Repertoire

This weekend is the King's tournament, and it looks like the end of the 2014-15 season for us in terms of general tournaments. Of course, there's USU, but as soon as I bought the flights and had the numbers in front of me, I was overcome with a feeling of immediate buyers remorse. I wondered about the value of spending nearly 8 grand in order to have my students debate Cornell, Vermont, NYU, and the like - something we could arrange for well under half that figure. But nationals is in Alaska, and the pull and drive to go is stronger than the sense behind it. 

I tab a lot these days. I really like feeling helpful, and feeling like I am doing something productive and meaningful for debating. I also like variety. I am a believer that being in the judge pool is the best way to advance change in debate practices, but one doesn't really want to become an activist judge. Being outside the parabola, or even the perception of such, marks any of your comments to the debaters as "just for him." We certainly don't want an event where people are adapting their speeches for this particular mind or that one. We like the illusion of a reasonable public, so we attempt, to our best ability, to constitute one. 

What's the result of all this tournament travelling around? The constitution of the reasonable public is crafting a civic space, one where we have norms and values that nobody set but just are. We live in them, we have created the content of this sea. Our actions, statements, decisions - all of it, no matter if you set a motion or if you just speak a lot - contribute to the constitution of a civic order that many really feel strongly about and want to defend. But what is this civic, what does it do, why do we feel so strongly about it? Apparently, I feel strongly enough about it to cut down my normal, mass exodus tournament schedule in order to attend the civic crowning event in Anchorage. 

One defense of this civic comes from the pedagogy of music, such as violin conservatory or operatic training, and that is the idea of the repertoire. In a conservatory, musicians are put on a path of particular works they should know. Eventually, they become so familiar with them they can play them from memory. At the same time, the memorization and familiarity with the works transform the musician. They reinforce particular habits, modes of playing, or are valuable because of their difficulty in getting them out properly. Propriety in these cases is a judgement made between the perceived intent of the composer, the situation, the quality of instrument, and the interpretation the community buys into at the moment. 

We tend to focus quite a bit on the first aspect of repertoire - the list of songs any debater should be able to sing - economics, liberty, free speech, governmental control, agency, oppression - the list can go on for quite a while. We tend to think that debaters improve as they get better and better at "playing" the stock of arguments and tropes at the right times, under the conditions of the motion, which sets the interpretation as a conductor might. Speakers also play with other members of the orchestra, and must adjust to make the concert whole. A good virtuoso doesn't blast through the orchestra, but lifts it as the orchestra lifts the virtuoso (currently thinking I should go find that Bryn Terfel CD that so aptly illustrates this sense). 

But the hidden curriculum of debate is that playing this rep of whatever the debating civic feels is good and appropriate changes the way that the debater will play or will be able to play future works. It leaves a sediment, a fingerprint, a style, a certain taste, an approach - there are a lot of ways to describe it - that might not be noticed at all, and might not be shaken off. Sometimes you can identify a former debater in class by the way they speak about the reading, for example. This hidden curriculum might be more than just style - it could also be a relationship to texts and knowledge - epistemology - that goes unnoticed. We think about it in the terms of the contest, but there are broader implications for how the debater approaches the world (which we can conceive of, and many scholars have, as a text). This is not entirely a bad thing, but it can be if we don't think about what we are valorizing within a civic sphere we've created to be both attractive and representative of something other than a mere game. I hope most debaters out there are with me in thinking we have more than amusement on our hands when we attend a debating competition. 

What's the repertoire I want to teach? What is it that I want the repertoire to teach to the debaters? What will I allow into the constituted civic as heroic discourse? What will be the scapegoat? As judges we have a lot of influence here in our decisions. As people responsible for explaining "how debate works" to the new, potential virtuoso, we have all the power to make this thing whatever it is we want it to be.