Arrogant teachers who refuse to let students write about topical subjects

Per this thread there is the opinion expressed by some teachers that they refuse to let students write about popular controversial topics like abortion or the death penalty because they have been done to death.

The instructor may be bored to tears, but the death penalty and abortion are real and hotly controversial topics that are interesting and fresh to students who have not grappled with making pro or con arguments before. There’s plenty of material for them to access and lots of different viewpoint s they can research. Why this is a bad thing for a topic you wish to research and potentially take a stand on is kind of a mystery.

I’m not sure when the selection of topics for a student’s research, opinion or argument paper being limited to subjects the *instructor *finds fresh or entertaining became the standard for allowable topics, but IMO this is a pretty arrogant attitude.

In theory I am with you.

But if after years of experience as a teacher I figure out that essays on topic X are way crappier on average than other useable topics then no.

It really doesnt matter WHY such a topic causes problems. If it does, then it is both a waste of everyone’s time AND a disservice to the students themselves to actually allow them to work on such a topic.

About as far as I might go would be “work on subject x invariably sucks donkey balls. If you want to take a very high risk of getting a crappy grade, have at it”.

If I was being a bit nicer, I might allow it if they turned in workable outlines, rough drafts, and preliminary research before being allowed pursue topic X.

Its like a math teacher giving out problems that for whatever reason most folks can’t do well, when there are other perfectly usable problems that exhibit a reasonable bell curve distribution and test the students knowledge and abilities in a respectable fashion.

I suspect the real issue the teacher has is that over time he/she has learned that the students don’t in fact grapple with making arguments.

The ones incllined to tackle those topics simple trot out the sound bites they’ve memorized as if they were facts, and expect a good grade since they’ve proven their point. After all, they’re convinced.

IANA teacher, but that certainly corresponds with everything I’ve ever read about those sorts of topics on a certain message board frequented by otherwise decent writers & debaters.

nah. screw that. i’m not listening to another sophomore try to convince me that my views on abortion are wrong. the “arguments” all involve jesus, and i stopped listening years ago. better things to do, for both of us.

typing with a kitten on your left hand is hard.

I agree with **billfish678 **and LSLGuy: when learning to construct an argument, it’s best to write about a topic where you have some emotional distance. I even go a step further and give my students a list of topics to chose from: it’s more boring for me, but it seems to result in better essays (plus, it helps keep down the plagiarism). They have lots of other venues in my class for talking about those issues.

It’s also possible that there are certain topics where the teacher doesn’t feel like they can 100% objective about: I THINK I can grade the essay, not the person, and look on the argument strictly on its own merits, but I am not totally certain I could–I mean, if someone is arguing “in cases where the mother’s life is in serious danger, she should have to accept the risks of death since she got herself that way”, is it really any stupider than “Hemp has all sorts of great industrial uses, like fabric and paper and the industry was squashed by Big Cotton”? I think they are probably equally stupid, but whereas the hemp thing makes me roll my eyes, the abortion thing would make me want to call up the student and argue. Will that attitude bleed over into my grading? I don’t think so, but I am not totally sanguine about it.

Is that what the kids are calling it these days?

Bad silenus! Bad! bad!

It’s not arrogance. I want students to research issues they don’t already have (sometimes ill-informed) opinions on. Everybody already has a firm belief about abortion and the death penalty (and in utah they’re remarkably similar from person to person). I’ve read more than my fair share of intro to comp papers about both subjects, and I don’t want to read anymore. My students are free to cover anything else they wish. I had one last semester who wrote a paper about why Intelligent Design should be taught in school, and another who wrote about why gay marriage should be constitutionally banned.

They are not interesting or fresh topics, quite frankly. And students don’t grapple with them. Maybe if I were teaching a course in rhetoric, or speech and debate, or ethics, or sociology, or law, or even critical thinking, you’d be right about that. We’d have whole sections to cover the pros and cons, to read philosophical and legal discussions of both issues. But I teach intro to writing. I need to make sure the students know how to write a paper coherently and do research without plagiarizing. If fact, I believe I’m doing them a service by forcing them to find other issues that worth researching and discussing. Abortion and the death penalty are old favorites to fall back on. Students choose them out of laziness, more often than not.

My 11th grade History teacher (and 12th grade Philosophy teacher as well) gave us a “free subject” report assignment.

When we turned it in, he spent some time splitting the reports into two piles; the left pile involved a lot of sniggering and giggling. I asked him what was so funny, he answered “some day you’ll figure it out.” Seeing which names went to each pile, I thought the right hand was “the ones he expected to be good” (as those usually got the high composition grades) and the left one was those he didn’t, but as soon as we got the grades back it became clear that wasn’t it.

Talking about that with old classmates years later, we figured it out. The essays on the right hand were about things that had been explained in class; the left hand was things which were related to History but had not been explained (sometimes not even mentioned) in class.

I mentioned it to him and he confirmed we were right: “so long as there’s people who can think outside the rut, this world isn’t going to hell in a basket.”

Forcing students to get out of the most common ruts is painful for those who are comfortable there, but it also means that their research has to involve, you know, work.

This reminds me of a situation in my high school. This was an Art School situated right by the sea, with a beautiful view of the cliff. It was often repeated by older, ‘helpful’ students that paintings depicting the cliff would automatically get a lower grade as the teachers were so sick of seeing it. :slight_smile:

Now I don’t think that would be true, and the teachers never said any such thing themselves. They just said that choosing such an obvious theme could be seen as a bit lazy, but as many famous painters chose easy themes themselves, we couldn’t really be faulted.

Getting back to the main topic of this thread, I can see where the teachers are coming from. I don’t read abortion threads on this forum because it comes down to people using the same arguments over and over and over. I imagine it’s similar with essays. But of course it’s usually a first for the student.

If I were the teacher, I would probably suggest using a less discussed topic, but I don’t think I would ban an essay on abortion or the death penalty.

But the thing to remember that those are the easy go-to controversial topics. Often discussed and pushing people’s buttons, they are the most boring controversial topics to choose. Maybe that’s another thing a teacher might want to discourage.

Ditto that. When we did a section last year on terrorism and counterterrorism (including torture), the case study we used was explicitly not anything contemporary. I instead had them read about the Algerian civil war, and watch “The Battle of Algiers.” The students would naturally have sympathy with the guerrillas, but they wouldn’t be blinded by partisanship.

I don’t really get the problem. The point of the essays seems to be to make your argument so grading should be based on the quality of the argumentation. I don’t see why this approach couldn’t be used for essays on ‘popular’ issues. In my opinion someone can get an F for a badly argumented paper on how the holocoust was a bad thing, while you can get an A for good paper on the positive effects of the Nazi regime in Germany.

I would expect that reading hundreds of papers (over many years) would only make it easier to grade them beacause of your familiarity with the issue and the arguments.

I repeat. If years of experience tell you there is something that invariably makes most papers on that subject terrible, you are wasting everyones time doing it.

I had a proffessor that gave absurdly hard tests. Even top notch students would only get 20 to 30 percents, with average students getting 10 to 20s. And it was so bad even THOSE grades were after generous application of partial credit. If you could manage to get just ONE problem mostly right and another one half assed right you were king of the hill. There was more red on those tests than a Saw movie.

IMO thats a terrible way to figure out how capable a student is. They get lucky with one problem and they look like a genius. A little bad luck on which questions are asked and they plummet towards zero.

IMO the same goes for papers. It needs to be a topic that historically students have demonstated can be done well on occasion and is often done at least decently. A topic that sends most students off the deep end for whatever reason is a waste of time.

IANA teacher btw, so take my opinion for what its worth.

I suspect that another reason is that if you allowed it, many students would get a four year degree by writing 12 essays on abortion and 14 on gun control. Maybe, to spice things up, they would write one or two on terrorism or gay marriage. I like that university allows you to finally concentrate on your interests, but that doesn’t mean that professors should just give up on broadening students’ horizons completely.

Or maybe, since this is the era of “consumer satisfaction” in universities, schools should start offering Abortion Studies programs.

(I liked my own university’s approach to composition classes; we had to take two classes that concentrated on writing with an interdisciplinary approach, one in each of our two first years. I took one on medieval and renaissance great books and one on concepts of human nature in philosophy, and there were dozens of other choices. It was really nice to have actual content in a writing class.)

Choosing the structure of the course, including the topics for assignments, is one of the “perks” of being the teacher. Presumably, the teacher has a roadmap for the course, and knows better how to get from Point A to Point B therein. If anybody is being arrogant here, it would be the student who tries to dictate such matters to the teacher.

A lot of kids would cut the amount of work involved by writing one paper on abortion and one on gun control, then turning in a copy in any class that required a paper on a controversial topic. Of course, this could be done with other topics, too, but there’s more material to plagiarize from if it’s a common topic like abortion or gun control.

So the death penalty IS a deterrent. To essay assigners.

It’s easy to argue about something that has all the “talking points” laid out in front of you in the media. If you turn on the TV and some pundit’s discussing the very topic you’re writing about, you don’t have to think on your own. It’s like turning on the TV and seeing a guy working the calculus problems that you’ve been assigned.

When I was taking a public speaking course and we had to give persuasive speeches, the instructor forbade us to talk about the Confederate flag (this was when it was stilll GA’s state flag), as she was plain sick of the topic after years of hearing it. Can’t say I blamed her.

I don’t see anything wrong with the teaching putting certain topics off-limits for papers. As an undergraduate, I took a couple of courses from a highly demanding American history professor. For each of these there was at least one topic that we students were strongly urged to shun when writing term papers. For 18th Century America, Benjamin Franklin was the pariah of choice. For American Diplomatic History, it was Teddy Roosevelt. I’m sure that if some student had written an exceptional paper on either topic in spite of the warning he/she would have been graded fairly. Any professor, however, would be well within his/her rights to penalize the student for failure to follow instructions.