Book People

A recent trip to BookCulture, and amazing bookstore I love, reminded me how terrifying a bookstore can be. And insightful. And nostalgic. And cozy. And again raised the question that haunts me these days: Why do we only think to assign books about form rather than explore the form we purport to teach through other texts? 

This bookstore is indimidating simply because it also houses the required texts for numerous Columbia University courses. It's a peephole into the minds and thoughts and desires of those teaching at Columbia. So there's a bit of, "Oh, that's a great idea!" mixed with "I'm not sure what that professor is up to."  This is of course never an invitation to critique the professor. Instead it's a direct line to self-criticism, concern that there are texts and ideas out there beyond you, that you are unfamiliar with, that you need to learn and need to know instantly. 

I inquire about a book I want and I'm told it would cost 31 dollars to order it and it would arrive in 4 days. My friend says, "Did you check Amazon?" I do, and find it for 20 dollars available tomorrow. So the bookstore can also make you feel like a capitalist jerk as well. But he says: "We spend so much money on books, it's only fair we try to save some when we can." It's true. And I spent 40 dollars on some great finds, things I didn't really need but converted them into need using amazing self persuasion skills.

See how cozy it is? This is a lovely shot of fiction blending into literary criticism. I browse a bit, pull off the shelf a book written by a poet about walking in New York. Now, this is cool. I could assign this book and we could have a debate about it. Something about transit, about walking, about sidewalks - there are a number of things there. And through that, we could easily come to terms with the necessities in a debate and the things that make debate good. But what we'd be immersed in is a text about the world, not about a form. Who wants to read about rules and strategies for rules? That's a debate/argumentation textbook. How about a book about plants? Or the history of Spain? That's a class.

Now, why can't I have these thoughts before I order textbooks and before I draft a syllabus? I sort of like the syllabus I've put together. But not anymore. I like the idea of reading some strange books and putting a debate together from them. Debate does have a nice material and cultural history that is worth exploring, and we're doing that in the course through a few good texts, but it would be pretty cool to just set up some debates that are about something other than debate. Most debates set up for classes, or for campuses, are mostly about the debate. It's little wonder, considering our political debates suffer the same affliction.

Debate people should be book people. We sort of are - I am always talking to folks at tournaments about cool stuff to read and writing down titles. But why doesn't that love transfer over into debate itself? Neither in the teaching of contest debate nor in the argumentation classroom do you find the study of novels, poems, or books about science (Weird pop-press books about plants or about stars would be immediate go-to starting points for me) assigned or suggested as ways to get better at debating. I've assigned two books about Zen and two about debate. We'll see how that goes, but Zen is also pretty obsessed with form and it's dissolution of it into and as content and meaning.

American policy debate seems on the cusp of becoming something a bit more mimetic to academia, where people can generally reference a couple of books to support their argument, or use a small quote from a major work to back up a point. This will never quite reach this point because due to the constraints of the tournament, i.e. fair competition, the evidence must be contextualized (meaning very long) and it must be strategic (meaning pretty academically obscure, which is a very, very strange and small corner of the book-world, but definitely cozy). Obscurity and depth are a formula for winning debates, whereas a formula for engaging in high quality debates would be depth and familiarity. This might happen after the debate world, but is pretty heavily coded against for those currently competing. 

This place is so cool. I think there should be a rule that before one comes up with or decides on what a production class (meaning a class where students are evaluated primarily on the texts they produce instead of familiarity with a theory, or a set of material, like testing or exams over essays and presentations) consists of, they must wander a large, preferably academic or intellectually oriented bookstore to make sure they don't fall, as I always seem to, into some sort of teacher's rut, where the books assigned are the books that match the drab colors of the cultural sediment surrounding what a class should be. 

My Amazon book came the next day (today) and I still haven't really gotten into the books I bought from here. But I'm already considering a return trip. This time not for my own consumption but for inspiration in the production and design of a course, a course that has little to do in title or content to the books assigned. But through speaking and debating, perhaps we can create connection.