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Agonistic Debate on a Course Blog

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Wikipedia Commons

Brief Assignment Overview: 

Students break up into two groups to engage in agonistic debate regarding an issue in an assigned reading in the course. One group offers a critique of the ideas in the text in a brief written critique posted on a course blog, then the second group formulates a response also posted on the blog, followed by a reply by the first group and an oral debate to finish the assignment and debrief.

Type of Assignment: 
Assignment Length: 
Pedagogical Goals - Digital Literacy: 
Additional Pedagogical Goals: 

The goals of the assignment are to practice written agonistic debate for purposes of discussing forensic debate, particularly the form most commonly found in legal disputes. The assignment is also designed to teach principles of online writing in dispute resolution contexts.

Required Materials: 

In-class computers with internet access and a course blog.

Timeline for Optimal Use: 
Full Assignment Description: 

The assignment requires students to engage in agonistic debate regarding an issue in an assigned reading in the course through both written and oral forms of debate. This facilitates discussion of rhetorical strategies for each for of discourse as well as how they often intersect, while also furthering critical discussion of an assigned text. The assignment is particularly useful for helping students understand the time management and emotional considerations involved in agonistic dispute resolution, particularly the form most commonly found in legal disputes.

Suggestions for Instructor Preparation: 

This assignment is best used after the text in question has already been discussed in at least one class period or at least after the students have been given a general introduction to the text in class. To begin the assignment, discuss the purposes of the assignment and the instructions with students. Have students log in to the classroom computers and to the course blog. After the students discuss and submit their blog posts, moderate the discussion in the order of the posts and discuss the challenges and tactics involved in written forensic debate as well as how the students experienced the debate, including a discussion of the emotional component typically involved in taking sides in a dispute. The assignment should ideally be completed in a single class period.

Instructions For Students: 

After breaking into groups, Group 1 will have 15 minutes to prepare 3-4 points of criticism of the ideas advanced in the text and post a brief description of the criticisms on the course blog. These may include rebuttals of the arguments advanced or important issues neglected or unanswered by the text. During this time, Group 2 should begin discussing potential points of criticism in an effort to anticipate Group 1's arguments and prepare possible responses. Once Group 1 submits its criticisms on the blog, the roles of the groups will be reversed as Group 2 prepares written responses to Group 1's cricitisms and Group 1 discusses potential points of rebuttal in an effort to anticipate them and prepare a reply. Group 2 will have 15 minutes to prepare its response and post it to the blog. After Group 2 submits its response, the roles will again switch and Group 1 will have 10 minutes to submit any desired reply. At the conclusion of this initial 40 minutes, the groups will orally debate the arguments posted to the blog and discuss how they experienced the debate.

Evaluation Suggestions: 

I've never graded this assignment. It's primarily designed to engage students in questions considered during the course and facilitate class discussion.

Notes on Reception, Execution, etc.: 

Students have enjoyed the assignment and it has led to critical and engaged discussion regarding key readings in the course.

Course Description: 

In his book On the Contrary, rhetoric scholar Thomas Sloane writes, ”Rhetorical thought is—let us admit it—highly perverse and lawyerly in nature.” In this statement, Sloane not only alludes to the closely intertwined history of rhetoric and law from the earliest days of Western thought to the modern era, but highlights the shared promotion by both of these fields of an agonistic “art of controversy” which seeks to facilitate controversy through the practice of arguing both sides of a case, a practice classical rhetoricians called in utramque partem (“on either side”). The principal theorists of classical Greek and Roman rhetoric promoted agonistic contests in which speakers argued opposite sides of disputed issues, often with specifically judicial contexts in mind, and the American legal system’s adversarial system of justice is founded on a contest of accusation and defense between parties in which each seeks to persuade a judge or jury of disputed issues on opposite sides of a case. 

Despite the close relationship between rhetoric and law, however, and the fact that the lawyer remains, in the words of legal scholar James Boyd White, “the modern rhetorician in its purest form,” the modern professionalization of law has frequently attempted to deny or repress the rhetorical aspects of legal discourse and the agonistic conflict on which the adversarial system of justice is founded. Instead, modern law has promoted a view of legal discourse as a value-neutral “science” based on logical deduction and immune to social and political influence. This paradoxical relationship between law and rhetoric in modern legal discourse has produced a recent revival of questions about modern law’s denial of rhetoric, including important questions about the role of character and emotion in legal argument, the role of narrative in the analysis of legal evidence, the effect of the adversarial system of justice on social cohesion and division, and the relationship of legal rhetoric to democracy, coercion, and violence.

We’ll study these questions by first examining the forms of argument used in the legal profession today, focusing on arguments regarding the interpretation of circumstantial evidence in legal cases and the analogical, or case-based, form of legal argument known as “legal reasoning” which is used to argue for or against the application of judicial precedent to new cases. Specifically, we’ll study arguments regarding the evidence in controversial trials such as the 1935 Richard Hauptmann (“Lindbergh Kidnapping”) trial, the 1982 Lindy Chamberlain (“Dingo”) trial, and the 1992 Randy Weaver (“Ruby Ridge”) trial, as well as arguments and judicial opinions in U.S. Supreme Court cases regarding the Fourth Amendment’s search and seizure clause and the minimum standards of effective legal advocacy found in the Sixth Amendment’s right to assistance of counsel. After examining the forms and purposes of legal rhetoric as it is actually employed in the legal profession, we’ll then consider contemporary critiques of the adversary system and the agonistic rhetoric on which it depends, including critiques implicit in public perceptions of the legal system and cultural representations of lawyers.

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