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WS BLOG: Making Moves that Matter

Posted by on Thursday, January 12, 2017 in News, Writing Studio Blog.

Making Moves that Matter: Argumentation and Word Choice in Academic Writing

BY Deann Armstrong (Vanderbilt Writing Studio Fellow for 2016-2017)


Deann ArmstrongEach fall, in workshops titled “Transitioning to College Writing,” Vanderbilt Writing Studio consultants teach “stasis,” “destabilization,” and “resolution” to rooms full of first-year students.1 These three terms, which we call “three moves of academic argumentation,” are beginning to gain traction at Vanderbilt. The first, “stasis,” introduces a common or contentious view in a field. The second, “destabilization,”challenges that view. The third, “resolution,” gives some indication of why challenging that view matters. Teaching these moves has become a common practice not only in the workshops, but in one-on-one consultations at our studio and in writing instruction on our campus more broadly. This post is meant to share some of my more-enlightening misadventures with stasis, destabilization, and resolution in hope that they will help writers, consultants, and teachers use the three moves more intentionally.

When consultants teach “stasis, destabilization, resolution” in the “Transitioning” workshops, we usually employ the following excerpt from historian Sven Beckert to illustrate them at work:

Historians generally view the U.S. Civil War as a crucial turning point in the history of the American nation. But it was more than this: the Civil War sparked the explosive transformation of the worldwide web of cotton production and, with it, of global capitalism. The cotton industry was among the world’s largest industries at midcentury, drawing on the labor of perhaps 20 million workers. Prior to 1861, most of the world supply of raw cotton had been produced by slaves on plantations in the American South and was spun into thread and woven into cloth by textile workers in Lancashire. But in the decades following Appomattox, this world had given way to a global empire of cotton structured by multiple and powerful states and their colonies and worked by non-slave labor. […] Indeed, the unimaginably long and destructive American struggle, the world’s first “raw materials crisis,” was midwife to the emergence of new global networks of labor, capital, and state power.2

After having students read Beckert’s excerpt, we engage them in a dialogue that might go something like this:

Consultant: Who or what do you think Beckert is arguing against here?

Student: Well, it seems like he is arguing against a standard historical view of the U.S. Civil War, one that sees it as an event of primarily national significance.

Consultant: Good. We might call the statement of this general view the “stasis,” since it introduces a static view Beckert is hoping to change. What is he postulating instead?

Student: He is suggesting that the U.S. Civil War was an event of global importance, not just one of national importance.

Consultant: Exactly. And we might say that he is “destabilizing,” or upsetting, the common view by making that claim. Does he give any indication of why he thinks that his own view is important for the reader to consider?

Student: Perhaps because to understand global networks now, we need to understand their history, and he is saying the Civil War is part of that history.

Consultant: Right! We might call that a “resolution,” something that hints at a broader significance that needs to be taken account of in the field. Academic arguments generally include all three of these moves–stasis, destabilization, and resolution.

Identifying a stasis and a destabilization is generally easy enough for the students. But answering the third question, the one that asks about significance, is the reason why I prefaced this dialogue with “might go something like this.” Students generally have a much harder time identifying a resolution. I have spent a good bit of time speculating, sometimes through discussion with other consultants, about why that might be.

The first explanation I’ve come across relates to Beckert’s particular argument. Perhaps students’ difficulties with identifying a resolution come from Beckert’s specific destabilization, in which significance is self-evident. The idea that the U.S. Civil War was of international significance rather than just national significance is already a claim about significance, so the destabilization and resolution are hard to disentangle. Of course Beckert’s is not the only academic argument where this is the case. Entire fields–literary theory, for instance–often make arguments almost exclusively related to significance–we should read this not that; in this way, not in that way–arguments about the shape of a larger method or field.

The second explanation for the students’ difficulty identifying the resolution attributes it not to Beckert’s argument, but to his argumentative and stylistic choices. He does not choose to develop the resolution thoroughly here, at the same time as he states his stasis and destabilization. Resolutions often take space to evolve, and the best arguments thread them throughout a piece of writing. The next example we use in the workshops, in fact, does not even hint at a resolution in the brief excerpt provided.

Whatever the case, the students’ difficulties illustrate the importance of considering stasis, destabilization, and resolution as “moves” instead of considering them as “a model.” Each move can go in a new direction or follow the same path, and each can happen at its own pace. What is important is not so much the easily identifiable appearance of the resulting product as the process of having thought through them.

Given the range of outcomes the moves can produce, then, it is especially worth remembering that, if it is important that readers be able to identify the moves easily, words are what enable that. Word choice matters. In Beckert’s case, we can easily identify the destabilization because of what we at the Studio call an “academic ‘but’ shift”: “But it was more than this…”. The “but” is a dead giveaway, a clear linguistic cue that the destabilization is coming. The resolution, however, is harder to pinpoint, partially because there is no “go-to” coordinating conjunction for a resolution. The word “so” might come close, but it requires a “what” for full effect. And although “So what?” may be used in many writing classrooms and consultations, it rarely appears in academic work. Beckert’s excerpt certainly doesn’t include it. The adjectives–“global,” “explosive,” “worldwide”–are our only cues. Beckert makes his moves intelligible by couching them in words readers can translate to “significant.”

In a recent study of the argumentative writing templates given in They Say/I Say, Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s popular writing textbook, Zak Lancaster asks his readers to return to the importance of words. Lancaster, a corpus linguist, mines academic prose for the phrases Graff and Birkenstein use for “naming your naysayers,” a stasis move in which the writer explicitly cites opposing parties or views. They Say/I Say gives as one example, “Here many feminists would probably object that gender does influence language” (83). Lancaster’s study shows the remarkable infrequency with which “naming your naysayer” actually occurs in experienced academics’ writing. In fact, he writes, “not naming your naysayers” is the most common “move” in the academic writing he analyzes (448-9). Academics instead prefer general phrases like “Some would argue that,” he says, more than Graff and Birkenstein’s direct method (Many feminists would…”. Academic writing, he argues, uses language that values “interpersonal tact” even more highly than the explicitness Graff and Birkenstein’s templates encourage (456).

Lancaster’s study hits upon something that helps me explain why, as a writing instructor, when students would use the templates I had given them from They Say/I Say, I was always less than thrilled with the results. How students state the stasis, exactly what words they use, matters. And when they use a template, those words do not necessarily reflect knowledge of a discipline’s or a field’s discursive norms. This means that we–writers, consultants, teachers– cannot stop with introducing or thinking through moves. We need to be sure the moves are expressed through the words on the page. If a consultant or a teacher walks a student through the three moves, it is not enough to have him or her describe them aloud. They also need to put words on the page, because the importance of those words cannot be overstated.

Of course there is some balance to be struck. In “Boring from Within: The Art of the Freshman Essay,” Wayne Booth (in some sense the progenitor of “stasis, destabilization, resolution”) addresses the necessity of substance to accompany style.4 He admonishes teachers for assigning “exercises” divorced from authentic contexts, and he chastises those who grade solely based on grammatical correctness and formal academic style. These practices, he argues, lead to “boring” student writing–writing that, while it may use a controversial or argumentative tone, does not manage to say anything of substance. For writing to be interesting and meaningful, he insists, students must be asked to write about something that matters, and “nothing,” he writes, “is worth saying that everybody agrees on already.”

Booth’s emphases on controversy and disagreement bring me to a third and final misgiving I often have about “stasis, destabilization, and resolution.” Disagreement, which we often align with destabilization and which Booth aligns with resolution, is oppositional. It has seemed to some feminist pedagogues, as it does to me, a pity that our primary means of talking about academic writing are so oppositional. Must disagreement be the yardstick of significance? And considering the extent to which academic writing prioritizes community-building, as Lancaster’s findings suggest, must we still teach argumentation using the discourse of war, teaching students to “advance” arguments on certain “grounds” and “concede” points as if they were lost territories? Does teaching stasis, destabilization, and resolution mean we answer those questions “yes”?

Perhaps that is the case when  “destablization” is limited to opposition and “resolution” to disagreement. But “resolution” is more the language of peace than of war. “Moves” are as redolent of dancing as of battle. And “destabilization” need not mean knocking another argument off of its feet so much as adjusting its posture. When it does mean the former, though, perhaps it helps to bear in mind that even conflict can be part of community-building. Recognizing this can help us think about how to use argumentative moves more judiciously. Perhaps it can help us remember that argumentation is a move, too.

1 For full text of the “Transitioning to College Writing” workshop script, which I paraphrase throughout this post, go to

2 From “Emancipation and Empire: Reconstructing the Worldwide Web of Cotton Production in the Age of the American Civil War,” by Sven Beckert.

For the full text of Lancaster’s article, which appears in the February 2016 issue of College Composition and Communication, go to: More on the They Say/I Say textbook can be found here: The book also has an associated blog with articles that help illustrate the principles the book teaches:

4 Stasis, destabilization, and resolution were adapted by our Studio Director, Gary Jaeger, from Booth’s teachings. Booth and his co-authors, Gregory G. Colomb and Joseph M. Williams, identify three similar moves in The Craft of Research.