Back from Houston

I was away for the weekend in Houston and had a great time with my family. Now that I’m back in New York I’m starting to realize that the summer is quickly coming to an end. Today represents really the halfway point for me, give or take.

I have to be back on campus for official stuff on September 3rd, so that gives me 6 weeks? 7? Something like that but who is counting. That’s the nature of the summer.

A lot of things happened in Houston that I wanted to write about, but I couldn’t find my Field Notes notebook which means I’m sure it got obliterated in the wash. It’s lucky that there’s a new shipment of them that I just got. Subscribing to the Field Notes was a great idea turns out unless I lose all the notes I take.

Here’s the first of a few videos I made about my trip to Houston that involves BOOKS. I decided to film some short videos at my favorite Houston bookstores.

What kind of Television Show is a Presidential Debate?

Sorry I never wrote a second night piece about the Democratic debates, I was too busy catching up with a friend having some wonderful margaritas, which has its own political value although I’m not sure what. Safe to say this post isn’t about that.

The Presidential Campaign debates have been talked about as many different things and evaluated every single way. So it’s tough to talk about them in a way that doesn’t fall into a cliche of some kind or another. I have been trying to think of new approaches to discussing them, and one I want to explore here is the idea that the Presidential Campaign Debates are a TV genre. They have been on television since the 1960 elections, and they will continue to be on TV as well as YouTube and other online places like Twitch. TV genre shapes Netflix and Hulu is basically a lateral. So the question I want to ask is: What are the Presidential Debates about if they are a TV show?


Most people I know see the Presidential Campaign Debates as a lower quality version of the TV show The West Wing, which they do not read as fantasy at all, but rather an ideal image of the perfect government. It is weird - like Plato’s Republic - because the ideal that it presents is so clearly flawed. But the reading you could make of The West Wing here is it shows perfect flaws, not brought on by any uncontrollable horrors, but the attitudes and principles of those involved. If someone fails, it’s on them. The structure of the system, no matter what you think of it, is fantastic (in all the ways you can define that word). I have never liked The West Wing even as a TV show, but many people see it as an example to which the actual government should conform and try to be more like. They see a fantasy show as providing insights into how we should speak, relate to, and participate in our government. This is so weird to me - like someone relying on Spongebob Squarepants to provide an ideal paradigm for marine biology.

It really shouldn’t be that strange. This is history. The Iliad and the Odyssey were used by ancient people as a source of entertainment, fantasy, and normative judgement. There were certainly things in these pieces that should happen and there were appeals made in public argument based on what these narrative fictions convey or imply. So there’s not that much different here.

My concern is that the metaphor is misplaced. The West Wing is about achieving a sense of justice that doesn’t care too much about human motives, human communication, or rhetoric. It cares in a scientific way about getting the right answer. That’s great for when you are planning a space mission (although I’m not sure how great it is to only rely on one type of thinking for any project of such magnitude). The West Wing is always on the side of the viewer in conveying an alliance between them and justice. It always wins out no matter whether we like the way it was presented or not. The Presidential Debates are not like this. They are very disappointing because there is no script manager, no writer’s room, no producer overseeing the arc of the series. There are people there making appeals for why they should be understood, even if we get many different images of them. The Debates appeal to motive in a way that The West Wing does not. Motive doesn’t matter in the face of glorious American governmental perfection.

The Presidential Election debates are a lot more like a very different TV show called Catfish. This show features two hosts who are not professional investigators, police or anything of the sort. They are tasked by someone to help them uncover whether or not the person they are romantically involved with on the internet is a “real person.” This is the conceit. Catfish is really about human motives, attitude, and rhetoric - the capacity for judgement and articulation when living in a wildly contingent universe.


Catfish is over before it begins. We all know that the person is not going to be really who they are online, they are going to be caught, and they are going to meet Max and Nev and the victim (as well as a camera crew of 10 plus people) in a public park to confess what they did. There’s going to be some soul searching, but in the end both people are going to admit that their motives were not appropriate, or the situation in which they were involved was complex, and there’s no simple answer to what happened. The entirety of the show is about motive: Why did you do this? Why did you pretend to be someone else? And the answer given is never used to excommunicate; instead it’s used to construct another narrative, another set of motives by which everyone involved can, in Nev’s frequent phrasing “learn something and move on.”

The Presidential Campaign debates have the plot of Catfish. Here are the images of the candidates as you met them through mediation. Here are the questions: Why did you say this? Why did you do this? Why would you do this? etc. All of these questions are meant to reveal who is operating behind the cover. What is that nexus of motives that made you create this Presidential persona? Why are you trying to have a virtual relationship with America by pretending to be the person in this photo?

The only difference between the Presidential Campaign Debates and Catfish is one that I hope we can figure out a way to include. Each episode of Catfish ends with some time passing and a nice video call where everyone discusses their new nexus of motives. This is how Catfish invokes what Kenneth Burke calls the “comic frame” - that interpretation of human beings as deeply mistaken but correctable. They can always shift to a more appropriate, or better, nexus of motives. In the Presidential Debates - as we saw with Joe Biden and Kamala Harris - the frame is a tragic one. Everyone is fatally flawed by the revelation of distance between action and motive. Even when Pete Buttigieg takes responsibility for the incredibly white police department of South Bend, it’s not seen as a moment of redemption, but a possible stain on his soul. When people are not seen as identifying with a set of motives, but are their motives, full stop, there is only one thing left to do. They have to be excommunicated.

So much of our politics are based on the tragic frame, it would be nice for the Presidential Campaign debates to realize they are not the form of the ideal politics of The West Wing but much more in line with the MTV show Catfish. It really depends on if you are a Platonist like Aaron Sorkin who likes to re-articulate the gap between the ideal and the practice or if you are Sophist like Max and Nev who work within convention and contingency to change minds and feelings about others who have done wrong. Perhaps Max and Nev should moderate the next Presidential debate. Would love to see the debate shot with a handheld Cannon point and shoot.

Debates Do Not Solve Things

Detail from  The Statue of Four Lies,  The Art Guys, 1983. University of Houston campus. I took this photo.

Detail from The Statue of Four Lies, The Art Guys, 1983. University of Houston campus. I took this photo.

This post is inspired by the continual efforts of one scholar in NCA to get people to debate him on the value of diversity versus merit in deciding who the best communication scholars are.

I am always not sure why people think of debate this way until I am: NCA ostracized debate (and most other performance pedagogy) from the convention and their publications almost a generation ago. This move is unfortunate, as now the largest communication scholarship/teaching(?) organization in the world is now composed of people who have a very unhealthy theory of debate as their only understanding of it.

Debate’s function as I see it is a commonplace generation machine. That is, you have some students participate in a debate on an issue not to find the answer, but to find as many commonplaces that one could use for the generation of compelling arguments for particular audiences. I usually tell classroom students that the audience would be one at their university, as I think that it can be a pretty good test lab for figuring out how commonplaces work and how useful they are as inventional devices for other audiences. It would be nice if all people who’ve had a public speaking class could come out of there with a way of collecting and keeping commonplaces - at least I think that would be better than learning how to find a scholarly article or use a microfilm reader.

The entirety of education in the Roman world was commonplace practice, epitomized in the endless composition and delivery of declamation. Just now reading this fantastic book about law education where I’m learning that “plea books” were a large part of legal education for a long time in this country (adaptable statements for getting a judge to agree rather than this appeal to the Founding Fathers as omnipotent timeless ghosts or whatever happens nowadays). The pattern is established again and again. This is why particular cases and grounded questions make better in-class debate topics than something like “gun control” which, as you probably already noticed, functions better as a commonplace than a debate topic. That is, you can generate more arguments from “gun control” for other issues for Americans than you can teaching people how to make arguments on either side of it. Then again, I’m interested in teaching rhetoric, you might not be, you might be after “the right policy” or something.

Anyway, setting debates at the NCA convention will not advance the discovery of the correct ways of dealing with the embarrassing Distinguished Scholars discourse(s) and the Medhurst Memo (it’s not an editorial anymore is it?). Debate will not help us understand our goals and objectives, or figure out what the right thing is to do about graduate education, the Academy, and the host of other hot topics that face NCA as they face every academy-oriented institution out there. There’s nothing debatable here. We can certainly argue about what needs to be done and we can do research and present evidence. But that’s not debating.

What debate will do is give us some practice and recognition that there are an incredibly large number of ways we can construct our values and beliefs, and an even larger number of ways that we can express those commitments. Debate encourages us to reimagine our articulations of our values and commitments in ways that have us rewording our thoughts in the terms of the debaters. At its best, these rewordings can lead us to new conceptualizations of what we believe and think. Debate can lead us to new ways to constitute ourselves as subjects of our own discourse, inquiring after itself.

But suggesting a debate will “clear the air” on a lot of confusing talk is not the function of debate, let alone the fact that it will come crawling back from life in the wilderness to do so at NCA. No thanks. Debate is unapologetically presented as cutthroat sport these days, and NCA has nothing to say about it. In the 1990s, some were worried that debate might become too sportified. Now there’s simply no question that it is. And those involved in debating today will not be able to model a debate that would expand ways of thinking. What debate practice does these days is narrow and codify - it’s a hard science of eristics - and the gravitational pull of that is so intense that new approaches and ways of thinking cannot expand. Consider how much people flip out when a rule change in professional sport appears. So much for an expansive program that adds to what could be said or what could be thought. Recent experiences teaching at summer high school debate institutes were surprising in how they were disturbed that I wanted the students to read and write critically, while the instructors wanted me to be teaching the students quick reactions they could say regardless of the arguments. Such tricks are the normal pedagogy of sport debate, and they are rightly what we’d expect to see at NCA should Grabowsky get this diversity versus merit debate he wants.

Douglas Ehninger recognized this issue in debate when he wrote about the “coercive” rather than “corrective” model of argumentation. A lot of people think that the “coercive” model is the right way to go about debate, teaching people how to “think correctly” about issues and how to “speak correctly” about issues. Ehninger favored the “corrector” model (terrible name for sure, a bit 1960s) where during the attempt to stop someone from believing or doing something thought to be incorrect, one engages in treating them like a human being, someone who can be mistaken. The impact of that is that all participants can be mistaken, even the one who was initially trying to correct. This is an ultimate form of conveying humanity upon another; a level of respect where you say I will give up my commitments in part or in whole if you can articulate to me why I shouldn’t think them. Or something like that (people are going to come for me with how poorly worded that line is). The point is that debate should be neutralizing our convictions in favor of complexity, not being taught as a complexity reduction exercise in the service of getting the right answer. I feel that Eric Grabowsky’s model of debate he’s presenting on CRTNET and Facebook is most likely this model of “getting it right.” Arguments might work that way, but debates squarely do not.

Debate doesn’t exist at the NCA convention because people feel they know things, and want to demonstrate that the inquiry has already happened. It’s not a coincidence that we have hardly any undergraduates at NCA and never have debates. The two are linked. The membership of NCA clearly wants the convention to serve as a place where a record of thought that happened elsewhere can be presented and shared. Some love this model so much they do it from the audience at virtually every panel they attend. If NCA members don’t like that model, they can change it of course. But for now the exclusion of sport debate is well warranted, and the exclusion of pedagogical debate is an effect of an organization that believes instability of knowledge is a problem; let’s figure out the right answers. Debate can be valuable, but where NCA is right now, it’s not a good move. The only models available are terrible, and the newer models don’t fit the purpose of the convention. Debate however remains the most underused and under-appreciated rhetorical pedagogy out there because of what we’ve allowed it to become. Maybe debate will find a good place again at the NCA convention of the future, reimagined as a diverse place where questions are asked and no scholars are distinguished above any others.

Summer Office

I spent most of my first year or so working at St. John’s here once or twice a week, in the New York Public Library reading room. Great spot to work on a dissertation. You don’t have to buy anything, they have every book ever printed (not really exaggerating here), and it’s just not-quiet enough to concentrate. Plus, there aren’t many distractions such as deep cleaning the kitchen or reorganizing your towels to help you not work.

I haven’t worked in here in a while as my flow was interrupted in going regularly by the modernization/abatement and work they had to do in here the last few years. I just now started going back again as it’s a great summer office. Most of the time I just go here to write a lot, and my output is quite good per hour here. I haven’t used it for research too much as our university library has come a long way in digital resources, so often I don’t even need to walk down to campus to get something.

I have a few projects now that the 2 things are done for summer part 1. Now I have a big R&R to do by the end of July that is pretty massive. I’m also working on trying to figure out why public speaking, as a core requirement, wasn’t just folded into the whole writing center movement. It makes such little sense that all of that wouldn’t be together, or at least thought about, when the big push was happening. It’s rather obvious that NCA scholars and other speech comm types would happily toss public speaking to anyone else without a second thought - they are not interested in the pedagogy of it as a general rule. Surely it’s not a hard argument to say that public speaking is a composition course? There has to be some history to contextualize this so I’m chasing that down.

Also working on a formal piece about declamation, what I’m always obsessed with. And also doing some reading on debate pedagogy, in particular debate teaching juuuuust prior to world war two. Gotta finish my paper about German debaters in the 1930s touring the US and I want to do a deeper piece on Elton Abernathy, a somewhat overlooked character involved in speech and debate pedagogy. I think he’s only considered overlooked unless you are lurking around San Marcos, TX.

There’s also video to shoot for my online courses, and some prep to do on the new Blackboard which will be fun as there are some new features to play with.

So now that summer is opening up for me I hope to spend some more time writing in the summer spot.

Thoughts about night one of the Democrat Debates

I don’t have a formal or even a really organized response to this explosion of speaking. What can you say? The easy way out is to say it’s not a debate, it’s a failed debate, and to leave it at that. Another easy way to respond is to create some way to determine a winner or a loser here. I think that’s a poor way to approach it as well.

Some of the people speaking here have little to no national recognition. Some have a bit too much. I wonder how many people over the next few days will be speaking about people they just learned about, or maybe mentioning a policy idea they heard from someone they just learned about. That’s what I was thinking about mostly is how these events can be a moment where people can make their own connections to candidates outside of someone like Chuck Todd telling them how to view this or that candidate. That’s an interesting advantage to having these large number debates, they get someone out there to talk about them. This isn’t idle chatter; this is the substance of political rhetoric in my view.

Here are a couple of things to think about tonight and into tomorrow’s debate.

First, there are two competing perceptions of audience here: The members of a Democratic Party, and the voters in America who are interested in defeating Donald Trump. I don’t think that there’s a lot of agreement between the candidates as to which audience gets priority. Maybe they think these audiences are one and the same? It creates some odd argumentative moments where the candidate makes arguments without much explanation as to what needs to be done when talking about party identity. The better stories and narratives come out of the candidates who are addressing a larger electorate. This seems like the best way to determine who should be the candidate and by definition, the performed definition of the party.

This bifurcation of two audiences might also explain the lack of a lot of storytelling, or what I have called “framework” in my previous debate analysis work. This narrative is important to set up what exists, and what is out there that deserves engagement and restricts the potential of engagement. The person who did the best job with framing their positions and identification with a world or framework or “what’s out there,” was Tulsi Gabbard, as she constructed a framework of a world seen from the perspective of a soldier. That seemed to stick pretty well and she could return to it.

Warren did well on what I call “vision”, but not much of a narrative to go on. She’s relying on the idea that everyone in the room agrees on a worldview, so it didn’t need to be spoken. Vision is what you plan to do if you win the office. This only works if the audience accepts your framework/narrative of the world. I wonder how people will feel about it, I liked it quite a bit, but I also had a sense of her worldview.

The strangest thing was how often people attacked Beto. Was he leading? Is there something about his style that makes it seem he could be a good springboard? I don’t think it’s a good idea to engage any candidate if you are up there. Beto tried to give a lot of personal stories first, instead of saying what the story refers to first. Maybe that’s the reason people interrupted him so much? I think his approach, unlike his debates with Cruz, was not great.

Otherwise I wasn’t sure about other speakers. I think that the 10 person format encourages people to chime in on a smaller group of people and why their ideas mattered to you. That’s what I hope it will do. To encourage audiences to carry forward your ideas into their communities you need a structure they can repeat easily, with a story and a connection to a sense of reality that can be delivered along with the other ideas. I wonder who did the best job of that? We’ll see what the conversation over the next couple of days shows.

For now just consider what a debate could look like, why this might not be a debate that most people who are reading this would want, but what are the advantages of this form of debating; does it have some value?

So I guess we are really doing these 10 person debates

In a few minutes the first part of the 20 deep Democratic debate will start. There’s no shortage of ways you can watch this event, think about it or talk about it, but most of the commentary and interpretation of it will attempt to limit how it can be seen. Debate is a hot issue these days: We are having more and more public debates and more and more regret, frustration, and confusion about them. We seem like debate zombies: We keep having events that disappoint us because, well, I guess we have to, or maybe we feel like they will eventually solve our disagreements, or whatever.

I think that these events can be valuable, but we suffer from the poverty of non-interpretation. We don’t have the ability to approach these events critically as fluid rhetorical events. We look to them to be events that burn away misrepresentation, bad thinking, etc. but they just don’t live up to that desire. And so we debunk them. Debates are horrible! But we need more debate!

I’d like to write a pre-debate post here that tries to address this, or at least start to. I want to offer three big, top of the mountain viewpoints that can help the debates be a bit more tolerable.

The problems with format are overcovered, to the detriment of answering the question: What can we get out of these events? I’ve talked about this in other places, so here’s the pre-debate summary that maybe can be a reference during the event tonight. Is it a debate? I don’t particularly care. It’s a rhetorical event called a debate, and audiences will be constituted and watch it, they will respond, and it will inform their thinking. That’s enough of a reason to pay attention for me.

So here are some things to keep in mind to keep from gouging out your eyes or smashing your TV:

  1. Debates are not meant to resolve, solve, or finish anything

    Debates are meant to be discourse stink bombs, spreading discourse, reasons to speak, motives for articulation all over the place. The Enlightenment hangover has us convinced that debates are meant to parse and narrow ideas to where all the questions are answered. I guess debate could be structured like that but this one won’t be. Most are not. Most are meant to get us talking about what we observed and heard. It’s meant to stimulate discussion. What we can do if we care about civic participation is use the debates as a stimulating text to get conversations going about deeply held political commitments. People are going to talk about this event anyway, so why not use it?

  2. Winning and Losing is a perspective that strips out the most interesting elements of debate

    What was said, what was alluded to, how people spoke and responded (or didn’t) are things that are often cited as reasons someone won or lost a debate. Instead of taking on a perspective that works like a funnel, why not take on another perspective? Thinking about how one advances one’s positions, explains oneself, or offers reasons why they think and act the way they do are important things for the advancement of conversation about politics, and should be attended to (opposed to what helps someone “be right”). Whatever perspective is taken on the debate it should be one that accounts for, or attends to, the elements of the performance that are worth talking about. Many times, focus on what won, or what was right, turns our ideas away from what might produce more speech about political issues and ideas, which is what is needed. Rhetoric only works if we are generating discourse, not shutting it down or silencing it. Talking is thinking in a lot of respects, so make sure to look for things that help broaden talk about political commitments.

  3. Identification trumps Reason

    I think there’s a lot of focus on fact checking, and who has a grasp of reality as an objective check on “bad” speech. I think instead we as rhetoricians should attend to the double-movement of identification/division when candidates speak. Instead of looking to correspondence with “facts” we can look for how this narrative is reflected and refracted within the audiences the candidates assume are there or are being constituted through this rich description of reality. Their description, and their corresponding plan for interacting with that description, should be evaluated by what sorts of identifications and divisions it encourages, makes easy, or pushes on. This is much more useful than a fact-check, as we all know that facts are easy to dismiss against one’s perspective of what the world is, looks like, and needs. This can help move discussions forward when they would be shut down over the disagreement of shared reality.

These are the big three guiding principles that I think can make these debates not only more tolerable to thinking people, but perhaps make them useful texts for riffing on or kindling important or deeper political discussion. Nevertheless, I still can’t believe they are actually doing this. And that everyone (candidates and journalists) think this is a really good idea. It’s not, but we have the power to take a perspective on it that might be helpful.

Why Prepare for Work?

Interesting piece in the March 26th Bloomberg Businessweek about disrupting the US admissions test industry.

The question is begged: Why are we preparing people for work? Why is this the metric?

Most of us professors, I hope, are not interested in preparing people for a “life of work” but “a life of which work will play a part.”

We would hope to provide students abilities and tools to critique the life of work and provide criticism and thoughtful questioning of any system that people feel is natural, normal, or expected.

But perhaps working for an institution that hasn’t changed that much since the 13th century isn’t the best place to lodge a critique against Kantar and her ideas. I really do like the idea of a test that considers your relative achievement given where you did most of your schooling and where you live.

However this metric is also based, oddly, on the idea that university is a one-size-fits-all proposition. I wonder how many university folks think this way. I’m sure there’s excitement when a former student gets a good job. But that’s not very exciting to me. I’d like to know what they are thinking about, reading, and questioning, and where those threads extend into their past at the university.

Preparing students for a life of work is very different from preparing students for a life of which work is a significant part. But the university fails to see that students cannot spend 80 to 100 hours a week at work. They will have to live in communities and do other things. This is the blind spot of discussions like this, which focus on giving access to people who need it in order to make sure we are getting the best workers.

Instead, we should focus admissions on creating student classes that reflect the sort of practices, diversity, and activities we’d like to see mirrored in our own communities. Long ago, universities offered courses on theater appreciation and music appreciation. These courses no longer fit into the worker-oriented curriculum. But the university experience is still offering appreciation courses in interaction, reading, writing, studying, relationships, persuading - the list goes on and on. The implicit and undirected appreciation sends people out into the world with a very impoverished idea of what community and living together feels and looks like. The college experience should generate some nostalgia for the university, where people had time to read and discuss ideas, where people appreciated arguments and detailed conversations, and where inquiry and criticism are not in the way of “getting things done.” The lack of that in their daily lives might inspire people to work to create it in our communities. The practice of critical thought and an appreciation for intellectual discourse starts in the university experience, one that should be oriented around many different types of diversity and thought and not just who is best equipped to be the object of future employment.

I think it’s good to have checks on biases in a system that is essential for living a higher quality of life (for the most part). So I sympathize with this idea. But on the university side we could peel ourselves away from serving a corporate lifestyle and instead work on modeling the joys of an interactive and critical community, perhaps the first model of a community that these young people will encounter away from their parents and relatives. Enjoyment of thought there will be missed in the daily grind, and they might seek ways to re-establish it in different and engaging ways.

Taylor Swift and Good Research

I had no idea what to make of the new Taylor Swift video because I am a middle aged white dude who spends a lot of time thinking and talking about video games and books. So this text went right by me. I still really don’t have a handle on what it’s supposed to mean.

More problematic than that is I don’t recognize anyone in this video except for Swift (obviously) and Deadpool and Ellen. I figured it was time to do some research into it to figure out what is happening that I am not getting (or that I’m not supposed to get).

For the first and perhaps only time in my life, Entertainment Tonight taught me something valuable. I never thought I would ever say that. So never say never when it comes to research, reinforced yet again. When people say “evidence-based research” or “evidence-based decision making,” what are they trying to police? Prop up? Reinforce? Exclude? When we teach students about good research we are often merely teaching a replication of a traditional mode of knowing and understanding. We aren’t solving anything most of the time. Entertainment tonight solved some stuff for me and I’m as surprised as I am happy. But I’m sure it will take me months to get a good handle on this text. It’s really not meant for me. But it was a fantastic reminder about what good research is meant to do.

What’s a good source? One that has access you don’t have and presents it in a way you can understand. I don’t expect to learn anything from Entertainment Tonight ever again. But I’m sure I’ll be proven wrong. See you in that future. Never say never.

Late to the Debate Party

I showed this video to the argumentation class that I took over for the last 6 weeks. This was shown (well most of it) just after everyone had done some in-class debates.

One of the biggest goals I have in teaching debate and argumentation is to address fact addiction. Students strongly believe that access to facts and repeating what they accessed is all that’s needed to resolve controversies and disagreements. If the other side rejects the facts, you just say them louder. Or you pause the debate for 10 minutes while you go print out the statistics you think will do the job.

Treating poor debate and argument performance not as failure, stupidity, inability, or the like does not help in teaching people how to argue. Treating it like an addiction, and addressing the causes of addiction to facts seems to be the way to go. More on that perhaps in another post, but for now I’ll say that being addicted to facts, like a lot of addictions, is a way to feel comfortable in a world that continuously exposes its contingency. The arbitrary symbol-systems we’ve invented to keep things together are pretty frail, and in a world where students have been taught that there are correct answers to everything, they simply need to be found, and science and math are the ways to find them, they feel pretty powerless against the big contingencies. Facts help them think there’s some bottom and avoid the idea that the elevator has no ground floor.

So I show this video - and the students do not like the IBM Debater. I ask them why.

“She sounds fake,” one student said (Note: If you watch the video you’ll see the IBM team chose a female sounding voice simulation for the AI and indicated that the AI should be called she during the debate).

“She’s just listing a bunch of facts about the issue,” another said.

I said, “Now you know how I feel” - and although I said it as a joke, it resonated with the class. They all paused, as it really sort of opened something up for them.

The conversation continued into a discussion about the other factors (bad pun) needed to do well in debate, and how those factors might be more important than factual information. This was a far cry from the first in-class debate, where most of the students said the debate would have been better if there were “more facts.”

Showing this video after students have tried to do some debates was a really accidentally inspirational teaching move. They saw for themselves what was lacking in their rhetorical performance by watching an AI debater do the same things they did. Although AI is really keen on teaching a system how to debate, what happened here was something akin to the Turing Test - a moment where we learned more about human capabilities than we did about making AI.

One student asked, “Why are they doing this? Having an AI that can debate doesn’t help anyone out at all, what help could it possibly offer?” A great question about the goals of AI, but also answered by the rest of the conversation. We see through AI faults that are hard to pin down; habits that we don’t know we have. I believe this is also a theory of how and why science fiction is so great, it allows us to see something about ourselves or society very clearly by mucking it up with some really unfamiliar context.

Our conversation turned toward this question of why make it - students brought up the Turing test and the belief that debate is a marker of human intelligence. If the AI can debate, then it’s intelligent. I pointed out that since debate is a learned thing, doesn’t that make us artificially intelligent? What part of our intelligence, the way we talk about it, is natural?

I suppose in answer to this question one could turn to the scholarship on argumentation coming from evolutionary psychology and cognitive psychology and say that yes, arguing is a part of natural human communication, but it serves communicative ends (not logic, reason, or rationality). Indeed, those are life-long learning pursuits for everyone as they rely on contingent and unique factors for their judgement and appreciation every time. But debating? That seems very un-natural. Most people use debate and argument as interchangeable terms, but this is a huge mistake that is responsible for a lot of grief out there. Argumentation is a communicative tool whereas debate is an epistemic tool is the best way to put it. But instead we tend toward the model of arguments live inside debates which are ways of determining what’s right or true, or a means of getting people to act in the interests of what’s right and true. Of course there are many problems with this definition namely that people can agree that one side won a debate and go on acting in their lives to the contrary of that decision.

So if AI must be taught how to debate, perhaps we are all AI, there is no “natural” intelligence, and if debating well is a marker of intelligence, that means we must invest the time and energy into creating intelligence among people through schools and all sorts of other programs.

The students came to another conclusion in the light of the Turing Test and now this - that it is more and more impossible to determine what makes a human qualify as human. Instead of hosting the debate for AI to attend and learn, we all realize we are late to the party instead. We are all learning, and intelligence, like it’s harbinger debate, is something we have to practice and work on together all the time.

Argumentation’s role is as a facilitator of communication whereas debate’s role is a check back on argumentation’s power, making sure that we realize the contingency of our knowledge. This is the approach I’m taking toward theory now when teaching the debate or argumentation course. Pretty good result from watching what was a proof of concept debate hosted by IBM.

NCA Reboot

After this week it seems clear that it’s time for a reboot of the National Communication Association.

I’ve been attending the National Communication Association conference and looking at the journals from it since 2002 when I started graduate studies in rhetoric. Since then, I’ve found the NCA convention to be incredibly valuable. I find it a great time to share ideas, learn, and talk casually with others about issues we face as teachers and professors, as members of academic and university structures, and so on.

NCA is structured to look at itself, to look back. Consider all the Distinguished Scholars and others who signed onto a letter that fallaciously posited diversity as a trade-off with excellence in scholarship. There are of course people like Martin Medhurst who probably believe this is more likely the case than not. There are others who believe that diversity is good if it is “checked” by standards of excellence, merit, etc. But there are others who believed they were signing onto a document that asserted their autonomy within an organization to decide who gets honors and accolades of that organization.

There is a counter-letter, one that points out the flaws of the response of Medhurst and the Distinguished Scholars. The letter that has been signed now by hundreds of members, and perhaps thousands by the time you read this is found here if you want to sign it. It addresses in a serious and meaningful way the issues this controversy brings up. But it doesn’t address the fundamental problem with NCA - that it is about itself more than it is about helping people advance the practice and study of communication. It is about the preservation of the excellence of NCA, and NCA as an organization that is good. It should not be structured like this. Having these elite clubs doesn’t do much to promote an association that should be looking forward, heading off issues, and providing resources to those who need it to advance inquiry.

The aim of NCA should be simple: An association of communication researchers, professionals, and teachers who work together to share ideas, problems, challenges, research, and questions about communication. This communal work should be shared with the public when it can help everyone.

That’s really it. There’s no need for “Distinguished Scholars” or anything that celebrates life-long work toward the organization. As that’s what the work of the Distinguished Scholars is - stuff that gives NCA a reason for being. Praise, awards, and exclusive clubs are not a part of what the association should be about. But having such a group ensures that excellence will never advance, only replicate what came before. The group becomes smaller and more irrelevant over time as the members who would innovate and improve matters leave for organizations that welcome change and opportunity.

NCA sat around for 12 years hoping that diversity would enter the Distinguished Scholars. It never did. The reason is because NCA has structured itself to replicate itself. This is why incremental change won’t improve anything. Although the letter, ideas, and appeals coming from the membership are great. NCA did not try to solve the problem of representation in the Distinguished Scholars by restructuring it or eliminating new members in favor of a differently structured group. It tried to solve it as an organizational problem, as an organization leaning on itself to correct itself.

NCA clearly needs a reboot. It’s saddled with a bunch of nonsense that only gets in the way of the importance of getting teachers, professionals, and scholars together to identify shared issues and interesting ideas. NCA seems to be a place that is designed to give prestige and power to people who already have it. What’s the point of that?

We can get ahead of the Kuhnian critique here, and stop worrying about where we’ve been and what people have done to promote NCA and its journals and such. We can organize NCA to be an association, not an organization, about advancing conversations and encounters that advance communication.

Here are a few ideas.

Titles are for Future Action not a Reward

Any title such as Distinguished Scholar or Teacher should be given to people who show promise, are poised for big moves, and who want to disrupt, innovate, and lead communication (NOT NCA) into needed and new areas and issues. What good is such a title or honor when you are at the end or peak of your career? The association should exist to support those who are members and help them get things out of their research, practice, and teaching in order to improve it. Why reward people who already have it made? Why reward people who are already at the top? That only serves NCA, it doesn’t serve the discipline of communication.

Where are the Distinguished Teachers? Distinguished Practitioners?

There’s no organization like distinguished scholar for teacher or practitioner in NCA. That says a lot. The distinguished scholars’ service to communication is always within NCA’s parameters. This is not the function of an association. This is the function of an organization interested in itself. Change the orientation by expanding what the association honors and respects. These titles will further the hard work already done by members. Nomination should be for potential based on past action, not a wealth of success as it would be in NCA today. Whenever the organization creates titles the conversation should be about how and in what ways these titles advance the practice, teaching, and study of communication. Titles from a national organization can be powerful tools to help those who are doing great work become even greater.

Fund all graduate student attendance to the national convention

There’s nothing quite like the face to face. Eliminate all the self-serving and goofy events. We have a sponsor for the Arnold lecture. Why do we not have a sponsor for graduate student funding? That would be something easy to arrange considering how much money Taylor and Francis and other publishers make off of NCA members in so many ways. NCA never funds new and young people to be a part of it because that doesn’t help preserve the organization. The NCA structure is about repeating the same, replicating the power structure that is. New people with new ideas are disruptive - best to have them pay in so they consider themselves invested and are less likely to criticize. I believe that the association should be about blind spots. What are we missing in the teaching, research, and practice of communication? It’s always new eyes and new perspectives that innovate sets of knowledge. It’s not the older people; they are invested in how things have been done before. We need to invest, quite directly, in new ways to see and do communication.

Engage and interact with publics at the convention site

It would be great to have time, resources, and space dedicated toward articulating and addressing communication issues in the city where the convention is taking place. I don’t mean a symbolic display of the theme of the conference, but something more on the terms of the communities there. NCA could establish relationships with organizations there in that city and see which ones would like time with communication experts (scholarship, practice, and teaching are three different forms of expertise) for the addressing, articulating, and exploration of the issues they face and that we could maybe help with. I don’t mean to say that local communities can’t deal with their own problems, but what a resource for the convention, for our experts, for the local groups, and for the city. It seems strange to not at least let various groups know we’ll be there and they can turn up and participate if they’d like in some brainstorming, spitballing, conversation, or whatever the people in the room would like to do. The advantage of building in an interactive public relation where they are not addressing us and we are not addressing them is that we find a gap in the convention where we are not able to speak to ourselves in that way NCA accidentally encourages. It’s less about NCA and more about the association and what it can and should do with and for others. It probably won’t solve anything, but it gets groups thinking in a different perspective about the work they do, and another perspective is always something useful to have. For NCA, it grounds us back on what should always be the focus: communication.

It’s pretty compelling evidence that NCA has lost sight of advancing thought when a bunch of established, smart, and recognized scholars suddenly backpedal on a letter they signed that was very clear. They are backpedaling because they were invested in NCA as an organization - power, authority, and structure - rather than communication as a site of inquiry. The structure of reward and recognition always gets in the way of what warrants recognition: People asking great questions and keeping them alive for as long as they can lead us to revelation. Diversity is always in the service of inquiry. But it’s not ever in the service of keeping a reward system for past events static and pure. Restructure NCA or we’ll just be revisiting this issue again in a few years.