Position Papers – Starting with the End in Mind?

A temptation exists for students to treat classes much the way they treat going to the movies. Both involve an exchange of money for content. Students may be tempted to expect “edutainment” from their professors rather than Socratic, intellectual weightlifting. Stretching the analogy even more, we might say most of the students come to class as anything but a tabula rasa. That is to say, they’ve already “read the reviews” for this movie. “How hard is this class?” “Does the professor give a lot of reading?” “What are the tests like?” In other words, many students have front-loaded expectations and perceptions about the class (usually for the good but occasionally not). Those expectations serve as a kind of momentum for the professor to work with (and at times against). We have all probably experienced this reality. This momentum can occasionally be difficult to direct.

The challenge to inspiring pedagogy is discovering what’s written on the student’s tabula when they come into class. This is why I require a one-on-one meeting with each student during the first two months of the semester. What kind of predispositions and background noise does this student have buzzing in his or her brain when I mention the word “baptism,” or “sin,” or “chastity,” etc. in class? My knowing the students is crucial in my capacity to effectively present material and ignite their intellect in meaningful Socratic dialogue.

I have found a similar reality when it comes to applied ethical questions. For the most part, students have not spent much time thinking about in vitro fertilization and embryo transfer, or about whether contraception serves or countermands the human good, or whether marriage is or isn’t indissoluble, whether capital punishment is just, or what conditions make for a just war. No, students haven’t typically sat and thought about these questions, but if my class is a movie about these topics, then they have many times already “read the reviews.”

What do I mean by this? I mean that (for better or worse) students bring to class the intuitions about these moral questions that have accumulated in their mind from personal interactions, personal experience, parents, friends, media, and ecclesial communities. For example, on the question of in vitro, the most typical response to the question, “do you think in vitro fertilization and embryo transfer corresponds to a life of Christian discipleship?” is…”well, I know this person who did it and, she’s a nice person, a great parent. So, I guess it’s a good thing.” The point is, students generally begin the class having some kind of intuitive position on most of the moral questions we treat–even if they’ve never expressed it before. Those positions sit on a spectrum from precisely examined to wholly unexamined. These positions are a kind of momentum that the professor has the privilege of working with, directing and redirecting.

The challenge for solid pedagogy in moral theology is to invite those intuitive, unexpressed, unexamined positions into the front of the students’ minds from the get-go. For this reason one of the first assignments is to write a brief position hypotheses/statements on the applied moral questions we will treat throughout the semester. What I’m really asking for is an “immediate, intuitive inclination” from the student. In other words, what are the first arguments and conclusions that come to mind for you on this moral question. This is an ungraded assignment, the purpose of which is to begin the students journey toward making explicit their vision of the good life. I am most interested in the reasoning the students use (and whether they’ve used reason at all) to arrive at their positions. Students also know that they aren’t “married” to any position they’ve expressed in their position paper. The assignment merely makes explicit the first “gut reaction” the student had in the face of the moral question. Whenever we then treat one of the applied moral questions in class, I ask the students to revisit their position paper and consider how their own gut reaction relates to the various arguments we encounter for all the sides of the issue at hand. Did anything change? Did things stay the same? If so, what arguments buttressed their initial intuition or changed their initial intuition?

This level of personal engagement with the material is, of course, contingent upon how well students learn the various arguments and principles applicable to the cases.  I rely on my personal meetings and the “position hypotheses/statements” to help me discern how best to deliver the content. My knowing where the students are coming from, that is, what’s on their intellectual tabula, gives me an insight into kinds of approaches students have been exposed to already, which gives me the best chance of giving them all the resources they need to make these moral decisions themselves and take responsibility for the formation of their consciences.

This practice is new for this semester, so I am not sure whether it will be good in the long term. One critique I’ve thought of myself is this: by asking students to come up with intuitive position statements at the beginning of the semester, am I actually making it harder for them to be open to development or change on those very same questions? Am I contributing to the ossification of the implicit conclusions they’ve already received (whether for good or ill)?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this idea. I’m sure there’s much to honed here.