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Reading for Argument

Reading for Argument

Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson teaches how to analyze a text for an author's argument.

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Video Transcription

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Welcome back to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me. So what are we going to learn today? Today we're going to be looking at arguments, one of the key parts of many, if not most, academic writing projects. We'll focus on reading for arguments, including what the word argument means in academic context and how we as readers can identify arguments, their claims, their structures, their components. Then we'll practice examining the rhetorical situations surrounding one particular argument, just so we can see how it impacts not only the writing of the argument, but a reading of it as well.

For our purposes and the purposes of anyone in an academic context, let's define an argument as a position or points made in a piece of writing. Chances are many, if not most of the texts you'll be exposed to during your college career, will have an argument at their core. They'll have some kind of point that they're trying to make you, the reader, understand or believe.

Being able to identify the components of an argument is not only a useful skill, it's practically a required one for anyone trying to master the art and craft of written communication. If you can recognize not only what an argument is and what it's trying to convince you of but also see its underlying structures, its components and assumptions, you'll be in a much stronger position as a reader. And you'll be able to analyze the effectiveness of the argument.

Instead of being either convinced or not convinced, you'll be able to take a more distanced critical look. And from that perspective, you'll rarely be fooled by flashy words or false logic. Believe me, this is a good skill to have outside of college as well. Because out there, the arguments you're likely to find don't always play by the rules.

Let's begin by looking at some arguments, just so you can see the huge span of topics and approaches writers can and will take when trying to persuade you. Take a minute to read this first short argument. It's obviously not a complete piece of writing. But for now, just focus on identifying what exactly this is arguing for or against. Pause the video if you need more time.

In a second, the subject and stance should be even more clear if you pause to read it. Here, pay attention to the very different tone. Has anything else changed that you can see? How about the evidence this argument is starting to include? It's still not a completely realized essay, at least not from the point of view of an academic scholar. But it's getting closer.

This third argument, if you pause again to read it, will show you a little bit more. Here, though we're still not seeing a claim backed up by evidence, there is at least a framing. We know what the argument is about. And we can see the direction the rest of the piece would most likely go. So these have been three sample arguments that should give you some sense of some of the directions that arguments can take, some of the stances they can use, and some of the different tones.

Now that we've had some practice identifying arguments, let's go a little further. For this next longer example, I'd like you to pause the video and read it carefully, looking not only for the argument itself, but for its components. Try to find the author's thesis, as well as some instances of reasoning. What kinds of appeals is it using and what evidence? Take whatever time you need. Then we'll compare notes.

So what would you say is the thesis of this text? Remember that a thesis is the central idea, a sentence or phrase that explain the main argument of the whole piece. Keep in mind that a thesis isn't always written in just one line. Here, I'd say the central point of this mini essay is that the Supreme Court should rule that selling videos of animal cruelty, while not acceptable behavior, cannot be made illegal because of the First Amendment's guarantee of the right to free speech.

Instead, as the last paragraph argues, we should increase the penalties for existing animal cruelty laws. It's a complicated set of claims that the short argument makes. So don't worry if what you took to be the thesis didn't match with mine. This piece has at least two central claims, both of which I just paraphrased. And it could be argued that either could stand as the argument's true thesis.

In any really complex argument, like this piece is so close to becoming, it should be expected that different readers will pick up and focus on different parts of the whole argument. What's important is that we can all recognize what the argument is doing. And towards that end, what would you say are the instances of reasoning and evidence? Where do they come into this piece?

Well, it should first be said that this argument, while short, is definitely a little light on the end of backing up its claims. The closest we get to a real logical appeal is in the first line or two of the second paragraph. There we see the author including a comparison between the unpopular animal abuse videos and the unpopular racist remarks that white supremacists are allowed to freely spew, as the author puts it.

This is a strong logical appeal in my opinion. It quickly and powerfully demonstrates another form of speech that is, and the argument implies, should continue to be protected. And it allows us to see the slippery slope that might occur if the Supreme Court were allowed to overthrow the lower court's decision.

And now that we can look at an argument and see not only it as a whole, but also the components that went into making it, let's go back and take just one more look at the animal abuse free speech argument, this time looking for clues about the rhetorical situation in which it was written. It should be pretty clear what the text's purpose is, to convince its readers that the author's point about animal cruelty and the first amendment is the correct one.

But who are its readers? There isn't much in the way of legal jargon, despite the lawyerly nature of the subject. So it should be safe to assume that it was written for a general audience, a general American audience, that is, one educated and interested enough to follow the Supreme Court's upcoming decisions, which we can tell, given that the author never gives us a moment to question which decision or which case we're talking about.

The author also dates his argument by writing that the case will be heard on Tuesday, rather than a date. So we know this piece is topical, meaning it's written quickly and meant to be read soon, probably more so than many of the academic texts you'll encounter later in class. We can probably assume that the author's background has something to do with either a law or journalism, given the subject matter he or she chose to cover.

But other than that, I don't see much in the way of an indication of other forms of bias or personal perspective. The argument seems fairly objective, doesn't it? Our least that's what it's trying to seem like. What do you think?

Is there anything else you can deduce from this text about the author's stance or background? Remember, that while some of these details may sometimes seem irrelevant, even making the attempt to understand the rhetorical situation of a text can help you as a reader by providing insight into the whys and the hows behind an argument.

What have we learned today? We learned how to read for an argument, from what arguments are in composition, and how to identify them and their component parts, including the rhetorical situation in which they came to be. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

Terms to Know

A position or point made in a piece of writing.