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How Can I Get My Students to Start Fighting?

I read an article in the New York Times this week called “Kids, Would you Please Start Fighting?” and I was struck by the thesis of the piece, especially as it relates to argument writing courses. The author discusses how argument is the genesis for creativity, and laments the fact that people do not always learn to argue productively as children/in the family unit. I take issue with some of what he says, but I do think it’s a great thing to consider in the composition classroom–how averse are students to the notion that anything can be an argument? How hard is it to shake them out of that notion, and get them to care?

In the NYT piece, Grant lists four rules for modeling healthy arguments for children:

• Frame it as a debate, rather than a conflict.
• Argue as if you’re right but listen as if you’re wrong.
• Make the most respectful interpretation of the other person’s perspective.
• Acknowledge where you agree with your critics and what you’ve learned from them.

As I look at these four rules, I wonder whether it isn’t the boiled down version of the argument curriculum in my classes. Argue with respect, strong logic and evidence, and argue like someone who knows how to listen. But my students hear “argument” and want to know what the other side is. Who are they trying to “take down”? The simplest counterclaims and disagreements over degree or importance are often the hardest for student writers to take on, in my experience. Maybe what Grant is identifying is part of that phenomenon.

As I consider their models for “argument,” I wonder, Are they showing up feeling like they don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings? Is it “just their opinion,” that ______________? How do we move them from that mindset of saving face and not hurting feelings to a productive, constructive criticism mindset? I show a peer review video out of MIT called “no one writes alone“. I model constructive disagreement, but am I doing enough? I’m not sure. In the online classroom, everyone is VERY polite and the forums are VERY dry. Nobody disagrees at all, ever. In a face to face class, I’ve got more luck getting people to have healthy discussions, but online, they are polite and agree with one another and, honestly, I’ve been considering doing away with forums altogether, but I’m not ready to give up.

I wonder what would happen if I could require students to disagree? I’ve done the bait and switch assignment where they have to state a claim and then write the opposite point of view. But what if I could create a culture of civil disagreement in the forums? Maybe I can get my students to start fighting by tweaking my forum prompts and by changing the way it is evaluated–or maybe I need to assign people to respond to others specifically.

In some of my classes and writing communities, we’ve recently been discussing how constrictions are helpful for writers, because they help us fight against the paralysis of possibilities. When someone disagrees with us, and we need to collaborate with them on a project, we have to get creative to move forward together, and that’s one kind of constriction–an opposing view is often the best way to test someone’s ideas and convictions. Now, all I have to do is figure out how to get my students to fight with each other in the most constructive fashion. I’ll noodle on what to do some more, and if you disagree with me, hey, leave a comment and we can talk.

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