Discuss, Debate, Argue
An essay asking a student to explain or to discuss a topic seem to mean the same thing. And in fact, they may be the same in the mind of the professor. But the three terms on this page are generally understood as occurring between two or more people. Oh yes, explain can also be seen as between two people. But in an explanation, we picture one person explaining and the other person simply listening.
In order to have a discussion, a debate, or an argument, two or more people must actively participate. Even in the extreme case, one person can participate silently by shaking their head or frowning to show disagreement or nodding and smiling their agreement.
We can tell by their expressions and gestures that the two students in the picture disagree. They are defending their positions but they also listen carefully to what the other has to say. They understand that there are different opinions on this subject, so they will still remain friends.
So how do you discuss, debate or argue on an essay when you have no one else involved?
2. You can disagree with the author, (a debate) finding problems with the assumptions, data, procedure or conclusion.
3. You can argue for or against a theory, idea, belief, opinion, interpretation, etc.
Discussing, Debating, or Arguing orally and in writing
A written discussion should include all points of view on the topic, stating each viewpoint clearly and fairly. In the end, you should state your own position and reasons why you take this position.
A written debate or argument should begin with a brief but fair statement of the position you disagree with and then stating your own position. Most of the essay should be involved with arguing for your position with strong evidence and examples.
An important difference between oral and written discussion, debate or argument
When you compare your ideas with others orally, you have several advantages. You can show the strength of your belief with your voice. We feel your emotion as you speak. You also show your emotion with gestures and facial expressions. When we write, we need to share our emotion by our choice of words and how we structure our sentences.
When we speak, others are both listening and watching how you defend your position. They may begin to feel what you feel.
The young woman on the telephone is obviously either concerned, worried, or upset about something. She might be listening to her boyfriend’s reason for being late. She might be listening to her mother explain that she lost her job or was involved in an accident.
The person she is speaking to cannot see the expression on her face or the gestures she might make, but they can still hear the emotion in her voice as well as the words she uses.
When you write, no one can see you or hear you. They will pay more attention to what you say. They will be trying to understand if you have good evidence and convincing examples. They will evaluate your reasoning.
1. Instead of focusing on why you believe this or that, think about what will be most convincing to the person reading your words. In class, this is your professor.
If you are writing a letter to the editor you would be writing to the people who read letters to the editor. What sort of evidence will be most important to the one reading your words? What examples will impress them?
In class, you have probably heard the professor discuss this or related topics. You should now recognize the kind of evidence that he or she will expect and want to read. Your professor will probably not grade you any better for taking one position or another. You should, however, realize that your professor expects you to show an open mind and willingness to listen to reason.
If you are discussing evolution, your professor really will not be impressed with what the people in your church believe. If you say you don’t believe in evolution, you need more evidence than what you were taught at home or in church.
If you don’t agree with evolution, you can still show that you have an open mind. You might say, “Although my church teaches that evolution is a lie, I now understand that scientific proof points to evolution as the best explanation of….. ” You might use examples from the fossil record. You might discuss the gradual changes in the DNA. It really doesn’t matter what you believe personally unless the question asks that very clearly.
If the question is “Explain your personal beliefs about evolution” you need a different approach. I would recommend that you explain honestly what you were taught at home or in church and give several good arguments against evolution and several good arguments for evolution. You could end by saying that you are trying to keep an open mind and plan to continue learning more on the subject.
Another possibility is that you might take an in-between position: “I am beginning to think that God created all the early plants and animals, but that, over time they have evolved, according to God’s plan.” You might then summarize the scientific evidence for evolution and conclude that you are continuing to learn more about the subject and keeping an open mind.
While it might not seem fair to you, this sort of essay is likely to get a higher grade than one that says things like “God created all the fossils including dinosaur fossils in order to test our faith.” and “I really believe that everything you have taught us about evolution is a lie.”
Professors like to know you are intelligent enough to keep an open mind. In fact, I would argue that students should always keep an open mind, listening carefully for evidence on both sides of any issues. Education is about learning to think for yourself and to make your own decisions.
My personal experience: Standing up for what I believed was right
My beliefs were very different from my parent’s beliefs, especially my father’s beliefs. Our children’s beliefs are different from what my husband and I believe. We are not upset by this. We are proud that our children are able to think for themselves and express their ideas clearly. Some parents, however, are not that open to new ideas. I learned not to discuss racial integration with my father because it always led to arguments. I believe in standing up for what I believe but I also understand that sometimes you need to be quiet.
When I was in school, there were separate schools for African-American students. The government called the schools “separate but equal” but I understood clearly they weren’t equal at all. The black students got the old textbooks when the white schools were through with them.
I recently learned, to my dismay, that the black schools did not even have a library… and I never saw a black student visit our school or the public library. I knew it was not fair to treat people poorly because of the color of their skin. I believed that schools should be integrated. My father disagreed strongly. He was worried about integration leading to inter-marriage and that would be most terrible thing he could imagine.
Today, the big issues involve politics and full rights for gays and lesbians. My husband and I taught out children to accept and value people of all races, religions and sexual orientation. We also taught them to think and make decisions for themselves.
I’m sure that students reading this will agree with some of what I believe and disagree with other things. As long as you listen carefully to all sides of a question, as long as you don’t just accept what you’ve been told but have the courage to make your own decisions, then I honor and respect your decisions. I hope you will be able to honor and respect other people who disagree with you.
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