Spring 2018 Semester Starts Today

It's really snowing out there. Good way to start the term as I have been feeling unrested and unready for another semester. Thinking that I'll try to do the daily post again just to kick start what I'm thinking, feeling, and how I'm approaching things. Thought this soundtrack would be a good way to start this quiet, eerie day but I'm just sort of using it as background as I surf through some semi-interesting Lit Hub and Chronicle of Higher Ed essays. Not the most productive first day.

I would kind of like a year of quiet reading I think sometimes but then i know that would quickly convert into a year of halfheartedly playing video games and not showering until 4PM. The situation is not the root of my lack of motivation. But what is?

Pretty into a few writing projects but not really into writing right now. Not really finding interest in securing the time for it. I guess I'm wondering about audience a bit too much. If I write an academic-style article that seems pretty automatic but who would read it? And would I want them to read it?

If I just publish here who would read it? Is this really what publishing looks like?

I like Medium, that seems like a good site, but then who's reading that? Is that who I want reading stuff?

I think I'm going to go for a double approach, maybe triple: Publish here, on Medium, and also on Academia. I think some of my writing isn't really academic enough to be on Academia, but it might get some attention.

I spent a lot of time over the holiday break with my old book idea. I think now's probably the best time to be writing about collegiate debate programs since there's more choice than ever about what you (you as a college) can do with it. It's a good time to shop new theories of it. Practicing the difficult art of speech before audiences without compromising what you want to say and without pandering to the audience seems like the theme of most of my writing. It's really about teaching.

I think right now is the lowest point of confidence and highest point of discouragement I've had with the way debating is done by institutions at all levels. I think that this is good news, as there's no lower point to hit. Now the only way is up. And perhaps articulation, re-articulation of my concerns to myself (and anyone who wants to read them) could lead to iteration and reiteration of what debate should look like. And from that comes the monograph I think.

There are two projects here - one a more academic oriented book that will come first then secondarily one that I think might be a good popular press book about debating in the everyday. The difficulty in doing two projects speaks to how frustratingly distant scholarly publishing is from every other kind of publishing - which would be publishing the majority of people actually want to read. More on this in later posts; thinking about how to marshall a good defense and good practice that tenured faculty could use to support digital depositories and open peer review, which are essential (in my mind) parts to any long term survival strategy of the modern university.

So this is really just an "outline the projects" post which I think is ok for now, the snow is stopping and I probably should get out and get some things accomplished. Here's to a post every day!

 

 

Happy Birthday Snap Specs

If you don't follow me on Snapchat you are missing out. Today is a very important anniversary!

Snapspecs Vending Machines in the pop-up shop on 5th avenue in Manhattan, 2017.

Snapspecs Vending Machines in the pop-up shop on 5th avenue in Manhattan, 2017.

Here we have the birthplace of my much loved Snap spectacles which I use pretty much every day to record the various places that I walk to, the campus, and my thoughts about everything. And don't forget - most of the things I eat are recorded there too. 

Just another day using specs

There are many more videos like this to come in the future. This is just a sample of what my snap specs have allowed me to accomplish in life. 

They really have worked out great. It was freezing this time last year (17 degrees F) and it was icy and snowy, but I think it was worth it. it's one of the few gimmicky tech things that I still can say I use every day (or almost every day) since I bought it. 

 

If you don't follow, consider this your open invitation. I am pretty good about updating although my recent interest in Pokemon Go has be using them a bit less than normal, I'm sure I'll be back up to normal posting volume in a couple of days. There's also just not a lot of reasons to leave the house right now. AGDQ is on, and I have a lot to read and write about. Plus there's a semester coming right around the corner to get ready for. More on that in another post. 

for now, happy first birthday, Specs! I sure hope your battery keeps its charge and I don't break you by casually shoving you in my backpack. if you want to see more snap specs action in its natural environment, just follow me on Snapchat. 

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If not, don't worry I will most likely post the videos here too if they are relevant. 

Zeb Freeman

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This is a bit of an unusual post but I felt like writing down a bunch of memories I had about my grandfather, pictured with me here in 2014. He passed away a few days ago after a nice, long life. I figure this might be relevant in so much as it could be a eulogy, so that's rhetoric, right? It really doesn't matter; there's no other venue so you are stuck with it being posted here. 

It's also strange I felt like writing something about him but don't write at all about my mom's passing which will be 5 years ago this spring. I think that there are some things that perhaps are too close to you to write about, and others that are too far, or you force yourself to care to write about. Then there are events like this where it seems the only thing to do is write about it. I figure a good eulogy is one that chronicles a lot of good stories, good memories, so that's what I wrote. 

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Earliest memories are as a very small child in Arkansas, where I was born, driving out with him in a car that looked like this. I'm pretty sure it was a 1970s Ford Bronco and it was this bright blue color. This picture conforms to my memories but maybe not to what he really had. When I knew him, he was on one of many careers, raising cattle on the Levee next to the Mississippi river. 

this picture is almost exactly like I remember the roads going out to the pasture in West Memphis.

this picture is almost exactly like I remember the roads going out to the pasture in West Memphis.

I remember going with him in this Bronco out to a place we called “The Levee” which I found out in later years was the fertile side of the dams constructed on the Mississippi river by late 19th century and early 20th century settlers of West Memphis. The Levee is a sort of earthen dam designed to stop regular floodplain activity, or at least control it so you can build. When the Mississippi – an American sort of Nile river – would regularly crest, the silt deposits and other detritus would remain when it receded, making the land full of grasses, plants, and other wonderful things for grazing on the safe side of it. Zeb raised cows on the levy, and I would go “help” him with the various tasks he had to do every day out there. Mostly I named the cows, ran around, and tried to catch frogs that had strayed too far from the river.

Zeb taught me songs about the Mississippi but the only one I can remember to this day is “Old Man River” which he used to sing in a very deep baritone voice from the driver’s seat of the Bronco. Jerome Kern would have approved. I wonder if this is the ancient, ancestral home of my love of Broadway music? I’m sure there were other local or traditional songs he sang that I wish I could remember, but nope, I just remember singing Broadway songs about the river as we drove along  either coming or going from taking care of the cows. 

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The roar of the Mississippi River is not easily forgotten, it’s such a low rumble that doesn’t fit with what appears. Thinking back to the times where we went down to the shore of it – very few, maybe only twice due to the amount of mud, the indeterminable places where the land ends and the river begins, and how we’d have to leave the Levee and drive somewhere to get a good look at it. Not sure where we went, but it impressed me. Whitecapping like a sea but narrow like a river, muddy, and full of very large tree trunks and other things that had been snagged by it as it moved along. Still a great image in my mind, amplified by being so young and never hearing water make any other noise than rain, the Gulf of Mexico, or turning on a tap. It was, and remains, somewhat foreign and familiar.

It was the banks of the Mississippi where I first shot a rifle. I was around 8 years old, and had no experience at all with guns. Zeb had a very simple one, probably a 22 or something similar, and found a piece of cardboard and put it in the split of a trunk of a tree and then helped me aim. I remember pulling the trigger, and winding up on my back, looking straight up at the sky. There was simply a bang, then the tall trunks of the trees pointing skyward. Zeb’s head entered the circle of trees looking down at me. “You ok boy?” he said, then after seeing I was fine, “It has quite a kick doesn’t it?” And grinning.

He had more jobs than I know about. He did everything. His family was in the grocery business, and somehow sent Zeb to Arkansas A&M for college. Once I had a look at his freshman yearbook and saw a long dedication to him written by a leader of the debate team. “That was my roommate,” Zeb explained. He never did it himself, but knew the members of the team. Of course. I can’t have one aspect of existence untouched by intercollegiate debating. Maybe this post suddenly became relevant to the theme of the blog?

Zeb did not do well in college, and returned to the grocery business after a year or so. He told me that he heard about Pearl Harbor and saw the bombers flying overhead as he drove deliveries. This motivated him to sign up for the Air Force and learned to fly. He was assigned to fly “the Hump” – a supply route between India and China. Given today’s aircraft this is not a big deal, but flying prop driven bombers without radar through those peaks with only Sherpa-made maps and no weather forecasting ability was lethal. Zeb fell ill in the pre-deployment area and his team he trained with moved ahead to the base. After Zeb recovered, he arrived to find that not one of his team mates had survived their first two weeks of flights. He told me in an email he realized he was going to die there and there would be no coming back. He accepted it, and then began flying.

After the war, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, but thought dentistry looked interesting. He told me a story of watching a local dentist carving a model of some teeth. But undergraduate, let alone dental school, seemed prohibitively expensive. Right on cue, President Truman signed the G.I. Bill, guaranteeing money for college for those who served in the military. Zeb graduated from Southwestern University (another famous debate institution) and then the University of Tennessee Dental College and opened his practice in West Memphis. Eventually he bought the office building he rented space in. He retired, worked in the city doing various things, became a rancher (the time I have my earliest memories of him), real estate agent, college professor teaching chemistry at a local Christian college in rural Arkansas, and finally real retirement that brought him to Texas to be close to his family.

The last time I saw him was that next year, when my sister brought my nephew up to Fort Worth from Houston to visit him. He was very excited to meet his great grandson, but also surprised to see me. “I never thought I would see you again, you old buzzard,” he said, same old grin. We talked about the university and life in New York. Nearly every time I spoke with him he’d ask the same question: “How are they treatin’ you up in Yankeeland?” Pretty good for the most part. But as I reflect on my time with Zeb, I’m very grateful for the Mississippi River, for the cows, for Jerome Kern’s song,  for the time with him in that still very small town where I was born. I never spent much time there, but the memories I associate with Zeb are all Arkansas memories, a place that is obviously important in my life yet i know so little about. He was my connection to that place through these very simple events. And that's how I remember him. 

Answering Some FAQs

Q: Why so cranky/are you depressed/mentally ill?

The etymology of crank is a good one – the “crazy person” is related to the person who is angry, upset, sad, unsatisfied, or hysterical (women 99% of the writings say). I’ll take the crazy but not the mentally ill – it’s a very old and sad tactic to label your political opponents as nuts. But it’s expected from a group of people who regularly think that analogies to seat belt laws are the best thing to bring up when discussing the scope and scale of the appropriate use of state power.

Remember this is the same mind that brought you all the writing here that you like, that you quote to your friends, that you read in debates, so I would say it just comes with it. Consider it part of the machinery that regularly produces discourse that you like. If anything, I’m frustrated because of my current institutional position. There is such opportunity to do great things, yet they squarely place it on me to do it all for a very small amount of compensation. Instead of assistance I have reluctant sort-of agreement to kind of help, but this is done with the maximum amount of passive-aggressive assistance. I regularly have a graduate assistant, but this poor person is barely paid, and on top of that is a student in a master’s program, and probably should not be doing paperwork and making phone calls. Feels like a waste.

Frustration is one of the worst feelings since you can see the better, know how to engage and enact the better, but things just don’t come together. And probably never will.

Q: Why do you still come to debate tournaments if you hate them so much?

The last debate tournament I attended will hopefully, barring any sort of strange twist of fate, be the last one I attend. That was the Huber debates at UVM in early November 2017. They aren’t working for me and they fill me with dread. They don’t seem to do much for students except to make them think about rhetoric in some pretty poor ways. There’s an anti-intellectual bent to them, where knowledge about the rules of the game stands in for knowledge about the discourses surrounding the topics. One doesn’t need curiosity or research, one merely needs to open one’s mouth after 15 minutes of feverish scribbling.

But you probably don’t hate them, you probably love them. They are pretty great – fun and entertaining, full of smart folks that you would have never met otherwise, the feeling that there’s some hope, some community out there of thinkers that care about the issues you do, and all that. That’s great. But a university level event about compelled argumentative discourse should be a lot more than a “good time.” From the point of view of a professor they are not a good time. They feel like a real waste of an opportunity. There are some sharp people here who have come to get sharper. They should have something adequate to test their blade against. What they get is a very soft, very predictable target. And they think that’s going to test their skill.

There’s a great old story about a Zen master archer and a tournament archer who have a contest. The archery master can hit the bullseye, and the tournament archer can split the arrow of the archery master monk. The monk then invites the tournament master into the woods. He approaches a ravine and steps out onto a narrow, dead branch. One wrong move would mean his life. He draws, and fires and arrow, perfectly hitting the center of a knot in a tree across the ravine. The tournament archer cannot summon the courage to step out onto the dead branch. This is what the security of fairness in motions and all the slotting of judges and all the nonsense about a good debate gets you – someone who has a lot of skill in a very controlled environment. I’d rather spend more time thinking about the classroom and the university – a very controlled environment within a less-controlled community – and how debate can be used and studied there. So don’t worry – you most likely won’t see me again, unless you Skype me.

Q: Why don’t you work to fix tournaments?

Probably the most legitimate question I get so oddly, it’s going to have the shortest answer. It’s not a dodge, really. If you want more depth I’ll provide it.

The reason is that I can’t. I have very few resources here, and I cannot host a tournament. Getting one classroom reserved for one event is a nightmare by itself. The staff here is incompetent: I once gave them four months notice to see if they could host an Urban Debate League competition that was co-sponsored by the New York City Education Department. The idiot in charge of conference services finally called me one week before the proposed date to tell me he wasn’t sure if they had the right insurance paperwork to be on campus. I assured him they did, and then I told him that if I were in charge, I would fire him for just now reaching out to speak to me about this. What had he been doing for the past four months?  It’s this kind of incompetence and lack of support that makes fielding a debate program incredibly difficult from the get-go. But somehow I still manage to do it.

So since I can’t host a competition, I can’t offer innovative options. If I did offer innovative options, I don’t think people would attend. How would this help us break at worlds? The answer is it wouldn’t, but you might be able to step out over the ravine a bit more regularly. And if you don’t want to change, innovative tests of the concept help you generate better and more interesting reasons why you should stay the course. To keep doing something because it’s what you’ve always done is not a good argument, unless you are a debater.

Fixing debates is not necessarily in opposition to leaving the circuit of tournaments. Some of the best debates occurred within triangular leagues, contract debates, and other competitions. To fix debate you have to do the one thing nobody wants to do: Let in the public and give them a ballot. This changes everything, and sends a chill down most spines because debate teaches you that not only are you good at the technical rules of winning a debate tournament, you are a better thinker and reasoner than everyone else in the world. Probably not the best thing to accidentally teach a bunch of people if you are interested in preserving a healthy and critical democracy. 

Once the public comes in, people also lose social capital. Gone is the throng of fans wanting to know the four steps to provide a good extension, how to counterprop effectively, “killer POIs” (and other such nonsense). Now everyone becomes a potential expert, because everyone knows a way to reach other people. It becomes a larger community-oriented discussion about persuasion and people rather than about the talented sport-heroes of debating and being “right.”

Q: Why so negative? We are all having a good time.

Having a good time does not have to occur at the expense of a discipline, a way of thought, or propping up harmful ideologies. Having a good time often is based on comfort and familiarity, two things that prop up the worst of persuasion and argument in society. The appropriate subject for speaking truth in matters of urgency and importance is the white, male body. It’s uncomfortable for most people to imagine a body in power and authority, an arbiter of vital information, as anything else. It reads as a mistake if the overall ethos of the situation is “good time having.” This is just one example.

A good time can be an effect of rigorous and valuable university events, but the university shouldn’t be supporting and directly funding a “good time.” We should eliminate Greek life (Fraternities and Sororities) while we are at it.

Q: Why are you a debate coach if you hate debate?

I’ve always hated being called a debate coach, I like the title teacher the best. Professor is an ok title, but it comes with some baggage that I’d rather not take. The biggest problem is that it makes students think that they have to police their discourse around you, which usually makes for very boring conversations that are not insightful.

I’ve never been a debate coach; I’ve professionally identified as a sophist – a paid teacher of persuasion and speech – since I took my first teaching job at A&M Consolidated High School in College Station, Texas. Being a teacher is a cool thing. Being a professor is a powerful thing. Being a debate coach is a . . . what exactly?

Coaching assumes that you are helping others with their natural abilities and talents. The help you provide is to steer these abilities and talents to pragmatic use within a closed system: Often a game or contest of some kind. You don’t really teach anything except the limits of the contest and how to take advantage of those limits given the skill-set that the competitor comes to you with.

This does not sound good at all to me. This goes against the important understanding of rhetoric and argumentation as “things people do” in the world in order to move minds around. It’s natural, but it’s also learned. Isocrates talks about this in the most depth. The Sophists assumed everyone could be trained if they could pay. There are problems with both interpretations. The goal though is that rhetoric, persuasion, debating, and speech are things that can and should be taught if you assume that there’s some good in a democratic order. Calling yourself a coach of these things limits the scope of who can and should be taught.

What we call ourselves and what we name others is the starting point of politics. To call someone talented at something that everyone needs to know how to do in order to have a great life with others is pretty gross. It might exist; this is beside the point. As someone with the capacity to teach debate effectively, it falls on you to defend the ethics of how and whom you choose to teach. I’m more and more convinced that by the very naming and setting up of a “Debate Team” we have dodged this responsibility, punting it to the students to self-select for something loaded with the ideas of the game, the sport, the contest, the competition, the “being better than” attitude. The people who would benefit from what we teach the most never turn up, revolted by the idea of making the sharing of ideas into a game. The best example of this I can think of is Teddy Roosevelt, who wrote with pride that he had never been a member of the college debate team. Unfortunately, he missed a lot of practices that can temper the mind into a state of critical examination that benefits the quality of your decisions and everyone around you. But calling it a team, or having a coach, makes it seem like there are people who are naturally good and can harness those talents to play a game.

Right now, the companies that control access to the sites where most people in the world get their information are having discussions about how to control the influx of “fake” content into their sites. Facebook and Google are trying to figure out how to think critically for us. They are going to censor content in the name of protecting those who cannot critically analyze a message. There can be no clearer call that people need these practices whether they show talent that could be used to win a weekend competition or not.

So no, I’m not a debate coach, is the short answer. I’m a teacher of debating and rhetoric and I hope to stay one. And anyone who also identifies this way should be worried, or at least bothered, by the way we’ve chosen, as a community of professionals, to select who gets the best of our teaching and why they get it.

Q: What can I do to help you?

Keep reading the blog.

Farewell Tournaments!

Up at 6, drinking the flavored coffee I love, reading an essay on Poetry.org, feeling happy. Feeling much happier than I did yesterday leaving the restaurant, hearing, “Thank you and come back and see us,” knowing as I did the overwhelming evidence this would be my last trip to Burlington, VT, a city that I’ve spent so much time in, and like so much.

I suppose I could still randomly go for various reasons but debate, the thing I associate with that city the most, is no longer the interesting, attractive, thought-provoking thing that it’s always been. It’s much more the site of dark ridiculousness, uncompensated labor, dread, and fake knowledge. It’s always been these things too, you are saying. And you are right. These things are what are most forwarded to me at the moment.

The Huber tournament wasn’t bad by any means; I am so pleased it was not the horror show I dreaded since Denver, full of racist and sexist discourse, predatory middle-aged judges, predatory college-aged debaters, all supported by the cult of fairness and so-called teachers and professors who feel that defending the rules of a competition are far more important than the ethics of teaching. This tournament was me holding my breath, waiting for the shoe to drop, then the other one, then the spiked cleat on my unsuspecting students. I’m glad my dread was wrong, so very glad, but why would I put my students in a position like this in the first place?

The answer is so sickeningly liberal I can barely type it: I am not certain that my own opinion should be policy, and even if I was, who am I to impose that will on other people? The judgement of the tournament is my own: A critique I openly share pretty much anywhere I can type something. People should know there were other forms of competition, many different ones, and the tournament was merely the administrative solution of a Western debate coach, who thought we could play debate like basketball. Not an intellectual decision, possibly a thoughtful and definitely a pragmatic one. So I thought we’d try it out. Expensive, but I suppose I’m not totally convinced of my own position. Or maybe I just entertain the idea I could be wrong.

What I realized is that I no longer have a place for the debate tournament myself. Since this terrible job I have requires me to “be” the debate team, with little to no assistance of any kind, this spells out that the debate tournament is not for my institution either. If I had full-time assistants, or administrative support of some kind, or more curricular help (read: teaching and running practices) I think things would be different. The climate of continuous, light-level resistance from staff on everything I do I think has just finally gotten to me.

So no, I didn’t have a good time over the weekend but it’s moot – nothing horrific happened and we got home safe. This can easily be the last debate tournament I attend, and sitting here, typing this as the sun comes up, that decision feels really great. But it haunts me how much I’ve changed, how different my attitude is from just a few years ago. Things would absolutely be different if I could have been hired somewhere else. But I’m pretty clearly un-hirable at this point. The politics seem to become: act like the middling professor you are. And that’s a good life – teaching and reading and writing. In this position I barely have time to be a second-rate debate director, second-rate teacher, second-rate writer. If I drop something, at least quality has a fighting chance.

The study of debating, the teaching of debating, the consideration and reconsideration of argument quality – these things cannot be properly served by a life of travelling to debate tournaments. They can be introduced by attending a debate tournament, but to lean on this institution for more than that is to prepare to fall over. My critique isn’t that they shouldn’t exist, it’s that people depend on them to do and be “argumentation supercenters” where everything will be practiced and played out in an intellectual way. But if there’s one thing that debate is good at in the tournament form it’s supporting and promoting anti-intellectual behavior: The belief that one only needs one’s heart and mind to know what’s right; that other sources of information get in the way or corrupt one’s thinking; that learning from books will always be a distant second to looking into the eyes of the suffering other and knowing what you need to do. Such sentiments are not straw people. On the contrary, such sentiments win debates in tournaments on the regular under the guise of critical thought.

Farewell tournaments! Huber 2017 was a great one to go out on. Now the question is, how long to stay in this job? And what to do next? The obvious choice is to concentrate on the classroom and the pedagogy of debating (as opposed to the practice of the tournament).