How to teach a controversial argument paper

After the defining of controversial, we go to Opposing Viewpoints, one of my favorite databases, and look through the lists for interesting topics. Some students didn’t know there was another viewpoint aside from theirs. They have an opinion on a topic they did not know was controversial. “Doesn’t everyone support the development of nuclear energy?” Or “Of course animal testing is wrong.” The database lets them see that these clear delineations of truth are murkier than they thought.

Other students say that they don’t know what they think or what they believe on any controversial issue. And some of them honestly don’t. They’ve never thought through a single substantive issue. I tell them they don’t have to know which side they support in that case. They only have to pick a side, perhaps the one with the seeming preponderance of information.

Once the introduction of the argument paper has been presented, how do we get our students to look at both sides of the controversial issue that they have chosen to address, an issue of which they most likely have a strong opinion? When students deal with controversial topics, they like to write on the side they agree with and, unfortunately, they will often make sweeping logical errors because of that. I tell my students that they don’t see the holes the people on the other side could drive a Mack truck through, but another particularly relevant metaphor is that they will describe the living room and not see the elephant. There’s a sneaky way to get around that though. It is to require them to write on the side they disagree with.

Students don’t want to do this. It’s an issue that is important to them, so we can’t just say, “Okay. Now we’re going to write on the side you disagree with. Bill, are you for or against capital punishment?” Many of them will tell us that they support what they oppose if we start from that question.

Instead, what I do, is ask them to brainstorm on their topic. We may already have done multiple brainstorming on the possibilities of topic at this point. They should now have a clear idea of which topic they want to write on. So I ask them to write down what they believe and why, specifically detailing what they think are the best three reasons for that. I am clear that these may not be the arguments that the write their paper on, but I want to know what they know about the topic now. Then I take the papers up. Don’t skip this step. Only after I have all the papers in hand do I let them know that they will be writing on what they disagree with.

Usually I will get groans at this point. I don’t want to break my streak, but so far when I have explained why I am doing it, while not thrilled, they are more comfortable.

What rationale do I give them? Well, I start with the Mack truck metaphor. Then I explain that it is easier to see the tiniest flaws in the opposition than it is to see the glaring errors in your arguments. It also helps them realize the other side does have legitimate and cogent arguments. If they didn’t, I remind the class, it wouldn’t be a controversial issue.

The papers themselves, I tell the students, will be stronger if they don’t agree with what they are telling me because they will know what the best arguments are for the other side because those are the ones that they are most willing to at least listen to. Also, I tell them, it increases their thinking to have to come up with reasonable arguments for the other side and thinking is a skill that the college educated person ought to have. Finally, of course, I tell them that they have to and as I’m the grader, they’re kind of stuck. Usually they will grin about that.

This is the point at which we begin our research. If we are only writing one paper, then they only research the side they disagree with. These papers come out okay, but they are not the strongest.

The best way I have discovered to get great first papers is to have a second one coming. If I am going to do two research papers on the same topic, then I have to know what the best arguments are for my side and for the other side. That makes the arguments for the other side better because there is a balance. So if we are going to be able to do two research papers, I have them do the research for both at the same time. It helps them to see the whole picture of the issue. I have them find their articles for both sides and take notes on both sides. In my classes, it’s been the best way to get solid research papers.

At this point, I make sure and acknowledge that I know that they are writing on the side opposite of their beliefs. I tell them that it may be hard for them to find arguments that they think are convincing. Or it may not be. I remind them that there have to be some good arguments for both sides for the issue to be a controversial one. This is a good time to discuss the philosophical underpinnings that prioritize arguments. If, for example, the topic is abortion, is the bedrock belief behind the presentation an issue of life, life at all costs, liberty, personal liberty, or pursuit of happiness, often an economic issue? (Yes, I sneak in a little history here.)

There are reasons for the weight given various arguments and people’s belief system determines the best arguments. It helps the students begin to articulate their own worldview. And it gives the students a way of appreciating and accepting the other side’s arguments, even when they do not find them convincing. It also lets them examine their own conscience when they find themselves being persuaded to a different viewpoint, which is always an interesting experience to watch.

This is from my TYCA-SW talk on controversial issues in the classroom.

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