Small tasks equip students for civil discourse (opinion)

What does books do? That question frames the banned books course I began offering in 2019, which I have taught three times. I offered it as a general education literature course; it also serves as an elective for the English major or minor. My aim was to entice nonhumanities majors and reluctant readers through a contemporary, controversy-driven topic that would make literary analysis and information literacy fresh.

I did not have to argue for relevance: a controversy about a book in my local school district preceded the first week of the 2019 class. The subsequent offerings in spring 2021 and fall 2021, which I write about below, happened in the context of Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ decision to stop publishing six Seuss books over their depiction of racial and ethnic stereotypes—which resulted in false claims of “banning” and sky-is-falling allegations—and a massive uptick in book challenges and bans, many of which focus on racial or LGBTQ+ themes and/or difficult truths such as those illustrated in Art Spiegelman’s Mouse.

As one student put it in response to my class’s framing question of what books do, books “increase … awareness of different perspectives.” A book can, in another’s words, “serve as a catalyst.” Another wrote, “books challenge the pre-existing perceptions of readers… [and] lead to conversations that would otherwise never occur.” As the Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen, recently phrased it in an opinion piece for The New York Timesthe struggle over banned books is really about “what a child, a reader and a society are allowed to think, to know and to question”—actions that necessarily require respectful dialogue, intellectual engagement and nuance.

Students in my class reach their conclusions about what books do at the end of the semester, after they have prepared for and completed a role-play simulation that I adapted from Burke Scarbrough, Ben Pieper and Hayley Vetsch’s 2018 English Journal article, “Engaging Banned and Challenged Books Through Role-Play Simulation.” In my class simulation, students participate in a scenario in which Angie Thomas’s oft-challenged novel The Hate U Give has replaced a more classic novel (in the fall 2021 class, I specified the classic novel was Beloved, which the class also read and which was facing renewedscrutiny). Students become characters, based on profiles I provide (eg, a teacher, a police officer, a parent concerned about trauma), and serve on an imagined committee that has to decide whether to keep or remove The Hate U Give. Students use examples from the novel, as well as research that informs their character’s perspectives and enhances their arguments, to advocate for their position.

Student reflections affirm that they are thinking more critically about what books do, as well as underscore both the validity of role-playing as pedagogically valuable and reading as means of developing empathy. I want to focus, however, on how their reflections provide key insights into how our college students understand conflict, civil engagement and critical thinking. Further, I will focus on what their reflections suggest about how instructors can empower them to engage meaningfully in civil discourse through modeling and practice. The main takeaway is that small tasks are as important as the large assignments.

Student reflections in response to the question of what they found most surprising or intriguing about the role-play simulation indicate that they have little experience observing or participating in “civil” discourse. In the two classes I am drawing student writing from—having received permission from students and approval from my college’s Human Subjects Committee—students expressed surprise about how civil and polite everyone was, even when disagreeing with one another. “There was no instance where someone degraded another person,” one student wrote. The “tone,” wrote another student, was “non-confrontational.”

Given that students feel insecure expressing their viewpoints (and therefore are less likely to hear other perspectives), and that the echo chamber of like-mind opinions does little to expand horizons, student intrigue over diverse character viewpoints should not have at first puzzled me. Some were shocked that people could hold the same view about a book for different reasons, or that the same book could be helpful or “detrimental to some but not all sides.” These reactions also suggest limited interactions with people from various backgrounds. One student, for example, said that our books had introduced them to problems “in different areas of the country.”

Nuance and, relatedly, perspective, provided the magic for the final component that most surprised students—compromise. The second round of debate in my fall 2021 class was most stunning. The discussion evolved organically, as characters on opposing sides of the issue actively sought consensus regarding The Hate U Give. The characters found a way to include the book without, as one student explained, “excluding or forcing students to read the book.” Students were surprised at the “middle ground.” One wrote, “I did not expect anyone to try to find the gray area between the two sides.” Or, as another put it more starkly, it was shocking because “people with different viewpoints usually do not want to compromise on problems.”

Students in both sections expressed the power of truly listening. One noted that although they still generally dismissed the idea of ​​book banning, they had a fuller understanding of the motivations. Another wrote that she found herself changing her stance during the simulation. Finally, one admitted, “Normally I am a pretty one-sided person when it comes to opinions.” He concluded, “After this class I learned that I need to listen and realize where other people are coming from.”

A Reason for Hope

Students’ responses to what surprises them highlights the paucity of role models and examples they have regarding intellectual, evidence-based, truly civil discourse—and implies a hunger to participate in controversial discussions in meaningful ways. Their answers to the questions of what they found most helpful as preparation for the role-play simulation suggest small ways that instructors can encourage them, no matter what the class or assignment. They reminded me how small tasks can have big impact on emotional as well as intellectual well-being.

Although students did not name COVID-19 in their reflections, their feedback indicates that the isolation and physical distancing of the last two years have deprived students of opportunities to develop foundational classroom skills. The assignments that students found most helpful in preparing for the simulation were in-class discussions and low-stakes opportunities that developed participation skills or that equipped them for the unknown. One student appreciated a midterm project that asked the class to research a banned kids’ book and read it out loud to the class, because it prepared him to speak in front of others. Another commented that Zoom breakout discussions and fishbowl activities helped her “get comfortable talking to everyone in class” and made her less nervous for the final discussion. Another said that the discussions helped them “get used to talking out loud to other groups.” This was something I duck holding through “toss the” activities that required the person a rubber ducky to share their perspective.

In addition to making students feel more comfortable speaking publicly, “toss the duck” discussions and related activities introduced rhetorical skills to encourage thoughtful intellectual engagement. Midway through the semester, I mini-lectured and led class discussions over using transitions (“although,” “while,” etc.) as rhetorical strategies and ways of engaging the ideas of others. The class practiced with difficult large-group conversations. They would pull a slip of paper out of a mug and follow instructions to “summarize the gist of the conversation and redirect” or “provide evidence that builds on the previous idea” when the duck flew their way. In addition to familiarizing them with argumentative strategies, they gained experiences in understanding other points of view.

A student concluded that the simulation assignment “gave the impression that it may be possible for real-life discussions between optposing groups to go smoothly” when logic drives them. In other words, she saw potential—a reason for hope. My students’ engagement has given me that same hope, while their reflections on the small (and sometimes silly) activities has reminded me that those, too, are meaningful—and especially important as we model, and then equip, them to be critical thinkers , problem solvers and engaged citizens in a nuanced world.

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