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.