We Asked 5 Scholars How to Argue Academically

26th September 2017 Joe Graham News and Events

University is known for constantly providing challenges to tackle. Whether that’s deciphering who left the dirty dishes in the sink or powering through a caffeine-fuelled night of coursework, it’s not an easy ride. One of the challenges you’ll be presented with is arguing academically. While you may be a pro when it comes to confrontation, these kinds of arguments cannot be won with a snide comment or a slammed door. If you’re trying to argue academically through a verbal presentation, or just writing an essay, there’s a certain knack to getting your point across. We spoke to 5 different scholars to hear how to argue academically and ace any coursework.

1. Spatial scientist Dr Pragya Agarwal:

‘Arguing and discussing is a critical part of academic writing. To be able to have a persuasive argument, you should be able to present a well-balanced case. Every opinion should always be backed with supporting evidence.’

‘First, you should ideally present two or three points, with positive and negative of each point, based on previous research, and supported with evidence from real-life case studies and data. Then you present your claim, and your reason for it, what evidence supports it, citing facts, data and previous examples and then make the connection between the evidence and your claim. The overall aim is to justify your opinion or claim in a manner that cannot be easily disputed.’

2. Charlie Gere, Professor of Media Theory and History at Lancaster University:

‘I only have one piece of advice about arguing academically. It’s to be polite and respectful to the person with whom you are arguing and never underestimate or patronise them. Above all never be rude or aggressive. If you are it’s likely that you will look either like a bully or a fool, or, most likely both. Argue to achieve greater understanding, not to score points or try to look clever.’

3. Dennis Hayes, Professor of Education & Director of Academics For Academic Freedom:

‘Intellectually arm yourself for the battle of ideas that is the university. Familiarise yourself with the basic logical fallacies such as Argumentum ad Hominem. An ad hominem argument is often used to avoid arguing with what someone says and dismissing their views because of their sex, class or colour. Read and discuss them with your new friends and spot them in lectures and discussions.’

‘Watch out for relativist arguments ‘There’s no such thing as truth’ or ‘Everything is a matter of opinion’. Learn to quickly refute them. Just ask the many students and academics who say similar things: ‘Is that true’ or ‘Is that true or an opinion?’ The self-contradiction in these statements will become obvious. But don’t be too clever. When I was a student a friend declared in a pub discussion ‘I never generalise’ and I replied ‘I never generalise a general statement…’ and lost a friend.’

4. Daniel H. Cohen, Professor of Philosophy at Colby College who specialises in argumentation theory:

‘Think of all the roles that people play in arguments. There are the proponent and the opponent in an adversarial, dialectical argument. There’s the audience in rhetorical arguments. There’s the reasoner in arguments as proofs. All these different roles.

Now, can you imagine an argument in which you are the arguer, but you’re also in the audience, watching yourself argue? Can you imagine yourself watching yourself argue, losing the argument, and yet still, at the end of the argument, saying, ‘Wow, that was a good argument!’ Can you do that? I think you can, and I think if you can imagine that kind of argument, where the loser says to the winner, and the audience and the jury can say, ‘Yeah, that was a good argument,’ then you have imagined a good argument. And more than that, I think you’ve imagined a good arguer, an arguer that’s worthy of the kind of arguer you should try to be.’

Related: The Dos and Don’ts of Lecture Etiquette 

5. Chris Baldwin Senior Lecturer in Law at Sunderland Law School:

‘Always prepare thoroughly. Research as best you can and build your knowledge base. This breeds confidence and lends authority to your position. Remember: thorough preparation will always compensate for weak presentation, but great presentation never compensates for poor preparation. The substance is more important than style. Have a plan, not a script, and be prepared to deviate if necessary. Concentrate more on listening than speaking. Try to ‘actively listen’ and remember that ‘listening’ is not the same as ‘hearing’. Focus on what your opponent has said and react accordingly – how can you weaken their argument while strengthening your own?’

Have you got any other tips for how to argue academically? Let us know in the comments!

Joe Graham

Joe Graham

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