On Monday, Tom Woods reproduced an email a reader had sent him, asking if he should take the contrarian position at the risk of a worse grade. This is a common fear amongst students, but for some reason non-students continue to perpetuate the myth. The fact is, most professors don’t grade those who disagree any worse than those who agree. They grade on quality of argument. The student who agrees with the professor can borrow from the lectures and the reading — the substance of the paper is developed in class. The student who disagrees has to either develop his position on his own or read material outside of the class. Consequently, students who take contrarian positions tend to have worse argued papers. But, the problem is the quality of the argument not the subject matter.
Here’s my advice. Let’s say that you’ve read an article on the civil war written by Tom Woods or Tom DiLorenzo and you’re convinced. But, this is pretty much the only literature you’ve read and your knowledge is generally limited. I don’t suggest you write a paper defending this position, largely because the scope of knowledge determines the quality of the argument. Now, if you’re one of those students who gets extremely involved with a topic and explores it in relatively more depth than your peers, then go ahead and write the contrarian paper. Note, none of this presupposes truth. One side or the other could be wrong, or both sides could be wrong, yet they both can advance good arguments.
If, for some reason, your professor gives you a worse mark than the one you expected, then stop by his/her office hours. If the professor included margin notes and you disagree with his judgment (of your argument) more likely than not that professor will be willing to discuss it with you. I took a womens’ studies course as an upper division elective once and I got a C or a B on a paper. I approached my professor after class and pleaded my case: she bumped my grade to an A.
The point is, very, very few professors will fail a student for taking an unpopular position. If you do poorly in a paper or an exam where you take such a position it’s probably due to problems in your argument and writing, not a problem with the position you decided to defend (assuming the position is relevant to the prompt, of course).