Teaching Toulmin

As I have previously mentioned, I’ve found it difficult to teach Toulmin’s model of argumentation to my ENG 104 students. I tried it during my first quarter but decided that the time it took wasn’t worth it considering the disappointing results. Students could identify data and claims, rebuttals and qualifications in the writings of professionals, but warrants and backing eluded most of them, and they struggled to use the model in their own writing. But Hillocks’ article has caused me to rethink my anti-Toulmin stance (especially since I don’t think Toulmin is optional for 105, which I’m teaching next quarter).

Hillocks unfortunately starts his article about critical thinking in a less-than-logical way, basing his assessment of the current state of the teaching of critical thinking in secondary English education on one single textbook published 20 years ago. He then jumps on the “argument is better than persuasion” bandwagon, linking persuasive writing with propaganda and advertising while prioritizing argument because it is “logical.”

But Hillocks does get on track after this, offering a good overview of Toulmin, the strongest point of which was his reminder that a strong argument follows a close analysis of the data. Often teachers press students to come up with their thesis too early, before really considering the data, having students use the data as support for the thesis rather than having the thesis emerge from their analysis of the data. As Hillocks points out, “without analysis of any data (verbal and nonverbal texts, materials, surveys and samples), any thesis is likely to be no more than a preconception or assumption or cliched popular belief that is unwarranted and, at worst, totally indefensible.”

At the end of his article Hillocks demonstrates how he teaches the Toulmin model of argumentation to a class of 9th graders. By concretizing these abstract concepts–he uses a mystery picture puzzle book—he’s able to have remarkable success teaching Toulmin to high school students. So, did I immediately go to Amazon to see if these Crime and Puzzlement books by Lawrence Treat are still available? You bet.

Questions about Quintilian

Having now read Quintilian, I realize how much our contemporary practices of writing instruction are indebted to the classical rhetoricians whose practices Quintilian synthesized in his Institutes of Oratory, and also how much we could learn from them. One practice that Quintilian advocates seems completely opposite from our standard process writing pedagogy. Here’s a reminder of the gist of what he says (from pp. 404-5):

  • By writing carefully we can develop our ideas more deeply, which will provide us with a store to draw on as needed when speaking.
  • How we should write: “Let our pen be at first slow, provided that it be accurate. Let us search for what is best, and not allow ourselves to be readily pleased with whatever presents itself.” As we write we should judge our thoughts, attend to the organization, and weigh each word and its placement carefully as well as the rhythm of each phrase. Just as an archer pulls back the bowstring, so also should we go back as we’re writing to evaluate what we’ve written.
  • By this method we will write “very few verses in a day” as was Virgil’s practice.
  • Eventually we will be able to write faster, but we must first learn to write slowly: “By writing quickly we are not brought to write well, but that by writing well we are brought to write quickly.”
  • Some people are happy with everything they write and some with nothing.
  • Not only practice will help improve writing but also method. Instead of “looking at the ceiling, and trying to kindle our invention by muttering to ourselves wait[ing] for what may present itself” (doesn’t that sound familiar?), we should consider the subject, the occasion and purpose, and the audience.
  • It is better to write carefully at first than to produce a rough copy. (Quintilian calls a rough copy a silvam or forest because the trees in the forest are arranged in no particular order. Interesting.)

It seems that Quintilian would be in disagreement with our practice of having students talk about their ideas before writing and encouraging them to write quickly with little concern for structure or word choice, just to get the ideas down. So do you think that Quintilian just needs to read some of the research on writing process, or are his ideas worthy of consideration?

The topoi and the writing process

I found the ideas in Frank D’Angelo’s article “The Evolution of the Analytic Topoi: A Speculative Inquiry” to be fascinating. D’Angelo outlines three broad stages (the global, the analytic, and the synthesis stages) in the development of human cognitive abilities and relates these stages to the development of the topoi. But he doesn’t stop there. He says that his main purpose in developing this history is “to provide a conceptual framework for a better understanding of invention and the composing process” (51). So, according to D’Angelo, how we humans developed ways to come up with ideas and organize them is mirrored on a small scale in our students, and we as teachers can help students as they move from the global stage, to the analytic, and finally to the stage of synthesis. “In this view, the composing process is analogous to universal evolutionary processes in which an original, amorphous, undifferentiated whole gradually evolves into a more complex, differentiated one” (51). As students move through the recursive process of writing, they reenact the development of the topoi. Cool insight.

From a historic perspective, the global stage is the most intriguing to me. It’s so hard for me to wrap my mind around the idea that preliterate people had fundamentally different thought processes: “The singer of tales and the pre-Socratic Greek thinkers thought differently about the world than we do” (68). I’m intrigued to know how not being able to read and write would influence my thinking. Many days, when I’ve stayed up too late and the alarm goes off when it’s still dark and cold, I justify staying in my cozy bed by thinking, “I’ll plan my class/write my paper/figure out what to do about such and such in my head.” And so I begin my “thinking like an ancient person” experiment: how long can I sustain a cogent series of thoughts in my mind? It goes okay for a while: “Okay, first we’ll discuss this, and then we’ll do this activity,” or “Okay, I’ll start with this point, and don’t forget to use that word. Yeah, that’s good….” But soon I’m having thoughts like, “Wait, what did I just think? I need to not forget that…” etc. And so I’m forced to get up and find a pen and write down my ideas, and my experiment is over. Maybe Einstein or Mozart or Coleridge could have shown succeeded in being brilliant even as a preliterate person (although Coleridge certainly exaggerated his facility of composing in his mind), but I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to cogitate nearly as well (or at least the same) without a way to write. D’Angelo claims that “preliterate man was apparently unable to think logically” (52), and after my early morning experiments, I’m inclined to agree. And that certainly seems to characterize my students in their early versions of their essays! But as D’Angelo points out, during the global stage the analytic topoi were “embedded in oral performance” (54), an observation that lends credence to teachers’ use of small group discussions to help students generate ideas.

The topoi of the analytic stage (at least of early Greek thought) are characterized by polarity and analogy, according to G. E. R. Lloyd (55). This seems to be much like the early pro/con orientation of my students to any controversial topic (polarity) and their tendency to start analyzing an issue by using their experiences as a lens through which to understand it (analogy). D’Angelo also posits that the topoi of the analytic stage (the enthymemes of Aristotle, for example) still bear a close connection between commonplace material (maxims, proverbs, popular sayings). My project with my students at this point in the quarter is to help them move from unquestioning reliance on commonplaces to a more analytic approach. Again, I can definitely see the parallels between the historic development of the topoi and the way that individual students develop their ideas.

During the stage of synthesis, D’Angelo contends that rhetoric and the topoi shifted “from tradition to theory” (61). According to S. M. Halloran, “The goal of the classical rhetorician was to prepare others to speak in conformity with the established rhetorical conventions. The goal of the modern theorist is to achieve an abstract understanding of the rhetorical process, and thereby to be able to predict the outcome(s) of a given rhetorical transaction” (62). This seems to correlate to the stage of composition where the student steps back and considers how various ways of approaching the topic will affect his/her audience, where the student tries to see the subject from others’ perspectives.

So besides the historical overview and theoretical understanding that D’Angelo’s article gave me, I also came away with an interesting way to look at my students’ composing process. As teachers we have to allow them to flounder for a while (the global stage), and allow them to rely on clichéd and polarized arguments for a while (the analytic stage), before they will be able to achieve a more mature and nuanced position (the synthesis stage) where they have a better understanding of the rhetorical situation.

Dissoi logoi

When I first read this selection, I understood it to be advocating for Protagoras’ way of thinking: “Of all things the measure is man.” The writer seemed to be saying that whatever the situation, good/bad (seemly/shameful, just/unjust, true/false) can only be determined by an individual’s self-interest. An event could be seen as good from one person’s perspective yet bad from another’s.  What we had learned about the Sophists from Dr. Edlund during the course introduction—that the Sophists did not believe that absolute truth could be known and that they had gained an anthropological perspective on the world from their travels—seemed to support this reading.

However, during my second reading I focused more on the second part of each section, where the writer demonstrates that it’s ridiculous and untenable to say that these binaries are actually the same thing, like saying black is white (50, column 2 bottom). The writer argues for both cultural relativism (the first approach) and for some sort of abstract moral qualities (the second approach). These are the two approaches that give this work the title (in English) Opposing Arguments (not, as I initially thought, the opposition between good/bad, etc.) Very sophistic indeed.

So, for me what I got out of Dissoi Logoi (besides an introduction to the Sophists) was the value of having students look at issues from multiple perspectives. As Dr. Edlund pointed out last week, these were practice arguments. In classical education students were given lots of practice arguing both sides of an issue, a practice that I think has much value and one that I plan to utilize more this quarter as I teach my 104 course. From how many different angles can my students look at an issue? How thoroughly do they understand the opposing viewpoint? I think this kind of practice can greatly improve their critical thinking and writing.

The representative anecdote and heuristics

Ross Winterowd’s “Dramatism in Themes and Poems” provided an “aha” moment for me about why dramatism is so named—it’s about actors (agents), scenes, acts, purposes, agency: basically, all the elements of great drama (and any story) apply to rhetoric as well. It is this perspective of rhetoric as drama that provides what I think is a promising approach to infusing composition with life.

Winterowd points out that Burke’s technical definition of drama is “representative anecdote,” which can be defined in two ways, either “appropriate examples/support” or “conceptual pivot” (enthymeme, thesis, topic sentence, theme). And it is following from this point, Winterowd asserts, that Burke started a “revolution” (582), although be it one that has gone largely unnoticed (584).  Aristotle, of course, elevated the enthymeme as the “most effective among various forms of persuasion” (584), and it has reigned as the quintessence of logic throughout Western history. Burke, on the other hand, took the other course, developing the dramatistic conception of synecdoche (representative anecdote) as conceptual pivot (583).

This development—argument through synecdoche—is not an either/or proposition: “Burke is telling us that we progress not only via enthymemes (logical proposition), but also, importantly, via synecdoches (representative anecdotes)….Humans live not by enthymemes (theses, topic sentences) alone” (582, emphasis mine). Aristotle is not negated, merely supplemented.

Aristotle did address both the deductive argument (based on the enthymeme) and the inductive argument (based on the example), Winterowd reminds us, but Burke’s conception of argument by example differs significantly from Aristotle’s. An example in Aristotle’s paradigm is one of two samples that are classified under a particular genus. For Burke, dramatism as representative anecdote involves synecdoches, i.e., reasoning from part to whole, which Aristotle specifically rejected (587).

Both Aristotelian and Burkean arguments point to an overarching idea or point—the deductive to the enthymeme and the representative anecdote to “the terminological structure that is evolved in conformity with it.” Thankfully Winterowd provides his reader with a translation: this can also be called the “paradigm” or “prototype” (587). Winterowd provides research that demonstrates that readers seek enthymematic generalities (Kintsch and van Dijk, 584), which would seem to disadvantage Burke’s dramatism, but as Winterowd quips, “The great disadvantage of the representative anecdote is that it does not lead readily to the closure of an enthymeme. Its great advantage is that is does not force such closure” (588).

Winterowd suggests four implications for this understanding of appositional style, a term borrowed from hemispheric specialization research by Joseph Bogen (586). I’ll briefly discuss two. He suggests that high school and college writing teachers should respect the appositional styles of the students who prefer this means of expression, which, while a laudatory pedagogical goal, as Ron pointed out, may be more practical in the humanities than in technical disciplines. His second implication, though, I felt was of use to students in many disciplines—Winterowd says that the representative anecdote “is marvelously heuristic,” a way to “build an understanding of the world.” Whether the final product is presented in an enthematic or dramatistic manner, using the representative anecdote could provide students with an effective means of generating content, and one that uses a way of thinking that some students may find more natural.