Does the strong emphasis on the thesis/support model in our schools have something to do with the polarization of our society?
In my previous post I described a “Survey of Opinion” assignment in which I asked students to find three op-eds taking different positions on an issue they were interested in and analyze the way each writer talked about the issue, how they framed it, what terms they used, etc. They found the articles, but instead of doing the rhetorical analysis, many of them crafted a thesis statement on the issue and used the articles to support their own positions, essentially writing their own op-eds. They were quite surprised when I told them they had not done the assignment.
In response I wrote the post “Why Do Rhetorical Analysis?” in which I argued that a rhetorician must cultivate a “moment of neutrality” and step back from the ideological fray in order to objectively analyze the discourse.
Later in the course I assigned another inquiry-driven project that was modeled on investigative journalism, inspired by Marilyn Cooper’s article “How Bruno Latour Teaches Writing” (185-201) in the collection Thinking with Bruno Latour in Rhetoric and Composition edited by Paul Lynch and Nathaniel Rivers. Bruno Latour is a sociologist whose main contribution is something called Actor-Network Theory or ANT, which treats both humans and nonhumans (machines, animals, texts, and hybrids, among others) as potential actors or “actants” in a network.
Basic concepts from Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory (ANT)
- None of us acts alone. Everything we do is part of an Actor-Network.
- Actor-Networks are made up of both human and non-human actants, such as animals and computers. From this perspective, we might see the novel corona virus as an actant.
- An Actor-Network is made up of intermediaries and mediators. An act flows through an intermediary without being changed. However, the input and output of a mediator is not the same, so the act is transformed to an extent.
- Actor-Networks are constantly being formed and unformed.
- We study an Actor-Network by describing it, not interpreting or explaining it.
I also told my students that in this assignment, “You don’t start with a thesis and look for ways to support it. That is actually not a legitimate way to proceed with research anyway. That is cherry picking items that support the thesis and ignoring conflicting information. Instead, you might start with a research question, such as ‘How did this happen?’ or ‘How did this get here?’”
A Model Text
As a model, I gave my students an article from the New Yorker (“Donald Trump’s Worst Deal” by Adam Davidson) about a Trump Tower in Azerbaijan, a 5-star luxury hotel which has been completed but never opened, so inconveniently located that local taxi drivers can see it, but don’t know how to get to it. How in the world did this hotel get there? The writer describes the scene of the hotel, then proceeds to trace the network of connections that caused it to be built, including politicians, financiers, investors, contractors, lawyers, oligarchs, and powerful families in Azerbaijan, Iran, and of course the Trump Organization. The writer has no explicit thesis for all of these connections, but part of the network extends to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and the most charitable conclusion that a reader can draw is that the Trump Organization is none too careful about whom it will deal with.
To help my students engage with the lengthy text, I divided it into sections and annotated it. I also gave them a handout with just the annotations. I am sure that some of them only read the handout.
The Resulting Papers
I got some good papers from this. One student was investigating Planned Parenthood and found that the founder, Margret Sanger, had connections to the eugenics movement that also inspired Adolph Hitler. Another discussed a bridge over the Grand Canyon and looked at the plans and actions of a Native American tribe, environmentalists, politicians, investors, and the tourist industry, all pulling the project in different directions. Another investigated Mt. Rushmore, and found that not only had the land been stolen from the Lakota, but the sculptor had connections to the KKK and had also been involved in a project, never completed, to make a similar monument to Confederate leaders. These projects followed the dictates of the assignment. No thesis, trace a network of connections, let the reader draw the conclusions.
However, many of the papers took the standard thesis/support approach. They thought they knew that a “research paper” was a paper in which you stated your thesis and found facts to back it up, while mostly ignoring contrary facts and views. They fired up their “research paper generation process” and largely ignored the particulars of the assignment. A middle group did some network tracing, but lapsed into editorializing at various points. I guess we could say that their “moment of neutrality” was brief and unstable.
Of course, this kind of writing is never entirely objective. When the author of “Trump’s Worst Deal” began his investigation, he undoubtedly thought he would find corruption. But going into the investigation with an open mind, following the connections where they lead, and letting the reader draw the conclusions is ultimately more persuasive than the standard thesis-driven op-ed. And both the writer and the reader learn so much more.
I might be stretching things a bit, but I think that the strong emphasis on the thesis/support model in our schools may have something to do with the polarization our society experiences today. The “Survey of Opinion” assignment has behind it the question “What do people think and how do they talk about it?” The network tracing assignment asks “Who are the actors, what are the facts, and where do they lead?” The thesis/support model, at least in its most simplistic form, is about “This is what I think and this is why I’m right.”
Perhaps we should diversify our assignment game a bit.
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