Writing mistakes


Writing mistakes

Unfortunately for you, it is easier to be critical than to be constructive. It is easier to point out mistakes than to explain how to get it right in the first place. Perhaps this is because human history is a rubble pile of mistakes waiting to be repeated, and the right answers are still a promised land somewhere over the rainbow. Whatever the reason, mistakes are easily identified and labeled. You therefore need to be able to recognize some of the most familiar logical fallacies so that you can get to them and correct them before I do.

Circular Reasoning

Circular reasoning is so prevalent that it even has its own marginal notation (mine is an arrow shaped like a circle). Indeed, its popularity is such that I feel impelled to say something about it: Don't do it!

In case you don't recognize this problem, it is the tendency to explain something by the thing explained. I have had students write on papers that "People like beef because it tastes good." This is circular. Saying they like it and saying that it tastes good are simply two ways of saying the same thing. Thus, the steak's tasting good is not the cause of liking it. In my Early American Lit class, every year someone writes that Emerson was a romantic because he lived in a romantic era. Yes, and it was a "romantic era" because romantics like Emerson lived in it. Which came first, the era or the writers in it? This too is circular reasoning In almost any discipline, teachers want you to see beyond the immediate facts to the cause of the phenomena, be they economic, historical, or literary problems. We live in a cause-andeffect universe. Accept the terrible truth that things do not cause themselves. In our determined world, events have causes. We expect you to search outside of the events for whatever you think might have caused them. I once heard a scholar say, "Our condition is due to the condition our condition is in." She thought she was being clever. My primary response was to wonder why she was being so evasive.

Just Say No to "Just"

To emphasize this point, I forbid the use of the j-word, "just," in any of my classes. Nothing "just" happens. Everything has a cause. Saying that something "just" happens is saying in effect that it happens without a cause. This is the kind of sloppiness we indulge in when we don't think. However difficult and at times painful, we must fight our way through the tangle to the causes. We must rattle the bars of the prison of our contingency. That is what education is for. As a generally instructive way of illustrating this problem, I ask my students to tell me their favorite flavor of ice cream. Some say chocolate, some strawberry, some coffee, some octopus kumquat. Some claim not to like ice cream at all. Others get evasive and deny having any favorites, preferring, they say, to exercise their free will when they get into the store. Hah! Then, having pried some sort of answer out of each student, I go back around the room asking "why." In the first round, a depressingly large number of students say, "I just do," or "It tastes good." Unwilling to let sleeping evasions lie, I keep pushing. Why does it taste good? Why does Jill over here like chocolate and Hans over there like strawberry? What are the factors that produce these differences?


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