I don’t like debate in the form of an agonistic competition between sides, battling back and forth, with one side asserting their claim (point) and the other responding with a counterclaim (counterpoint) until one side wins and is proven to be Right and the other side is Wrong. It is an aggressive approach that too frequently leads to entrenched positions and shuts down the ability for people or communities to compromise and/or find common ground.
This form of debate is, in my opinion, not a useful way to structure a course on contemporary feminist issues. So it’s funny that the class that I taught most at the University was Point/Counterpoint: Contemporary Feminist Debates. I taught it five times. How was I able to do it? By twisting the course and shaping it around a new model for debate.
I twisted the course by taking controversial topics with well-worn for and against positions and complicating them, questioning the rigid ways they had been framed within popular debates, like asking about Choice, who gets to choose? and what choices are available?, and Liberation, at whose expense is that liberation achieved?
I also replaced the combative point/counterpoint approach with a feminist version of debate aimed not at “picking a side” or being right, but at negotiating the “irreversible complexity” of feminisms, challenging (but not rejecting) feminisms’ basic assumptions and most treasured values, cultivating a feminist curiosity about different perspectives, being open to new ideas and to changing how we frame the issues and our debates about them, and collectively forging tentative and tenuous solutions to those issues.
My twist on the class was intended to be troubling for the students as they learned about contemporary debates within feminism/s. It was intended to make trouble by challenging their assumptions about what feminists believed and how they framed the issues that they were passionate about. It was intended to expose trouble by highlighting the highly contested ways “contemporary debates of concern to women” were understood and articulated by a diverse range of feminists and feminist communities, and how those articulations had sometimes come at the expense of certain women and their communities. And my twisted version of the class was intended to provide opportunities for students to stay in trouble as we developed strategies and worked on methods for engaging in and with difficult conversations in which more than one side could claim to be “right” and the goal wasn’t to win, but to find a way to work together.
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