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.

On Mediated Representations of the Value of Debating

Attempts to mediate the experience of  debate are troubling. They are not troubling in the good way of troubling that can be appreciated – creation of static in a clear picture, the presentation of uncertainty as a good, the celebration of questioning over answering. The trouble that these mediations present is one of too clear of a picture, to certain of an understanding, too solid of a substance. The end result is to undercut the value of debating as a tool for constituting and reconstituting selves.

Obviously, the biggest media story in debate right now is the discovery that the survivors of the Stoneman mass shooting were all trained in formal competitive debate. This was the result of a district-wide policy that folds debate into the curriculum. Making debate work with curriculum, most notably a curriculum in communication and rhetoric, is the “co-curricular” theory put forward in 1952 by debate scholar Douglas Ehninger. As an extra-curricular, debate loses its potential to be transformative, and becomes transformed – it falls into the ready-made envelope for its distribution under a host of signifiers that convey meaning as natural and unchallengeable. More to come on Parkland later. For now, let’s explore a couple of recent attempts to provide the public insight into the value of debating.

The two examples in this post are a start to articulating trouble with firmness. Defenses of debate are always needed, and narratives about the value of debate are fantastic. But we must be very careful how we allow those narratives to be framed. Framing debate within an easily acceptable metaphor makes it very easy to communicate what we are doing when we teach debating, but incredibly difficult to have any purchase on the unique elements of it. Often, the excess of the metaphor spills over on its own. The audience runs with the familiar interpretation down the line, often to a point where the metaphor no longer serves the term, but redefines the original terms to suit it. The metaphor no longer helps the communicator; the communicator is a helpless object within the terms of the metaphor. The one that I think bothers me the most is “Debate coach.” A coach is someone who brings out talent and makes it good within the confines of a contest. A teacher does not work like a coach. Teachers must deal with the untalented and difficult. A coach can have tryouts. The list goes on. I feel that debate does not need coaches, precisely because imbedded within that term is the notion that there’s a binary win/loss as a goal, and talented people should be brought to the coach for perfection.

Since the dawn of the speech communication discipline (or “rhetoric”) in the United States, there has been no shortage of anxiety about metaphor among teachers of debate. The dangers of claiming debate as a sport surface as early as 1916 in the Quarterly Journal of Public Speaking. It could be said that the history of teaching debate in the United States is a history of anxiety localized around the question, “What is the value of this?” Such a question comes with it panic when it is raised, leading toward easy to get comparisons, like sport. The impact of which is not a defense of debating per se, but the defense of debating “as a kind of sport.” In these same issues, there is concern that thinking of debate as a “game” is harmful, limiting, and corrupting of the material and the student. These debates about disciplinary anxiety are still with us.

Last week in the Wall Street Journal high school debater Marie-Rose Sheinerman is profiled as a “speed talker.” The short video compares her spreading versus the fastest talkers they could find in the Journal’s office.  Demonstrations of her spreading are accompanied by a pleasant voice over from a journalist who claims that it is a “necessity,” because, “The faster you talk, the more information you get out.” The rules of debate require things to be read aloud to “count,” we are told. Then this is followed with some comic music, and examples of the debate student reading text from a commercial for Old Spice, the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, and the lyrics to the theme of Friends. Of course, Sheinerman is much faster than anyone, and we are meant to marvel at this amazing ability.

The obvious comparison to professional athletics is not stated, but it is clear that Sheinerman has a gift, or a talent, or some sort of ability that not everyone has. Perhaps it comes through rigorous practice over time as well as a familiarity with complex research (it does), but this is not mentioned by the Journal. Nor are the hours of university-level research that the students have to do to compete at a national level in high school debating. Instead, we are shown debate via the metaphor of a very difficult skill that someone has perfected due to the rules of a competition. We are shown how fast someone can run, if they make a life out of it. We are not told the health benefits of running, or that any of us could benefit from the practices that constitute a world-class runner.

Hedging back against a complex model of debate is the perception that debate is for people who want to hone this strange ability. Very little is said about why spreading matters, its educational value, or what the connection is from it to the act or art of debating. It’s worse than just a surface depiction – the trivial texts that they have her read along with the office staff only serve to make debate appear more trivial, just a contest of getting a ton of information out, or at least more than someone else. Why was debate allowed to be depicted this way?

Very much like showing a unique athletic skill or something only a pro athlete could do, this depiction confirms a view of debate as something like speed skating. Loosely based on skating, something many people can enjoy, it takes that practice and amps it to a level of technical prowess that only a few can master. Of course skiing and speed skating (on my mind because of the Olympics obviously) are not that serious as their practice, relegated to elite performers, does not interfere in the operations of a democratic order. But the question of what a good debate ought to be, since we are called to debate so often when various phenomena occur (such as mass shootings), should be the thing that is brought forward whenever debate becomes mediated and publicized like this.

The second, and less simplistic troubling mediation of debate recently is the Wake Forest Debate mini-documentary, expertly shot, edited and presented on their website in a multimedia mixed web format. It’s slick – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a defense of intercollegiate debate appear to be so professional. The rhetorical tone of the whole piece is, shot-for-shot, trope-for-trope, a profile of a university athletic program, complete with the smoke, the spotlights, and the slow motion portraits of the star “players,” nodding in slow motion while presenting confident smiles at the viewer. Filled with the tropes of power-over, and the affective thrill of conquering other people in competition, the video would not be out of place on ESPN. But can Wake debate steer out of the spin of the athletic/sport metaphor here?

There’s a lot to talk about in this video. I’m not going to hit it all here, but provide a general critique. It’s overwhelming how good it is. The profile of debate built here by the teachers and the students in the program is one that I never thought I would see in my lifetime. The Wake Forest defense of debate takes the supposed defeat of the convictionist school of debate pedagogy from before 1950 and revitalizes it with neoliberal discourse. Switch-side debating, meant to provide training in democratic decision making, the dominant defense of debate since the mid 1950s, feels like a critique of convictionism that Wake Forest has found the way to satisfy. This is a table-flipping establishment of the value of a particular pedagogy of debating.

Convictionism was a very long-held ethics of teaching debate that remained unquestioned until two events happened near one another – the Great Depression, which spelled an end to complex travel arrangements of the triangular and pentangular leagues that dotted the United States, and the rise of the debate tournament, the invention of J. Thompson Baker, professor at Southwestern University in 1923. By the rise of the Depression, the tournament was stable enough to start experimenting with what was called switch-side debating, where a team would have to be prepared to debate either side of the annual topic. The tournament was a cheap alternative to the multi-night, multi-city pentangular leagues, which were expensive. The tournament allowed students to have many different debates all within the same day or two. In order to facilitate this, students were told to prepare arguments on both sides of the topic, not just the side they agreed with. This reached a crisis moment in the mid 1950s when the national topic raised the question of the US officially recognizing the government of China. Debate teachers believed it would be unethical to force students to say things outside of their own convictions about communist regimes. The crisis, for Ronald Greene & Darrin Hicks, precipitated a defense of debate that centered around constituting debater-as-subject rather than helping debaters constitute better arguments around their feelings or opinions. Switch-side debating has been the dominant defense of intercollegiate debate since then, and it usually follows a formula where debate is touted as a social good because it forces people to examine both sides of an issue.

In the video it is reiterated several times that Wake Forest operates under a “big tent” rubric, meaning that the only things one needs to do to participate is commit to excellence and have a desire to win. After that, the coaches and teachers commit to a role of helping you argue whatever you want to argue better. Gone is the idea that you might arrive with particular opinions about political issues that need to be challenged through the switch-side model, back is the convictionist model that we will help you improve the arguments you already know. Switch-side is incorporated as a small criticism of convictionism, dismissed in the video as an inventional challenge to finding the rhetoric for the extant belief you hold on that side of the topic. One is never in a position to go against what beliefs one has in big tent debating, merely locate what you want to say and it can be developed.

This works exceptionally well as a defense of debate not just in the NCAA-style profile of the video, but in the modern defense of the university system itself. Instead of the switch-side defense of debate as constituting liberal subjects who can then operate within democratic communities, debate done this way helps you process “information overload,” at the level of an “MA student working on a Ph.D.” and renders the rest of the world “literally in slow motion.” The end of the video laments that there’s no pro debate league, but does indicate the presence of a defacto pro debate league in the realm of science, law, politics, and other careers. The enthymeme is pretty convincing – debate is practice for handling the complexities of the careers that are perceived as successful. Nowhere in the video, except for the last part where there is some discussion of the relationships formed on the team at Wake over the years, is there any traditional switch-side appeal to constituting liberal citizens who can occupy controversial spaces and manage the arguments within. Instead, neoconvictionist debating gives you advantages over others – in life and in your classes – by making you so much faster than they are when engaged in critical analysis of information.

The university system is making a similar claim – you can have what you need out of life by presenting, and having certified, your ability to have a particular sort of career or job. The university is reconstituting itself as a place not to find yourself, not to interrogate certainty in belief, but a place to supercharge who you are. It’s not about constituting identity, but confirming and certifying that identity as a commodity, which of course has a value on an open market of labor. The university provides each student special skills and perspectives that they add to the degree to make them unique. Each university conveys what is particular about its educational approach along with the quality of faculty and the diversity of degree programs.

The neo-convictionist “big tent” model is shown to provide tools to an atomistic subject who is already well-versed in what argument they want to say. As that argument is perfected, the subject learns how to accent him or herself with these advantages to go on into a powerful career. Throughout the video, individuals are profiled as certain subjects. They are certain they are “Kritik” debaters and “policy” debaters, they are certain about what they care about, they are certain about the role of debate, how to practice it, and the absolute clarity of the value of a win. All of this certainty orbits an unchallenged subject formation of the debater – again the role of the debate team is not to reconstitute subjects, but to improve the ready-made subject that arrives. The Wake video is a clear return to convictionism with an enthymematic neoliberal answer to switch-side debate’s claim of why the subject must be reconstituted for debate to have value. It’s really masterful, and represents a real sea change in debate pedagogy for the 21st century. It could also be that I’m out of touch with these articulations, and Wake represents a very conservative reiteration of an understanding of debating that is alive and well on the policy circuit.

The Wake debate video follows the rhetoric of a sports promotion but with a couple of very nice twists. The first being the huge amount of time spent on the value of hosting the Wake Forest tournament. This started to bleed into a discussion of how intercollegiate debate forms special spaces of practice and thought, but we never really get too much depth here. There is a glorious opportunity to go deep on the recurrent phrase of “southern hospitality,” particularly on the way that the term hospitality has been reconsidered since the early 2000s as a new sort of politics, but in addition there could be a discussion of how much of a safe space tournaments are for the sharing of political thoughts, how the side conversations over a meal blossom over the years, and the relationship of competition to academic merit. Instead, it is continuously portrayed as a large event that attracts people who we are (again) certain are good at debating. And they certainly prove it as former champions go down to the “big tent” trained debaters time and time again.

There is an inadequate amount of time in the video speaking about how peer-driven and peer-education centric debate can be. There’s not enough time spent discussing how people can locate themselves as speaking subjects through the gaps and rifts created through a good campus debate practice. There’s little about discovery and a lot about ability. I think the tone of it perhaps has been hijacked by the sport metaphor, and a lot of good perspectives are lost in this iteration of the value of the debate program. Are they still there? Perhaps. Are they hard to see? Yes. The metaphor, as Paul Ricoeur among others has said, obscures as much as it illuminates. Discourses of promotion are distinct from discourses of practice. The danger is of course that promotional discourses that are reductive are double-edged. They cut anything they touch if made well. The risk is that they will trim the uncertain edges of the practice as well. I suspect that the debate folks at Wake were approached to make the documentary and it was made by those with an eye toward promotion, rather than the other way around.

Why does it matter what’s missing? To get an appreciation for the value of debate, things like the familiarity of being unsure, the continual loss even though you have said it in the best way you know, and the most important yet least talked about aspect of debating – losing when you shouldn’t have – need to be included in discussions of the value of debate. For those of you familiar with other posts here and my other writing on debate, I couch this idea in the term “uncertainty,” but I am not sure if it is a perfect fit for the sentiment. The value of debate in our colleges and schools is not that it rewards the development of a particular skill or talent, but it provides a multi-variant experience of being uncertain. It is practice with being close to uncertainty and to confront it continuously. The discourses surrounding debate strategy betray the anxiety of uncertainty – “They will have nothing to say,” is often a trope of congratulations upon hearing a well thought-out strategy for a debate. But the trope indicates some discomfort with the uncertain nature of the “said.” If they can say something, we might lose no matter how good our arguments are. In debate, we struggle against uncertainty but always find ourselves within it. And in the university system, and schooling system that has gone nearly fully over to a neoliberal philosophy, uncertainty is not a value, it’s a threat. This is one of the subversive values to a good debate practice.

The question for the mediation of debate is: How do we best promote debate’s value without letting the metaphor oversteer the meaning? There are mentions of process a couple of times in the Wake video, quickly followed by speech that confirms a team’s talent, or ability, or another sporty metaphor for a good player. Is there a way to talk about debaters without talking about them as good players? Is there a conception of the good that favors debate’s value that is not easy to confuse with the ontological? What is the better metaphor for defending debating in the 21st century? What is process, and can we discuss it without lapsing into a discussion of its exchange-value for economic subjects?

A neoconvictionist model that is separated from the university’s neoliberal self-defense play would be an interesting way to start. I was stunned to hear this defense from the Wake video; it still blows my mind. There’s potential there as a break against the waves of the transformation of the university into a servile, corporate ropes course. The temptation is that it simply folds into the university’s bid to be a gatekeeper for corporate power.

There are others, but a simple process might be to work to complicate the media’s natural tendency to be reductive. To insist on complexity when debate is profiled. To forward an idea that is not so tough to get: We need to practice being uncertain. We need to face that burning sensation in our chest when we are proven wrong, when we don’t know and we know we don’t know. We need to confront our limits as thinkers and speakers. To base a democracy on a group of people who don’t know how to do that is to welcome the calming presence of oligarchs who can make it all better for us. Either we find ways to grapple with uncertainty, or we will happily take on the control of those who claim they can protect us from it.

We can’t avoid the metaphors, but we can weaken them just enough to be unsettling. We want debate to be alive and unknown, not deterministic and settled. Everyone knows what basketball at the college is like. That's a rhetorical advantage, assuming you can steer out of the powerful skid the metaphor will put you in once you decide to drive it. 

Flipping (off) the Classroom

There's a lot of excitement and interest in flipping the classroom - the idea that the class time should be used for practice in groups and homework should be where the lecture lives, on digital video - but what does flipping the classroom do for students and teachers?

The biggest barrier to education in any model that includes a classroom as a "classroom" (not a reappropriated space that was designed to be a classroom) is the association with singular sources of power and authoritarianism that come with that place. 

The teacher who flips the classroom can do so and still remain in power, and even consolidate that power through surveillance. The flipped classroom a lot of times is defended by surveillance rhetoric: I can't trust you to do this work on your own, so I will supervise you doing it at no extra cost to me. 

Doing the work under supervision might make everyone feel that it's being done better, but I think there are powerful and important ways that students can do the practice on their own or at home that are more educational than doing it under the teacher's observation. Speaking to others who are outside the teaching industry can provide insights of tone and style, judgements on power ("this is how they want you to do it, but you could do it like this"), and also necessary context for the utility of the work - you'll use this here and this in this other thing that you might have to do, etc. 

The video lecture at home is a very static and very closed model of instruction, where the teacher's power and authority are used to create a rigid document (the video) in which the truth of what the teacher knows is laid out to the viewer. I wonder about the interaction during class with the teacher and the confused student and the value of that for others in the class. Or the teacher recognizing the low or high energy of a group of students and using that as an advantage in teaching. 

Most importantly the classroom stays far away from being democratized under a flipped model. The only thing that changes is where and under what conditions do students do work assigned by a powerful figure, a master of knowledge, who cannot be swayed that there are other points of view or perspectives. They have already considered what's best for you (the student) and have flipped the classroom; look at how benevolent they are! No boring instruction! We work together in a community spirit, mandated by the teacher. 

Alternatively, I suggest flipping off the classroom and using the demands of the institution to perform in a certain way as material for critique and for the course itself. The power-over-others benefit teachers get is in exchange for shortening and altering the curriculum and the presence and expression of ideas in the course a certain way that might or might not be ethical. Bringing that to bear in front of the course doesn't exchange independent practice for lecture, but democratizes the class and allows the generation of new terms for the term, new meanings to come out of the exposure of the superstructure to the course material. The teacher, the one who is supposed to know what's going on, exposes herself as also a subject in this institutional power structure, unable to provide (or unwilling) the answers the students seek. They must practice something new in order to get the class going, and that new thing they practice is democracy. 

The institution has created itself to be powerful and to avoid critique that is threatening to it - all systems are this way. But the education system must depend on the articulation of ideas in order to function and have legitimacy. This opening is an opportunity to use the structure that makes it easy to certify and license students as material to question where and why that certification matters. And this is the development of education. 

 

Repair, Repatriate, Realign the University

Thinking about the university and how silly it is that we maintain the arrangement of course to professor to knowledge centered around terms and ideas that are generated independently from anyone involved in the course.

Sometimes a professor says to herself, "It would be really great if we offered a course on X." And she develops and offers the course. But where did that idea come from? What is the genesis of that course and the need and the desire to design it and teach it? 

It's a lot more complex than a simple need-satisfaction lever or a binary of let's have this important thing we don't have. In a perfect situation I like to imagine faculty using a version of Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrects-Tyteca's Universal Audience in order to check back pandering or the use of power to generate and create student decisions on things like this. I do think faculty are trying to offer something of value when they do this.

But more often than not, courses are offered and taught because they are required or it's time to offer them, but who has initiated this demand? The students register, show up, the professor too, everyone teaches/is taught, but who feels the satisfaction of this interaction? What makes you feel that it was a good class; who are you pleasing when you think to yourself, "This was a good class, I did a good job teaching it," or "I got a lot out of that class?"

I feel like the desire to have classes of a particular kind or a particular nature comes from the desire to offer and take college classes. That might be it. There is a need or a desire to please a model of the university that is out there, like a demand that comes from no one but everyone feels like they need to address. 

This week there were large student protests at my university about two or maybe three students who were targeted with racist, threatening messages on social media by a group of other students, some of which came from other universities. The protest spontaneously formed and then moved to the President's office. Since the President was not in, other University officials decided to move the protesters into a theater space to have a discussion. During the course of this conversation it was suggested that the women who were threatened should receive some compensation or refund on tuition. This idea quickly became amplified to the idea of reparations for the negative treatment that minority students believe they have endured.

I wasn't there; I'm representing what I heard so it might be wrong. But I really do like the idea of reparations as a frame for changing the traditional model. The idea of courses, required and selected, as meeting the needs of students throughout their collegiate experience is certainly weird. 

Students are going to change based on experience, what they are exposed to, and what happens. The model of university education should incorporate this. I don't think it's much of a stretch. But strangely (maybe not so strangely) the demand to have classes in a particular order that are meant to teach particular skills at a fixed time and point to a body of students that is dynamic even within itself, person by person. 

Instead, let's have the university provide reparations for a state system, or state/institutional model of education that assumes a particular subject's existence that must be fractured and then mended. The whole philosophy of institutional education is like breaking bones and setting them to make the organism "normal." Why not go the other way? Break and set the courses to fit the altering body of the students. 

This could have many forms. What I am playing with in my mind is one where tuition provides a set of resources to the student who can use them how they will. If they would like to meet with a professor and read a book that's a certain cost (not real dollars obviously). They can also join in with others who have made agreements to meet with professors and do some reading and talking. Professors can also offer "courses" per se based not on a curriculum that meets the abstract, unpresent demand of a "field" and conforms more to what is happening around them and around the students - nationally, locally, what have you. This also eliminates the problem of the "yellow paged" professor who teaches out of the same notes and books for 20 years. They have to keep current in order to make connections to principles they feel are timeless, something that has to defend itself under the reparation system rather than be in the position of presumption. 

Students and faculty would no longer deal in grades, but in production of texts that communicate to broader audiences what it is they now are. They can convey an ability, a thought, or a process of thinking and crafting to those who have a look at the projects. This is student-driven and professor guided. More than the mark of completion of the course, this would be something that is a marker of the changing mind and thought and abilities of the student; a demonstration of trajectory into something to come. 

I wonder how much longer the traditional university system will hold up. As satisfying it is to the faceless demander of the form, and as good as we give the narrative of what we are doing and accomplishing, the tensions and gaps do mount up. And eventually it won't be enough that we have followed what we are supposed to do. We'll want an answer: Who says this is learning? The learners should interrogate the offerings, and the faculty should consider what they offer in the terms of the students and the context they find themselves in. There is no neutral or proper place for curriculum outside of this.