Using Formal Debates in the Classroom

I was wondering if any of our readers have any experience using formal debates in the classroom? I had this crazy idea that I’d have the students in my graduate cultural theory seminar conduct a formal debate in character as the various scholars we are are reading (e.g. Marx, Weber, Durkheim). It seems like it might be a fun experiment, and would help me accomplish one of my goals for the class, which is to get students to try to deal with the texts in their own terms, rather than relying on contemporary critiques. However, I was never on a debating team in school and have very little experience with the rules and practices of formal debates – not to mention using such debates as a teaching tool. Nor have my students. So I was wondering if anyone out there might have some suggestions?

Another motivation for doing this is that I hate survey courses. I love teaching theory, but I prefer to do it around a coherent set of questions motivated by a research topic, or by undertaking a semester-long close-reading of a single scholar’s work. However, the syllabus for this class is set by committee and it isn’t easy to make more than superficial changes in the content (i.e. substituting one book for another on a similar topic, or changing the order of the readings). That means that it the class tends to lurch around from week to week as we jump from one scholar to the next. My thought was that a series of debates like this (one at midterm, and another at finals) might help bring together some of the disparate readings into a more focused discussion. That’s the hope anyway. We’ll see how it turns out in practice!

UPDATE: I should add that one reason for using “formal” debating, with rules, as opposed to other forms of debate/discussion, is that, in my experience, Taiwanese students are extremely reluctant to argue strongly in public for views which differ from those from their peers. This may be true of all students, but in my experience it is much more pronounced here in Taiwan than it was among my students in the US. (Although that may just be because of my own ignorance as to the social norms regarding how such discussions should be conducted.) It is my hope that giving them both roles (a specific scholar we have studied), as well as rules will facilitate a more lively discussion than we might have otherwise.

10 thoughts on “Using Formal Debates in the Classroom

  1. I had a positive teaching experience involving formal debates in Vietnam. I was not teaching social sciences but “argumentation” in french.
    Students were also reputed to be “extremely reluctant to argue strongly in public for views which differ from those from their peers”.
    I decided that we could divide the class into two teams, with each one defending an opinion and trying to refute the views of the other team. To be more concrete, one team had to argue for free access to healthcare, and the other team had to argue against it.
    It worked pretty well, but we did it only once (it was at the end of the semester). Of course, students in such a setting were not encouraged to defend “their own” views.
    I don’t know how it can be applied to the teaching of theory in social sciences. And there is certainly better ways to conduct discussions.

    I would enjoy reading more about your experience in the future.

  2. I’ve had mixed results with having students debate functionalism in theory class (using Malinowski’s “The Group and the Individual in Functional Analysis,” and Dorothy Gregg and Elgin Williams’ “The Dismal Science of Functionalism” as specific background readings.) The biggest problems, for me, have been finding ways to give the teams enough time to prepare, and the issue of how the work on each team is shared; logistics, in other words.

    The most important substantive issue I’ve encountered is having a very specific debate prompt that nevertheless gives students scope for making broader arguments and fielding examples and counterexamples. My prompt has been based on a quote from Malinowski’s article: RESOLVED, that anthropologists should assume “that every institution contributes, on the one hand, toward the integral working of the community as a whole, but it also satisfies the derived and basic needs of the individual” (Malinowski, p. 962).

    I’d love to hear other people’s experiences with this format, as well.

  3. I’ve been using formal debates in intro survey courses with great success (starting with a formal resolution, setting pro and con teams without regard to previously expressed opinions, flow charts, the whole nine yards). The teams debate, the rest of the class analyze the argument via flow chart and decide who wins on points. This has the advantage of teaching how to follow and assess arguments. Shoot me an email for more info (swyers at lakeforest dot edu) – the set up takes a little explaining if you haven’t done formal debate before.

  4. Kerim I’d love it if you’d post Holly S’s protocol here for everyone to see. I’ve used debate in classes and students love it and it gets them really passionately engaged (especially when the prize for the winning team is chocolate), and it encourages them to feel free to disagree with each other without worrying about how to do so politely. I also find it especially useful when discussing controversial topics because it encourages students to take a position they might disagree with and thus requires them to think through the topic thoughtfully so that they can come up with a good argument in favor of the position they disagree with, which I think leads to more subtle thinking.

    But the problems I experience are (1) like you, I don’t know how formal debating rules work, so I just sort of make up the rules on the spot (which students don’t seem to mind), (2) students sometimes make arguments that seem to have little or no basis in the texts that we’re supposed to be reading, and (3) I have a hard time assessing how well their arguments are grounded in those texts during a rapid-fire debate context when students are trying to get the maximum number of points in a short period of time. That’s why I’m interested to know how Holly gets the class involved in assessment and mapping out arguments via flow chart.

  5. Things can get a bit tricky when a strong debater is on one side, and there isn’t someone to counter them on the other. The less skilled side gets angry and defensive pretty quickly.

  6. I have had success using informal debates in the classroom by giving the parameters of the argument. I frequently propose sentences with no clear answer for or against. We had read a novel for a history of Europe survey so I wrote “class struggle is the most important theme in _Hard Times_” on the board and I split the class into two groups, with time to prepare arguments.

    During prep time the 2 groups of 10-15 students had to split their arguments into sections, with 2 students for each section – meaning that the exercise was not just dominated by one person.When I have had an especially vocal student, I “gag” them after a while, and they aren’t allowed to speak. Or, I make them switch teams halfway through so they have to argue for the other side.

  7. I often find that it helps to provide some sort of formal framework to help create roles and role expectations for students in the course of discussion rather than just ‘throw conversation open’. I try to keep it pretty minimal, however — otherwise you are in a situation where a lot of the class is spent covering the method rather than using the method to cover the material (ideally I’d give the method more time but often there’s no room in the syllabus). For undergraduates I always make sure that they are not graded for one of the roles — that way they can feel free to ‘make mistakes’ and say whatever they want when its their turn that week take the role.

  8. I have used debates in a mid-level Anthropology course, as a teaching assistant, and found that it mostly works really well, as long as the rules are structured and clear, and the question is very well constructed to fit both the readings and get the students excited about “winning.” Here is how I did it, assuming there are 12-15 students per section:
    -Break the students into 3 groups of 4-5 students each at the beginning of the term. These will be their debate teams for the whole term. I usually choose them based on diversity in concentration and year (so, no teams with all engineers while the other is filled with history and anthro students).
    -Schedule 3 debates for the term. In the first one, group A debates group B, then A vs C, then C vs B. The team that is not debating becomes the judges and take notes on the debate and then briefly discuss and announce (with their reasoning) which team is the “winner” as well as offer a general summary of the arguments they understood (students tend to be very nice, congratulating both teams and saying it was hard to choose, so this just adds some motivation while not hurting anyone).
    -For each debate, there are four roles, in this order: Intro, elaboration/evidence, rebuttal, conclusion. Each student prepares one of these roles (decided upon with their team, in advance). The teams alternate, with the “pro” side always starting. no grades are given for debates themselves, it’s all part of participation.

    Students really likes this and some great ideas came up during the debates that I then used to fuel more discussions/elaborations of the readings.

  9. Sorry to come upon this late. I use role-playing performances in my introductory World History classes, very loosely modeled after Steve Allen’s old TV show “Meeting of the Minds” (I have the scripts to show them if they want) crossed with “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” Late in the semester when we’re looking to reset after lots of sober work. The students pick and research their own characters and inhabit them in conversation with each other, with costumes and props. I suggest a debate but otherwise let them pick the scenario and topics.

    I think it takes real understanding of another perspective to be able to recontext it accurately, and although entry-level creativity is some kind of dating game show we’ll occasionally get a moment of inspired reconfiguration along the lines of MP’s Genghis Khan at home in suburbia sketch or Marx trying to answer questions about who won the British football championships. The project often engages students who have been less excited by the more classically textual parts of the class, and most students find it productively stimulating and evocative.

    I’ve taught undergrad and graduate theory, and although I haven’t specifically used this strategy I think it would work nicely to humanize and embed what can otherwise be some rather abstract and uncompelling material.

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