Thursday, March 13, 2014

"That's Not an Argument": Rhetoric & Writing with Monty Python

I would argue... It has been said... Four out of five leading dentists rhetoric teachers agree... You are an idiot if you disagree... We all need to know what makes up an argument, and better yet a good argument, in order to practice our own skills for making (and winning) arguments. From evaluating newspaper editorials to analyzing TV news pundits, from engaging in comment thread squabbles to posting a substantive essay on a controversial issue, learning and mobilizing argument techniques is key for citizenship and cultural participation. Since my first year of teaching English and media studies 15 years ago, I have turned to Monty Python for help in introducing what an argument is and isn't--and it turns out I wasn't alone. Below, I share some great resources on using classic Python sketches to teach argument from FactcheckEd at UPenn Annenberg and the Argument Research Group at the UMichigan. But first, the funny... Sharpened pencils ready to note: What messages about what counts and does not count as argument (or good argument) does the "Argument Clinic" sketch communicate?

I love the opening mishap where the character looking for an argument wanders into "Abuse"; how many times has that happened to you, on and off line? There are some poignant moments of actually defining argument, which I highlight in the script quoted below [full script available here].
M: An argument isn't just contradiction.
O: Well! it CAN be!
M: No it can't!
M: An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition.
O: No it isn't!
M: Yes it is! It isn't just contradiction.
O: Look, if I argue with you, I must take up a contrary position!
M: Yes but it isn't just saying 'No it isn't.'
O: Yes it is!
M: No it isn't!
O: Yes it is!
M: No it isn't!
O: Yes it is!
M: No it ISN'T! Argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says.
O: It is NOT!
M: It IS!
While the sketch does not explicitly delve into premise/support/conclusion or stance/evidence/warrant, I've linked to some strong resources for teaching such concepts, both of which use the "Argument Clinic" sketch as an introductory clip. FactcheckEd at UPenn Annenberg also has a great lesson on logical fallacy built around the "Witch Trial" scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Here's that scene to whet your appetite for fallacious funniness:
In your comments, I'd love to see some arguments for/against using humorous pieces such as these (or this meta-essay on blog opinions from a prior ML4ML post), and some satirical use of logical fallacy--if you're up to it! I'll leave you with this nice quote from the Argument Research Group at UMichigan to underscore the broad applications for the skills and knowledge of argument techniques, which I argue we all benefit from knowing and practicing, and from teaching in an entertaining way:
The closing argument of a criminal trial, a formal proof in mathematics or a teenager's impassioned plea for a later curfew all require the speaker to take a position, offer compelling data, and explain the underlying assumptions that connect this data to the speaker's position.

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