Encouraging Student Reflection, Argument, and Debate

Encouraging Student Reflection, Argument, and Debate

Photo:  Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service

Prof. Jennifer Summit, seated before a dark window, smiling, gesturing as she teachesInstructor:  Jennifer Summit
Department/School: English/ School of Humanities and Sciences
Course: The Active Life or the Contemplative Life? (ENG 103H) Autumn 2013

Course Description: Seminar
Audience: 20 Stanford students
Schedule: Tuesdays and Thursdays, 9:00-10:30 am

Goals:  Summit’s goals for the class stem largely from the goals of the General Education requirement that the class fulfills, Ethical Reasoning. Based on these guidelines, says Summit, her students should be able to “evaluate competing ethical and moral perspectives and claims.” In addition to evaluating competing statements, she hopes that her students will learn how to build an argument and choose the evidence they need to develop a sound and convincing case about something they care about.

In a method of teaching that closely mirrors the themes of the class itself, Summit has made the course part contemplative and part active. “There is a 'What' focus of the class,” she says, “and there is also a 'How' component.” In other words, students are encouraged to start thinking about big questions, and then apply those in real-life situations such as arguments and debates, or even apply them to thinking about their own education: “Is it to teach you how to think or is it to teach you skills?” Summit asks. “The point of the class is to start with a question that students are already asking themselves and we are implicitly already asking our students – that is, what is your education for?”

Female African-American student in class, seated, writing with pencil as are othersTeaching & Learning Strategies: “My goal in this class is to give them lots of different ways into the topic,” says Summit. This includes several papers (one of which students work one-on-one with Summit to develop) as well as smaller responses. She has divided the class into halves, and the students periodically write either Position papers, or Response papers, which keep the students engaged with one another in addition to the material. “Those are short,” she says, “but it’s to really hone their skills in making arguments.”

In addition to the more standard final papers and response exercises, Summit will also have her students write their own fables after reading and discussing one in class, “The Ant and the Grasshopper.” As well as being relevant to the course, this is another way for Summit to engage the creativity of her students, many of whom are creative writers.

Out-of-Class Activities: Summit hopes to incorporate field trips into the course due to the wealth of resources that Stanford offers. “We are both an active and a contemplative university,” Summit says, adding that while Stanford has always been a large engineering school with a practical edge, it also has some great contemplative resources as well. She also hopes to take her students to visit CCARE (the Center for Compassion and Altruism for Research and Education), which was founded in a partnership with the Dalai Lama, and to walk the Labyrinth in Memorial Church.

In-Class Activities: Summit is looking to incorporate debate into her class this year. “I want to see how our collective interests sort of develop,” she says. She gives directed reading to the whole class, then divides them into three groups--one in favor of the thesis of the text, one against, and one which is the directed judging panel. Both teams try to sway the judging panel to their own side, and the panel is free to ask questions, much as a jury would. The whole time, students rely on quotes from the directed reading to supply their arguments. Students take it seriously, too; according to Summit,  “It was a cool exercise because they really got into the argument.”

Prof. Jennifer Summit, standing before whiteboard with colored post-it notes, gesturing, teaching, smilingLessons Learned: In regards to how the syllabus is constructed, Summit is convinced that it has the power to make or break what the students get out of the class. It is also largely responsible for propelling the class through the rest of the term. "You can design the syllabus to energize the whole class,” says Summit. But it can also work both ways, which is why Summit herself pays so careful attention to how she is designing her course. Summit also emphasizes that a lot depends whether a professor decides the class will be a “coverage” or a “question” class. “A coverage class means that all of the energy is going to come from you. A question class...brings everyone on board together,” says Summit. “To me, if it doesn’t speak and continue to speak to the present and to the future, then you’re not asking the right question.”

Plans for Next Iteration of Course: One of the most exciting things about leading a constantly evolving class can also be one of the most challenging. Summit is always looking to develop the course in relation to important and pertinent universal questions. She is also considering new texts to assign for the next iteration of the course.

Students themselves also readily contribute to the changing dynamics of the class. According to Summit, much of the learning experience comes not only what she assigns as a teacher, but what the students offer up themselves through reflection and discussion. “The bit where I’m growing the most as a teacher is finding the balance between the material that I bring in to frame the course, and the spaces it leaves open for the students to experience the question themselves and share their experiences with the class.”


Headshot, smiling Caucasian woman, seated, arms crossed, shoulder-length light brown hair

Jennifer Summit, professor of English, is passionately dedicated to teaching excellence.  She is the Eleanor Loring Ritch University Fellow in Undergraduate Education and a Faculty Fellow of Stanford's Center for Teaching and Learning.  She has won the Hoagland Award for Innovation in Undergraduate Teaching and the Dean’s Award for Distinguished Teaching.  She has led numerous course and curriculum design projects as well as winning book and research awards.