On Mediated Representations of the Value of Debating

Attempts to mediate the experience of  debate are troubling. They are not troubling in the good way of troubling that can be appreciated – creation of static in a clear picture, the presentation of uncertainty as a good, the celebration of questioning over answering. The trouble that these mediations present is one of too clear of a picture, to certain of an understanding, too solid of a substance. The end result is to undercut the value of debating as a tool for constituting and reconstituting selves.

Obviously, the biggest media story in debate right now is the discovery that the survivors of the Stoneman mass shooting were all trained in formal competitive debate. This was the result of a district-wide policy that folds debate into the curriculum. Making debate work with curriculum, most notably a curriculum in communication and rhetoric, is the “co-curricular” theory put forward in 1952 by debate scholar Douglas Ehninger. As an extra-curricular, debate loses its potential to be transformative, and becomes transformed – it falls into the ready-made envelope for its distribution under a host of signifiers that convey meaning as natural and unchallengeable. More to come on Parkland later. For now, let’s explore a couple of recent attempts to provide the public insight into the value of debating.

The two examples in this post are a start to articulating trouble with firmness. Defenses of debate are always needed, and narratives about the value of debate are fantastic. But we must be very careful how we allow those narratives to be framed. Framing debate within an easily acceptable metaphor makes it very easy to communicate what we are doing when we teach debating, but incredibly difficult to have any purchase on the unique elements of it. Often, the excess of the metaphor spills over on its own. The audience runs with the familiar interpretation down the line, often to a point where the metaphor no longer serves the term, but redefines the original terms to suit it. The metaphor no longer helps the communicator; the communicator is a helpless object within the terms of the metaphor. The one that I think bothers me the most is “Debate coach.” A coach is someone who brings out talent and makes it good within the confines of a contest. A teacher does not work like a coach. Teachers must deal with the untalented and difficult. A coach can have tryouts. The list goes on. I feel that debate does not need coaches, precisely because imbedded within that term is the notion that there’s a binary win/loss as a goal, and talented people should be brought to the coach for perfection.

Since the dawn of the speech communication discipline (or “rhetoric”) in the United States, there has been no shortage of anxiety about metaphor among teachers of debate. The dangers of claiming debate as a sport surface as early as 1916 in the Quarterly Journal of Public Speaking. It could be said that the history of teaching debate in the United States is a history of anxiety localized around the question, “What is the value of this?” Such a question comes with it panic when it is raised, leading toward easy to get comparisons, like sport. The impact of which is not a defense of debating per se, but the defense of debating “as a kind of sport.” In these same issues, there is concern that thinking of debate as a “game” is harmful, limiting, and corrupting of the material and the student. These debates about disciplinary anxiety are still with us.

Last week in the Wall Street Journal high school debater Marie-Rose Sheinerman is profiled as a “speed talker.” The short video compares her spreading versus the fastest talkers they could find in the Journal’s office.  Demonstrations of her spreading are accompanied by a pleasant voice over from a journalist who claims that it is a “necessity,” because, “The faster you talk, the more information you get out.” The rules of debate require things to be read aloud to “count,” we are told. Then this is followed with some comic music, and examples of the debate student reading text from a commercial for Old Spice, the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, and the lyrics to the theme of Friends. Of course, Sheinerman is much faster than anyone, and we are meant to marvel at this amazing ability.

The obvious comparison to professional athletics is not stated, but it is clear that Sheinerman has a gift, or a talent, or some sort of ability that not everyone has. Perhaps it comes through rigorous practice over time as well as a familiarity with complex research (it does), but this is not mentioned by the Journal. Nor are the hours of university-level research that the students have to do to compete at a national level in high school debating. Instead, we are shown debate via the metaphor of a very difficult skill that someone has perfected due to the rules of a competition. We are shown how fast someone can run, if they make a life out of it. We are not told the health benefits of running, or that any of us could benefit from the practices that constitute a world-class runner.

Hedging back against a complex model of debate is the perception that debate is for people who want to hone this strange ability. Very little is said about why spreading matters, its educational value, or what the connection is from it to the act or art of debating. It’s worse than just a surface depiction – the trivial texts that they have her read along with the office staff only serve to make debate appear more trivial, just a contest of getting a ton of information out, or at least more than someone else. Why was debate allowed to be depicted this way?

Very much like showing a unique athletic skill or something only a pro athlete could do, this depiction confirms a view of debate as something like speed skating. Loosely based on skating, something many people can enjoy, it takes that practice and amps it to a level of technical prowess that only a few can master. Of course skiing and speed skating (on my mind because of the Olympics obviously) are not that serious as their practice, relegated to elite performers, does not interfere in the operations of a democratic order. But the question of what a good debate ought to be, since we are called to debate so often when various phenomena occur (such as mass shootings), should be the thing that is brought forward whenever debate becomes mediated and publicized like this.

The second, and less simplistic troubling mediation of debate recently is the Wake Forest Debate mini-documentary, expertly shot, edited and presented on their website in a multimedia mixed web format. It’s slick – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a defense of intercollegiate debate appear to be so professional. The rhetorical tone of the whole piece is, shot-for-shot, trope-for-trope, a profile of a university athletic program, complete with the smoke, the spotlights, and the slow motion portraits of the star “players,” nodding in slow motion while presenting confident smiles at the viewer. Filled with the tropes of power-over, and the affective thrill of conquering other people in competition, the video would not be out of place on ESPN. But can Wake debate steer out of the spin of the athletic/sport metaphor here?

There’s a lot to talk about in this video. I’m not going to hit it all here, but provide a general critique. It’s overwhelming how good it is. The profile of debate built here by the teachers and the students in the program is one that I never thought I would see in my lifetime. The Wake Forest defense of debate takes the supposed defeat of the convictionist school of debate pedagogy from before 1950 and revitalizes it with neoliberal discourse. Switch-side debating, meant to provide training in democratic decision making, the dominant defense of debate since the mid 1950s, feels like a critique of convictionism that Wake Forest has found the way to satisfy. This is a table-flipping establishment of the value of a particular pedagogy of debating.

Convictionism was a very long-held ethics of teaching debate that remained unquestioned until two events happened near one another – the Great Depression, which spelled an end to complex travel arrangements of the triangular and pentangular leagues that dotted the United States, and the rise of the debate tournament, the invention of J. Thompson Baker, professor at Southwestern University in 1923. By the rise of the Depression, the tournament was stable enough to start experimenting with what was called switch-side debating, where a team would have to be prepared to debate either side of the annual topic. The tournament was a cheap alternative to the multi-night, multi-city pentangular leagues, which were expensive. The tournament allowed students to have many different debates all within the same day or two. In order to facilitate this, students were told to prepare arguments on both sides of the topic, not just the side they agreed with. This reached a crisis moment in the mid 1950s when the national topic raised the question of the US officially recognizing the government of China. Debate teachers believed it would be unethical to force students to say things outside of their own convictions about communist regimes. The crisis, for Ronald Greene & Darrin Hicks, precipitated a defense of debate that centered around constituting debater-as-subject rather than helping debaters constitute better arguments around their feelings or opinions. Switch-side debating has been the dominant defense of intercollegiate debate since then, and it usually follows a formula where debate is touted as a social good because it forces people to examine both sides of an issue.

In the video it is reiterated several times that Wake Forest operates under a “big tent” rubric, meaning that the only things one needs to do to participate is commit to excellence and have a desire to win. After that, the coaches and teachers commit to a role of helping you argue whatever you want to argue better. Gone is the idea that you might arrive with particular opinions about political issues that need to be challenged through the switch-side model, back is the convictionist model that we will help you improve the arguments you already know. Switch-side is incorporated as a small criticism of convictionism, dismissed in the video as an inventional challenge to finding the rhetoric for the extant belief you hold on that side of the topic. One is never in a position to go against what beliefs one has in big tent debating, merely locate what you want to say and it can be developed.

This works exceptionally well as a defense of debate not just in the NCAA-style profile of the video, but in the modern defense of the university system itself. Instead of the switch-side defense of debate as constituting liberal subjects who can then operate within democratic communities, debate done this way helps you process “information overload,” at the level of an “MA student working on a Ph.D.” and renders the rest of the world “literally in slow motion.” The end of the video laments that there’s no pro debate league, but does indicate the presence of a defacto pro debate league in the realm of science, law, politics, and other careers. The enthymeme is pretty convincing – debate is practice for handling the complexities of the careers that are perceived as successful. Nowhere in the video, except for the last part where there is some discussion of the relationships formed on the team at Wake over the years, is there any traditional switch-side appeal to constituting liberal citizens who can occupy controversial spaces and manage the arguments within. Instead, neoconvictionist debating gives you advantages over others – in life and in your classes – by making you so much faster than they are when engaged in critical analysis of information.

The university system is making a similar claim – you can have what you need out of life by presenting, and having certified, your ability to have a particular sort of career or job. The university is reconstituting itself as a place not to find yourself, not to interrogate certainty in belief, but a place to supercharge who you are. It’s not about constituting identity, but confirming and certifying that identity as a commodity, which of course has a value on an open market of labor. The university provides each student special skills and perspectives that they add to the degree to make them unique. Each university conveys what is particular about its educational approach along with the quality of faculty and the diversity of degree programs.

The neo-convictionist “big tent” model is shown to provide tools to an atomistic subject who is already well-versed in what argument they want to say. As that argument is perfected, the subject learns how to accent him or herself with these advantages to go on into a powerful career. Throughout the video, individuals are profiled as certain subjects. They are certain they are “Kritik” debaters and “policy” debaters, they are certain about what they care about, they are certain about the role of debate, how to practice it, and the absolute clarity of the value of a win. All of this certainty orbits an unchallenged subject formation of the debater – again the role of the debate team is not to reconstitute subjects, but to improve the ready-made subject that arrives. The Wake video is a clear return to convictionism with an enthymematic neoliberal answer to switch-side debate’s claim of why the subject must be reconstituted for debate to have value. It’s really masterful, and represents a real sea change in debate pedagogy for the 21st century. It could also be that I’m out of touch with these articulations, and Wake represents a very conservative reiteration of an understanding of debating that is alive and well on the policy circuit.

The Wake debate video follows the rhetoric of a sports promotion but with a couple of very nice twists. The first being the huge amount of time spent on the value of hosting the Wake Forest tournament. This started to bleed into a discussion of how intercollegiate debate forms special spaces of practice and thought, but we never really get too much depth here. There is a glorious opportunity to go deep on the recurrent phrase of “southern hospitality,” particularly on the way that the term hospitality has been reconsidered since the early 2000s as a new sort of politics, but in addition there could be a discussion of how much of a safe space tournaments are for the sharing of political thoughts, how the side conversations over a meal blossom over the years, and the relationship of competition to academic merit. Instead, it is continuously portrayed as a large event that attracts people who we are (again) certain are good at debating. And they certainly prove it as former champions go down to the “big tent” trained debaters time and time again.

There is an inadequate amount of time in the video speaking about how peer-driven and peer-education centric debate can be. There’s not enough time spent discussing how people can locate themselves as speaking subjects through the gaps and rifts created through a good campus debate practice. There’s little about discovery and a lot about ability. I think the tone of it perhaps has been hijacked by the sport metaphor, and a lot of good perspectives are lost in this iteration of the value of the debate program. Are they still there? Perhaps. Are they hard to see? Yes. The metaphor, as Paul Ricoeur among others has said, obscures as much as it illuminates. Discourses of promotion are distinct from discourses of practice. The danger is of course that promotional discourses that are reductive are double-edged. They cut anything they touch if made well. The risk is that they will trim the uncertain edges of the practice as well. I suspect that the debate folks at Wake were approached to make the documentary and it was made by those with an eye toward promotion, rather than the other way around.

Why does it matter what’s missing? To get an appreciation for the value of debate, things like the familiarity of being unsure, the continual loss even though you have said it in the best way you know, and the most important yet least talked about aspect of debating – losing when you shouldn’t have – need to be included in discussions of the value of debate. For those of you familiar with other posts here and my other writing on debate, I couch this idea in the term “uncertainty,” but I am not sure if it is a perfect fit for the sentiment. The value of debate in our colleges and schools is not that it rewards the development of a particular skill or talent, but it provides a multi-variant experience of being uncertain. It is practice with being close to uncertainty and to confront it continuously. The discourses surrounding debate strategy betray the anxiety of uncertainty – “They will have nothing to say,” is often a trope of congratulations upon hearing a well thought-out strategy for a debate. But the trope indicates some discomfort with the uncertain nature of the “said.” If they can say something, we might lose no matter how good our arguments are. In debate, we struggle against uncertainty but always find ourselves within it. And in the university system, and schooling system that has gone nearly fully over to a neoliberal philosophy, uncertainty is not a value, it’s a threat. This is one of the subversive values to a good debate practice.

The question for the mediation of debate is: How do we best promote debate’s value without letting the metaphor oversteer the meaning? There are mentions of process a couple of times in the Wake video, quickly followed by speech that confirms a team’s talent, or ability, or another sporty metaphor for a good player. Is there a way to talk about debaters without talking about them as good players? Is there a conception of the good that favors debate’s value that is not easy to confuse with the ontological? What is the better metaphor for defending debating in the 21st century? What is process, and can we discuss it without lapsing into a discussion of its exchange-value for economic subjects?

A neoconvictionist model that is separated from the university’s neoliberal self-defense play would be an interesting way to start. I was stunned to hear this defense from the Wake video; it still blows my mind. There’s potential there as a break against the waves of the transformation of the university into a servile, corporate ropes course. The temptation is that it simply folds into the university’s bid to be a gatekeeper for corporate power.

There are others, but a simple process might be to work to complicate the media’s natural tendency to be reductive. To insist on complexity when debate is profiled. To forward an idea that is not so tough to get: We need to practice being uncertain. We need to face that burning sensation in our chest when we are proven wrong, when we don’t know and we know we don’t know. We need to confront our limits as thinkers and speakers. To base a democracy on a group of people who don’t know how to do that is to welcome the calming presence of oligarchs who can make it all better for us. Either we find ways to grapple with uncertainty, or we will happily take on the control of those who claim they can protect us from it.

We can’t avoid the metaphors, but we can weaken them just enough to be unsettling. We want debate to be alive and unknown, not deterministic and settled. Everyone knows what basketball at the college is like. That's a rhetorical advantage, assuming you can steer out of the powerful skid the metaphor will put you in once you decide to drive it.