by Abigail Stepnitz, Legal Studies (Home Department: Jurisprudence and Social Policy)
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2018
We often ask students, either as part of a discussion or on an exam, to express an opinion on a complicated topic. What we’re hoping they’ll do is develop and defend a position based on close readings and synthesis of course materials, root critiques or arguments in the text, draw on meaningful examples or empirical data, and acknowledge alternative views. In my experience, however, when students hear or read these types of questions they often struggle to recognize that they’re being asked to engage in an analytical process, and instead think the question is asking for a personal opinion. In a contemporary moment in which increased attention is being paid to the tensions between ideology and evidence in making claims to truth and authority, teaching students to engage confidently in this process is essential. How do we at once show students that questioning and critiquing accepted scholarly forms of knowledge is a valuable pursuit, and that their voices are welcome in those conversations, whilst encouraging them to draw on those materials when defending their views? How do we teach them that lived experience is an undoubtedly valuable resource for insight into complex social issues, but caution them that only reflecting on personal beliefs can lead to myopic thinking?
One way I address this is to encourage students to think about writing an answer they don’t personally agree with—to write the “other” answer—as an exercise in honing their ability to craft an argument. In a recent Legal Studies section, we approached the question, “Was Brock Turner’s sentence just?” Students had expressed in class discussions a general sentiment that that it was not just: that six months in jail was not a punishment that suited the crime of sexual assault. Many argued that Turner benefitted from his personal and social privilege. Many students had strong views on the topic of sexual assault at a university, stating that these crimes are often treated leniently.
In section I acknowledged that many (though not all) students seemed inclined towards these views, but to prepare them for writing exam essays, I invited them to brainstorm what it would look like to argue that Turner’s sentence was just. I find that when students have to craft an answer with which they may not personally agree, they are more likely to turn to the text or other sources to find evidence, ideas, and arguments. They’re more likely to see argument crafting as an analytic exercise instead of an opportunity to argue for their intuition.
I did not ask or suggest that students change their views on the topic; rather I asked them to think about the way an argument other than the one that occurred to them first could be structured. Students were reluctant at first, and some suggested that such an answer was impossible to write. Eventually, however, some argued that too often the criminal legal system pursues vengeance, not rehabilitation, suggesting that Turner’s sentence perhaps reflected a more just alternative to the kinds of sentencing practices that fuel mass incarceration. Others suggested that because the judge was following accepted guidelines, the sentence was necessarily just, and that critiques, if needed, should be made of the system. In this process they drew on examples from the readings, and returned to quotes from the judge in the case to support their ideas. Having been a GSI for the same course two years in a row, I was well-situated to observe improvements to their exam essays. Superior argument-building skills were visible on the essays, and I noted increased engagement with the text. In fact, some students told me after the fact that they had decided to argue the “other” side because they knew they could do it well. It was clear to me that by gaining confidence with this process, students begin to view the class materials as resources on which to draw, to view themselves as engaging in conversation with the assigned authors, and to take greater ownership over the material in a way that allows them to integrate experience and argument.