Webcasting a University of Saskatchewan classroom debate
I’ve been in agriculture all my life. I grew up on a mixed farm with a cow-calf herd of 125 and a section of land. While I no longer farm myself, my relatives still do. Now my daily involvement is through the research and teaching I do. Statements criticizing agriculture that aren’t based on fact, science or accuracy, really frustrate me. So, I decided to hold organizations that make baseless statements against agriculture accountable.
Each fall I teach an undergraduate class on agricultural policy. One of the assignments that students are required to complete is to be involved in a classroom debate about current policy issues. This year I decided that by slightly changing the debate format would provide accountability to statements made by environmental non-governmental organizations (eNGO). In previous years, I have used videos made by Greenpeace as part of the learning exercise for the students. Given Greenpeace’s public statements against modern farming practices like genetically modified crops, chemicals and livestock treatment, it was natural to select them as an eNGO to be held accountable. As an exercise in holding Greenpeace to account for their statements, my class has indicted Greenpeace for crimes against agriculture. This charge includes slandering and defaming farmers, technologies and companies in their efforts to establish false pretences about modern agriculture. Their statements against modern agriculture practices are designed to intimate and scare the public about their food and environment. This social concern results in fewer GM crop adoptions, which contributes to malnourishment, starvation and unfortunately premature death in many countries that are food insecure.
The learning objectives of the debates are to develop the skills of how to research an issue, build a structured and logical argument, and to present their case coherently. To accomplish this, I tasked the students at the start of September to review Greenpeace websites, literature and videos for statements the organization made that they disagreed with or suspected weren’t accurate of agriculture. We refined the statements down to a single sentence, selecting 18 Greenpeace statements to be debated. From there, students were randomly assigned to prosecute or defend Greenpeace for each of the 18 statements. The remainder of the students in the class will comprise the jury, in which they will be asked to present a verdict based merely on the evidence presented, and not on their own personal feelings towards the defendant or the topic. There will be 3 jurors delivering a decision for each statement, so there will always be a majority decision. The jury decisions won’t impact the grades of the defenders or prosecutors as they will have received their grade prior to the jury decision being delivered.
Having been indicted, Greenpeace’s trial will take place in our normal class time, 8:30 – 9:50 CST. The 18 statement debates will be held on November 21st, 23rd, 28th and 30th. The jury will deliver the fate of Greenpeace on December 5th.
If you’re interested in Greenpeace’s trial, it will be webcast at: https://www.facebook.com/agrifood.innovation.usask The debates and jury decisions will also be taped and made available for you to watch when you are able to.
I believe in undertaking innovative means of learning and to my knowledge, no one has previously attempted to provide an assignment of this nature. My students are excited about the challenge this provides them. Many of the students will be defending statements that they do not personally believe in or support. I hope that you will enjoy the debates and learn something from the exercise.