Writing to Win vs. Writing to Evolve

In the face of outright racism, sexism and “alternative facts,” an imperative and fundamental skill we teach students is how to find sources that support a particular claim and then to use those sources in forming a well-reasoned argument that persuades others; in other words, we teach students how to use research to take a firm stance against dangerous and ill-conceived rhetoric. We teach them to win an argument. It is helpful to know, however, that other discursive strategies exist for argumentation and that these strategies may test our students in ways that are uncomfortable and awkward, but that are also (and importantly), generative and healthy–like growing pains.

In my teaching of argumentative writing, I have been guided by Sonja K. Foss and Cindy L. Griffin and their offering of invitational rhetoric as an alternative to what they call a “patriarchal bias” in the field of composition and in college writing classrooms towards a “rhetoric of persuasion,” or what the late Wayne Booth called “Win-Rhetoric” many moons ago. Foss and Griffin have taught me that when I give writing prompts that ask students to engage in a rhetoric of “conquest, conversion, and advice,” my students can only win when they “change the behavior and perspectives of others” and if they don’t do that, they fail (rhetorically and, perhaps, they fail the assignment as well).

In this model, however, too much power resides in beating others, in winning; that’s a lot of pressure! And I’m not convinced such an approach is conducive to critical thinking and the cognitive dissonance1 such thinking requires. Foss and Griffin invite teachers of writing, instead, to move towards a more mutually empowering view of argument–one that is invitational, one that “assumes the form of an offering, an opening, or an availability, and not an insistence.”

Barry Kroll similarly suggests teaching argument not with a closed-fist approach (ready to punch, pound, and win), but with an open-handed approach which he gets from his training in Aikido, a Japanese martial art that means “the way of harmonious spirit.” When students are taught to argue with an open hand, Kroll posits, argument becomes both “a gesture of peaceful intent” and “a way to establish a connection with an adversary in order to receive aggressive energy and redirect it.” Kroll writes that the open hand “is neither belligerent nor passive, neither confrontational nor submissive, yet it has within its reach elements of both assertiveness and receptivity.”

I have come to believe that effective argumentative writing can include these seemingly paradoxical notions and that our writing assignments can ask students to be responsible and responsive to not only their own stances, complimented by research, but also to the perspectives of all other stakeholders in a complex issue, including those outside the field or academy. This takes a willingness to hear the perspectives of those who feel differently from us, who may be “less educated” or from discourse communities we have little experience with.

It also requires writing assignments that move students away from Win-Rhetoric and towards outcomes that honor the sovereign spirit of each human being affected by an issue–no matter which “side” each being is on. Booth calls this Listening-Rhetoric, where “both sides join in a trusting dispute, determined to listen to the opponent’s arguments, while persuading the opponent to listen in exchange.” The object, according to Booth, is “not just victory but a new reality, a new agreement about what is real.”

Argumentative writing assignments from this perspective, then, require students to practice humility and compassion and to feel comfortable–or at least okay–with discomfort as they seek to accept the possibility that they may not win, that they may be wrong (or at least not fully right), and that even the best sources may not help them make the most convincing argument, particularly if the audiences they reach out to simply don’t trust those “best sources.” The point, then, is not made in a student’s argument so much as in the affective and evolutionary outcomes of his argument–on all stakeholders involved, himself included.

With these alternative rhetorical approaches to argument in mind, then, I wonder (with you):

  • In what ways do our writing assignments ask students to win, to be right, and/or to use sources only to persuade others to accept a particular view, and to what effect(s)?
  • How might our writing assignments encourage students to invite various and even dissenting stakeholders to the table, honoring the perspectives of those both inside and outside our fields and the academy?
  • How can writing assignments require a balance of students’ assertiveness and receptivity, compassion, humility and conviction?
  • Where in our writing assignments might we give students opportunities to listen, compose, and deliver new realities, offer new agreements about what is (or could be) real? To change (or evolve) their own thinking about an issue?
  • How, in other words, can we encourage students to openly wonder (in writing) about possibilities and not just confirm what is already thought im/possible?

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1 – Thank you, former W@Bates staff member, for this great read I came across on our FYS Instructors Lyceum page. Want access? Please request from writing@bates.edu.