Debate Summer Institutes

For the past three years, I have come to Houston at the end of July to teach and learn at the Houston Urban Debate League summer institute. I was invited to help introduce non-American derived debating to the students and teachers here, and I accepted. I rank that decision as one of the best I've made in my life. It's a wonderful program with wonderful students and a great way to welcome the end of the summer and a return of the academic year. I took this photo on the University of Houston campus last summer. Next week the camp starts up again, and I'm getting very excited to see what the week has in store for us. 

The summer debate camp is a very American thing. Normally, at the high school level, the objective to having it is pretty clear - get a leg up on the competitive year by doing research, having some practice debates, and focusing on debate when there's nothing else to really get in the way, such as all the obligations that appear during the regular school year. 

I feel that the summer debate institute is a waste of an opportunity if it does not also focus on the larger aspects of debate practice - that when you practice debating, you are practicing being a particular kind of subject, a particular kind of ethical being in the world, and that practice has implications that go well beyond winning a big tournament.

Debate summer institute is one of the few places where we can sit down and openly discuss what we get out of practicing it, and what we should get out of practicing it. Without the tournament pushing and squeezing the air out of the room, debate practitioners can explore the many ways that debate has influenced their agency, their being, their thoughts - everything. It's also a great place to locate and explore connections to the larger world of discourse. Debate is a tiny part of this universe, but when doing the tournament shuffle, one can easily substitute debating as the set of "all valuable discourse" - which leads to disaster once you take a breath and speak to other intelligent people who do not participate in the practice of debating. 

This spring I was invited to teach at a college debate summer institute, and it was an exciting possibility - but I wondered what I could offer. I have little to no interest in teaching people tricks and tips for tournament victory. I have even less interest in trying to figure out how to approach a motion. My interests are in the relationship between the person and that same person, practicing debate. How much space is there? What does it consist of? When you are practicing debate, are you your identity, or are you some other? 

Are debate practitioners enlightened critical minds or people who just speak a different language from other critical thinkers? Is debate helpful or harmful to the traditional model of politics that we have adopted in the US? What is the nature and function of research in casual debates among peers? I feel like these questions should be the questions that a summer institute should include in its programs. Such questions, if thought about and worked on, or - in my favorite phrasing, if they are used as a point of departure for our normative claims - would radically alter tournament norms and practices. They would have to. Judges can only judge what debaters do in debates. That's how all of our practices to this point came to be. Debaters' careful reflection (or uncareful adoption of norms in order to win) are the thing that shapes what debate tournaments are, which shape our understanding of debating.

The point of the debate institute is not to make people better at winning tournaments, but to make people better at debate. This includes being better at understanding the scope and scale of debate as a system of practices designed to improve the self. Debate will not serve to improve the self if it is always focused on the tournament victory as the only endpoint of practice.

The HUDL debate institute does this in a very creative way, hosting programs for the students in the evening where people from community politics, the practice of law, and other realms come to host discussion panels, talks, or presentations about the city and communities they live in. These presentations keep the work done during the day on debating in a context of outside community and the city. This raises important questions about the distinctions between advocacy designed for a tournament and advocacy designed for a courtroom. 

Instead of a smooth process of "do these three things and you will win," summer debate institutes should be the place where we step back from tournament competition and consider the gaps, the spaces, and the people that we become when we practice debate. A practice changes a person, and reflection on that practice and those changes are essential to the recognition and appreciation of what debate does for us.