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.

Once students are able to articulate their stance (as I think “should” statements help them do), I then work with them to identify the reasoning behind this stance: why shouldn’t people be judged for their language use? Because, for example, language is not a true representation of someone’s intelligence or value of her culture? The addition of this reasoning, I suggest to my students, can help lead to a stronger central claim and argument—one that is taking a position that can be supported with logic and evidence.

Interestingly, when I look through some of the materials I assign students to read as we work on creating arguments, I see that “should” is included in some model central claims. Here is one example from A Writer’s Reference: “Because the polygraph has not been proved reliable, even under controlled conditions, its use by employers should be banned” (from the Drafting section of the handbook). I understand that such examples provided in the handbook aren’t necessarily perfect; however, they at least give me some peace of mind that in some ways, using “should” in a central claim is a useful way to help students test against weaker, less productive versions of potential claims. (The polygraph  example was a revision of a factual central claim.)

I would like to clarify that I don’t always explicitly or strictly teach the use of “should” when I teach argumentation—sometimes it is an approach that I have found productive when students are in the beginning stages of a writing assignment and simply can’t begin to understand how they could ever possibly make an argument on the issue. Because (and as we know, sometimes to their detriment!), students have lots of opinions on everything, helping them identify their opinion/position on our given assignment topic is a first step in helping them realize that they in fact have something to say on the topic—that they have ideas worth pursuing and developing through their writing.

Also, it’s important for me to add that through the exchange with my colleague, I have come to see that helping students move beyond the “should” statement can help them strengthen the development and expression of their ideas and in some cases, their tendency to moralize or judge rather than articulate a thoughtful, rational argument.

The question for me now, though, is should I avoid the explicit use of “should” in my process of teaching of argumentation at all? Although I have found it a helpful step for teaching central claims in the past, perhaps I can sidestep it all together… How do you teach the writing of central claims? the development of an argument? What kind of language do you (explicitly or not) suggest or avoid?


9 thoughts on “How Should “Should” Fit in to Teaching Argument?

  1. I ask students to avoid using: could/should–this results in “mushy” inelegant writing. I want students to take a firm stand and develop their voice and position. Additionally, I ask them to never use: prove or feel.

  2. I see the argument “highly experienced compositionist” and Macaroni are making, but I don’t think the use of “should” inherently leads to poor writing. Yes, it’s correct that “‘should’ statements are often statements of judgment or statements that lack rational reasoning,” but I’d argue that this is true of the majority of the statements our students make, especially early in the semester, whether they are using action words or not. Again, to use an example from your post, I don’t think “Even though recycling is a difficult habit to take on, people should do so, since recycling can be made easy enough that we can all benefit from a cleaner world,” is any the less potentially arguable than “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.” In fact, in my experience, the latter claim would be more likely to lead to a paper where the student is providing information about how recycling can be easy enough, with no real argument or analysis.

    In short, while I certainly don’t think one should (hah!) rely on the use of “should” to teach argument and claim formation, I don’t think one needs to automatically eschew it either. It’s one of many possible tools to that end and not a particularly poor one.

  3. I think this is a great topic and one that will lead to much debate. I have to say, I have never thought about the use of “should” in effective central claims before. This is something I have always taken for granted; if a student uses “should,” it at least shows an effort at creating an arguable claim, something that I find my students struggling with on a regular basis.

    However, I think that in an indirect way, I do encourage students to take out such language, as it can sometimes be seen as not assertive. Being assertive in a central claim is important. I really try to keep my students from using “wishy-washy” language like “it seems.” In some ways, I think that the use of “should” could contribute to a writer being non-assertive, but on the other hand, a declarative sentence like, “Guns should be banned,” is certainly assertive, if not developed.

    In an overall sense, I wonder if focusing so closely on word choice hinders our ability to teach students how to write effectively. One student might use “should” arguably and concisely, while another might use it as a cop out. For example, one student might say, “Drinking alcohol should be banned in public places just like smoking.” I would see this as a pretty arguable claim and one that a student could back up with texts successfully. However, another student might write, “Alcohol should be banned,” which would be much more non-specific and a sort of cop out.

    Tatum, I think this connects back to the example that your colleague offered. Is it really the “should” that we are concerned with, or the level of argumentative language in the claim?

    • Sarah, I think you nailed what I was trying to communicate, albeit not as coherently as you. I don’t think the word choice matters as much as what the student is doing with it. Or, to answer your last question, it’s the level of argumentative language in the claim that matters to me, not whether the student uses (or doesn’t use) specific words.

  4. I’m not a huge fan of “should” statements, as to me, they tend to sound like high school “persuasive” essays. On the other hand, I like the should claim above more than the second version, which to me sounds more observational than argumentative. And, as Shil says, may well lead to a laundry list type of essay — “here’s some great ways to recycle.”

    I try to push toward the stating of a truth that is debatable, something along the lines of “Although recycling is a hard habit to take on, it is one of the most important ways an individual can help the environment, leading to a cleaner world, because…..” (pushing them to produce a “why”).

    Or, more to my point of view “Although recycling is a good, helpful thing to do, it is actually not the most important action one can take to help the environment, and over-promotion of it by media and schools leads to a sense of satisfaction that obscures more crucial environmental concerns.”

    (off topic, but I’m so tired of essays about “well, climate change is bad, so….recycle!” because that’s all they know about environmental issues.)

    “Should” statements tend to exhort a particular action. What I’d like to see is a point of view and why the writer holds it, rather than persuasion to action. However, I can see using the should statement as a bridge to helping a student see what his/her point of view is, as you describe above.

    But like I said, I think either approach is better than the alternate one concerning recycling in the original post–which describes rather than conveys a position.

    And I totally agree with “macaroni” concerning avoiding prove and feel. Feel is, well, too touchy-feely, and prove is almost always logically incorrect.

    Great discussion!!!

  5. This is really interesting! I agree with you Tatum. My principle is usually: if expert writers do it regularly, I’m not going to tell my students not to. I think making up special rules for student writers is the most high-school move of all. Expert writers (or at least published ones) use should-claims all the time. I’m teaching two essays with central “should” claims tomorrow.

    For me a strong central claim is a) a complete sentence (yes, I say that); b) is specific/ concrete; c) is about a topic, not about the writer; d) is not self-evident, but instead requires complex evidence (including rebuttals/counter-claims/complications) to be adequately argued; and e) is likely to challenge the readers assumptions.

    I made that up, so maybe it’s not right.

    We talk about the language and structures that tend to reflect these qualities and language and structures that tend not to. Where can “I” be effective in a central claim? When the central claim is not about I, but “I” am asserting it. Sentences that depict contrast may help us see how a central claim challenges our assumptions: While it may seem…, in fact…. Words like “way,” “reasons,” “differences” “similarities” might indicate vagueness, etc….

    • Tara, I think you captured the danger of forbidding certain kinds of words and statements here:

      “My principle is usually: if expert writers do it regularly, I’m not going to tell my students not to. I think making up special rules for student writers is the most high-school move of all.”

      This is an important point. I find myself using the essays we read as examples of ways to form arguments. They often break the rules or do something I don’t advise. At one point, I would find myself saying “although writer x does this, it’s not advisable for you to do so”. However, that sounded too much like double-speak. Instead, I simply offer suggestions and explain where the uses of such words and phrases could lead, making students aware of their various pitfalls.

    • Tara, I really like your approach of directly talking to students about “language and structures” that can lead to strong central claims. I tend to hesitate about telling students too explicitly to do or not do something with their writing, but this approach sounds like it would provide students with suggestions or models that they could use to help construct better central claims, without being overly directive. To me, forbidding the use of certain words skates awfully close to that “overly directive” boundary…although I can understand the temptation to put a blanket ban on some words that students use with abandon (and without accuracy–“prove” is one of my least favorites, too).

  6. Like Tavya, I think Tara’s approach of defining what a central claim should be and then talking about particular language and structures that either exemplify or counter what an effective central claim looks like is a great method. It allows for instruction through defining our key essay criteria and evaluating models that help students see what this criteria looks like (and how a central claim, in this case, works–or not–when examined in the context of course readings, as Stacie describes) without being too directive (especially in terms of what words to use or not).

    Thanks, everyone, for such great responses! This discussion really helps put my inquiry into perspective.

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