Better than Donald – how to argue like a pro



As I write, The USA has one more sleep till election day – and the world will breathe out. It’s been rough watching Donald and Hilary juke it out. Just to be clear US based readers – I am not judging you by the level of discourse amongst your politicians. Australia had an election in July, which was a pretty unedifying spectacle too. It’s painful watching politics because I’m an academic and I argue for a living. I may not always be an expert at exactly how an argument works, but I can certainly recognise a bad one when I hear it, so I yell at the news.

A lot.

Arguments have come to dominate the way we make knowledge in universities because of, well – colonisation and stuff (if you’re interested, I wrote a post about this a really long time ago). Arguing well is a key academic skill. Learning to argue like an academic is developed all through undergraduate study, but most especially during a PhD. In fact, it’s probably the most subtle and difficult parts of the research degree learning process. Unless you did a full Arts Degree with a major in Philosophy, it’s unlikely you’ve been formally taught how to argue. I spent my undergraduate years in design school, which has very peculiar ways of making arguments, so I struggle to find my way through the swamp of my own arguments. I’m always looking for help to build and clarify my arguments and one of my most useful tools is the humble diagram.

You can use diagrams to construct arguments for any paper or chapter. I picked up the method I outline here from The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Thinking in Higher Education, which I reviewed some months ago.  I’ve tested this on both humanities and science students, so I am reasonably confident it translates across disciplines. Diagrams are shortcuts to writing, so I often teach them in our Bootcamp program.

The best way to show you how it works is via a worked example. Let’s say I want to write a paper about why academics get ‘stuck’ with their writing. We’ve all had these moments, right? Where we just can’t make progress on your writing work no matter how much we try. Why does it happen?

I posed this question to the participants in the translational photosynthesis bootcamp I am running today. They came up with a good list of reasons: feeling like you weren’t ‘finished, other things to do, interruptions, lack of knowledge, lack of enthusiasm, guilt, fear of the enormity of the task, fear of judgement, wanting to avoid hard work, self conciousness and not having anything new to say.

This is the important brainstorming part of building an argument: writing down all the reasons you can think of without judgement. We then tried to categorise the thoughts using a spider diagram, like so:

missingthingsI’ve written about the spider diagram often because it’s such a flexible tool for thought. It’s useful for making  discussion chapters and organising your literature amongst other things. I’ve put together a handout which describes the process here.

This spider diagram helped us make some tentative conclusions and explanations about our question. From this diagram we selected two possible conclusions for why people get ‘stuck’ with their writing:

  1. because they are lazy
  2. because the university system and processes makes it hard to write.

We can make these conclusions into proper arguments by using the ‘Beardsley-Freeman’ method of argument mapping*

The Beardsley-Freeman map consists of two kinds of statement: a premise and a conclusion. A premise is simply a proposition or ‘truth statement’ that supports a conclusion. You can have many premises and conclusions – the argument bit comes in how you arrange them.

The most simple form of argument, which I am going to call the ‘Donald’ in honour of the US election, is premise  —> conclusion.

conclusionThe Donald argument feels a bit thin doesn’t it? Our diagram shows there isn’t much meat on those argument bones. We could try to beef it up with a convergent diagram: more than one premise leading to a conclusion. To do this we need a more complex argument diagram, which I will call ‘The Hilary’, for obvious reasons. Pulling in another premise from our list, the Donald argument could now look like this:


When we try to make The Donald into a Hilary we start to see there are fundamental flaws in logic. How does guilt lead to laziness? Nothing on our list will provide the bridge. While Donald would probably be happy sticking with that simple argument form, I prefer Hilary – the more satisfying, robust and therefore convincing argument.

To make a Hilary, let’s start with “People get stuck with their writing because the university system and processes makes it hard to write.” Starting with a convergent diagram (more than one premise pointing to a conclusion) we could come up with something like this:

conclusion2Better – I can see a complexity emerging, but I still don’t buy it. Neither premise, on their own, logically connects to my conclusion. Although it’s more complex than a Donald, it’s only half a Hilary. Luckily there are a couple of other Beardsley-Freeman argument map diagrams I can try.

Let’s choose a serial arrangment: one premise leads to another premise and then the conclusion. Tackling the right hand side of the diagram, I could a serial argument map like this:

conclusion3That’s good, I can see a connection between ‘always so much other work to do’ to ‘interuptions’ to ‘systems and processes getting in the way’. How about the premise on the other side – ‘fear’? I could add in a linked argument map to make this premise more valid. A linked argument is when one premise depends on another to be valid, like so:

conclusion4In this argument map ‘pressure to be productive’ is linked with ‘constant judgement and rejection’ which leads to an atmosphere of fear that can provide an explanation for getting stuck. Let’s put that together in an argument map I will call ‘The Full Hilary’:

conclucion5Once you have a Full Hilary, the thinking has been done and writing can just flow from that. Here’s a paragraph that took me 30 seconds to write:

“The nature of the university itself, in particular its systems and processes, slows down or even stops people writing. In a large, complex bureaucracy like a university, there is always a constant stream of ‘other’ work an academic must do. This work imposes a series of deadlines and therefore has the potential to lead to constant interuptions of writing – a factor known to slow down writing productivity. Universities are subject to broader systems pressures, like ranking tables which put demands on academics to be constantly productive – subjecting their articles to peer review which can be stressful and demoralising. To make matters worse, conventional journals cannot absorb the extra papers and articles, leading to a constant stream of rejections. Under these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that some academics develop fear and avoidance behaviours which stifle their productivity.”

Contrast this with the writing that comes from the Donald:

“People get stuck in their writing because they avoid work, which means they are lazy”

Donald or Hilary? I know which I prefer!