Academic Debate? Let's hope not.

A student said to me, "I really wish you could write me a recommendation letter, but you haven't ever been my professor." This student has been studying debate with me for several years, so I pushed on this to get the response: "It's not academic, so it doesn't count."

Debate not academic? How could this be? We'd spent hours engaging in what I believed to be fairly intense, deep investigation of countless political and social issues. We'd spent hours in the evening giving and listening to critiques of the persuasive use of the human voice, of the fragility and power of language, of the intense agony of not being able to get your very clear point across to other human beings. This is a clear trajectory of intellectual practice that started in Athens over 2,500 years ago. It was picked up and carried through Europe, and has been at the heart of the spiritual and intellectual training at the finest historical Universities from India to China to America. What is the litmus test for academic, if not this?

I tried not to be angry, for what was obvious to me is very rarely obvious to anyone else (you might notice, this comes with the human experience for free. Everyone gets it as a sort of bonus). Let's try to look at this question from the perspective of the contemporary undergraduate for a more fair answer. Academic appears to have changed color, shape, and flavor.

Academic, for these students, involves several things. First, there must be an official record of study - to go to the library and read a book on a topic you are interested in is a strange idea. I push this every semester, and every semester the students are confused. When they want to learn something, they decide to take a class - a class, I might add, they will not attend frequently, barely skim the readings, halfheartedly attend to the lectures when present, question the professor's ability based on whether or not she can command their attention through days of sleep deprivation and mobile phones, and finally end up complaining about the quality of the class, even though they started the final paper after allowing the time allotted for its preparation to whittle down to mere hours.

Secondly, academic requires some sort of abstracted, hierarchical assessment. Without a grade, or hours on a transcript, how will we know we learned? There have to be moments of bizarrely calculated and abstracted "good" for students to indicate to others. Most of the time, grades are refered to as evidence of a "brush with death" - i.e. "I can't believe I was hung over every single class and got a B."  But students have conspirators here - professors who get a sick thrill out of equating physical presence - such as attendance - with points or other nodules of achievement in the course. I hear the weeping up and down my office hallway every term as faculty explain that the student fails to get a B- because they are missing 3.75 attendance points. Reading is assigned punitively; exams are our enforcement of punishment. Far too often things are so abstract from the reality our examinations are less like Bentham's panoptic system of justice and much more like Lindsay England's - celebrating the torture of a student as a metonymy for a general hatred of students in general. Abstraction can bring you torture, or it can bring you self-regulation. Directionless, yet containing everything valuable about the course - that is what counts as academic.

Finally, there must be some sort of "professionalism" associated with the academic experience. Whether that's distance, or some sort of role-play between professor and student, the impact is that less and less important moments for teaching are properly attended to. Distance is the idea that the professor is somehow "too busy" for students, and the time given to them occurs mainly in the classroom. Even then, the students are too frightened to indicate need, ask for clarification, or perhaps are fed-up with being addressed in a dismissive tone. Role-Play also factors in here; the professor pretends to be a great Sage evaluating whether or not the students are really capable of receiving the great wisdom only he or she knows. Sometimes it's a customer service model where the student is told to indicate dissatisfaction or confusion as if they were at the shopping mall. Encounters outside the classroom are devalued, as presence in the classroom is celebrated to the point where it is indistinguishable from other forms of good academic performance. Too often I hear, "Well, she attended every class" as a reason to grant a higher grade. No wonder our students don't read - they know they don't need to. The more the University interest turns toward creating job seekers over thinkers or even contemplators, the

This brings us back to debate, that strange game/auto-didactic experience that is often led by a faculty member but never controlled by one. It takes more time and energy to get the equivalent of a C in it, but students can't wait to spend their whole weekend working at it. The line between student and teacher does not, and will not exist - no matter how hard some members of the community push for its clear existence. The time in the classroom is derivative of the time outside of it, and the assessment is always already situational, immediate, and inapplicable to ontic ways of doing persuasion. Debate haunts you all the time, not just the day before the test. It appears in your daily interactions, and makes you think twice about what you said. It's always, and never, on the test. In short it rails against everything the contemporary University and undergraduate have unintentionally conspired to create.

Will my letter be solicited? I hope not. I have nothing to say inside such a system. My voice would not be recognizable as "voice." Even such work with such students over years would not be understandable as valuable by the system's criteria.  Perhaps my student is more right than she knows - my work doesn't count, will never count, in measurable ways.

But is debate academic? God, I hope it never is.