Is Achilles a Hero? Debates in the Large-Lecture Classroom

One of the best decisions I’ve made more recently is introducing debates into my large lecture (200+ students) class that focuses on the ancient and medieval Mediterranean world. They energized the class, helped students review material each week, and helped them to think more critically. They also helped to make a 3-hour class more bearable. If you are interested in finding new ways to get students engaged and review material each week, then please do read on.

The setup of this activity are as follows:

  1. Two teams are assigned to a debate topic that asks them to persuasively argue a position about something we discussed in the previous class.
  2. Each team completes a debate case assignment that is uploaded to class the night before the debate.
  3. Students are only told which side they will debate at the beginning of class (or even emailed the morning of). [As an aside, I read through the debate cases the morning of the debates to help me select which team would debate each side).
  4. The debate lasts no more than 10 minutes, but before each debate takes place in class I read a set script while wearing my robes (yes, those robes–it seems a shame to only wear them 2x a year. And yes, I wear the funny hat and all.) The get into character with the script, which includes a set of reminders for students–like listening, electronics away, etc. I also reminded them to snap or tap their armrests when someone makes an excellent point in the debate and to stand and clap when the debate concludes. I also bow to the debaters and have them bow in return.
  5. Two other teams are assigned to be a “jury panel.” They take detailed notes on the debate. These two teams are then required to submit a copy of each team members’ notes and a written 250-word discussion about which team argued more persuasively. [As an aside, in a smaller class, I’d make all students do this instead of just 2 teams.]

Here is a brief list to give you a sense of some of the topics students debated:

  • Gilgamesh is a worthy hero. [We talk A LOT about the hero’s journey, and the concept of “the hero” is a major theme of the class.]
  • A virtual tour of the Temple of Amun-Re at Karnak helps to build historical empathy. [We talk A LOT about digital reconstruction, VR, and historical empathy.]
  • Polyneices deserved to be buried.
  • The Book of the City of Ladies is an epic.
  • The pediments of the Temple of Zeus, Olympia present a compelling visual story.

These debates not only helped all my students to review material from the previous week, but also to see how different students could argue one side or another. I also noted at the semester’s start that exam essays would relate to debate topics, which helped those students not debating or serving as jurists to pay attention and take notes.

What did I discover after I implemented the debates?

  • richer conversations with students
  • better exam essays
  • better use of time
  • greater attentiveness to reading materials

I found the debates a smashing success, and I continue to use them as a way to reinforce important learning outcomes for students!


I should also mention that I was inspired to do this by Megan Sullivan (Notre Dame) who I heard speak about using debates in her large-lecture philosophy class. I thought, wow! What a great idea! And thus my debates were born for my humanities class.

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