Students gathered with Professor Christiansen for a bonfire.

“I wanted to get better at arguing,” says Eric Yu ’24 (Amherst, Mass.) “I thought it would be important for me to learn the skills of proper argumentation.” 

First-year courses (FYC) are meant to be a little different than a regular course, says Professor Adrienne Christiansen, who teaches political science. 

While first-year students in her “Political Argumentation and Debate” FYC course completed rigorous writing and discussion assignments, they also learned more about what Christiansen calls “the hidden curriculum”—the often unspoken rules for classroom comportment. 

For example, some advice from the course syllabus: “Be Kind. Your classmates who have views different from your own are like whetstones…engaging with them keeps YOU sharp. For this, you should always treat classmates with respect and appreciation even when you vigorously disagree with their arguments.”

During the pandemic, her course was different still with most class sessions and office hours held online. Student discussions, however, remained as spirited as ever. 

“I wanted to get better at arguing,” says Eric Yu ’24 (Amherst, Mass.) “I thought it would be important for me to learn the skills of proper argumentation.” 

Christiansen says the course helps “students prepare for the rest of their academic career by learning how to create a sound, persuasive argument and how to recognize the structural format of the arguments they hear.”  

This year’s class included a large number of international students, including two students who took part remotely from Turkey and from Armenia. To create connections among students and help combat isolation, Christiansen used an Oxford-Cambridge-style tutorial model in which the class met as a whole via Zoom on Mondays and Fridays. On the other days of the week, small groups of students met individually with her to present their papers and arguments. 

Christiansen also used bonfires, inviting small groups of students to gather in her backyard in the evening for physically-distanced conversations. “At the bonfires we could talk about whatever we wanted,” says Gabe Preciado ’24 (Moreno Valley, Calif.). “Eventually, we would all end up talking about politics because kids taking this class generally seem to be politically motivated. The bonfires really humanized us. On Zoom, you can only see a face, but after this we were able to actually form a sort of bond.” 

Using various types of argument formats—things like causal argument, argument of analogy, and argument from example—students wrote papers and defended their arguments on the topics of the May 26, 2020 uprising in Minnesota; immigration policy; human sexuality/sexual expression or gender identity; and environmental degradation or climate change. 

“We did a lot of researching, evaluating different sources and finding their credibility, and then using that in papers to ensure we formed a strong argument,” says Yu. “It was really hard work, but it was worth it.” 

The final two papers and discussions focused on threats to representative democracy. And that’s when the conversations really took off. 

“It was a calm, but definitely a spirited argument and that’s what made it so unique,” says Preciado. “Before, in high school, people would argue and we’d be like, ‘Well, we don’t agree. Just leave it at that.’ There was no motivation behind it, no passion. But this time there was passion. It was one of the highlights of my experience.” 

In fact, the arguments got so passionate that students ended up staying a full 75 minutes after class on a Friday afternoon to debate one another (including an equally robust debate that took place simultaneously in the Zoom chat). 

Christiansen, who has taught at Mac for over 30 years, says it might have been the single best class session she’s ever had. “The conversation never let up,” she says. She later posted about the experience on Facebook: “I was walking 10 feet off the ground!”  


January 29 2021

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