Montana Takeaways

Well I finally missed one - it was bound to happen. Yesterday was a very long travel day and although I did have time to write while waiting for a flight in Denver, I just didn't really feel like it. I ran out of cold medicine Sunday night, so I knew Monday would be pretty rough coming back. I was just taking it easy. If I only miss one that would be pretty good.

This morning I'm in a reflective mood. The rain is moving in, and the desktop is already processing video and photos in the other room. I have a lot of email to answer and two more debate trips to plan today. Tonight is a debate meeting which I look forward to. Hoping more new folks show up. LIfe gets pretty busy in the fall term, and I always forget how busy it is.

The trip to Montana this year provided a few take aways:

1. An enemy of debate that I underestimated is instrumentality.

I realized this in judging the final round (which was excellent). I believe that instrumentality is the primary philosophy behind most all debate education and is the basis of the "good speech" model that most competitors use. This approach no doubt is responsible for the weirdness of motions, the weird ways that people within debate react to motions that would be considered interesting and good by the general public, and the hidden methods of evaluation of debate speeches. 

I always feel a little anxious and nauseated when people ask me to teach at a "debate workshop" or provide a "workshop" for debaters. I feel like several things might happen: I will sell out and talk about "the 5 things all PM speeches miss" or some nonsense and then hate myself all night; I won't sell out and the students will feel cheated, like "what the hell was that? He didn't help me do anything!"; Or I'll try to work my own ideas into some instrumental model of debate education and it will not be enough of either for me to be happy or the students to be happy. 

This time I think I've figured out that If I just teach rhetorical ideas, the rest of it will follow. Debaters are drawn to debate because they are thinkers and they are curious. These are traits that are easily stamped out by the competitive norms, making them obedient to "what wins" and admire the "great speakers" they find on YouTube or at other competitions. Appealing to these things was pretty successful when giving the workshop this time. Also it was great to have a collection of smart people to have a conversation with in front of the crew. The idea that debate is transmitted from those who know to those who don't is a failure. It's a conversation among practitioners about what works, what doesn't, and what is worth trying. I think we accomplished that at the Saturday morning workshop.

2. Small Regions that Interact Infrequently is How Debate Thrives

Steve Johnson at the University of Anchorage said this to me during an interview in an early episode of In The Bin. I didn't totally agree with him as during those years I was very excited to be on the edge of a growing national circuit. But a national circuit is a normalizing circuit; it is the death of debate's most important elements: creativity and imagination, approaching issues rather than approaching strategies. National competition requires the most bland spices available if any due to the different palates that you have to satisfy in the judging pool. 

Montana is one of these places where when I watch people speak I remember what attracted me to the BP format in the first place. These speeches are aimed at a public audience, not at those who appreciate a technical skill. When moving between these circuits, what keeps us connected is attention to what's being written, discussed, and posted in the public sphere. That's where our matter should be drawn for topics and arguments. Not "we've done this before" or "we've never seen such a crazy motion!" Those standards are the result of thinking about debate as a broad, bland, technical skill mastery event rather than a community of thinkers gathering together to practice being intellectuals. The latter is my weekend experience and I would like to see more of this, and less concern about Worlds or USU in the instruction and practices of debaters. 

More reflections I'm sure are on the way. I just wanted to get those two out this morning before I turn to more menial writing tasks. Videos should be up tonight and I'll post some links to them when they are ready.