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Coming to Grips with an Argument

Consider this response to Sigmund Freud, typical of the first semester:

I do think that Freud makes an important argument that civilization curbs aggression. He makes note that men are not "...gentle, friendly creature wishing for love..." (40), but that they are aggressive by nature. Civilization attempts to mask this aggressive tendency by taking away private property, limiting personal possession, and making restrictions on love and sex. In order [to] try and make reasoned interests stronger than passions of instinct, barriers are created, but we also see that these barriers completely violate human will.

When I began to see responses like this from freshmen, I knew that these writers were using the shared space of the conference for a type of discourse I had never heard under the solitary spotlight of traditional discussion. Responses to texts as tough as Civilization and its Discontents, and later comparisons to writers ranging from Virginia Woolf, Karl Marx, and Mikhail Bulgakov, are now archived on a class Web page. Students began studying for university-mandated midterms and finals, as well as the paper topics I assigned, with the conference transcripts. Taken as a body of student work, these transcripts demonstrate that students were engaging in a dialectic about serious ideas, ideas that would carry them into the prefigurative era we inhabit.

The type of discourse we see in synchronous conferences can resemble good oral debate, when participants agree to a certain level of decorum. My working definition for dialectic in Core was any discussion between students that contained supported readings of a text or interpretations of an idea. The ideal discussion would, as Socrates tells Phaedrus, "bring a dispersed plurality under a single form" and also "divide into forms, following the objective articulation" (Plato, trans. 1952, p. 132-133). In our case, an argument might draw together disparate ideas from other Core texts or divide a topic into smaller arguments that could then be explored on the basis of definition and logical inference, not unsupported opinion.

This definition of dialectic is not precisely Socratic. We were not in search of an elusive Platonic reading, one that would define the text as some masterwork of human intelligence about our "theme of the week." We would not always "presuppose a knowledge in the mind of the speaker of the truth about his subject" (Plato, trans. 1952, p. 119). That approach can lead teachers and students into a Cartesian trap of adopting the teacher's reading as "the truth." This is a practice about which Core students complain when they visit our Writing Center: they could never ferret out the "correct reading" of a text from their teachers. To combat this tendency, I decided to begin with the premise that any reading would be valid if it could be supported by textual evidence and clear reasoning. When a point baffled us, we would not be like one of the wise fools Socrates debated, one who "thinks he knows something when he does not" (Plato, trans. 1981, p. 25). Students knew this point well, since they had read the Apology early into their second semester.

How the Conferences Worked