By William Buchhorn
For the last few semesters, I’ve been doing a “Rogerian Seminar” in my comp 2 classes over the issue of Gun Control and I’ve had great success with this strategy so I’ll give everyone a quick write up.
A “Rogerian Seminar” works something like a “Socratic Seminar.” If you haven’t studied that in the Avid book, you should probably do so because I’m going to assume you have a basic knowledge of it and move on. But even if you don’t, that’s OK since my seminars are a little bit different than the Socratic model because they tie in with a unit we do about the theories of Carl Rogers, who defines “argument” much differently than it’s traditionally defined.
Traditionally, according to the strategies laid down over the last 2500 years (these go back to Aristotle himself), the goal of any “argument” about a topic of concern to a culture is to “persuade” your audience to understand that your ideas about an issue are better than the opponent’s ideas. In a traditional argument, people choose sides in a debate and then duke it out until one side “wins” by “defeating” the other. In the 1950s, a psychologist named Carl Rogers, decided that this old model wasn’t really that useful in most debates. Rogers did a lot of work with “family therapy” and “couple’s counseling” and brought some of the techniques of that setting to a discussion of argument. In a “Rogerian argument” one doesn’t seek to “win” the debate but only to “have a conversation” and “move the issue forward” instead of getting 100% of what you want. Instead of treating the opponent like the “enemy,” we have to learn to treat them like “colleagues” who are working to advance the issue too. Instead of “hating” those we disagree with and “fighting” with them, Carl Rogers would have us try “listening to each other” and trying to find “common ground” so we can maybe work out a “compromise.”
So as a way to practice this concept and not just study it abstractly, we do a unit in my class where we first learn all about Rogers and his ideas then we learn all about another issue (I’ve been doing gun control for the last several semesters, but any issue would work), then we try having a Rogerian conversation about the issue.
We take at least a week (sometimes more) to “master” the complexities of the issue. Students in my class do readings from their textbook about the issue then go onto the Opposing Viewpoints database to learn more and I make sure that they have a working understanding of “both sides of the debate” before we proceed to the conversation.
But one day, when I feel that they’ve done enough work to understand the issue’s complexity, I begin the class by randomly dividing them into groups labeled “pro” and “con.” I generally write the letters “P” and “C” on notecards then go around the room and have everyone pick a card and whatever card they get determines which side of the debate they will be on for the remainder of the exercise. The first time I did this, I was quite nervous since I’m deciding for a student which side of the issue she or he will be on and I knew that I’d have some students who were assigned differently from their natural inclinations, but after I did this once I learned that this is actually quite a “freeing” technique because it takes away all the urge to conform to any perceived cultural norm in response (with some issues, I’m pretty sure that if I were to ask my students to pick their sides, everyone in the class would, unfortunately, pick the same side—and if anyone did have a different idea, they’d probably feel pressured to conform and cave to that pressure pretty quickly since many of my students have not yet developed the intellectual strength to have the “courage of their convictions”).
Students who select “pro” are told that they must approach the discussion from the side of someone who is “for gun control.” Students who select “con” must approach the issue from those who believe in fewer / no restrictions. I talk them through how hard it is to put aside one’s own feelings, but I require them to do so for the duration of the exercise. That’s our first “rule”: Keep your own ideas to yourself for the duration of this exercise and put your energy into representing the side of the debate assigned.
After they select cards and I group them up (I generally do 2 groups of pro and 2 groups of con), I put a scenario on the board, a question for them to consider, like “should we require teachers to be armed in order to defend their students?” and then I give them a few minutes to discuss among themselves what they think about the issue and to come up with talking points they can use in the debate that will follow.
Now we get into the actual discussion.
The rule is that for each question, we will take turns speaking and just have a conversation about the issue. But it will be a structured conversation where everyone gets a chance to speak and, more importantly, to be heard.
According to Carl Rogers, when people are having a discussion about an issue, they have to be able to actually hear each other speak and not just wait out the other person until it’s time to say whatever they were itching to say while their colleague was speaking. So if a group is on the receiving end of the conversation, their task is to listen closely because they are going to have to demonstrate that they heard the other group before they get a chance to offer their own ideas. So our second rule is “If you are on the receiving side of the conversation, listen intently (you can take notes), because you are going to have to demonstrate that you heard the other group’s ideas before you get a chance to speak.”
So once they’ve had a few minutes to think through the scenario presented to them and come up with some ideas, I select a student at random (using an app on my iPad) and that student’s group will get to speak first in the current round and another group will get a chance to listen then respond. After the first group speaks, the second group must repeat back to the first group’s satisfaction (generally signaled by a “thumbs up” / “thumbs down” gesture) before offering their counter ideas. And when it’s group 2’s turn to speak, group 1 will have to listen and then repeat back.
For each question, I generally have 2 passes of back and forth conversation. Group 1 speaks while group 2 listens. Group 2 repeats what they’ve heard back to group 1 and gets approval to proceed. Then group 2 speaks while group 1 listens. Then group 1 repeats back and gets approval before adding some countering ideas to the conversation to “further the discussion.” And finally, group 2 repeats back then gets to have the final word in this round of debate.
I find that 4 turns really is enough for each of the questions I pose to my students. And I only usually do a few questions, just enough to give everyone a chance to practice, so if I have a small class, one small enough that I only have two groups, I might do two rounds of questions, first an easy question then a harder one, and have the two groups talk to each other for two rounds (or 8 back and forth passes of the question). I find that less is more with this exercise.
After we are done with each “round” I remind the students that we aren’t really trying to solve anything, just to have a conversation. And when we are all done, I always have the students give themselves a round of applause for the work they’ve done and for being willing to have a civil discussion about a controversial issue.
Then I have them go back to their own spots in the classroom and write up a reflection about the activity: how it made them feel / what they learned / how hard was it to keep their own ideas to themselves and represent the side assigned / was this a valuable exercise or a bad idea for a class activity / etc.
This is a really good exercise in my classes. I generally only do it once a semester since we have so much else to do and we only cover Rogers for a short time before going back to the traditional model of argument, but I think the students always get a lot out of this exercise. Sure, I get a few people who tell me on their reflection that this was stupid, but I also get many students who learn to either try out a perspective different from their own natural inclination or who learn to listen carefully to another person before speaking and most students do enjoy just being able to have a civil discussion about issues like this instead of the shouting matches that generally happen whenever contentious issues come up in other settings in our culture.