Position Papers and In-Class Debates

I'm not sure if this is an example of the best or worst kind of debating.

I’m not sure if this is an example of the best or worst kind of debating.

I know, I know. Your classes have over 100 students in them and there’s no way you can run a debate at the university level! Point taken. That is, of course, unless you have seminars, tutorials, conferences, or whatever the hell they call them at your school (aside: I don’t know why, but there seems to be no standard terminology for this phenomenon). If you have even a few of these smaller meetings wherein you get to talk about documents that the students have read in advance, I highly recommend you give this a try. No really, I’ve done it with groups as large as 35 and I swear to you that it works. It just requires some careful planning.

I’m a big fan of debates because they let the students get their hands dirty with the material. The process of planning and then arguing provides a space for those mired in the learning process to work through their ideas and it makes the material meaningful in a way that normal discussions do not. It also forcefully reminds students that the knowledge we impart in the classroom our interpretation of the evidence, not some sort of objective “truth.” In a debate setting, there is no escaping the reality that the same subject matter can be interpreted in radically different ways. Moreover, the act of arguing teaches the importance of articulating one’s ideas clearly, and with supporting evidence.

And so, for several years now, I’ve tried to incorporate at least one debate into each of my courses. This doesn’t always work, as I don’t always have the resources – but when I can make it work, I run with it. Students come prepared, having done the readings, but they do not get to choose which position they have to argue. Instead, I divvy up the class, attempting to divide the talkative ones and the creative thinkers evenly so that neither team is at a disadvantage. Sometimes they have the debate question in advance, sometimes they don’t. It depends on the course. Each side then gets 30 minutes to prepare under the guidance of a designated team leader. This individual is responsible for moderating their team, choosing who gets to speak when, and making sure that no one speaks out of turn.

Students always love this, and several of them always tell me that it was the best part of the class at the end of term. The thing is, despite all of the good things that come of out debates, they often look like a complete disaster to the teacher sitting at the front of the room. Students remain respectful and are clearly engaged, that much is true. But they sometimes have trouble articulating the point that they are really trying to make and there is a marked tendency to veer off topic. There are always numerous missed opportunities, especially when it comes to rebuttals. Then there are the groups that don’t connect; when this happens, it’s like watching two different monologues being recited on opposite sides of a stage. The sloppiness of it all has never sat well with me.

This is why I decided to take a risk, and this year I asked students to write a position paper that was due several days before the debate itself. In their papers, students had to use the same readings to answer the same question they will have to argue in class in class. I worried that either they would find the process condescending, or that the repetition involved would cause them to get bored. But since there was, indeed, method to my madness, I pressed on. I was sincerely interested to see how the process of debating affected their original views and what it taught them about crafting an argument – especially since even the best students tend to have trouble identifying and undermining the antithesis when writing a paper. The tactic also had the added bonus of forcing students to have to read critically – and not casually – in advance of the debate.

Judgment day came. I held my breath, and I waited to see what would happen. I’m a cynic, so I expected a bunch of angsty teenagers, ready to rebel at my antiquated ways. Instead, they were bursting at the seams, eager to tell their peers what they thought about the topic. As always, students were assigned to their teams, but instead of griping about getting the “wrong side,” the groups self-organized and used the dissenters among their ranks to help them prepare for counter-arguments. Some students had done extra research for their papers, and obligingly shared their knowledge with the group. Even some of the more quiet students got involved, feeling more confident because they’d had time to work through their ideas more thoroughly in advance.

No really, it was like the day I discovered I could make Nutella bread. OMG, this actually works!

No really, it was like the day I discovered I could make Nutella bread. OMG, this actually works!

Currently, my classes have 33-35 students each. And yet, each time I did this, the debate was orderly and well planned. Sometimes it took a bit longer for them to get into it, but once discussion got going, there was a firestorm of exchange, and arguments really started to connect as the two sides went back and forth. I sat in awe, and let students try to convince one another until just before the end of class. When we wrapped up, and I asked them if any of them had changed their minds, or at the very least, would change the way they would argue if they could write their papers again. At least 10 students in each class put up their hands. When I asked them to elaborate, some had completely changed their minds; others told me that they had originally provided an opinion and that now they wanted to construct an argument, with better supporting evidence. A few maintained their original positions, but had become either more or less self-assured that they were, in fact, in the right.

Admittedly, I am currently teaching some unusually gifted students. They are a ridiculously bright lot of young people who have made it into a very competitive school. However, even if you take this into consideration, the difference between debates with and without a position paper attached was staggering. The debate itself became more orderly and meaningful, and the lessons it was meant to impart came into much more clearly focus for the students. Thus, I think it’s an exercise worth repeating. Again, pulling this off is dependent upon your resources (how many students you have in your class versus how many hours you have in a day… or, at the very least, how many TAs you have). But if you can make it work, combining a written component with an oral debate has been highly successful for me. This is one of those things where, even after marking 103 position papers, I can still say that it was worth it. And that, my friends, was a lot of papers to read on the same damn thing.

I’d be curious to know if anyone else out there is doing this type of thing and, if so, how it’s been working for them. As always, I encourage people to share their expertise below. The best thing about this blog is that I get to hear great ideas from readers all the time, so keep it coming!

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