despite the evidence (something which, as writing teachers, we see students do all the time). Instead, students must use the texts to formulate their solution, and it is very clear to them and to me if they do not. While I don’t think students will magically or organically transfer this thinking to other contexts, exposure to this kind of argument in writing classes at least demonstrates that argument can lead to the mutual benefit of the parties involved rather than the (metaphorical) destruction of one side or the other.
No assignment or activity is ever perfect, and often something that works well in one class will, for no apparent reason, not work well in another. For this reason, I am committed to sharing the challenges and limitations of the materials I share on this blog, as well as their potential.
Some of the challenges of this assignment were:
Article selection became a problem in situations where the group selected two articles that were diametrically opposed to one another, rather than simply different. In these cases, the students struggled to locate shared ground or common values to build on (think: a pro-hunting article by Sportsmen’s Alliance and an anti-hunting article by PETA). As in this example, part of the issue was that these groups located articles with different views on a topic (hunting) but within this topic they might see a completely different set of problems. So, should you choose to use this assignment, be aware of this pitfall.
Additionally, I had to do some redirection early on as a couple of groups selected articles that lacked sufficient depth, making it difficult for them to draw conclusions about the values, goals, and interests underlying their proposed solutions. For this reason, I recommend requiring groups to submit their articles to you for screening and approval before they get too deep into their analysis.
Group writing, generally
For better or worse, students often have strong feelings about group work, and those feelings are often negative. These feelings were absolutely present when I introduced the assignment and initially seemed to be magnified by the fact that the focus of the project was a paper (rather than a presentation). In an attempt to head this off, I included steps for effective group writing, as well as a list of Group Writing Tips in the assignment sheet. Still, I could feel a bit of student resistance, even though they did not seem to run into many of the problems they feared (e.g. group members not pulling their weight). However, this could be due less to my interventions than to the nature of the students at my university.
Clinging to the familiar
Despite instructions, a couple of groups still wanted to argue for one side or the other, not find a mutually-agreeable solution. I worked with these groups to revise their papers accordingly–something that was easier to do since I was only dealing with 5 papers rather than 15!
One group failed to resist writing a thesis statement. Since this assignment asks students to wait until the end of the paper to present their recommended solution, a thesis statement was not appropriate (see the Basic Features Checklist on the assignment sheet below). The format of the paper and lack of thesis was something we discussed in class as well; however, I understand how deeply-ingrained thesis statements often are by the time students reach upper-level composition. I’m not sure if there’s anything one can do to avoid this happening, but it does open the door to a discussion with students about the role of thesis statements and the needs of different genres.
While there are some modifications I will make when I use this assignment again–primarily to address some of the challenges that surfaced–overall I was quite pleased with the results and the students’ learning. If you decide to use this assignment wholesale or with modifications, I hope you will share your experience in the comments!