By Jason Blum (Assistant Professor of the Practice in Writing, Davidson College, DeeP Collaborative Member)
The Deliberative Pedagogy (DeeP) Faculty Collaborative consists of 20+ faculty from Davidson College and five other Associated Colleges of the South institutions who are committed to learning and implementing new ways to improve and deepen the quality of their class discussions. These faculty come from a wide array of disciplines and backgrounds. They come together to study and discuss different deliberative pedagogy methods, share their ideas and questions with one another, and work to embed deliberation in their classrooms. In this special blog series, members of the Collaborative describe and reflect on their experiences developing and teaching their deliberation-involved courses.
Please note that Professor Blum’s course was taught and the below blog post was written before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in case of 303 Creative LLC et al. v. Elenis et al.
The case of 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis, which was argued before the Supreme Court in December of 2022,was a natural choice for the central deliberation exercise I staged in my course during the Spring 2023 semester. I incorporated it into my writing course, a seminar-style class designed specifically for first-year students. Although the primary goal of the course is to hone students’ writing skills, I fashion my writing courses around provocative and timely topics that challenge students to engage with other authors’ (often competing) perspectives and to produce arguments that explain and defend their own positions in response to those texts. This semester, the topic around which my writing course was built was religion in the public square.
Much of the course centers on two texts, one of which argues for a more prominent role of religion in public life, and the other of which contends that religion is undeserving of the legal accommodations and special cultural status that it enjoys in the United States. The casewas well-suited to emphasize the deliberative skills and sensibilities that I sought to foster throughout the semester. It involves a Colorado-based web designer who plans to expand her business into creating websites for weddings. For religious reasons, she objects to same-sex marriage and intends to post a disclaimer stating that she will not design websites for same-sex weddings. Because Colorado law forbids discrimination against gay people, the disclaimer she wants to post would be illegal.
For our deliberation, students were organized in teams of three and provided with a brief New York Times article that describes the basic details of the case. I then asked each team to devise arguments supporting the plaintiff, and then to devise arguments supporting the defendant. After considering the case from each perspective, teams then attempted to reach consensus on how the case should be decided. I explicitly prompted students to draw on our course readings in approaching the exercise. Finally, the class reconvened as a whole to compare decisions and discuss the deliberations that led to their decisions.
I never opined on the case. My pedagogical strategy is to withhold my own positions to avoid the possibility of influencing my students and make them more comfortable expressing a range of opinions. I also explain to students why I do this, and many of them have commented that they appreciate this technique and my purpose in using it.
The case was appropriate for my course primarily because it concerns contrasting values that the majority of students would likely see as positive: on the one hand, religious liberty and freedom of speech, and on the other hand, antidiscrimination. As one of our authors puts it, the case was therefore one in which “the clash is not of wrongs but of rights.” Students were therefore tasked with making a difficult call. Reflecting the divergent texts that we read, there are viable and potentially compelling arguments to be made on both sides. It is the kind of complex and challenging question over which intelligent, well-meaning people can disagree – a “wicked problem,” in the lingo of deliberation – and therefore one that would force students to practice the kind of careful reflection that makes not only for good writing but for good thinking.
This was perhaps the central intellectual sensibility that I sought to foster in my course: the ability to engage honestly and even generously with competing perspectives over an issue that is complex and unlikely to be easily or cleanly resolved. Tasking student teams with the responsibility of coming to a determination in the 303 Creative case was also beneficial in that it provided a concrete case in which these competing concerns were acutely crystallized. I scheduled the deliberation late in the semester, once students were familiar with the general outlines of the two primary texts we read. They were therefore well-positioned to apply the general principles they had learned in a way that was specific, and which clarified for them both the stakes involved and the sometimes abstract concepts we had discussed. By this point in the semester, the class had also developed a sufficient rapport with each other (and me) that we were able to discuss this controversial issue with an attitude of mutual trust and collaboration.
At least one student commented to me that the exercise forced her to change her thinking. The necessity of addressing a real-world instance seemed to provide a kind of intellectual traction that deepened her thinking on the relevant questions that forced reconsideration of her prior assumptions and values. Other students echoed the sentiment that applying course concepts to a real-world scenario was helpful, as well as “fun.” More than one student suggested that future iterations of the course could benefit from more exercises like this. Incorporating deliberation into my course underscored intellectual skills – such as honest attention to contrary perspectives, generosity of interpretation, acknowledgement of complexity, and willingness to reconsider one’s own positions – that are also central to effective writing and good thinking.
 The Supreme Court has stipulated that it will limit its review of the case to the question of whether the Colorado law violates First Amendment protections of freedom of speech. For our deliberation, I instructed students to proceed as though the question of free exercise of religion was still on the table, since that was an essential dimension of the course.
 Stephen Carter, The Culture of Disbelief (New York: Anchor Books, 1993), 154.