Contingency: How We Situate Writing to Create Meaning
Remember back when you were six and you were asked to clean up the toys? But that wasn’t the worst part. You weren’t allowed to simply stash the random Polly Pockets, Hot Wheels, Bionicles, Barbies, and Legos on just any shelf. You were tasked with the Herculean act of putting the toys where they belonged. It was enough to make you want to lie on the floor in despair, with Legos digging into your back to add to the dramatic effect.
Hopefully, some compassionate adult was there to show you the shelf for the dolls and Bionicles, the box for the Legos, and the bag to keep the Polly Pocket clothes out of the way of the vacuum. Today, as a college student, you can organize your dishes, spices, and socks as expertly as Martha Stewart. And you would too, if you weren’t working two jobs and going to school.
When you are given a research assignment, it can be just as overwhelming as cleaning your room was when you were six. You might feel the same loss of hope when you look at your digital mountains of database searches and Google results. Fortunately, research and research writing don’t have to be daunting, especially if you know how to mentally sort the information you find. As luck would have it, the ancient Greeks and Romans gave us shelves and bins to sort out debates and make complex information more manageable.
Classical rhetoric identifies arguments by levels or stases (plural for stasis). The idea of Stasis Theory, as it is called, comes from traditional argument and issue exploration and helps writers start where their audience is to move through a logical flow of information.
When you research your topic, picture these five stases, or types of arguments, as shelves or bins to sort the issues about your topic:
Choosing a stasis for your issue will help you narrow down your topic and keep your research question manageable. Many composition classes at Salt Lake Community College ask students to do a Viewpoint Synthesis or Issue Exploration essay that shows multiple views of an issue. Because the Viewpoint Synthesis or Issue Exploration is simply a summary of viewpoints and not an argumentative essay, you might choose any stasis as the focus of inquiry. It is not the assignment’s burden to resolve each stasis, but rather to report how others, and, at the end of the unit, you, see the issue.
Keeping your topic narrow will help to avoid frustration as you sift through the digital piles of information for the Viewpoint Synthesis paper or any other research you’re assigned. In other words, you’re only asked to sort through the Legos, and then, only the Star Wars Legos.
Consider the following questions at each stasis and how they can lead to focused questions with multiple answers.
Arguments of fact must be questions where the “facts” are not easily agreed. A question like “What color is the Markosian Library?” or “How many people voted in the mid-term elections?” could easily be answered based on a quick look at the library’s exterior or research into the election data. These questions have answers that can be easily verifiable and are not considered viewpoints.
Many fact stasis questions deal with scientific or historical topics that lend themselves to varying interpretations and require verification, often showing a fundamental disagreement about what the reality is.
An example of a fact stasis question surrounds the human microbiome—the colonies of yeast, bacteria, and viral cells hosted in the human body. Consider the following fact stasis question and possible viewpoints:
When writing your Issue Exploration paper, you will include a summary of the issue where you state the different views. Later in the paper, you’ll expand and explain each of the views. Notice how the various views in this fact stasis debate can be summarized:
The Viewpoint Synthesis/Issue Exploration paper would then go on to discuss the merits and limitations of each of the three viewpoints.
Definition arguments seek to classify an occurrence or condition.The definition stasis is used when there is some disagreement about what to call something. (Think Pluto being demoted from planet to dwarf planet.) Definition arguments are also used in criminal court cases. (X killed Y; was it View 1: Self-defense; View 2: Felony Murder; or View 3: Manslaughter?)
If you are researching bullying. You could use the definition stasis to seek to classify which behaviors should be considered bullying:
A summary of the issue and these viewpoints for the introduction to your Viewpoint Synthesis paper might look like this:
The Issue Exploration paper would then go into detail about each of these definitions.
Asking cause & effect questions helps narrow down a topic to the reasons behind and results surrounding an issue. Sometimes, asking cause & effect questions can be tricky, because they often produce a “laundry list” of causes or reasons for an issue rather than answers that are diametrically opposed. If we ask a cause-and-effect question like what are the benefits of recycling? we get a list of reasons: to conserve resources, to offset our carbon footprint, to feel good about ourselves, to have a zero-waste community, to save money. These reasons are not actual viewpoints, especially since all three reasons aren’t mutually exclusive; each of these reasons can exist happily with the other reasons, so the question isn’t likely to identify a real issue or debate.
When asking a cause & effect question—or any question for our Viewpoint Synthesis assignment—there must be at least two answers that are mutually exclusive, meaning they can’t exist together. Here’s an example:
The above example takes a very small part of the recycling issue, whether recycling plastics saves resources, and identifies opposite viewpoints of the effects of the issue. This argument could also be very easily classified as a fact stasis question, since basic facts are in question. Either stasis you choose to call it, it’s important to see how a narrow question will yield a more specific discussion of the issue.
Questions on the value stasis deal with how widespread, severe, pervasive, beneficial, or important an issue is. An example is a piece by Nellie Bowles called “A Dark Consensus About Screens and Kids Begins to Emerge in Silicon Valley.” This article that appeared in The New York Times can be classified as a value stasis argument because it addresses how serious the issue of children’s screen use is to the parents creating the technology. Bowles reports that an increasing number of tech executives and programmers—the ones responsible for the apps and the devices to run them—are limiting and even forbidding screentime for their children. Here are the viewpoints presented:
Bowles’ article is an excellent example of a real-life Viewpoint Synthesis assignment. Here’s how the views can be summed up:
A paper showing just how dangerous (or not) screentime is for children would go on to explain each of the views in detail, using sources in addition to the Bowles article.
Issues of policy answer the question what should be done? Suppose your workplace has a problem with workers not showing for their shifts. You decide to research that question and find the following solutions:
For our Viewpoint Synthesis/Issue Exploration assignment, you need three distinct views. The perspectives should offer views that cannot all co-exist. Notice how in the absenteeism example, Viewpoint 1 focuses on solving the problem punitively while Viewpoint 3 makes absenteeism a non-issue by focusing on productivity. These viewpoints are mutually exclusive and cannot both be implemented. Your task is to find at least two views for your own issue that are mutually exclusive. The third view could be the middle ground.
Note: Sometimes after identifying several potential policies, your topic may seem too broad. At this point it may be helpful to focus your research question on only one of the solutions at the cause & effect stases. For example:
Cleaning up your toys when you were six may not have been pleasant, but you can’t deny the exhilarating feeling of accomplishment once it was done. When you finally see how you’re going to organize your Issue Exploration, you’ll feel a similar sense of achievement. Being able to classify the type of arguments is pretty satisfying. Almost as satisfying as having all your Polly Pockets together on the same shelf.
Bowels, Nellie. “A Dark Consensus About Screens and Kids Begins to Emerge in Silicon Valley.” The New York Times, 26 October 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/10/26/style/phones-children-silicon-valley.html.
Copeland, William E., et al. “Adult Psychiatric Outcomes of Bullying and Being Bullied by Peers in Childhood and Adolescence.” JAMA Psychiatry, vol. 70, no. 4, Apr. 2013, pp. 419–426. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2013.504.
Crew, Bec. “Here’s How Many Cells in Your Body Aren’t Actually Human.” ScienceAlert.com, 11 Apr. 2018. www.sciencealert.com/how-many-bacteria-cells-outnumber-human-cells-microbiome-science.
Sender, Ron, et al. “Revised Estimates for the Number of Human and Bacteria Cells in the Body.” PLoS Biology, vol. 14, no. 8, Aug. 2016, pp. 1–14. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1002533.
Tierney, John. “The Reign of Recycling.” The New York Times, 3 October 2015, www.nytimes.com/2015/10/04/opinion/sunday/the-reign-of-recycling.html.
“What is Bullying?” StopBullying.gov, www.stopbullying.gov/what-is-bullying/index.html.
Whitson, Signe. “Is it Rude, Is it Mean, or is it Bullying?” Psychology Today, 25 Nov. 2012, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/passive-aggressive-diaries/201211/is-it-rude-is-it-mean-or-is-it-bullying.
Grant Davie, Keith “Stasis Theory.” White paper. N.D. www.coursehero.com/file/27255076/Stasis-Theory-KGDpdf/.