Rogerian Argumentative Essay Assignment


The Basics:


3-4.5 typed pages (8-11 paragraphs).  You might write this in the form of a letter, but I will encourage you to write it as a straight essay.




Psychologist Carl Rogers had a theory about why people disagree.  He felt that other psychologists had over-rated the extent to which our disagreements have a rational basis.  He argued, instead, that most disagreements grow out of a natural impulse to possess.  For example, when we fight with our brothers for control of the TV remote, it isn’t usually because we think we have justice on our side or even because we don’t want to watch what he’s watching; it’s usually because we feel possessive about the remote even though it doesn’t really matter all that much in its own right.


Rogers suggested that we might be able to erase a lot of disagreements if we could get ourselves to acknowledge how much we actually have in common with those with whom we disagree.  If we can teach ourselves to regard arguments dispassionately ¾ if we can look at other people’s arguments as carefully as we look at our own ¾ then we will find that many of our conflicts simply vanish.


The first step in such an approach is to put your opponent’s position into your own words.  Try to write the argument you disagree with in such a way that your opponent could nod and say, “yeah, that’s my point.”  Take 3-5 paragraphs to describe that position without allowing yourself to interrupt and explain why that position is “wrong.”  Be patient and explore the position in detail.


Then, you should go ahead and articulate “your” position.  The trick is, however, that you should try not to think of it as “your” position.  Once you’ve given the other side a good hearing, explain another perspective on the question with the same patience.


In the end, you may find that such a patient examination of the matter leads you to some middle ground.  You might not be able to find a compromise, but you should at least be able to reduce whatever it is you disagree about to a more manageable size.


Appropriate topics: 


Finding a topic to write about is one of the most difficult elements of this assignment.  You might consider arguments or misunderstandings you have with some of the people to whom you are closest, your parents, a boyfriend, a girlfriend, a spouse, or a child, for instance.  You might also think about disagreements you have with specific institutions such as Oakton, the Illinois Secretary of State’s drivers licensing authority, or your landlord.


I urge you to avoid topics such as abortion and prayer in school.  There are a lot of such arguments out there, but it is often difficult to locate a particular individual or group with a particular position.  As a result, it becomes too easy to caricature the other position.  Instead, have a specific group, program, or individual in mind.


Some pitfalls:


It can be difficult to argue someone else’s position patiently.  I have seen many people write this sort of an essay and interrupt themselves throughout the beginning.  Keep in mind that you do not necessarily have to endorse what you write; if you truly disagree with something, putting it in the best possible light will help you recognize the extent of your disagreement.  It might help you to think about coherent paragraphs; when the main idea of a paragraph is one you disagree with, you should register that disagreement in some other paragraph.


It can also be difficult to sustain a tone of understanding throughout the essay.  I have seen a lot of essays where people began by writing sympathetically but then turned harsher.  Keep in mind that Rogers’ theory has to do with psychology; it argues that we disagree for irrational reasons.  Try to sound as calm and rational throughout as you can.


The most challenging part of this essay to write is probably the middle, where you make a transition from one position to another.  On the one hand, that is usually where the matter of tone is its trickiest; you have to find some way to say “yes, but...” without unsaying everything you have just said.  On the other, the transition is really where you write your topic paragraph.  Since you do disagree with what the other side says, you don’t begin to talk about your own position ¾ your own reason for writing the essay ¾ until you’re halfway through it.  Avoid stating your position too boldly; you were patient with the other position, and you will need to be patient with your own.


Features of the best essays:


The best of these essays manage to take a legitimate disagreement and transform it.  Even if you cannot “solve” a crisis, you can make it look different and less contested. 


Try to confront some of the issues that matter most to you, and you may find that Rogers’ approach really can clarify things for you. 


Finally, keep in mind the challenge this essay presents in the subtle tone it demands from you.  This is an opportunity to sound like a diplomat when you’re dealing with issues close to home.