I teach at a community college. The students are writing their research papers now. The limit on the topic was that it had to be controversial. The students had to be able to find three solid arguments both for and against the side they agreed with to write on. That was the limit on the topic.
I was very interested/annoyed/irritated to read about this assignment in a blog. Sorry, it was last week and I don’t remember which one I read about it in. (Note: This page still goes to the assignment but no longer lists the topics you can and cannnot cover. So that isn’t going to explain to you what the problem is.)
I went and read the teacher’s website posting of the assignment. I think it is interesting that he announces academic freedom, but doesn’t allow freedom of speech in his classroom. In fact, he clearly suppresses it.
This is a quote from his site. Please note, that unlike the one he complained about earlier, this is within the acceptable length for quoting of copyrighted material. (Which I have never found even in academic circles to include syllabi and assignments.)
“Topics on which there is, in my opinion, no other side apart from chauvinistic, religious, or bigoted opinions and pseudo-science (for example, female circumcision, prayer in public schools, same-sex marriage, the so-called faith-based initiative, abortion, hate crime laws, the existence of the Holocaust, and so-called creationism).”
So if you believe in prayer in schools, or don’t perhaps?, faith based initiatives, or the Holocaust, you can’t write on them. But you can write on how stupid Bush is and whether or not the Loch Ness monster exists. This teacher believes there are two sides to argue for Loch Ness monster, but not two sides on the Holocaust or hate crime laws. What does that tell you about his politics?
First, it tells you his politics are strong. Then it tells you they are far left. (Look at the first sentence for number 46 if you think I’m not telling the truth.) Then it tells you that if you are right wing, you’re wrong. He won’t even let you argue your view in an argument paper. Or study something you’re not sure about.
On the flip side, I require my students to write on both sides of the argument they are researching. They have to start with the one they disagree with. The reason for that is that it helps them realize the other side does have legitimate and cogent arguments. It also shows them possible holes in their own arguments. I think maybe this teacher needs to write one of my research papers himself.
Volokh is the original site, though an updated archive on the topic, that was pointed to on the blog I read. I might could find that, then. No, because I didn’t go to V- but to the other. Nope. I couldn’t figure out who pointed me in this direction.
Update: Despite the fact that no one I know considers their syllabi copyrighted, apparently they are. Here’s a post on the practice of fisking which is selecting large sections of a copyrighted piece in order to argue with it.
Update again: Since his syllabus isn’t up anymore, I guess I’m not quoting it. I am quoting those who quoted it. Here are some of the other choices of topics:
2. “Recreational” Drugs (legalization of, medicinal use of; you must know the current legal status of these issues at both the state and federal levels). For marijuana, probably the best approach is to narrow your topic to medicinal use. See Eric Bailey’s “Key Court Victories Boost Medical Marijuana Movement,” Los Angeles Times, 23 December 2003: B1+. Even the usually conservative Press-Telegram is calling for a “carefully regulated system of legalization and high taxation” of drugs (editorial, “Gangs and Prohibitions,” 3 October 2004: A20).
3. Energy (nuclear, solar, fossil, synthetic fuels, etc.). A related topic is Dick Cheney’s secret conference on energy policy. Why hasn’t the administration revealed who participated and should it reveal this information? Also important is the fact that, as Kevin Phillips writes, “four generations of the [Bush] dynasty have chased [oil] profits through cozy ties with Mideast leaders, spinning webs of conflicts of interest” (Los Angeles Times, 11 January 2004: M1+).
8. The Economy (tax cuts, the military budget, education, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment, etc.). Under President Clinton, the Federal Government had a handle on the national debt. Now the Bush administration is passing that debt on to the post-baby-boom generation. See Ronald Brownstein’s column, “Our Children Will Pay the Bill for Bush’s Budget,” Los Angeles Times, 10 February 2003: A10.
12. Capital Punishment (pro or con; one way to limit the topic would be to argue whether or not there should be a moratorium on executions until they can be proved to be fair to all concerned, if that’s possible). See the bipartisan web site: The Constitution Project on this issue. See also Henry Weinstein’s article, “Death Penalty Study Suggests Errors,” in the Los Angeles Times (11 February 2002: A13, and Eric Slater’s “Illinois Governor Commutes All Death Row Cases,” in the Los Angeles Times (12 January 2003: A1+; in the same edition of the Times, see Henry Weinstein’s “Move Will Intensify Debate on Executions”: A1+ and Eric Slater’s “Unlikely Candidate for Death Penalty Reformer”: A28). According to Amnesty International, in 2002 the United States had the third highest rate of executions after China and Iran (“China Tops World List of Executions,” Los Angeles Times, 13 April 2003: A33).
17. The Environment (insecticides, off-shore drilling, protecting the forests, clean-air laws, protecting pristine land in Alaska from oil drilling). See Elizabeth Shogren’s, “States, White House at Odds on Environment,” Los Angeles Times, 29 December 2002, A23. And see Kenneth R. Weiss’s “Seas Being Stripped of Big Fish, Study Finds,” Los Angeles Times, 15 May 2003: A1+. This would be a good research paper topic as well.
21. Affirmative Action. Be sure to define the term and be aware of its current status in California. See the cover stories for Newsweek, 27 January 2003, the Los Angeles Times, “State Finds Itself Hemmed In,” 24 June 2003 (A1+), by Stuart Silverstein, Peter Hong, and Rebecca Trounson, and “Court Affirms Use of Race in University Admissions,” by David G. Savage, in the same issue of the Times.
27. Gun control (should a license, including a card with a picture similar to a driver’s license, be required of gun owners? should handguns be banned? These are only two narrowed gun control topics; “gun control” itself is far too broad as a topic). See Aparna Kumar’s “More Guns in Citizens’ Hands Can Worsen Crime, Study Says” (Los Angeles Times, 23 January 2003: A15). Also, for an especially good opinion column (backed by facts), read Jennifer Price’s “Gun Lobby’s Perfect Aim,” Los Angeles Times (9 February 2003: M1+). A third topic is ballistic fingerprinting: see Jonathan Alter’s “Pull the Trigger On Fingerprints,” Newsweek (28 October 2002: 41).
34. Birth Control: Should the so-called “morning-after” contraceptive pills (pills that prevent fertilized eggs from implantation) be more readily available to all, whether they can afford them or not and regardless of age? Of course, in your paper you would need to state your position and support it while acknowledging the opposing position. (You cannot argue that such pills amount to an abortion; I do not accept abortion as a topic. See below.)
52. What evidence do we have that Mr. Bush and his cronies lied to the American people and the world in promoting the war with Iraq? Do you agree that America has lost its “moral authority” in the world because of this immoral war? See “Another Casualty of War: American Moral Authority,” by Rami G. Khouri, in the Los Angeles Times, 9 October 2003: B17. See also, “Iraq War Questions Gain Momentum,” by Janet Hook, Los Angeles Times, 30 January 2004: A1+, and John Barry and Mark Hosenball’s “What Went Wrong,” the cover story for Newsweek, 9 February 2004: 24-31. Another article from the Los Angeles Times, Bob Drogin and Greg Miller’s “CIA Chief Saw No Imminent Threat in Iraq” (6 February 2004: A6+), might be useful. Other articles worth reading are Peter Singer’s “Bush’s Meandering Moral Compass,” Los Angeles Times, 26 March 2004: B13 and Bob Drogin and Greg Miller’s “Iraq’s Illicit Weapons Gone Since Early ’90s, CIA Says,” Los Angeles Times, 7 October 2004: A1+.
The Economyâ€¦ Under President Clinton, the Federal Government had a handle on the national debt. Now the Bush administration is passing that debt on to the post-baby-boom generationâ€¦
Birth Control: Should the so-called “morning-after” contraceptive pills (pills that prevent fertilized eggs from implantation) be more readily available to all, whether they can afford them or not and regardless of age? Of course, in your paper you would need to state your position and support it while acknowledging the opposing position. (You cannot argue that such pills amount to an abortionâ€¦).
Should Justice Sandra Day O’Connor have been impeached for her partisan, political actions in the Bush v. Gore case of December 2000 (she is reported to have expressed a desire to retire but would do so only if a Republican were presidentâ€¦)? What about Justice Scalia, whose son worked for the law firm of the lawyer who argued for Bush before the Supreme Court, or Justice Thomas, whose wife was part of an organization selecting people to work in a potential Bush administration?
George W. Bush’s time in the National Guard presents important questions about the character of a man who has sent hundreds of Americans to their deaths in war and killed and maimed untold thousands of othersâ€¦
Breaking a campaign promise, Bush has reversed rules to limit industrial carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphereâ€¦Do you agree or disagree with this decision?
Is it right for the Bush Administration to use the War on Terrorism for political or commercial purposes?…
What role does George W. Bush have in the Enron scandal? How should the various Congressional investigation (sic) proceed? Should any new laws be passed? Should all those who have received contributions from Enron recess themselves or only those who received a certain amount of moneyâ€¦
It is no secret that the Bush administration and many Republicans have taken steps to undo the progress in environmental protection made before they took office. Now that they control the presidency and the Congress, they have better opportunities to carry out their agendaâ€¦
Civil Liberties: The Bush administration has used the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 to erode the civil rights of citizens and non-citizens alikeâ€¦ What can be done to stop this erosion of liberties or can you logically defend it?…
Should there be stricter laws against a woman harming her potential child through smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, or using other drugs while pregnant?…
What evidence do we have that Mr. Bush and his cronies lied to the American people and the world in promoting the war with Iraq? Do you agree that America has lost its “moral authority” in the world because of this immoral war?…
Although George W. Bush said he would support the national continuation of the ban on assault weapons, he did nothing to urge Congress to pass itâ€¦
from Mike Adams
Update (8/6/08): I want to use this story in my discussion of “Looking at Both Sides of the Issue” for TYCASW, assuming I get to read it.