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1.6 What Is Academic Argument?

Your Process

  1. When you hear the word “argument,” what other words come immediately to mind? Jot down as many related words as you can think of.

While scientists test their theories through experiments, literary scholars most often engage with their theories through academic argumentThe expression of knowledge in humanities disciplines, such as literature. Through academic argument, scholars present new ideas about literary works, challenge the ideas of other scholars, and model their interpretations of stories, novels, poems, plays, and other works.. When you think of the word “argument,” you probably think of conflict. Arguments are loud disagreements; arguments may involve yelling, cursing, or even, in extreme cases, physical violence. That’s not what we mean by academic argument, though. When scholars disagree, they don’t start throwing punches. Instead, academic argument looks more like a conversation. One scholar makes a claimA specific, debatable, and reasonable statement that interprets a work of literature. Because claims are always debatable, they must be supported with evidence. about a given text and cites evidenceFacts that support an author’s claims. In literary criticism, these facts comprise primarily quotations from literary texts; quotations from authoritative, scholarly sources; and historical documents. to support that claim. Another scholar might dispute that claim by making a counterclaimA specific, debatable, and reasonable statement that challenges, amends, or repurposes another scholar’s claim about a work of literature. and citing evidence that either challenges the original claim or supports the counterclaim. In an extended academic argument, more points of view emerge: the original scholar might respond or other scholars might intervene, offering claims of their own that support, modify, or challenge the original claims in the argument.

Let’s sketch out an example of an academic argument. First, review William Shakespeare’s famous “Sonnet 130”:


  My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;

  Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;

  If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;

  If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

  I have seen roses damasked red and white,

  But no such roses see I in her cheeks;

  And in some perfumes is there more delight

  Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.

  I love to hear her speak, yet well I know

  That music hath a far more pleasing sound;

  I grant I never saw a goddess go:

  My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.

    And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare

    As any she, belied with false compare.William Shakespeare, “CXXX,” in Shakespeare’s Sonnets (1609; Project Gutenberg, 2010),

We can imagine a critical argument centered on the speaker’s description of his lover. One scholar might claim that the poem is forward-thinking in its attitudes toward gender, refusing to employ the idealized rhetoric of most Renaissance love poetry, which characterized women purely by their adherence to physical standards of beauty. By insisting that his love can be “rare”—meaning here “valuable” or “unique”—even though her lips, hair, breasts, cheeks, breath, and voice do not match society’s expectations for exceptional beauty, this speaker implies that women are complex individuals, not static figures meant to satisfy men’s erotic desires.

Another scholar might disagree with this reading, pointing out that even though the poem refuses certain idealized comparisons (“Coral is far more red than her lips’ red”), it nonetheless dwells only on this woman’s physical features. This scholar might claim that the speaker’s refusal to employ common metaphors to describe his mistress only demonstrates his desire to show his superiority over other poets. The poem’s final line, which ends on “false compare,” says nothing about the woman, but instead insults the metaphors and similes of other poets whom this speaker sees as less talented than himself. The woman is given no name, no voice, and no personality—she is only described through what she is not.

These two critics disagree, but they express that disagreement through careful, reasoned prose. Indeed, they find some common ground: as the second scholar begins to respond, he or she admits that the poem does refuse idealized comparisons. Good academic argument is a give-and-take process, as each participant acknowledges the best points made by his or her interlocutors. The goal of academic argument is (usually) not to prove another scholar wrong, but instead to show how his or her argument could be expanded, supplemented, redirected, modified, or amended.

In this book, we will teach you how to engage in these conversations. Each chapter helps you develop your skills of engagement and will ask you to practice responding to the ideas of other scholars. Through repeated practice, you will learn how to bring these skills of academic argument into your class papers—to move beyond simply summarizing literary works and toward interpreting them. Each chapter also includes a sample paper from student writers so that you can see how your peers have applied both theoretical and rhetorical principles to craft effective academic arguments about a range of literary works and cultural topics.


Our discussions of argument in this textbook largely follow the Toulmin method, which you can read more about in this writing guide provided by Colorado State University (“Writing Guide: The Toulmin Method,” Colorado State University, Our approach is also influenced by the refinements to Toulmin in the Little Red Schoolhouse (LRS) curriculum taught at the University of Chicago, the University of Virginia, and other institutions (“Little Red Schoolhouse Online,” University of Virginia Writing Program, We have found Toulmin and LRS to be effective methods for beginning academic writers in a range of fields, including English literature.

In addition, we also follow the principles of nonthreatening argument that are presented by Carl Rogers. For more on Rogerian argument, review this article from Colorado State University ( or Joseph M. Moxley’s article on the topic at Writing Commons ( Kiefer, “What Is Rogerian Argument?,” Colorado State University,; “Rogerian Argument: Solving Problems by Negotiating Differences,” Writing Commons (blog), 2012,