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Agonism in the Academy Essay

Education, a most powerful tool of use in today’s world and one that we probably take for granted, could possible be at risk as far as how knowledgeable we are becoming on the material at hand. A mind is a terrible thing to waste, and because of agonism in academics, students now might not be getting the full potential out of their mind simply because of the way they/we are being taught.

Deborah Tannen, a professor at Georgetown University, in the article “Agonism in the Academy: Surviving the Argument Culture” (2000) argues that discussion rather than debate is a more proficient way of teaching our students, likewise, collaborating ideas instead of tearing down material can benefit educators and the educated more in the long run. Through a focus on logic, Tannen explains the negative influence that agonistic learning has on academic culture; she uses ethos and pathos to support her logical argument that agonistic learning is not as valuable as open discussion.

In order to clearly explain the problem of agonism, Tannen shares a personal experience of a book club meeting where academic material, and learning, was torn down by critics and agonistic people. According to Tannen, during the book club meeting there were disagreements of the material between different groups. As she states, “The phenomenon I’d observed at the book-group meeting was an example of what cultural linguist Walter Ong calls agonism. ” (215). Here is where Tannen first exemplifies her main claim of agonism in academics, getting her audience familiar with the term.

Tannen states, “I left the meeting disappointed because I had learned nothing new about the book or its subjects. All I had learned about is the acumen of the critics. I was especially struck by the fact that one of the most influential and most talkative critics was the member who had not read the book. ” (215). Through this statement, and personal experience, Tannen is able to show how agonism is apparent in our academic world even in higher credential educated men and women. Along with showing how our argumentative culture overpowers our ability to discuss and create new ideas.

This experience helps strengthen her credibility because we see that she is involved in academic discussions of a higher ranking, such as professors and higher educators. One logical example Tannen uses to glamorize agonism in academics, is the negative affect is has on students success in school, more specifically college students. She goes on to say “One problem with the agonistic culture of graduate training is that potential scholars who are not comfortable with that kind of interaction are likely to drop out” (217).

Through this statement we see that Tannen is familiar with the ongoing issue that more and more students are dropping out of college because they don’t feel comfortable with they way they are being forced to learn. Which ties back into her argument of discussion rather than debate, meaning if you constantly have this ongoing strong debate, then you will lose students in the process because they are becoming less and less interested in what’s being taught. Tannens main goal through this article is to persuade us into thinking differently and seeing a new way of learning, a better way of learning that could benefit education in the long run.

She wants to bring the issue into the light and help us see the affects that agonism is having on our learning. To accomplish this goal, Tannen uses the appeal of pathos, emotional appeal, to reach out to her audience in a different way. This is apparent when Tannen states, “We would learn more from each other, be heard more clearly by others, attract more varied talents to the scholarly life, and restore a measure of humanity to ourselves, our endeavor, and the academic world we inhabit” (220).

Although very logical, this whole-hearted sentimental quote is meant to appeal emotionally to readers by giving the feeling that we need to save our academic humanity, and not let it go to waste. In essence, Tannen is promoting cooperative discussion, where students and educators can build off each others ideas, and form new perspectives. So what should, or could, be the immediate solution to this issue? While discussing agonistic ideology, Tannen states, “Our agonist ideology seems so eeply embedded in academe that one might wonder what alternatives we have” (219). Tannen may be saying here that there are no immediate solutions at this point in time, most likely because we have been engaging in this agonistic learning style for quite some time. On the other hand, Tannen goes on to state later in the article, while discussing another reading group experience, “Refocusing our attention. . . is the greatest gain in store if we can move beyond critique in it’s narrow sense” (220).

Now the solution is blunt, we as students and educators need to step back from critique and step forward to open discussion. Tannen does an excellent job in explaining and exemplifying throughout her article how agonism has a negative affect on academic culture. Through her powerful logical appeals and support of pathos and ethos, Tannen gives numerous credible claims to support her main argument and solution of how we as students and educators should collaborate ideas to form new perspectives rather than debating material and tearing it down piece by piece.


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