Preposition Proposition

One of the greatest advantages one has as a teacher of debating is that you get to work with students at strange times in strange places and under weird conditions. You are also free of those overpowered structures of degree credits, grades, assignments, and classroom authority (which professors are way too obsessed with these days I think - why not let the students run the class once in a while? or often? they are overpaying for what's being offered anyway).

Professors where I teach spend a lot of time talking about the students. The style they most generally employ I have named Cynical Pedagogy - it's identifiable in its sarcastic tone when suggesting an interesting assignment or a normative demand on what to offer to the students, then it's followed by laughter and a description of the nightmare that would appear if such an assignment was offered. The key to the discourse, I think, is that it is always about the students. This is the center of the discourse, it is what structures it and drives it forward, giving it life all its own. And it's hard to resist - most metrics at the university point out that students are the fuel for the departmental budget. Students are what keep things moving. Students are what we both serve and make at the university. We depend on them to give back later as well, once they are set in their careers.

But debate teaching is not like this. When a topic comes out, a student might know more about it than the teacher. Likewise, and much more frequently, is that nobody knows much about it at all. We come together over ideas. Nobody is in charge, just the demand for good arguments that lead judges to a decision so we can win the debate. Thinking together is the only way that can be accomplished.

We can improve the lot of university pedagogy by switching this one preposition around - instead of thinking about students, start thinking with students. It seems simple, and it is. But it asks professors to give up some long held assumptions about their power, their role, and the nature of the subjects before us in the classroom that we call "students."

Debate done well should place all participants on a level of equality. This is most forcefully advocated by professor William Hawley Davis in 1916 when he argues that debate works best when it maintains verisimilitude to the external world. In most problem-posing situations in daily life, nobody knows the proper course of action, but beliefs are plentiful. Debate shows us what to do and how to act when we are faced with such a situation. We must think together, not about one another. 

Students in a classroom are very often thought about. What do they need? What can I do for them? What can they handle? What is it that they are going to try to do to get out of this paper/test/assignment? There are no questions that appear these days that don't associate to the preposition "about."

Alternatively, think like a debate teacher.  What does this topic mean? What can we say about it? What are the best sources? What are the controversies here? - all of these questions require posing to the students - they require "with" in order to work. I cannot answer these on my own, because I don't know. Argument is a collective activity, as we know from Perelman and Olbrects-Tyteca. We cannot argue unless we are with. 

Assign reading that is new to you as well as to the students. If you assign writing, do it with them. If you design a test, think about how the test can assist the student, instead of figuring out what they are about. When they offer interpretations in the classroom, try the Peter Elbow suggestion of playing the believing game with them, rather than finding what's wrong with it. Considering the students as with you in the class, instead of what the class is about, will help the experience become better for the professor and the student. Colleagues, not creations. Students arrive in courses fully formed, not lacking. Professors do too. Focusing on being with allows all participants the chance to contribute to something greater than what the total of the classroom provides. Planning a course about the students' needs encourages a construction of students that is lacking, incomplete, and needy. And the attitude of the professor will also come off that way. Nobody wants to be receptive to someone like this.

I suggest that we start thinking with students rather than about them. We can make them allies and colleagues, or we can make them products and representatives of what our collegiate brand is. The latter is what our collective discourse suggests to us that we should be up to. Perhaps something as simple as a change in grammar can change our motives and our actions - and eventually our classroom culture.