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).

The Vision Quest Composition Pedagogy

The vision quest is the primary model of composition that undergraduate students use.

A vision quest, roughly defined is a ceremony involving sleep deprivation, possible chemical enhancement of the body, and an appeal to the universe to reveal a good word, a path, a mission or purpose to the participant. This is a ritual primarily done by men in Native American societies, now co-opted by spiritualist movements and the like meant to reveal some deeper truth about things. Not sure if the students like the first or second iteration of the vision quest better.

http://chevrefeuillescarpediem.blogspot.com/2014/08/carpe-diem-quest-1-day-1-2014.html

http://chevrefeuillescarpediem.blogspot.com/2014/08/carpe-diem-quest-1-day-1-2014.html

Here’s how it goes: The student lets anxiety build up until 1 or 2 days before the paper is due. They work on working on it by sleep depriving themselves, ingesting alcohol or coffee, altering their diet in weird ways, and socially isolating themselves either in the library or in their room. They wait for inspiration to strike from beyond, and in a furious matter of hours, they type out the vision they have received. They hand it in, and they hope for the best.

The vision quest pedagogy reveals some assumptions students have about education and composition. First, education is a test of the quality of your ontic being. That is, the paper is designed to see if you are a good person inside. The paper is an expression of the fiber of your being, erupting from a moment where you are no longer body and mind, but a unified whole, and this expresses who you are. What is being graded is being.

Secondly, good words do not come from other good words. This is the struggle of citation, research, quotation and all that. Students believe that the good words come from on high, from the beyond, from somewhere other than the prime material plane, as we call it in Dungeons & Dragons. Reading a lot of other peoples’ thoughts and incorporating them into a paper in conversation seems wildly inappropriate. Whenever I suggest broad external reading on a topic, I get quizzical stares from the students, and a lot of push back. It’s not that they question the value, they question the possibility of value from reading a number of external sources on something they are going to write or speak about. Professors might read this as inability, stupidity, or those gosh darn millennials again ruining things. But under the vision quest model, the read is quite insidious. The students might interpret any request from a professor to go read other things and incorporate them as an attack on their ability to produce quality content. Instead of laziness, the students feel they are barely up to the task of the vision quest, and when the professor confirms this by saying, “go incorporate other sources into your work,” they feel upset. They feel the professor believes they are inherently unable to engage in the vision quest to reveal their good qualities.

Finally, the vision quest reveals an understanding that education is little more than a hazing ritual, a requirement to enter proper society. If you can magically hit the nail on the head, you get the grade, and you are allowed to proceed to the next class or level (read: escape room). Students do not see their course work connected in a meaningful way, nor do they see the courses connected to the regular activities of daily life. Reading commentary on global events and incorporating it into a conversation on another topic seems like a very good practice to encourage students to do, however, the students will see it as a call to express their internal qualities, not their ability to assemble and present information and opinion to others. The thing that is being evaluated is their commitment to the rituals that express their internal value.

How do we handle this situation as teachers?

The vision quest can be interrupted by possibly not grading the final paper, or making it a small percentage of the total assignment, which would be a number of steps itself. Replacing the vision quest with your own quest model might do the trick.

http://www.needpaperhelp.com/blog

http://www.needpaperhelp.com/blog

Another thing I have been thinking about is the replacement of the typical audiences with other audiences. There are ways to assign students to speak “as if” they were speaking or writing to this other audience. But today technology makes this much easier. A YouTube speech or a Medium.com essay might do the trick on getting exposure to that broader audience out there in the world. This does run the risk of the students getting some pretty harsh comments from audiences, however, this too will dispel the notion that their soul is being evaluated or judged by the professor, the one who is supposed to know things. The disparity between the troll comment on YouTube and the work, attitude, and reaction of peers to the speech will create some dissonance that could reveal to the student the difference between speaking one’s identity to others and being a human being.

The final, and most difficult way to handle the vision quest pedagogy is convincing faculty that they are not solely responsible for students’ quality of life outside of the classroom. Professors who are well meaning will often conflate discipline with education, thinking they are doing a favor for the students by participating in their liberation by teaching them writing and speaking methods that will be applicable throughout their “career,” whatever that might mean. Instead, using writing and speaking as a way to demonstrate and give a taste to students as to what intellectuals do starts to disrupt the internal-quality assumptions made by the vision quest paradigm. Instead, students start to see intelligence, intellectualism, and being smart as a practice that consists of a number of regular actions performed in and with society. This should be the express goal of the university, which is currently addicted to career preparation rhetoric in a world where careers are no longer extant. Transformation from the bottom up, in the core classes, give students a taste for education in higher level courses and postgraduate work where they will demand exposure and time for practices rather than the vision quest assignment, meant to reveal their quality and nature in one anxiety-coated gesture, hammered out on a screen in the middle of the night.

 

So Glad I Don't Have Cable TV

I never just turn on a TV unless I’m in a hotel by myself. It’s a strange thing to experience cable when you don’t regularly have it. After this quick trip I realize that if I had cable TV I would never accomplish anything because bad cuts of ancient films that I like are always playing.

principal 1.jpg

The Gods were really smiling on my San Francisco hotel cable. The night I arrived The Principal was on, followed the next afternoon with Predator, and then Predator 2. Arguably Predator 2 is the most enjoyable of the Predator movies, but that’s a post for later. The Principal is probably the best ever “rough school” film ever made, in the tradition of films like Blackboard Jungle, Lean on Me, and the disappointing Freedom Writers. I have no idea why I like this genre so much. It kept me staring long after I should have been reading, working through my notes, or doing something else more valuable than that. Still, what a great movie. 

So how was Twitch? I bet you are dying to know. Judge for yourself!

 

The HQ is amazing – and what is more amazing is that I was told during my tour that in 6 months they are moving to a better one. I can’t imagine a better office space than what I saw. The university is really, really out of touch with crafting spaces that encourage people to work, to engage in collegiality, and to work together in unpredictable ways. The University is far too certain about what office space should look like. Let’s take a page from the tech industry and create a variety of spaces that one can move through instead.

I saw the library, several gaming rooms, several private conference rooms, all arranged to be reserved as needed. Add to it a lot of laptops (Mac seems to be the weapon of choice around there, surprised me, but perhaps my sample size is biased toward mostly design-team folks?) and a lot of space for meeting and chatting and you have the office. Oh, I found out where all the La Croix water is stored. They also have every good kind of cereal, coffee, and stronger stuff. It’s great. I stand in awe mixed with jealousy.

As for the talk, I think it went well. I have some things that I would like to tweak about it, and after I do that I’ll post the full version for the eye on Academia.edu. I think that’s a good spot for writing that’s not quite bloggy and not quite academic. It’s a middle ground for sure. The audience was a tough one as they gave nothing away: Attentive looks mixed with furious typing. I feel that having my primary space for public speaking be a classroom really makes you dependent on certain "tells" or moments in the structure of the talk that aren't present in other environments. I found myself looking for those bits of confirmation which were not there. The danger of speaking in one environment, or style, or delivery mode too long is one easily conflates it with what style is, or what presence is, or what "good speech" is. This is exceedingly dangerous. But the risks of trying something really new are worse: Total loss of the audience. Each change has to be measured carefully. 

Unlike a university classroom however, there were signs that they were chatting with one another through something, which I think is great. I try to encourage that in my classroom, but I don’t think the students know one another well enough to engage in a side-chat during lecture. I wonder if they were using Slack or perhaps just the Twitch chat? Regardless, it really makes the lecture/talk environment much, much more productive, engaging, thoughtful – you name it. Peer conversations that layer on top of the talk – that’s a beautiful thing.

I wish I had the equivalent of Twitch chat in my classroom. It would really open up peer-teaching opportunities. Most of my students are on Facebook or some equivalent during class, but talking to those far away. Next time I teach online I might just open up a Twitch channel for class for certain lessons just to get access to that wonderful chat interface.

As for the rest of the talk, I tried to hit a good energy level, but it was hard to judge. Sometimes if you go into an unfamiliar audience with a very high energy level, it becomes a laughable presentation just because it’s out of place. Too low, you risk confirming the stereotype of the professor. The goal is to give the audience reasons to avoid the script – “oh, this is a college lecture, I know what to do.” We all have pre-made scripts of how to interact with various kinds of presentations and the trick is to avoid ticking the boxes that legitimize that reaction.

The other thing I did wrong was assume the audience would be all in on video games – the Twitch employees come from a number of backgrounds and perhaps I should have been a bit more imaginative with examples or sample topics. I think that the people in that audience are creative types who like challenges in terms of design and making a product for other creatives - for people who like to make content. That could have opened up a lot of different topics to engage. Also I could have made it a bit more interactive. I think that some sort of visual aid, regardless of how weak my slideware skills are, would have gone a long way as well.

Otherwise it was pretty fun to string together a lot of my ideas into a talk aimed at those who live far outside the borders of my normal discourse community. Encountering them and sharing these ideas helped me reframe them as well. Afterwards I had a couple of very good discussions with audience members who wanted to learn more about it. Sadly, I didn’t have a lot of good advice for them but maybe they are more long-term conversations.

A final thought is how I consistently underplay the value of public speaking. Even in an environment with obviously intelligent, motivated, thoughtful people, there is a pervasive fear of public speaking. I always say: Everyone fears it, everyone wants speakers to do well, everyone wants to get something out of a speech. So there’s no reason to worry – we all want it to go well and not be boring or horrible. But that’s different than workshopping a speech – something I hope that I can come up with a better method for in a week or so when I teach this first masterclass for The Motion. I have some good ideas, based on thinking and working out “what works” when sharing these ideas. A couple of people reached out to ask about public speaking tips - that should really be the foundation of every lecture we give, right? Or perhaps we could make it our practice and signature move when we present anything to do it as if it appeared effortless. "Effortless Effort" would be a good Zen-style principle of speech here.

I do feel like I won the lottery. I got to see the headquarters of one of my favorite things on the internet, got to speak about ideas I love to really smart, really engaged people, and got to eat some great seafood. What could be better? Sophistry pays in dividends what it doesn’t pay in cash, and frankly, we have the ability to name the value of anything and have it stick, don’t we?

What Am I If I Step Away?

The first full, free weekend in a while is bound to come with some snags. I let the day pretty much run away with me, my starship, a few quests, and a whole lot of farming in No Man’s Sky. Time just blows by me without any measure when I’m playing that. But I did manage to pull myself out of my video game haze and tackle some pleasure reading in the afternoon/evening. Now I’m about ready to hit the sack, even though it’s not that late.

The thing on my mind right now is preparation for an invited speech on debating that I’m giving this week to Twitch in California. It happens to coincide with the realization that I’ve been directing debate for 10 years here at St. John’s, and now might be the perfect time to step away from it. So the biggest question facing me is: How do you articulate yourself as a debate teacher, or debate scholar, without that obvious debate connection?

I still feel that debating is valuable to the students and I’m also very happy with what the program has done for them. What I’m not happy about is ten years of missing weekends (still always a trick how to manage one when I get them) missing reading, missing working out writing, missing recharging for the classroom on Monday, missing quite a bit of vital time to get my head and heart back where they need to be to teach. I’m still endlessly fascinated by the teaching and learning of debating as a subset of rhetoric. The importance of oral communication and oral questioning, argumentation, and advocacy imbedded within every class in the university seems hard to overstate. But this sort of working in debate is so far removed from what debate is now, that it doesn’t feel right to call it debating. Debating is much more like sportsball than education, highlighted best by the incredibly passionate way those in the international debating community indicate that they are happily not interested in learning or teaching anything at all. Education is a detriment to what they would like to do, which, at least to me, remains pretty unclear.

The point though is not to bash on intercollegiate debating, but to point out how my recent thinking has just dovetailed into this moment where I’m about to speak about debate to people who, I assume, have no idea what it is or can be. Perhaps a few in the audience have had a brush with it. Regardless, it’s a chance to take an approach to it as something other than a game, but a life approach. Or an epistemology. Or a practice like jogging. Or various other things I’m tossing around in my head. I hope to finish writing it tomorrow so I can see if it makes as much sense to my ear as my eye. The end result will be much more important to me than to the audience. I’m trying on a new understanding or relationship with debate as I start a transition away from it in a formal capacity, but only I know that. Some readers might balk at this and indicate this transition has been going on for quite a while. To them I say they might be right – they have the power and perception of distance that I do not have. I have to live inside this mind and there’s not a good way to get a clear lay of the land. I have been pulling away for a while, but I have thought of that pull as the force of innovation. I’ve thought of my ideas as critiques meant for change or alteration, not the articulation of a whole new approach. But it’s Saturday night and here we are, listening to Spotify, wondering about disciplinary identity, something that is really quite irrelevant unless you are ordering business cards through the university.

Tomorrow also involves a lot of listening: I had my students record their debate speeches from a contest that was held a week or two ago (I forget). I hope that hearing some recordings will help me teach them how to improve the arguments. I’m certain the arguments are good in a laboratory sense. The improvement is that of the sophist, the rhetor, the cook. You can cook a potato perfectly; this does not mean anyone wants to eat it. It has to be seasoned the right way, and that’s the study of rhetoric. Rhetoric too often is about doing it right and not about doing it tasty. We’ll see if I’m right.

All of this is in preparation for a competition in Atlanta that, as time goes on, is revealing itself to be another sportsball-style event. The history of American debate is a history of lateral hand-offs that are meant to say because the jersey is different, the game is different. I think it’s exceptionally hard to change an old system into something new, even if the critiques of the old system are good. I think it’s next to impossible if you toss in ideology and identity as the things at stake in the change. People want debate to look and feel a certain way because ideology has conveyed that value to them for a long time. When you set something up new, the nerves are going to pull the thing back into the orbit of the ideology. Gravitation, like ideology, is everywhere – it’s the weakest force in the universe until you realize that it’s always got a hold on you, always pulling you somewhere toward a larger mass. Pretty sure we’ll go to this competition, but not sure it’s going to be anything revolutionary, educational, or whatnot. I do think the students will benefit from it in some way, so I’ll trust that. I think I can perhaps convert it into something valuable if it tanks. There’s always Waffle House for the post-debate debrief.

In the past 10 years I have gone from celebrating debate across the world to now starting to celebrate debate across the curriculum. It’s taken the development of an international program that faced opposition at every step to get me to see the value of debate in this different way. But as of this moment I’m still a bit trepidatious about what I am. Can I just keep saying I’m a debate teacher? That title always struck me as nice, even though it references the cringe-worthy title “debate coach.” Debate director is a bit too snooty and also unironically hilarious. How about sophist? That’s a good one too. But nobody gets it right away. It’s just an invitation for you to explain. And by the time they understand what you are, you’ve already done it to them. Rhetorician is a good title too. But I don’t want to be associated with the faux political scientists and the slew of endless criticism. I want to teach production, not direct an athletic team, nor hold a course in French theory without one text in French. What do you call this person?

I hope I figure it out by Thursday for my sake. My audience will not be interested. They will want to improve their understanding of misunderstanding; their ability to argue and express their thoughts. And I’ll help them. I will do my best, whatever I am.