One of the most challenging aspects of the transition to college writing is the idea that we as writers must develop our own unique thesis that contrasts, expands upon, or complements the authors we read in class. How are we, fresh out of high school, supposed to level a critique of Karl Marx, whose intelligence, knowledge and time spent thinking about the issues at stake far outstrip our own? Is there really any attack we could wage that Marx himself didn’t think of and articulate a counter-argument for in the 50,000 pages we have not read? Of course, constructing an original critique of well-established scholars is all but impossible for college students, but this post will attempt to highlight some ways of constructing interesting and original arguments while not falling into the trap of being overly argumentative.
Ninety-nine percent of the things we argue in an undergraduate paper have already been accounted for by the author hirself or the thousands of scholars writing on hir since. Our task—and it is not easy—is to nevertheless develop an argument that is not merely a regurgitation of the readings in class, but still manages to be persuasive and compelling enough to satisfy our professors’ expectations. In my experience, students often take a counter-productive route to achieving this end.
They too often behave like an action hero hiding in a room about to be overtaken by enemies: when the door crashes in, they jump out with guns blazing and no hope for survival, taking down anyone they can along the way. In other words, in an attempt to prove to their professor that they have indeed come up with a unique and powerful argument, they launch a ruthless written assault on some or all of the arguments they have read. This fails for a couple reasons. First, these students do not tend to criticize the authors themselves, but rather they focus their attacks on “straw men”: one-dimensional characterizations of the authors and their arguments that are purposefully flawed and unconvincing so as to provide fodder for their subsequent attack. These kinds of papers are often riddled with unaddressed objections and inconsistencies that the authors they criticize (and the professors grading them) surely could make, and often have. Intellectual rigor is thus sacrificed for contentiousness.
Second, such writing is often suffused with superfluous combative language to signal that these students indeed have their own innovative opinions (e.g. “Marx’s infantile theory is oblivious to the realities of human nature”). While this kind of argumentation pervades much of the nonfiction writing we are exposed to (political speeches, op-eds, blogs, and virtually all writing teeming with sarcasm), it often appeals to emotions and dogmatism rather than reason. It rarely convinces skeptical readers, which is the essential job of any student hoping to get an A. In sum, this mode of argumentation often lacks intellectual rigor and makes readers skeptical, causing them to write off the author as a biased and dogmatic essayist.
Paradoxically, those students who are unable to construct an original argument and instead merely summarize other writers’ responses to the essay prompts are closer to developing a thoughtful and substantial argument. Indeed, most professors are often a bit misleading when they say they want to hear an original argument. What they more often expect is an original adjudication. That is, your essay ought to be a forum in which all the relevant readings are given a fair opportunity to win you (and the readers) over to their side. Your paper should reconcile the clashing ideas as calmly as possible by putting the clashing arguments into conversation with one another, with a tone that emphasizes that your purpose is to weigh the relative merits of the competing arguments and get the most out of each perspective, rather than to tear them down ruthlessly. When there seem to be issues unaddressed by the conversation, you can complement the discussion with empirical evidence or your own arguments. By letting the adjudication of competing arguments drive your essay, you can avoid only summarizing and instead develop a convincing, insightful, and original argument, even when discussing well-established authors.
The benefits to this approach are two-fold. First, it compels you to give each argument a fair assessment, which signals to professors that you have read, understood, and respected those thinkers they have often dedicated their lives to studying. Your resulting objective tone will also signal that your goal is to impartially extract value, rather than denounce important arguments with captious assaults. Any conclusions you come to will therefore seem—and will likely be—more thought-out, and are more likely to convince your professor of their merit.
-By Max Yurkofsky ’11