Debate Coaches and the Canon of Invention

How do most debate coaches teach the canon of inventio? By pointing toward tournament success. By showing videos of good, successful speeches. By having students watch and learn from those who have won big tournaments. By getting them to read, or cut, or memorize the sources of the arguments that the winners have run. Well, usually not read.

In short, they don't teach it. They teach debaters how to copy what happens at the "best" tournaments. They teach a hermetic, repetitive, and limited form of invention, the basics - use what works for your goal.

Over time, this becomes conflated in the minds of the debaters as something ontological. Because they are good at coming up with persuasive arguments in tournament settings, they must be good at inventio broadly. They must be good at argument if they are good at debating.

For whatever reasons, historical or practical, we are at a point in history where debate coaches are somewhat embarrassed to admit that they spend most of their time teaching the rules of a limited game. I think perhaps we have bought our own story that we are teaching some sort of democratic engagement, or some sort of larger connection to helping others understand the human condition.

I think that's the value of debate for sure, but I think in order to get there - and not create people who have an artificially inflated conception of their rhetorical prowess, we need to place the tournament in proper perspective - as something that is a subset of a larger category: rhetorical situations. Debate should be the place that the department and the university come to for help across the curriculum in the category of coming up with persuasive, engaging arguments. But we simply don't have the ability to do that now. We come up with arguments that often confuse the audience, justifying it with tropes such as "they don't understand debating," or "In a real debate this would work." A real debate is a far cry from a tournament debate. What's wrong with teaching that?

In speech comm derived rhetoric, there is a real lack of exploration of invention and pedagogy right now, but in English composition derived rhetoric there's a lot of cool stuff that speech comm people often overlook. Perhaps debate coaches could recover some of their value by being the go-between in invention. They could be the people who have the knowledge and ability to connect rhetorical resources in invention between fields, and for fields that haven't thought much about it as an art. In short, debate coaches should be the Sophists-in-residence at their school. Instead of "come to us if you want to learn what debate really is" - something a philosopher might say, we should say "Come to us if you want others to learn from you." For that is, if you get down to the root of it, what the sophists were teaching - the art of making sense out of something senseless, complex, or confusing.

I found this book the other day and the requisite praising of it among composition teachers. Where are the speech communication people? Where are the debaters? Books like this and their value should be standard issue for those teaching rhetoric. Why discriminate? Why did I not hear about this book in my PhD work? Why are we embarrassed to teach the creation of arguments? Why do we quickly substitute things like the tournament for the hard work of invention, or the criticism paper for the difficult work of confronting a difficult issue in front of an audience that wishes to be engaged?

Surely it isn't simply because it's difficult and hard to measure. A trophy is a clear sign. Too bad it's not made equally clear how limited a sign it is.