Student-Led Debates as a Method of Teaching US Foreign Policy

Welcome to the latest Argentia Post. Since 2012, as regular readers may remember, we have been publishing commentaries on the teaching and learning of USFP.

To this end we are publishing a series of articles that focus on this key area. This week we have a piece by Dr Tom Mills from the University of Lancaster. We do hope you find it rewarding and would like to use this opportunity to solicit further material on this subject from our readership.

All the best, Argentia Editorial Team            

Student-Led Debates as a Method of Teaching US Foreign Policy

For the last few years I have taught a module on US foreign policy since 1945 to 3rd year undergraduate students at Lancaster University. At the outset of the module I seek to make clear to students that the events and processes that we discuss are the subject of widely different interpretations by scholars of US foreign policy. For example, I explain that there is no one agreed explanation as to why the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union broke out in the aftermath of World War II. Similarly, there are differing interpretations as to the dominance of the President in the making of US foreign policy throughout this period. One of the key aims of the module is to encourage students to critically engage with these different views and interpretations during seminars.

A common frustration that I have found when trying to get students to engage with differing interpretations of US foreign policy is their reluctance to state a preference for the validity of one interpretation over another. Typically, students are able to grasp that there are a number of possible interpretations for any one issue – and, indeed, articulate these differing views in an intelligent fashion. They are often unable, however, to understand that some of these differing interpretations are mutually exclusive and that a preference for one over another needs to be stated. For example, students might understand that there is one interpretation that credits the ending of the Cold War to Ronald Reagan’s intelligent and far-sighted diplomacy with Mikhail Gorbachev and another that sees Reagan as more of a hindrance to the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. They are reluctant, however, to state which of these views they agree with. This seems to me to impose an intrinsic limit on their understanding of US foreign policy, as without stating a preference for one interpretation over another they are failing to fully engage with the subject in a critical fashion. Some students, of course, are reluctant to actively engage in discussion of US foreign policy to any extent – a perennial problem in seminars.

Recently I have sought to overcome these problems by the use of student-led debates. In this format students are split into groups of roughly five, with two groups given predetermined motions to argue in favour of reflecting differing interpretations of a particular weeks’ topic. For example, in the week discussing Obama’s foreign policy, one group was given the following motion: ‘Obama has pursued US interests and values abroad in an intelligent and effective manner’, and another group the opposing motion: ‘Obama has neglected US interests abroad and proved weak in promoting US values’. In advance of each week’s debate students were provided with readings which roughly correlate with the two motions and a list of questions to consider when thinking about that week’s topic.

At the beginning of the session students were given 10 minutes to prepare in their groups, discussing how best to advance arguments in favour of their motion and how they might respond to the arguments likely to be voiced by their opposing group. Each of the two debating groups was then given five minutes to make an opening statement outlining the central lines of argument in favour of their motion. This was done by a predetermined spokesperson, a role which operated on a rotating basis. Following the opening statements all members of the debating groups were free to respond to the arguments made by their opposing group and engage in open debate.

Throughout the debate a third group acted as the ‘mediating group’. This group’s role was to observe the debate and at its conclusion for each of the members to offer an evaluation of the arguments they had heard and how this informed their opinion on the subject. One member of the mediating group (again operating on a rotating basis) acted as chairperson for the debate. While a ‘light-touch’ approach for this role was generally advocated, it was the chairperson’s role to administer the debate (ensuring that all participants got the opportunity to be heard and that there was a rough equilibrium between the two debating groups) and to seek clarifications and suggest areas to be explored throughout the debate. This final aspect of the structure for these sessions meant that my role as tutor was largely limited to overseeing the administration of the process and offering a brief conclusion of the subject at the end of each week.

This format is by no means a panacea in terms of encouraging critical engagement by students with the differing interpretations of US foreign policy. But it does seem to have met with some success. The main benefit of giving students the role of chairperson for the debates was that it encouraged the students to take ownership of the process and actively participate – rather than relying on the tutor. This certainly materialised and student participation in the seminars was generally much better than when using more traditional formats. As one student put it in feedback on the debates: ‘Occasionally  people can be cautious about expressing their views, so by getting people to take a side and support that view, regardless of whether or not they believed it, people were a lot more willing to interact’.

The downside to this approach is that my ability as tutor to guide the discussion into fruitful areas – on the basis of expertise in the subject – is limited. While in my view the increase in participation by students that resulted with this format is a price worth paying for this loss of control over the discussion, the increased participation was not uniform. Clearly, the adversarial nature of the debate format was more suited to some students than others. In this respect there did at times also seem to be a gender bias in favour of the male students when adopting this format. These are issues that arise with any format adopted in teaching and an awareness of them can allow us to build in systems to mitigate their effects. In this instance, the fact that students played different roles in the debates each week (as debating or mediating groups and as spokesperson or chairperson within these groups) meant that it was more likely that they would spend at least some time in a role more suited to their own predisposition for learning. One student reflected this aim in their comments on the debate, stating that the format ‘meant that we didn’t have to be involved in sometimes rigorous debates every week’.

Perhaps a more fundamental issue with this format of teaching US foreign policy is the tendency to encourage polemical views on the subject, rather than more nuanced understandings. The debate motions given to students were intentionally representative of diametrically opposed views on particular issues in order to try to encourage a robust debate. All teaching methods reflect the underlying philosophical assumptions of the tutor deploying them. In this case the debate format that I employed reflected my prejudice for absolutist interpretations over postmodern relativism. However, the hope was that while exploring the ‘outer limits’ of a debate more nuanced understandings could still emerge at the conclusion (indeed, this was often what was articulated by members of the mediating group at the end of the debate).   

More broadly, the aim that by actively engaging in debates over US foreign policy students would gain a deeper understanding of the subject did seem to be successfully met. Several students commented in feedback that they gained a greater awareness of the differing views on US foreign policy as a result of the debate format, particularly when they were tasked with arguing in favour of a viewpoint that they instinctively rejected or had not considered. As one student put it, ‘we were forced to take up a position we didn’t agree with and thus learnt a lot more about the topic’. So while not without its problems, there was a strong sense from the students that they enjoyed the debate format and found it an engaging and rewarding and way to learn.

Any questions, comments, similar experiences, please get in touch: t.c.mills@lancaster.ac.uk

Matthew Hill