Debate's University Role

My public speaking class has not been doing a very good job with a recent assignment, and I can't find many resources to help them out.

The assignment seems easy to us - find an article that makes a claim that you think is ridiculously wrong. Prove to the audience how wrong that claim is by taking apart and analyzing the arguments of the article. They are allowed to do research on their own to debunk the claims, but I'm not such a fan of straight debunking - I want them to talk about the problems with the belief in general.

Many of the students have been using anecdotal evidence as an attempt to argue against research studies - "well everyone I know isn't like that, so the study must be wrong." This is, of course, not an answer to a research study. I've also been suggesting that moving to the realm of the political is a good way of dealing with serious studies - placing the results in conflict with our deepest principles is a way to get the audience to ignore the power of the study - "Does this study mean we need to require people to take drugs even if they choose not to?" Putting things in the terms of freedom or free choice vs. medical necessity or fact is a good way to get the power of the scientific research diminished.

I did some looking around on the internet, maybe not the best or most thorough research, and all I was able to find for students are guides to ensure that they are choosing good sources for their own research - the traditional "tests of evidence" we might call them in debate or argumentation studies. There are no sources out there for students to help them generate arguments against good research, or how to create doubt as to the credibility of a study they might have found that goes against their thesis.

A guide to crafting good arguments, or refutation of good points, is a pretty big lacunae in the educational support materials of the university. This is exactly the sort of gap that the debate society or debate team could fill.  The debate society could produce a series of short videos on how to address gaps in the invention of argument. Students might find tons of information on how to support claims, but might be very intimidated with the idea of how to engage or disprove claims.

I've been thinking and collecting ideas on how to convert a debate team into something internal from something external. The realities of university finances, the continued mounting pressure on university students to be in class and the demands of poorly thought out course design, as well as the increasing problem of poorly managed tournaments that are little more than a thin veneer for a social club necessitate those who care about debate to think of alternatives to the tournament-driven model of debate we are currently bound by.  Thinking of the debate team as an undergraduate research program, teaching people how to understand and engage with serious scholarly research is one way, and a way that I believe will be very persuasive to university administration.

What would this intervention into research assistance look like? Perhaps the materials will involve the following:

1. Discussion on Burkean circumference - how to magnify or reduce the impact of competing claims.
2. Perelman & Olbrects-Tyteca's notion of dissociation - how do we rhetorically create distance and peel arguments apart from one another.
3. Burke's limitations on debunking - how proving something wrong by eliminating all of the fundamental conditions for the position to exist is never a good way to argue against something
4. Distilled guides as to how social scientists look at research - what are the elements of a good study, and how do social scientists argue against a study in the literature or at a conference?

This would be good for the debaters to review, as is the case in tournament competitions, these things are relatively automatic and uncritically applied or used by debaters. They often do it well and smartly, but there's no time to really reflect on what they are doing and why. It would be a great resource for faculty who are often not taught how to teach things like engagement with ideas - they just learn it for the specific requirements of publishing in their field. It would increase peer learning, something that all universities in the US agree is incredibly valuable, increasing retention as well as increasing the connections between students and reinforcing skills and ideas that come from the core curriculum.

I could imagine my public speaking students doing much better after seeing some of their peers take on arguments in a critical and competent way, showing them the power of words to diminish or strengthen any belief for an audience.  This is far superior to traditional lecturing, and it also allows debaters to use their developed abilities and skills in ways outside or different from a competitive tournament. It can certainly help debaters make unusual and very real connections to things that debate experience allows them to do that they might not have considered before.

This also brings up questions of defending debate within a university. Might it make more sense, or provide some compelling evidence through some project like this one, that the debate society should be housed in an academic department instead of student activities? Perhaps the proper home for a debate society is the university library, or the writing center (in so much as they might be divided on a campus). This provides a new context from which to view and consider the potential agency of debating, and also provides debaters with opportunities to get faculty and administrators on the side of the debate program, willing to defend it if a situation should arise where the university is considering removing funding or canceling it. This also provides a nice justification for tournament travel - it is the thing that allows the debaters to train so they can then produce teaching documents and experiences such as this one for the rest of the student body.

considering and reconsidering the role of the debate program at the university becomes very productive and a good investment for the debate society who is interested in expanding its influence while also expanding the metaphor of what debate practice is about. Instead of just lawyer or politician training (tired and old metaphors that really don't do much for us) perhaps the metaphor of training everyone in the community of learners how to value, process, and respond to normative claims based off of researched information.


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