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Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Classroom Debates on Sensitive Topics

Thanks to the PrawfsBlawg folks for allowing me to join them again. I thought I'd start by discussing a teaching technique that I've found useful for covering sensitive cases in a large class. I teach constitutional law, and students sometimes hesitate to talk a lot about topics such as abortion and affirmative action. This is unfortunate because they undoubtedly have many ideas to share. I therefore solicit four volunteers about a week in advance. I divide them into teams of two. One team has the job of attacking the core holding of a controversial Supreme Court case (say Roe v. Wade). The other team must defend the case. In addition, one person on each team is supposed to focus on legal doctrine, and the other person is supposed to focus on "policy" arguments.

At the beginning of the designated class, each team of two sits at a separate table in front. I let the class know that each team is playing a role, so there should be no automatic assumption that the debater is voicing their personal views. The attacking team then goes first. Each speaker on that team makes their arguments against the case for 5-7 minutes to the class. Hopefully, they make things interesting right away. Then the other team responds with each speaker getting 5-7 minutes. After that, I allow the teams to debate each other directly for a period. During this whole time, I'm sitting somewhere in the classroom with the students. Once the debating has died down, I let students in the class raise their hands and ask questions or raise issues with the debaters. What almost always ends up happening is that the students have a very instructive conversation about different aspects of the case and the bigger issues. They basically teach each other. I just play referee occasionally. Usually the students also end up saying some funny things which breaks the ice. In the next class, I may discuss a few issues that were not covered. I encourage folks to try something like this if you think it might be suitable. I would also enjoy learning if others do something similar to handle sensitive questions.

Posted by Mark kende on November 1, 2011 at 06:16 PM in Constitutional thoughts, Deliberation and voices, Life of Law Schools, Teaching Law | Permalink


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I do something a lot like this for the first hour of most meetings of my seminar. It's great fun, but it goes *a lot* better when 1. the debate leaders have prepared an outline in advance and sent it to me for comments and 2. the class as a whole has written response papers and so are pre-engaged with the material. I also give the leaders a rebuttal at the end of the hour, which they usually squander.

Posted by: BDG | Nov 2, 2011 10:26:47 AM

I have conducted similar exercises in my class, although the class was not a large one and the cases not reserved to controversial subjects. Rather than using it as a means to deal with sensitive subjects, I used it as a means to get more students engaged. I have found that by forcing students to participate in such a deep way in class they become more vested in the course and more willing to participate over the long term. In short, these exercises end up improving the quality of participation in subsequent classes.

Posted by: Derek Black | Nov 2, 2011 10:14:39 AM

With the right students, you could probably just sneak out of the classroom and nobody would notice. That wouldn't, unfortunately, result in reduced tuition charges, but it would hasten the day that you could just stay home and write law review articles, leaving the teaching to a drone.

Posted by: Jimbino | Nov 1, 2011 10:06:35 PM

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