The Authenticity of Argument in Composition

How many times have you heard the notion that school learning isn't related to the "real world"? Or perhaps that university essay writing isn't authentic?

Well, today,as a member of the board for Paterson Charter School for Science & Technology, I attended EIRC training for observing and evaluating administrative staff: the board's responsibility in doing so, creating instruments and criteria for doing so, following those criteria, and documenting all evaluation. The evaluation itself should be in the form of a narrative report (that is, an essay) with the following elements:

  • Claims - generalizations
  • Evidence - backs up the claims
  • Interpretation - explains the evidence
  • Evaluation - thoughts of the evaluator [on what actions should be taken]

Those four elements correspond to my own teaching in first-year composition. That is, I teach that all body paragraphs have the elements of claims, evidence, and reasoning/analysis (explaining how the evidence supports the claims). The evaluation usually comes in the conclusion.

For an example from today's New York Times, we can look at the article "Gospel Truth" by April DeConick, professor and historian of early jewish and Christian thought at Rice University (see her Forbidden Gospels Blog"). In her op-ed piece, she is arguing that the National Geographic Society's translation of the "Gospel of Judas Iscariot" has serious errors. Here's one excerpt:

Whoever wrote the Gospel of Judas was a harsh critic of mainstream Christianity and its rituals. Because Judas is a demon working for Ialdabaoth, the author believed, when Judas sacrifices Jesus he does so to the demons, not to the supreme God. This mocks mainstream Christians’ belief in the atoning value of Jesus’ death and in the effectiveness of the Eucharist.

The second sentence is evidence, and the third sentence interprets that evidence. The first sentence, a claim is an interpretation of the third sentence, a more generalized interpretation of the evidence, or a more general claim concerning the evidence. Let's look at one more excerpt:

Several of the translation choices made by the society’s scholars fall well outside the commonly accepted practices in the field. For example, in one instance the National Geographic transcription refers to Judas as a “daimon,” which the society’s experts have translated as “spirit.” Actually, the universally accepted word for “spirit” is “pneuma ” — in Gnostic literature “daimon” is always taken to mean “demon.”

Again, the second sentence is evidence, but so is the third sentence. So, the first sentence is an interpretive claim concerning the evidence.

Thus, depending on how clearly and directly the evidence supports the paragraph's main claim (and depending on the audience), other interpretive sub-claims may or may not be necessary.

Where's the evaluation? In the second-to-last paragraph:

To avoid this, the Society of Biblical Literature passed a resolution in 1991 holding that, if the condition of the written manuscript requires that access be restricted, a facsimile reproduction should be the first order of business. It’s a shame that National Geographic, and its group of scholars, did not follow this sensible injunction.

In other words, DeConick is recommending that scholars follow the resolution. So, whether in evaluating school administrators, crafting opinion pieces in the New York Times, or writing essays in first-year composition, the elements of argument--claims, evidence, interpretation, and evaluation--exist. So, it seems that school writing does have some authenticity.