Crossing the Line, Revisited
Author: Angela Becerra Vidergar
Course: PWR 1, but could apply to PWR 2
Activity length and schedule: Approximately 30 minutes, but varies depending on how long you let the discussion lengthen for each question and the student buy-in.
I teach this activity as part of a group of activities on a day I devote to issues of Bias, Privilege, and Civil Discourse and how they affect research and communication. Because these issues apply so closely to both class discussions and their own writing and research, I teach it near the beginning of the course, Week 2 Day 1 or Week 2 Day 2. That way we have gotten to know each other enough to have these discussions, but it’s early enough to set the class atmosphere and be applied to the development of their essays.
- To facilitate and encourage a classroom environment of respectful but active discussion, the basis of civil discourse and ethical communication.
- To physically illustrate the existence of different positions and perspectives in the classroom and beyond, and how these positions can be (a) changeable and (b) put in dialogue with other positions.
- To dig deeply into the discussion of a theme-related reading or topic
- I set up the room that day so that the tables are along the sides of the room and the chairs in front of them facing the open room. The students then sit facing each other across an open room, but can turn to use the tables for writing if needed.
- The setup for the activity is a 10-minute in-class writing session in which students post a written response to a question related to that day’s listening (or reading) assignment. They do so on the Canvas Discussion Forum. The in-class writing does not necessarily need to immediately precede the activity, but it’s best for it to be close in timing.
- I ask the students to stand.
- I introduce the activity with something like “As you can see today we are going to do something a bit different for our discussion of the listening assignment,” followed by the introduction to the activity you have in the “Overview” section above. I ask if they have done a version of “Crossing the Line” before (many have), and say this will be similar but a different version special for our purposes.
- I then go through the following instructions:
- I will ask a question and point to the sides where you should stand depending on your particular position on the issue.
- I’ll ask for people to express their opinions on both sides. If you are persuaded to change your mind completely or simply find someone’s statement to be persuasive or convincing enough to give you an interesting perspective, you should acknowledge that by walking over to the other side.
- Over the years I’ve done this activity with students we’ve found that it’s important to acknowledge the possibility of an ambivalent position. That in reality, sometime we are in the middle trying to make up our minds, or feeling agreement with some aspects of both perspectives. You’re therefore allowed to occupy spaces in the middle or along the spectrum, but should move if you feel persuaded toward one side or the other. You should also be prepared to explain your position just like the people on the sides.
- I then begin by asking a set of questions directly related to the topic and listening/reading assignment for the day. I have found that rooting the questions in a specific analysis to be a productive but less charged (or personal) way of beginning the discussion of these difficult issues. The first question is exactly the same as the prompt they answered in the in-class writing, so they are prepared to give an answer.
- Below are sample questions from from my PWR 1 course “Podcasts to Broadcasts: The Rhetoric of Radio.” The listening assignment was an episode of the podcast Serial, Season 1 Episode 2, as well as a response article in The Awl by Jay Caspian Kang called “White Reporter Privilege.”
- Do you think Sarah Koenig and the producers of Serial were fair and perceptive in their handling of the possible role(s) that culture, race and bias had in the case of Adnan Syed? Was their approach effective in telling a well-contoured, nuanced version of the story?
- Do you think it’s possible for us to “step into someone else’s shoes” and understand their perspective when we don’t share their cultural position?
- Did you find the evidence Kang presented in his analysis about “White Reporter Privilege” to be convincing?
- After each question I direct “Yes” answers to one side and “No” answers to the other. I vary the sides per question.
- After they have positioned themselves, I stand in the middle somewhere and invite them to share why they are positioned where they are. I mostly allow them to discuss and respond from there, with occasional prompting or direction.
- At some natural point during the discussion of #3 I pivot from the activity by directing them to sit down and continue the discussion of Kang’s article with a rebuttal article that takes issue with his analysis of the primary source. This is the entry point into discussing the writing of the Rhetorical Analysis essay.
Additional notes: As stated above, I do not teach this activity in isolation. It is preceded by an exercise on definitions of “safe space,” “brave space,” “civil discourse,” and “ethical communication.” It is followed by discussion (with a PPT presentation) of privilege, bias, and prejudice, and what they have to do with research and writing. I am happy to discuss the rest of these contextual activities further on an individual basis.