7.4.4 The main body of the text
Presenting an argument
Students generally understand that they are required to ‘present an argument in an assignment’ but can feel unsure about what this means and how to go about it. Is this how you feel? Though an assignment is an exploration of a topic, it requires a sense of direction, of building a case or argument in a logical manner.
Imagine you need to ask your tutor for an extension to the cut-off date for an assignment. You need to persuade him or her that you have a good case. (In practice, of course, you would not be under so much pressure to explain. We have chosen this as an example because the situation may be familiar to you.)
What might a good case be?
(a) I have been called away on business at short notice.
(b) I have had a lot of visitors recently.
(c) I have just not had the time.
(d) My daughter was taken into hospital last Monday after a car accident, and I have had to spend a lot of time there with her.
(e) I have not been able to concentrate on my studies recently.
(f) We are short-staffed at work, and this is our busy time.
If you were the tutor, would you consider all of these to be good reasons for the request? Would you agree that some reasons are stronger than others? Maybe those students whose circumstances have changed unexpectedly have a better case than others who could have foreseen problems and should have been able to plan around their difficulties.
Maybe you would look less favourably on (b) because you would feel that the student need not have got him or herself into that situation and in any case has got his or her priorities wrong. But look at (c) and (e) again. On the face of it, these reasons may not be as strong as, say, (d) but if you were to enquire further with your student, you might discover there were other things underlying the lack of time and concentration. Perhaps the student with reason (c) is caring for an elderly relative for whom respite care had fallen through. Maybe the student with reason (e) is depressed and on medication. These two students would both have a good case but have not presented it very well. Even the student with reason (b) may have an acceptable explanation for the sudden influx of visitors. What lies behind the suddenness? What extra demands did this place on the student? The more questions that are asked, the stronger the case could become.
There is another aspect here. How do you know that what these students are telling you is true? What pieces of evidence help to verify their reasons? What status would you accord a medical certificate or a statement from the student's employer?
When drafting your next assignment, ask yourself:
is my argument logical and worth making – is there a case?
have I made the argument as clearly as I can?
have I been side-tracked by issues that are irrelevant?
have I explained what lies behind my argument in sufficient detail – not too much, not too little?
do my points follow on from each other and strengthen my argument?
have I provided evidence for what I say?
Making your argument usually occurs in the main body of the assignment, whether it is an essay or a report. This is where you outline your point of view while demonstrating awareness of other perspectives or interpretations. To be convincing, you need to show your reasoning as to why you favour a particular perspective, and to provide supporting evidence.
You will recall from the planning activities, how important it is to group your ideas together. Once you have reached the drafting stage, these groups of ideas should be subdivided into paragraphs.
act as major organisers
individually offer something distinctive, in terms of analysis, argument, ideas or examples
may contain a new topic
often start with a statement and then expand on or explain it
include any related evidence, information or quotations.
Use of quotations
Throughout this course, we have recommended that wherever possible you try to put things into your own words. But you may not be familiar with this practice if you come from a different educational or cultural background.
One of the purposes of writing assignments is to reach your own understanding of the issues and to show your tutor that you have done so. This is most effectively done by using your own words. However, there are occasions when it may be best to quote directly from your course materials: for instance, as a piece of evidence, or where you feel the author has expressed him or herself particularly memorably or effectively. Including appropriate quotations, extracts or evidence is often a good way to add weight and authority to your arguments.
Using quotations is not the same as plagiarism. Plagiarism is borrowing too heavily from someone else's work and failing to acknowledge the debt, giving the impression that you are passing their work off as your own. Quotations should not be too long; a couple of lines is normally sufficient. Remember to acknowledge quotations by providing references. We are reluctant to be too specific here because practices do vary from academic discipline to discipline and from course to course. Once again, refer to any guidance notes you' been given. These may provide an indication of what style of presentation is preferred or required. One guide is to see how quotations are handled in your course materials.
Whereas references serve as an acknowledgement of someone else's words, a bibliography allows the reader (in this case your tutor) to identify in detail the source of your quotations and even ideas. Every assignment should contain a list of sources at the end (even if it is only your current course unit or TV programme). There are many ways of presenting a bibliography. Look at the way it is done for your course. Here is an example of one way of acknowledging a quotation (a) and its bibliographical reference (b):
(a) (Cringley 1996, p. 97)
(b) Cringley, R. (1996) Accidental Empires, London, Penguin Books.