Why does everything have to be an argument?

by Elliot Schiff

My first year of college, in Expos and other humanities classes, I would get this feedback from my instructors: “Elliot, could you make your thesis statement more argumentative?” Or, “Elliot, this is a good paragraph but it’s missing an argumentative topic sentence.” I couldn’t help but think, “Why does everyone think this argument thing is so great?” It felt like everyone in an academic position of power over me had met in some room and decided unanimously that argument is good and we like argument. Why?

I’ll give you two answers, one theoretical and one practical. These are answers that I’ve come to understand through my experience as a writer, a student, and a tutor.

Imagine that there’s a national academic conference of experts on bouncy balls (maybe there is? maybe there should be…). Who knows what they’d look like or be wearing — probably elbow patches, they’re academics after all, they’ve got a public image to maintain. These are the people the world relies on to understand what’s important about the science of the very very important and ever-confounding bouncy ball. The conference gathers. They’ve got a huge stack of papers to peer review. It’s gonna be a long day.

“Bouncy Balls are Often Made of Rubber,” the first paper is titled. Not off to a great start. The contents of the paper are not any better. As a matter of fact, it’s just that sentence repeated over and over: “Bouncy balls are often made of rubber.” We know this, the experts cry. For ten pages. A prank. For some reason, some punk has decided to make fun of the very serious field of Bouncy Ball Studies.

Time to peer review another paper. This one’s called “From Handheld Toy to Exercise Ball: How Highly Elastic Rubber Spheres Went from Mere Distraction to Lifestyle and Fitness Craze.” We know this! The experts protest once more. Of course they know that the handheld toy led to the exercise ball that brought abs of steel to office workers across America. But then they read the paper: it makes specific claims they haven’t seen before. The paper’s fundamental argument is that the exercise ball’s former life as a plaything led to success and predated the gamifying of fitness to make it more fun. Here’s an argument! The stakes of the conversation are about what we think about when we think about bouncy rubber spheres, but also the history of American fitness culture.

This is all made up — and wildly oversimplified. But in the second paper on the history of bouncy balls, the author is making an argument. Simply put, when you make an argument, you are contributing something new to the conversation. That’s why your instructors keep asking you to be argumentative at every turn: it’s the best way to ensure that you’ll contribute something to a broader academic conversation. How cool is that! This is the theoretical answer to the question, “Why argument?”

The practical answer to “why argument” is that a highly argumentative paper is an easier paper to structure and revise. Think back to those bouncy ball papers. If you had to write a paper whose thesis statement was, “Bouncy balls are often made of rubber,” how the heck would you structure that thing? What evidence would you put where–and why? What would you even analyze? On the other hand, if your thesis was that the exercise ball rose to prominence in American offices not only because of its fitness benefits but because of its origins in play, now you’re cooking with gas. You would probably start with a history of the bouncy ball: its invention, its absolutely unanimous popularity — frankly its dominance over the toy market and the imaginations and Christmas wish-lists of American youth. Then, you would probably do the same with the exercise ball, a markedly different product, even though it’s largely the same material. You’d look at the marketing of the exercise ball, partnerships with offices, the history of office labor in the U.S. You’d find primary sources about the exercise ball as a replacement for the chair and compare those to firsthand accounts of the joy of the bouncy ball. And then you would be able to prove your point: the exercise ball really did rise to popularity in American offices because it is inextricable from its roots as a fun toy. Then you’d do some cultural analysis to connect this idea to the current ubiquity of gamified fitness.

This is not that great of a paper. I admit it. It’s also totally made up. But it helps me prove my point: see how much easier it is to structure a more argumentative paper? With a highly argumentative thesis, your natural wheels of logic start to turn, and moments where you’d otherwise be pulling your hair out over the right place to make a sub-claim or offer a piece of evidence suddenly become much easier.

This logic of the argumentative thesis making your life easier applies on the micro level (topic sentence) just as much as the macro (thesis statement). A paragraph with a non-argumentative topic sentence could often contain just about anything, but a paragraph with a highly argumentative topic sentence must contain evidence and analysis to prove the point outlined in the topic sentence. The same is true with the thesis statement: often, with a non-argumentative thesis statement, just about anything could be in the paper. Let’s make that very weak bouncy ball thesis a little better: “The bouncy ball’s shift from leather to rubber shows the use of post-WWII use of military materials in the toy sector.” If this is true (I have no idea), chances are that bouncy ball experts already know this. But because this thesis is slightly more argumentative than the original, you know that the paper will have to contain a discussion of military materials being repurposed in the civilian sector. That’s more focused and more specific than a paper focused only on the fact that bouncy balls are made of rubber, which increases the likelihood that the paper will say something new.

Is Your Introduction Any Good?

by Christina Twicken

In this blog post, I pan for some nuggets of gold in the introductory paragraph of an influential essay written by famed scholar and philosopher Cornel West entitled “The Paradox of the Afro-American Rebellion.”  Here is the paragraph:

The distinctive feature of Afro-American life in the 60s was the rise on the historical stage of a small yet determined petite bourgeoisie promoting liberal reforms, and the revolt of the masses, whose aspirations exceeded those of liberalism but whose containment was secured by political appeasement, cultural control and state repression. Afro-America encountered the modern American capitalist order (in its expansionist phase)—as urban dwellers, industrial workers and franchised citizens—on a broad scale for the first time. This essay will highlight the emergence of the black parvenu petite bourgeoisie—the  new, relatively privileged, middle class—and its complex relations to the black working poor and underclass.  I will try to show how the political strategies, ideological struggles and cultural anxieties of this predominantly white-collar stratum of the black working class both propelled the freedom movement in an unprecedented manner and circumscribed its vision, analysis and praxis within liberal capitalist perimeters.[1]

I share this introduction with you because it teems with lessons by which to live.  Here’s a breakdown of why this introduction is so intellectually and academically “on-point.”

  • Begins with a hook which directly introduces the tension that the paper will explore (the black middle class’s complicated location within the ideologies and structures of liberalism)
  • Moves to explicitly state [in the underlined region] the observations (evidence) that the essay will mobilize
  • Employs the first person to directly indicate originality and contestability
  • Offers a succinct thesis statement [in bold] which contains:
  1. A clear reason why this thesis is worth arguing (to identify and examine a paradox)
  2. An argumentative atmosphere (I could ostensibly come back at West and suggest an alternative vision of the paradox or perhaps a resolution to the paradox)
  3. An explicit allusion to the subject matter around which the analysis will be framed (political strategies, ideological structures, cultural anxieties…)

The best way to improve writing is to read good writing.  Don’t go and copy West’s thesis (!), but mobilize him as a model for judging the writing you do.  Does your introduction hit all of the bases? Does it have a topic? Does it outline the kind of evidence that the essay will use to prove its point? Does it explicitly state why such a presentation of evidence is important/revealing/inspiring/groundbreaking/original/unobvious/interesting?

[1] Cornel West, “The Paradox of the Afro-American Rebellion,” Social Text no. 9/10 (1 April 1984): 44.