Analyzing Arguments

So, you want your first term seminar to focus on cultivating critical reading habits and understanding the rhetorical moves of arguments. Bravo! These are information literacy skills, even if you’re not asking students to use the library to find sources for a paper.  Here are a few ideas for activities that focus on unpacking arguments.

Choose or have students bring in an opinion piece, one related to course content or to things that have come up in class discussion. Ask students to analyze the piece: what is the author’s purpose (what do they want the reader to believe)? What claims do they make? What evidence do they provide to support those claims? Do they address counter-claims or not? Finally, do you agree with the author? Why or why not? This could be done in small groups in class or as a take-home assignment.

Dig a little deeper: Do the above activity, but add another step: ask students to track down information about the evidence the author has provided. This may or may not involve librarians (and could be either done in a class workshop with the instructor and a librarian or one-on-one with a librarian at the reference desk/by appointment). This involves tracking down things mentioned in the opinion piece: finding and reading a report or a study, finding out about a person or organization, or trying to figure out where some statistics came from. Have students write about or present in class how what they found affected their take on the original argument.

Dig even further: Do the above but in addition to tracking down sources, fact-check elements of the opinion piece using Mike Caulfield’s “four moves”:

  • get background on the question or see if someone has already checked the facts
  • go “upstream” – find out what people think of the source of the opinion piece.
  • read “laterally” – see what other people have said about the “facts” the piece relies on. Is this widely accepted or is it an outlier?
  • circle back (if you get overwhelmed start over; what you’ve learned will help you make the first three moves again).

Caulfield adds a habit to his four moves: if what you’re reading riles you up, if it stimulates an emotional response, be extra careful to check before you share.

This might not be much more time-consuming than the second option if you choose an opinion piece ahead of time and have the whole class work together on the four moves.