How to get your students to do extra credit

Often my students want to tell me what is wrong with the side they are presenting for their research paper, when I make them write the side they disagree with. I let them. I just tell them they have to keep this “on the other hand” discussion out of the paper itself. But I will allow a one-page refutation, in which they take issue with the side they have presented. This refutation may be the only argument paper for their side if the class is only doing one controversial issues paper. Or, as I prefer to use it, this can be extra credit.

I assume you have had my experience with extra credit, which is that the students who do it aren’t the students that need it. The refutation, however, sometimes gets written by the students who aren’t as concerned with their grades, but are committed to the issue they wrote about. I like that. It’s their way of telling me that they discovered something out of kilter with the arguments they have presented, even if they are the strongest arguments for that side.

I will say that the refutation more generally gets written when one of two things happen, either I have a day between due dates of the research paper and the refutation or there is only one research paper. It seems that students want me to know their side, even if it means more work. So I give them a chance to tell me.

Other people approach this issue by having the students include in their research paper a counterargument and its rebuttal. Either approach works, but I personally find it easier to separate these out.

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

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.

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.

Dissenting viewpoints in the classroom

Obviously, teachers have the right to freedom of speech, but we also have a need to educate our students within the parameters of our subject. If we don’t, we may have to deal with legal issues.

“A Long Beach student has filed a complaint against ,,,[a teacher] for using an hour and a half of his English class instructional time to talk about his disapproval of George W. Bush and the war in Iraq” (Brown).

That is not just this teacher.

13% felt their professors had presented their own political views in an inappropriate way(Jaschik)

Educators should not introduce issues for discussion while simultaneously shutting down opposition. A blogosphere-wide upheaval came about when a student sent the URL to his English teacher’s website to popular bloggers. Many of them were unimpressed with what Professor Snider did in 2004 when he limited his classes from covering either side of a controversial issue in their argument papers:

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). (Volokh)

He then went on to suggest topics with comments like “Even the usually conservative” newspaper in the area agrees with medicinal use of recreational drugs. His suggestion for the topic of energy includes a quote about four generations of the Bush dynasty chasing oil profits and questions Dick Cheney’s secrets. Another topic suggestion is the question of whether Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor should be impeached for her role in the Bush v. Gore case of 2000. “In each and every case, when there is a political nature to a suggested topic, he presents one and only one possible perspective as the basis for a paper” (Cramer).

Would you feel free to express a dissenting view in his classroom? I wouldn’t. Such a paper wouldn’t get a passing grade because he has already removed that from the assignment possibilities. While Dr. Snider is a particularly egregious example, there are enough others to show that this is not a moot point that recognized, acknowledged, and properly dealt with by all.

One of the schools I have taught at had, as recently as three years ago, a political science professor who required that the students bring in current event clippings. But if there were anything remotely positive toward the right, this teacher would lambast it.

One of my friends was in the class with her son. While her son agreed with my friend’s political position, in class he would only argue the teacher’s side, because to do otherwise brought ridicule. My friend, however, said she was taking the course for enrichment and she could afford a low grade from the teacher. She brought in controversial clippings and always argued the conservative side.

My friend received a reasonable grade in the course, so it is possible the teacher was simply trying to spark discussion. Her approach, however, did not encourage the students to dissent.

This kind of approach simply entrenches the students’ alienation from us and from the learning process. If they disagree with us, they perceive that they are unaccepted and unacceptable. They feel it, even if we don’t mean it.

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

Political Power: Who has it in our classroom and should we acknowledge it?

This is from the introduction to my TYCA-SW talk on controversial issues in the classroom:

In our classrooms, we as teachers have the political power. We are the ones who decide “who gets what when.” We are the gatekeepers for information (Luehmann). That is our job and if we regulate education through passing and failing students, thus enabling or limiting their pursuit of further class work, most see it as good.

But sometimes our students, the less powerful or the powerless, feel alienated in college. They thought they would have more power as they moved out of high school and into our classrooms and to some extent they do. They are now held responsible for their grades; if they fail, it is usually considered a fair consequence of their choices. They are responsible but in our classrooms, they aren’t the arbiters of truth.

Because of this dichotomy of responsibility and powerlessness sometimes students gain the impression that no one understands their position and everyone is against them. This can be exacerbated when the class deals with controversial issues. Often the students feel like it is us versus them or them versus me.

When we ignore this, it causes damage, just like having an elephant in your living room causes damage. Even if the furniture isn’t broken, the pounds of elephant scat will ruin the carpet. The alienation of the students and our positions of power can be mitigated by literally looking at both sides of the question and bringing balance, not just to the classroom, but also to the students’ understanding of an issue.

31% of students surveyed said the instructors should NOT challenge the students’ personal beliefs
52% said they needed to be exposed to new ieas and challenged about their beliefs (Jaschik)

The first step in dealing with the elephant in the room is to acknowledge our part in its care and feeding.

Four corner debating, a possible game for controversial issue

Description found here. It’s where you all talk about the issue, and move around the room based on how you feel after each person talks. Of course, that assumes that you don’t have a strong commitment to the topic which stays the same regardless… I guess “big” issues like abortion wouldn’t work with this.

And this wouldn’t be good for work where the students have done previous research. But it looks like it might be fun. And there are some questions that would work for a college freshman class provided in the paper.