What Is a Counterclaim And Why Does It Matter
Whenever I task my students with examining a complicated topic, I want them to understand it as fully as possible. Whether they are analyzing evidence on the causes of the dust bowl or writing essays on the benefits and drawbacks of cellphones—the more difficult the question, the more important it is to think about both sides of the issue. And in order to do that, I make sure that they always incorporate the counterclaim in their essays.
In short, counterclaim is the other side of the argument—the evidence that disproves your theory or the facts that seem to suggest that your idea is not completely correct.
The example that I often give my students is to imagine that they are trying to convince their parents to let them stay out until midnight instead of their current curfew of ten o-clock. The first thing that they should do is find some research to back up their request—so, for example, if studies that show that teenagers are usually night owls, more alert at night than in the morning, or they discover research that points to the fact that driving after 10 o’clock isn't any more dangerous than driving before 10 o’clock, that would help them prove their point.
But what if they find some data that disproves their idea? What if they discover that teenagers are twice as likely to get into car accidents after 11 pm or that our ability to make good judgements deteriorates throughout the day? They could either ignore that evidence—and hope that their parents aren't doing their own research—or they could decide to tackle it head on with their own facts and reasoning.
Acknowledging the other side doesn't mean weakening your argument—it means strengthening it, making it bigger, and creating a more inclusive and all-around better idea.
This is the process that I recommend to make sure that students incorporate the counterclaim in their essays.
Start with a draft thesis. Students always need to have some sense of the direction that they’d like to go with their essays or arguments. This could be anything from the idea that they should be able to stay out later to a hypothesis about how a chemistry experiment will turn out to a theory of why the Civil War ended when it did.
Examine the evidence—all of it. When they are researching or analyzing the evidence, instruct students to take notes on anything that seems relevant, whether it proves their ideas or not, and especially if it disproves their original ideas. If I really wanted to prove that the Earth is flat, I could no doubt pick and choose a few key pieces of evidence to prove that my idea is correct, but if I examine everything, I will know that it is not
Revise your thesis. Now that they have really looked at the evidence, students should have a better idea of what their thesis will be. Maybe they won’t try to argue that they should be able to stay out until midnight, but as they have discovered that more car accidents happen between the hours of 11 and 12, they will argue for a 11 o’clock curfew. This is still a draft thesis, but it should be more specific than the original one.
Put a name on the counterclaim. What would a person who disagrees with you 100 percent have to say about what you think? Try to put their argument into words including the evidence that they would use to support it. (Also, a good tip for testing a thesis statement is that if someone could disagree with your opinion, then you have an argument rather than a simple statement of fact.) So if my thesis is that government assistance helps people break out of the cycle of poverty the counterclaim might be that it actually keeps them dependent on that help.
Revise your thesis again. Write a new thesis that includes and disputes the counterclaim—or, better yet, write one that incorporates all of the evidence into a more complex idea. If students can figure out a way to get all of the information into one complex idea, their thesis will be much stronger. So perhaps they originally thought that the speaker of the poem was feeling only frustration about his death, but as they examine the evidence they see that he is also acknowledging the peacefulness of the end of life; “old age is frustrating yet peaceful” is a better thesis than “old age is frustrating for everyone.”
Counterclaim matters not just because it helps students write better papers. Counterclaim is about developing a deeper and more nuanced understanding of a complex topic. It’s about taking in all of what is there and making sense of it—rather than picking and choosing what backs up an idea that you have decided is the right one. It means acknowledging the strengths and validity of the other side, even when you don't want to do anything but see the faults. Counterclaiming means knowing that the truth is complicated and even though you argue for one side, it doesn't mean that it's necessarily correct.
Christina Gil was a high-school English teacher for sixteen years, but she recently left the classroom to follow a dream and move with her family to an ecovillage in rural Missouri. She believes that teaching creative writing helps students excel on standardized tests, that deeply analyzing and unpacking a poem is a fabulous way to spend an hour or so, and that Shakespeare is always better with sound effects. When she is not hauling water to her tiny home, she can be found homeschooling her two kids or meeting with her neighbors about the best way to run their village.