Friday, February 15, 2013

Making debaters focus on arguments, not cards

Every time my debaters say, "I found a good card," I cringe. Is there a good argument in the card, perhaps?

I have found that my debaters, especially my beginning debaters, get overwhelmed when trying to do research to put an argument or case together. One part of the difficulty is that there are so much new information coming at them (they are learning the content about their topic); another part of the difficulty is that the structure of an argument is new to them, and so they have trouble (a) interpreting the structure of the arguments they are reading (and trouble evaluating these arguments) and (b) imagining how to use these arguments for their own case. The result is that beginning debaters tend to focus on the conclusions in a quotation, missing the arguments that get the author there, and thus essentially are guilty of an appeal to authority.

But the same thing happens, in a different way, when an advanced debater turns in a file with fifty uniqueness cards that all repeat one basic fact. I have a hard time persuading advanced debaters that a ten-card file might be the most excellent disadvantage they have seen all year. I have tried different techniques to get my point across, most notably handing a debater back a card he says is good with the instruction to highlight every argument and fact but not any claim. This can help the advanced debater who reads without reading, but it does not help the beginning debaters in the moment of research.

Rather than ask themselves, "Does this argument or fact help me?", beginning debaters -- maybe even many advanced debaters, too -- focus on whether something is "card"-able. The beginning debaters spin themselves into fits worrying about the threshold for cutting something, mostly ignoring the content. (And my injunction that, if the fact or argument is good but the author is lousy and unclear, then they should look for and will find the same fact by a better writer is completely ignored.) Direct quotation is a labor-saving device: it is easier to copy and paste than paraphrase, and it is easier to verify the claim (tag) is a correct interpretation of the author's work. But it can short-circuit the thinking process. I have been sorely tempted to prohibit my debaters from direct quotation in debating, forcing them to paraphrase, to get them to focus on the actual, essential arguments and facts they are gleaning from their research. (It is certainly a great technique for practice rounds.)

Instead, I have come up with argument sheets. I tell them that the first stage of research is merely about mapping out the terrain; they can fill in the sheet and save links or PDFs but not cut cards. Of course, I created different sheets for the three types of claims: factual (uniqueness or harms), causal (links or solvency), and value and philosophical claims. If a student is researching uniqueness for a disadvantage, I give her the first kind of sheet, which directs her to pay attention to what facts she finds, how those facts were collected by the original researcher (e.g., statistics do not fall from the sky), and what the facts mean for her claim. For example, perhaps she is making a claim about the effect of a law for her inherency. I want her to point to specific text in the law or to point to Congressmen's statements, and to recognize that each method has limits. With causal arguments, I want students to pay attention to the complexity of causation. I want them to move away from the simple, pat story or scenario; I want them to think about effects being overdetermined. The hardest arguments for most debaters to analyze are value arguments. I want my debaters to pay special attention to the broader philosophical ideas that are tied into, as well as to clearly think about what is included and what is excluded in a philosophical judgment. The idea I am trying to hammer home is that philosophical concepts are all about distinctions. (I am reminded of the old joke about a philosopher, asked how he liked his job: "I make some distinctions. It's a living.")

Below is an example of what filled-in sheets might look like.

Argument sheet (example)

After they have filled in a sheet, then we will discuss the case and organize the key ideas into an idea map or web. (I have found that they can not jump straight from reading, without note-taking, to idea-mapping.)

Finally, they go back to start to cut cards. I have found that debaters now tend to cut cards on factual claims that are shorter than before, but that are more likely to have some context for the collection or meaning of the data presented. I have found that debaters now tend to cut cards with causal claims that are longer than before -- they are trying to include more complex analysis. And I have found that debaters are now less likely to cut cards making value claims that are just conclusions. The students look a little more carefully for cards that link an issue to a big philosophical concept. Which is to say, the debaters are more thoughtful and discriminating.

No comments:

Post a Comment