Salig, Lauren K., L. Kimberly Epting, and Lizabeth A. Rand. “Rarely Say Never: Essentialist Rhetorical Choices in College Students’ Perceptions of Persuasive Writing.” Journal of Writing Research 93.3 (2018): 301-31. Web. 3 May 2018.
Lauren K. Salig, L. Kimberly Epting, and Lizabeth A. Rand investigated first-year college students’ perceptions of effective persuasive writing. Triggered by ongoing research that suggests that students struggle with the analytical and communicative skills demanded by this genre, the study focused on students’ attitudes toward “essentialist” language in persuasive discourse.
The authors cite research indicating that “one-sided” arguments are less persuasive than those that acknowledge opposing views and present more than one perspective on a issue (303); they posit that students’ failure to develop multi-sided arguments may account for assessments showing poor command of persuasive writing (303). Salig et al. argue that “the language used in one-sided arguments and the reasons students might think one-sidedness benefits their writing have not been extensively evaluated from a psychological perspective” (304). Their investigation is intended both to clarify what features students believe contribute to good persuasive writing and to determine whether students actually apply these beliefs in identifying effective persuasion (305).
The authors invoke a term, “essentialism,” to encompass different forms of language that exhibit different levels of “black-and-white dualism” (304). Such language may fail to acknowledge exceptions to generalizations; one common way it may manifest itself is the tendency to include “boosters” such as ‘“always,’ ‘every,’ and ‘prove,’” while eliminating “hedges” such as qualifiers (304). “Essentialist” thinking, the authors contend, “holds that some categories have an unobservable, underlying ‘essence’ behind them” (304). Salig et al. argue that while some subsets of “generic language” may enable faster learning because they allow the creation of useful categories, the essentialist tendency in such language to override analytical complexity can prove socially harmful (305).
The investigation involved two studies designed, first, to determine whether students conceptually recognized the effects of essentialist language in persuasive writing, and second, to assess whether they were able to apply this recognition in practice (306).
Study 1 consisted of two phases. In the first, students were asked to generate features that either enhanced or detracted from the quality, persuasiveness, and credibility of writing (307). Twenty-seven characteristics emerged after coding; these were later reduced to 23 by combining some factors. Features related to essentialism, Bias and One-sidedness, were listed as damaging to persuasiveness and credibility, while Refutation of Opposition and Inclusion of Other Viewpoints were seen as improving these two factors. Although, in the authors’ view, these responses aligned with educational standards such as the Common Core State Standards, students did not see these four characteristics as affecting the quality of writing (309).
In Phase 2 of Study 1, students were prompted to list “writing behaviors that indicated the presence of the specified characteristic” (310). The researchers developed the top three behaviors for each feature into sentence form; they provide the complete list of these student-generated behavioral indicators (311-14).
From the Study 1 results, Salig et al. propose that students do conceptually grasp “essentialism” as a negative feature and can name ways that it may show up in writing. Study 2 was designed to measure the degree to which this conceptual knowledge influences student reactions to specific writing in which the presence or absence of essentialist features becomes the variable under examination (314-15).
In this study 79 psychology students were shown six matched pairs of statements, varying only in that one represented essentialist language and the other contained hedges and qualifiers (315). In each case, participants were asked to state which of the two statements was “better,” and then to refer to a subset of the 23 features identified in Study 1 that had been narrowed to focus on persuasiveness in order to provide reasons for their preference (316). They were asked to set aside their personal responses to the topic (318). The researchers provide the statement pairs, three of which contained citations (317-18).
In Likert-scale responses, the students generally preferred the non-essentialist samples (319), although the “driving force” for this finding was that students preferring non-essentialist samples rated the essentialist samples very low in persuasiveness (323). Further, of the 474 choices, 222 indicated that essentialist examples were “better,” while 252 chose the non-essentialist examples, a difference that the researchers report as not significant (321).
Salig et al. find that the reasons students chose for preferring essentialist language differed from their reasons for preferring non-essentialist examples. Major reasons for the essentialist choice were Voice/Tone, Concision, Persuasive Effectiveness, One-sidedness, and Grabs/Retains Attention. Students who chose non-essentialist samples as better cited Other Viewpoints, Argument Clarity/Consistency, Detail, Writer’s Knowledge, Word Choice/Language, and Bias (322).
Participants were divided almost equally among those who consistently chose non-essentialist options, those who consistently chose essentialist options, and those whose chose one or the other half of the time (323). Correlations indicated that students who were somewhat older (maximum age was 21, with M = 18.49 years) “were associated with lower persuasiveness ratings on essentialist samples than younger students or students with less education” (324). The authors posit that the second study examined a shift from “conceptual to operational understanding” (324) and thus might indicate the effects either of cognitive development or increased experience or some combination in conjunction with other factors (325).
In addition, the authors consider effects of current methods of instruction on students’ responses to the samples. They note that “concision” showed up disproportionately as a reason given by students who preferred essentialist samples. They argue that possibly students have inferred that “strong, supported, and concise arguments” are superior (326). Citing Linda Adler-Kassner, they write that students are often taught to support their arguments before they are encouraged to include counterarguments (326).The authors recommend earlier attention, even before high school, to the importance of including multiple viewpoints (328).
The study also revealed an interaction between student preferences and the particular sets, with sets 4 and 5 earning more non-essentialist votes than other sets. The length of the samples and the inclusion of citations in set 4 lead the researchers to consider whether students perceived these as appropriate for “scholarly” or more formal contexts in comparison to shorter, more emphatic samples that students may have associated with “advertising” (327). Sets 4 and 5 also made claims about “students” and “everybody,” prompting the researchers to suggest that finding themselves the subjects of sweeping claims may have encouraged students to read the samples with more awareness of essentialist language (327).
The authors note that their study examined “one, and arguably the simplest, type” of essentialist language. They urge ongoing research into the factors that enable students not just to recognize but also to apply the concepts that characterize non-essentialist language (328-29).