D.C., Audience, and Audition

Wasn't certain what to expect from our interview/audition process held this weekend in Washington, D.C. I thought there might be a few things that would happen - people would speak, and I would evaluate them, but when compared to other days in my week, the weekend was a capstone - a very particular capstone for me - even though it is the start of something for everyone there, at least I think it is. 

What did I bring with me to Washington? The previous night I watched a public debate, which I wrote about a couple of entries before this one, which was fantastic. But the public debate highlighted a failure of my teaching - there boldy were students who were selecting comfortable ways of speaking over accessible ways of speaking. The students were relying on organization and delivery resources that would work best at a tournament. After the first few minutes of the first speech, I turned around to see the audience - mostly young, mostly minority individuals who clearly came to the debate because of the topic of affirmative action - eyes glazing over as they were smothered with multiple complex arguments accompanied by examples that, although valid, were not crafted with these people in mind.

The substitution of form for audience seems a common problem. Fidelity to the form is not fidelity to the audience, and is pretty far removed from argumentation that we would term "good." But the fact that debates are judged by others who also have fidelity to the form causes this problem. It's not a problem if one wants national champions and tournament victories, but it is a problem if it becomes a positive feedback loop, harder to break with each surge of support detected.

What can the teacher do to break such silly practices? The one thing that we don't want, that I think we can all agree on, are students that finish their experience with debate feeling that there is a "right" way to make arguments. What we would substitute is that there is a "proper" way to make arguments - that is, the rhetorical trinity must be highlighted: Appropriateness, Timing, and Audience are the three way points by which one should chart one's articulation.

This was further reinforced to me late into the night as I tried to think of ways to avoid this certainty. Teaching against certainty is difficult as you have several tough opponents. First, is comfort - the students are incredibly comfortable with the discourse of the tournament. So comfortable in fact that they fail to realize that it is a specific discourse for specific people. The students could be said to suffer from what many doctors and surgeons suffer from - poor "bedside manner" - but instead of bedside manor, perhaps we could craft our own phrase here: "Logoside manner?" Hmm. That needs work. 

The first appearance of the progymnasmata, the exercises in rhetoric and debate that were taught to beginning students, were meant to get students thinking about how to argue and make claims in front of audiences to be sure. But I think I have fallen into a trap that Quintillian and Aristotle could not avoid - the trap of homogeneity. Both of those figures from rhetorical history had quite homogeneous cultures to teach to. Here in the contemporary United States, the audience, if anything, is pluralistic and multicultural. The audience at a debating tournament is much more similar to a Roman audience, or an Athenian one - everyone thinks the same, everyone is mired in the same culture. But place us in the world outside the tournament and you find variance and difference in views - at least a bit more than you find inside the tournament. Teaching competitive debate as a form of rhetorical training is clearly not enough.

But competitive debate coupled with public debate seems like a convincing answer. Public debate though requires the same attention and training as tournament preparation. It's not enough to just "talk simpler" or "use smaller words" - audiences can easily tell when you are being pedantic (not sure how, but it happens). It has to be an audience analysis exercise, and must also be tempered with the universal audience. 

I was nicely reminded of how much fun this approach to argument and rhetoric can be during the between times of the interviews this weekend. I was staying at my good friends' home and talking to them late into the night about many ideas - politics, communication, rhetoric, philosophy, video games - the list goes on and on, but the approach was instructive. When we spoke, we adapted what we were saying to what came before. When speaking about theory to those who are not trained in my field, it would be meaningless to convey it as I know it. I have to convey it in ways connected to what my audience knows. The conversation was effortless, invigorating, and stimulating.

As I tried to sleep that night and entertain a very happy kitty that decided I was her best friend in the world and should pet her all night, I thought about that conversation compared to my experiences at the public debate - what is the difference between them? Shouldn't there be little to no difference between the master of debating and the master of conversation? Shouldn't we be teaching rhetorical principles? If debate is not teaching rhetorical principles, the project would be lost - for critical thinking can be taught through many other subjects. But adapting the discoveries made by critical thought to pluralistic audiences is what debate should add. 

During the remainder of the auditions I became more and more impressed with the candidates. They had mastered the thing that I sought to articulate in my own teaching. Through the debates and lectures I saw that perhaps through competitive debate one could access rhetorical mastery of a more general nature. It was impressive. Their ability to adapt and convey content best suited for the environment of a competitive tournament outside of that environment was really nice. It made me realize that the audition served as a test the way tournaments do. Or at least, the candidates were treating it as such a contest, and adapting for it appropriately.

It seems that in the try out for the debating tour there was a confidence and performance that indicated an awareness of what we were there to do. There was not this lack of that awareness that I saw in my public debate. I think this indicates that at a certain level of experience this awareness might start to occur. These students though represent some of the best at what they do, and they may represent a minority. 

We already know that debate is good training for competitive rhetorical situations (reader: do we? But that might be for another post). But for non-competitive rhetorical situations, such as agonistic conversation - the sort of thing that public intellectuals create and dispense, and that those interested in the civic may be interested in consuming - those with this training can still fall into the trap of speaking to the audience that is not there. Speaking comfortably, to the audience you wish were there, or to the "right" audience should be the thing that teachers and coaches of debate deplore. Speaking "properly" is the target. And proper speech is determined by where that audience happens to be in time and space. In public debates this must be taught, and I will keep in my mind the excellence demonstrated at this audition and attempt to extract from it the elements that could be added to my pedagogy to make sure I am not training the next generation of those who are excellent at speaking to "no one" and terrible at speaking to "no one in particular."