My excellent colleague Michael Titlebaum told me about an exercise he did with his Logic class. (It’s a First Year Interest Group class—20 first years who take 3 thematically linked courses, the composition of the program is disproportionately first generation, low income, and minority students—the idea being that students will get connections with each other around academics, and develop relationships with faculty early). I asked Titlebaum to write the exercise so I could include it here: mainly because it is an excellent example of the kind of pedagogy we should use more with our students in large public institutions like mine , but also, partly, because it is funny, and might entertain you on election day… Here’s his story:
I’m teaching introductory logic to twenty first-years in a special small-format class this semester, and the political season offered an opportunity too good to pass up. In class on October 18 I spent the entire lecture going over with them various logical fallacies and illicit rhetorical strategies. Then on October 19 I had all the students over to my house for pizza and debate-watching. I divided them into two teams, then had them score points by calling out instances of fallacies as they happened in the debate in real time.
The first astonishing thing was how many fallacies we found. 45 minutes in, my students had called out over 60. (And that was only on the two candidates—we ruled out scoring points off the moderator, despite Chris Wallace’s many loaded questions.) At that point we took ad hominem, red herring, hyperbole, and smokescreening off the table, mostly because I couldn’t count them fast enough. (Smokescreening is responding to a question by piling on related points or complications until everyone forgets the original question and the fact that you haven’t answered it.)
The next interesting point was the distribution of fallacies. Trump had many—as I had anticipated—but Clinton had her fair share as well. I think it was eye-opening for the students to systematically break down how a seasoned politician uses rhetorical strategies to shift even issues questions towards points she’d rather be discussing and away from those she’d rather not. My sense of my students was that most (but not all) of them lean Democrat. Nevertheless, within a few minutes they were calling out fallacies on Clinton with gusto.
Finally, it was amusing to me which fallacies didn’t pop up. It took until the very last minutes of the debate for us to find a genuine straw man fallacy. The students who haven’t been following the election closely sometimes called “straw man” on Clinton early on. But then we’d rewind to hear what she had actually said (DVR helped here), and perhaps consult the internet to see if Trump had actually uttered the words she was accusing him of. The answer pretty much always turned out to be yes. Meanwhile, Trump wasn’t straw-manning her positions; he was either reporting them accurately and then leaping to a far-fetched consequence, or skipping any precise characterization of her positions in favor of general labels like “terrible” and “the worst”.
What did we all learn? It’s difficult to say. But at least my wife and I found a way to get through the third presidential debate without throwing anything through the television.