An ”Aha!” Moment: Emotion, Opinion, and Fact

Since my graduate school background is in literature rather than composition studies, I may be stumbling along a well-trod path, but a conversation I had with a colleague in the hall lit off a lightbulb in my head.

Today in my Seminar in Thinking and Writing class (our version of freshman comp), students shared sample thesis statements for a paper on the role of America in global culture.

Last week, students voted on four essays they wanted to read for this unit. I had predicted (correctly) that they would choose the excerpt from Joel Andreas’s Addicted to War, a political comic book (“illustrated exposé”) skewering the Bush administration. While several students did note on their blogs or in class that the text was one-sided, student after student said, “This is exactly how I feel about the issue.” Someone cited a detail from Michael Moore’s 9/11 to support one of Andreas’s points, and more heads nodded.

Today, when the issue was security vs. freedom, most students said they would gladly give up freedoms to secure their daily lives. One student who desribed in detail the experience of being singled out for additional screening at the airport concluded by saying that she felt patriotic and good about doing her part. Again, heads nodded.

Why was the same class that lapped up Andreas’s angry invective happily curling up with the fuzzy sentimental promises of Homeland Security? Was it easier to go along with what the comic book said, and to go along with the airport security lines, rather than challenge either? Where was the critical thinking? (During class I wondered… what has Andreas written drawn about airport security? Has Dinesh D’Sousa made a comic book that I could assign for an opposing view?)

Since I’ve known these students for two semesters now, we’ve built up a rapport where I can, in a smiling, non-threatening, but (I hope) productively irksome way, ask question after question to drive wedges into the tiniest flaws in their arguments. For instance, a student began a sample thesis statement by noting out a conflict between American’s perception of itself as the land of the free, and the presence in America of racism. Since he didn’t introduce an historical perspective, I asked him whether, in a country as diverse as ours, people should be permitted to hold politically incorrect views. For example, who would be responsible for determining whether a particular person ever thought racist thoughts? Should all white people be taxed 10% more, and the money used to enforce a “no racist views” policy? If he says that I married a white woman because I am too racist to consider marrying a black women, should everyone just take his word for it? Am I racist because he says I am, or as an American citizen, do I have a right to a trial?

Of course, he had no interest in proposing a new government program to process thought crimes, but he had to think hard to figure out where exactly in my stream of responses I first said something that went beyond his intention. He would have to come up with a definition of freedom that permits the routine censorship of certain thoughts. A different student started moving in the direction of differentiating between racism and discrimination, which opened the way to separate the moral issue from the legal one. No law can change a person’s racist beliefs, but a law can offer protection to the actual or potential victims of racist actions.

Another student said he supports surveillance of citizens if it stops terrorism. After I got him to generalize from “terrorism” to “crime,” I asked what he thought about the U.S. government installing a sensor in his car that would call the cops on him every time he exceeded the speed limit. No, he said, he wouldn’t like that.

I have been trying to get students to move from simplistic normative statements (“Women should not be oppressed” or “Racism is bad”) to more analytical or at least descriptive claims.

Sometimes my efforts to exaggerate student opinions backfire, as the other day when an animal-loving student, backed into a corner by some probing questions, admitted that if her dog were dying, and she could save the life of her dog by pushing a button that would kill a stranger in another part of the world, then she would push the button. She wouldn’t do it for just any dog, but she would do it for her dog. Of course, I manipulated her into making that decision; she was probably more interested in not giving me the satisfaction of seeing her cave in than she was in making a serious statement about the value of human vs. animal life, but I was too surprised to go further.

It’s only now that I see her comment as part of the pattern that became more obvious to me today.

The revelation came when I, still pumped up from an exciting class period, chatted in the hallway with Frank Klapak (communications; two doors down). Klapak related something that he picked up in a discussion with Mike Cary (political science; on a different floor).

I am struggling to get my students to see the difference between facts and opinion. According to Klapak, Cary attempts a similar goal by asking his students to reconsider what the term “opinion” means. To someone who has been through graduate school, an opinion is a conclusion — something that you arrive at after you have considered all the evidence. But what students label as their own “opinion” is probably more often than not their pre-conditioned, unresearched emotional response.

I see this all the time in the behavior of students who first write out “what they think” about an issue, and then go to the library to “find quotes” (facts) that support the claims they have already written. I’ve chalked this up to the active user paradox – the feeling that lateral work, such as reading instructions and doing research and asking for directions, is unproductive when compared to the prospect of sticking to one’s guns and blindly charging along towards one’s destiny.

Recasting “unexamined opinion” as “emotional response” and emphasizing the value of “researched opinion” as something only arrived at after careful research may help. This seems so clear and obvious now that I look at it…

I do try to differentiate between “personal opinion” and “expert opinion,” but that sounds like a gradation within ethos, rather than a distinction between pathos and logos (which is what I am trying to teach).

Rather than have students try to move from emotions directly to facts that support their emotions, I hope I can get them to think of a journey from emotions -> research question -> concluding opinion -> thesis.