Sunday, October 03, 2010

Each semester in the persuasion and argument class I teach, the transition from personal issues to social issues is awkward. It's a little like, "okay, now instead of doing this, we're doing this," and the 'why' of our switch remains a little bit nebulous. In theory, writing about something important that happened in a-life-so-far leads into thinking about larger social issues; "the personal is political" or more specifically, everything we go through is something that many other people have also gone though. That our lives are examples of larger social and historical trends. The memoir is, for our purposes, a short narrative about a time when a person learns some kind of life lesson. "A time when I realized I was all alone in this cold and cruel world." Translating a subjective theme into a concrete argument requires some work.

On Friday, it was the point in the semester where we give it a shot, and this time it made little more sense than usual. We started with the chapter on narrative argument and discussed one of the essays at the end of the chapter, an essay by Leslie Marmon Silko about border patrols. We discussed implict and explicit reasoning and looked at on the diagram the book provided:
We worked to figure this "nipple" (as a student put it) diagram out. Say you write a story about being carjacked. Of course it's no fun to to be carjacked. You write, "he pressed the gun to my temple and told me to drive to the airport." This is a scary. From this feeling, our subjective reading experience, we conjure up a reason for being scared: I am scared because there is a strange man in my car threatening to kill me if I don't drive him to the airport. Or in simplified terms, I am in danger (vs. the objective viewpoint, this is a dangerous situation). From this reason we create a 'claim': lock your doors; and in turn, an argument: lock your doors because carjackers are dangerous.

That's about 45 minutes of class time condensed. What's neat about this little system is that it explains how the stories we tell are, in a sense, arguments for certain world views. We all know this in a sense, but the mechanisms that actually persuade are hidden, and it's helpful to see them. Granted that all forms or rhetoric (finding the best means of persuasion) require a little hoo-ha/ magical thinking/ faith that somebody is listening, but the point of beginning the class with a memoir is to ground argument in the personal. To show that the reason we are arguing about prop. 19 or tax cuts is not because it's an intellectual game, which it can be and has seemingly turned into on the national level, but because we live in our bodies and experience feeling. Right or wrong aside, we all have preferences for how we like to feel. These preferences color everything we do, including the stories we tell.