Making Argumentation Fun and Memorable: An Introduction for Composition Classes

Argumentation is the core of most college essays, yet many student-writers are unsure of what an argument is and how to make one persuasive.

Here, I offer a one-day introduction that lays the foundations to argumentation in a fun and memorable manner.

Step 1: “The Argument Clinic” by Monty Python

At first glance the British comedy group Monty Python is just plain silly, but if you pay attention, these mostly Cambridge-educated comedians address many complex questions. In “The Argument Clinic,” one of my favorite skits, they probe the meaning of argumentation.

A.  Before viewing: Explain that you are going to watch a funny video, the purpose of which is to determine what is and what is not an argument.

Ask students if they know who Monty Python is, and if they don’t know, make a big fuss about the lack of culture these days, and give them some brief background into the group. Explain that you are going to play a video about argumentation that is apparently silly, but addressees the important question, “What is and what is not an argument?”

Students should take notes as they watch on that very question. As an example, you can play the beginning scene in which Michael Palin’s character is tells the reception that he would like to buy an argument. She suggests someone, but brushes him aside because he is “too conciliatory.” In other words, an argument should not be ready agreement; there needs to be some tension between competing ideas. Explain that the rooms that Palin’s character goes into by mistake actually demonstrate what an argument is not.

B: Play the video. You can find it by googling “monty python argument clinic” or by clicking hereNote: I usually cut the video after about a minute after he goes into the room with Terry Jones who is teaching people to say “Owww!” when hit on the head. The rest is just plain silly.

Note: I usually replay the moment when Palin’s character defines argumentation several times because it goes by so quickly: “An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition.”

C: Unpack the clip. Students then compare their ideas with each other about what is and what is not an argument, then everyone discusses it in an open classroom, which are listed on the white board.

Here are something take aways:

Argumentation is not:

Conciliatory, in other words easy agreement with someone else’s point of view

Abuse, in other words, attacking a person instead of their ideas. (Reference the Ad Hominem logical fallacy, which you can make current by showing that attacks on someone’s looks, for instance Donald Trump’s, is not as effective as a discussion of their policies.)

Automatic contradiction, “the automatic gainsaying” of something another says. Just disagreeing with someone is not argumentation. (Although there is value in “playing the devil’s advocate.)

Physical attack, as in the final room.

Argumentation is:

“An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition.”

Here is a superb follow-up reading from MIT on the clip, which qualifies and refines this definition.

Step 2: Watch Prof. Ron’s Introduction to Argumentation.

A: Set-up the video.

Ask students to take notes on how to make an argument from Prof. Ron’s YouTube video Introduction to Argumentation. Be sure to introduce the video by explaining that Prof. Ron is a good-looking, intelligent, humorous, and insightful professor of English at the highly prestigious City College of San Francisco.

B. Watch the video.

You can access it by googling “youtube ronald b richardson introduction to argumentation” or by clicking here.

C. Compare notes.

Transition: Explain that this video serves as an introduction to the following activity.

Step 3: Investing in Crazy Inventions

Preparation: Print out some of the crazy inventions from one of these websites: “30 Weird and Awesome Inventions” from Bored Panda, “20 Weird And Crazy Inventions That You Have Never Heard of Before” from Lolwat, “The 20 Strangest Inventions Ever” from Big Think. A simple google search will produce thousands more. Something to consider: color copies are much more expensive, but more appealing. Black and white will do fine.

A: Set up the activity. Lay the pictures out on a table or desk and let students choose the invention they wish to market. They will be the distributors for this product.

Tell students that they all have $100,000 to invest. They can divide it up to invest in any way they would like to invest in the inventions that their classmates wish to market. Important note: Encourage students to invest based on the quality of the argument, rather than how much they like the product. (Concession: this admonition rarely works.)

Here are the stipulations:

  • They can’t keep any of the money for themselves.
  • They must break it up in 1,000 dollar chunks (to make the math easier).
  • They cannot give everyone the same amount of money. (I have had students who are so nice that they have undercut the purpose of this activity.)

In order to convince others to invest in their product, they should come up with a main reason that others should invest in their product. They should come up with 2-5 supporting reasons. They should come up with evidence that they can gather from the Internet or just invent (in this one case). Encourage them to use examples, statistics, facts, anecdotes, and quotes. They should also address 1-3 counterarguments, presenting them fairly, but then showing why they are illogical, irrelevant, unimportant, or poorly supported by evidence.

B: Students present and discuss their inventions. After everyone has presented, students one by one announce their investments. (“I’m giving Sherry $70,000,” Bill, $30,000, and nothing for Janice. Sorry, Janice!”)

C: First, Second, and Third place are determined. Give the winner some extra credit, for example 25 points, the second place something like 15, and the third place 5.

D: Reinforce the concepts of argumentation and tie it into the next writing assignment, other papers at college, their careers, and their daily lives.

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