Debate Institute; Debate Camp

There's a nice hybrid on my desk - Green Mountain Blueberry coffee in a UNT coffee mug. The combination, apparently, has driven me to the keyboard to put down some of the thoughts that have been rattling around in my head for the past 3 weeks.

In a previous debate incarnation, blueberry coffee was a powerful potion. I remember getting it from the University of Vermont campus bookstore, in that branded paper cup, with that untreated wood stirrer that resembled a misplaced part of a balsa wood airplane.

I'd go to my classroom and things would already be somewhat underway. After the midpoint of the institute, the students pretty much ran the show (or so it seemed to me). Going about reading, cutting, arranging, and discussing, there wasn't much for me to do except be there with them in the swirl. At the start of instruction there is a lot more direct stuff for me to do. Usually I taught those who had only seen or participated in 1 debate before. It was a great challenge, and I miss it, even more acutely when drinking this coffee in the late July weather.

As funding and number of debating programs across the US diminish, the University of Vermont World Debate Institute did as well. The model of the debate camp or debate institute has started to dry up. As I spent the middle weeks of July in the Dallas/Fort Worth area in Texas, the 105 degree heat plus the lack of rain (My uncle the winemaker told me the last they had was a fraction of an inch in April as we stood in his pizza oven vineyard) the drying creek beds and low rivers were a nice metaphor for the debate institute/camp narrative.


The campus of the University of North Texas in Denton. The grass is doing quite well for 102F.
There are still a few remaining camps. I had the chance to visit one by invitation of the UNT director of debate Dr. Brian Lain. Professor Lain has one of the few remaining debate camps in the country. He sees it as an opportunity to reach out to high school students in the area and provide them a high quality summer educational program. It was good to see a vibrant high school debate institute in action again. My first major debate experience was attending the Baylor University debate workshop when I was 15 years old.

Dr. Lain is running a great debate institute on campus there. I watched a high school debate for the first time in years. It reminded me of my old incarnation, back when there were 4 types of debate one could participate in. Now there are 6 (can you name the US debate formats?). When I moved to the northeast to coach at the University of Rochester, everyone did policy debate. It was wonderful. Now everyone does Worlds Style and policy debate. And it's still wonderful, albeit different.

It would be too easy to claim the transition of the US into Worlds Style debate will mean further decline and elimination of the few debate institutes left. It's too easy because it's wrong. First, there is little to no evidence of a "transition" of any kind - what we find happening is programs are trying both. Among the interested, at least. Some directors are very format-centric and place one above the other. Some don't have the resources to run a full offering of both formats (I am a combination of the two). But if a program had a strong policy format, it would be hard pressed to argue for the removal of that format to replace it with another, since all formats have problems. Replacing one with another is reminiscent of those big American cities that tore up their electric-based public transit for buses because fuel happened to be really cheap.

The debate institute, at the high school level, is weathering the expansion of Public Forum debate pretty well. It makes me think that the University debate institute could also adapt to the growth of Worlds Style. The debate institute, one of those weird and amazing contributions to debating made by Americans has a few advantages.

I like calling it the debate institute out of a sense of irony. If done well, there's nothing very institutional about the summer debate institute. You first open the walls of the University to young people. You then put them in charge of producing a document that should serve as evidence, both for competitive debates and as evidence that they have mastered a sliver of the scholarly work available on the annual topic. The best situation is the Jacatot model a la Ranciere - both instructor and students do not know the debate topic well, and both read together, testing the quality of materials and analysis through good old fashioned question and answer.

It's held in a University, but based on praxis - experience as/plus knowledge is the organizing principle. Everyone is a teacher, everyone is a student. There is no clear hierarchy. Students meet in whatever buildings are available to research and discuss whatever subject is of that time. There is plenty of time for students to practice speaking and performing, testing their rhetorical abilities against others. This is the ideal model for the debate institute.

I contrast this with the debate camp - an institution designed to make profit and produce product. Students are often and blissfully unaware of what they are cutting and putting together. The camp sells their labor to others who cannot afford the sticker price of attendance. The faculty are clearly faculty, and remind students frequently of their superiority with smugly-told tales of the battlefield, against opponents that students would stimulate toward pity rather than any competitive drive. Critique of debates is an opportunity for the judge to indulge in sarcastic style, ensuring the students know advancement to the highest levels of the temple is impossible. Students return to their programs and repeat this performance in their own club, as high-priests ordained by a mysterious trial at a University campus that they could not hope to enter.

It's easy to fall into the capitalist model. Dr. Lain and I discussed this (and a ton of other things) during my time there. His model seems sustainable - he views the summer debate institute as an educational service to the high school students of the nearby metropolitan areas. This helped me think of Academic Service-Learning as something valuable for the first time. The funny thing is, this is not the narrative that Dr. Lain tells. He tells a story about the importance of good educational experiences for interested students. In the end, that's a good narrative for all teaching.

It seems to me that the debate institute for Worlds Style is still a bit off. There are experiments - I have heard of the institute in Amsterdam in the summer, as well as several local European ones. I had the chance to teach at the Serbian institute for a bit (I got very ill in the middle of it, but it was still enjoyable). The new debate institute in Portugal has just concluded. But where are the American ones? The Eastern Debate Institute held at the University of Vermont holds great promise in my mind. As exciting is the new workshop being held at the University of La Verne in California.

I would love to hear from you if you have attended any of these institutes.