Learning and Re-learning How to Write an Argument
At times, I can’t believe how difficult writing can be. Just when I think I’ve mastered it, I realize that I’m still a beginner in so many ways. I thought I’d have nailed this whole argument writing thing by now. (Somehow I’m still short of the 10,000 hours that it supposedly takes to master a skill.) Even though I know how to write an argument, I still struggle to write them. I’ve been wrestling with the argument about my new twelve week article on pseudoscience and the ancient Maya. I’ve made all of the possible mistakes that I warn other people about. I realized that I needed to review the basic steps and re-build my argument from scratch.
I’m revising an old conference paper about junk Maya science. I want to know why people still insist that the ancient Maya came from somewhere other than the Americas. Why does it seem more reasonable to insist that they were paleo-astronauts than that they built great cites and developed sophisticated civilizations in the New World? In trying to answer this question, I keep falling into the trap of mistaking my topic for my argument. In the last week, I’ve written a lot of non-arguments.
In my conference paper, I wrote this as the main argument:
I argue that ongoing debates over the origin of the ancient native civilizations of Mesoamerica reflect a deep ambiguity and uncertainty over the very nature of native peoples.
Despite the italics added for super emphasis and the fact that I’ve provided readers with a nice signpost (”I argue..”), this is an okay, but not stellar, argument. It’s sort of debatable; someone could disagree with me. (”Wrong. Theories of the ancient Maya don’t really reflect ambiguity. These are just crackpottheories.”) But it’s vague. And not particularly interesting. And repetitive (ambiguous and uncertain?). Blaaaaaaaaah.
Putting aside my pride and frustration that I still had no argument. I decided to return to the instant thesis maker.
The instant thesis maker, for the uninitiated, is a creation of Steven Posusta (1996, 12) and goes like this:
#1 Although X,
#2 I argue Y
#3 Because ABC
Step One: Figure out what other scholars have argued.
Although X. Here I need to identify what the conventional thinking is about unorthodox Maya theories. In my mind, I always think about this as “Scholars have argued X about [topic].” Okay, so what have scholars argued about junk theories about the ancient Maya? Mostly, they’ve argued that these theories aren’t worth serious attention. They’ve written them off as sloppy interpretations of archaeological evidence. One classic book about junk Maya science depicted (uncharitably) the amateur archaeologists who cooked up these theories as victims of their own ignorance, engaging in fake science they believed was real. Some people write these folks off as delusional crackpots, not to be taken seriously.
So the first part of my argument should probably be about this. Scholars have dismissed unorthodox theories about the ancient Maya as mere pseudoscience and fantasy.
Step Two: Add my idea. (However, I argue that...)
I argue Y. Here I need to insert my own idea. I think it is worthwhile thinking about weird Maya theories; they aren’t just sloppy interpretations of archaeological evidence. I think these theories tell us something about what people thought about native peoples in the past, but also how people thought about the world. No, I don’t think the ancient Maya were from Atlantis, but I believe that it’s worth thinking about why some people might think so.
However, the unorthodox theories people created and propagated about ancient native peoples were not merely sloppy interpretations of archaeological evidence. Instead, I argue that unorthodox theories persisted because of the way deep racial ambiguities about native peoples shaped public understandings of archaeological evidence of the ancient Maya.
Step Three: Show some evidence.
I’m basing my argument on my readings of newspaper reports about archaeological excavations during the 1930s and books from the time period that claimed that the archaeological ruins of Central America and Mexico were so unusual that they could not have possibly been the work of native peoples.
Et voilà! A thesis statement is born. Together:
Scholars have dismissed unorthodox theories about the ancient Maya as the work of amateur crackpots, mere pseudoscience and fantasy unworthy of serious study. However, the unorthodox theories people created and propagated about ancient native peoples were not merely sloppy interpretations of archaeological evidence. Instead, I argue that unorthodox theories persisted because they reflected how deep racial ambiguity about native peoples shaped public understandings of archaeological evidence of the ancient Maya. I base my argument on my readings of historical newspaper reports about archaeological excavations during the 1930s and books from the time period that claimed that the archaeological ruins of Central America and Mexico were so unusual that they could not have possibly been the work of native peoples.
Is this a statement with which readers can either agree or disagree? A topic on an argument?
YES! An argument!
There's undoubtedly more revision in this argument's future. But, I'm willing to call this problem solved, at least for now.
[Photo: Sunrise at Parque Nacional de Tikal, 2012]