In recent weeks both TT and Chris have each made controversial posts. By this I mean no criticism, but simply that each has created entries on “hot” issues that invite responses from a wide variety of readers. I could tell from reading the responses that many folks had spent a great deal of time thinking about these issues. All in all, I have really enjoyed those threads.
But alas, I am Mogget the Bible dork and teacher. And the teacher in me also noticed quite a spread in the level of the arguments. I am not talking about who is right or wrong, but a matter of how each writer “sold” his or her ideas. For example, when it comes to time to take account of feelings, those who have experienced something have a natural lead. And in talking about the legal aspects we accord those with the appropriate credentials some respect. These are all issues of credibility.
Credibility has other aspects, however. On a more fundamental level it is also carried by things such as syntax and diction. Almost without being conscious of it we accord credibility to those who can choose precisely the right word or expression for an idea. Likewise, we are intuitively sensitive to sentences and paragraphs that are well-formed. And we always appreciate variety, that is, writers who “mix up” the form of their sentences and the structure of their paragraphs. No one likes to drive the same road three or four times in a day, much less in three minutes.
A third aspect of credibility is carried by the ability of a writer to anticipate and respond beforehand to the potential objections of a reader. When we encounter this in argumentative prose we know that the writer has done some serious thinking. And if these potential objections are framed sensitively, in language that does not offend, then we know that we are interacting with someone who genuinely cares about the well-being of others. I cannot overemphasize the boost that this gives credibility, particularly on “hot” issues.
This awareness of the potential audience leads to another aspect of credibility, the self-awareness of the author. Writers who are aware of their own limitations engender credibility in a reader. Folks who are experts in a field can recognize a poseur almost immediately. And I know from reading outside my field that folks who are not experts also “catch on” pretty quickly. We recognize clues such as over-reliance on a single source or a failure to anticipate potential objections, and we draw the appropriate conclusions. But writers who employ a judicious caveat give a sense of their own internal balance and humility that we often find attractive.
There is, I think, another distinction that maps relatively easily onto the effectiveness of arguments. This is the difference between some of our bloggernacle autodidacts and those who have some experience with graduate schools. Almost without exception, the latter group are more persuasive. This is not, I think, a reflection of either raw intelligence or the validity of the point being made. At least to some extent it is a product of the grad school experience.
Perhaps there are folks who can execute a personal reading program that gives them balanced insights rather than reading only what they agree with. And perhaps there are folks who can articulate their opinions persuasively without feedback. But for most, time in a graduate program is critical. Grad school is place where you get the context of the discipline from someone who knows more about it. It’s where you learn to take all the sides of an issue with alacrity. And finally, it’s the place where you defend your opinions before peers, who don’t much care about your authority, or any authority for that matter.
So get thee to a grad school. Instead of reading a limited selection of books with ideas that you find congenial, expose yourself to ideas that are less familiar and friendly. Learn to be a productive member of a discussion, which in many instances means eschewing the argument from authority. Figure out how to advance your own ideas with confidence and without callousness. Find out how to spot the nuances. Let your classmates help you lose the desire to pose as something you are not. Find your limits precisely so as to be effective when operating on either side of them. And besides all this, do it just to have fun!