Teaching in America, Where Your Opinion Counts

Thesis (not a straw man, even if it seems so at first)

My students write several expository essays each semester and always ask, a few days before the first paper’s due, where would be a good place for them to put their opinions. I usually say it’d be a good idea to leave them right where they are, i.e. in their heads and off the page, because in this class I don’t care about their opinions, not one lick. This generates uncomfortable laughter and then combative questions as to how they’re supposed to make an argument or assess an argument without putting their opinions right there in the paper.

Displaying the steely fatalism most teachers learn to know too well, I pleasantly ask them to turn to the class notes they took on day #2 and read the definitions of claim (“an arguable assertion” – my department’s definition) and opinion (“a belief or conclusion held with confidence but not substantiated by proof” – The American Heritage Dictionary‘s) and give examples of each.

They talk for a while.

Then I talk. I say again what I’ve already said: that in lay life, opinions matter because someone might care whether you believe, for example, that chocolate ice cream is delicious. But in here (motioning toward the floor of my own classroom) and out there (stabbing wildly toward the door to indicate the rest of campus), I say, the interest is in claims, not opinions. Claims we can discuss and argue about—that’s what we’re after. Opinions are unassailable and flit about unburdened by the obligations of argument. They’re insubstantial. Not worth our time. Save your opinions for your pitiful social networking blogs, I scowl, not quite old enough yet to play the cranky old professor, but trying.

Then I really let loose with a crankpot speech full of bluster and self-congratulation. Viz: Opinions are the nuclear weaponry of the uninformed and the uneducated and the furtive elephants, invisible only to the willfully blind, hidden in plain sight in our rhetoric and writing classroom: destructive, powerful, and all too real. Their mere existence can undermine all the pedagogy of peace time.

Gaining some momentum, I elect to widen my critique and roundly condemn basically everyone: The reasons that compel you students to put opinions in your papers are the same ones that compel many people to vote. You’re just banging away at your freedom button, which every American has installed somewhere in the area of his left breast. Having an opinion is liberating; it’s an affirmation of freedom. And we Americans love freedom. I myself, qua American, have a nice strong cup of freedom every chance I get; then I comment on whether that particular cup of freedom was, in my opinion, better or worse than the last one I had.

Then I figure I might as well finish up with a marriage of my clever metaphors: Democracy, is essentially mob rule, which ensures nuclear annihilation, sooner or later. This is why my classroom is an opinion-free autocracy—it’s safer for all involved, and no one gets drunk.

Antithesis (using a personal example)

I’m the proud owner of two famous (in certain circles) opinions that I’m happy to discuss with you now or at any other mutually convenient time. I believe these to be true but I can never prove them—nor do I have any desire to, because they’re already true. Here you go:

  1. Tom Hanks is the worst actor of our, or any, generation.
  2. Me and four of my college buddies could easily handle the women’s basketball NCAA national champion in a basketball game, indoors or out, half court or whole, under the lights or in plain view of the noon sun. None of us played basketball beyond high school, we’re all 6′ or shorter and we were not in fantastic physical condition when this was first proclaimed (in April 1997), nor are we now.

As for #1: Tom Hanks, pace the film academy and seemingly everyone else I’ve ever met, is a talentless hack. I wish him no harm, but folks should know the truth.

#2: People sometimes take special interest in that second claim, especially women, and I may even grant them, if I’m in a generous and idle-discussion-prone mood, that the “opinion” is at base sexist and sexist in an almost hostile and creepy way. But even so, I’d like to make clear here, that doesn’t mean it’s not true.

I tend to get hostile and combative while defending these curious opinions (curious, by the way, doesn’t mean untrue). I pay close attention to the looks people give me while discussing them (it’s starting to sound as if I have a problem—and I do. I’m really daring people to disagree so I can affirm my own ability to disagree with them in a very undemocratic and irrational way, which is my prerogative, again, as an American, for whom more than just blood has been spilled defending my ability to act in this manner, even if it is irresponsible), and I notice the grandfatherly “you’ll come around,” the freaked out “Let’s change the subject,” and the solemn head nodding in somber agreement (full disclosure: this last is usually by one of my four buddies from college).

I’ve never written these opinions down on paper before. It feels good to affirm them in writing; it was fun to do.

But here I am going back and looking at them and reading them, and I’m starting to wonder. Are the “or any” and the “easily handle” going just a bit too far?

Wait a second…

I’ll just end this section right now.

Synthesis

More helpful advice to students, upon further consideration, when it comes to argumentative writing: Better to have opined and failed than never to have opined at all. For them, I mean this literally. This is good advice for everyone. At the very least, we will have a record of our quiddities.