Romancing the Novice

What does it mean to be a novice? According to the US, for the most part, it means being in your first year of University level debating. That's the definition that Cornell University is going with in their first ever WUDC USA Novice National Championship tournament.

For years, back when there was just policy debate here on the East Coast (APDA and CEDA never spoke, nor acknowledged one another - might still be the case but there's some contact now) we celebrated the novice debater as a culturally significant subject position - such as the roles that "immigrant" "lawyer" "doctor" "preacher" "child" "homemaker" "father" "teacher" "firefighter" have in society and language. We did this at Towson University in Maryland with a Novice National Championship.

In policy debate, not everyone debates one another. There are separate divisions where debaters of similar skill face one another. So if you are in your first year of debating, it's considered appropriate to only debate those in their first year of debating. After you have debated 24 college debates, you move to Junior Varsity. If you debated in High School, you are put in JV right away. Open is reserved for those who are nearing the end of their University debating lives.

The Novice Nationals was a holy place - people who started debate in University were a special subject position. No high school experience, and only a short time to perfect the techne of policy debate, as well as the exponential exposure to new and exciting ideas and texts also help romanticize the position of "novice" as an incredibly desirable identity. On the East Cost of the US, many programs adopted the rhetoric that novices were the life-blood of debate in this geographic region, going so far as to announce at multiple tournaments, when the time for novice awards came - "Now awards in our most important division."

This romantic image of the novice parallels the rhetorical rise of "childhood," a 19th century upper-class phenomenon that rises and orbits around the arbitrary connection of age to knowledge. The rhetorical style of childhood, then is associated with books and their cool ability to forbid knowledge an experience from those who either can't read the symbols, or don't have the bodily discipline to engage in reading a book. Childhood becomes a repository of innocence simply because of the limits of the preferred medium of information. As we can see, it's eroding around us with the prominence of TV and the internet. Children are too worldly for us these days, and we lament the past.  This is a rather rough summary, and if you want to read more about this, I suggest The Disappearance of Childhood by Neil Postman.

Calls for distinct novice divisions and separate categories for the participation of only novices are in line with an attempt to preserve a rather arbitrary and strange category that is only an effect of a chosen form of information processing and transfer.  In policy debate, such divisions are defensible on the grounds that one has to be disciplined into the formulaic way of speaking - a novice can be a great speaker and really compelling, and lose every debate due to their unfamiliarity with the conventions of the form.

This defensive practice has pedagogical reasons, but ends up creating a ready-made subject position for the novice debater that everyone simultaneously laughs at and loves. In short, a childhood within the medium.

This form is so powerful that since the inception of WUDC/BP here on the East coast, calls for novice divisions and larger numbers of breaking teams have been defended with the same sort of arguments one would make for children learning adult games. "they'll quit!" "they need that special outround experience!" and other such claims are heard.

I suggest treating debate students like the adults they are and treating debate like the examination of your mind that it should be. Preparing students for the inevitability of loss and gain in the world, the certainty that they are not as smart as they think they are, and the disappointing prospect of doing one's best with one's words and still being rejected are incredibly valuable and essential things. Debate is a powerful pedagogical tool because it highlights, sometimes starkly, how incredibly helpless you are; how you are at the mercy of words and minds beyond your feeble agency to control.

We'll see how the separate novice division goes at Cornell this weekend. I'm afraid for the students participating. The rhetoric of childhood has infected my novices already as they are excited for the chance to face people who are unskilled. Musashi, wherever he is, is shaking his head. Perhaps it will turn out well, but I am not hopeful. Grafting the practices of one rhetoric game on top of another needs to be done more critically.  But I go to Cornell in the spirit of experimentation.