23 Believing and Doubting Games in Reading

Believing and Doubting Games in Reading

When one thinks of reading the first thing that pops into mind is a person holding a book sitting in an easy chair in front of a fire lost in the author’s world, sailing the sea with captain Ahab, roaming the south with Faulkner, floating down the Mississippi with Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, reading as a kind of vacation from the real world.  Reading is an escape into our imagination and the words and sentences of the writer. We are not tested on this reading or expected to argue about its literary merits. It is not work or pragmatic, it is pleasure, entertainment.

We read now from phones, computers, Nooks, wide screen color televisions, and movie screens as well as books and journals and much of our reading in school is for a pragmatic purpose. For the purpose of this composition course we will use reading for inquiry (truth seeking) and persuasion (rhetoric).

After you have chosen a topic, or conversation, or have been assigned a conversation by your teacher your next task is to research that topic. You begin this process by seeking the truth about your topic, by inquiring, questioning, and exploring your topic. This involves finding, reading, and using as many sources or voices in the conversation as possible and exploring as many perspectives as possible. You should use a variety of sources that include but are not limited to newspaper articles, op-eds, magazine articles, blogs, posting to chat rooms, visual arguments, documentaries, and peer-reviewed journal articles.

Methods of Reading

Skimming is valuable when you are choosing your sources. It involves reading the abstract, the first paragraph, the last paragraph, and gliding or passing quickly through the body paragraphs.

Reading to find the truth about an issue
A good way of reading to explore and find the truth about an issue (inquiry) is by playing the believing and doubting game developed by Peter Elbow.

Believing Game

The believing game begins with what the psychologist Carl Rogers calls empathic listening. Empathy is the identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives. This involves understanding and adopting the authors world view, beliefs, values, and assumptions. You must try to walk in the author’s shoes, understand the author’s angle of vision, see the world through his or her eyes. You must suspend your world view, which can be difficult, and hear what the author is saying. Peter Elbow says, “The itch for closure brings the itch for argument. Playing the believing game means fighting the itch for closure.” He goes on to say, “…most school activities—fulfill their goals perfectly if they slow down on generating final answers but speed up the business of making people more perceptive and intelligent. The shape of the believing game is waiting, patience, not being in a hurry. Try to feel how stupid this impulse is – how the desire for closure impedes any larger slower reordering of thought or experience and really serves the mind’s desire to stay the same.”

Close Reading and Summary Writing as a Way to Play the Believing Game

One way to play the believing game is to write an objective summary of the chosen piece of writing. When you summarize a writing selection give the author(s) credit and respect for the work they have done to produce their product.
Follow these steps:
1. Read the argument slowly and objectively, playing the believing game. Pretend you are the author. Accept the author’s world view which involves the writer’s beliefs, values, and assumptions. You are engaged in empathetic listening not judging.
2. While you read the selection actively, underline important sentences, write notes in the margins, draw arrows and stars near passages that impress you or are exceptionally written.
3. Also while you read the selection carefully and slowly, write “says” and “does” statements for each paragraph on a separate piece of paper.
a. A says statement summarizes the content of the paragraph or main idea of the paragraph in your own words.
b. A does statement summarizes the paragraphs function. Does the paragraph state the main claim or present reasons or evidence? Does the paragraph address the opposition or conclude the argument? Does it use humor or quote another author?
4. Create an outline, idea map, or a list of the arguments main points.
5. Turn your paragraph by paragraph says statements and your outline into a prose summary. Write concise sentences, being objective, and identify the author’s main ideas, claims, and evidence. Properly document quotations and paraphrases. Create a works cited entry.
6. At this point you can trim and prune your summary to the desired length. Whether you decide to write a one page, one paragraph, or a one sentence summary use each word and sentence wisely. You will want to revise for conciseness.

Doubting Game

The doubting game seeks truth by indirection – by seeking error. Doubting an assertion is the best way to find error in it. You must assume it is untrue if you want to find its weakness. The truer it seems, the harder you have to doubt it. Non credo ut intelligam: in order to understand what’s wrong, I must doubt.

To doubt well, it helps if you make a special effort to extricate yourself from the assertions in question – especially those which you find self-evident. You must hold off to one side the self, its wishes, preconceptions, experiences, and commitments. (The machinery of symbolic logic helps people do this.) Also, it helps to run the assertion through logical transformations so as to reveal premises and necessary consequences and thereby flush out into the open any hidden errors. You can also doubt better by getting the assertions to battle each other and thus do some of the work: They are in a relationship of conflict, and getting them to wrestle each other, you can utilize some of their energy and cleverness for ferreting out weakness.
Peter Elbow

Reading to doubt involves raising objections, asking questions, being a sceptic, and withholding your belief. It is the heart of critical thinking. It can be as difficult as the believing game because it may go against the flow of your deeply held world views.
In the doubting game a reader questions the writer’s logic, evidence, beliefs, values, and assumptions about what is true. A sceptic can also question an arguer’s rhetorical strategies and note what is not in the argument.
When you play this game write a paragraph believing the assertions the author makes and one paragraph doubting them.  Free write both paragraphs or cluster (draw an idea map) of each before you write your paragraphs.

Dialectic Thinking

German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel claimed that each thesis has an opposing thesis or antithesis. The conflict created between these two opposing forces leads to a synthesis that combines both views. This is the philosophical equivalent of the believing and doubting game. When a reader does this, new better ideas emerge from the process.

Dialectic or dialectics (Greek: διαλεκτική, dialektikḗ), also known as the dialectical method, is a discourse between two or more people holding different points of view about a subject but wishing to establish the truth through reasoned arguments.

Because it’s so hard to let go of an idea we are holding (or more to the point, an idea that’s holding us), our best hope for leverage in learning to doubt such ideas is to take on different ideas. Peter Elbow

Questions to Ask

How do the two arguers disagree about the facts and interpretation of facts?
2. How are their beliefs, values, and assumptions different?
3. Do they have shared beliefs, values and assumptions?
4. How have my own beliefs, values, and assumptions changed? Have I been exposed to new ideas? How have my views changed?
Three ways to help students to think dialectically are class discussions, journal writing about their views of their sources, and an exploratory essay in first person chronicling their intellectual journey through their sources and the world of the issue that they have chosen.


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Writing and Rhetoric by Heather Hopkins Bowers; Anthony Ruggiero; and Jason Saphara is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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