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?