Teaching Debate as Critical Writing


Hello all, It’s been a long time since I’ve frequented NB so apologies if this is more off-case fare. But if anyone still remembers me, it’s probably as a guy who was never really “great” at anything, but got through it, so it works.

I know that a number of fellow olds who have moved into teaching have incorporated debate into their courses, and I’m hoping for some insight and advice on how to do so effectively. I currently teach English 102: Critical Reading and Writing, which is a followup to freshman composition that focuses on (surprise) incorporating critical thinking into writing.

Given my own experience having developed so much of my own critical thinking and writing skills via college debate, I’m regularly frustrated at the paradigm of “Read a critical essay. Now do what they do!” I’m decently satisfied with my textbook, but I feel like it’s easy for students to fixate on the trappings of clever phrases and “quirky” observations, and miss the whole notion of analyzing subtexts, proposing a synthesis of new ideas, and evaluating the attitudes and assumptions behind ideas. Perhaps unlike poli sci or other disciplines, content and subject matter would be secondary to the developing critical thinking skills through a debate unit. Additionally, I think that writing debate cases would be a nice opportunity to let students forget about the minutiae of formatting, introductions, etc, and just develop their ideas.

I say all this as a way of explaining my goals in incorporating a debate unit. In specific, I hope to use debate to develop skills in using evidence to advance your own ideas, evaluating the strength and sufficiency of arguments, analyzing ideas, and synthesizing new scenarios. My worry is that I’m so far removed from “civilian” life that I’ll have no idea how to communicate debate to newbies. The esoterica of debate has become such second nature to me that I’m not sure how to get back to basics, or how deep I can get in what will be -at most - probably four weeks of instruction.

So, at length, the question I pose to fellow instructors: what methods have you used to teach debate to non-debaters? How complex/in-depth can you hope to get with your instruction? What advice do you have for lectures, activities, and general logistics? And - if it’s relevant - how have you incorporated critical thinking as a focus in teaching debate?

Any insight and advice is greatly appreciated. I think we all agree on the education value of debate, and I would love to be able to incorporate it to contribute to the education of folks who otherwise will never venture into our strange world.