Sandwiches and Arguments

I just wrote a discussion forum prompt for one of my online classes that I’m proud enough of to want to share it here. One thing that people in academia (from teachers to researchers) all frequently struggle with is making a solid argument. I notice this a lot in manuscripts I review, student papers that I grade, and—especially—in my own writing and presenting after it’s received some feedback.

One of the classes I’ve been teaching since starting at UK has been a course on information literacy and critical thinking. Being able to make and evaluate arguments is especially important for that class given the subject matter, so each semester I teach, I’ve tried to provide more explicit instruction on the importance of arguments. Last spring semester, I started using the dumb-but-hilarious “is a hot dog a sandwich?” meme as a beginning-of-semester activity to practice making arguments before we even get into the course material that students will be making arguments about. Whether or not hot dogs are sandwiches is ultimately a pretty meaningless question, but I think it’s a great example of a concept that everyone has a common understanding of but that no one actually has a solid mental definition for (kind of like “critical thinking,” “creative thinking,” or a number of conceptual frameworks that I use in my writing). That may fly in the world of barbecue, but it doesn’t hold up as well in the classroom or in the literature.

So, without further ado, here’s what I’ve written for my students. This is a first pass on the prompt, so all feedback is welcome!

The Prompt:

Over the next two weeks, we’ll be discussing critical thinking and creative thinking. Understanding these concepts will be really important throughout this semester (and your life!)—especially as you prepare to submit your case study assignment in a few weeks.

In your case study assignment, you’re going to need to make a strong argument about whether certain people are more critical thinkers or creative thinkers. Making strong arguments is something that human beings don’t always do very well. We’re good at making arguments, but we’re less good at making strong arguments, the kind that hold up to close examination. No one ever makes a weak argument on purpose, of course; most of the time, it’s just that something seems so obvious to us that we don’t put in the effort to make our case to someone who may not see things as being all that obvious.

Let’s take critical thinking and creative thinking for example. These are terms that many of us use in everyday conversation, so we’re familiar with them and can make some “gut associations” between these concepts and the people that we know. To us, the gut association seems solid, but if someone doesn’t see the concept the same way or doesn’t see those people the same way, they might disagree with us. So, to really make the case that someone is a critical thinker or creative thinker, we need to provide a clear definition of what critical thinking (or creative thinking) is, provide some clear evidence that someone is a critical (or creative) thinker, and then make a claim that matches the definition to the evidence and seals the deal. That will make a strong argument. The Deductive Reasoning Model

One common pattern for strong arguments is the pattern for deductive reasoning. Deductive reasoning takes the following form:

  1. first premise (about a general rule or definition)
  2. second premise (about a specific case or situation)
  3. conclusion

For example, we could make the following strong argument following this pattern:

  1. all human beings are mortal (a general rule)
  2. Dr. Greenhalgh is a human being (a specific case)
  3. because Dr. Greenhalgh is a human being, Dr. Greenhalgh is mortal (conclusion)

If someone wanted to attack this conclusion and say that it wasn’t a strong argument, they would have to provide evidence that attacks either of the first two steps. In other words, they’d have to convincingly demonstrate either that there is such a thing as an immortal human being or that I am not a human being (maybe a robot?). As long as you can’t disprove either of those first two steps, though, the argument is a strong one.

As we read definitions of critical thinking and creative thinking over the next two weeks, take the time to think about:

- what kind of general rules or definitions there are related to these concepts
- what parts of specific cases or situations you would look for to test them against those general rules or definitions

Arguing About Sandwiches

Before doing any of that reading, though, we’re going to do some practice with arguments in general. There are a lot of dumb (but occasionally hilarious) arguments on the Internet, and we’re going to use one of those for practice: For this activity, you need to argue whether or not a hot dog is a sandwich.

This activity is worth one point. For half a point, you must use the deductive reasoning model above to make an argument about whether or not a hotdog is a sandwich. For example, I might write the following (bad) argument:

  1. a sandwich is something between two slices of bread
  2. a hotdog is not between two slices of bread
  3. because a hotdog is not between two slices of bread, a hotdog is not a sandwich

For the other half a point, you must respond to someone else’s argument to try to identify problems with it. For example, someone might respond to my argument with the following:

“You define a sandwich as ‘something between two slices of bread,’ but that’s too broad of a definition. You could put an iPad between two slices of bread, but that wouldn’t make it a sandwich.”

Alternatively, someone could argue:

“Most of the items sold at Subway aren’t between two separate slices of bread, but everyone calls them sandwiches, so your definition is too narrow.”

Now that I’ve shot down one (way too simple) definition, you’re going to want to put more thought into yours… and then even more thought into your classmates’ definitions!