Reaching In to Reach Out to Skeptical Readers

Reaching In to Reach Out to Skeptical Readers

Overview: This activity uses freewriting and storytelling practice to help students better engage with multiple perspectives on an issue.

Author: Erik Ellis

Activity name: Reaching in to Reach out to Skeptical Readers

Class: PWR 1/PWR 2

Activity brief description: Help students identify with a counterargument—or the values beneath a counterargument—in a personally meaningful way, and then brainstorm ways to use that identification rhetorically to appeal to their essay’s likely target audience: skeptical readers.

Schedule: This activity would be appropriate whenever students are actively writing and revising (not just polishing) their research-based argumentative essays, from the early stages to the later stages. This account of the activity will focus mainly on the activity’s value for students who have written a draft but who may have insufficiently represented counterarguments or inadequately appealed to skeptical readers.

Activity length: 45 min.-entire class, depending on variables like how much time you want to allow for freewriting, etc.

Activity goals: The goals of this activity are to help students:

  1. identify more closely with opposing sources—or those sources’ underlying values
  2. represent counterarguments more fairly.
  3. invite skeptical readers to recognize common ground shared with the writer, thus opening the door to persuasion.

Activity details:

Directions for students

  1. List counterarguments to your main argument.
  2. Circle the one counterargument that you can identify with most closely.
  3. Mark the places in your essay where you mention this counterargument.
  4. Freewrite about how and why you can identify with this counterargument.
  5. Think of one specific, meaningful experience in your life that illustrates your ability to identify with this counterargument or the values underlying it.  This scene doesn’t need to concern your topic directly. For example,
  • if you’re arguing against a particular war, you might think back to a time when, as a child, you felt an inexplicable shiver of patriotic gratitude run down your spine as you watched a group of elderly WWII veterans raise and salute American flags in your home town.
  • Or if you’re arguing for the societal benefits of smart phones, you might remember a recent dinner with friends when you sat in awkward silence as everyone checked Instragram, Twitter, etc.
  • If you’re arguing that entrepreneurial students should forego college to pursue startups, you might describe the time you and your friends met with venture capitalists, only to be grilled to such an extent that you thought maybe you should spend more time in school.
  • If you’re arguing for gun owners’ rights, you might recount the time your grandmother told you that a little boy taking piano lessons across the street from her house was hit by a stray bullet, paralyzing him.
  1. Freewrite about this experience. Turn it into a scene. Try to bring your memory to life with vivid details and dialogue. Appeal to multiple senses.
  2. Meet with two classmates to read one another’s scenes. Discuss these scenes’ potential relevance for your essays. Might a scene, or at least the spirit underlying it, help you revise your essay so it appeals more to skeptical readers? For example, could you use at least a condensed version of your scene as an opening anecdote, to draw skeptical readers in and enable them to connect with you in a personal way? To what extent could you more fairly represent this perspective—this counterargument you’ve just re-identified with—in your draft?
  3. Look back at your essay. Jot down ideas for how you might revise it to more fairly represent the counterargument or to invite skeptical readers to recognize the common ground you share or at least once shared.
  4. Share your ideas with the class. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of using personal narrative rhetorically in academic writing.

Additional notes: In They Say/I Say, Graff & Birkenstein encourage students to “plant a naysayer in the text”—a concept that, in these words, all but invites students to insert precisely the sorts of disingenuous, token nods to opposing views that the authors elsewhere wisely caution students to avoid. This activity aims to help students find sincere common ground with opposing sources, and to use that common ground rhetorically to make their essays more persuasive.

I find that students often acknowledge counterarguments but dismiss them too hastily, in a way that would strike skeptical readers—the readers they’re trying to persuade—as insincere. In my PWR1 course “Prowling Toward Certainty: Exploration as Argument,” I ask students to research and write about controversial topics they feel invested in but ambivalent about. As they research and reflect on their topics, they see if they can resolve their ambivalence. If they do, I encourage them not to forget that they recently felt ambivalent about their topic. In fact, they can use their previous ambivalence to their rhetorical advantage by making it clear to readers that they are sincerely open-minded writers who have grappled with the topic and can see value in different perspectives.

As one of the preliminary exercises leading up to the TiC and RBA, I ask students to write two dramatic scenes, based on their own meaningful, real-life experiences, that represent opposing sides of their ambivalence. This Activity of the Week is an attempt to take the concept behind this in-the-thick-of-ambivalence exercise and help students identify personally rather than abstractly with an opposing argument—or the values underlying that argument—in order to make their essays more persuasive.

This activity was originally published as an Activity of the Week in fall 2014.