Argument in the Real World

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How can we help students think critically about the community they’re speaking to online while giving them a real voice? How do we help our students create coherent arguments through social media? Kristen Hawley Turner and Troy Hicks say it’s not just about creating a podcast or blog, it’s about building an argument. On today’s podcast we’re hearing from co-authors Kristen Turner and Troy Hicks as they tackle these questions and more in their new book Argument in the Real World: Teaching Adolescents to Read and Write Digital Texts.  

Every day, our students are inundated by information—as well as opinions and misinformation—on their devices. These digital texts influence them. In Argument in the Real World, Kristen and Troy share a wealth of insights and practical strategies for teaching students the logic of argument. Wherever arguments are streaming in through – Snapchat, viral videos, internet memes, or links to other blogs or websites, Kristen and Troy guide us on how to engage with and create digital arguments. 

We started out our conversation on what real world arguments are?  

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See below for a full transcript of our conversation:

 

Well, they are surrounding us everyday. Especially in this season, it's interesting to think about the ways in which images, crafts, videos, commercials, clips that people have created on their own from Facebook Live or Twitter's Periscope, up to blog post, up to full reports and things coming from think tanks, Congressional Budget Office, anywhere. Real world arguments are surrounding us everyday. We have to think about the context and think critically about who's sharing that argument, what their stance is, and the ways in which we read. We write arguments and put those arguments of our own back out into the real world and understand what the intentional and sometimes, unintentional consequences of those arguments are.

I think it's important to understand that argument is not about arguing with somebody or getting in someone's face or anything like that. There's a structure to an argument where you make a claim and you provide evidence for that claim and that there is a belief system or a background understanding that allows you to have a civilized conversation with argument. 
    
Well, in picking up on that idea of evidence, I have started asking students to think about what counts as evidence, for whom, and in what context. Because we know that there are different kinds of evidence that count differently for different people, in different spaces, and in different ways. Until you have that conversation about what counts and you're talking about the warrants and the underlying assumptions that go with the evidence you're presenting, you're probably not going to be able to have a very strong conversation about what a good argument is. It's really about having those conversations about what counts as evidence. In the digital space, that gets complicated not only by the facts but by … 
    The hyperlinks. … colors, fonts, links, images, memes, all those types of things. 
    
Well, on that point, you're both specifically right to the fact that we can't teach it the same way we always have before in the past. Things are different now. 

    Yes. Texts are different now because we have hyperlinked text. In the past, when we only had a print-based text, you had that one text and you couldn't push a button and go to a different text. Now, you can. One of the things that we did in writing the book was, really think about how links might act as evidence or might provide warrants or the underlying assumptions for an argument. For all of these reasons, we do need to teach argument differently than how we have in the past. However, we also need to keep doing the good things that we know how to do. There are lots of authors that our book builds upon. George Hillocks is one of the primary people that we build upon. Also, Smith, Wilhelm, & Frederickson who talk about how to teach argumentative thinking and more traditional based arguments. We want to add to that, not takeaway from that. 


    Yeah. Even that one example of the hyperlink is really interesting. Because on a technical level, it's fairly simple to teach students how to put a hyperlink into a Google document, a blog post, or a Twitter message. However, in rhetorical level, it's a lot more difficult to think about, "Okay. Where is that link taking your reader and why would you want your reader to go there? What do you need to point out to your reader and the words that you choose leading up to that link? What do you need to say after your reader comes back from that link?" You don't have that with paper and pencil. 

    Going off of what you were just saying, that work is so much more important for students now. Can you explain why? 

    At one level, we think about students and the fact that they're screenagers, millennials, whatever the youth that we want to use to describe them. I think that we assume a lot about what they're capable of, what they know, what they're able to do. We have to step back from that assumption and say, "Okay. My daughter can post something to Snapchat, so what is she posting? In what ways is she framing that image? In what ways is she including different types of words and Digitalk in that particular post? Is she linking to something else? Who is she linking to? Is that person credible and authoritative? Even as that particular venue of Snapchat, the most appropriate way to share an idea or an argument, are there other places where you can get your ideas out there?" 
    
Students are immersed in a digital world. We need to help them think critically and carefully about the tools and the communities that they're speaking to. 

    We also want to give them a voice, a real voice in the world because they are real people. They are growing into adults who are going to contribute to our society. We want to help them do that in the most productive way as possible. To empower them to really be, as [Troy 04:58] said, critical and creative consumers and producers of information is very important so that they have a voice and contribute well to society. 

    The controversy going on around right now with Facebook and Google and the fake news, and the fact that that's even a conversation happening is evidence of the fact that we need to be talking with our students about what gets created and posted on the internet, by whom, and for what purposes, what gets shared, and what gets liked. It's not just about something getting liked. It's about something that is purposeful and meaningful. Do you want to contribute to that noise and chatter or do you want to create an argument that's clear and coherent? 

    One of the lessons that I've done with students is, it's not about the like. It's about a productive conversation. It's really about creating productive conversation which is sorely lacking on the internet right now. 

    To that point, you write in the beginning of the book about how it's not just a blog, it's not just a podcast. This is so much to the students, certainly, when they post something like that. It is so much more to them. It's important to honor their work in that way but also still give them the frame of work that they need to build those arguments. 

    Right. What we've really tried to think about is, it's not about creating a podcast. It's about creating an argument that may be presented as a podcast. For all of the genres or modes that we looked at in the book, we really try to deconstruct what an argument would be in each of those modes. Again, it's not about creating a video. It's about creating an argument that you might share in a PSA, which is a particular argument. 

    All the component parts of that video, everything from the script to the way the actors behave, to the camera angles, it all contributes. In the one hand, we could say, "Well, that's a peripheral list and it doesn't really matter because a classical Toulmin argument is claim, evidence, warrant." It's just the same as what we're doing on paper. In reality, we know that it's not. We know that images capture people's attention, videos capture people's attention, colors, fonts, sound effects, music, tone of voice, all those things really matter. We try to stick with the idea that we're thinking carefully about argument and not go too much in the saying, "Well, it's all about to get rhetorical pathos and ethos." It's more about the fact that you have these tools, how are you going to use them wisely to communicate your argument to the widest audience in a respectable, thoughtful, careful manner? Also, still, allow for some creativity and self expression in the process. 

    Making it more than just the bells and whistles of the tools. Not getting so bogged down in the fonts and the colors. What pictures you're putting into your digital presentation but thinking, again, about the claim, the evidence supporting that claim, and who that claim is going out to. 

    Well, it wouldn't be a book about digital argument without a digital component. You have a special Wiki setup for the book. What can people get from the Wiki? What can they expect when they go there? 

Well, one of the things they can expect when they go to the Wiki will be the examples that we have. We've linked to all of the student samples and other things that are in the book so they can quickly find those and use them as mentor text in their own classrooms. We've shared some of the lesson ideas. Of course, we hope that people will contribute to the Wiki. We are really looking to build a gallery of effective digital arguments. As you find them out in the real world or as you have students create digital arguments, we would really appreciate you adding them to the Wiki because that's what's going to continue this conversation and give us more examples to share with our students. 

I would just say, it's really hard to put a video into a print book. You can do it with a screen capture image but the digital piece allows the digital text to really live in the world. 

That's a very good point. I'm going to quote something from the book. You write, "Crafting arguments in the digital world could be one of our greatest possibilities to improve dialogue across cultures, continents, or it could contribute to creating or continuing bitter divides." Are the stakes really that high right now? 

    Well, again, in this cultural moment, I think that they are. I think that they have been for a long time. We build off the work of Andrea Lunsford and her colleagues who wrote the book, Everything's an argument, where they were thinking about visual culture, digital culture and all of those things. Now, when we have this, the tools had been in the hands of all of us for a long time. Computers allowed us to create videos in the 90s, the internet was getting faster, and YouTube came out and things like that. Now, students can do this with the device they have in their pocket. The immediacy of it, the efficiency of it, the ways in which they can choose different channels to broadcasting, whether they're broadcasting video or broadcasting just text messages through social networks. It's absolutely critical. 
    
As we're living right in this moment, again, with the fake news and the current context of the election, whatever your political stripes, you have to recognize that social media and the conversation that was happening through a variety of different digital arguments. This is where the evidence question becomes more important. What types of evidence are people pointing to? Do you consider that evidence to have been constructed in a thoughtful, coherent manner? Are you going to be more likely swayed by your own opinions and potential biases? There are just so many questions. To me, yes, it's absolutely essential. I want my own children and all children to be going through a writing curriculum that ask these types of questions and invites them to create products in that manner. 

    I would just add that our world should be about productive conversation that moves us forward and healthy debate about facts and evidence, but in a way that doesn't disregard facts and evidence. We draw on the work of Stephen Toulmin. He sets up argument in terms of claim, evidence, warrant, rebuttal. He cast this as a conversation between two people. If you're in a conversation with someone, you might make a claim and then that person might say, "Well, what have you got to go on? How do you know?" You provide your evidence and your partner might say, "Well, so what? Why does that matter?" You would provide your warrant or your underlying assumption. There could be a rebuttal. It's a productive conversation. This has become, although more complicated because of the different kinds of evidence that we can use to present. 
    
    In the book, we talk about a hierarchy of evidence which I was actually given when I was teaching high school by my department supervisor when he was talking to us about bringing debate into the classroom. It's something that's stuck with me for a very long time because I find it useful to think about the different kinds of evidence we might use. Scientific law, at least in the past, has been the highest form of evidence. If you are holding something and you let go of it, it's going to fall to the ground because gravity says so. That's pretty powerful evidence. Statistical data is another kind of evidence that has typically carried a lot of weight even though you can manipulate statistics. Opinions of experts, in the past, have typically carried a lot of weight. You also have opinions of noted individuals who might not be expert on the subject but people trust them. There's anecdotal evidence which counts a lot pulling on the heartstrings, this is what happened to me. It's not necessarily applicable to everyone. 
    
These categories, I think, are useful in real world argument as we're thinking about the problems that we have because we are not thinking about what evidence actually counts in an argument. In some cases, just throwing out the evidence all together. I'm the parent of young children. They are born into this digital world where arguments and maybe, not quality arguments, are thrown at them all the time or will be thrown at them, I want them to contribute productively. I want them to have conversations with people where they can say, "Well, what have you got to go on? Well, so what? Why does that matter?" The two people together can come to a better understanding and move forward. That's really what our society needs. Yeah, the stakes are pretty high. 
    
To encapsulate some of this. One of the memes that we found or at least, I saw when we were writing this book, it had a picture of Abraham Lincoln. It had a black background with white text. It said, "Just because someone put a quote next to Lincoln's picture doesn't mean that Lincoln actually said it." You could take that same idea and apply it to a lot of different things. It's absolutely no problem at all. We could make that little photographic or meme of Lincoln and slap any quote on it and put it out on Twitter and have it blasted around the world in less than five minutes. The question is then, whether or not, "What does that do? How does that count as evidence?" 
    
If someone is going to employ a tweet from a noted individual who has put a picture with a quote or a picture with a statistic or something like that and they're counting on that appeal to authority as evidence, that's a very different conversation and say, "Oh, I'm going to send you a link to the actual text on the Library of Congress website written in Lincoln's hand scanned digitally as an archival document." Two very, very different kinds of evidence. The ways that that evidence is then marshaled into an argument, it matters a lot too. A student could choose to link to both of those. In one case that liked to the meme might be useful because you're critiquing it and you're saying, "Hey, look, how silly this is?" Unfortunately, we know that doesn't always happen especially on social media. 
    
Definitely, we'd like to say thank to all the teachers who invited us into their classrooms and who shared examples of student work. I genuinely invite conversation with teachers through e-mail, through Twitter, through other forms of social media. We love hearing what's going on in your classroom and finding out what real world arguments look like for you and your students. 
    
That's why we've created the Wiki to have that conversation. 

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