Middle School Debate: Addressing Public Audiences



Here's a video of a middle school debate we did today on the subject of whether students should have a say in the courses that they are required to take.

Debating for public audiences (i.e. non-"debate community" audiences) is something I am finding more and more important to my pedagogy every year. I think it's because I am becoming more and more convinced that any debate format - every debate format - naturally becomes a gravity well of practices and performances that become so attractive that no utterance can escape their pull. In other words, specific style of speech used to win tournament rounds becomes indistinguishable from "good speech."

In this debate, I think one move that would help the debaters reach the audience would be to speak more in enthymemes - something that we tell new debaters to stop doing at practice number one.  The other skill here would be to encourage debaters to switch from the deliberative to the epidictic mode of argument. This would be argument fit for a day of celebration, the here, the now, the immediate.  Most motions and most "good debates" (as seen by the competitive community) focus on questions of policy (Aristotle would call them subjects for deliberative oratory). Deliberation deals with decisions about the future, and most of these questions are about something far removed from us and where and when we are - questions of international relations, for example.  The question is how to teach using motions that highlight these two areas of need.

What practices can help debaters attend to the audience in front of them without bowing completely to an ethic of total assimilation to what the audience wants. The audience needs to see what good clash looks like, and needs alternative models of debate compared to what they normally see on TV and the like. This is where the competitive aspects of debate have developed some really good things. This is what we can export to public audiences - as long as we can keep them engaged and keep them listening.