Tokyo Conference on Argumentation

It's hard to find a faultless conference. But the Tokyo Argumentation Conference might just be the best model of a conference that balances a critical and serious approach to teaching with respect and space for the consideration of research developments in the field. 

The reason that this conference is one of my favorites is that it maintains a grounding in and reserves space for the direct discussion of pedagogy and teaching. The first night featured a great plenary panel, probably the highlight of the conference for me, where three scholars presented ideas and activities they do in courses when teaching various things (freedom of expression, policy making rhetoric, or rhetorical history). Nothing really provides better material for the mind to work over not only the performance and efficacy of what one does in a course, but also strips away the nonsense and gets right to the heart of the issues central to the field. It's easy to talk for hours about what rhetorical criticism is, but very difficult to pin it down in an operable way without the context of an undergraduate course that requires timing, dialogue, and assessment. 

The entire conference was well above my expectations. I always expect to get good ideas for teaching, or at least great fodder to ponder over to improve or modify my teaching of how to argue. Speaking broadly, it seems that argumentation studies and rhetorical studies are moving away from any serious interest in the teaching of production of oral arguments, aside from teaching how to do academic or scholarly criticism. Teaching is a topic that is best avoided. Like jury duty, the teaching of speech and argument is a contradiction: An essential part of our society yet best avoided if you can get out of it.  The Tokyo conference on argumentation seems to keep front and center this idea of teaching through their choice and arrangements of keynotes, panel composition, and plenary panels. 

This is what a conference should be: A serious focus on cutting edge research in argumentation and debate never decoupled from the necessity of teaching it in some capacity to others. I obviously have a strong preference for that teaching to be centered on the improvement of the production and performance of oral argumentation, but there's no reason it should just be limited to that. 

Here are some thoughts about this Tokyo conference in no particular order:

1. There was a lack of presence of all perspectives on argumentation studies

This is not really a problem more than it is a curious observation. Tokyo has always been considered to be one of the "big four" argumentation conferences in the world - places where people who study argument from a variety of perspectives are expected to appear in order to discuss advances in research on argumentation. This conference had no presence of Canadian school or Dutch school scholars. I'm not really sure why that is. 

Perhaps this expectation was just that, and there really is no official reason for everyone to turn up at all of these conferences. Maybe Japan is an expensive destination (next time looks particularly tricky since it will be Tokyo hosting the 2020 Olympics). Or, more cynically, perhaps it's that this conference focuses less on the study of argument's ontological status and more on the rhetorical tradition of aiding producing of argument within shifting cultural and social contexts. I doubt it is that one, but it does make you think. Would it be so bad if argument was split up across the globe and not beholden to each perspective each time. Still, the loss of the variety of methods does have an impact on the conference. In the end, the organizers can do nothing about this, it's an issue the community of scholars can fix by attending.

2. The relationship between debate and argument is central

A lot of the conference papers were occupied either explicitly or implicitly with the connection between (or absence of a connection) between debate and argument. This is an incredibly good and important direction for argumentation studies. The temptation for argumentation is to spin argumentation off into a unique and complex thing that only argumentation studies scholars can understand and elucidate. This would be done through continuous academic debating in journals about the ontological status of argument (eg: it's essential character, structure, limits, all that). The question of debate and argument can of course go that way, but it's unlikely to do so. The reason why is because debate is primarily practice, a practice that contains within it a number of elements that meet the many definitions of argument. Concerns about this distinction speak to concerns about the nature and status of argument in general and in much better ways than attempting to pin down its ontological sense. Instead, we try to differentiate argumentation as a practice and a mode of thought and epistemology as well as a mode of being in the world. Debate becomes a lens or touchstone for such an approach, but can serve as a counterweight as well. This line of thinking I hope develops a lot more purchase as it seems very valuable to both debate and argumentation studies and pretty clearly superior to sets of criticism of expired controversies that have "broken the rules" so to speak. The value of doing it by placing debate and argument in conversation is that one has to talk about the practice of both, the doing of both, and that is connected to the teaching of both, in the sense of how we recognize and explain to others the superiority of an argument or a performance over another one.

3. The connection of historical work and educational policy is underplayed

This conference had two really shining moments for me. The first was the opening keynote where we learned that Japanese national educational policy was being shaped by debate and argumentation scholars. Secondly, I learned that there are a number of people doing archival work on debate that is being used to draw conclusions about teaching historically. I think these two lines, although unconnected now, could be implicitly serving each other on the important question of what it means to be an argumentation scholar. I think the critical missing element is to treat debate as a socially essential art. That means that we must look historically at debate and argument as having "movements" and "schools" that reinforce our ability to appreciate this art, and also there are standards and practices for the study of the art formally. We downplay our ability to be argumentation creators, often pushing our interest into descriptive after-the-fact theoretical work, but this doesn't have to be the entire sum of what we do. I think debate across the curriculum combined with the output from the archival debate scholars creates a wonderful nexus from which one can draw on to make claims about what should be taught or practiced in order to preserve this socially essential art. 

There's a lot more I could say here, and probably will in another post. For now I'm going to watch some more Japanese coverage of the Olympics and think. For a very long time people have considered debate or argument as analogous to a competitive game that is judged by experts. Perhaps it's time to abandon that set of assumptions completely and think about how we produce and criticize our art of argumentation. The fact that the High School nationals of Japanese language debate were happening right across the campus says something about the proximity of scholarship, teaching, and practice in more than just physical space for this conference.