Fleming and Teaching Argumentation in the Classroom

I admit to having trouble getting any of the readings to resonate with me today. While Bitzer and Grant-Davie both have interesting things to say about arguments and rhetorical situations, I found myself struggling to find anything more to say about these articles. Perhaps this is because I’m not a compositionist at heart, nor would I consider myself a rhetorician by any means.

It wasn’t until I read Fleming’s chapter on “Rhetoric and Argumentation” in A Guide to Composition Pedagogies that I found something to discuss further. The end of his chapter (pg. 260-261) details steps to implementing activities in the classroom to help students learn argumentative strategies, some of which I have found myself employing in the classroom over the past few years, and all of which I regret not being taught myself until relatively late in my academic career. Of particular interest to me, even in the writing classroom, is step 4: Set up a debate.

Personally, I use group debates when I teach the Commentary assignment to my English 120 students, for several reasons. It seems to help my freshmen understand how to make solid, believable arguments in a relatively low-stakes situation, for one thing. Even though the stakes are low, they must still make meaningful arguments in order to try to persuade the other side of the debate and persuade the rest of the class to believe their side. My students also learn the importance of crafting an argument based on solid research this way. These group debates also fit fairly well in Fleming’s step 5: As the group to decide the issue.

What I haven’t done in the past is move on to step 6 or 7 that Fleming suggests: (publish and) circulate final opinions, and encourage reflection, respectively. While I do ask my students to reflect on why we hold debates in a writing classroom, I have never asked them to reflect on their actual arguments, nor have I had them circulate final opinions on their debates before. These two steps seem incredibly important in helping students understand solid argumentation, and I believe they will be useful in future debates I hold in my classes.

While my post this week has focused mostly on what I have already been doing in the classroom, I do have a couple of questions relating to Fleming’s chapter, similarly in relation to teaching argumentation in the classroom.

Question 1: Does Fleming’s progression of steps seem complete, or could we add more steps in order to better help our students become better at forming arguments?

Question 2: Citing Susan Wells’s comments that students in argument assignments usually means “writing for no audience at all” (261), Fleming makes the case for actually publishing students’ arguments on a weblog so they are writing for an “outside” audience of some kind. Is this necessary, or is the mere circulation of these arguments around the class enough? Do the heightened stakes of actually publishing students’ arguments run the risk of paralyzing their rhetorical skills?

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One thought on “Fleming and Teaching Argumentation in the Classroom

  1. Your question 2 is important. While I see rhetorical skills as meaning people shouldn’t just be able to speak and write in the classroom, I also think people feel differently about more public discourse. Also, we know that online environments for discourse can be very hostile and even dangerous, particularly for women and GLBTQ people, or really anyone perceived as an outsider. So, I think we have some careful decisions to make when we construct assignments in the context of school. We likely want our students to get the kinds of rhetorical experience that comes with practice in a range of rhetorical situations, not just the situation of the English class. And I can speak at least in part to the power of community-engaged writing increasing student motivation for writing, but I do think teachers need to put up some safeguards and even alternatives on those occasions where students have experienced trauma or culturally or religiously might be strongly opposed to public rhetoric on particular topics.

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