How Should “Should” Fit in to Teaching Argument?

I recently had a discussion with a highly experienced compositionist on the topic of writing effective central claims. The conversation began with an inquiry of mine over a suggestion this professor made to students as they work on writing and revising central claims: to replace linking verbs, including “should be,” with action verbs. I was somewhat alarmed by this explicit direction because in my teaching of how to develop an effective central claim, I often tell my students to write “should” statements! You can imagine my immediate feeling of embarrassment, possible wrong-doing, and confusion—how could I so clearly misunderstand what must be such a logical explanation for leading students away from the use of “should” as they try to develop supportable arguments?!

My colleague explained her logic to me: “should” statements are often statements of judgment or statements that lack rational reasoning. She wants students to identify why they think what they think and write a central claim that expresses their ideas in a more articulate, intelligent manner. Here is an example she gave me: “People should recycle” was revised to: “Although recycling is a hard habit for many people to take on, there are ways to make recycling easy enough so that we can all benefit from a cleaner world.” I agree, the latter version of the central claim sounds more thoughtful and more potentially (rationally) arguable than the former.

In subsequently reflecting on how I teach students to develop arguments, I realized that one reason I find explicitly pushing the use of “should” helpful is because it moves students away from mere observations, such as “people are often judged for their language use,” to actual argumentative positions, such as “people shouldn’t be judged for their language use.” This is a common first step for me when helping students initially address an essay assignment and to begin to formulate their own ideas on the subject. I find that using “should” helps students move away from making blanket observations that won’t lead to a purposeful essay or simply summarizing the authors we’ve read. Continue reading