The Debate Assignment
Sociology 130, Fall, 2009

Updated August 16, 2009

Debates in Sociology 130 are an opportunity for students to take charge of an important topic related to medical sociology and ethics, both in researching and preparing the presentation and, as audience members, asking questions and fostering active discussion.  Since we take six or seven class periods to have this experience, it is important to use the time well so that the topic is taught in a way that is well informed, accurate, and that relates to background abstract issues drawn from sociology generally as well as from philosophy and other areas related to medical ethics.

The central learning lesson related to writing in this class has to do with understanding what an argument is, how to make an argument effectively, how an argument is different from an opinion, and how arguments can be broken down into important subarguments on both sides of a topic.  Short papers over the course of the semester are meant as exercises in which you practice making arguments in preparation for your debates.  In preparing your debate materials take a look at the sheet that tells how to write the short writing papers over the course of the semester.  The same writing ideas apply.

An important part of your debate is to be effective in public speaking.  This is a skill that is specifically mentioned in Bucknell’s Common Learning Agenda as a skill students should develop during their time at this institution.  Although we will not spend much time talking about how to make your oral presentation effective, how you present your case will have a strong impact on your debate.  You may use audio-visual aids, signs, or other dramatic techniques that will allow you to make your case more effectively.  If you use video it may eat into presentation time and it usually is a good idea to treat this as background information you can develop jointly with the other team.

One of the points I grade on is the fluidity, cogency, and effectiveness of your oral presentation.  Realistically, also, when the class votes on who wins and who loses the debate, teams that make the most effective presentations from a theatrical standpoint are going to have an advantage.  Take presentation seriously!

The format of the debate is that the pro side and then the con side will each make a five-minute opening statement.  There will follow a question and answer period lasting about twenty-five minutes.  This is followed by a five-minute closing statement from the pro side and a five-minute closing statement for the con side.  The class will then vote on which team won the debate.  The survey we took at the beginning of the semester will provide me with reading of the balance of opinion in class and the number of votes required to win will be related to that survey vote. (Usually it’s the number of votes for the least popular side plus about 3 who must be won over, so the winning number is slightly more than the number of votes cast for the less popular position).

It is important to give all members of your team a chance to show their knowledge and their ability to perform.  This participation is easiest to grade if each person is given one of the three roles.  Realistically, some team members are going to be better informed, more articulate, or more practiced at public speaking than others.  If all members of the team participate in all three parts of the debate, the strongest personalities tend to dominate and this works to the disadvantage of quieter people or people with less background knowledge on the subject.  Make sure everyone has a chance to prepare for their presentation and to do a great job!

It is important to incorporate perspectives from social theory and philosophy into your debate presentation.  All of the topics have aspects that can be developed in terms of broader intellectual themes, and you will do a better job of teaching the class if you draw on these.  Conversely, each topic can be addressed in a narrow and literal way.  This gives you less resource material to draw on, makes your topic more boring, and gives students in the audience fewer ideas upon which to base questions.  Good questions make for good debates!

There are two main ways to bring “theory” into your debate. 

One is to treat your issue and its subparts as examples of broader social concerns.  For example, one master theme that hits many topics is whether individuals should have the right to control their bodies, to have privacy about their medical conditions, and to choose the mode of care they receive.  This often is juxtaposed to a notion that the state should play a role in protecting life and protecting the weak on the other and also exercising social control over deviant or undesirable behaviors.  Presenting your topic as a specific instance of a general discussion or argument will enrich your presentation.

A second way of introducing theory is to see and draw upon analogous issues to the one you are presenting or defending.  For some topics you will find that there is little written on your specific position but lots written on one that is analogous.  So there is little written to support the position that roommates should know each others’ HIV status.  There is a lot written about athletes’ obligation to make their HIV status known.  Look for analogous issues where insights and arguments can give you stronger positions for your topic.

Your debate performance counts for 10% of your grade and the paper you write counts for another 20%.  They are important!  They are not the same thing.  If you simply read a paper that you turn in later your grade will be lower than if you treat them as separate opportunities to explain your topic and express your arguments.