Great Debating: Combining Ancient and Contemporary Methods of Peer Critique

Contributor: Steven J. Corbett
School Affiliation: George Mason University
Email: scorbet3 at gmu.edu
Published: 8 October 2014

I always love it when the end is in sight . . . I have looked forward to the final two weeks of each of my classes for the past few years because that’s when we perform our in-class debates. Debates can be an exciting, dramatic way to get students actively and energetically showcasing their understanding of the goals and objectives of the course (as described in The Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing, 2011). Debates can be used, especially, as dynamic vehicles for peer review and response. Debates also offer the perfect venue for bringing audio and visual technology into the classroom via video. Video recording provides a digital playground for further student-teacher collaboration and reflection. Posting videos to YouTube allows those videos to reach potentially larger audiences.

I invite you to view the following YouTube video highlighting one of my class’s second debates, with permission obtained from all students. Be sure to watch until the end to see which side “wins”! (You can also view the original forty-minute YouTube video.)

Viewing in high resolution is recommended.

Readers can explore the full context of this video-recorded debate in the sections below. This description, along with links for further information, situates the place and purpose of the course debates in relation to invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery; peer review and response; and the use of technology and the digital (including ePortfolios, digital papers, and computer-equipped classrooms).

Setting the Stage

Debates bring to energetic life all that our class has been practicing involving peer review and response. These critical skills and aptitudes have been discussed from ancient times to the present: careful listening and close reading, thoughtful interpersonal conversation and questioning, and purposeful rhetorical analyses of the strengths and weaknesses of each other’s works (see, for example, Corbett, LaFrance, & Decker, 2014; Elbow & Belanoff, 1989; Lunsford, 2011; Murphy, 2001; Quintilian, 1921/95).

I have experimented with debates in my writing courses for over 10 years, but I started systematically using them over the past three years. Early in the term—at all levels—students begin to learn about the art of rhetoric (see my IHE essay). We discuss the idea of rhetoric as involving the acts of both writing and speaking. Debates can provide an ideal arena for students to perform the rhetorical act of delivery in relation to course content, exercising their skills in listening, speaking, arguing, and remembering. The more closely the debates are connected to the course content, goals, and objectives, the more fruitful the learning experience for all. The focus of all three debates is rhetorical analysis.

This quest to align the rich motivating potential of debates with course content and goals involving rhetoric has prompted me to design the focus of the debates around a very purposeful set of texts. For thousands of years, teachers of rhetoric have stressed the importance of imitation in the service of style and delivery, and even as a precursor to innovation. We only need be reminded that, early on, Picasso was classically trained, or that Bob Dylan was intentionally almost a Woody Guthrie clone, to get a sense of the potential value of imitation. So, for my series of three in-class debates, the focus of our spirited argumentation revolves around the three major papers students have been working hard on inventing, organizing, and delivering for their peers and me all course. While all term we have been carefully reading, analyzing, and offering feedback to each other’s papers (for example, see my IHE essay), we turn to my previous students’ essays (with their real names removed) for the three debates.

For each of the three consecutive debates, I choose the two strongest papers from my previous course. These papers originate from the same assignments students have been grappling with all term. They usually illustrate two different models of the ways two different students came at the same task and met the same goals and objectives of the assignment and the course, in sometimes quite different ways. For example, in the YouTube video above, students are debating Major Paper Two. For that paper, students were supposed to take two essays we read as a class and conduct a comparative rhetorical analysis. In preparation for the debates, students read both papers and conducted a basic structural analysis of the texts in order to argue which paper they believed was stronger: What is the title doing (or not doing)? What is the claim or purpose of the piece? What are the major subtopics or subsections of the piece? How are evidence and quotes used? What sort of tone and diction does the author employ? And what is the conclusion doing?


As we begin the first in the series of the three debates, we need a little extra time to get everyone acclimated to the protocols and energy flow. I usually start creating an atmosphere of good-natured and playful competition by playing a YouTube video of the Rocky theme song and requisite training montage. Then I outline for students the logistics of how the debates will go, assuring everyone that we will all do our best to get into the swing of things during this first debate—that it might seem a little clunky at first—but that we will get better each time. I proceed to explain that each student will rise from his or her seat, explain why he or she chose the essay he or she did in one succinct sentence, then move to one side of the room or the other depending on which essay he or she believes is stronger.

In contrast to typical debates, I tell students that they will need to work together with their teammates to organize the topics that will act as the focus of their argumentation on which paper is the strongest—drawn from the comparative structural analyses of the two papers students prepared as described above. I tell students that usually three or four topics will suffice for an hour-and-twenty-minute class period. Typically, students will start with titles or introductions as the first topics to debate. I also ask each team to pick a captain to help keep things moving and in order. I then hand out two straws (or crayons or pennies) to each student, and let everyone know that each person on each team must speak once before anyone else on that respective team can speak again. Captains are in charge of collecting the straws and trying to make sure everyone has contributed before anyone can use his or her second straw. This method forces each student to contribute to the ebb and flow of the debate. It causes everyone to engage. Then I give each team about 10 or 15 minutes to organize its topical game plan.

What follows is a series of increasingly passionate (and logical) attempts to argue and counter-argue, to make claims and counterclaims involving the strengths and weaknesses of the students’ academic predecessors. Because these are anonymous student essays from a previous course, students are freer than they ever have been in the course to really say what they think. Students work frenetically and smartly with their teammates, strategically building claims, devising rationales, and anticipating counterclaims. They get too excited sometimes, too passionate. So as mediator, I walk the fine line between maintaining and surrendering control of this collaborative oratorical dynamo. Boisterous guffaws are often followed up quickly with collective groans. Usually the first debate is the roughest (often like the first draft of student essays), less organized, sometimes verging on chaotic.

I find myself in the earlier debates, rather than trying to spur conversation, actually doing my best to corral student urges to blurt out or become too emotionally involved. But, increasingly and inevitably, by the third debate, students move toward self-control and self-regulation (principles current learning theory asks us to strive for). Time flies as the minutes rush by, and as a group, we always end up wishing we had more. We exit class flushed with excitement, still debating, still engaged, laughing, reflecting.


Since this featured debate took place in the Spring 2013 term at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, reflecting on this YouTube video continues to help me develop the use of debates in my writing and rhetoric courses. I have made two major adjustments inspired by student actions: The first involves decentering myself from the focus of attention. To facilitate students speaking to each other more and taking more control of the orchestration of the debates, team captains are more in charge of the ebb and flow of the debates. They are the ones who manage who speaks and when on their respective teams.

The second major adjustment involves encouraging students to speak and act more dramatically; I exhort students to use each other’s names when countering their opponents’ arguments or supporting and extending their teammates’ assertions. When I notice students starting to stand to speak, I also encourage this tactic. All in all, I have emphasized to students how much more lively and fun (and just as edifying) our debate experiences can be if they proactively exercise—even exaggerate a bit—their acting and speaking skills to their full potential, if they draw on the passion and power of ethos and pathos just as much as on logical rhetorical appeals. This adjustment has fostered the added critical component, and extra rhetorical layering, of students critiquing their peers' critiques.

Here are two brief examples of students at George Mason University performing some of these more autonomous, passionate, dramatic moves in an advanced composition course from the Summer 2014 term:

End Scene

I have seen the quietest of students suddenly—when the debate spotlight is on—burst forth with eloquence, passion, power and conviction. I have witnessed the most seemingly unenthused student covertly whispering suggestions and strategies in the ear of his or her teammate once he or she has used up the speaking straws. Readers may sense in the videos above the results of my efforts to build trust and rapport in the course (see this Chronicle essay). Students frequently comment on end-of-term evaluations how helpful and fun they have found the debate experience to be. They talk about how the debates emphasized what we practiced in the course in a useful and timely way—as they finished polishing and reflectively analyzing their bodies of work for the term in their final ePortfolios (see my essay in IHE for more about how ePortfolios fit within my curriculum). 

The potential that debates hold for student (and teacher) learning is only limited by the imaginations of all the players involved. Already, I look forward to the end of next term. 


Corbett, Steven J. (2010, June 7). A better way to grade. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2010/06/07/corbett

Corbett, Steven J. (2011, July 25). Technology and teaching writing. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2011/07/25/essay_on_using_technology_to_teach_writing

Corbett, Steven J. (2012, April 24). Shaking up the lecture. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2012/04/24/essay-reworking-role-lectures

Corbett, Steven J., & LaFrance, Michelle. (2013, September 9). It’s the little things that count in teaching: Attention to the less "serious" aspects can make you a more effective instructor. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/Its-the-Little-Things-That/141489/

Corbett, Steven J., LaFrance, Michelle, & Decker, Teagan (Eds.). (2014). Peer pressure, peer power: Theory and practice in peer review and response for the writing classroom. Southlake, TX: Fountainhead Press.

Elbow, Peter, & Belanoff, Patricia. (1989). Sharing and responding. New York, NY: Random House.

Framework for success in postsecondary writing. (2011). Developed jointly by the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Writing Project. Retrieved from http://wpacouncil.org/framework

Harris, Joseph, Miles, John D., & Paine, Charles (Eds.). (2010). Teaching with student texts: Essays toward an informed practice. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

Lunsford, Andrea. (2011, June 16). Teacher to teacher: Tips for new teachers #7: Effective peer groups (Blog post). Bedford bits: Ideas for teaching writing. Retrieved from http://blogs.bedfordstmartins.com/bits/teaching-advice/tips-for-new-teachers-7-effective-peer-groups/

Murphy, James J. (2001). The key role of habit in Roman writing instruction. In James J. Murphy (Ed.), A short history of writing instruction: From ancient Greece to modern America (2nd ed., pp. 35 – 78). Mahwah, NJ: Hermagoras.

Quintilian, Marcus Fabius. (1921). The institutio oratoria. (H.E. Butler, Trans.). New York, NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons. (Original work published ca. 95)


I would like to thank my video co-producers Destini Murphy and Shayan Mahmoudi. I would also like to thank Tony Tran, and PraxisWiki editors Dundee Lackey and (especially) Kristi McDuffie for all their invaluable help creating this webtext.



Created by kristi. Last Modification: Wednesday May 11, 2016 15:08:37 GMT-0000 by matthew.