Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Persuasive Writing: A Dead Art?

Last week at a party I had the opportunity to speak with a professor from the University of Penn who noted the difficulties in teaching persuasive writing in an era when shouting––literally and figuratively––passes for debate and logical reasoning is characterized as inertia.

What is persuasive writing exactly? You may know it best as the "essay test" where you are expected to establish a thesis or take a stand pro or con an issue and defend your position with facts. In the larger world the classic newspaper editorial or op-ed piece, at its best, is persuasive writing. The Declaration of Independence is  persuasive writing. It sets out the thesis that the time has come for "...for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another..."  then goes on to "declare the causes which impel them to the separation." The Federalist Papers were a series of persuasive essays written for the purpose of persuading states to ratify the Constitution.

 The Oxford English Dictionary definition of "persuade" is to "cause (someone) to do something through reasoning and argument" to "cause (someone) to believe something, esp. after a sustained argument." The implication is that persuasion is a slow, and somewhat low-key, process. After all, if you hold a strong opinion and you sense someone is trying to steer you in the other direction, you will simply shut them out. The true art of persuasion is much like fishing. The fish, enticed by the lure, swallows the hook. Then the fisherman slowly and smoothly reels the fish in to keep it from fighting and dislodging the hook or breaking the line before he can land it. And like a good fisherman who will give a large fish some slack now and then, the best persuasive essays rely not only on supporting facts, but will also note the facts that seem to support an opposite position and then shoot holes in them.

Unfortunately we see little of that nuanced art today. Though opinions fly, ad nauseam, from the mouths and keyboards of everyone from politicians to journalists to talk show hosts to the everyman blogger , few engage in the art of persuasion. Instead they bludgeon us with their beliefs and replace reasoned argument with visceral appeals, innuendo, and non-sequiturs, e.g. "the same people who want to save the whales care nothing about the life of an unborn child" or "the same people who call themselves pro-life don't care about inner city kids being gunned down in the streets." Such broad and uncorroborated statements would never have stood up in even my high school papers, yet these days I read those silly "arguments" regularly in the most prestigious newspapers and magazines, often written by journalists or "experts" with Ivy League educations. Is it a wonder students view persuasive writing as a relic perfected for the SATs and quickly cast aside like high school algebra?

The Internet puts facts literally at our fingertips, making persuasive argument that much easier over the days when our Founding Fathers needed to hold important information in their heads. It should also make writers more accountable for the "facts" they use to back up an argument, because we can easily call them out on their misstatements. Unfortunately, few Internet readers bother to find the original source, preferring to choose articles that reinforce their own views and spreading the misinformation exponentially.  Take for example the current healthcare debate with journalists as well as senators and representatives (who should, I believe, be held to a higher standard) regularly bandying broad phrases like "government takeover" and "healthcare rationing." No matter where you stand on the issue, I defy anyone to show me anything coming near that in the bill recently passed by the House or the one currently before the Senate.

Now, imagine a teacher assigning an essay on the topic and requiring students to back up a position with facts. Why would they see it as anything more than a useless exercise, like practicing handwriting in this day of word processing?


Anonymous said...

Wow, what a killer post. This is fantastic. Really good points, great analogies. I might print it and use it in class next semester to see if the students agree.

Sometimes when I come to your blog, it won't let me post from my wordpress account, and I deleted my blogger account. In the future, if it won't let me post, I'll try to post from some old blogger account I have, and I'll just tell you it's john gilmore. We'll see if this posts.

On the last days of class, I really took it to my class, having them debate issues of vocactionalism vs the humanities in college, and asking them to tell me really, really why they were in college. I flat out told them that some of them would be much better going straight into a career, except that businesses are getting the benefit of having their future workers trained at the worker's expense (college). This was mostly just to get them to listen and think about what I was saying, and a lot of them actually agreed -- that they would be better off training four years on the job and getting paid for it -- like businesses did fifty years ago, taking kids right out of highschool or before-- than paying for their own four years of "liberal arts" education and then starting work in debt with, allegedly, some of the skills.

The next day I sort of doubled back and argued that the only good reason to be in college was to expand their mind on various topics, to learn history and art and literature, since they'd all admitted to me that basically, nothing they were going to learn in the next four years would really help them that much in their career. I essentially argued that they needed to be in college for the non-9-5 hours of their day, the hours that are their own, not a corporations.

What was great about this was that these two classes were the first time I felt some of my students actually getting frustrated and arguing against me and each other. It was civil, but it was a legitimate debate, rather than the usual "I'm the teacher and I WILL EXPAND YOUR MIND" with the students nodding and taking notes.

Nannette Croce said...

Yes, your comment did take. Sounds like you are onto something there. My tendency, too, would have been to start with something big like healthcare reform, but the idea of using an issue much closer to home and about which, I'm guessing, their parents have inculcated them into the dogma (how I pine for the generation gap of the Viet Nam era) is really a much better way. You have to learn to crawl....

As you can see, sometimes I stretch to squeeze my politics into a writing blog.


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