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.

Beyond the binaries

It’s probably just a case of too much Berlin (IS there such a thing?), but I’ve become a bit burned out on “binary opposition.” And then I read Kameen’s “Rewording the Rhetoric of Composition.” There they were—more binaries. Kameen lists numerous pairs which, as he says, are “usually conceived as polar opposites rather than dialectical contraries” (4):

  • thought/feeling
  • form/content
  • process/product
  • expression/communication
  • self/audience

I think one strength of Kameen’s argument lies in his attempt to restore “a dialectical relationship among the binary concepts” (4) through the inventive power of language. Kameen invokes Coleridge’s concept of imagination to illustrate “a refreshing and rigorous alternative” (8) to these binaries.

Kameen calls on “a companionable set of dual concepts” (22) from dialectical epistemology: primary and secondary (Freud); complex thinking and conceptual thinking (Vygotsky); and logical and paleological (Arieti). What is most interesting to me is Arieti’s idea of a “tertiary process” that mediates between the two binaries. Arieti explains that “the tertiary process…blends the two worlds of mind and matter, and in many cases, the rational with the irrational. Instead of rejecting the primitive…the creative mind integrates it with normal logical processes in what seems a ‘magic’ synthesis from which the new, the unexpected, the desirable emerge” (22-3). This tertiary process makes synthesis between the two ways of knowing possible, and this, Kameen claims, is most akin to Coleridge’s “imagination.”

Reality is much more nuanced and complex than a choice between two competing binaries. Kameen’s approach was a refreshing respite from the either/or view of most theorists.