Argument: you got a problem with that?

A crucial problem we tend to find in student writing is the absence of a problem. An argument needs a problem to argue with, explore further, and to solve. When that problem is absent, we end up with a paper that may technically have some sort of thesis statement (“Thoreau’s writing in his later years is significant”) but also has no real academic purpose. Who cares? Why should that matter? Who says otherwise? As Gerald Graff would put it, in the absence of a problem (colleagues in the social or natural sciences might call this a ‘research question’ if not explicitly use the word ‘problem’) students tend to have a thesis that asserts, “How ’bout that Wordsworth!”

I am thinking, then, about the problem of the missing problem in student writing, in thesis-based writing or academic argument. However, this problem is complicated by the fact that we continue to see a missing or flawed “thesis” from students who can quote us, chapter and verse, the characteristics of a thesis. I see this ‘thesis problem” in English 101 from all levels of writers; I have seen it, as well, in a senior thesis–where an otherwise well written and developed thesis is missing a clear statement of the argument. My own argument is that the problem lies somewhere in the ways we define a “thesis” and–so I would assert–fail to help students grasp that an academic argument needs to move beyond a thesis statement. To emphasize this move, I have shifted my focus from “thesis” to “argument.” To help me in that move to argument, and to what I call a “moving argument,”  I have presented to students an argument structure I adapt from screenwriting. This has helped me to give new meaning, in more vernacular terms, to the problem (in other words, conflict) that academic writing requires and that student writers tend to neglect.

Academic purpose emerges in raising a problem with existing or conventional or received or controversial views of things. Our students, you might have noticed, tend to have problems with our interest in problematizing. Why does everything have to be complicated? Why does everything have to be a problem? Why can’t Thoreau’s writing just be interesting or enjoyable on its own–why does everything have to be a problem? I have come to answer students in two ways. First, that as academics we value complicated, not simplistic, thinking. So, get used to it; the good thinking that makes for good argument needs to be complicated. But complicated doesn’t necessarily mean difficult or hard to understand or unclear. This leads to my second response: complicated means that there is a problem with how something has been or is being viewed or understood, and you want to argue that there is another way to view it, an alternative understanding. A problem helps set-up the context for the focus and the purpose for the writer’s argument. A good example of how this necessary complication need not be necessarily difficult can be found in the following, from the opening paragraphs of Seeing New Worlds: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Natural Science (Wisconsin, 1995) by Laura Dassow Walls. Walls deals with complicated ideas, as most book-length academic arguments do. But the argument that explores those complicated ideas is built on a central and clearly stated problem: she offers an alternative to the longstanding problem in Thoreau criticism, discounting his later work as distracted, misled, insiginficant. Walls sets up her argument using that very language of “problem,” and does so clearly and simply in the opening 2 pages of the book.

Thoreau devoted the last ten years of his short life to studies that have puzzled generations of his commentators. What was the ‘transcendental’ author of Walden doing out in all weathers, counting tree rings, listing plant species, measuring stream depths? These are not, on the face of it, very transcendental activities. It is difficult to imagine Emerson, for instance, scouting woodlots in the autumn rain, entering tree ring counts into a field notebook. And it is easy to imaginethese activities as fatal distractions from the great task of writing the successor to Walden, and thus to marginalize them, in our disappointment, as the product of a declining and tragically misled talent.

Yet there are at least two overriding reasons for attending carefully to these studies. The first is Thoreau’s sheer joy in physical engagement with the woods, fields, and waters of Concord, evident still on every page of the late Journal…. Second, Thoreau himself  felt he was on, not a retreat, but a real and affirmative quest, which was intrinsic to the totality of his career, the attempt to read and tell a history of man and nature together, as in one single, interconnected act.

The effort to read nature ‘whole’ was shared by many of Thoreau’s [Romantic] contemporaries…. Central to this book is the assertion that there is, in addition to the one narrative usually told about romanticism, a second competing narrative…. The second, ‘empirical holism,’ was an emergent alternative which stressed that the whole could be understood only by studying the interconnections of its constituent and individual parts…. Recovering this alternative tradition enables a new understanding of the problematical studies which fill the later years of Thoreau’s Journal, which are also the years of his greatest literary productivity.

To help redefine the significance to argument of  ”problem,” I use the analogy of screenwriting with my students. For the longer version of my use of this analogy (using the three-act structure of a film to think about the structure of a thesis-based essay or argument), I invite you to read and freely refer to a post from my English 101 blog, “Screenwriting an Argument,” linked here (I gave out material adapted from this post at the Moving Arguments workshop). For a shorter version, I would use the example above:

Given. Longstanding puzzlement/confusion regarding Thoreau’s work in last ten years of his life, leading to continued neglect of that work.

Problem/Disturbance. The ‘yet’ of the second paragraph: two ‘overriding reasons’ not to discount this later work.

Thesis (or in film terms: the turning-point or premise of the film–what the film is about). The ‘alternative’ proposed by the scholar: the central assertion of book–a new understanding of later work of Thoreau can be had by understanding Thoreau’s place in an alternative tradition within romantic literature named ‘empirical holism.’

My contention is that this analogy can help students understand our academic “problem” by way of a form more familiar to them. Films are built on problems, on conflict. There needs to be a problem in order for a film to have a purpose, a problem that (at least in the traditional three-act film) the protagonist must overcome by the conclusion of the film. In the process of helping students reconsider why  everything in the academic world needs to be (or have) a problem, this analogy emphasizes that argument is, or should be, like a good film, dynamic, active, moving.

Some links for further reading:


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