I am very surprised that I am able to teach a debate class this semester. Where I work, a class won't make unless you have over 10 people enrolled in it. It seems like a reasonable rule, but my university also has a bloated core of courses without much substitution allowed (9 hours of philosophy and theology for example) as well as other requirements for individual majors. This is the result of believing that the goal and primary function of the university is to create people ready for a job above anything else. In this sort of environment, the case for electives or courses that explore and critique ideas is small and fading. There's little time for critical evaluation when you need to get the 6 hours of particular classes you need to get that job that you think you want.
So in this environment, a debate course must speak to the students in a way that they can find valuable within a larger discourse where the purpose of a class is to finish it and add the paper to the growing list of accomplishments that will earn a degree/job (the space between the conception of these two things is also quickly fading in the university discourse, but is not fading at all in the rest of the world). My idea for the class was to interrogate itself, to see if there is any value in debating that could be articulated through the modern discourse of the purpose of the university. To that end, I invited my old friend policy debate back into my teaching.
Policy debate and BP debate are wonderful foils for one another because of how easy it is to spot the differences between them. I would argue to most people that they are more similar than different in the ways that are most important to debate. We see the trends of policy debate in the American practice of BP quite clearly when it comes to speed of delivery, the repetition of particular spurious causal arguments from topic to topic (economic arguments are pretty obvious here) and most importantly the narrowing band of appropriate topics, giving debaters the option to go widely left or just left in their selection of topoi for the invention of arguments. In our material-obsessed society the biggest difference, that of the use of printed material as evidence, sticks out so far that one has to really work to look around this huge peak to find such similarities. It's that major difference I hope can open a conversation with the students about the general nature of proof, support, evidence - whatever you want to call it, and how much power rhetors have over this category.
So far so good. The class is starting to practice their policy debates next week and I've been having a good time reviewing a lot of old, dusty information in my head that I haven't used in many years. The structure of policy debate is enjoyable for students as they can see how things fit together pretty easily, and the decision calculus is a relief for most of them, knowing that they just have to concentrate on outweighing the other side. We are debating a topic that they selected, well two actually: The United Nations should be authorized and equipped to engage in offensive military action and The United States should ban for-profit prisons.
After we do policy debate we will turn to BP. After the experience of both, we will discuss the relative value of both formats in the modern university context. What is the purpose? Do these practices have relevance? Is there application of this model beyond the university classroom? There are a few authors who have discussed this, but not many. It seems that communication scholars have made up their minds as to the value of debate: It might have it, but not in academic journals. One has to dig mostly outside of the NCA crowd to find those commenting on the potential value the practice of formal, collegiate debate has for and on people.
My personal view is that the competitive drive of debating, that desire to do better and to "win" the debate (whatever that might mean) is a powerful drug in the Gorgias-ian sense, and it gives people a lust to see the world as a potential repository of winning arguments. This "weaponizes" one's normal day in the terms of argument, where everything said or read in any class has the potential to become a debate argument that could be used to defeat the other side. I wonder if the students will see it this way as well. The addiction that debate creates is a good addiction because it provides a master narrative to a week filled with required courses, where the instructors are not let in on the reasons why the course might be required for each major and do not talk to one another about the potential connections between course material. Perhaps debate's place within the modern university discourse is that of connection and comprehension around a simple story of wanting to win, to convince a group of people that your ideas are better than the ideas presented by the other side.