Georgia Hartman

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“Since the dawn of humankind …” how many times have you read a student paper that started like this? Or perhaps simply a paper with an argument WAY beyond the scope of the evidence presented to back it up? I have certainly found these to be common tendencies among students at the various public and private institutions where I’ve taught. Many students arrive at college believing that a good argument is a powerful argument and that a powerful argument is one that makes a big claim (i.e. people are like this, society does that). What they don’t understand of course is that making a big, unsupported claim also sacrifices the quality of an argument.

This conceptual outline exercise is aimed at helping students to: a) construct an argument that is supported by the evidence they have collected, b) similarly, to construct an argument that is derived from an analysis of the evidence—as opposed to an argument imposed upon their evidence, and c) how to use evidence to effectively support their argument.

When I was in college, these skills did not come easily to me. I, like my students arrived at college with an idea of how to structure a paper (e.g. intro + thesis statement, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion, bam!), but I had little idea of how to structure an argument or how to use evidence to effectively support it. I would mic drop quotes into essays, assuming the evidence stood for itself. I was simultaneously afraid to be too explicit about what my evidence meant, and overconfident about making grand generalizations.

After years of running into this with my students, I finally decided to break the mechanics of argument construction down into a simplified template. This template for a conceptual outline is best employed as a sub-assignment of a larger scaffolded project. I typically require its completion within 2-3 weeks before the deadline for the paper of which it is a part. This lead time ensures that students are thinking concretely about their project sufficiently in advance of the deadline. It also allows sufficient time for conceptual adjustments and/or additional data collection.

I encourage students to approach the exercise as a draft. It is important for them to feel comfortable to take risks in their argument and analysis and not to feel judged in doing so. I suggest that they experiment by proposing more than one possible argument. The idea is for them to try things out. While I do not grade the assignment, I do give feedback. Thus, this can be a bit of work intensive exercise for the professor. That said, I’ve found that the work put in at this stage yields vastly improved final papers, which are ultimately much less work to evaluate.

The template for the outline is really very simple (see link to template below). It asks for the following:

  1. Proposed thesis/argument.
  2. One piece of evidence/data you plan to use to support your thesis.
  3. What is the significance of this evidence?
  4. How does this evidence support your argument?

It requires that they provide and analyze 3 pieces of evidence, though they are welcome to include more if they would like. Similarly, I indicate that while this exercise only requires 3 pieces of evidence, their final paper will inevitably require far more.

For many students, completing this outline template is a completely new experience and can be a bit of a struggle. Though I take pains to detail what exactly constitutes evidence/data (i.e.  a direct quote, an observation, something specific), some students nonetheless include unrevealing “data” such as, “interview with interlocutor,” or they place their analysis of the evidence in the place of the evidence itself. I also find that students still want to make arguments that are beyond the scope of the evidence they present. Indeed, they struggle to figure out what is an appropriate scope. Many express concern that an argument about a small group of people or about a single text is not sufficiently powerful to constitute a strong thesis statement. But this is precisely why this exercise is so helpful! Together we are able to narrow down a compelling, evidence-driven argument.

Note, this exercise is particularly helpful with projects based on independent ethnographic research, though it has also been helpful with assignments where the data is drawn from text or other media. For students doing their first ethnographic projects, it can be challenging to understand that the interviews they conducted and observations they made are data. This exercise helps to make that clear.

The exercise, along with feedback from the professor, helps them to recognize what exactly is evidence, to analyze its significance, and to use it to support a compelling argument based upon it.

Georgia Hartman is a Postdoctoral Fellow with the University of California Institute for Mexico and the United States (UCMEXUS). She is currently conducting research at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. She previously taught for two years as a Visiting Assistant Professor at Pitzer College and variously as Instructor of Record and Teaching Assistant at UC Irvine and UC San Diego.