That question — “Is this a persuasive paper?” — is one that I can’t seem to avoid when teaching classes. A student asked it to me the other day in a writing class. Each time, I try not to appear flabbergasted. After teaching in English departments for seven years, I should be used to the question by now, but, each time I hear it, still, I pause.
“Of course it is. Every paper is a persuasive paper.”
And, I do think that: every paper, every piece of writing, and every communicative moment is persuasive. It is whether or not it aims to be. The question of whether or not it is effective, however, is one left up to the person with the red pen, or, if the words are sent outside of academia, then the question is answered simply by the person receiving it. Each paper has its own rhetorical situation rife with aims and motivations, yet, somehow, my students often enter into my classroom thinking that persuasive writing is a special kind of writing that is to be engaged in at the behest of the professor and not often otherwise. Perhaps my view on the matter means that I’ve read too much Kenneth Burke or just that my course through academia has been one that has engaged first with rhetoric and second with the research done in pedagogy by scholars of Composition studies. Still, I don’ think I’m wrong.
Later that the evening, after answering my student’s question, I read a Facebook post from Trish Roberts-Miller, an undergraduate mentor of mine:
So I had to tell my son I can’t help with his research paper. I showed him how to use Google Scholar, and I pointed him to back issues of The Economist, but, basically, I had to say, I don’t know how to write a history that is not an argument, and I think that’s what you’re supposed to do.
Trish’s son is in high school, and that is the sort of assignment that we’d expect from high school: show me you read the material. It’s a banking system of pedagogy in which the student collects information, and, if the student is capable, makes the knowledge gain interest through synthesizing it. But, my point: before, after, in, or outside of college, how do you write anything that isn’t an argument? Even if the piece of writing has not been delicately crafted as a blunt-force tool of persuasion simply following the form of a logical proof and culminating in a boring, five-paragraph essay, even if the argument isn’t — obviously — in the content of the paper, we can at least understand the argument to be in the performance of the exposition. Can’t we?
In reality, this type of assignment isn’t just in high school’s jurisdiction. The first year that I taught at the college level, I was assigned to teach first-year writing as most every English graduate student is. The prospect excited me, but the department mandated that first time instructors used a particular text: The Longman Writer: Rhetoric and Reader (the link is to the newer edition, not the one I used). This textbook is aimed at first-year college writing, and I wasn’t sure how to use the book, especially when I saw that Chapter 19 was entitled “Argumentation-Persuasion,” and a mere 20 pages were devoted to the subject that included several readings.
The Longman Writer, like too many other textbooks offered up by major publishers, is classified as a “rhetoric” and is organized around the “rhetorical modes,” also known as “the modes of discourse.” The modes themselves reduce writing to local moments in which a writer has a particular aim for a small section or simply a paragraph; however, introducing the question of aim might already be bending the summary of the modes too far into a rhetorical direction. The number of “modes” varies from textbook to textbook, but the four that form the base of the system are narration, description, exposition, and argument. The implication is that, at any one time, a writer will be either narrating events (perhaps constructing a history), describing something (maybe a scientific object), explaining something (here we can consider this “informational”), or making an argument. The modes often are used in tandem in a single piece of writing, the pedagogical theory being that if one can master the different modes of writing, the constituent parts of writing, then one can put them together into a wonderfully constructed, brilliantly organized, easily readable piece. Instruction that takes the modes as its core, however, seldom explains adequately — if at all — how the modes need to be integrated to form that well-crafted prose.
This inadequacy stems partly from the presentation of the modes, the way that they are organized in the textbook and, by extension, the classroom. The more the modes are separated from each other (even under the guise of “exercises,” although they are rarely cast as such), the more that a piece of writing will be considered to function simply in one mode. The effect is an aimless, fragmented writing that can become more fragmented with the greater number modes that are defined. The Longman Writer outlines more:
- process analysis,
- definition, and
One implication of this classification of the modes and this division of writing is that argument itself is now distinct from every other mode, and the student (and teacher as well) employing the textbook might cease to see a piece of writing as a whole, and, without looking at the piece of writing holistically, it is easy to forget that the piece of writing exists with a particular purpose, in a particular situation, by a particular author, for a particular intended audience. It is even easier to forget to ask the simple but most important question of why the piece of writing exists to begin with, that dreaded “So What?” question that few authors of academic prose, our their drive toward hyper-specialization, fail to consider much less explicitly address.
The modes were based off of Cicero’s work, but they were brought into a more “modern” form by Samuel Newman in 1827 in what could be considered the first Composition textbook, A Practical System of Rhetoric (available on Google Books). Newman’s positivistic understanding of rhetoric refocused rhetoric merely onto writing, simply onto composition, and reduced it in a way that stripped writing of its context. Briefly, he thought that the philosophical bases of rhetoric were mostly cruft and had no practical purposes, so he removed many of the otherwise oratorical aspects of rhetoric (canons such as invention and memory) that Neo-Classicist Rhetoricians had embraced just years before (consider John Quincy Adams‘s Lectures On Rhetoric and Oratory). Yet, studying Rhetoric-as-oratory (or -with-oratory) forces the student to look at the audience and understand that the words are being heard and that the audience can respond; thus, oratory is speaking, oratory is discourse, oratory is dialogue. On the other hand, writing can free us from the anxiety that those with whom we are communicating can and do respond to us because we can’t physically see them and their micro-expressions of suspicion. That’s not to say that Composition ignores audience by any means. I’ve yet to see a textbook that doesn’t put the concept at the beginning and highlight it throughout, but what I mean is that the reduction of Rhetoric simply to writing, stripping Rhetoric of its other important aspects, endemically distances us from our audiences, allowing us to retreat into a space that contains just ourselves, our thoughts, and our words, a writing space that is alienated from the context in which the words will be read. The necessity to reiterate the importance of audience again and again and again may be a symptom of this reduction.
At its base, the distance allows us to embrace expression at the expense of deliberation. Indeed, Newman’s ideas about the practical effects of his reduction of Rhetoric into Composition are not too far from the core of “expressivism” in current Composition Studies; granted, the latter is much more varied and complex than this comparison suggests. But the core of “expressivism” is that students already know how to think, yet they don’t know how to express themselves through writing. Hence, if we enable the students to express themselves, then they’ll be fantastic writers. But the focus is — and I don’t mean just to harp on the name — expression rather than deliberation.
Expression tends toward the irenic, a movement towards simple agreement, rather than an agonism that reminds us — perpetually reminds us, provoking a profound anxiety — that we are writing not just for someone but to someone. An expressive stance toward writing allows us to conceive of the work as a part of ourselves and as a gift to the audience. A disagreement with expression is a rejection of that gift and thus a rejection of the author. There is no divorce of the person from the work.
Persuasion, at least for my students, always tends to be associated with the word “argument.” The next association is unproductive: “argument” is associated with “fight” rather than “deliberation.” An argument is hot not cool. As Americans, we like to think of ourselves as a pugnacious sort, or, at least those are the heroes that play us in the movies. And we might have that same bellicose tendency when we do engage in our own arguments: we go in strong, guns a-blazing, shooting straight from the hip, like cowboys. So, if we’re supposed to make an argument in a paper, then the paper itself should look like a tool with which to bludgeon your opponent. Right?
If you observe many arguments, especially ones that are outside of papers, then you can see that many take the form of a two-part manifesto with each person laying out his or her side with a variably visible level of vitriol. At the end of each manifesto, neither side (I’m reducing this to a binary opposition for the sake of the scope of this blog post) has actually listened to the other; instead each has laid out the program to which the other must assent, and any discussion that may occur afterward takes the form of an ad hominem attack, haranguing the person rather than engaging with the argument. After all, each side has its “own opinion,” and refuting an opinion is refuting a person, or at least that’s one way we tend to think about it unconsciously. Here, the attempt at persuasion takes the form of expression: I’ll express my opinion, and you may agree with it. If you don’t agree, then I’ll be ruffled and rally forth any bit of aggression that I can muster to defend myself, my person. Strangely then, the argument-as-expression has an irenic note: you can either agree with me, or you can agree to disagree with me, and we’ll agree to drop the issue.
And I see this same move at academic conferences. The author of a paper, when challenged, will recoil and throw up a shield of expressivism: “well, this is how I see it, and you may disagree.” Or something of that sort. We’ve all heard it. Anyone who shifts, immediately, to a defensive posture when hearing potential criticism of either method, scope, or conclusion takes the argument wholesale as representative of their person, and so any attempt to engage with the argument deliberatively is, instead, a declaration of war against the author.
If any of the above seems to ring true, then what we have here is that what we call “persuasion” is actually the least effective kind of attempt at persuasion. More effective persuasive ventures might not even come off as argumentative but, instead, as expository. After all, at the end of any exposition, you could measure its effectiveness in whether or not the audience understood the explanation or — if I might rephrase — whether or not the audience was convinced that the explanation is good enough.
Let’s go back to Trish’s son who may still be writing his non-argumentative research paper when I post this missive. The historical research paper does fall into the “narrative” mode of discourse and not the “argument-persuasive” one. But writing a particular narrative history that should be a simple exposition of certain facts arranged either chronologically or thematically makes an argument that “this is how it was.” Summarizing a history isn’t too different than summarizing a story or a poem, but that summarization is truly difficult in that we have to choose what to include and what to leave out. We also have to choose how to convey the facts, and, with each word that we choose, we inevitably assign praise and blame, create heroes, and oversimplify the story. The difficulty of trying to attain a high level of accuracy, to erase ourselves, to efface any argument that would be made is well-articulated in Paul de Man’s phrase: “the debilitating burden of paraphrase.” If the purpose of summary, history, paraphrase, or any “non-persuasive writing” is to achieve an unbiased accuracy, an accuracy free from argument, to tell it like it is or was, then we cannot write, or we must pull ourselves out of the situation and stop considering the reception of the words that we choose in order to free ourselves from that debilitating burden. But is this even possible?
I’d say no. But, more to the point, I say here that constructing assignments that are marked as “persuasive” and made distinct from any other assignment, or even constructing assignments of any type that alienate the piece of writing from its rhetorical situation, leads to bad writing and produces bad writers. Any time I see a syllabus that has an essay on it entitled “Persuasive Paper” or a unit in “Persuasion,” we contribute to the illusion that we can expel argument from language.
And I flinch.
Perhaps you disagree with this underdeveloped crank theory. If you do, respond to me, engage with these ideas — idea that I cannot claim simply to be my own — and deliberate with me rather than argue against me. I invite you.