Helping Students Identify and Analyze Scholarly Arguments

As an assignment in most of the History classes I teach, I have students write a paper over a scholarly article or monograph. See an example here. Goals of this assignment include for them to successfully articulate and analyze important arguments. I’ll explain to students they need to read for arguments and big ideas, not all of the specific details.

Students are frequently challenged by this assignment, which is a good thing, but more and more often I am realizing that I have sometimes incorrectly assumed that students understand differences between an “argument” and “details” or can easily figure the difference out. Instead of articulating arguments, papers will only summarize. Some will use “argues” incorrectly as a synonym   for “talks about.” For example, they will say, “Adams argues on the historical memory of World War II,” instead of “Adams argues that the historical memory of World War II is…”

More and more, I spend class time explaining this and reviewing what an “argument” actually is with students one-by-one as we look at their written papers. Here is another example of a monograph assignment. The study questions at the end were CASE-method from other sources. I encouraged students to more or less think of answers to these questions as arguments the book makes.

Last Thursday in Texas History, we spent a very productive entire period reading this article I wrote together, talking sentence-by-sentence about what was an argument, details/”facts,” or a combination of both. Then, we wrote a sample analysis paragraph based on the directions together. I unsuccessfully tried the write-a-paragraph-as-a-class exercise last semester, but it worked this time! We had a much narrower focus and had just read the article out loud as a class. 

I have been working on a set of rough criteria that would help students identify differences. So far I have come with that if something is more or less provable, it is not an argument. If a sentence says, “x did y on z” – that is not an argument. It is something that happened. If a sentences says “x talked to x and said z” – that also is not an argument. Anything that, more or less, just delivers information is not an argument. (This works for introducing argumentative analysis – of course we could talk about rhetoric and the importance of what details/”facts” the author includes or does not include as being a kind of argument.)

Additionally, if a sentence says something that is subjective to interpretation it is an argument

Looking at an example from my article linked above: “A revealing event took place when two African American students from TSU appeared at the Downtown School of the University of Houston.”

I explained something along the line that this sentence has both a (minor) argument and details. That the event was “revealing” is an argument. That an event occurred as described is a “fact.” (I loath the word “fact.” lol) 

I’m still working on ways of helping all students successfully complete article/monograph analysis exercises more often and on helping them identify the important, big argument.

One thing this process has really helped me realize in new ways is that almost everything really is an argument.


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Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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2 replies

  1. I know your dealing with scholarly articles when dealing with this “argument” or “facts” thing, but couldn’t you say that something written as a fact could essentially still be an argument made by the author? I know I’m just trying to raise a question for the sake of having a question to ask, but couldn’t you say that by not allowing your students to question the validity of facts in these scholarly papers that in the future they will not question the “details” of a non-scholarly paper?

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    • You’re better at this “academic stuff” than most people, Tim! There is one section in the assignment that gives students specific room to question the book’s basic facts/information, and so on. Students could also question an author’s information through the analysis of their arguments. They could say, Adams argues x, but x does not make sense because actually… Questions are always good! Especially finding holes in “authoritative” works. 🙂 This answer your question?

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