Let me first start off by saying this…I have been extremely fortunate throughout my teaching career at University of Wisconsin-Madison. My students have been bright, thoughtful, articulate, and engaged. UW is an outstanding public institution, and it owes much of its greatness to its students. (And the J-School has a big horn to toot as well.)
That being said, this semester I’ve started to notice a troubling trend. In the course I teach, students are required to present speeches on assigned readings. After each speech, I would call on other students to give impromptu responses to these speeches. Overall, my students have done a nice job with this assignment.
But after a while I started to notice something. Many of the speeches, and most of the responses, included some variation of the following phrase: “I completely agree with everything you/he/she/the author said.” The first time I heard this, I didn’t think much of it. After it popped up a few more times, I was somewhat confused. And then it became a cliche. And I became concerned.
It’s one thing to agree, but to “completely agree” with “everything” someone said? Surely, there was something you disagreed with. Surely, your experiences and values provide you with a new angle that hasn’t yet been considered. While I’m happy to play devil’s advocate in class, I’m more concerned about the possibility that my students tend toward complete agreement in their daily lives.
Now, I don’t want to sound like an old curmudgeon who doesn’t understand “kids these days.” When I was a young undergraduate, I thought much the same way. Fresh out of high school, I was familiar with reading textbooks, encyclopedias, dictionaries, etc. That’s where information was found. It was my job to consume it, became a better person for it, and then move on to the next chunk of information. So when I was assigned a reading in class, I assumed it was because what the author had to say was “right.” Why else would the professor assign it?
A few years ago, I ended up with an examination copy of a textbook called Everything’s an Argument. While I don’t think I will ever teach a class where I will use it, I love the concept. It makes claims like “People walk, talk, and breathe persuasion very much as they breathe the air: everything is a potential argument” (p. v) and advises its readers to “Take no claim at face value, examine all evidence thoroughly, and study the implications of your own and others’ beliefs” (p. 24).
Now, I think most students understand argumentation. They know how to write a thesis and how to provide relevant information as evidence. But I think they need to recognize they are surrounded by persuasion in varying forms and degrees, and they need to learn to be more skeptical of these arguments.
All this points to a need for greater media literacy. For one, learning to critically disagree with media content is particularly important considering the tremendous growth in partisan media in the U.S. At the same time, traditional forms of “objective” media are also born out of competing agendas and individual persuasions. And as proponents of critical media literacy argue, industry biases and routines continually shape media content. Media critics like Jack Shafer routinely show us it’s both OK and valuable to disagree with “traditional” media. Students need to recognize that.
From a teaching standpoint, I’ve been thinking about new assignments that could help encourage critical disagreement. One idea is to require students to write rebuttals to course readings. In the rebuttals, students would need to identify the author’s core argument, assess the evidence offered, and provide a well supported counterargument.
Another idea would be to get students to disagree with me. I’ve known professors who present course lectures as structured arguments. I could offer several of these over the course of the semester and require students to turn in written counterarguments where they challenge my claims and evidence and then incorporate outside research and original examples to support their positions.
Critical disagreement is an invaluable tool for surviving college, let alone life. Students need to learn this early on if they are to grow into critically engaged producers and consumers of media.
Then again, maybe my students were lazily picking up on a course catchphrase, and I am overreacting. Maybe I’m following the same faulty logic as bogus trend stories.
Maybe you disagree with all or some of what I’ve said. In fact, I hope you do.