"Why do I go to conferences?" is the question on my mind right now, as it always is in the days leading up to a big conference trip. I've sort of (emphasis on "sort of") gotten used to the dismissal of my papers and ideas as really weird, strange, or perhaps maybe not serious enough, but I enjoy writing them, and I get a lot out of the process, so weirdly I keep writing them. After a conference, I am usually immediately Jonesing for the next one.
The first conference this summer was in May in Atlanta, eerily in the very same block of hotels that a month prior to that held the US nationals in debating in the style I teach. This conference made me think a lot, and realize that I am a compositionist. I mean, if what concerns you, and what you think about most of the time, and what excites you to study is the thing that compositionist panels are up to, then maybe I am one.
It makes a lot of sense, really. Debate is composition, no matter how you try to wiggle out of that term because of your distaste for it. Go ahead, try. This post will still be here when you return. Composition is about a lot of different things, mostly about assembling meaning for another person out of experiences and texts that you believe have valuable meaning. When is this not happening in debate?
Composition seems like the easiest answer in the world available for the old argument that rhetoric isn't really the teaching of anything. "What do you teach? How to wear a tie? Eye contact? Vocal projection?" Such questions are meant as legitimate, not as insulting, but they are ignorant in oh so many ways, the major one being the ignorance of the 2000 year half-life of that question. Plato's charges that teaching rhetoric, debate, public speaking, etc is more like teaching cookery or cosmetics than teaching nutrition and exercise still hold on. They are foundation divisions in our thinking. But with the stunning amount of money and viewers that YouTube stars have offering cosmetic tips, and the recent information that Gordon Ramsay is one of the worlds highest grossing celebrities seem to indicate that people are getting a lot out of both. They appeal is that they strike at perhaps a deeper divide than the one Plato identified, which is the human desire to seek arrangement. Patterns, a sense of connection, an ordering - these things feel good to us. This might be why Plato's overwrought designations appeal to us as well. Composition is the architectonic art, the art of arts - arranging things in order to mean.
We will see what the Tokyo Argumentation conference brings. I'm always already hesitant to go; I fear I won't like it; I know I will love it; I know I will learn things; I am certain I will prepare for the next conference; I am definitely going to second-guess my decision to go to that one too. Do chefs feel this way when preparing a new dish? I wish I had the confidence of those whose association feels like an insult to those who would see themselves as some sort of higher-order thinkers.
But I'm pretty sure I'm alone on this. Debate people don't want to see debate as much more than an interesting hobby in Europe, or a forum for a raw and unrestricted, "pure" political inquiry in the US. I'm sure rhetoricians, if not already compositionsists, will take insult with the idea that their art's depth is the surface of things. Maybe being between two conferences will extend past the summer?