Students think they know arguments. However, just like when they read fiction, students have a hard time moving beyond a superficial reading of a text. If anything, I sometimes think they are worse at extracting an argument from a persuasive essay because of the personal nature of it. Students think that, since it is their own opinion they don’t need to develop it. Common saying: “This is it. This is my argument. This is all I intended it to be. Don’t read into it.” But that isn’t good enough. To be taken seriously as a rhetorician students need to finely craft their argument and make sure it is multi-layered. This comes through reading and studying arguments extensively, but it is a skill that can be taught through practice.
It begins by discussing the explicit and implicit argument. Most students hover gingerly over the explicit argument (or the literal, specific, denotative argument of a piece). For example, one of the explicit arguments from Romeo and Juliet is that their parents’ feud is what caused their death. However, the more we can get students to move out of the literal and into the figurative the more analytical they will become. The figurative is another way to think of the implicit argument, or the message the author is implying. When helping your students identify the implicit argument consider asking them
What does this imply about life? Society? The individual? Human nature?
Another way to approach this is to ask them to extend their explicit argument. For example, an extension to the above stated is that sometimes we don’t realize how our actions affect others because we are so blinded by what is happening to us. Shakespeare is implying that their parents didn’t intend for them to be so gravely affected by their feud but, as humans, we are unable to see beyond what is occurring in our daily lives.
However, some students really struggle with the term: implicit argument. Some students really struggle with answering “what does this imply about society” in a meaningful way. Another way to get students to think beyond the explicit argument is to think about the different areas of critical context. In every issue there are always several things that complicate the solution. While there are too many to list, some common are
To help students analyze the complexity of an argument consider engaging them in the following activities to evaluate the critical implications of the topic. First, provide them with a prompt describing an issue or topic. Of course you can write your own, but consider offering them ACT, SAT, or GRE prompts, which have been featured in the past.
- Divide the class up into groups and assign each group to analyze the issue through one of the above critical context lenses.
- As a class discuss which critical context areas affect one another. For example, an environmental implication might create a political implication. This sets them up for a type of cause/effect analysis.
- Debate which of the critical context areas are the most important to consider for the issue.
- Evaluate both sides of the position from one of the specific lenses.
- To really extend the discussion, consider asking students to analyze how different political parties would examine an issue through these lenses. A republican would look at the environmental concerns much differently than a democrat would.
The bottom line is that students need to be thinking through what is really at stake with an issue. Whether you refer to it as the implicit argument or the critical context area the result is the same: a more decisive look at a topic and what it is actually suggesting.