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The Narrative Argument


Here's an assignment submitted by Professor Renea Frey:


My favorite text-based assignment is the Narrative Argument, which I assign as the first paper in many first-year writing courses because:


  • it allows students to write a narrative and use their own voice for the first major assignment and
  • introduces them to the idea of argumentation and rhetoric.


I base the actual assignment on whatever theme we are examining for the semester—for instance, free speech, which is a topic that I like to use in my Honors Rhetoric course.


I ask students to think of a time that they spoke out  or wanted to speak out in a situation that felt risky to them.

Their invention work often entails recalling specific details of the situation and freewriting about it, but then for the paper itself I also ask them to connect their personal situation to a larger context:


  • What does it mean to speak out in a risky situation?
  • Or to be too afraid to speak out?
  • What issues do they see culturally that relates to their personal experience? Etc.


Students find this enjoyable because it allows them to tell a story about themselves, which many of them find surprising. They have been so trained to never write in first person, that it is often difficult to get them to overcome this for this assignment.


This also disrupts their expectation that they will be writing five-paragraph essays in college because this assignment does not fit that model either. In a way, students find it both challenging AND enjoyable because it disrupts everything they have been told about college writing and they are often delighted to find that their first "real college paper" is fun to write. It also connects their real life to the theme of the course and shows how it is relevant.


Additionally, because narrative arguments are so very easy to find in published sources, they immediately get the idea that rhetoric is not just about writing for an academic audience (though it is that, too, later in the semester) but that it also means adapting one's writing style and format to the situation and audience at hand.


They do often struggle a bit at first, but it is usually because they can't actually accept right away that they are "allowed" to say "I" in a paper, but once they get over that part, they generally have a really good time with the assignment. During the writing process, we also start learning about rhetorical appeals and they practice finding appeals in other narrative arguments that we examine in class. They generally really enjoy the genre and many students report in their final reflections that this was their favorite assignment. 


Thank you to Professor Renea from Xavier University for sharing this favorite assignment!