Learning to Argue
Earning an MA in English was one of my key learning experiences. This post examines that experience for deeper learning about my skills, knowledge, and values.
When I thought about going back to school I considered a lot of options. Popular possibilities included:
- earning a Master’s degree in Management and Information Technology, offered at CSUMB
- earning a teaching credential for either primary or secondary education
- earning a Law degree.
Hmm. Though I suspected that I needed more formal education, none of those options really attracted me.
One day while enjoying an unusual chance for reading a series of comments, from an English teacher, critiquing an introductory paragraph by my oldest son, I realized that in spite of a life-long love of literature and writing, I had never received that kind of overt scrutiny of my writing.
Although I loved writing and literature and began my undergraduate education as a Journalism major, I quickly switched to Biology and ultimately graduated with a BS in Computer Science. I blamed my parents for providing more emotional support for science than humanities. However, I also recognized in myself, something I mentioned in an earlier post, on Information Overload. I am attracted to straight forward, defensible solutions to well structured problems. My natural interests in literature, philosophy, and psychology, led to messy discussions, and strongly differing opinions. Instead of learning more about how to argue (exchange ideas) in arenas with more “ill-structured” problems, I chose paths that felt safer because they seemed to offer more defensible algorithms and solutions for the problems I was likely to address.
I decided that if I was going to accept the challenge of Grad school, with its investment of time, energy, and money, while also working full time and helping three other people navigate their lives, I wanted to learn about things for which I cared deeply and face challenges previously avoided. I was accepted to the program for a Master of Arts in English at San Jose State University, with the conditional requirement of completing 18 units of undergraduate work before beginning graduate level courses. Completing my degree took five years.
Over the years from about 2003 through 2007 I spent one day each week becoming a student again, leaving early and returning home about midnight. My Mother blessed me and her grandchildren by stepping in each week while I was away, helping in many ways.
Skills and Knowledge
New Ways of Thinking
To do well in my literature courses I had to learn to think in new ways. I had to learn how to argue a point. In the past, as I’ve mentioned, I liked addressing problems with straight forward solutions. When I first began addressing questions related to various works, I found myself floundering for answers — wondering how to know the right answer. I had some weird half formed idea that somehow the answered existed outside the work in the body of some critique of the work. What I did NOT have yet was the “a-ha” that an answer could come directly from me and my experience of the work as long as I could support my answer with relevant details from the text.
This was a huge step for me because I realized that I could apply this new found freedom to decide and express what I thought, based on the evidence available to me, to any situation.
That is a little embarrassing to admit because It seems obvious that that is what we should always do — decide what we think based on the available evidence. HOWEVER, I suspect it is common for people to offer answers based MORE on what they believe someone else thinks is correct than on what they personally believe is correct, based on the evidence they are aware of. I don’t think we usually even realize that’s what we’re doing. It’s more obvious if you notice that you have one answer to a particular question in one context (with certain people) and a completely different answer to the same question in a different context (with different people). That’s worth examining …
This particular “a-ha” gave me a new compass in life. I realized that in any situation — instead of trying to figure out the “right” answer, I could determine my position based on what I knew. Of course, with my background fear of information overload, and my frequent lack of much research, that means that I simply don’t have a strong opinion on many topics because I don’t know much about them. However, as I continue to further embrace inquiry and suspended judgement, I don’t believe I’ll necessarily become more opinionated. If one is “suspending judgement” how can one be polarized?
Things I had to do
Other things I had to be able to do to complete my degree included:
- about 50 semester units of coursework with a grade of B or better
- research critical opinions related to course texts and write papers in dialogue with them
- participate in and occasionally lead graduate seminar sessions
- study a wide range of periods and genres of English literature and ancient European literature
- study many critics of literature from Aristotle to the present
- learn another language (I chose Spanish) well enough to pass a written comprehension test at about a “third semester” level
- pass two comprehensive written essay exams: one covering literature from ancient European works (like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey) through American and British English literature of the18th century, another covering American and British English literature from the 19th century through the 20th.
Explicit Skills and Knowledge
Review of the Skill Areas Worksheet I’m using related to key learning experiences results in a list of the following skill/knowledge areas related to earning my MA in English:
- Problem solving skills: critical thinking related to critical theory dialog
- Written communication: many papers and essays
- Oral communication: leading and participating in seminar sessions
- Information Literacy: Research, Evaluation, Interpretation
- Technology Literacy: Internet browser, Word processing, Online databases
- Teamwork: participating in seminar discussions and study groups
- Intercultural Knowledge and competence: Increased knowledge of various aspects of many cultures based on deep study of particular works
- Literature: Increased knowledge of English Literature and ancient European literature
I’ve already described the way the demands of my coursework helped change my approach to developing my position on an issue. Some of the other benefits from this learning experience that have ongoing value to me include:
- Deeper knowledge about the different time periods and cultures from which the literature I studied was created. Literature is a wonderful path to learning more about psychology, history, and politics
- Realizing that any topic becomes interesting after I dig into it, immersing myself for awhile
- Stronger writing skills
- Perseverance. I had to study A LOT. The last six months before my final essay exam found me grabbing regular hours at 4am. Often, when I’m looking for the strength to go on with a challenge I’ll remember that and think, “Every step counts. Just take the next step.”
- Increased diversity in courses I teach
- A range level increase in my University status
- Deeper appreciation for diverse genres of literature
- Conscious awareness of how FUN learning is
Taking a Deeper Look
Easy vs. Hard
I always liked reading literature. Reading was the easy part of my program, though it was challenging to find enough time, and some works initially seemed dull. I also enjoyed having one day a week completely dedicated to “being a student.” I went to campus early, worked in the library, and went to class in the evening. Writing short papers was fun, but writing long papers was hard. Writing a 25 page paper on a particular theme requires finding a lot of different things to say supported by a lot of research. I could still learn more about strategies for developing a 25 page paper on a literary theme.
Influence on Others and My Biggest Challenge
Immersion in my studies undoubtedly made me less sensitive and available to my children’s needs, but my regular absences also provided greater opportunities for connections between them and my Mother. I suspect that my hard work over a significant time period for something I cared about was a good example for them. Another aspect of this experience that I hope was valuable to them was the biggest challenge I had to overcome. The first time I took the second essay exam I did not pass. Not only was that excruciating for the embarrassment factor, but for the realization that before I could take it again I would have to endure six more months of daily early morning study. The main “silver” lining to this was the hope that it was positive for my kids to know that I could fail at something I cared about and not give up. Part of me wanted to give up, but I could not find any good reasons to support that decision. The second time I took the second essay exam I knew I had strong answers for each of the questions and I felt good. That was Fall 2007, and that Thanksgiving Holiday I celebrated by cooking dinner for a close group of friends.
Summing Up – Final Thoughts
Working for my Master’s degree helped me learn to argue and increased my self-discipline and perseverance. All of my studies provided tremendous rewards through the pleasure of deep learning of diverse literature, history, psychology, philosophy, and cultures. I cannot think of any particular weaknesses this experience makes me more aware of, that are continuing challenges and barriers for me. During my studies instead of trying to avoid “information overload” (as I often have!) I dived into as many sources as I could related to any topic I was working with. I did run into time constraints and I never conquered the process of writing a 25 page literary paper well, however, I could learn that if necessary. When I think deeply about this experience my primary feelings are affection for the pleasure of the learning and tremendous satisfaction for meeting a demanding challenge.
Note: This post is one of three developed for an example of examining one’s key learning experiences to learn more deeply about one’s skills, knowledge, and values.