Saturday, October 23, 2010

A recipe for making effective academic arguments

Being always on the lookout for valuable and relevant material to use, learn from, and retain, I wanted to share a tool I got from one of my professors in the Colorado State University English department, Dr. Michael Lundblad.  The tool provides elements necessary to make an effective academic argument.

The Tool:  Problem Statement -- consists of four elements, each generally one sentence in length; see below.

Element #1:   Status Quo Claim -- "a debatable and supportable argument about how a specific audience should think, act, or respond to a given text or context (the argument to which you will object)"

Element #2:   Destabilizing Condition -- what is "missing, wrong, or problematic in relation to the status quo claim"

Element #3:   Costs -- "why people in the status quo (or people who might find the status quo convincing) should see the destabilizing condition as significant, and/or what will happen if these people don't pay attention to the problem identified"

Element #4:   Global Claim -- "a debatable, supportable, and significant (to the intended audience) argument that proposes a solution or alternative to the status quo argument, logically related to the destabilizing condition and costs"

If you need to write an academic, thesis-driven paper, the idea is that you can use this initial statement to frame the paper and then continue using it to drive the remaining development of the paper, too.  If you're just wanting to engage in an intellectual speaking debate, the problem statement is a good place to start because it shows 1) that you've identified a problem, 2) that you've considered potential objections and costs associated with the problem, and 3) that you've thought of a potential solution to the problem.

Below is a Problem Statement I wrote for Dr. Lundblad's course I'm in this semester.  (The course focuses on cancer literature and explores how cancer is depicted in texts and thus how it is shaped in larger social discourses.)

Though I've been writing academic papers for many years now, up until I'd received this tool, I'd never been introduced to such a clean, simple, sensible approach to writing an argument.  I'd be lying if I said I wasn't excited, in a nerdy, intellectual way.  I definitely was.  And I still am because I feel more powerful, more confident knowing that when I use this tool, I'll be setting myself up in a stronger position, from a thinking, writing, and/or speaking standpoint, to more effectively assert myself AND to more thoughtfully approach any objections I might run into while making my argument.

Again, thanks to Dr. Michael Lundblad for this Problem Statement tool.


Example Problem Statement: written by me (Stephanie A. Griffin) on September 26, 2010 for E370

         The Value of the Negative on 

[STATUS QUO CLAIM] Some visitors to might argue that its content is too negative, and therefore, contradicts what they have been culturally taught about the need to maintain a positive attitude during the fight against cancer.  [DESTABILIZING CONDITION] What these visitors fail to recognize, however, is that underneath the veil of the positive attitude is the very human need for a safe writing outlet for people affected by cancer to temporarily break away from their positivity by expressing their true negative feelings about how cancer has impacted them.  [COSTS] If people affected by cancer are not able to express their true negative emotions on or a similar site, they may be forced to repress these emotions entirely, especially if the people they are physically surrounded by expect nothing but a consistently positive attitude from them. Given the physical and emotional damage cancer inherently causes, denying people an outlet such as to release their true emotions will cause them further damage.  [GLOBAL CLAIM] Even if people affected by cancer are expected to maintain a positive attitude about it, they must still have the opportunity to safely express their negative emotions about cancer on or a similar site. Just as it is necessary to have Internet sites encouraging positive attitudes about cancer, it is also necessary that people affected by cancer have or a similar site to express their negative emotions about the illness.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Reading more than just words

I enjoy writing six-word memoirs and mantras.  One that I've written recently is a reminder of the importance of reading in our lives:

"All the world is a text."

Reading doesn't just have to be limited to words--in a book or magazine or on a website or email or billboard.  Reading is actually something we can do on a larger scale.  And we can do it often and regularly.  We can read the world around us--situations or events that unfold in our lives, our circumstances, our choices, our experiences, our successes, our failures, our learnings, and our relationships.  What's more, we can read these things in other people's lives, too.

Reading is something we do actively.  Reading is perceiving.  Reading is learning.  Reading is growing.  And perhaps most important of all: reading generates awareness.  It's about more than just words.  The whole world is a text waiting to be read, analyzed, critiqued, learned from, emulated, not emulated, enhanced, or changed.  

So, when you get up tomorrow (and everyday thereafter), remember all the world is a text.  Go out and read it.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

My final thoughts... a book review: Lance Armstrong's cancer memoir

Now that classes are back in full throttle, I'll occasionally write a post featuring my final thoughts on a given text. When I read a text, it is important for me to be able to articulate what I learn, what I take away, what I can apply from the text to my own life. I'm taking an interesting literature course this semester, one that's different from the traditional lit courses you'd find in an undergrad English department. It's called "American Literature in Cultural Contexts" and it specifically focuses on cancer and how it's portrayed and perceived in American culture. So far, I am really enjoying it--the content we read is engaging and thought-provoking and the class discussions we have are intellectually stimulating. The text we just finished studying is Lance Armstrong's NYT Bestseller It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life (written with Sally Jenkins). What follows are my final thoughts on the book. (If you haven't read it, you can read a quick summary here.)

There are multiple ways you could critique this text in terms of its reinforcement of certain dominant discourses in American culture. For example, there are several instances where one could make the argument that this book both illuminates and reinforces aspects of American patriarchal society and gender roles. Or, when Lance talks about himself being the first American on the first American team on an American bike to win the Tour
de France, one could make the argument that he is reinforcing the larger cultural discourses around American nationalism and colonialism. Other similar arguments could be made with regard to how the text reinforces the notion of the American Dream and the idea of "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps"; or how the text is just another book that tells the story of a boy becoming a man; or how it's just another story about a brash, cocky, immature athlete learning the ways of the sport and maturing into a better athlete and human being; or how the text illuminates class differences and specifically how privilege might increase one's chances at surviving an illness such as cancer. The list could go longer, but I'll stop there. I'm eager to share with you what I've taken away from it, which is more positive.

While these criticisms are valid and are definitely good to analyze, discuss, and be aware of, I find these of less importance than the life lessons weaved throughout the text. This book provides a frame through which to look at and approach life. In sharing his varied life experiences and his honest responses to them, Lance Armstrong conveys a series of life lessons--lessons that can be distilled from the life story of this famous, privileged, larger-than-life cycling superstar, lessons that common, everyday, average people in any circumstance can apply successfully to their own lives.

Lesson #1: As Lance so aptly explains about the Tour de France, "It's a metaphor for life, not only the longest race in the world but also the most exalting and heartbreaking and potentially tragic. It poses every conceivable element to the rider, and more: cold, heat, mountains, plains, ruts, flat tires, high winds, unspeakably bad luck, unthinkable beauty, yawning senselessness, and above all a great, deep self-questioning. During our lives we're faced with so many different elements as well, we experience so many setbacks, and fight such a hand-to-hand battle with failure, head down in the rain, just trying to stay up right and to have a little hope" (Armstrong 68-69). In other words: life is a roller-coaster ride and it's how we respond that matters.

Lesson #2: It really does behoove you to maintain a primarily positive attitude in life, especially in the face of adversity. In other words: choose to see every obstacle in life as an opportunity; choose to find and focus on the positive in every situation, regardless of how small it may be; be determined to fight and win; never give up; believe and hope; embrace every opportunity as if it's your last.

Lesson #3: Be aware... of yourself and the world you live in and always strive toward greater awareness. In other words: understand what you've been through, what you've achieved, what you've learned, what may lie ahead, what limits may exist, and what you're capable of; fully realize what you've gained from your opportunities in terms of what you've learned, how you've changed, and how much you've grown; understand the amount of choice you have and how you can use it to positively (or negatively) impact your life.

The life lessons presented in this book are priceless. And they're ones we (hopefully) encounter often in various avenues in our lives. Lance Armstrong, through his honest account of his life--his lows and highs and everything in between--and most importantly in his viewing cancer as an
opportunity has produced a text from which anyone can positively gain. Behind all of his privilege and fame and superstar prowess, the life lessons are there--and they're as human and down-to-earth as they come.

It's time to take tolerance one step further--to ACCEPTANCE.

Like millions of others this past week, I have been deeply disturbed and saddened by the rash of reported suicides among young men around this country.  When I came across the NPR story about Tyler Clementi on my Facebook feed, my heart sank, my jaw dropped, and my eyes welled with tears.  When I followed a link to an article listing three more teenage boys whose lives all ended in the same fashion--all in September--I nearly vomited.  And these are only the reported cases.  

Losing someone to suicide is horrible in its own right.  Losing a kid to suicide is even more horrible because he or she still has a whole lifetime to live.  Losing a kid to suicide because he or she has been mistreated so horrifically by other kids…now that's just unspeakable.  Completely unacceptable.  Despicable.  Outrageous.  Sickening.  And preventable.  IF we focus our teaching.

As parents, as teachers, as community leaders, as role models, as mature, open-minded human beings, it is so incredibly important that we teach kids tolerance, that we really work to make sure they understand that just because people are different from them, they don't need to hate and hurt them.  But you know what?  We MUST go one step further, and teach kids ACCEPTANCE.  It's unequivocally imperative.  We must MODEL acceptance for them.  We've got to show them what acceptance is and how to really live it.  In one of my classes the other day, a classmate made an interesting distinction between tolerance and acceptance that I have since embraced: tolerance is a decent first step but it is only a shallow "I can be OK with that" mentality; acceptance though is where we need to get to, for that is a true embracing, a true accepting of something.  It's genuine; it's from the heart.  We're all different in myriad ways.  But we MUST MUST MUST learn to accept those differences and to work together to make this world a better place.  For your survival.  For my survival.  For the kids' survival.  For OUR survival. 

No one, especially kids--who generally lack the maturity and emotional stability necessary to overcome such blows to their self-esteem--should have to endure bullying from others because of who they are.  NO ONE.  They should never feel that they have to hide how they identify themselves, whether that's heterosexual, homosexual, transgendered, questioning, or whatever else there may be.  Kids' lives are already hard enough, what with trying to figure out who the heck they are and even more, who they "think they're supposed to be".