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February 3, 2000

ON TEACHING- David Y. Miller

David Y. Miller always begins his "Comparative Regional Governing" course by telling his students two things:

* He won't be giving them any tests. And yet…

* By the end of the term, when they're filling out course evaluations and come to the question, "How hard did you work in this class compared with your other courses?" it's a safe bet they will answer: much harder.

"Invariably, that's what happens," Miller says.

The explanation lies in the structure of Miller's course. After lecturing to his students during the first half of the term, Miller divides them into debate teams.

"I'm not a strong believer in pencil-and-paper tests," says Miller, an associate dean and associate professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA). "The second half of my course consists of a series of debates among the students — rigorous, systematic, competitive debates involving material we've covered in class."

Each team is assigned to argue for or against three resolutions such as, "Resolved: Allegheny County's 43 school districts should be merged into a single district."

Students whose teams aren't currently debating serve as judges, evaluating their classmates' performances, declaring a winner and explaining their decisions.

"It's a format I've been working on and modifying over the last 10 years, and it comes from my own experience as an intercollegiate debater," says Miller, 52, who earned his B.A. in political science from Utica College of Syracuse University. He received his Ph.D. from GSPIA in 1988.

Competitive debating "was probably the strongest educational experience of my college career," he recalls. "At the time I joined the debate team, I didn't consider myself to be a particularly good public speaker. It's intimidating, the idea of standing up in public and competing against other people. But it wasn't long before I found my skills increasing dramatically, including my listening skills.

"To be a good debater, you have to listen carefully to your opponents. The real secret of winning a debate is being able to anticipate your opponents' arguments."

Which is how Miller guards against students gaining a one-sided view of issues they debate. "I usually have the teams over to my house to talk strategy, and it's always fun listening to them prepare their arguments. They never know in advance what the other side's arguments will be, so they end up preparing just as heavily to argue the other side's case as they do their own case."

Miller calls himself "one of those teachers who takes very seriously the notion that education should be fun — not in the 'play' sense, but in the sense that my students really seem to enjoy competing against each other."

Debates force students to learn issues inside and out, demonstrating their mastery of classroom material while practicing teamwork and gaining confidence as public speakers, Miller points out.

"Ten years from now, if you ask them about the reading list for my course or what the issues were that we discussed, they'll be hard-pressed to remember," Miller says. "But the skills they're gaining are life-long skills."

Rarely, a student will suffer serious stage fright. "I had one student this year who said to me, 'I heard about your class and I just can't do it,' and dropped out," Miller recalls. "I was really disappointed. Last year, for the first time, one of my students developed stage fright in the classroom to the point that she had to stop and sit down. Her teammates helped her out, though; she stood back up and did a pretty good job."

Miller acknowledges that his class is not for the meek. But then, neither is the public policy business, a fact to which Miller can attest after a 30-year career in local government that stretched from Dover-Foxcroft, Maine, to Pittsburgh.

He directed the City of Pittsburgh's Office of Management and Budget from 1996 through 1998, when he joined GSPIA as associate dean, manager of the school's day-to-day operations. He teaches two courses each academic year. (Miller, a GSPIA adjunct professor before joining Pitt fulltime, says he insisted that his contract stipulate he could continue teaching.) "My expectation is that our graduates will be involved in public policy debates, some in front of 200 people, others in front of the boards of directors of nonprofit organizations. And sometimes, it's going to be contentious. To be comfortable, to maintain your composure in adversarial settings, is important. It's not for everybody."

Nor is the debate format appropriate for every course, although Miller suggests that most teachers could incorporate some element of debating in their classes.

"The great thing about this format is, I never saw anybody who participated effectively in a debate who didn't know the subject under discussion," he says. "It's an arena where, if you haven't done your homework, it's painfully obvious to everyone.

"One of the problems in a lot of other group projects is the free-rider, the student who lets the other group members do all the work," he adds. "But you can't free ride in this environment, where every member of the team has to make a presentation."

Ruth Feathers, an adjunct faculty member at CCAC-Allegheny campus and a student in GSPIA's Master of Public Policy Management program, studied with Miller last spring. Before that, she had spoken in public but had never participated in a formal debate. "A debate is a different animal," she says. "What David showed us was the necessity to look at all possible angles of an argument or issue.

"I have only been in the MPPM program for three classes, so I really am not qualified to assess any instructor's teaching style," Feathers continues.

"I can only tell you that I have adopted some of David's practices in presenting material to the classes I teach. Are my students entirely happy with the process? No. But they are learning, and learning to think for themselves. And I believe that is what David is about: The material, while important in itself, is only a vehicle to that end."

As a professor at a professional school, Miller sees himself as a gatekeeper. "One of my responsibilities is to certify that students have the knowledge and ability to be professional managers. The act of giving a passing grade is an act of certification."

Miller says that after his students have shown they can prep thoroughly for debates, collaborate as team members and think on their feet in front of an audience, he feels comfortable certifying that they are qualified to move on to the next level of study.

— Bruce Steele

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