Debate with Reservations

Heading to Montana tomorrow to begin a new program in partnership with another university to bring debate programs and debating culture to the colleges on Native American reservations. So-called tribal colleges are routinely forgotten in the national conversation about the University, the college, their purpose and mission, and the importance of education that is like debating, that fits into the fantasy of the active student interrogating issues on their own and preparing dynamic, inclusive, and responsive texts for the surveillance and pleasure of the professor/examiner-as-audience. The neoliberal rhetoric is even more vile, citing debate as a set of "portable skills" which can be applied to any non-descript employment situation, allowing debate to serve as part of both deskilled and temporary workforce, allowing debate to serve whatever sort of labor demand the future will make. 

I wonder exactly why and what we are doing in this new venture. I am going in my preferred way, nearly totally blind as to the conditions, history, and situation of the colleges we'll be visiting. This way I can hear the passionate and interested articulations of the reality of the colleges from the students when I arrive. This gives me an opportunity as well to build some trust, as my acceptance of their articulated reality builds some nice bridges. I am very curious to hear the interpretation of what they have and what they see debate doing to improve their college experience.

On top of that, I wonder what I want debate education, or the development of a debate program to be. Currently I am thinking of a debate program or debate culture in Burkean terms, as a "debate attitude" which would serve as a curative to debunking, one that favors non-totalizing rejection in arguments and the end of a debate as a beginning of a larger inquiry. Maybe this is too limiting. I was asked what I hope the students teaching with me get out of it. I replied, "A life changing moment." This is hard to define. I suppose I would say I hope that it becomes a place for intellectual reinvigoration, a place to return (quite literally a topos) in their mind and memories that can be used for innovation, testing, creative reflection, or any number of other imaginative tasks that rhetoricians and rhetors are called upon to perform as they do their intellectual wandering. I also added, "at a minimum." I don't feel I should be constrained by predictable outcomes here. Why should my desire to take pleasure as a teacher at a "job well done" overtake the generative possibilities of the encounters we are about to have? The limits placed by the instructor in terms of expectation come with limits that will be subtly policed through action, word, and gesture. I need to abandon any sort of "ultimate" or "maximum" outcome here in order to open the possibility for something greater than I could imagine.

The encounter will generate a lot of the productive material for teaching as well as the opportunities to do so. My plan is for there to be a lot of debates, as shared texts for our conversations. The shared experience of a debate is like having read the same books and materials to use as an anchor point.

I suppose that the entire purpose, goals, and outcomes of this project will be dependent on what we find in the encounter. More to come. My preparation for now is to try to avoid the comfortable, predictable tropes that orbit tightly around the idea "Building a debate program at a tribal college." Treating it in terms of the familiar, the expected, the easily measurable is to limit it, to secure it in the realm-of-the-known, and to limit debate knowledge to that which serves other ideologies, namely the ideology of a career and work that is designed to enrich the wealthy at the expense of the joyful and frequent exercise of the imagination, primed with the raw material of the encounter with the text and the invitation to participate in its construction.