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Students understand many of the basic principles of argument; they usually know when someone makes a persuasive case (during a conversation, say), and usually they know when someone’s case is weak (to put it crudely: they know when to call “BS!” on someone). They don’t usually think of these instincts as applicable to academic discourse. For this exercise, then, you will stage academic argument as a debate, which is a genre that even writing-phobic students often jump into with gusto. Divide the class into groups and then pose at least two broad, genuinely open questions about the work you’re reading in class (for instance, “Is Huckleberry Finn a racist novel?”).
Assign pairs of groups to debate each question, with one group arguing each side of the debate. Give each group fifteen minutes to prepare their “case” for the debate. Instruct each group to nominate a speaker. At the end of their time, groups must present their case in turn. The groups working on the other question(s) will vote to determine the debate “winner.” If you have time, you could also have a second round, giving each group five minutes to prepare rebuttals after each group has presented their initial arguments.
Finally, follow up on these debates by asking students to identify the parts of academic argument within the points they made during the debate. What claims did they make? What subclaims? What kinds of evidence did they use to support their claims? Did they respond to their opponents’ points or ignore them?