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.

14 thoughts on “An ”Aha!” Moment: Emotion, Opinion, and Fact

  1. Of course, I wouldn’t say that all of my students get worked up emotionally about their writing… in fact, if some of the disinterested students were to become emotionally alive in class, that would be a step towards their becoming intellectually alive. And I’m not always sure that it’s true passion — some of it is just the repitition of received wisdom. But for pedagogical reasons, I’d rather give it a positive name — “emotion” still seems to suffice — rather than a negative one, such as “lack of critical thinking skills.”

  2. Dennis, at first, I thought you and I were talking about the same thing — but the more you describe your students’ intense emotional responses, the less similar my students seem to yours. My students typically just don’t get so emotionally worked up as to be blinkered by their response — which is a good thing in some ways, but it can also make for a somewhat attenuated discussion, with students reluctant to really invest themselves in any sort of position. Kind of like that “cool” quality Mark Edmundson describes in that essay of his that’s so popular. Re the “pro-pro” paper, I’ve done something like that and called it “positive opposing terms” where neither side of a binary or a debate could be constituted as negative or pernicious; this was particularly successful when I had students reading Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium and they did it with Calvino’s various qualities.

  3. I’m pretty sure the students aren’t echoing my opinions, since my role in that classroom is pretty much to challenge everything they say, whether I agree with it or not.

    I do have my STW students post an “agenda item” (a single talking point) for each essay they read, and I have them post responses on peer blogs. Their entries don’t have to be lengthy, just a statement that they are coming into the classroom with something they want to talk about. I do want to change that the next time I teach it, so that they have to type in a brief quotation from the text, and then make a statement about the quotation. That will at least get them to focus more on the readings, rather than on their own personal feelings about the topics discussed in the assigned readings.

  4. That’s funny because I observed the same thing in my STW class. From a student perspective, all I can offer is perhaps the students still have not made the transition from high-school paradigms to college paradigms. Perhaps they think that you have the one right answer that they need to know and just agree with you on every level and every statement, even if it contradicts.

    I don’t know the full story, but it sounds vaguely familliar to my class. One article was assigned and everyone agreed with all the claims made, even though the claims were a bit of a stretch. Coming from a debate team in high school helped me realize what others didn’t: you can disagree and still be right, provided that you support your claims with substantial evidence in the form of fact.

    Maybe have a mini debate about two contrary articles. You could let them pick which article they would like to argue for and have them do some research. Then after the first mini debate, have them switch sides and argue the other side. Although this is pretty late in the semester, this could help them consider opposing arguments. My STW professor uses this method in my Thinking and Writing class and I find it helps.

  5. I wouldn’t have room for another full-blown research paper, but I could do an exercise like that.

    As I happens, I won’t be teaching this course again next year, but I will be teaching a new writing intensive AmLit seminar… Hmm… I was already thinking of something similar for the “discovery” phase of composition…

  6. Though you say you don’t have room for another paper, the freshman 101 course at UMD (which is a rhetoric course) assigns a “pro-pro” paper, where the student has to argue the positive side of both sides of an argument. Forces them to research and understand at least two opposing views, and to adopt the point of view for each.

  7. Anonymous — yes, it seems like I’ve got to work with my terminology a little more.

    Mike — You’re right about the difference between clichés and emotions, but I often feel that students who feel personally violated by an instance of oppression in a literary work are so bent on righting the wrong that they don’t recognize the function that oppression (or violence, or injustice) plays in a literary work. Thus, I want to get them beyond the uncritical anger they feel when reading a Michael Moore essay or “The Yellow Wall-paper,” and towards something analytical and intellectually productive. Their belief in such things as equality and multiculturalism is often deeply ingrained, not as a reasoned set of conclusions, but as a world view that has been carefully shaped for them by their middle school and high school curriculum.

    Mike, are you responding mostly from a philosophical viewpoint, or are your students perhaps very different from mine?

  8. But Dennis, what you’re talking about — “It’s bad when society oppresses women” — isn’t felt in any meaningful way at all; it’s nothing more than received opinion. Which I think is what you’re arguing, in a way. You seem to be saying that mouthing empty clichés and trite platitudes is poor intellectual practice, which I’ll agree with (since it’s difficult to find any evidence against the argument :-) — but clichés are not the same thing as emotion. Which is why I acknowledged the semantics thing. I hear what you’re saying, and I engage in similar teacherly practices myself; I’m just saying that the fact that we try to teach certain types of engaged thinking doesn’t mean that emotion (not cliché or opinion) is inferior to or prior to reason. And, yes, re the “Spock” thing, when I took the Myers-Briggs, I was all the way over on the “Thinking” side of the Thinking/Feeling axis.

  9. Help me out, then…

    I certainly encourage students to choose topics that they care about, but our shared curriculum doesn’t really have room for asking students to write two different papers, one arguing for a position and one arguing against. Thus, I spend a lot of energy trying to get students away from what I call the “puppies are cute” argument — a sentimental, one-sided thesis that isn’t worth arguing because there isn’t any evidence against it, and there isn’t any real evidence for it.

    Thus, I get first drafts with arguments like this: “It’s bad when society oppresses women. Text X shows women being oppressed. Therefore, women still have to fight for their rights.”

    I don’t mean to devalue emotion, but because high school students are rewarded for plot summary and applying themes to their own lives, I do feel that I have to wean students away from writing papers that are driven by the opinions they already held before they read the assigned text.

    While the course is designed to teach critical thinking and college writing skills, we’re gearing up for the final term paper, which is a traditional research paper. When they leave my class, they’re supposed to be able to write a college research paper. Call me Spock, but writing papers about “How I feel” prevents many students from adjusting to college-level requirements.

  10. Dennis, it may be mere semantics, but the devaluation of “emotional response” troubles me a bit. There’s a strong tendency in our literature to privilege reason over emotion, and to position emotion as somehow infantile — which your progression reinforces, with its positioning of emotion as the opposite of careful thought. I might argue, to the contrary, that the cold calculus of reason can lead us to troubling or difficult conclusions (i.e., the ultimate extremes of utilitarianism). I understand what you’re getting at, but “emotion” isn’t the same thing as being uninformed — and, in fact, being well-informed can lead to the strongest emotions of all. As, perhaps, Dr. King might argue.

  11. “Then the terrorists have already won!”
    No, but the extremists and opportunists have.

    “the devaluation of “emotional response” troubles me a bit”
    Maybe it’s not the devaluation of emotions, but the promotion of awareness of emotions and, in this case, perhaps the appropriateness of those emotions?

  12. All right, Dennis, assigning a comic book for students to read! Comics, unlike other forms of media, somehow escape censorship from our government. I believe the reason has to do with the fact that people stop reading comic books and graduate to other forms of entertainment, such as listening to music, so comic books become a juvenile thing. However, as many comic scholars like myself are proving all of the time, comics is a valid subject of academic study. Keep pushing that envelope!

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