“How Do You Know That?” and “Why Should I Care?”: Examining Assumptions and Other Acts of Self-Improvement

A few days ago, I received an e-mail from a student thanking me for a fun and informative Spring semester. Feedback like this is always appreciated, especially after grades have been posted, but this contained an extra bit of encouragement. At the end of the message, the student wrote, “The two most important things I learned this semester: ‘How do you know this?’ and ‘Why should I care?’”

What the student was referring to was an excerpt from my opening day introduction for Freshman Comp II, my “This is why we’re here” speech. For the uninitiated, it’s sort of like the English 102 version of the “This is a football” spiel, and to be honest, the idea of someone actually remembering it took me by surprise. It also made me happy and proud.

Here’s the general idea. When we attempt to write persuasively, one of the best ways to be effective is to assess two dimensions of our work: its appearance and content.

Yes, I know. No one’s ever thought of that before. But there’s more to it, I promise.

Both of those aspects of writing are important, but I want to set aside the idea of appearance for a moment and address the second part. By this I mean the quality of our ideas, our credibility as writers, the effectiveness of our arguments, all of which can be assessed by asking and honestly answering two questions posed by an imaginary reader:

  • How do you (the writer) know this?
  • Why should I (the reader) care?

On the first day of class, I encourage my students to think of me as someone who may, at any time, ask them to provide evidence for a premise, no matter how insignificant or self-evident that premise might appear.

When I hand back their first writing assignments, my students often find notations in the margins that read “D.A.” (Not the District Attorney, or, as a student guessed a few years ago, Dumb Ass, but Devil’s Advocate) and are followed by one or both of the above questions: How do you know this? Oh, and by the way, why should I care?

This doesn’t mean I’m heartless or I get my kicks from challenging people. Okay, maybe the second one is occasionally true, but the beauty of this approach is it can be used to evaluate both an argument and its components. It’s also worth considering because it helps illustrate why writers sometimes succumb to the temptation to be intellectually dishonest. I’m not referring to plagiarism, though that’s a growing issue, but instead advocating the examination of our own ideas before we set out to refute those belonging to others.

Here’s an example: If I don’t really know what I’m saying is true–let’s say I perhaps only suspect it–it benefits me to be able to represent it in a way that addresses any doubts on the part of my readers. In a worst-case scenario, then, I might lie, blow things out of proportion, or at the very least resort to lazy constructions like “Everyone knows…” or “It’s a well-known fact that…”

On the other hand, I might employ a popular technique that says something to the effect of “I’m not actually saying that [a person in question] did [some terrible thing], but isn’t it an interesting idea to consider?”

Enter the D.A., who asks–well, you get it by now.

Now to the second question. Why should someone care about what I have to say? If I believe they won’t be concerned with it as things stand–that is to say honestly–I could give in to my darker nature and fudge the facts to give it that extra push. I might lie. Hard to believe, I know.

Don’t misunderstand. There’s a bright side to all of this. Of course, technical proficiency in writing is important, and I spend a decent amount of class time working on it with my students. However, while comma splices, dangling modifiers, sentence fragments, and spelling issues are easily identified and fixed, it’s far more challenging to get a bead on intellectual honesty.

A large part of this comes down to studying our own assumptions, and while this is certainly relevant to writing, it also goes a long way toward shaping the way we live our lives. Best of all, as with most temptations, resisting this one gives us the chance to take a more difficult path: shining a light on our own unexamined beliefs.