Essay: Composing Controversy - Moving from Dialogue to Debate with a Justice Talking Radio Program


This essay describes a collaborative project in which three English professors created multi-perspec- tive research assignments based on the format of National Public Radio’s Justice Talking radio program. The classes they involved included a graduate course in composition theory and practice; a fourth-year course in public science writing; and a first-year course in composition. Each class composed a slightly different version of the project.

Composing Controversy: Moving from Debate to Dialogue with a Justice Talking Radio Program

Dr. Jacqueline Cason
Assistant Professor of English
University of Alaska Anchorage

Last year, three of us who teach composition courses constructed a collaborative research assignment based on Justice Talking, National Public Radio’s award-winning weekly show. The Justice Talking format creates a deliberate composition that situates controversial issues in particular times, places, and communities. We designed the project both to engage students in the discussion of controversy and to teach them the principles of rhetoric valued in our discipline.

For those unfamiliar with the format, each Justice Talking program explores a single issue using a mix of discrete pieces that include anecdotes, current-event reports, debate, commentary, interviews, and expert testimony. The first segment sets up the issue, usually with an interview that outlines why it is important, how it has been or is being treated in the policy arena, and perhaps some voices of those affected by it. The middle segments include a structured debate between two or more competing points of view. The last segment brings in additional voices and explores the topic from other viewpoints not covered by the debate. Together, the various pieces provide facts, relevant experiences, strengths and weaknesses, positions, and overviews of conversations in places where policy decisions are made.

Our idea was that students would use the Justice Talking format to compose their own broadcast on an issue we assigned them or on one of their choice. We wanted an assignment that could accomplish both disciplinary and civic goals, that could be used in a variety of writing courses, and that would also serve broader societal goals. At a disciplinary level, oppositional debate and the integration of contrasting perspectives both embody the spirit of ancient rhetoric. At a civic level, the assignment encourages students as citizens to make judgments about an issue, individually and collectively, after reproducing, understanding, and critiquing various points of view. In other words, the Justice Talking format offered us a process that would invite students to discover multiple perspectives and contrasting arguments on an issue, to weigh them critically, and to perform that process for their audience.

Educational Concerns: Teaching the Research and Writing Process

Students are required to write many research papers over the course of their college careers. Typically, these assignments focus on how students select and gather secondary sources and how they arrange their findings without plagiarizing. These practices are fine as far as they go, but they don’t really teach students the art of synthesis and the rhetorical moves for joining an intellectual conversation. Unintentionally, typical research assignments often create the impression that conducting and writing from research is a static process rather than a dynamic engagement on a specific issue within an identifiable community.

When students perceive sources as static references to objective and authoritative knowledge, divorced from the conventions, commonplaces, languages, and histories of the community, writing a research paper becomes less an act of engagement and participation and more an act of compiling and sequencing a series of citations.

A common problem with compiling static sources of information is that student writers tend not to examine the strongest arguments from contrasting perspectives but to create straw arguments instead. They tend to ignore negative sources and to seek affirmative advocacy sources without recognizing the interests and purpose of such advocacy. Such filtering prematurely limits their perspective on the issue as a whole.

Though the project employs audio technology, writing remains a significant part of the assign- ment, both in preparation, written composition, and later reflection. Furthermore, these assignments support our efforts to teach the writing process rather than only the writing product. The students’ projects are driven by a purpose—the need to answer questions about a topic—and not strictly by the textual concerns of thesis statements and supporting evidence. As an experience in systematic inquiry, the project models the ancient rhetorical canon of invention, a term which refers to the process of finding available arguments. In the process of finding available arguments, students must locate and examine positions held by others; in so doing, they make knowledge that allows them to participate in discussions and to extend those discussions in novel ways. Along the way, they must discover what is truly at issue: that point of stasis upon which participants agree to focus their attention for the sake of having a more productive argument. This process presents current knowledge as the product of ongoing negotiation within a community, open to continual challenge and revision from antagonistic perspectives.

Civic Concerns: Teaching the Values of Collective Wisdom and Democracy

The Justice Talking format requires students to present multiple sides of a contentious public issue within a historical context, an engagement that is fundamental to citizenship in a democracy. In the Sophistic spirit of dissoi logoi, the format promotes both civil argument and a civic education. It helps clarify differences between expert sources, advocacy sources, and experiential case studies without discounting any type of testimony or the emotions and artistry intrinsic to persuasive arguments. The format calls upon students to:

identify central issues;
listen to the voices of opposing views;
restate the ideas of others;
scrutinize their own ideas, making clear connections between their ideas and those of others;
search beneath the issues to locate the assumptions and consequences of specific claims;
make concessions in the interests of finding common ground; and
treat colleagues’ work as significant—to the point of defending it as their own.[1]

As students consider the multitude of perspectives, opinions, and individual voices, they also learn something about the value of and the possibility for collective wisdom. This contrasts with traditional notions of the research paper that tend to privilege facts and statistics and to dismiss opinion as if it were idiosyncratic or individual. A common question students ask—“Can I put my opinion in the paper?”—reveals the individualistic and objectivist bias in students’ minds. The collaborative and performative experience of the Justice Talking format can help to loosen the close tie between individuals and their personal opinions and to bind those opinions more publicly to a community’s ideology and its characteristic ways of interpreting raw facts and data. Students can begin to explore the links between their opinions, the characteristic terms used to express those opinions, and their membership in communities. Not only may students feel less personally threatened by con- troversial challenges to their opinions, but they may also be more willing to explore what counts as evidence and knowledge within different disciplinary areas and to accept multiple ways of knowing about a given issue.

Finally, the project echoes our understanding of the purposes of discussion, as articulated by Brookfield and Preskill, as a means for informed understanding, enhanced awareness, appreciation, and taking action. Experiencing discussion this way helps students understand that “[d]iscussion and democracy are inseparable.”[2]

[1] Benton, 2003; Wallen, 2003; Olbrys, 2006
[2] Brookfield, Discussion as a Way of Teaching

Disciplinary Concerns: Teaching Core Knowledge in Composition and Rhetoric

In addition to teaching students about the social dimensions of research and the dramatic nature of argument, the Justice Talking format can introduce students to core disciplinary concepts in the field of composition and rhetoric, concepts that will assist them not only in civil discourse, but also when they invent arguments and write papers for other occasions across the curriculum. By learning core concepts in rhetoric, as bulleted below and expanded on page 73, students can become more deliberate about identifying an issue, positioning themselves in time and place, building credibility, empathizing with others, and providing logical reasons for their claims.

Identifying an issue. For starters, the performative aspect of the broadcast and the need to shape many disparate pieces into a coherent whole teaches students how to identify the central issue under dispute (see stasis theory);
Positioning oneself in time and place. Continuing on a holistic level, the local and current nature of the broadcast framed within a historical back- ground demonstrates the significance of time and place in calling for a rhetorical response (see kairos);
Building credibility. In an academic context in which students are usually encouraged to be objective and to avoid first-person pronouns, Justice Talking’s relative openness to narrative and experiential knowledge combined with an emphasis on expert research and testimony teach students about the importance of a speaker’s character in building trust and credibility (see ethos);
Empathizing with others. In a setting where students often consider their professor the sole audience, this dramatic format invites students to become and to listen to real voices and to recognize the values and emotions these voices communicate (see pathos);
Providing logical arguments. Finally, the debate segment gives students rigorous practice in developing a limited set of claims, supporting them with reasons and evidence, and rebutting the arguments, reasons, and evidence of others (see logos).


Find ways to orient students to the format. The novelty of recording and performing were challenging to those who are more familiar with writing a paper. Therefore, we strongly recommend that students be required to listen to archived shows on their own outside of class and then to generate a set of evaluation criteria as part of a collaborative in-class activity. Student-generated criteria will be more authentic, and the exercise will increase their familiarity with the format and genre. Faculty can use those criteria for later evaluation of the student-produced show.

Build technology into early semester activities. We chose audio technology partly because it is a low-threshold technology with low equipments costs, ease of use, and access to free audio editing software. However, many students have no experience with it, which makes it important to familiarize students with the tools early. Therefore, we suggest integrating the technology into other class activities such as weekly audio letters, mini-podcasts on course topics, or peer-review activities.

Emphasize and allow time for revision. Initial practice with the technology would also empower students to make more use of editing tools. Because the Justice Talking format is a composition more than a live program, we encourage professors to allow a minimum of three to four weeks for the project and to require revision from students so that they integrate each segment into a coherent whole. Younger students with frequent access to audio technology are entering our courses as well, so we will likely encounter students already quite familiar with recording and editing.

Consider options for requirements, scope, and grouping. Composing a Justice Talking episode qualifies as a major course assignment, and even though we tend to lower the stakes when experimenting with a new assignment, we think that treating it as a major assignment will increase student perception of its value and produce more serious engagement. Because of its scope and the level of collaboration it requires, it will likely gain fuller engagement as a culminating semester assignment than it does as an icebreaker activity, and will likely need more time in proportion to the size of collaborative groups. Finally, though we recommend that the final composition be in audio format, we also recommend that writing remain a significant part of the assignment, both in preparation, written composition, and later reflection.

Conclusion: Ethics of a Classroom Argument Culture

The Justice Talking format allows students to compose a controversy for the benefit of an audience and to perform the process of critical thinking without the pressure of needing to annihilate an opponent. Agonistic argument can be hurtful and corrosive to the human spirit and may undermine efforts to conciliate or to reach common ground on an issue.[3]  We need to be mindful that we foster healthy, community-minded ways of resolving conflicts and disputes, recognizing that some students prefer not to challenge opposing views directly or competitively. The Justice Talking format is therefore not intended to be a showcase for individual voices or competitive debate but rather a densely textured exchange of ideas. For students inexperienced in this kind of intellectual exchange, the archive provides an opportunity to spectate first and generate their own criteria or goals to strive for in their own practice.

Finally, the notion that there are always two equally valid sides to every argument is steeped in a worthy ethic of intellectual fairness and balance. However, we argue that the notion of “fair and balanced” alone may lead to divisiveness and political enclaves. We think it worthwhile to encourage students to weigh the sides more critically and to weigh the relative merits of different perspectives. Unlike the language of intellectual freedom expressed in David Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights (ABOR), a rhetoric of dissoi logoi asks students to discover their positions through apprenticeship rather than indoctrination. In the ABOR view, the idea of balance implies that for every liberal left view there must be a conservative right view. A dissoi logoi rhetoric, however, is concerned with engagement rather than opposition; it allows us to teach students to maintain an intellectual equilibrium through a deep understanding of their own footing. The aim of practice is not simply the awareness of other ideas—often shorthand in consumer society for paying attention only to opinions one wishes to hear—but rather the ability to reproduce them, to understand them, and to critique them all. Such pedagogy, as communications professor Stephen Olbrys explains, potentially turns the classroom into “a site for lively disputation over public virtues and the impetus for fostering relation- ships predicated on respect and understanding.”[4]

In closing, we anticipate and wish to answer the charge of relativism. Our discipline is inclined to embrace a pedagogy that emphasizes a diversity and pluralism of ideas and beliefs. While it is true that a thorough education in the conventions, commonplaces, languages, and histories of the community was fundamental to ancient rhetorical training, it would be overly simplistic to conclude that we encourage our students to find all perspectives to be equally valid. Our faith in rhetorical strategies grows out of the process of searching for, articulating, and challenging plural truths in order to determine an ethical course of action. As Kenneth Burke acknowledges in On Symbols and Society (1989), it is easy to confuse the dialectic with the relativistic, because “any term can be seen from the point of view of another term.” When we look at the process as a whole from the standpoint of participation, we witness a “perspective of perspectives” or a “resultant certainty” that emerges from a contributing series of provisional certainties.[5] And it is from that summative standpoint, modified by multiple terms and incongruous perspectives that we invite our students to discover the confidence to act in the world with conviction.

Stephen Olbrys defines dissoi logoi as an ancient pedagogy that insists upon active and performed engagement with multiple perspectives rather than mere awareness of, limited exposure to, and eventual isolation from oppositional perspectives. He recommends this approach in response to recent accusations of liberal bias in academia and as a good faith effort to respond to David Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights (ABOR).

[3] Tannen, 1998; Tompkins, 2003
[4] Olbrys, p. 367.
[5] Burke, p. 256.