Lauren John: Argumentative Writing

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While teaching argumentative writing to her college English class, Lauren John learns a thing or two herself.

With the fall college semester in full swing online, students in my Zoom-based writing classes are learning to write argumentative essays. Typically these essays start with an opinion known more formally as a thesis. The thesis is then backed up with three supporting paragraphs containing data or expert opinions. There may or may not be acknowledgment of opposing opinions. And then there is the bang-up conclusion.

In past semesters the lesson plans were simple — focused on writing mechanics and library research. Students might present an essay on whether to lower the drinking age. Some might build a case for banning sugary drinks in the campus vending machines.

But now it’s far more emotional. After a summer of COVID, racial injustice, hundreds marching in the streets and fires that turned our skies orange, the arguments reflect our daily lives. I grade essays on pandemic politics, defunding the police, climate change and civil rights.

The tension builds. I’m an English teacher who thinks that everyone should wear a mask leaving the house. Last week, a student turned in an essay proclaiming that masks mess with his civil liberties.


What I wanted to do was write in red in the margins that he’s 18 and I’m 62 and he’s gonna spread COVID and kill me. Instead, I graded him based on the strength of his argument — and frankly, it was a damn good argument.

My students don’t always have to agree with me. But they do have to learn to argue with me.

Still, displaying a neutral countenance is tough on Zoom, where every facial expression — the raised eyebrow, the clenched jaw — are illuminated and exaggerated. At least students can’t see me curling my toes.

Recently, upon the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, we have learned about the liberal Justice’s great friendship with conservative Justice Antonin Scalia. The Justices were cordial, respectful life-long friends. Their dissenting opinions affected a nation.

I bet they each had great English professors.

With a Perspective, I’m Lauren John.