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PWR 1EE: Prowling toward Certainty: Exploration as Argument

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In a culture that often rewards people who write and speak with conviction, ambivalence can feel like a personal shortcoming that must be remedied with certainty. Isn't it better to be confident and decisive? Writing teachers and textbooks tend to reinforce this view, insisting that students present a strong thesis as soon as possible. Even if you address counterarguments and offer concessions, your argument should override if not demolish them in the end. Even if you feel deeply ambivalent about a topic during your research, your final draft must demonstrate unwavering conviction: you slam your fist and make your point. But what if, instead of sweeping your ambivalence under the rug, you tried to embrace it in your research and foreground it in your writing? What advantages can we find in the deep, risky waters of uncertainty?

In this course, we'll explore such questions in an attempt to understand the relationship between ambivalence and persuasion. We'll analyze and discuss how various writers not only engage their ambivalence but weave it into their prose. As Call Me by Your Name author André Aciman has said, “Most of the writing process is sort of prowling around this center that you don't see but that the writing process will finally unveil and unearth for you.” Most importantly, we'll explore how you can develop rhetorical strategies and habits of mind to improve your own analytical and persuasive writing. We'll study how to craft compelling arguments that do fuller justice to complex emotions and ideas. Previous students have researched and written about topics such as the ethics of zoos, social media algorithms, CRISPR, terraforming Mars, violence in film, girls-only STEM education, the impact of climate change on ski resorts, etc.—the sky’s the limit.

Major Assignments

Rhetorical Analysis

(1200-1500 words or 4-5 pages) First you'll choose a text that expresses ambivalence — e.g., an essay, painting, advertisement, film, speech, etc. Then you'll analyze its rhetorical strategies and evaluate their effectiveness.


(1800-2400 words or 6-8 pages) To prepare for your Research-Based Argument, you'll choose a controversial topic that you feel ambivalent about, research it from a variety of perspectives, and write a dialogue among credible sources — modeled after the "forums" in Harper's Magazine — that enables you to inhabit the larger "conversation" about your topic.

Research-Based Argument

(3600-4500 words or 12-15 pages) You'll continue to research your chosen topic, drawing upon both scholarly and popular sources, before writing an essay that simultaneously accounts for your ambivalence and advances an argument. Your essay will reveal your intellectual curiosity and engagement — the footprints of your intellectual journey. You’ll invite readers to share your perspective by experiencing your thinking over time. Students have written essays that explored their ambivalence about topics ranging from vegetarianism to social media, from competition in childhood sports to the musical legitimacy of smooth jazz.