Archive for September 8th, 2012

At university, I declared an English major for no other reason except that I needed to specialize for my last two years. Three-quarters of my way through my bachelor’s degree, I panicked, and took a couple of extra semesters to get a double major with Communications. However, looking back, I realize that my time in English was better-spent than I thought at the time. Basically, I learned the skills to prepare, structure, and present an argument – skills that were not only invaluable for me as a journalist, but also for the time I spent in management at IT companies

Or, to break down the skills more exactly, thanks to my English courses, I can now answer all the questions in the following categories:

Preparing an argument: How do you take notes as you research? How do you scan sources accurately? How do you evaluate sources? How many sources do you need? When should sources qualify your original ideas? When do you know that you have done enough research to begin structuring your argument? Why should you acknowledge them in your argument, and how?

Deciding the appeal of your argument: When should you appeal to logic, emotion, or ethics? When can you mix them? When do any of them threaten to become invalid? When is there a sub-text, detectable but not fully adressed in your argument?

Structuring an argument: What do you need to explain before beginning your argument? When do you need declaimers? How many points can you develop fully in the space available? How should the points be arranged? What alternative tactics might also work?

Recognizing invalid arguments: When is the evidence too general to support the conclusion? When are points being left out? Is an issue really a matter of one thing or the other, with no other alternatives? What’s wrong with a personal attack? Does one point follow from the other? Did something that happened first cause things that happened later? What are the limits of an analogy being used? When is an argument depending on popular prejudice or belief? Is an authority being cited to shutdown discussion, rather than as an acknowledgment of sources? Is an argument being associated with desirable qualities, outcomes, or events that have no real connection with it?

Considering other opinions: Why is your argument strengthened by considering other viewpoints and interpretations? How do you show respect for an argument while arguing against it? How do you consider other opinions without weakening yours? When should you grant limited validity to another argument? How do you avoid being so fair that you end up being neutral and saying nothing? Where in your argument should you consider other arguments? How do you present them?

Summarizing and quoting accurately: Why should you summarize or quote accurately? What constitutes “accuracy”? How to you fit a quote into your own sentence, making allowance for differences in person, tense, and subject-verb agreement?

Understanding your audience: Why should a change in audience affect your argument? How does the audience affect your argument? How do you access what is suitable to a particular audience?

If an English major has made a formal study of rhetoric, they could also give you the appropriate jargon as they answer these questions. However, even if they haven’t, they should have enough practical experience to be able to answer most of these questions (as well as any similar ones that I may have left out), and make a reasonable guess about the others. They should also have little trouble applying these questions to any argument that is presented to them.

In particular, they will know that most of these questions are not a matter of memorizing a set of facts, but of of knowing the possibilities and knowing which ones might be useful in a specific context. All these are useful skills in any situation in which you need to communicate with others, or to persuade them – in other words, in just about any circumstances that you can name.

The next time someone tells you that an English major is a waste of time, ask them to answer these questions. If they can’t, you are completely justified in telling them that they have no idea what English majors learn — in fact that, in the most literal sense, they don’t know what they’re talking about.

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