In argument lab, students challenge themselves, each other

Take your seats but don’t get comfortable. Welcome to Global Ethics & Climate Change, which is essentially an argument lab.

Professor Willis Jenkins (Grad ’06) inverts convention by teaching the class using what’s known as a flipped classroom. Students learn the underlying subject-matter on their own (rather than in class) and then use class time (rather than homework) to engage in practical exercises, in this case staking and defending positions.

For each session, two or three of the class’s 10 small groups (six students each), respond to the issue of the day. Today’s question: Are individuals responsible for climate change?

A representative presents  the group’s position and then takes questions, first from Jenkins and then from the class. Group members must answer  the questions in accord with their position.

Still, it’s not a debate class. Jenkins awards no points for style, and there is no winner.

An experienced debater, Michelle Hong (Col ’19) says she finds this class challenging in a different way. In debate, she says, she builds a case to the particulars of her position. “But for this class, we’re trying to apply this to the real world, so we can’t limit ourselves too much to the philosophical realm. That’s way too idealistic.”

Jenkins explains, “We really want people to make a considered judgment about particular positions and then focus on defending the grounds for the judgment and less on winning.”

Though student back-and-forth consumes the bulk of the class, the professor gets first crack at each argument. Quick on his feet, he challenges positions and clarifies arguments with pointed but constructive questions.

“[Jenkins] will continually question your thought,” Hong says, “until you blurt out what it is you’re really thinking.”

The critiques, however, serve a specific purpose.

Jenkins wants students to take their own positions seriously, to take others’ positions seriously as well, and to consider the “prospects for argument in pluralist conditions.”

Even a small presenting group, where students of different backgrounds and majors must come to a consensus, might present such conditions.

The class style has helped Ashley Youssef (Col ’19) wrestle with a subject that’s relatively new to her. Being forced to take a position on climate change has given her reason to ask questions, especially about the inequalities surrounding those affected by climate change.

With biweekly presentations, weekly reading responses and two 2,000-word papers over the semester, the class is labor-intensive.

Although initially intimidated by the workload, Hong says she’s been thoroughly engaged. “People are actually surprised at how much work they’re putting into it but learning a lot more than they would in a lecture format class or discussion,” she says. “It puts people on their toes.”

Global Ethics & Climate Change

Instructor: Willis Jenkins (Grad ’06)

Structure: Sixty students are divided into groups of six that work together for the entire semester, presenting every two weeks. The class is open to all undergraduates and meets twice a week.

On the syllabus:
The extensive reading list ranges from the National Climate Assessmentand Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach by Martha C. Nussbaum, to Laudato Si by Pope Francis.

Individual grades are based one-third on your group’s cumulative performance; one-third on your individual participation, including your presentations and responses to the readings; and one-third on  two 2,000-word papers.

Takeaways:

  • Choose an argument you believe in. It matters.
  • Prepare for counter-arguments.
  • Consider the reasons behind your argument and prepare to accept the plausibility of another’s.

Originally published at http://uvamagazine.org/articles/staking_a_position#comments