2013-2014 Will Be A Pivotal Debate Year, Part 2 of 3: Old Dogs Meet New Tricks

Lincoln at a debate with Stephen Douglas. This...
Lincoln at a debate with Stephen Douglas. This is a photo of the original work, part of a private collection temporarily on display at the Lincoln Boyhood Memorial in August of 2008. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Here's my second reason why this season will be one to remember in debate history. And it's not more praise of new formats in the U.S. It's in praise of the traditional formats, and what they'll have to do to once these newer formats start to surge in popularity. This year they will definitely surge, but the next few years will be crucial for the traditional American debating formats.

Here's where people start to become afraid: What will happen when my beloved format disappears?

The short answer is nothing – these formats will always be around. The longer answer is everything – for each of these formats is going to need to re-map itself in the light of the rise of alternative forms of competition.

I think this is the year where we will see a rise in careful, comparative narratives that will explain current American formats in the light of Worlds debating and World Schools debating gaining a larger foothold. More interest in debating among students will require more explanation of why formats do what they do - why they speak so fast, read so much, why they structure their arguments the way they do. All of these questions are not threats but opportunities - of course the easy reaction is to see them as a threat, and respond accordingly. I hope we do not take the easy path.

Re-mapping is nothing new. Veteran high school coaches reading this will most likely remember the rise of L-D debate, or the introduction of Public Forum. These formats are incredibly popular, and required the teachers of CX or policy debate to re-draw the map of what the value of their format was and is. Public forum is requiring this right now as it surges in popularity.

This is going to become a boon for these other debating communities. The re-mapping – or re-explaining the boundaries and features of the terrain of their format – is a good thing. It is incredibly valuable to have to return to the roots of your preferred form and have to explain it in the light of some alternative. New perspectives will come out. New approaches. New ways of understanding. And new people getting involved who would not have given debating any interest if it weren't for the new explanations.

Those who draft the explanations are also drafting possible directions for these formats to go in the future. Once something is explained, the possibilities unfold for what that thing can be used for. The demarcation of limits or the celebration of potential is what will shape the minds of newer debaters as they practice the format. And as we are all aware, the practice of debaters shapes debate. What counts as good and bad debate is something determined by us through our speeches, teaching, and judgement.

Additionally, for those of you from Europe, you will find WUDC and WSDC formats under the strain from large numbers of interested Americans coming to competitions and asking a lot of questions to your communities. I believe, in a similar manner, this will improve those formats due to the rigors and challenges of having to explain something in a new way to an unfamiliar audience. This re-explanation will shed new perspectives, through interpretation and conversation, that might not have been there before.

This is going to be a great year because we will look back and not just see the rise of one or two new formats, but a rise of several new formats – new because we will be seeing them in a different manner than we did without the reflection these changes provide.

The biggest surprise to those who might be fearful that we are going to lose policy debate (even though the numbers are sky high in participation) is that policy debate has been lost before. And before that.

What I mean is that policy debate, the way it was practiced in 1993 was very different than 2013. Almost different enough to call it a different format. Likewise, if you go back to 1973 you would find those debaters to be more like Worlds debaters in style and argument structure than contemporary policy debaters. The same is true for the much younger, but no less popular Lincoln-Douglas format. 

Those who criticize the new formats as "fake debate" don't understand this. All formats that are traditional today were either created deliberately or have evolved over time to become something unrecognizable to those who practiced the same format 30 years ago. Any NDT debater from the 1970s is baffled by the style and direction of contemporary NDT debate. 

Was this change bad? Absolutely not. I'm not trying to defend past formats. I am trying to defend the idea that change, and challenge, is good for debate. Bringing new options in means that defenders of the traditional formats will have to re-articulate the value of that format. Without such external threats, no re-evaluation occurs and then no good explanations are at the ready for why we do what we do in a particular format. This had dire consequences at many universities and colleges in the U.S. who had been doing debate in the policy format without thinking about why they were doing it. When the challenge arose to defend their funding, they had to scramble to construct a persuasive defense on the spot. And many didn't make it. They relied on audience inappropriate, dated defenses of debating that just didn't hold up to the modern, sophisticated university faculty member who simply did not understand what it was they were seeing. In sort, they had learned the format, but not the art of argumentation. Ironically, they were so good at the limitations on argumentation put on them through becoming experts in their format, they were unable to defend themselves from extinction.

The rise of these new formats might help avoid that problem. I believe this is the year that debate educators will start to teach the art of argumentation first, and the rules of format second - as it should be.

I was having dinner with two debate educators in Houston when I stumbled into the following explanation as to why the arrival of new formats make purveyors of the old formats so nervous - those nervous educators are teaching the format and not the art of debate. They don't think there's a place for them in the future because the format will be gone. However, they forget that they are teachers of debate, not a particular kind of debate.

It's an easy switch back, as every format has within it the concepts of burden of proof, rejoinder, rebuttal, evidence, claim, proof, and the whole lot. Teaching those things is why formats exist. These things do not exist at the pleasure of your preferred format. 

I have a feeling that this year, many debate educators will return to the roots, so to speak, and stop teaching format in favor of teaching the roots of the formats. These formats exist to assist in the teaching of the art of argumentation. It's not the other way around, but in a stagnant environment, I could see that misstep happening. Injection of variance in competitive formats will cause students to ask different questions about the rules which will make educators have to explain the concept of evidence across multiple formats, not just two similar ones.

Choice of format does not obfuscate the teaching and learning of the art of argumentation and its various theoretical components. Those who call one format or another "fake debate" have just been blinded by the power and seductive nature of their chosen format. One thing is for certain: History shows us that within a generation, your favorite format will be unrecognizable to you. This is why the teaching of the theory of argumentation should trump the teaching of the rules of a format. And this is the year that this will start to happen.

Fear not. Your favorite format isn't going anywhere. It's just going to improve with a little help from some new neighbors, and a little self-reflection.
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