An academic argument is an evidence-based defense of a non-obvious position on a complex issue. A collection of quotes from people who agree with you is not a scholarly argument.
- Unlike a personal essay, which often emphasizes the writer’s experience and values, an academic essay must draw on credible evidence.
- What counts as acceptable evidence depends upon the nature of the writing task.
- You have no reason to “defend” a position unless a reasonable person could present credible evidence that challenges a claim you want to make. (Finding, citing, and engaging meaningfully with evidence both for and against your claim is part of your task as an academic writer.)
- An academic argument is not a squabble, a difference of opinions, or an attorney’s courtroom statement for or against. The author of an academic argument is more like the judge announcing a verdict, after having heard out the best arguments in favor of various possible outcomes.
- Any given academic argument on a topic is part of a discussion that respects multiple viewpoints — as long as those viewpoints are backed by credible evidence.
- If instead your goal is to explain the benefits of X, or to complain about the shortcomings of Y, and you’re having trouble finding good sources that support “the other side,” then you should probably rethink your topic so that you can build on whatever scholarly disagreements you do find.
- If you plan a paper in favor of “saving the planet,” you won’t find scholars who identify as “against saving the planet.” (They may instead be arguing *for* some new technology that does a better job with fossil fuels, or *for* legislation that protects the economic interests of the owners of coal mines.)
- If you write a paper “supporting people’s right to X,” you won’t find scholars who identify as being “against people’s right to X.” (They will be *for* something that they consider to be a greater good.)
- Sometimes the reason why you can’t find any credible scholarly argument on the “other side” of a claim is because the scholarly experts have already settled the matter.
In everyday language, we may use the word “argument” to mean very different things.
- In the living room, siblings Charles and Petra argue about what movie to watch.
- The two groups of protestors chanted slogans and waved signs, arguing about abortion.
- The prosecutor argued that Wilson was at the scene of the crime, while the defense argued that Wilson was out of town.
- Jones argues that sibling rivalry is just as harmful to homeschooled children as bullying is to public school children; however, Smith argues that growing up with siblings makes children less likely to be victims of bullying in public schools.
What will each of these “arguments” probably look like?
|1. In the living room, siblings Charles and Petra argue about what movie to watch.|
Charles and Petra will each voice their preference, and if they can’t come to an immediate agreement, they may shout at each other, call each other names, hit each other with various objects, wrestle over the remote, and run crying to Mom or Dad.
|Is this really an “argument”? (See the Monty Python “Argument Clinic” sketch.) An outside force may intervene — they may be ordered to make a compromise, or they may decide that who wins is not important — they may negotiate (“I’ll watch Clone Wars with you, if you play on the trampoline with me later….”).|
Likely they will end up sharing a bowl of popcorn on the couch, watching something. This was not really an “argument,” but rather a childish spat, and the two parties got over it quickly.
|2. The two groups of protestors chanted slogans and waved signs, arguing about abortion.|
People who show up at a protest already know exactly what they think. They may stand on opposite sides of the street shouting slogans at each other (“Keep your laws off my body!” “It’s a child, not a choice!”) They may label each other in unflattering terms (“You are a woman-hater!” “You are a baby-killer!”) and define the same issue using completely different terminology (“I support a woman’s right to control her own body, and you are anti-choice” “I support an unborn baby’s right to life, and you are pro-abortion.” )
|What I’ve described above is not really an “argument.” because the two sides have each defined the issue so sharply that there is no middle ground, and nobody participating in this exchange is likely to admit when the other side has a good point or admit when their own side lacks evidence.|
The people who are waving signs and chanting slogans are doing it to rally the people who already agree with them, or to win uncommitted people over to their side. You won’t see someone holding one sign say “Is that true? I never thought of that before,” and suddenly change sides.
I discourage students from choosing, as topics for their research papers, deeply polarized issues where the public discourse on the “pro” and “con” sides is so firmly entrenched, and the slogans on the bumper stickers and T-shirt slogans are already so familiar, that it’s very hard for student writers to move beyond the pre-existing beliefs that led them to choose their topic, and to look critically at what the evidence says on a complex issue where leaders of opposed various factions are learning from each other, not trying to shout each other down.
One student wrote a successful paper on abortion, but her argument was a synthesis — she found flaws in both the “pro-choice” and “pro-life” views. We can’t assume that the correct solution to any debate is a compromise (“Abortions are legal from midnight to noon, and illegal from noon to midnight,”) so she found common ground that people who identify as “pro choice” and people who identify as “pro life” could both work towards, and argued that working towards those goals was more important than winning people over to the side of “choice” or “life.”
That was much harder to write than a paper that simply listed all the slogans she agreed with, and listed one side’s canned objections to the other side’s main points.
|3. The prosecution argued that Wilson was at the scene of the crime, while the defense argued that Wilson was out of town.|
The prosecutor’s job is to present the strongest possible case that the defendant is guilty, making that answer look as likely as possible, and ignoring or waving away all evidence that points to a different assumption. The defense attorney has the opposite job, making the client look as good as possible.
|My writing students sometimes feel their job when defending an argument is to make their side sound so airtight that only an idiot could possibly disagree with their claims. After all, that’s what the winning lawyers do in TV shows.|
Our legal system expects that lawyers on both sides of the issue will be doing the same thing, so that the judge will see all the evidence, and can therefore come to a just conclusion.
But I’m not asking my students to play a lawyer who is expected to make one solution look like a slam-dunk and any alternative look foolish.
I am asking my students to be the judge, who has listened to all the best arguments in favor of multiple answers, and carefully explain why, out of all the possible good answers, one particular answer is best.
|4. Jones argues that sibling rivalry is just as harmful to homeschooled children as bullying is to public school children; however, Smith argues that growing up with siblings makes children less likely to be victims of bullying in public schools.|
Jones will present the results of his study that spent ten years following the academic and social accomplishments of 104 children in a suburb of Chicago. He will crunch the numbers and announce that homeschool children who were most likely to be involved in intense sibling rivalries were also more likely to be involved in bullying incidents with other children. (Still with me? Good!)
|Jones will present the results of his study that spent ten years following the academic and social accomplishments of 104 children in a suburb of Chicago. He will crunch the numbers and announce that homeschool children who were most likely to be involved in intense sibling rivalries were also more likely to be involved in bullying incidents with other children. (Still with me? Good!)|
Smith, on the other hand, will claim that Jones was flawed in his approach, since most of the bullying behavior Jones observed was caused by children who have no siblings; since the homeschool sibling rivalry study did not include homeschool children without siblings, Jones is comparing a random sampling of public school children with a non-random sampling of homeschool children, which means that Jones was testing two unequal groups. (Are you still with me? That’s impressive.)
Smith argues that her own results show that children who are homeschooled are not any more or less likely to engage in bullying behavior, but are much less likely to be victims of bullying incidents.
(By the way, I made up those claims for the sake of an example — I have no idea whether sibling rivalry and bullying are in any way comparable.)
An academic argument is not simply a contradiction. It’s not enough to claim the other side is wrong; your task instead is to present evidence that supports a solution that is demonstrably better (more ethical, more economical, more effective, more durable) than the well-thought-out, evidence-supported, and reasonable alternative you are arguing against. (If you pick something half-baked and unreasonable as your opposing view, you aren’t exactly setting the bar very high for yourself. I encourage my students to engage directly with the best evidence against the position they support, and the best evidence for the position they oppose.)
01 Aug 2014 — first posted
11 Dec 2017 — minor edits
11 Dec 2019 — minor updates
14 Oct 2022 — minor tweaks