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Debating Debates When Their Value is… Debatable

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I can't be the only instructor who asked writing students to watch the first presidential debate. And I can’t be the only one who regretted that decision. 

Still, even a poor example can be useful pedagogically, as Donna Winchell reminds us in her recent post on logical fallacies. While my students hold a range of political perspectives, they agreed that the yell-fest that we witnessed in the first Trump-Biden debate does not make for a productive discussion. (I am writing before the second debate.) 

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In response to that first debate, I designed a quick exercise that worked well on Zoom with 25 students. My inspiration was Rogerian argumentation, which my co-author, Stuart Greene, and I explain in the 5th edition of From Inquiry to Academic Writing.

The Rogerian strategy is designed to reduce threat and to open a listener/reader to alternatives by

  1. conveying to readers that their different views are understood,
  2. acknowledging conditions under which readers’ views are valid,
  3. helping readers see that the writer shares common ground with them,
  4. and creating mutually acceptable solutions to agreed-upon problems (118). 

This is a high bar, but my students were game to practice a Rogerian approach to discussing the question of whether a dog or a cat is the ideal pet. (Low-stakes, a bit silly, and good fun.) The guidelines for the exercise are outlined below.

One student begins by

  1. asserting that either a dog or a cat is the ideal pet, and then
  2. offering evidence and specific examples.

That student calls on someone else in the Zoom room, and they continue the exercise by

  1. saying “I hear you saying that X is the better pet (showing they are understood) because of Y (acknowledging the conditions under which the person’s perspective is valid), then
  2. offering a new perspective on whether a dog or cat is the ideal pet, offering evidence and striving for common ground if possible, and finally
  3. calling on the next student.

Because students weren’t sure who would be called on next, they were all on high alert, and their listening and smiling faces in the Zoom grid were wonderful to behold. They were kind and hilarious, summoning serious tones while offering gems such as, “I hear you saying that you find cats super-snuggly, and I, too, value a snuggly pet. However, I’d suggest that my mutt, Roscoe, is as snuggly as any cat, and has softer ears.”

Afterward, students were able to apply their insights to their own academic writing. Weeks later, we keep returning to the exercise as we navigate conflicting perspectives in discussion and on the page.

Because COVID-19 cases are surging in our community, we closed class recently with another fast Rogerian exercise on how best to persuade more people to wear masks. Some students supported fines for non-maskers; some did not. The mic-drop comment came from a quieter student who un-muted herself to shout, “Oh, I know! We can all agree, can’t we, that we could get more people to mask-up if we offered the state with the most mask-wearers… FREE TACO BELL?” Every student reached for the applause button.

Photo Credit: Pixabay Image 2798628 by chayka1270, used under Pixabay License

About the Author
April Lidinsky (PhD, Literatures in English, Rutgers) is Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Indiana University South Bend. She has published and delivered numerous conference papers on writing pedagogy, women's autobiography, and creative nonfiction, and has contributed to several textbooks on writing. She has served as acting director of the University Writing Program at Notre Dame and has won several awards for her teaching and research including the 2015 Indiana University South Bend Distinguished Teaching Award, the 2017 Indiana University South Bend Eldon F. Lundquist Award for excellence in teaching and scholarly achievement, and the All-Indiana University 2017 Frederic Bachman Lieber Memorial Award for Teaching Excellence.