We are both – it seems to me – a very litigious and a very non-confrontational society. We seem to be very willing to “stand up for our rights” and be angry when we don’t get our way, but we also are not very good at articulating our opinions or approaching discussion or confrontation healthily. We are both aggressive and passive aggressive as a people, and this cultural training about argument makes it very difficult to teach students how to write “argument essays” very well. But this is my favorite part of teaching composition because, well, we all need to know how to be better at this if we’re ever going to improve in our communication as a culture.

Today, my students will be bringing argument paragraphs as the first step in writing an argument essay. This is a developmental writing course, so ultimately, my goal is to help them clean up their writing so that they can move onto composition next semester. But I find that teaching grammar and structure really falls flat without real assignments. So here, we are writing arguments. It’s great, and they are doing very well.

Their assignment is to write a paragraph that argues why people should be interested in their culture. They can define culture anyway they choose – although I encouraged them to be very specific for this assignment – and they should be making their argument to a general audience. Some of them are defining their culture by religious associations, some by ethnicity and race, some by economic class, some by nationality, and some by – well, I’m not sure what they are using.

After they set out their main point in their topic sentence, they have to provide three reasons that people should come to understand their culture. This is harder than it may sound because, well, we innately think – I believe – that people should be interested in us and also that we don’t really deserve people’s deep attention. I’m very curious to see what reasons they give for their argument.

Because I want to give them a model for their assignment, I spent some time developing my own paragraph, and here’s the rough version of what I came up with:

People should come to understand my artist culture because artists contribute valuable things to society, because artists require a different pace and structure of life to be creative, and because we need to foster art and artistic endeavor to help improve our society. From the newest Swell Season song to Basquiat’s unnamed paintings, artists have helped create beauty and encourage social reflection through their work. Without artists, we would not have Bach’s Cello Suites or Ed Hardy’s hats; we would not have Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” or Beyonce’s ballads; we would not have Michelangelo’s David or Stephanie’s Meyer’s Twilight books. Our world would be diminished without these things. Therefore, we need to understand that artist’s require time for reflection and contemplation before, during, and after the creation of a work of art; the standard 40 hour work week does not work for an artist because it does not allow the slowness of pace that leads to deep creativity. We must adjust our societal expectations to give artists space to work. Finally, the artists in our world deserve our understanding because we need them to help us. Artists have often caused us to reflect more deeply on our endeavors; for example, consider Elie Wiesel’s book Night, which urges us to consider what in ourselves could lead us to the Holocaust so that we do not travel down that dark road again. Artists give us a chance to consider the best and worst of ourselves so that we can choose the lightness over the dark. Thus, as a society, we need to understand the value of artists because in their value may lie our hope.

My hope is that in providing them an example – as rough and wordy as it may be – they will be able to see how they, too, can form well-developed, strongly toned but not angry paragraphs. Then, we will turn these paragraphs into essays arguing for why their culture is valuable to the world. Wish me luck. I’ll let you know how it goes.

– “Kulia” by Christine Turnbull