In-Class Collaborative Debate Mapping, or How a Mathematician Teaches a Novel

I’m teaching my cryptography seminar again this fall. As a first-year writing seminar in mathematics, it’s an unusual course. It has some code-making and code-breaking, some pure mathematics, some history, some current events, and, yes, some writing instruction. And in case that wasn’t enough variety, I also teach a novel. I can promise you, that’s not something we covered in my grad seminar on teaching mathematics.

Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow, follows a teenage hacker, Marcus Yallow, as he and his hacker friends fight against increasingly aggressive surveillance by the Department of Homeland Security following a major act of terrorism. The novel is an engaging read, and it tackles one of the key questions we explore in the cryptography seminar: How should we balance security and privacy in a digital world?

That’s a tough question with a complex answer, one that’s part of our national discourse now, thanks to Edward Snowden. Learning to write about complex issues is one of the goals of the seminar. Monday’s class, in which we discussed the novel, featured an activity I’ve found useful for helping students make sense of the complex security vs. privacy debate, as a precursor to writing assignments on this theme later in the semester.

Before class, the students read and blogged about Little Brother. You can read their blog posts here. I kept the blog assignment open: “Briefly summarize and react to a passage in Little Brother that caught your attention.” I find that students react well to the novel, and I enjoy reading their observations. But this was just a warm-up for the in-class activity.

At the start of class, I asked students to work in groups of three to identify two pro-security arguments and two pro-privacy arguments made by characters in the novel. I distributed large Post-it notes (5″ x 7″) to the students along with a few markers. I asked the students to summarize the arguments they identified on the Post-it notes, with pro-security arguments on orange notes and pro-privacy arguments on magenta notes. Each Post-it note was to include the name of the character making the argument, along with the corresponding page number.

The students jumped right into this work, some groups moving more quickly than others to fill their Post-it notes, but all groups digging into the novel to find arguments on either side of the issue. The room got a little noisy at this point, with fifteen students all talking at once. During this time, I circulated among students, answering questions and making sure groups were staying on task. I was ready to help groups who were stuck, but none were.

That was phase one. For phase two, I had the groups take turns sharing an argument they identified with the class and posting it to the chalkboard. I asked students to place more practically focused arguments (“Is all this surveillance really catching terrorists?”) at one end of the board and more principled arguments (“It’s life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, in that order.”) at the other. I also asked them to connect their argument to one or more other arguments already on the board (this argument supports that one, this argument counters that one, and so on), drawing an arrow in chalk to represent those connections.

Groups made their contributions one at a time, with each group sending a representative to the board to place a Post-it note and summarize the argument it represented. The first couple of contributions were a bit hesitant, as it wasn’t entirely clear to students which arguments were more practical in nature and which were more about principles, nor was it clear how one argument might connect to another. I stepped in and made some suggestions (“That sounds like a fairly practical argument” or “Your argument seems to support this other argument”), and soon enough the students got the hang of it and were adding their arguments to the board in sensible ways.

Once every group had the opportunity to add a couple of arguments to the board, we moved on to phase three, in which we discussed as a class the debate map we had constructed.

Here’s what the finished debate map looked like:

Little Brother Debate Map 2015Click on the image for a better view. Pretty neat, huh?

What I like about this debate map activity is that it helps students see the complexity of the security-privacy question. During phase one, students identify a variety of arguments made in favor of one side or the other, and, during phase two, students work to identify relationships among those arguments. Arranging these ideas visually as a map keeps the students focused and helps them organize their own understanding of the debate. By the time we get to phase three, students are ready to evaluate the arguments and discuss which arguments they find most compelling. I’m targeting the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy here, the “analyze” and “evaluate” levels in particular, and helping students develop more robust knowledge organizations (see How Learning Works), and I think it works.

Having taught this first-year writing seminar a few times, I’ve learned that most of my students can argue one side in a debate, but many struggle to do so in a way that acknowledges the complexity of the debate. For instance, they have a hard time raising a potential objection to their argument and offering compelling counter-arguments to that objection. I think that this debate map activity prepares them to do that, by helping them see how arguments interact with each other. I’ll find out if I’m right later this semester, when my students tackle the security vs. privacy debate in a research-based argumentative essay.

The first time I led a debate map activity during class, it didn’t go nearly as well. For one thing, I didn’t connect the debate map to Little Brother. Instead, I asked students to identify potential pro-security and pro-privacy arguments based on their reading of a chapter in our “textbook,” Simon Singh’s The Code Book. The chapter dealt with the so-called “crypto wars” of the second half of the 20th century, in which the US government attempted to limit the use and export of tough encryption methods. The reading was, I think, a little abstract for the debate map activity. Little Brother provides an easier entry into the debate map, with its engaging plot and sympathetic characters.

The other significant change to my earlier debate map activity was going low-tech. The first time around, I had students construct the debate map in Prezi, which is a useful presentation tool and perhaps an even better mind mapping tool. Since Prezi allows for multiple editors on the same presentation, I had students make their contributions to a shared digital map as they worked in small groups. This got a little chaotic, with students adding arguments on top of each other and at very different scales. By switching to Post-it notes on a chalkboard, I was able to better control the timing of the activity, asking students to add arguments sequentially, not concurrently, and to help shape the structure of the debate map. As a result, when it was time to step back and evaluate the debate, the students weren’t trying to make heads or tails of the map. Instead, they already understood how it was put together.

I’ll add that naming the categories of arguments (practical vs. principled) in advance of the construction of the debate map was a new addition to this year’s version of the activity. Last year, those categories emerged organically from the map as we grouped similar types of arguments on the chalkboard. Since that time, I’ve found the two categories very useful for helping students think about these kinds of arguments, so I went ahead and named them for students in advance this time around. Doing so added some useful structure to the debate map.

I don’t know if my colleagues in the English department use debate maps to teach novels, but I’ve certainly found this a useful activity for this odd little seminar I teach. I think it would be useful in other contexts, too. If you’ve used a debate map in one of your courses, or if you have ideas for how you might use a debate map, I would love to hear about it.

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