Modeling Civility and Use of Evidence in the Classroom

Political Compass A few days ago, Nels wrote a post titled “Leading Effective Classroom Discussions on Controversial Issues.” In this post, I’d like to talk about some of the same kinds of concerns, from the perspective of someone who teaches Political Science and writing.

Each fall, I teach two sections (one a four-credit, writing intensive section, the other a standard three-credit, non-writing-intensive section) of a 100-level course titled “Political Issues.” We cover a wide range of topics, from the use of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, to the medical use of marijuana, to presidential war powers, to immigration. Getting students to talk about these sorts of issues usually isn’t a problem, but as you might imagine, keeping discussions productive–especially in sections populated primarily with first-year students–can be quite a challenge.

For both sections, among the goals that I have for my students are that (1) they will learn to listen to other points of view respectfully and develop an understanding of those points of view, and that (2) they will learn to provide good evidence for their own points of view. I place a lot of importance on these skills both because they are, in themselves, important for students to learn as they move forward in their academic careers and because, frankly, I’m incredibly frustrated by what currently passes for political discourse in the United States. Far too often, our political conversations degenerate into “shouting” matches that mischaracterize opposing points of view and don’t get much above the level of saying “hooray for our side!” [YouTube] when it comes to presenting evidence for any particular point of view. If I can even begin to move some of my students beyond that level of discourse and toward greater civility, I’ll be happy.

What I’d like to do here is share a little about how I’ve tried to help students develop their skills in listening and in providing evidence.

To get classroom conversations started, over the last few years I’ve been alternating between two textbooks: McKenna and Feingold’s Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Political Issues and Rourke’s You Decide! Current Debates in American Politics. The points of view presented in these texts provide a good beginning point; I can always ask students to summarize one of the arguments presented, and I can ask them to explain which argument they most agree with (and, more importantly, why).

When it comes to writing assignments, I frequently ask students to take a stand on a political issue and defend that stand using the best evidence they can provide. Depending on the issue, the textbook can often provide a good starting point, as well as initial pointers to other sources that might be useful.

Before students even get to writing those kinds of papers, though, I ask them in the first week or so of the semester to write what I call a “personal political essay.” In that essay, they are to identify a political issue they think is important, explain why they think it’s important, give a suggestion about how to handle the issue, and explain why they think that’s a good way to proceed. The only rule is that they may not write about abortion. That’s for two main reasons, both of which I explain when giving the assignment. First, abortion is a really important issue for many of my students. In a class of twenty, the odds of getting twelve or more essays about abortion are pretty good. I need a little more variety than that. Secondly (and more importantly), my experience has been that students just beginning their college careers tend to emote about abortion rather than reason about it. I want students to focus on their reasons for thinking an issue is important and for proposing a particular solution.

So, in the very first writing assignment, I try to get students reasoning about important issues and thinking about what kinds of arguments might help them make their case. From there, we can move on to some of the models presented in our textbook, where authors make good use of source material to support their point of view. Students then have some practice in thinking things through, along with some models for constructing an argument.

So much for the writing assignments. To return to class discussions: I also try, in the way that I facilitate those discussions, to model the fairness to other points of view and the habit of presenting evidence that I want students to develop. If necessary, I’ll play the devil’s advocate to be sure a particular point of view gets heard. One of the most gratifying bits of feedback I’ve ever received from a student came in the form of a note thanking me for being so even-handed and fair in classroom discussions. I later learned that this student and I disagree rather sharply on most political issues, so I take the fact that said student thought I’d been very even-handed as an indicator that I’ve had at least some success in modeling fairness.

Though what I’ve just described has worked reasonably well so far, I plan to make at least one change the next time I teach the course: I’m going to eliminate the textbook, and rely on other (as yet to be determined) sources for readings. The one major problem I’ve encountered with both texts listed above is that they tend to present binaries. As a result, class discussions often shut down sooner than I’d like (Nels is right to suggest the avoidance of binaries!). I’d rather class sessions yield good discussions, not debates.

What’s been your experience of helping students develop their abilities to engage other points of view (political or otherwise) civilly and to provide good evidence for their own positions? Do you have any tips to share? Let’s hear about them in the comments.

[Creative Commons licenced Flickr photo by miss_rogue]

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