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On Debates

barclay_barrios
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When reading course evaluations I often spot comments about how much students enjoyed debates in class.  I know that class debates are a common activity for my teachers.  These debates force students to engage the text and engage as well in a kind of rhetorical flexibility by being able to take either (or both) sides of an issue within an essay.  Nevertheless I personally don’t find them useful in my teaching. That’s an odd statement from a person who spent most of high school on the debate team, perhaps.  But it may be that very experience that colors my sense of this class activity so. My objection centers on the tendency of debates to become black and white, for and against, pro and con, right and wrong.  It’s not polarization itself that bothers me (though yeah I don’t think that’s generally speaking a good idea); rather it’s that this mode of discourse seems to blunt critical thinking by reducing complexity.  To put it another way, I find debates tend to promote black and white while for me all the good stuff is gray. Now many of the teachers in our program get towards this by having students switch sides and I am sure that they find a way to make it work in their classrooms.  But for me, putting the black next to the white doesn’t make the gray.  Instead, the gray comes from continually looking at the things students don’t want to see: the places in the text that don’t make sense, that complicate their own thinking, that work against everything they want to say.  Looking at these places doesn’t mean dismissing them.  It means working through them to end up with a stronger sense of what you want to say in response and relation to the text. Debates might get there for many, but not for me.  I’ll stay gray.  
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About the Author
Barclay Barrios is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches freshman composition and graduate courses in composition methodology and theory, rhetorics of the world wide web, and composing digital identities. He was Director of Instructional Technology at Rutgers University and currently serves on the board of Pedagogy. Barrios is a frequent presenter at professional conferences, and the author of Emerging.