John Powers ’26 is a Public Policy major hailing from Brooklyn, N.Y. He is a Resident Assistant in Hardy Hall, a member of the Undergraduate Moot Court competition team and a member of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. John is a huge Adele fan. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
When I signed up to take Philosophy 215: Right and Wrong in the Contemporary World, I expected to be assigned dull readings and have to churn out copious amounts of writing. I anticipated the all-too-familiar rush of frantically submitting long papers right before the deadline. Well, the end of the semester is approaching fast, and I’ve only written three paragraphs in this entire class. So, what exactly is going on here?
I don’t have a term paper due at the end of the semester, nor have I skipped assignments. As it turns out, the class is intentionally structured this way. Half of our grade comes from two exams and in-class participation. The other half: two debates. Almost every class consists of a thirty-minute debate on a particular moral issue between two teams of two followed by a short lecture. Audience members are encouraged to participate in cross-examination rounds and a group discussion at the end.
I’ll be honest, I was considering dropping the class before the start of the semester, but the debate format piqued my interest. I am the first to admit that I am biased because I relish the opportunity for public speaking and have been to five college debate competitions. However, there are real benefits to using this format in classes beyond allowing debate amateurs like myself to polish our skills.
Most humanities classes require written assignments because they demonstrate a student’s understanding of class topics. Essays are a way to show the instructor the student’s breadth of knowledge, their ability to defend claims and the quality of their reasoning. Teaching students how to write convincingly, clearly and concisely should be a key goal of higher education. Not only are these skills needed for graduate education, but they are also needed in the workplace.
Public speaking is important too. If a health economist is able to write research papers on Medicaid expansion but unable to communicate their findings with others adequately, they are limiting the real-world impact of their expertise. Effective public speaking is a vital tool that ensures the dissemination of knowledge to diverse audiences, not just other experts. By placing little-to-no focus on public speaking, we risk producing smart, but not well-rounded graduates. That is especially true at the College of William and Mary, where it is exceedingly difficult to enroll in a public speaking class. Beyond that, the only other opportunities are in clubs and organizations, which not everyone has time for.
Alternatively, in-class debates are a great way to develop public speaking skills. They allow students to hone their ability to articulate ideas clearly and persuasively in a dynamic, real-time setting. If you frequent the Opinions section of The Flat Hat, you know my skepticism of ChatGPT. Debates are certainly a way to discourage us from mindlessly regurgitating arguments using artificial intelligence. Debates encourage students to think on their feet; even if you did write a speech with AI, cross-examination questions force you to think for yourself.
It’s worth noting that AI can be embraced within the debate format as well. It might be really interesting to have a human team debate against ChatGPT in real time.
Furthermore, debates have the benefit of breaking echo chambers. I had to defend the abolition of legal punishment in the United States last week. While I don’t agree with this view, crafting clever arguments and presenting them to my peers allowed me to ponder deeper the ways that we could reform our justice system. Breaking echo chambers encourages intellectual diversity within the academic setting. They prompt students to consider alternative viewpoints, cultivating a spirit of open-mindedness and critical thinking.
Debates can also promote civility in a time when it feels like disagreement on important political issues is the end of the world. They allow us to practice hearing points of view with which we disagree and finding ways to respond to them thoughtfully and respectfully.
In this way, in-class debates promote a free speech culture which is too often tarnished on American college campuses. With typical class participation, the discussion of unpopular ideas might be hampered if the professor does not play devil’s advocate. Students with these views might be afraid to express them for fear of being shunned. Debates are a way to avoid these fears since everyone at some point will have to grapple with an unpopular point of view.
Some professors might be pressured to not incorporate disagreeable viewpoints into their curriculum for fear of student protest. By framing contentious issues within the context of a debate, instructors can present diverse perspectives without endorsing any particular viewpoint.
By now, you might be thinking why typical participation in class is not sufficient to meet these goals. Participation is important, but debates provide unique benefits. In many classes, just a few students often monopolize class time to answer questions and provide thoughts. Some professors navigate this scenario by calling on more vocal students less, but in many circumstances, many students do not voluntarily participate in class. Debates are a way to open the floor to everyone, not just over-achievers.
Of course, this format will not work in every class. Large introductory classes and many STEM classes are probably not a good fit since the nature of the content often leans towards factual and objective information, leaving less room for the nuanced and subjective arguments that thrive in a debate setting.
It is important to acknowledge the logistical problems debates might create as well. For example, in PHIL 215, it took awhile to create team pairings, and the schedule might get thrown off if someone is absent from class on the day they’re supposed to debate. Debates also frequently deviate from the allotted time, posing challenges to maintaining a structured class schedule and ensuring that all planned topics receive sufficient attention within the course timeline.
However, many classes are actually a good fit for the debate format. 83% of classes at the College have fewer than 40 students. All freshmen take COLL 100 classes, which are designed to involve assignments that “go beyond writing.” What better way to achieve this goal than with a debate? With the right planning, logistical hurdles can be avoided. Software solutions can pair partners together, and professors can deter absenteeism by implementing stricter class policies. To enhance flexibility, scheduling a team for a specific week, instead of a particular day, could be considered.
From fiery arguments about the morality of abortion to spirited discussion of prison abolition, in-class debates in PHIL 215 have truly enhanced my learning experience, and I suspect the same applies to others as well. More professors at the College should consider using a debate format in their classes.