Chapter 7: Making Your Own Argument
Choosing and Analyzing Your Central Document
By now, you’ve probably noticed this chapter’s repetition of the phrase “your own argument.” The word argument is key. A professor never wants your opinion. Opinions are feelings and thoughts that cannot be proven and cannot be disagreed with. Evidence is the key difference between opinion and argument. While you may begin your essay writing process by examining our opinions, you should be ready to move them aside quickly and replace them with an argument grounded in evidence.
The first storey of your own argument should:
- Choose a central document and explain its significance to your argument
- Analyze that central document to focus on two key pieces of evidence
Based on your work in Chapters 1 through 6, you should be familiar with other authors’ use of central documents or examples to make their arguments. For example:
- In “Kids Around the World Just Want to Hang Out,” Michael Welsh uses the responses given by two separate groups of high school students from Stockholm, Sweden, and Keene, New Hampshire, who were surveyed about their preferences and visions for their cities as his focused central document. Welsh argues that the students of Keene displayed considerably less vision than their Stockholm counterparts, “limited expectations” of their government’s ability or interested to help them attain their goals, and a worrying reliance on commercial companies to provide them the accessible, common, and entertaining spaces they desire.
- In “The Plot to Privatize Common Knowledge,” David Bollier uses the focused central document of the book Adios, Barbie: Young Women Write About Body Image and Identity, which outlines Mattel’s aggressive litigation to protect its intellectual property. He uses this Barbie example to support his larger argument that “over-patenting,” if continued unchecked, will result in much of what has been previously considered the shared and accumulated wisdom of humanity becoming “off limits” to the average citizen.
When choosing a central document, you want a specific document that will provide at least two focused pieces of evidence you can analyze meaningfully. Look again at the example assignment prompt from earlier in this chapter and note how that prompt explicitly identifies the central document you need when it asks for “ONE protest movement and ONE social media.” Not every assignment prompt will be that overt, but, at the undergraduate level, you are expected to focus on a small number of examples–your one or two central documents–that support your focused and complex argument within the context of the assignment’s guidelines. For this textbook you are only going to focus on ONE central document to create your argument.
Therefore, this central document should be short and manageable. As we do our example essay prompt about social media and protests, you will need to identify a precise central document that will provide your argument with strong supporting evidence of your argument. Imagine the scope of your essay. Let’s say, for example, you are being asked to write an eight-page essay. It would be impossible to write an eight-page essay arguing anything about “The Internet” — think how much you would have to discuss and consider; it would be everything from smartphones, to Internet-enabled appliances, to self-driving cars, and would include every app and website and function of “The Internet.” That scale of argument would require a series of books! Similarly, you cannot write an eight-page essay about “Social Media.” Think about all the different kinds of “social media” and all the different users of those social media and then all the different ways all those different users engage on those social media. Again, that would be a series of books. You cannot even write an eight-page essay on “Facebook.” Instead, if you wanted to write an eight-page essay on “how ONE protest movement used ONE social media to balance or unbalance the power dynamics between government officials and their citizens in harmful or useful ways” from the prompt above, you would need to focus in on a specific part of Facebook (say a Facebook group) and then a specific aspect of that Facebook group (such as the photos posted, the front page, or one discussion thread). Only then are you at a level that is focused enough for an eight-page argument.
In response to the prompt above, we will chose Occupy Wall Street’s Facebook page, as an example. By looking at a small slice of Occupy Wall Street’s Facebook page, more specifically the comments in response to the posts on the Facebook page, you can gather two specific, focused pieces of evidence which you can then turn into a specific and focused argument in our second storey.
Remember that at the undergraduate university level, you will only ever be asked to write one focused and precise argument at a time. As such, you need to be focused and precise in limiting your scope to an appropriate central document.