A teaching friend recently asked me, “Do you have any suggestions for good essays that my students could read?” After some clarification, I started to dig through my bookshelf to see what I could reccomend.
Argumentative essays come in many forms and with many different goals, but what’s assured about a good argumentative essay is that it’s persuasive, or at the very least thought-provoking. Many are the treatises on values with fist-pounding and chest-beating that sound drums of grand consequence, but all the fire amounts to little more than misplaced anger that falls on deaf ears.
So I found a few recent essays (because students tend to care a little bit more about stuff from the recent past than stuff from four decades ago) that might give my friend, and you, a decent starting point.
When talking about humorous essays in modern America, it’s likely to hear Klosterman’s name at least once. His distinctive brand of pop culture criticism is incisive and insightful. Of his many great essay collections, none is more argumentative than Eating the Dinosaur, or more pleasantly academic. A good choice for this category might also have been “Oh, the Guilt,” a surprisingly adept comparison of Nirvana’s In Utero with the Branch Davidian cult.
But for pure argumentation, his clearest work is this examination of basketball player Ralph Sampson, and how wrong-headed the culture at-large’s reaction to his disappointing career was. Without a strong knowledge of basketball, one can still easily follow Klosterman’s often loose lines of logic and wind up feeling downright sorry for Sampson, a player most people, myself included, probably never heard of before.
While political essays can draw controversy, it could provide some much-needed discussion in a classroom setting. And Sullivan’s recent Newsweek cover story is sure to breed discussion; running in an issue whose cover bore the headline “Why are Obama’s critics so dumb?,” “The Long Game” is a careful examination of the criticisms of President Obama’s first term from both right and left. Sullivan uses the space to explain why the president is often misconstrued as being too late on some issues, when really Sullivan believes he plays things very close to the chest so that the end result will be that much more lasting.
This essay is also a good example of personal concessions that bolster the main argument. Sullivan uses admissions of his own skepticism over the president’s policies to exemplify the problems that many critics face. It helps to clarify his points and makes his argument more relatable.
While technically a more news-based, informational source, Wired is continually a great source of thought-provoking essayism. “#RIOT” is a piece of reporting, but it still manages to make an argument. Specifically, it argues that the media really has never properly understood the role of social media, smartphones, and the internet in riots and uprisings.
Written by a reporter who was among the first people to spawn the “flash mob” craze, “#RIOT” is as much about the perversion of friendly gatherings through the web as it is about revolutions like those seen in the Arab Spring. But what a reader will glean from this piece is more than facts and impartial descriptions of events; what they’ll see is that their own understanding of technology’s role in social change may be flawed. It certainly changed my mind about the possibilities afforded by new tech, and it will likely do the same for many readers, including students.
Print is hardly the only source of great essayism; far from it. In 2010, Jim Emerson wrote this tremendously thoughtful response to another essay by Steve Almond which all but dismisses the field of music criticism. Emerson uses his personal experiences and beliefs about music writing to inform what has become a guidepost by which I’ve led much of my own critical thinking.
Now, this essay is very short, and is light on Emerson’s individual contribution; the bulk of the piece is selections from other writers weighing in on Almond. But it’s a great example of divergent opinions of critical analysis, and even if you don’t use Emerson’s words alone, many of the pieces he cites are terrific.
If I may promote a friend of mine, Chris Bosman’s take on the stream of information and confusion in the blogosphere, the stream which can drown the patience and experience of listeners and overwhelm new and emerging artists, is increasingly prescient as time goes on. The comparison of blogs to 24-news networks is especially useful.
What Bosman does, which is what a good essayist should do really, is to make a logical progression of arguments based on a central thesis. What makes the essay interesting beyond that is his clear use of examples; the closing comparison to video games, and the ways in which criticism legitimizes art, both clarifies his position for readers who might not recognize the relative importance of music criticism and gives the essay’s final line a cross-media precedent so its punch is fully understood.
Shamelessness time: I’ve also got a few essays that I’ve written which you might find interesting. The most blatantantly argumentative (with by far the longest and most in-depth back-and-forth comment thread in which I’ve ever participated on one of my articles) would be “In Defense of Satire,” a piece in support of rapper Tyler, the Creator after an open letter written by the band Tegan and Sara denounced him.
Hopefully this list has given you a good starting point for seeking out some argumentative writing and that maybe you (or your students) will feel enlightened by what you’ve read.