Engaging Students in Argument

The elderly shop owner opposes a corporation that wants to build a plant in her town. She’s afraid that its products, similar to the ones she manufactures, will drive her out of business. At 70, it’s too late in her life to start over and, even though the corporation says it will hire locally, she doubts it will hire someone her age. Besides, after a lifetime of running her own business, she doesn’t want to work for someone else. How can she convince her fellow townspeople to rally against the corporation?

The above scenario was real, except that the shop owner wasn’t really 70; she was in her 20s. Nor was she a shop owner; she was a student in my composition class. And the corporation wasn’t really planning to build a plant in her town; in fact, neither the corporation nor the town existed. So, what was real? Issues that raise concerns and fears, and the necessity for using argument to persuade others.

Argument goes hand in hand with critical-thinking skills. While textbooks provide instructions and models, I have found that few methods engage students so fully in the process of arguing and counterarguing as a face-to-face role-play scenario. Here’s how it works in my class. This model can be adapted for use with many different kinds of content and structured variously, as well.

I divide my class into three groups and present them with the following scenario:

FRAMcorp is coming to town. This multinational conglomerate makes headlines for its innovative technological products but has drawn criticism for causing pollution, increasing traffic in rural areas, and driving local competitors out of business. FRAMcorp wants to establish a plant that will employ about 500 people in the town of Homeland Square. Restaurants and retail stores will also surely follow, increasing employment opportunities. However, some citizens, fearing the plant’s disruption of their way of life, have formed the Homeland Square Neighborhood Association (HSNA) to make their concerns public. In a show of goodwill, FRAMcorp agrees to debate the HSNA and leave the fate of the plant in the hands of Homeland Square’s townspeople. If they veto the plant, it will be built elsewhere.

  • Group 1 represents FRAMcorp.
  • Group 2 represents the HSNA.
  • Group 3 represents the townspeople.

Groups 1 and 2 spend several minutes discussing among themselves how best to present their cases to the voters. The two groups then face each other and debate the issue for at least 20 minutes. Group 3 is free to ask questions of either side. To make their task more challenging—as well as to give them practice arguing and counterarguing—I tell the townspeople they must reach consensus.

I observe and take notes, which I sometimes use to guide a follow-up discussion. If the debate lags or if particular students do not appear to be engaged, they can be drawn in by being assigned individual roles (e.g., “You are FRAMcorp’s director of public relations; if the citizens veto the plant, you may lose your job.)

At the onset of the exercise, students usually ask a vital question: What products does FRAMcorp make? I let the students answer this question themselves. Leaving “holes” in the scenario forces students to engage their imaginations. It also emphasizes the importance of doing research: Without fully understanding the opposition, Groups 1 and 2 often make assumptions about the other that do not hold up under scrutiny. The HSNA, for example, often assumes that the pollution will involve toxic waste—a claim easily denied by the corporation if the type of product hasn’t been clearly established.

As the debate proceeds, students find themselves drawn into their particular groups and championing their causes. They often brainstorm their own subscenarios. One student, for example, took on the role of a farmer who feared that toxic waste would damage his land. The student mentioned earlier spontaneously identified herself as a 70-year-old shop owner whose business could be threatened. Students representing FRAMcorp went to great lengths to tout the advantages of the plant: more jobs, local hiring, minimal training, even “going green.”

Many times, students resort to tactics that are both humorous and unintentionally revealing. One student in the HSNA kept interrupting the corporation when they tried to answer questions. In another class, a student representing FRAMcorp told the locals who feared losing their jobs, “Too bad for you!” On the surface, such exchanges reflect students having fun with the game. On a deeper level, they reveal hidden attitudes and prejudices (e.g., all corporations are greedy; all small-town residents are hicks) and echo real-life exchanges that get politicians and CEOs in trouble (oil executives, anyone?).

The outcome is not as important as the process of arguing and counterarguing. By projecting themselves into imaginary roles, students often emerge from the exercise with a deeper appreciation of the pros and cons of controversial issues. They understand the fears, both realistic and unrealistic, of people caught in such controversies, and they gain firsthand experience in developing strategies to address those fears. Perhaps most important, they personalize controversial issues rather than merely reading about them in textbooks.

Greg Gildersleeve teaches composition at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, KS.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 25.3 (2011): 3.