The unifying idea behind my courses is that students should be able at need to offer considered judgments on the ethical aspects of decisions and actions in response to complex situations. This is a fairly conventional notion lifted from the philosophical tradition, whereby a judgment based on nuanced awareness and careful thought is preferable to mere opinion.
Judgment is easy; consideration is more difficult, and the means of focusing on and improving consideration can be elusive if judgment keeps getting in the way.
One of the frustrations I have had with the conventional argumentative essay is that it keeps the focus on judgment which, for many students, simply defaults to prior established opinion. What I have encountered in student essays in the past suggests that, for many, to write an argument is simply to build fortifications for the opinions they already hold, using whatever material is at hand, a process that need involve very little in the way of genuine consideration.
My response has been to focus my courses entirely on the process of consideration. I tell my students to defer all judgments, opinions and conclusions for other contexts. The following statement now appears in each of my syllabi:
NOTE: The focus of the course is on grappling with complex problem situations and critical consideration of possible options for responding to such situations. You will not be asked to solve a given problem, nor will you be asked to offer a defense of any one option over any other. For the purposes of this course, your opinion on any matter of policy or of principle is irrelevant; in all fairness, however, the instructor’s opinion is likewise irrelevant. You may come to your own conclusions on your own time [emphasis added].
The challenge, then, is to identify the particular skills required for a serious consideration of values in practical contexts and to find a way to measure students’ progress in developing those skills.
In designing the assignments for my courses, and in evaluating student work on those assignments, I uphold the ban on opinion, conclusion, and summary judgment as consistently as I can. Students chafe at it, but eventually I get most of them to come around to presenting more open-ended, even-handed consideration of various options, on the understanding that they are free to draw their own conclusions or hold to their established positions on their own time.
I have observed an unexpected collateral benefit to a ban on opinion and conclusions: it serves to defuse controversial issues, opening up the possibility of critical and creative thought on matters that are deadlocked in the wider culture. Since the consideration assignment calls for a thorough and even-handed account of the implications of each option, disagreement within a group on the merits of a given option becomes a positive strength, enriching the range of values and disvalues considered.
I have not yet put this collateral benefit to the acid test of a really divisive issue like the legality of abortion, but it seems to me to hold at least some promise.