Friday Morning: Spirals of Frustration


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Not to be too narcissistic, but I’m extremely frustrated. All week long I’ve been working on analyzing arguments in my Critical Thinking courses. This week the students were to complete this straightforward (as I naively thought) assignment that I’ve used several times over the last couple of years:

Find an argument from a newspaper or a similar source (editorial pages would be the most appropriate place to look–be sure to attach the article) and do the following:

1. Paraphrase the argument and identify the premise(s) and the conclusion. Number the premises and identify the conclusion (as C).

2. Determine whether the premises are in a dependent or independent relationship with each other.

3. Indicate whether the argument is deductive or inductive.

4. Evaluate the argument. Is it a good argument? Why or why not?

Out of the 4 sections of around 20-25 students each, I can count on my two hands how many students did this assignment properly. The mistake? Many students turned in news stories that may have reported on a study, a dispute, or included a quotation of someone commenting on some issue or another rather than an actual, sustained argument from the op-ed page. This is utterly baffling to me. Perhaps it’s that I’m a lousy teacher, but I don’t understand how one can mistake a simple news story for an argument. Moreover, how could one spend the time isolating the “premises” in a straightforward, “hard” news report about a sequence of events, e.g. “Yesterday in Boston, X was shot, Police think Y is a suspect, Y is now in custody.”¬† Utterly baffling, simply depressing.

5 thoughts on “Friday Morning: Spirals of Frustration

  1. Hi!

    My feed reader recommended this blog to me…as a recent student I thought I might have some insight into this confusion. When you ask your students to find an argument, it can appear that you are asking them to find a claim about one subject or another. In an op-ed letter, this would be a very clear instance on what someone is claiming as true or not true. In what seems to be straightforward news stories, there are many claims implied or suggested by choice of language, studies cited as opposed to as omitted, or even as you state, between two disputes of two parties. Claims that stem from the subjects of the story, or maybe claims that the journalist is making in the framing of the story.

    I don’t necessarily think that your assignment was confusing, but I do think that students are becoming more aware of these sorts of issues, especially in the context of a critical thinking course. This, combined with the fact that I don’t really know anyone who would go to an op-ed page in the course of their day-to-day life before a blog, for example, for an argumentative statement, could make for a large majority of the students completing the assignment incorrectly.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Bridget. I’ve been asking my students about this. Overall, the mistakes you note above, and the mistakes that my students keep making, is confusing an argument with an explanation or even worse, a report about a sequence of events or state of affairs. I specifically directed students to the editorial pages to avoid such confusion, whether or not my students have ever glanced at an editorial page is to me, somewhat irrelevant.

  3. who is this mysterious Feed Reader? this blog’s being recommended is long overdue! Shahar, sorry about your daily battles – picture of Woody as a Sperm is so revealing of the true nature of Teacher-Student relationships, isn’t it?

  4. That movie always makes me laugh out loud, what’s the line, something to the effect of: “I’m not ready…What if he’s masturbating? I’ll end up on the wall!” Another sperm cell retorts, “You took an oath to fertilize or die trying.”

    I’d rather be recommended by an algorithm driving an intentionless feed reader than a blind Homer…or something like that.

  5. I’d go to an op-ed page. In fact if there’s anything in the paper I read, I go straight for that. And I had this assignment in my sophomore year English 200 class, which was essentially Logic. It doesn’t seem to be a new kind of assignment that students would be entirely unfamiliar with… Maybe people are just getting dumber. or more dumb. Which is it? Dammit… now my comment sounds stupid. I’ll say critically challenged instead.

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