• Flux Magazine

"On Crafting a Powerful Argument; Or, Becoming Your Own Greta" by Dr. Laura A Watt

Updated: Sep 30, 2019

Just a few days ago, people around the world were riveted by Greta Thunberg’s speech to the UN Climate Action Summit, as she chastised world leaders for their collective inaction in developing new commitments to reducing carbon emissions. The Swedish teen’s sharp, direct language and concise reference to the scientific realities of climate change, combined with her unvarnished anger and frustration with the pace of political change on this topic, have catapulted her from a lone climate-striker less than a year ago to one of a number of inspiring young people heading up the call for swifter and more drastic changes to address the environmental disasters unfolding around us. I’m truly impressed—and humbled—by Thunberg’s ability to cut through the political noise and deliver such a powerful, un-ignorable message.

And her speech has me thinking this week about how universities can help people find their voices in stronger, more articulate, and more convincing ways. As a professor in Geography, Environment, and Planning (GEP) , my overarching career goal has always been to share knowledge, to trigger other people’s interest in the world around them, and to help them to understand both natural and cultural resources through an integrated, broad-based view. I want to make the study of natural and cultural resources relevant to young people, who are often overwhelmed by pressures to just get a high-paying job and let the rest of the world take care of itself. Once students become more aware of the patterns of interconnections, the complex ways in which environment and society are woven together in our lives, then even if they don’t go into conservation or resources management as a career, they will be cognizant of their own role and impact on the way our world functions. Perhaps they’ll even become voices for change, in whichever professions and communities they end up moving toward.

But how do you become that voice for change, for what’s right in the world? Philosophically, I am firmly of the mind that the best career preparation most students can get in college focuses on strengthening their writing and critical thinking skills; particularly from my four years of working in private environmental consulting before coming to Sonoma State, I often saw many colleagues who were technically strong but could not express themselves clearly or convincingly, and similarly were often hamstrung by their educations into believing there was a single right way to approach problems. Creativity in any field relies not only on knowing the basic foundations but also being able to think about one’s work in a new way, or from a different perspective.  The topics one studies in college can lead directly to one’s career, but many people end up switching careers, or evolving over time into different directions (I know I did!); strong writing and the ability to craft and deliver a persuasive argument will serve well in any endeavor.  

A crucial element of this approach is learning what kinds of questions are productive to ask, and particularly to distinguish opinion from analysis. It is my intention that, in my classes, students stop looking for the “right” answer, and instead become more willing to consider alternatives and different possible scenarios and outcomes. Ideally they will become more self-critical, developing the ability to externalize the process of thinking and learning—to see it happening, to catch themselves in the act.  In doing so, they become better able to apply what they’ve learned to new or emerging situations, to analyze new problems rather than be stumped by them.

In all of my classes, regardless of the subject, I focus on the centrality of writing skills; like playing a musical instrument, good writing takes constant practice. Similarly, learning to identify core arguments in class readings helps students to develop their own arguments—to bring ideas and critical evidence together to form something unique and persuasive to contribute. I find that grounding students with these basic skills encourages them to then take some risks, experiment with their ideas, and find their own voices, rather than just follow standard formulas—to trust themselves and their distinctive perspectives to create new approaches and unique solutions to resource issues.  They often already know how to approach a problem or answer a question, they just need to be given the opportunity to discover that. 

By focusing your efforts here at SSU on improving your writing skills and abilities to ask a good question, craft a powerful argument, and speak out for what’s right, you can become as central to the world’s conversations as Thunberg is today. So step up! We need all your voices!

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