In its ideal form, debate is a tried-and-true way to get students engaging more purposefully with their readings. Not only does it allow them to see multiple perspectives on an issue, it allows them to hear those perspectives as inhabited by their peers, and encourages them to listen more intently to each other before responding.
Preparing students to have the most meaningful debate possible, however, can prove difficult. Many students may come to the classroom with preconceived notions about what it means to “debate,” derived either from the high-intensity world of high school parliamentary debate (which can privilege speed and dominance over careful listening, generosity, and reflection) or from political campaigns (in which “debates” have become something closer to performance art than to intellectual discussion). Unless instructors address these preconceptions head-on and structure classroom debates with these possible preconceptions in mind, they risk simply encouraging their most pugilistic students, while discouraging exactly the kind of thoughtful dialogue they were seeking.
At the Bok Center, we’ve had the privilege of collaborating with Jill Lepore, the David Woods Kemper '41 Professor of American History, and Erika Bailey, Head of Voice and Speech at the American Repertory Theater, to develop some ways that instructors can help their students become more proficient at classroom debate. In her General Education course The Democracy Project, Prof. Lepore takes care to train her students in a set of common rhetorical “moves” and argumentative patterns that can make extemporaneous debate easier and more fluent. By cultivating habits of speaking and arguing that allow students more consciously to articulate and structure—and not merely report—their thought process, instructors can level the playing field among students with different degrees of expertise in debate and to keep the focus on the quality of their ideas.