The ancient question of what topics are appropriate for students to speak about, debate about, or write about is evergreen. I think about this at the end and start of every teaching term.
I see several approaches to this question that are well-warranted. It doesn’t mean that I agree with any of them though!
The Word Bank Model
Remember being in primary school and sometimes you’d have a test or exam that would feature a “word bank?” You were meant to take the words from the random collection in a box and use them to complete the test questions. It really helped a lot if you were stuck, and probably forwarded an idea of learning relationships and meanings rather than rote memorization.
The Word Bank Model as an answer to this question is when the instructor selects the potential topic areas, and the student selects from these areas in order to complete the technical or structural requirements for the assigment.
For example, in public speaking it’s quite popular to assign something like a “policy speech.” This assignment requires the student to propose and persuade an “audience” that a particular policy should be adopted or should be chosen over some set of competing policies either in place or in consideration.
An instructor might write, “Select one of the following policies: The Green New Deal, Medicare for All, Tuition-Free Higher Education, Assault Weapons or handgun ban. . .” etc.
That was a very American list wasn’t it? The point though is that the typical instructor should draw on things that are circulating, current and happening right then in the society so the students have ample discourse to root around in, embrace, and explore on these issues.
Most instructors might not feel comfortable wtih not “knowing the right answer” to some of these policy questions, but that’s ok – we are teachers of persuasion and rhetoric, not facts and truth. Instructor discomfort with such suggested topics is more indicative of instructors feeling like they are losing their classroom authority (read: authoritarianism) by not being able to definitively say what the right answer is on these questions.
The downfall of this model (there are many) is that the instructor is often only educated on controversial issues by the mass media (CNN, NBC, etc.) and does not have a grasp on the nuance or depth of these controversies, nor how to access the deeper arguments on these questions.
An invitation to a research librarian to assist the class on curating resources for these topics is definitely in order, as well as a strict ban on mass-market news sources as more than 20% of the cited sources in the presentation.
Controversy is the Source of the Topic
Even less control over the topics comes from the instructor choosing to teach the structure and habits of controversy itself rather than a particualr issue. The students are charged with finding a topic that meets the standards and definition of controversy that was defined in the classroom.
Whenever a controversy is brought up, research should be conducted by the students or participants as to what’s out there on it. This can be as broad or narrow as you want. For example, the vaccine controversy is not going to go very far as a topic for debate if you restrict it only to the scientific literature. If you expand the notion of what’s out there to include the mom bloggers and the religious folks, as well as the clean lifestyle folks, you have a debate there that becomes more about what evidence is good and appropriate, not the relatively thin and uninteresting question of “what’s the real evidence?”
Letting the controversy decide is a great way to show us how language pushes us around into the identities and positions that it wants us to hold as well. Being moved by an argument that goes completely against classroom standards of a “good source” is an experience that should be talked about as a normal part of education. Too often we get the articulation that only “stupid people” (whoever they are) will believe a position, and those on the right side of the issue understand the “facts” and “evidence.” These are all, in the end, preferred ways to understand the world and the controversy will, as it pulses along, give credibility to various positions that those opposite will be stunned by. This is what it means to argue – to be baffled by what counts in the words and meanings of your opponents.
This should also point out that those who support calls for “evidence-based debate” are not offering anything to rhetorical or debate education except a retread of a tire that just shouldn’t be driven on. Of course debate requires evidence – that’s not the controversy. It’s what counts as evidence that should be explored precisely because it moves from context to audience to situation. Contemporary debate coaches who make this appeal are simply guilty of equivocation.
The Quality Source or Professional Niche Approach
One of the defenses of teaching public speaking or debate is that it is a professional skill set that aids people in working on professionalizing. So why not have students select a controversy or disagreement from their major field and speak or debate about that?
This allows instructors to assign work for reading that might be off-base for the story they are trying to tell about their field or the topic of the course, but allows the students to discuss the differences between various publications, practicing using the thought processes, practices, terms, and culture of the field.
Such debates in class are also the heart of the model of undergraduate research, something every administrator pushes and pushes without much of a concept of what that really looks like. I had an undergraduate student who did some research for a professor that primarily involved buying him a yogurt and a banana every day from the cafeteria. Why a symbolic appointment when you can have the symbol and the work for everyone during class? Opting in shouldn’t be the model for the most important bits of education. This extends to the model of the contemporary debate team as well. If debate is such an important way to learn, why limit it to those who the coach thinks are “good,” whatever that means?
Good Citizens Can Advocate
It seems like the controversy driven model, but this model is one where larger questions about the normative, ethical, or valuable tasks or perspective on things like social issues, governance, or culture are explored. Instead of “Should we withdraw our troops from this or that place,” the topic becomes “Should governments have a standing army?”
This is a much more philosophical approach at first glance, but I’d hesitate to say that. Instead, think of this as an accounting exercise for the students where they are asked – possibly for the first time in their lives – to provide a detailed accounting for the principles of the right or the good they rely on as citizens. These are the hidden and unarticualted principles of the good they rely on for all political choices and decisions. And now we have a chance to make them plain; to investigate and examine whether they make sense when articulated socially.
Students can bring up controversies which the instructor then treats as the begged question, i.e. “What prior question must be answered before we can address this question?” Here’s an example from an assignment where I turned my whole public speaking class into a big debate
New York City should be a sanctuary city (this means that the city authorities will not cooperate with the Federal immigration authorities on any requests to detain possible undocumented people).
So the begged question is: What is the appropriate relationship between the local and national government? Or: What is the appropriate relationship governments should have to people?
You can of course derive other ones, but you can see that hidden within an answer to the sanctuary city topic there is this larger assumption there that the entire meaning of the argument or position rests on (Toulmin would call this backing for those of you still gnawing on that old chestnut – it’s December so chestnuts are the appropriate metaphor).
The practice of being a citizen should be connected to the idea that expressing your view on issues based on your own experiences is normal and welcome. It is also normal and welcome to listen to the views of others who live in your polis, whatever that might be defined as. And it’s normal and welcome to change your mind, several times, as you incorporate the lived experience and beliefs of those who share that space.
How do we encourage and get argument innovation? By allowing students huge amounts of latitude in how they articulate connections between their own experience and what they hear and read in courses. We should not be choosing topics for courses or limiting what can be said; this is the true heart of academic free expression. The ability to express ideas freely is to show one’s work, and if you are not permitting students to do this regularly within courses, you are not teaching.