Success and the Persuasive Essay

I’ve been thinking about Rebecca Schuman’s recent Chronicle piece on teaching as a vocation, and her further rumination over at pan kisses kafka on the (temporary?) suspension of her pedagogy. I have also been trying to figure out what my life “should” look like as a PhD outside academia—what “success” might look like. I have also also been substitute teaching. Between bouts of riot control, today’s lesson was on the persuasive essay. The sixth graders had to read and break down two short articles on video games: one praising the potential virtues of video games, the other warning of their consequences. They had to suss out the author’s claim, then to note down the evidence the author used as support. They needed practice at both, but it’s the start of the unit and, like I said, riot control.

How do you convince somebody of something? We’re bombarded by competing notions of success in everything from car advertisements to religion to quote-images plastered all over social media. Especially in advertisements, success and happiness are elided by the smudge of money. When we get into more metaphysical notions of success, we lose some of that equation of success and happiness. We can even reverse the connection between success and happiness. (Think about the “inspirational” gym pictures that one friend of yours always puts up about pain and gain.)

All these success-mongers want to persuade us that their mode of success is the best. It’s the coolest. It’s the most ethical. It’s the one that will take you furthest in the world. Whatever. Digging down into the supporting evidence is too often a rabbit hole: claim follows claim follows claim. That’s rhetoric, but it can take ages to get down to evidence. My sixth-graders today were easy to catch with that hook, which was part of the point. Teaching people to really read means teaching them what kinds of evidence are important to which varieties of argument.

The persuasive power of success models is wholly contingent on what kinds of evidence we are willing to buy. Is success a new Lexus (something the TV told me everybody gets for Christmas), having a car younger than your kids, or living car-free in a place with viable public transport? Is success turning your every waking effort toward improving the world, volunteer tutoring on a Tuesday evening, or being a responsive partner in your relationship? Is it traveling first class? Is it traveling with all your worldly possessions in a single backpack? When we pick a model of success, we’re being persuaded not by the claim, but by the evidence. The claim comes afterward. It’s how we gather our favorite pieces of evidence together.*

When we write, our ideas about success are just a few of the many that creep onto the page. When we’re looking at our screen or our paper, we reflect in other ways on success. Is success making a reader feel something? Is it getting “enough” hits on your blog or sales of your self-published book? Is it making a living from your work? Is making Good Art enough by itself? Those are the questions I’ve been grappling with. They’re complicated, as they are for so many of us, by our competing roles in life. Where does success as a partner and father fit in? Who do I allow to persuade me?

More importantly, how do I persuade myself of something? The latter is what I am working on these days: convincing myself that some direction or other is worth pursuing. I need to move from “convince” to “conviction.” We measure success in a hell of a lot of ways, but which ones are the most persuasive? Thoughts?

(*As a contrasting example, contemporary U.S. politics put the claims first and the evidence much, much later.)

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