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A couple of months ago, my external hard disk died very suddenly. I was really sad about it, because I knew I had lost some data I didn't back up. I wasn't exactly sure what was on that disk, but that's what I get for not backing up regularly.
I didn't throw it away, just kept it on a shelf and forgot about it. The other day I plugged it in and it worked!
On this disk were a lot of debate videos. But not just rounds, videos of people between rounds, videos of conversations about debates, and other such material. I started uploading it to the cloud right away as I wasn't sure when this HDD would fail again.
The videos are pretty silly - lots of post round conversation, lots of practices and practice speeches, all kinds of debate rounds from various tournaments that, for whatever reason, I never got around to uploading. Looking at some of them made me realize that I've been here at St. John's for longer than I concieve of it in my mind, and it made me a bit nostalgic for the early days.
However, this material is a lot more valuable than just that. These videos are our history. They are a set of practices and norms of communication. These videos are a record of those practices that we take for granted. In the future, they might be eye-opening for people interested in our communicative norms or our approach to debating.
We are lucky to be participating in global debate at a time when digital video is inexpensive and storage media are decreasing in cost. It's time to start considering seriously the idea of a digital archive for debating.
The most frustrating thing that I have had to deal with in recent years was arriving at St. John's University to reboot (using the term like they do in film) the debate program. The previous director retired, and left not one piece of paper or any type of information about the team anywhere.
This was frustrating because I knew what it meant: I was going to have to re-invent the wheel. I was going to have to chase down every dead end that he probably did. Audio video technology did not exist in the easy and cheap form it does for us, but what about some notes? Handwritten acccounts or reflections? Meeting minutes? History, if it is anything, are records of practices.
But more important than that is all the lost stories about the old team. In our Debate Facility which we call the Debate Dojo, there are numerous trophies extending back to the 1950s. They sit as silent witnesses to a team dynamic that may well be lost. It might seem hard to believe, but practitioners of debate in 20 or 30 years from now might really want to know what it was like to be at your IV, or be a member of your debate club. In a couple of hundred years, who knows what might interest those people. The videos we produce and preserve seem somewhat silly to us, but future practitioners will find them incredibly valuable.
I'm trying to recover those stories by starting a program of interviewing alumni and trying to get a sense of what it was like to be on the team during different eras. I try to shoot some candid conversation shots here and there to get a sense of what's on peoples' minds. I also, of course, shoot as many debates as I can. Even looking at some of these older debates gives me a sense of the trajectory of style in debating here in the Northeastern U.S. It might turn out to be an interesting catalog of the changes in persuasive style over the years.
At the University of Pittsburgh, where I received my Ph.D., there is a cabinet in a small room near the debate squad room. Years ago, a coach of the William Pitt Debating Union decided to record public debates on a reel to reel tape player. I found a player and tried to archive these recordings to mp3 in order to start a digital debate history project. Unfortunately, my time was limited and I was unable to see the project through.
In my view, it's great that those tapes exist whether many people can listen to them or not. At least someone can listen to them and get a sense of what debate was like in the 1950s. I listened to several debates between Pitt and the University of Vermont - and they were nothing like any style of debate that currently exists. More than that, these recordings are amazing evidence of the practices of a different era. Listening to them and thinking about them provide an irreplaceable way to reflect on your own practices, to see what was valued and what we value now in debating.
I think it's vital we create digital archives similar to this analog one that sits in Pittsburgh. Here at St. John's we have a new graduate program in public history. These graduate students will be working with new methods for digital archive and information preservation. I hope to get them interested in my project and provide a nice resource for those interested in working on the history of debate practices. We might not think it matters, and we might even feel strange about making these recordings. But in 100 years some scholar will look at them and gasp - for she will have seen something that makes our era click for her in a way that allows a greater understanding of what we are up to for these people who we will never meet (but would love to).