The Goals of an Argumentation Course

Argumentation pedagogy is, unfortunately, homogenous across nearly the entire speech communication discipline. A textbook based on the Toulmin model - but not even the whole model, just data, warrant, and claim - and no discussion of field dependency is at the heart of it. A paper about a controversy and then the fabled “Letter to the Editor” completes the course.

I remember talking a lot with Dr. Barbara Warnick in my last year at the University of Pittsburgh (where I received my Ph.D.) about Stephen Toulmin. She was teaching an advanced undergraduate course on argumentation and had decided to use Uses of Argument as the only text in the course. Brilliant, I thought, as I was unsure how many argumentation scholars out there had read the whole book. She came up with the phrase “the basic T” to describe the poverty of the pedagogy of Toulmin that was being distributed as argumentation instruction (meaning data, warrant, and claim, and that’s it). I like to think that Toulmin would have a laugh at how rhetoricians have taken his theory and turned it into the object of argumentation theory he was attempting to deconstruct - something absolutely there, measurable, and universally meaningful.

Due to an unexpected illness I am now covering an undergraduate argumentation course, and my first thought was, “I have about a month to make sure they get everything!” My second thought was the petitio: what is everything?

I started to write some notes about what makes argumentation important. Against the model of criticizing controversy from on high with a dash of historical re-enactment of a world with engaged newspapers, I see argumentation as a course in invention and production - something that many professors might scoff at given their attitude toward student ability (“They can’t use a comma correctly!”). Producing good argument requires familiarity with theory as a guidepost, not as argumentation itself. Theory with iteration and then reiterated is the proper model for a course in argumentation that is based on rhetorical assumptions.

So, given a month, what’s most important? What theories do you teach? This is the question, and I reduced it to three essential theories for argument instruction that students should be familiar with at the end of a 15 week course (but I only have about 5, give or take what the previous instructor covered).

The Universal Audience

Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca’s theory that argument’s proper aim is audience, not accuracy or truth, can catch some criticism. In defending their theory they show that historically it has always been the case that the ethics and truth of argumentation has been based on the assumption that whoever encounters the argument will find the means to be persuaded. There is no objective measure of the quality of an argument, save that constructed by what the speaker knows about the specific audience and audiences like it at her location in culture, space, time, etc. The best argumentation is that which the universal audience would be able to agree with, hence, pandering is not possible to the local audience as the universal audience - coming from another place or area - wouldn’t get it.

The Enthymeme

The enthymeme is less an argument theory and more an argument modality (Conley is really sharp on this point). Instead of teaching it as a theory of understanding and critiquing argument, return to Aristotle and teach it as a chosen way to frame and deliver persuasive claims about the past (forensic) matters to audiences. It’s a powerful way to encourage people to find creative ways to share ideas with audiences and recognize that nobody constructs arguments out of the air; all argumentation is co-authored with the audience through little winks and statements of open assumption. Taught as an incomplete syllogism, the enthymeme is clearly based on invention-happening-elsewhere (the syllogism) so to talk about it as if it were a way to generate argumentation isn’t what Aristotle had in mind.

Toulmin, but not what you think

Toulmin’s biggest contribution to argumentation is field-dependency, which comes first - well before the “basic T” or any of the other structural ideas. The reason is simple: How could you reconstruct a warrant if you didn’t know the field in which the argument is taking place? Even in Uses of Argument his examples of the three understandings of “can not” indicate the intense dependence that meaning has on context. This is why when I google argumentation syllabi I’m pretty sure that very, very few teachers of argumentation have read Toulmin outside of presentation in a textbook. Field dependency encourages student creativity in both research and production as the audience becomes as important as getting the “right” information (whatever that might be). Who are you talking to and what do they believe is out there in the world? This question is the start of the field dependency discussion for the production of argumentation.

What am I missing? We’ll find out on Thursday when I meet with them the first time.