I do this thing in class where students have to choose the three topics for their three argumentative research essays. These are the major essays for the class. I give them a list of possible topics. The possible topics are broad, like Gender, Politics, Crime and Punishment, etc. They will then have to narrow their paper topic further as the writing process continues. Anyway, they have to choose three topics from this list of about a dozen. Then they have to choose which topic we will discuss and write about first, second, and third. The kicker is that they all have to agree on the topics and the order. There is no majority rule. Then I hand them the class and I sit in a corner or in the back and take notes, interjecting now and then.
What I don't tell them until later is that the process of choosing these topics is just as important ... maybe more important ... than the topics themselves. I could easily assign certain topics or have them choose topics from "the world." But it's this process that I want them to go through.
The idea is that, while they are deciding, they will engage in the methods they should be using in argumentative papers (and other papers ... and discussions ... and decisions ... and life ...). I am, in a sense, arranging a rhetorical situation for them.
As many semesters as I've done this, I can say that no two classes are the same. Usually, though, the students start off quiet. Someone usually takes charge of asking questions and/or writing on the board. People eventually talk. Sometimes they get angry. Sometimes they get really angry. Some people give up or "don't care." Often, students yell at each other or talk over one another. But here's what always happens: the students figure it out. They work through this seemingly impossible task and through all the methods that don't work. They almost always vote, but that only works to a point when everyone has to agree. They listen, discuss possible subtopics (and sometimes research if the activity lasts more than a class period), they negotiate, they compromise, they use reason and logic to persuade, and they do other great things that can be applied to writing in the real world.
As I said, I take notes, so here is a transcription of the notes from the topic choosing activity for this class:
- voting ... and more voting
- "that'd be easy" <--- ! !
- what is this accomplishing?? (voting)
- started getting somewhere when started talking about sub-topics
- people are talking at once and not listening
- moments of silence (golden)!!
- doing nothing doesn't work
- why not let people raise their hands if they are for either?
And here are the topics they chose for the semester:
2-crime and punishment
When it was all over (it took almost a whole Tuesday session and half of a Thursday session), we had a group quiz/discussion where students had to think and talk about which methods of argumentation worked, which didn't work, how these methods can be applied to real life, and how these methods can be applied to writing papers, especially ones making arguments and including research (like, how do you "listen" in a paper?).
One more thing ... one of the student's blogs says he appreciates my "unethical" way of teaching. I think (and hope) he meant "unorthodox." Otherwise, I may get in some trouble. But it's his blog, so I don't think I should correct him.