Argue? Who, Me?
Blog post by InspireNet member Madeline Walker
What, you might ask, has argument to do with you? Nurses and social workers have traditionally prided themselves on conflict resolution, empathic listening, and reaching common ground with clients and co-workers. Argument may seem antithetical to these skills as it suggests confrontation, win-lose situations, and even patriarchy. And yet classical argument—persuasion through stating a thesis or claim followed by evidence and a rebuttal of the opposition—remains a cornerstone pattern in social science and humanities writing and publication.
Academic writing expert and instructor Wendy Belcher (2009) believes that the main reason journal editors reject articles for publication is that “authors do not have an argument or do not state it early and clearly.” Belcher predicts “you will dramatically increase your chances of publication if you craft the argument of your article" (p. 82). Whether you like it or not, argument is here to stay.
Even if you are not planning on getting published, learning to write an argument can help you to organize your ideas on debates in your field. Consequently, learning the basics of argument can help you to exercise your voice and power as a nurse.
I use a little book called They Say I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing to teach argument because authors Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein (2010) employ the familiar and accessible model of a conversation. The authors write that we can best develop our arguments “not just by looking inward but by doing what [we] often do in a good conversation with friends and family---by listening carefully to what others are saying and engaging with other views” (p. xxvi).
According to the templates in the book, you can capitalize on something you already do at the dinner table or the water cooler: listen to another point of view, carefully summarize that position, and then introduce your own view with reasons for your position. This is captured by the eponymous pattern, “they say, I say,” where “they” refers to received wisdom from the literature in your field, but can just as easily refer to the voices of other people engaged in your discussion. “Effective persuasive writers do more than make well-supported claims,” write Graff and Birkenstein. “They also map those claims relative to the claims of others” (p. x).
There are only three ways to respond to what “they say”: I disagree (and explain why), I agree (but with a difference), and I agree and disagree simultaneously. These three ways to respond cover just about any possibility in argument, thus paring down what might seem to be an intimidating move (“I say”) to clean lines of persuasion. Of course once you have selected your template, your bigger job is to convincingly bring evidence to bear, but having these templates of rhetoric at hand can demystify the process of argument.
Graff and Birkenstein (2010) claim that learning to converse like this is not merely an academic exercise. They believe that our “ability to engage with the ideas of others is especially crucial to democratic citizenship” (p. xxvi). I encourage you, as nurses and citizens of a democracy, to enter an argument today.
Madeline Walker, Ph.D. English
Assistant Professor and Writing Scholar
School of Nursing, University of Victoria
- Belcher, W. (2009). Writing your journal article in 12 weeks: A guide to academic publishing success. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
- Graff, G., & Birkenstein, C. (2010). They say I say: The moves that matter in academic writing (2nd ed.). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
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