Reimagining the Argument

Reimagining the Argument Paper

Kath Richards

In “Beyond Dissensus: Exploring the Heuristic Value of Conflict,” Thomas West investigates how college writing teachers are teaching students to interact with opinions different from their own. He says that students, in the pursuit of conflict avoidance, will “adopt interpretive and responsive strategies that avoid tension and conflict no matter what they actually believe” (143). This rings true, even more than 20 years later, as a society we are still taught in large part to ignore opinions that we do not agree with or that upset us, else entering into heated arguments fueled by the desire to be right. In writing classes, we teach counterargument primarily as a strategy of strengthening argument, not as a means to understand the other side. On social media, we are funneled into an ever-shrinking echo chamber so that we might be surrounded at all times by voices that parallel our own; opinions that are familiar so that we might engage, like, retweet, repost, reshare with our friends who are in likewise repetitive chambers themselves. And if we are not pointedly removing ourselves from points of difference like this, another tactic of avoidance we have learned is that of downplaying or blatantly ignoring our differences in feigned ignorance. We have become, as West said, “accustomed to think that the way to end discrimination and prejudice is to not make such a “big deal” of the differences that presage these conditions” (143).

As we are continually moving away from questioning the differences between us, we are most certainly putting ourselves at a disadvantage. My favorite thing about either strategy of conflict avoidance—either disengaging from or ignoring difference—is that they are comfortable. As we remove ourselves from areas of conflict or ignore it when it arises, we are protecting ourselves from the discomfort of acknowledging that we may be wrong. This confrontation avoidance, though, doesn’t encourage any sort of growth or critical thought to how we might respect the views and opinions that oppose our own.

Now, this is by no means a comfortable endeavor. Nothing about confrontation, or operating without apparent unity feels natural, but teaching skills that encourage this thinking “has the potential to improve reasoning and critical thinking skills, moral education, subject-matter learning,” and even “foster reflective judgement and decision-making” (Goronostay 42). Normally, at this point, I would start making some claims about the topic—this is what we must do, this is why this is important, this is what you must believe, this is my thesis—but for now, I will refrain. In this paper I will explore ways in which how we argue has changed over time, the evolution of the counterargument, and what it might look like to teach a new way of writing the argument paper—one that does not seek to convince or persuade, but instead generate knowledge based on difference.


How We Look at Disagreement in the Writing Classroom:

Trends towards minimizing disagreement are not found only in public and social spheres, but are likewise manifest in the writing classroom with concepts such as consensus, which was introduced in the 1980s in Kenneth Bruffee’s landmark work about collaborative learning (“Collaborative Learning and the ‘Conversation of Mankind’”). Bruffee argued that consensus is not found by trampling over opposing arguments, but is alternatively an effort to reach some sort of agreement through a collaboration between many rhetors. Instead of ignoring or avoiding difference, consensus seeks to overcome it and reach a solution, one that creates a new and better argument. Pivotal to Bruffee’s concept is that this collaboration must consist of a “knowledge-generating discourse” between communities that do not agree—a space in which peoples with opposing viewpoints and fields of knowledge can come together in a productive and generative dialectic that leads to a synthesis of agreement and ultimately lands on a greater truth, or consensus (647).

This is an appealing idea; a world in which instead of blistering feuds between opinions, multiple groups are able to reach conclusions that are agreeable for everyone. What this does not recognize, though, is the impossibility of true consensus when the nature of reaching a “best solution” inherently assigns value to belief, one that ranks opinions as decided by power structures at large. There is simply no way for all minority voices to be heard and considered in this way of thinking as there is a marginalization of discourse groups by classifying them as “normal” or “abnormal.” Likewise, in doing this, we establish a precedent that to have difference is innately unproductive when just the opposite may be true.

Instead of seeking a group consensus, what might happen if we were seeking to learn what our differences are predicated upon? What social inequalities can be found in the dominant cultures in which opinions are based? When we seek to reach consensus, who is ultimately making that decision, and who is being excluded from this conversation? How might we instead “learn how to generate productive dialogue from the tensions of difference” (West 142)? John Trimbur, in his “Consensus and Difference in Collaborative Learning,” argues that we need to shift how we see this concept of consensus from “an agreement that reconciles differences through an ideal conversation” to “the desire of humans to live and work together with differences” (615). This dissensus that he describes is a method in which we are evaluating arguments and counter-arguments—avoiding valuing one above another—without the intention of changing opinions or winning debates. This begins a conversation of ways in which we might reframe the teaching of the counterargument, but this transition away from tradition will not be an easy one.


The Teaching and Having of Argument:

To have this discussion we must first begin with the idea of argument. David Flemming posits that in the throes of our current political climate, the word “argument” has become entirely about confrontation—something rather stressful and intimidating to most —“denoting a social interaction characterized by disagreement,” which focuses not on our “our capacity for reason,” but instead on our “tendency to dispute” (249). Barry Kroll, a scholar in the field of composition-rhetoric, says that when entering a course on argumentative writing, students assume “that argument is, by definition, an oppositional and adversarial enterprise, where the goal is to defeat opponents and win disputes” (37). In other words, the primary goal is to be right. This teaches young people that the only way to move forward is through an adversarial confrontation, logic and disproving—by entirely casting aside or tackling the counterclaims at hand. This type of culture effectively fosters an “adversarial frame of mind” in its citizens, one in which “nearly everything is framed as a battle or a game in which winning or losing is the main concern” (Tannen).

Despite argument being largely seen as oppositional, scholars recognize that opposition can absolutely be a good thing. David Flemming says that, at its core, argument “is one of the signal achievements of human intelligence, reflecting our species’ capacity not just to assert our opinions but to substantiate them” (249). Common Core likewise defines argument as “a reasoned, logical way of demonstrating that the writer’s position, belief, or conclusion is valid” (Appendix A 23). At its most fundamental level, the word “argument” finds origin with the Latin word arguo, (“to prove or demonstrate”), which is related to the Latin arguere (“to make clear”). These then suggest that an argument is a sort of “intellectual process” in which “language can be used to clarify, prove, or assert something” (Jackson 114). In these ways, the opposition inherent in argument is allowing students to employ logic, clarify ideas, and prove claims. The primary way this is taught is through the model of the writer making a claim, providing evidence for that claim, and addressing counterarguments for the claim with the purpose of ultimately convincing an audience to agree with them (Duffy). This, then, puts focus on how reason can “facilitate, manage” and “even resolve” some of the social conflicts which are so natural in our human expression (Flemming 249). Instead of arguments being heated, uncomfortable, and unproductive endeavors, this model provides that we can use language and opposition to argue in a much more productive way.

Classical rhetoric referred to this process as the need for a two-sided argument, known as Dissoi-logoi (Greek) or an argument in utramque partem (Latin). This rhetoric believed that it was part of human nature to disagree constantly and about everything, thus employing rhetoric to “facilitate controversy, not to suppress it” in the hopes of coming to a probable truth and avoiding differences coming to physical blows (Flemming 251). Because the mutual goal was a greater understanding of some kind, this way of argument didn’t necessarily favor one side over another and each of the arguing parties had to be open to the other. There was no large convincing or persuading going on here, just deliberate conversation in disagreement. This has since shifted in contemporary views of argument. Bryan Garsten points out that these concepts have adapted to something much less productive with the onset of modern liberalism which “assumes that people can find some shared point of agreement” on the issues that separate them—disproving or integrating counterargument as a means of showing that their argument is correct, that we can reach a logical conclusion using reason (Garsten 6). This modern liberalist way of teaching students that Dissoi-logoi is an obstacle that must be overcome in order to win has “instilled in students the habit of opposing every argument with a counter argument, every counterargument with a rebuttal” (Flemming 251).

In using reason to work through conflict, great emphasis has been placed by writing teachers on addressing these counter-arguments. Scholars have described this process as one of “argument reappraisal,” which takes place between a proponent and opponent of an given issue, where agreement is not the only reachable result (Gronostay; Leitão). In this reappraisal, the proponent begins with an initiation of an argument, one that is then met by the opponent with an objection. This objection challenges the argument which is “thereby undermined or demolished and withdrawn” (Gronostay 44). From here, if the argument is not demolished, the proponent has two options: modify the argument by integrating the objections, or undermine and demolish these objections, both options ultimately preserving the argument (Gronostay 44; Leitão 357). While the idea of integrating objections is similar to the origins of Dissoi-logoi, the need to undermine or demolish objections in order to preserve argument maintains this adversarial framework that argument has become in modern liberalism.

Even with this increased reliance on rebuttal and repudiation in argument, some scholars still believe that we ought to instead see counter-argument and controversy as productive and generative things (Duffy). On the sublime merits of teaching students counterargument, compositionist John Duffy says that

when students include counter-arguments in their essays, when they consider seriously opinions, facts, or values that contradict their own, they practice the most radical and potentially transformative behavior of all; they sacrifice the consolations of certainty and expose themselves to the doubts and contradictions that adhere to every worthwhile question. In learning to listen to others, students practice the virtues of tolerance and generosity. (Duffy)

This is reminiscent of the classical view of employing Dissoi-logoi as a means to reach agreement and understanding without violence. In this, Duffy asks us to see counter-argument as something that will not prove or disprove an argument, but instead as something in which we might generate meaning through growing in empathy and understanding. This posits that the act of simply using reason to evaluate opposing viewpoints is enough to create a meaningful conversation in which students can learn radical and transformative things.

Spending time engaging with and evaluating counter-argument has also become a way in which students gain credibility (thus as a means of further enhancing their argument) or as a means of reaching consensus. Kroll describes this in his work, “Arguing Differently” where he says that teachers should encourage students not to take a definitive side immediately in their argument, but instead investigate the many counterarguments and sides of their topic so that they might build credibility, or ethos, as a rhetor who recognizes the complexities of the conversation around their claims. In teaching students this way of “deliberative argument,” we are showing the value in refraining from stating claims in their introductions so that they might consider “a series of options,” pushing them to further analyze the issue at hand (45). Much like consensus, this deliberative argument allows that “if you dig deep enough, both sides are concerned about some of the same things” (Kroll 50). Teaching students about connecting to estranged audiences through exploring counter-argument is a great way to open conversations so that “abnormal” or opposing groups can create knowledge together (Bruffee 650). In this way, counterargument and opposition are used to reach an agreement, similar to the classical aims of Dissoi-logoi, instead of being used to strengthen an argument.

While this ability to find common ground and “collective judgment” among “abnormal discourse” communities is admirable, consensus pedagogy neglects the ways in which, by classifying groups as abnormal, “discourse communities legitimize their own conversation by marginalizing others” (Weiner 55; Trimbur 609). It classifies counterargument as a simple stepping-stone that must be overcome if we are to live peacefully. If continued conversation on the road to consensus is how we generate knowledge among a community of educated and abnormal peers, this presses “that the goal of education is to acculturate students” to one determined academic community, and discounts the diverse and multicultural communities and backgrounds from which they come (Lu 890). Trimbur argues that this is problematic because not only are we effectively saying that there is no productivity in remaining in disagreement, we are also teaching that no knowledge can be created unless we are finding ways to compromise in these points of conflict. By viewing “evidence of conflict and struggle as something to be dissolved” through consensus, we allow that rational argument can only end in agreement (Lu 889). Dissensus offers a different solution—one that does not minimize marginalized opinions—and instead investigates where our differences come from and if/how we might work together, even and especially when these differences remain (Trimbur 610).

Dissensus focusses the conversation on counter-arguments with the aims to “identify the systems of authority that organize these differences, and to transform the relations of power that determine who may speak and what counts as a meaningful statement” (Trimbur 603). This process sees all claims as equally valid with no adversarial attempts at undermining or diminishing one claim from another. It takes consensus and deliberative argument a step farther, saying that students need not defer from stating a thesis or aim to accommodate in conclusion, but instead should not aim to argue at all. By not arguing any thesis, conversations can begin to critically analyze all sides of a topic, generating difference and seeking an understanding of where these differences come from.

In order for this evaluation to take place, teachers must establish early in writing classrooms that there can be no expectation of resolution (West). A critical approach is needed, looking outward at the ways that society influences belief. Of course, looking at the ways dominant culture favors groups while belittling and discriminating against others is painful. Nobody wants to recognize the ways in which their beliefs are built or influenced, even in small ways, by damaging discourses such as racism, classism, or sexism. West speaks of an experience he had with his students as they interrogated race and gender issues in their readings; he notes that students “don’t like to entertain the troubling subtleties brought on by interiorizing critiques of race and gender relations” (153). As students begin to recognize how these issues manifest, they become impossible to ignore. While this is undoubtedly uncomfortable, it is necessary if we are to begin teaching students to examine “the sometimes subtle rhetorical power of the discourses of racism, classism, and sexism and confront how these discourses might affect how and what they think” (West 153).

Practicing exploring counterargument through means of disensus allows students to look at their differences more pragmatically, no longer attempting to rebut counterpoints or reach a consensus, but instead discovering the reasons behind their differences and allowing for a more compassionate view of others. This may lead to more open and critical conversations where opportunity for “genuine and lasting social change,” can arise (Walters 837). Developing the ability to more deeply consider difference through interacting with counterargument can further impact the ways in which students communicate with others in spheres outside of the classroom; they may be more empathetic to others’ beliefs and more critical of the structures in place that govern their own (Duffy; Trimbur; West). This is a necessary skill “for promoting change within a democracy” because without it, what will remain is the antagonistic arguing that serves only in the polarization and “othering” of individuals (Walters 823; West 146).

By thinking of counterargument in the way that Trimbur, Duffy, West, and classic rhetoricians present—as a tool by which we can learn about others and live with our differences—we can begin to equalize the power relationships that exist between opposing viewpoints. In not attempting to refute or disprove oppositional claims, we are avoiding assigning value, instead considering every counterargument as equally valid. When members of a conversation interrogate their differences instead of focusing on the possibility of consensus, they can come to discover what Frank Walters so eloquently describes as a “profusion of voices, none of which claims authority over the others, but all of which claim a subjective space within the vacant statement of the classroom” (833). This does not place one belief as better than another, one discourse as “normal” or “abnormal,” it simply explores counterargument in an objective way to seek what it is that these differences are predicated on in the first place.

How then, might we teach this in first-year writing classrooms?


The Counter-Argument Paper:

A possible way of approaching this is through a paper that spends the majority of its time introducing arguments and then continually counter-arguing. In the counter-argument paper, students will not be arguing a claim of their own, but instead exploring the many facets and opposing opinions within an argument. They will spend time interrogating the differences of various arguments not as a means of rebutting, but as a productive and generative process where they seek to learn, not persuade. In this, there is a normalization of dissensus, of exploring differences without placing value on one or another in order to greater understand what is really going on behind the scenes of our beliefs. This paper will not follow the format that students are likely familiar with (introduction, thesis, evidence, counterclaim, rebuttal, conclusion). The counter-argument paper should introduce the guiding question of their research—the question that the many arguments are seeking to answer—without a claim or answer of their own. The body of the essay will then be spent comparing and contrasting the many claims that are present in the conversation around their topic. All claims should be seen as equally valid in this, and students should not prioritize one over another as they explore the differences between them. This being said, some claims hold more sway and power than others, and teaching students how to critically evaluate why this is will aid in their ability to evaluate them subjectively. Their conclusion likewise does not contain a thesis or claim, but should include a summation of the things that this research has taught them about the debate around their question and the differences that surround the various sides. In true dissensus fashion, this conclusion will consist of a “what I learned is. . .” as opposed to “thus, what I am arguing is. . .”

If our goal is to teach students the value of exploring difference without the agenda of winning an argument, we must first endeavor to reframe how they approach counter-argument. After years of witnessing argumentative writing and participating themselves, it is likely that students’ first impulse will be to rely on argument reappraisal when faced with opposition. The way of combating this may be to make clear that this is not the only way. Before even beginning work on the paper, students need to have concrete examples of how dissensus can be done. These activities may be effective:

  • The “Debate”: Split your class into two groups, each “arguing” one side of an argument that they are familiar with. Each group will have five to ten minutes to meet, establish a spokesperson, and come up with a handful of claims that support their side of the argument. The spokesperson will have ninety seconds to present their points to the other team. After each team presents their points, the groups will then meet again. In a typical debate, this is where students would prepare a rebuttal for the counter-arguments, but for this activity, they will be required to explore the possible reasons that their beliefs differ. Encourage students to look critically for possible societal structures that may dictate these beliefs (this will require difficult conversations about how things such as internalized and structural homophobia, racism, classism, ageism, etc. are manifest discreetly daily). After another five to ten minutes of this exploration, spokespeople will present the team’s ideas to the class. After this activity, have each student write down what things they have learned about the debate. The purpose of activity is to demonstrate the process of dissensus.
  • The Answer Chase: Assign to students, either alone or in groups, a largely debated question—one without a single clear solution. (Particularly controversial questions such as those regarding abortion, universal healthcare, or police funding would work well, but so long as the topic has a large public discourse of opinions and arguments, the question will work.) Establish that students must approach the topic impartially, ignoring their opinions on the subject, and have them summarize and list as many solutions and arguments as they are able to find online in a thirty minute time frame. Then, students will spend some time evaluating the different arguments, grouping them together and pointing out the differences between them. The purpose of this assignment is to introduce the process of objectively seeking and evaluating the many counter-arguments within any topic.

The counter-argument paper is not one in which students are arguing a claim that they prove with reasons and support with rebutting counterclaims, but instead leans into the exploration of all counterclaims. This approaches counter-arguments not as a way in which they might gain credibility or strengthen their argument, but alternatively sees them as an opportunity to gain knowledge. This strays vastly from modern liberal argument and debate in that the purpose is not to win or persuade, but instead is to learn about the various sides of an argument and what differences can teach about the power structures that influence them.


What I Learned:

Argument has not always been the mud-slinging ragefest that we find in society today, but was once viewed as a means of looking at multiple sides of a situation in order to reach productive and peaceful solutions. While argument today has taken on a more adversarial frame, scholars acknowledge that the ability to logically work through and with opposition through language and reason is an important part of being a citizen in a world where people will disagree by nature. While pedagogies such as consensus encourage accommodation and compromise, dissensus encourages conversation that explores counter-argument with only the agenda of observation and interrogation. This generates empathy, understanding, and respect while leading to more holistic conclusions that encourage cooperation without needing to reach consensus. This dissensus is important in the creation of democratic citizens as they will have the tools to understand differences and recognize the ways in which groups are marginalized and othered.

This process, though perhaps uncomfortable, can be achieved through the normalization of dissensus. The counter-argument paper may allow students to exist in a space where they can learn without regard to being correct or persuading audiences. Here, students cannot retreat from or minimize opinions adverse to their own, but must give equal attention and respect to multiple sides, considering why these differences exist and how they might live and work together going forward. In this, students will experience the sort of critical conversations that will shape the future political climate—one that is mindful and respectful of difference.


Works Cited

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Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts. Washington: National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010.

Duffy, John. “Virtuous Arguments.” Inside Higher Ed, 16 Mar. 2012,

Flemming, David. “Rhetoric and Argumentation.” A Guide to Composition Pedagogies, Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 248-265.

Garsten, Bryan. Saving Persuasion: A Defense of Rhetoric and Judgment, Harvard University Press, 2006.

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Jackson, Brian D. Mindful Writing. 6th ed., Macmillan Learning Curriculum Solutions, 2020.

Kroll, Barry M. “Arguing Differently.” Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture, Duke University Press, vol. 5, issue 1, January 2005, pp. 37-60. Trimbur, John. “Consensus and Difference in Collaborative Learning.” College English, vol. 51, no. 6, 1989, pp. 602–616., doi:10.2307/377955.

Leitão, S. (2000). “The Potential of Argument in Knowledge Building.” Human Development, 43, 332-360.

Lu, Min-Zhan. “Conflict and Struggle: The Enemies or Preconditions of Basic Writing?” College English, National Council of Teachers of English, vol. 54, No. 8, Dec. 1992, pp. 887-913.

Tannen, Deborah. The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words. Ballantine Books, 1998.

Walters, Frank D. “Writing Teachers Writing and the Politics of Dissent.” College English, National Council of Teachers of English, Vol. 57, No. 7, Nov. 1995, pp.822-839.

Weiner, Harvey S. “Collaborative Learning in the Classroom: A Guide to Evaluation.” College English, National College of Teachers of English vol. 48, No. 1, Jan. 1986, pp. 52-61.

West, Thomas. “Beyond Dissensus: Exploring the Heuristic Value of Conflict.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 15, no. 1, 1996, pp. 142–155., doi:10.1080/07350199609359211.