Limiting the arguments

Another alienating factor in the classroom (especially when dealing with controversial issues) is that often our students assume that we think there is a right and a wrong answer on a topic, that we are right, and that their job is to intuit the “correct” answer.

Professor Snider helped his students over this hurdle by proclaiming the right answers.

But I think that most of us want to expand the students’ horizons, not control them. We want to challenge their worldview even when they don’t yet know what that means. To do this we must avoid making our opinions the boundary of our students’ exercise of their brains.

“23% [of students surveyed] felt they had to agree with a professor to get a good grade, though the majority of these felt this had only happened once.” (Jaschik)

I always tell my students that I have an opinion, but that they don’t have to agree with me—even though I am right.

I also make it clear that I will not grade their paper based on whether I agree with their argument, but will grade it based on content and mechanics.

This contract, if you like, of willingness on my part to pet the elephant goes a long way towards alleviating the problems. It sets out a clear parameter for looking at dissenting views and it establishes my neutrality on the topics as they relate to the course. This positioned neutrality is a boon to our students because it takes away the need to guess which position we support and encourages them to develop their own position.

Even though I am looking for neutrality in this controversial discussion, I still limit my students’ choices. If there were topics that I felt I could not deal with objectively, I would inform them of that. I haven’t ever had anyone suggest working on such a topic, but I know it could happen. Any other disallowed topics are acknowledged and explained.

When I present the controversial issues research paper, I tell the students they may not write on religion. I explain that I will not count off for a reasonably presented argument based on faith, but I don’t want the whole paper to be on whether or not one religion is the best. The reason for this is that it is hard for the writer who believes in this position to see where her arguments fall short and reasonable discussion on the paper’s merits is often impossible.

Lee says we need to have a pedagogical reason for whatever things like this, that can be seen as encroaching on free speech. (I may need to work on this more carefully.)

I also limit to one the number of faith-based arguments that are allowed in any single paper. I let them know the rationale behind this; they have no guarantee their audience will have the same religious view as they do. If their audience does not, then the more religious arguments there are, the less persuasive the argument they are making in their paper will be.

In addition I tell the students that I don’t want anything on sexual assault, child abuse, or domestic violence. In these cases the reason is I don’t want nightmares.

I think the students appreciate my upfront approach and it also makes me more approachable, by acknowledging that I do have personal limitations and making it clear that these do not have to be intuited. With such clear guidelines, the students feel more comfortable. And I know students will follow the teacher’s guidelines because my students have followed mine.

From my TYCA paper on controversial issues.

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