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Upsetting Composition CommonplacesUpsetting Composition Commonplaces by Ian Barnard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Interesting book that takes some sacred terms in composition theory (audience, objectivity, voice, etc) and critiques them from the lens of whether or not teaching is in line with composition theory and pedagogical approaches to writing. After admitting several times in the course of the text a well accepted idea that pedagogy lags behind theory about 20 to 30 years, the author critiques contemporary teaching for being too dependent on objectivity, authorial intent, liberal construction of audiences, and thin conceptions of proof.

Although the critique is well made, I think it would be great to see more of the book written like Chapter 6 which really had me going. It might be my own biases in terms of what I'm interested in, but this chapter on audience was great. I think that what set it apart was specific ideas for very radical assignments and classroom activities. I would have liked to see more of that throughout the book.

I like the idea of upsetting these God-terms, either tumping them over or literally making people who think they are good teachers upset. But the critique really doesn't go as far as it needs to and also avoids some necessary complexity. For example, the chapter on objectivity is very good and very right about its criticism of fact-reliance in pedagogy, which honestly impacts the entire education system. But there's little discussion of the importance of facts for issues such as holocaust denial, conspiracy theory (moon landing and 9/11 sort of stuff) as well as other strange ideas that often appear in American student writing. Making the critique of fact addiction more fuzzy with an analysis of the false-flag conspiracy regarding Sandy Hook, for example, might have really opened up the conversation between text and reader about what is possible in the teaching of writing today (as well as what is needed).

In the end the book was enjoyable to read, it just didn't rock me the way I hoped it would. The critique is obvious and agreeable, the Audience chapter is amazing, and the rest of it seems, well, right - but not radically upsetting.

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In Los Angeles for the Civic Debate Conference: Day 3

The University of Southern California is a very, very pretty place. 

Aside from the inevitable technical issues on the video call - why can’t any university just make it easy to do this? Everywhere I go there is a camera that isn’t connected, microphones and speakers that are not connected, logins and other security measures that only keep out and frustrate legitimate users of the systems, and on and on and on. Not to mention that faculty and others at the university think it’s amusing that computer illiteracy is rampant and epidemic across the academy. Anyway, we’ll try again today and see if it works. It’s so frustrating that there aren’t just simple computer setups at universities dedicated to video conferencing. 

The conversation yesterday was pretty good. I presented a talk (I am just now realizing I forgot to record it) that I should post on Academia.edu. I argued two lines of thought about civic debate: First, that we should start anew in considering what civic debate is when we engineer it for student debaters. To do so, we should start with the Roman commonplace questions: Is it? What is it? And finally, What kind is it? These are questions for the generation of argument: Existence, definition, and quality. If you skip one, you open yourself up to trouble later on.  

The second thing was a discussion of Robert Newman’s passing, which really marks a moment in American debate history. Newman was (and is) a titanic figure in American debate education. He was called a subversive by his own university in the 1950s for hosting debates on the question of the United States government formally recognizing China. Serious stuff.  Anyway, I reflect on his brand of subversion and what it can teach us about what civic debate ought to look like. 

 You can read my draft of the comments here. 

We talked about a number of civic events with different partners that might be possible based on our connections. I’m more of an attendee rather than a planner at these events simply because my Univeristy, as you probably know by now, has zero interest in anything outside of itself. It’s a total “walls up” institution where rooms cannot be reserved for any purpose during final exams, and the idea of taking undergraduates places for their benefit is seen as a problem. It’s impossible to reserve rooms for events or host things on campus - you are treated by the staff as a huge waste of time, annoying, and a problem. The University claims to be interested in students and student transformation, but in the end they are really only interested in getting paid on time, and making sure that students go to class. Some transformation.  

I’m happy to take students to events though which is why I attend this. And I’m even happier to discuss pedagogy of debating. I just have to deal with feelings of jealousy when i hear about all the great stuff that other people are doing simply because their university functions normally. As professors, they can reserve rooms when needed for academic purposes. They can develop partnerships. When I bring a complete overseas program to my university’s study abroad office they say, “good luck developing that, here are the forms to fill out.” Nobody wants to do any work. They want to collect a check and share pictures of their children on the university email. They want their summers off; they consider tenure a retirement plan. Pathetic.

I’m actually interested in teaching although I’m terrible at it right now. The conference is really thought-provoking, and makes me think about the classroom a lot. The classroom’s status as a transformative space is undervalued. People, even thoughtful high-ranking university folks, have written the classroom off as a static space that has an absolute set of practices. Where’s the imagination? 

Today’s discussion will focus a lot more on best practices and ways of talking about and justifying civic debate as more than a firm “not that” directed at other types of debating. Then this afternoon I have nothing but time to kill as I wait for my midnight flight back to New York. 

 

 

In Los Angeles for the Civic Debate Conference: Day 2 was on a Boat

A lot happened yesterday that involved good food and wine and a boat. I didn’t have the time last night (because I went immediately to sleep) to download and have a look at the videos I took of the boat but maybe I’ll do it tonight after the conference. 

Had an amazing dinner yesterday at a place called Sol in Newport Beach. Amazing food. There was a good conversation we had (it was happening on and off on the boat as well) about assessment.  

A big question to think about in assessment is how to be fair about evaluating student efforts. One of the difficult things to evaluate in rhetoric courses anyway, is how well students do with uncertainty or ambiguity. If we directly craft moments of ambiguity to help them deal with ambiguity, is that good? If we provide an ambiguous criteria for evaluation, is that helpful? There is an argument that one is often evaluated and judged on ambiguous criteria.  

I believe the rhetorical response here is to teach students how to cut through ambiguity and make a descriptive argument as to what should be judged and how. But by a descriptive argument, I mean they do not advocate for a change in an open and clear way. Instead, they place their advocacy as something that exists and is unrecognized. They point out that there’s a way to judge and evaluate right in front of us that is the normal and natural way to do it.  

Most students would have trouble with this since their school experience is 98% discipline and 2% creativity and ingenium. When we ask them to obey a rubric, even an ambiguous one, the impulse is to try to follow it to the best of their ability then prepare appeal-style arguments when the grade is bad. Trying one’s best is often a reason to increase a grade in the contemporary college environment.  

If one wanted to teach responses and handling of ambiguity, one would want to do it in cooperation with the students, not holding it over them or being someone in charge or something. We often forget that one of the roles of a teacher is to cooperate and help students. Thinking of the classroom as a site of encounter for everyone there - including the professor - helps us focus on this idea of cooperation and help as a central element in teaching practice. Too often professors believe their role is guard of some vault full of points (imagine Scrooge McDuck’s money bin) and they have to make sure that nobody steals any points or gets points they are not worthy of having. 

Instead of this metaphor the cooperation metaphor might increase performance in the course as the professor leads the class through different ways of approaching ambiguity and wrangling it. There is no correct answer but merely good approaches. There’s not much of a question of grading process or product here - what product would you grade? The process is the only thing on offer. This also addresses an old question of whether you grade performances or understanding in a course. What about those students who are brilliant public speakers yet understand none of the principles of the course? What about those who are terrible at speaking but understand the principles very clearly? This final question is the ultimate ambiguity that professors must wrangle as they attempt to create a fair and meaningful grading system for their course. 

In debate, we side with performance 100% of the time. There’s nothing else. But how would debate alter if we decided to judge debates on process rather than performance? This might be a question or idea that the civic debate conference I’m attending for the next two days could perhaps one day entertain. 

In Los Angeles for the Civic Debate Conference Day 1

 the race is on! Who will get to LAX first?

the race is on! Who will get to LAX first?

Flew in pretty early and arrived around noon. The last 30 minutes of the flight we were involved in a drag race with what looked like an American Airlines flight?

I have a few of these photos but I think one really is enough to show you how weird it was. 

Anyway, the flight was uneventful. Got a bunch of reading done, which is the sign of a good flight.

 

Took no time to get from LAX to my hotel which is in what some have called an ok area, some have said kind of “not great” area (I leave interpretation of that up to you, o readers). So far so good. Pretty quiet and the rooms are clean and inexpensive. Glad I found the spot. Although a police helicopter did circle the hotel for like 90 minutes this afternoon. 

I only brought my still camera and this action camera on this trip as I’m trying to pack light. Also rocking the iPad Pro again - still getting used to it and don’t really get it yet. There’s a lot of stuff I’m much more familar with doing on a laptop and doing it here on this IPad just doesn’t work the same way. But I’m learning. 

 it was amazing.

it was amazing.

After checking into the hotel here I examined my Facebook feed where my loyal and intelligent LA friends made a list of suggested spots to eat and check out. FIrst on the list was some Mexican food. I went to Al & Bea’s Mexican food. Amazing. 

This is a bean and cheese burrito with red sauce and it was really good. The thing about it that I thought was weird though was the tiny bits of cheese that are somehow evenly distributed throughout the beans. I’ve never had a burrito like this before, it was great. Very different than Texas and a vast improvement over the horror-show of Mexican food that exists in New York City.

I was finishing eating and messing on my phone when the strangest thing to ever happen to me (most likely) happened.

A woman was getting burritos and she started staring at me. She approached me and asked me if I was from New York. I said yes. She then identified herself as the mom of one of my students who is graduating on Sunday. We were supposed to meet on Sunday but I guess fate, the spirit of Los Angeles, or some other force deemed that we should meet today. Of course we took a selfie and tagged her daughter in it and put it on Facebook. Los Angeles, what a small town.

This seriously has to be one of the strangest things I’ve experienced. It was pretty great though, and we get to meet again on Sunday!

I told her I was planning to head to a place called The Last Bookstore downtown and she offered me a ride, so off we went. After saying goodbye (“See you Sunday!”) I went to check out the Last Bookstore. I’ts seriously one of the best bookstores I’ve been in!

 

I only bought 4 books so that’s doing pretty well considering they had some great stuff and most every book was $5. Got some weird ones too but also a couple that are actually pretty good. This footage is from my Snapchat specs, version 1. 

I found a lot of great old pals in this bookstore. Love that Watson translation (he did several good ones across religious texts). Of course Sophist and Vico. This was a great bookstore.

Had some coffee after that in a great spot suggested by someone who knows where to get good coffee. Waited there to get hungry and explore some dinner options downtown, but I never got hungry so I returned to the hotel and did some writing (including this post).

So that’s the day so far. Now time to go have a drink or two where Bukowski drank (supposedly!). Very excited to see some more spots.

I Judged the Final of a Middle School Debate Competition

I was asked by the English Speaking Union to come out to NEST and judge the final debate of their middle school competition yesterday. Seems like a good way to end the semester. The middle school debates by the MSDP are always of a good quality (I've judged a couple before, one at the Hackley School up in Tarrytown, NY and the other was held at the Morgan Library). 

msdp.jpg

It was incredible to see how many family members and other supporters had gathered for the event. I wondered if they had been there all day. It was full of people. I only came in for one debate, but these people had to have been there for the previous 5 debates. Doing 5 debates in one day seems to be a lot in my view, but I think maybe with middle school students they have the energy and the desire to do that much in one day. I do wonder how much time they have for thinking about what they've said, what was said to them, and what they heard. I'm much more in the less as more camp on number of debates. 

The final round was about the US government providing a universal basic income to all citizens. I think this is a great topic since it's something that circulates a bit in the press and has a lot of research that's pretty accessible. It hits the marks for me on a good topic. But what was strange to me was how the debate played out. 

The proposition side indicted the welfare system saying that it was corrupt and holds people back. A universal basic income would solve this problem because it would allow people to choose what they would want to spend their money on - meet their own needs. The opposition argued that the universal basic income would be expensive to administer and could be exploited by people. They argued instead that we should take the money for universal basic income and use it to repair the broken welfare system because that system has restrictions on use. 

It was good for me to come see this debate since I've been rethinking my whole approach to public speaking, which is a much more important class than people think. I believe it to be the class that teaches invention for the whole university, helping students figure out what to say across the different classes they would take. This debate indicated to me just how much we as a society think that debate is about fidelity to the truth rather than fidelity to persuasion and audiences. The difference is in what we teach about the world: Are we to teach students how the world operates and how to conform to that world, or are we to teach them how to imagine something better than what we have now? Of course, the easy answer is somewhere in the middle. But conformity is pretty easy so I figure it doesn't need a ton of classroom time. 

Here's an example: The proposition team provided "evidence" that universal basic income works - all statistics from the Alaska permanent residency fund which indicated that people like the fund and that malnutrition and illiteracy rates go down with the application of these funds. It seemed to me they thought their work was done by providing this information. The opposition also provided the idea that people take advantage of welfare systems and could cheat, and that seemed like enough. Both teams got a lot of applause and cheers from the audience. This sort of speaking is fidelity to the fact, fidelity to the information, or state-of-the-world speaking that we all recognize as the function of debate - to convey what is right and true, etc. 

But neither of these teams provided any perspective on what it was they were asking us to judge. For the proposition side, it would have been great for them to give a bit of a story about what our values are and how we best enact those values in our policies. There's a great story about individual choice, or putting family first, or any number of narratives that could be provided here. Then they can contrast that value story with whatever the other team offers. If the opposition, like in this case, says we should repair the current welfare system, fine. The welfare system goes against the value of choice and allowing people do to what they think is best for their children.

It's an old idea from the teaching of oratory - which might be why it's left out in contemporary post-Cartesian models of debating - where Quintilian (who didn't come up with it but his writings are preserved) teaches that the narrative should be followed by the division - you tell the story of what you are all about until you reach a point where it makes sense to tell the audience how and why you disagree with your opponent. Narratio is followed by partitio. The what-we-stand-for and the who-we-are is followed by the what-we-must-stand-for. This goes beyond the team: Any good orator would try to constitute the audience as being a part of the team as well. Making your judges your co-conspirators against a great and powerful, but wrong, opposition is very persuasive.

The opposition could have benefitted from some oratorical pedagogy as well. Instead of saying that universal basic income is expensive, let's use the money to repair welfare they should have told a story about caring. About how society must be protected, and that American society is about equal opportunity. Let's use that money to repair and better our collective social good. They mentioned the schools as well - which should have been the whole case - and then they could talk about what free choice really is: Being educated and being able to make a critical choice when it counts the most. 

What was really missing from the debate was clash - serious disagreement on identity and values. Instead, the debate was about whether people will cheat in welfare or on universal basic income more. I think that fidelity to facts instead of fidelity to persuasion makes arguments like this more frequent. Fidelity in debate education should be toward creation - what can we make up? What can we create? What can we imagine? Opposed to the Cartesian tradition of folding argument into inductive or deductive "knowns:" We know people cheat on things like taxes, so they will cheat on universal basic income too. This is true, and probably will happen. But is this something that should be considered a good debate argument? Or something that should be offered in debate at all? 

The question of what debate teaches and what should be taught in debate is always that debate should teach creative invention of argument. That means that finding evidence that conforms to a known position in the world is less than half of what should be happening. Instead, students should be encouraged to tell a story about why their side of the debate matters, what it connects to and with, and what they imagine is the good that comes out of agreement with their side. From there, it is a simple matter to talk about things like workability or mechanism - because who cares? There are always bumps on the road to enacting and supporting our deepest values as a society and community. Teaching students how to string together a good narrative, then how to differentiate their position from the position of opponents are two of the most important parts of debate pedagogy - both absent - from the debate I judged. 

It was good to see. They all spoke very well. Now I am wondering how to teach and reinforce these practices among my own students. It's not really clear at the moment, but I'm sure I'll update here when I think of some assignments. 

Kate, who runs the MSDP, said before the final to the assembled crowd that we approach debate in a "spirit of abundance," so there's no reason to be angry, jealous, or mean to a team who is speaking if you feel that you should be up there instead. This is a good point to make, but I've been thinking about this abundant spirit since yesterday.

Perhaps argumentation studies and debate scholarship itself should approach things with a "spirit of abundance" due to the incredibly vast array of potential arguments out there, potential ways to say them, and potential ways to be wrong. Instead of focusing our research attentions on good and bad arguments, right and wrong arguments, how about more focus on the ways to make and take arguments, the ways to break and reset them?

Too much attention and energy is spent on being argument critics and not very much energy is spent on helping others produce and learn to produce them. Events like what I saw at NEST represent a type of politics, a politics of "let's see what they say." This is very different from "They'd better say what I like," which passes for political practice today. More fidelity to imagination and less conformity to what we think we know is the politicization of the classroom that debate pedagogy brings, and should bring, anywhere it's taught.  

The False Sense of Closure

So incredibly relieved that I no longer have to deal with my Modern Rhetorical Theory class which was in every sense a total failure. I thought I would feel happy about the end of the term, but the only feeling I have is relief. Relief in the sense that something you were close to is no longer suffering. I do so wish though I could go back to January and somehow "fix" things. Might be something beyond my fixing, might be that it's 90 degrees outside yesterday. 

One of my theories about the term is that students are bright and well prepared by the core classes to advocate for themselves in bureaucratic battles. They learn quickly that the language of the syllabus is there to entrap them and they learn how to use it to bend things to their favor. The other result of bad professors merely enforcing point and percentage limits on dry assignments is there's no practice in imagining or sharing opinion. They get no practice for the harder things that I might want them to do (or expect them to be able to do) at a higher level course. With the syllabus being absent the codes of numeric resistance and the texts being books for discussion, the students in this course would rather just not show up than risk saying the wrong thing.

Where I work there is a premium on making fun of and talking down about student ability. I call it the cynical pedagogy. You show someone what you are going to have the students do, they sneer, chortle, and express some trope about students being lazy or unwilling to do things. Recently I was at a meeting by a publisher who was showing us a new web suite they have designed for teaching. The professor next to me offered, in his best cynical tone, "What are we going to do about the students who just don't buy a code, don't want to log in, can't log in, blah blah blah?" The company rep was very kind and thoughtful: "We understand that many students at the start of the year have no money, so we can do a 3 week grace period where no login is required. I get how student loans are late and paychecks don't come in until the end of the month." The professor replied, "Oh I didn't think about that. I was referring to their laziness."

Yes, a faculty member assumes that poor people are lazy. Just another day on my campus, honestly.

This cynical pedagogy comes out in two ways: First, the syllabus is designed for the students who can't do anything. It's limited and asks little of them except route work. Secondly, the professor has a haughty attitude toward questions. The students are frequently made fun of or belittled for asking questions in class (I was led to believe this was the function of class). So by the time they come to this late course on Modern Rhetorical Theory, they understand it's better to be quiet and absent than invested and wrong. This is the fault of my colleagues.

But are they colleagues? The university's insistence on treating teachers like contract employees develops a sense of community and investment in the community just shy of an Uber driver's investment in the workplace community. Developing tenured or long-term 3rd way relationships with professors is the way to fix this. But that's a whole other issue. We need more people less worried about whether they will have a job in 2 years and more worried about how they will teach their subject over time for the community they are a part of. 

The term is ending sadly for me. It's a false sense of closure. The problems are still here even if the class is blissfully out of its misery. I feel like such a disappointment. I couldn't adapt to what the students needed. I spent all term reading books and taking notes just to show up to a barely full classroom who had not read much of anything. I tried to adapt by lowering the assignment burden and making them more open. The results were still not that great, as people were not reading. They were not coming to class to ask questions. When they did come to class, they were silent. 

My solution is to return to the core curriculum and teach there. This might help a few people question the limited and rather stupid position most core teachers take on the side of discipline: "They have to learn what college is about." I stand on the side of imagination: "They have to craft a valuable college experience." One provides tools, the other provides limits. I can't do anything in a course where the people were actively shamed from sharing ideas and engaging in difficult texts. I can teach a course that is supposed to activate those tastes and attitudes: Public Speaking. More on this later. 

Today I am going to work on my RSA paper, do some reading, some grading, and then I'm meeting with a couple of seniors to talk about Foucault. Not such a bad day honestly. The end of the term is not an end at all, but a mile marker. 

 

Disaster Term

This semester has been the worst semester I've had in my whole career. 

When I started teaching in 1997, I thought I didn't do a very good job then. Makes sense, since I was new. But that year looks amazing compared to the dumpster fire of shit teaching that I have accelerated this semester. I really thought I had a good plan going in and some really innovative things to offer. But I made such a simple mistake I'm almost embarrassed to write about it.

I assumed the topic of the course was interesting. I didn't consider why it was interesting, or what would be interesting about it to the audience. I assumed they were all there to read and discuss texts. 

This is a rookie error. Any good sophist knows that one has to read the audience for these assumptions. Then they use these assumptions to construct the audience into what they want - a group of people constituted around a question, a set of problems, or a concern that needs - and must - be addressed.

There's nothing naturally interesting about anything. That phrase "you should be interested" is always normative. When teachers claim students are bad because they are "not interested," it is a point of self-criticism. It is the failure of the teacher-as-rhetor to generate that interest.

Part of the challenge here is that often when we teach we have to reach beyond and outside of what interests us as teachers. This means we have to extend our reach into areas that are uncomfortable for us and have no connection to why we got into the subject in the first place. Such a challenge makes the rhetorician think of the topics and the invention of arguments based on these general areas where one can make connections between what one knows and what one wants the audience to know. 

There is little to no teacher education on this rhetorical practice. Educational design is always aimed at rational, deductive claims about humans. It is rarely about the uncertainty or the fluidity of moments of encounter. Encounter is a word that does not appear in education theory in any way related to the classroom. What does appear are terms like objective, assessment, plan, rubric, etc. But what about that initial encounter? 

There's a lot to say about that but to wrap this post up, the major error I made that turned this semester into a nightmare was to assume the students were interested in the same way I was in the course.

The second error I made was to not take the temperature of the course through regular writing assignments. I had in my mind large writing projects that I thought would be challenging and interesting. But I didn't think about how to prepare for that large ending through a number of smaller tasks that led up to it. I think the big, final project is overblown and is probably a part of the larger ideological demand that education be productive in a material sense (20 page papers) and a commodity sense (is this assignment on-brand for students? Does it help them in their career?). The new approach I'll use is small writing prompts through the semester. There's no need to assign a larger paper if the smaller assignments, strung together, could create a nice narrative.

Finally, there's also the issue of corruption from the university's insistence and faculty acquiescence  to the idea that upper-level courses are somehow "better" or a "reward" for doing a good job. This means that the best faculty are not distributed across the curriculum as they should be. Everyone deserves an uninvested instructor now and again, but a steady diet of uninvested, overstressed, unsupported people like adjunct faculty only serves to reinforce the idea that the material isn't going to be important after the term. Having more invested, less stressed faculty in these positions by either distributing adjuncts broadly or just hiring them on in ways where they feel comfortable and invested in the university would help so much. You'd be less likely to get a group of students in an upper level course who are tuned into the semester-long knowledge model and are not seeing connections to something they learned 2 years ago. If something is burned, you aren't going to fix it by adjusting the oven temperature. The way to fix it is in the preparation long ago. And monitoring it before that point.

I think that teaching the basic courses is a real honor and something that we should do more often. Why have we allowed this disconnect between upper level and basic? Why do we like and revel in our list of upper-level courses? At the same time, we complain about student performance in those courses too. This is more than an assessment issue; it's an issue of having someone in the basic courses who is invested in the university because it supports them, and they can see the long path ahead and how things interconnect. What will they need now in order to be able to enjoy and engage in the more complex material to come?

It's nearly time for me to go teach and wander around the wasteland I've made. I really hate this semester and it hates me back. But hopefully I can avoid these problems in the future by actually thinking about what I'm doing in the classroom, not assuming without the topics nearby, and spending more time in the basic courses. 

The Productive Bias Fallacy in Higher Education

University students are dying the death of a thousand rubrics.

From daily blog posts, to discussion board questions and answers, to short papers, to quizzes, to exams, to the ultimate capstone, the 20 page research paper due at the end of the term, students are immersed in thousands of small tasks that have very firm deadlines, often administered by a Blackboard or Moodle algorithm.

I call this rise of work the productive bias fallacy. It is a belief that because students are producing pages of writing, text, or other material (i.e. It can be held and seen) products, they are learning. More than that, the course is challenging, good, and the professor is really “doing something.”

This fallacy operates on the assumption that more is more. That writing something long is valuable. It’s almost the stereotype of the movie professor holding up a thesis and weighing it saying, “This argument seems incomplete.”

The fallacy quells the professor’s anxiety that he or she might not be reaching students, that learning might not be happening, that the class might not be “real.” The fear that college has little value in the world of work is a motivator here. We see the productive bias the most in the humanities.

The productive bias is a result of the loss of trust between faculty and students. What happened to faculty assigning a book and trusting that students would read it? Or attempt to read it? Or read part of it? As faculty began to doubt student honesty or engagement in reading, out came the writing responses. And the quizzes. And the discussion board (post your question and answer one from a peer). And the blog post (thankfully long after blogging’s popularity had died). As the busy work of production increased to meet these often graded demands, the time to read, to engage with a thoughtful book or article declined.

It is the most ironic inverse relationship, and it is perpetuated by professors. Lack of trust in reading and engaging creates assignments that whittle away the time needed to read and engage. But don’t worry: The class is good. Look at all the writing I am making them do. Look at the daily discussion board, there are over 100 entries today alone!

The productive bias cannot be satisfied. No matter how many pages students produce, the value of those pages will never connect with the perceived demands of “future employers.” After all, that’s who the university serves these days, isn’t it? If liberal arts professors, and humanities professors continue to try to please “future employers” (who are these people anyway? Are they on campus somewhere? How do we know what they want?) on the terms of production, they will always lose. The struggle to produce will serve as evidence that the humanities and liberal arts are no longer necessary.

Perhaps some fields can survive through their service component — teaching how to write or speak or do mathematics — but that’s bare survival. What is needed is a rhetoric that challenges the dominant narrative of value. That narrative can be found in professors taking a risk to trust. It can be found in the class where everyone is sitting around, books on desks, chatting on a Tuesday afternoon about the value of what they read. And by doing so, they will be creating the value of the university.

Good Debate, Debate as a Good, and Stoneman Douglas High School

Much has been said and written about the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and their sudden and violent non-consensual entry into the national gun control debate. Many were impressed, surprised, confused, and pleased with these students’ incredibly composed, organized, directed and well-articulated claims that the government had failed in its basic duty to keep them safe at school. Right wingers were perhaps the only ones to vocalize this surprise as doubt, calling the students “crisis actors,” either voluntary or paid professionals who showed up at the crisis to pretend to be high school students and control the national narrative, much like the members of Tim Robbin’s cult in the film Arlington Road.

But upon some media digging, it turns out that not only these students but all students in the Broward County school system are taught debating. It is a part of the curriculum, along with the standard courses that one would expect in high school. But the presence of a course on advocacy taught in the debate way – that is making appeals based on reason and information not to change the mind of an opponent, but to change the mind of a decision-making body – has crafted surprising subjects out of these students. Perhaps we should be ashamed that we are so shocked that teenagers can be so articulate and thoughtful during horrific violent trauma. Why isn’t this the expected result from our schooling efforts?

It’s an even more powerful moment of realization when you look back to the number of school shootings that have happened in the United States on campuses that have debate teams. With the amount of people participating in competitive debate activities around the country, it seems odd this would be the first time articulate and passionate student advocates would catch national attention. It seems odd that, giving how the NSDA and other debate organizations have praised the Stoneman Douglas students, simultaneously push the number of students involved in debate activities nationwide. Why is this not more frequent, and on many different issues?

What is unique in this case is a radical departure at Marjory Stoneman Douglas from how debate is usually taught. It is the school district’s choice to tie debate to the curriculum instead of to competition. Making the focus of debate an epistemic tool for understanding and appreciating the world, as well as a path for engaging in idea construction and destruction within a larger curriculum has had the impact we all imagined debate could have. There are competitions, of which about 80% of students in the Broward county schools have participated. But the competitions are not the reason for the existence of debate pedagogy. Broward county has reversed the traditional formula.

Tying debate to winning weekend tournaments, pursuing a national championship, or coming up with the thing to say that will render opponents into confused and frustrated silence doesn’t seem to have activated students in the same way. This connection codes debate as a tool for success at competitions rather than a tool for success in the everyday. It is true that tournament champions go on to great success in life, but there’s little data that participation in these events is the most significant reason, or even a relevant reason this happens. I think to all the criticisms I’ve had against my ideas for making debate centered more on the world and less on itself. Many responses dismiss me for making too much out of a “hobby for smart people” – which is what debate is seen as at most campuses, I’m afraid. What about considering debate, as a county in Florida did, as essential to the entire educational enterprise? Why is that so difficult?

Broward county schools had the right idea in envisioning debating as something like composition – hard to do but essential to teach as a way in for everyone to appreciate material in the classroom better. Classrooms are not allowed to select who gets taught or not. Teachers are required teach those who enter and are responsible for making sure they understand what’s going on. It’s not the teacher’s fault if the student fails, but it is the teacher’s fault if they ignore the student because they think they aren’t talented enough. Debate teams reject and accept participants based on this all the time. If a teacher does so, they lose their job. The ethics are totally different and should be. Sports teams do not necessarily exist to teach people how to play the sport. Debate teams, thought of as sport, have the same obligations. But debate should not be thought of as a sport.

Debate is taught primarily by “coaches” who exist, as they do in sport, to help talented people with mastery of a difficult game that one wants to win. The rise of neo-convictionist discourses in the coaching of debate under a guise of liberalism and openness is concerning to an ethics of teaching. Such discourses take the form of, “You already know, so let me make you better at the form.” These discourses are not necessarily exclusive of interrogation of ideas, where they come from, and whether one should hold them, but the presence of the competition next weekend is the master motivator and pushes these other concerns to the side. The neoliberal revision of the goals of the university are complicit in this, with faculty and administrators abandoning interrogating students about what they would like their lives to be instead of helping them quickly and efficiently take the courses needed for certification in a degree. Debate, seen from this unhealthy perspective, is a way of sharpening people to cut through society on the way to the top. Debate taught oriented toward curriculum must consider assent by the communities that expect to be persuaded, not judges who are looking for effectiveness and mastery of the form. The gap is so wide, no wonder we are surprised at the power of debate pedagogy when separated from the sports metaphor.

If debate is such a valuable educational experience that transforms lives of desperation into lives worth living, why is the primary mode of debate education through “team” models that one must either audition to be a part of, or have the confidence to attend? A person must automatically accept the idea that debate must be taught under a team rubric, with all the terrible associations of sports that come along with it just to walk in the door and see if debate club is right for them. Instead of the dominating team model, why not the Broward County model for all of us? Why not make the instruction of debating compulsory, tied to what’s going on in the state and the world, and have competitions from that? The current model (one I have been touting for years) is that the side-effect of a debate team is that we get students who are well-prepared to enter classrooms and engage directly, without fear of being wrong (or right sometimes). Does this really make the classroom better? This “trickle-down” model of debate pedagogy often alienates the debate team from the rest of the student body, something the team model encourages as students begin to think of themselves like talented athletes, people who are “simply better” than the others around them at arguing, evaluating evidence, persuading and being persuaded, and determining the best course of action. Hardly an orientation that encourages these students to go out and engage the public on issues. Why bother? The public doesn’t even know how to debate properly!

It is a real shame these students at Stoneman were thrust into the national gun violence debate by being victims of violence themselves. The one great thing to come out of this awful affair is the huge question for debate teachers as to the value of the coaching and team model. These two terms force us to consider debate as something to the side of the normal school day, something extra for the special students. This horrific violent act and the brave voices of the survivors using their debate education to advocate to save the lives of others is the best result of a horrible experience, provided by sound debate pedagogy. Tied to the normal school day rather than the after-school team is the central element to consider here. The existence of a debate team is not the existence of well-trained public advocates.

Recently I was pushing this model of debate and got a response that made me think quite a bit about our assumptions of debate as “extra.” I said, “Debate can really extend the classroom,” meaning that debate allows students to see what’s there as important in other places. I remember many times talking to teachers and librarians about something I was researching for debate and finding a much larger discourse out there circling around the same interesting questions I was making arguments about. The response, from someone who is invested in the weekend-competitive model, was quick: “My students have already had the classroom experience. They want something else.” This stunned me. I realized quickly that I was basing my ideas on my debate experience at my tiny Texas high school which was tied to the curriculum. This isn’t the normal experience in debate. This response cuts to the heart of what’s wrong with debate education, that it is an alternative to the classroom, a place where the best students receive the best engagement. Instead of thinking of the classroom as a place where debate could expand thought and education, classrooms are thought of as failed spaces where the power of debate can be held up as an alternative. Why do we not consider debate in some other relationship with the classroom, such as prior, during, or in cooperation with it? Why do so many debaters resent their teachers, professors, and the schooling experience in general, dropping out or failing numerous classes? Elton Abernathy wrote about the danger of “debate bums” from a steady tournament-diet, indicating that the tournament centric model creates a lot of people who hang around the periphery of the university but do not want to engage in the most serious conversations within it. The reason is that the tournament model has taught them that they already know better than most of the people within those buildings; there’s no point. Of course, this is as big an ad ignorantum as my earlier claim that schools that have experienced gun violence and have debate teams did not become politically active. They may have, as the debate bums may have found great lives. The point I’m trying to make is not causal, but an argument of scale. Why keep something so powerful, so influential, behind the label of a “team” or focused solely on competition? Why have a “coach” responsible for deciding who gets taught the arts of debate and who doesn’t?

At the university level, all students should be given as broad an access to debate education as we can figure out how to provide. Writing instructors realized this with writing a long time ago. No longer consigned to an after-hours club where those who love to write exchange pieces with one another in a social-authorship style relation and produce a magazine occasionally, the writing center purports to consider all students as people who love writing – they just don’t know it yet. Writing is an art, a craft, and essential for recognizing one’s place in the world. Broward schools recognized this and broadened this attitude to all formats of meaning creation, including debate and drama. All students should be considered excellent and in love with the art of advocacy, from establishing a position to researching it to presenting it before a crowd of interested observers for their assent. We must broaden our conception of debating to do so. And this horrible act of gun violence perpetuated by irresponsibility in our laws and how they are made shows us exactly what’s at stake, what can happen, and where the value of a broader debate pedagogy lies.