When Only A Sport Remains

I predict here in a short amount of time I’ll be posting some definitive news about a move happening in intercollegiate forensics and debate that will no-doubt signal the end of any sort of conflict between educationally-minded directors of debate and those who love prizes, trophies, and saying that they coached a team to win a tournament.

I don’t want to say too much, but the evidence is already everywhere that intercollegiate debate is not a place for inquiry, scholarship, or intellectual work. It’s a place for people to go to confirm their rightness, to speak at others, and win prizes.

There isn’t a role for the person who wants to teach critical thought. There is a role for the person who wants to craft a “hit” on an opposition case and then moan in frustration when the students don’t “run” their brilliant argument “right.” There’s no place for someone who wants humility and doubt to be values, but there is a place for those who believe strongly in the Truth, and that it is easily accessible from a cursory glance around the world, and even easier to communicate in 7 to 10 minutes.

Debate programs no longer have a place or space within academic departments, they should be in athletic departments, for they have as much relation to the curriculum as the basketball or football team. They teach a set of esoteric rules for esoteric acts, witnessed by few, understood by even less, and with the amount of impact and influence on the world you would expect from events taking place on a Sunday morning in a windowless classroom in a brutalist building on some state university campus.

Now is a vital time for debate directors, and those with license and interest to teach to reinvestigate debate’s place in the curriculum. This is not another call for a developmental conference; reading the one from Wake Forest University is as cringeworthy as it is repetitive (with the exception of William Keith’s paper, which, I might add, was written by someone outside the tournament-debate model). Debate is in no danger of dying or vanishing because it died a long time ago. Now there is a sport modeled off of human argumentation - kind of - that a small percentage of college students participate in and an even smaller number enjoy.

The abandonment of director positions and debate coach positions held by Ph.D.s who have an interest in scholarly activity continues to fade. Now might be a good time to revisit The Debate Authors Working Group principles and practices, published in 2010.

I was lucky enough to attend several of these sessions as a graduate student and even luckier to co-author on a paper with the group. I dare say I was a member, if only for a year or so. But the idea and the work has never left me. It was the creation of an endpoint of debating that most people don’t think about. Debate ends when you win or lose, most sportmongers think. Then come the excuses for poor performance. This model encapsulated all that as aiming toward research and publication. It gave debate a point outside of eristics, which I would argue dominates all conceptions of intercollegiate debate today.

It’s time to reconsider this fundamental essay as the purpose of intercollegiate debate, but also the purpose of any round. What is happening in this debate that is serving scholarly ends? What is happening in this speech, or these speeches, that is forwarding inquiry? What has happened in this debate that could lead to publication?

In revisiting this essay, I find too much attention placed on the idea that the humanities eschew collaborative research. I think that might be true, but the larger problem is that most debate practitioners believe they are participating in a final-form event. They do not believe in process or reiteration. They believe the debate round is the presentation of formed ideas, and the work on those ideas - the inquiry - happened somewhere else, at some prior point to the debate. The research was done, the speeches prepared, now this is the final project presentation - not a good model.

A return to the DAWG model means every debate is an incubator, and every debate discussion becomes something of an agenda item for the DAWG meeting. That might be one way to think of it.

Another approach is that this connects debate to the department as it is undergraduate research under faculty supervision. The professor who directs the program would run the working group, and all those who debate should participate in some way, if only to raise potential topics. When we met as the DAWG, this is how it went. Nobody was compelled to write on a project, but everyone should contribute to the discussion or to the suggestion of topics or venues for publication. As an undergraduate research model, I don’t think you can find a much better one.

I’m going to consider revisiting this DAWG essay as it approaches its 10 year anniversary. It’s worth taking a look at the ideas in it and seeing if they are still relevant, needed, or require a bit of editing. My initial thought after re-reading it is that things haven’t changed that much, except the university system is approaching severe crisis and people are still much more interested in enforcing grammar rules and calculating attendance in their courses than stoking intellectual spirits of doubt and wonder. The DAWG is most likely needed now more, if anything.

March is for Visitors

Before we get into it, here’s my current obsession.

I wonder why I share any of my Last FM listening stats with anyone because all you will see is me grinding a song into oblivion by listening to it over and over and over again. Today I’ve reached the point where I’m just listening to all the remixes.

This video really just makes you want to go to LA for the weekend.

We have visitors coming this week, next and then the week after that. Then I’ll be alone for a few days which is going to be weird.

This means there’s no semester left. I have an essay project I haven’t really started, one I need to send copy edits back today for, and of course the looming yet not-stressful NCA deadline.

Today’s the first day of the pick-up argumentation course so I think we’ll just have a conversation around the question “what is an argument?”

This question is a great one to start with because ideas about what an argument is/can/should be pepper human history and a lot of these ideas have trickled down to us through discourse over time. This means student understandings of argument are historical understandings, and we can create a map of where we are historically and what choices we have if we want to move understandings. Should be fun to make a map on the board, assuming it works.

I think I’ll record the chat and post it here later tonight so you can have a listen and see how it goes. I feel like one of the best things I can do these days as a professor is provide a space for some actual, thoughtful conversation where there’s no pressure to perform for some grade on some dumb assignment or something. Let’s have some inquiry; we can grade something later on.

The Goals of an Argumentation Course

Argumentation pedagogy is, unfortunately, homogenous across nearly the entire speech communication discipline. A textbook based on the Toulmin model - but not even the whole model, just data, warrant, and claim - and no discussion of field dependency is at the heart of it. A paper about a controversy and then the fabled “Letter to the Editor” completes the course.

I remember talking a lot with Dr. Barbara Warnick in my last year at the University of Pittsburgh (where I received my Ph.D.) about Stephen Toulmin. She was teaching an advanced undergraduate course on argumentation and had decided to use Uses of Argument as the only text in the course. Brilliant, I thought, as I was unsure how many argumentation scholars out there had read the whole book. She came up with the phrase “the basic T” to describe the poverty of the pedagogy of Toulmin that was being distributed as argumentation instruction (meaning data, warrant, and claim, and that’s it). I like to think that Toulmin would have a laugh at how rhetoricians have taken his theory and turned it into the object of argumentation theory he was attempting to deconstruct - something absolutely there, measurable, and universally meaningful.

Due to an unexpected illness I am now covering an undergraduate argumentation course, and my first thought was, “I have about a month to make sure they get everything!” My second thought was the petitio: what is everything?

I started to write some notes about what makes argumentation important. Against the model of criticizing controversy from on high with a dash of historical re-enactment of a world with engaged newspapers, I see argumentation as a course in invention and production - something that many professors might scoff at given their attitude toward student ability (“They can’t use a comma correctly!”). Producing good argument requires familiarity with theory as a guidepost, not as argumentation itself. Theory with iteration and then reiterated is the proper model for a course in argumentation that is based on rhetorical assumptions.

So, given a month, what’s most important? What theories do you teach? This is the question, and I reduced it to three essential theories for argument instruction that students should be familiar with at the end of a 15 week course (but I only have about 5, give or take what the previous instructor covered).

The Universal Audience

Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca’s theory that argument’s proper aim is audience, not accuracy or truth, can catch some criticism. In defending their theory they show that historically it has always been the case that the ethics and truth of argumentation has been based on the assumption that whoever encounters the argument will find the means to be persuaded. There is no objective measure of the quality of an argument, save that constructed by what the speaker knows about the specific audience and audiences like it at her location in culture, space, time, etc. The best argumentation is that which the universal audience would be able to agree with, hence, pandering is not possible to the local audience as the universal audience - coming from another place or area - wouldn’t get it.

The Enthymeme

The enthymeme is less an argument theory and more an argument modality (Conley is really sharp on this point). Instead of teaching it as a theory of understanding and critiquing argument, return to Aristotle and teach it as a chosen way to frame and deliver persuasive claims about the past (forensic) matters to audiences. It’s a powerful way to encourage people to find creative ways to share ideas with audiences and recognize that nobody constructs arguments out of the air; all argumentation is co-authored with the audience through little winks and statements of open assumption. Taught as an incomplete syllogism, the enthymeme is clearly based on invention-happening-elsewhere (the syllogism) so to talk about it as if it were a way to generate argumentation isn’t what Aristotle had in mind.

Toulmin, but not what you think

Toulmin’s biggest contribution to argumentation is field-dependency, which comes first - well before the “basic T” or any of the other structural ideas. The reason is simple: How could you reconstruct a warrant if you didn’t know the field in which the argument is taking place? Even in Uses of Argument his examples of the three understandings of “can not” indicate the intense dependence that meaning has on context. This is why when I google argumentation syllabi I’m pretty sure that very, very few teachers of argumentation have read Toulmin outside of presentation in a textbook. Field dependency encourages student creativity in both research and production as the audience becomes as important as getting the “right” information (whatever that might be). Who are you talking to and what do they believe is out there in the world? This question is the start of the field dependency discussion for the production of argumentation.

What am I missing? We’ll find out on Thursday when I meet with them the first time.


Spring Break Ended, Sadly

Spring break ended too soon but I did get one final draft out and have another one underway. We’ll see if I can make the NCA deadline.

I get a lot out of NCA but it comes out of the cracks. It’s not a direct path to the value of it. I always have a few moments that stick with me and that I use to help me in my thinking.

But for the most part, NCA is run by and loved by dilettantes who see themselves as people who would be NPR journalists if they did not think they were smarter than NPR journalists. There’s a lot of chat about what’s going on on this or that series, latest episodes of Frontline or whatever the journalism show de jour is, discussion about podcasts and Rachel Maddow - stuff like that. It’s a huge cocktail party - over 4,000 people - so some dilluding of the content is expected.

The only papers worth hearing I feel are those from the top paper panels. These are people who have put in the time and are trying to make a contribution beyond NCA, beyond scholars, and perhaps shift the field a few millimeters ahead. Unfortunately NCA schedules most of these to happen at the same time, so you have to pick. This shouldn’t happen, but it shows how far removed the idea of attending panels to learn something is from the planners’ minds. It’s also not nefarious; it is most likely that NCA is way too big, and people are too forgiving in letting in ideas rather than fully thought out papers.

NCA is good for graduate students, I always assumed, but there was a lot of strange stressful discourse from grad students I spoke with last year in Utah. Maybe faculty put too much pressure on NCA these days because the percentage of valuable content at NCA is getting smaller and smaller. It could also be that since people no longer read hyper specialized journals casually (why would you?) the face-to-face at a bar or after a panel is much more important for making connections in your career. Not sure why this is but if you are an advisor, stop stressing out your students about NCA - it’s a place to learn and grow, not to nail a virtuoso performance.

So I’m not sure I should invest so much time into writing for the NCA conference unless I have a really good idea. The past few years I have had some great ideas, and my current one - about Myles Horton’s pedagogy and the distinction between deliberation, dialogue, and debate - isn’t one of my better ideas. I’ve just decided to write it and see how it goes and if it doesn’t hit the NCA conference deadline, that’s fine. I’m not too worried about it.

There’s also our journals, which are not widely read at all - barely read within the communication field - making them poor organs for the distribution of ideas or larger persuasive goals about normative aspects of rhetoric and pedagogy. They are very good organs if your goal is to have a conversation with the 10 or so other scholars who engage in the work you do. That’s how they are designed.

I have nothing against this design except for the fact that nearly 100% of all publication effort in rhetoric is aimed at these 5 journals with a readership that is in the hundreds. If we design our journals this way we should couple that with the discussion, or the obligation, to publish for broader outlets about our ideas.

I like blogging, but this week has me thinking that my new model for writing should be this blog coupled with publication elsewhere. I like the model of a Patreon, where people subscribe to your work for a small fee and then can request or put in ideas for future writing or podcast-type publication. This might be a good way to put a premium on non-academic style work and reach an interested public who self-selects given their interest. I might give this a try.

The only thing I didn’t really do well at this spring break was outline my short book idea. I should just start writing it and get a rough draft out to a publisher in a month. This might be pretty good timing for the upcoming political debates. It’s an untested method, but I think the thesis of the book is going to be to flip the Presidential debates (or any political debates) from refined final product to raw material, a set of commonplaces, or topoi, for us to use to craft a refined set of political principles to defend.

The biggest success story about spring break was how much fun I had playing Fallout 76 and Elder Scrolls Online. I really do think that if things went haywire in the academic world I could stream video games all day for 5 to 6 days a week and have a blast. Of course, any engaging, fun, and exciting creative work can turn into a “job” - one that you despise and resent - very quickly. Just look to how that leaks out in the negativity many professors present toward their students!

The Start of Spring Break

Spring break is here and the only thing I’ve done so far is play about 5 hours of Fallout 76 before getting ready to go out to eat at one of my favorite spots before hitting a bar to wish a friend happy birthday.

There is a productive hope for spring break including:

  • Finishing my NCA paper for this year on Myles Horton’s pedagogy and the artificial wall between discussion, dialogue and debate.

  • Taking my 1694-ish rhetoric textbook to the bookbinder for much needed repair.

  • FInishing reading all the books I’ve checked out from the library on Roman education

  • Grading all of the podcasts and videos from my online public speaking course

  • Getting a jump start on two big essays due in April/May.

So that’s a full week I think but without any other demands on my time such as getting decent, walking to the campus, sitting in the office, and such it can really free up a lot of time. This is why I hope very soon to be teaching mostly online if not entirely online.

I’ve been looking forward to spring break ever since I fell behind on my semester plan about a week and a half ago. Things happen and it’s okay. I am just glad that I have some time to catch up a bit.

The other big thing that has happened is my mega-computer, the one I built and rebuilt a couple of times, has just started giving me blue screens all the time now. I shut it off and put it aside, but that meant I had to rearrange my home workspace. Now I’m typing this on an Asus Chromebit, and my second monitor I brought up to the university to plug into my old desktop computer I had up there for debate. Since I don’t do debate anymore, I no longer needed that computer for that project so I just moved it into my office to use it for work. So far so good, but on compressing audio (WAV to MP3) it is very, very slow compared to the mega computer. Not very happy about that, but maybe if I decrease the quality of the recordings I’ll have better results. I’ll work on fixing the big computer in May/June, once the term is over.

So we’ll see how the week ends as next Sunday I’ll most likely post “The End of Spring Break!”

Public Engagement

More strange than academics engaging the public is the idea that academics engaging the public is strange. In the field of rhetoric, we’ve nearly totally pulled away from this idea. Debate teams exist at the margins of rhetoric and communication departments, structured like sport teams. Faculty push to publish in journals were 7 to 10 people will read and possibly use their work. Rhetoric and communication courses are taught with total fidelity toward theories and principles from the academic literature, not with an eye toward helping students improve their ability to capture audience attention and persuade. Courses at the higher levels draw on and celebrate ideas and writing that have little to do with the rhetor’s art of crafting meaning and working to carefully untie the knots that moor audience belief. The field is almost totally inward looking.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately and how to engage in rhetorical work that’s valuable while reaching a broader audience. I don’t think rhetoric exists without audience; you could have all the other elements there to it and not have rhetoric. The audience is the thing that is necessary for the rhetorical.

It doesn’t have to be a real audience, but material. There should be the presence of a material manifest audience of some kind. So when I’m typing this blog entry I think about the report I see as to how many people clicked on the last one and what the monthly traffic is like to this site. When putting something on YouTube I think about the numbers of views and sustained minutes. These aren’t real as much as they are material. They are guideposts for what works, as long as you can honestly imagine what the audience might want.

I’m pretty disappointed we don’t have a journal dedicated to this sort of thing. Contemporary Argumentation and Debate always has promise, but is really trapped in a bad situation. As a debate journal, it has the twin prongs of 1)pressure to be something “better” than debate, the inferiority complex of debate as not a real thing passed down from the scholars-on-high who forget how their critical acumen owes a debt to intercollegiate debate for sparking it and 2) the event horizon of intercollegiate debate itself. When you are in the event horizon, the rest of the universe looks askew and becomes a problem. As you try to move away from the singularity, you rely on distorted information - in this case light - to navigate. You could easily be headed right into the singularity as you start to move. Even basic information is distorted in the area of the singularity. So even well-meaning people can still be pushing a monastic, non-public model of debate and scholarship while claiming they are getting out of it. As an example think about the following attempts to break the event horizon: Lincoln-Douglas Debate, Ted Turner (now Public Forum), CEDA Non-Policy Division Debate, and finally British Parliamentary debate. All these forms are now nearly inaccessible to audiences without a lot of training about how to stop doing what they would normally do when listening to arguments, and instead “follow the rules.”

I do hope that some debaters take seriously the pieces/interviews that Shanara Reid-Brinkley gave a few years ago about how debaters are scholars. This can be true, although I don’t believe it’s automatically true. A well researched position in a debate is aimed at winning a tournament, so it suffers from that. But what’s the difference between that and the conference paper or journal article written by an academic in hopes to fatten a tenure file or lead to a promotion? The utilitarian element of a paper or a debate case need not be totally deterministic of the quality of the work. What’s missing is a venue, or a way out of the event horizon of the tournament. Similarly, the event horizon of the academic department, or bureaucracy is equally devastating. I wonder what publication possibilities there are out there.

Currently working with many others on the reboot of Timely Interventions and perhaps this journal could be a place where debate arguments could transform themselves into interesting pieces for a broader audience. Debate podcasting that is not about debate would help, but about the work, insights, and understandings that debate has brought to people. In The Bin was my podcast for a long time and some of the episodes seemed to bend that way, but the stronger forces were always toward talking about the tournament. Without legitimate competition to the tournament, debate will never provide all the possibilities for transformative education that it could. What is needed is for a few debaters and their teachers to imagine and implement serious alternatives to the tournament schedule, competitions that do not rely on tournament structure, and give debate back its rhetorical aspects - the big audience - in order for us to benefit from its power. I like the idea of debater/scholars very much, but I’m uncertain we can get there given the obsession over breaking, octafinals, and speaker awards. These don’t belong in scholarship. Yet, professional scholars run a similar conflicting system for tenure and promotion that strips away the possibilities of thought and research in the same manner.

We Need Creative Platforming for Rhetoric

We need local community platforming for rhetors, speech, debates, and argument. We have to lead it and we need it locally. We cannot rely on privately owned corporate communication platforms to curate, cultivate, and teach people how to engage in public deliberation and argument.

In the past the Town Hall was the way of doing this. People would attend and listen for a while before engaging. If they engaged too early, the collective body would push back on that speech making it conform to the recognizable, the actionable. Rhetoric’s discipline is meant to make something palatable, in the way that taste disciplines the cook’s imagination and provides limits that don’t stifle, but engage creativity.

Most of our educational efforts toward critical thinking - perhaps over 90% I would guess - are about reception. We think we can solve problems of shallow thinking and poor inference by addressing reception alone. We tend to fall into a trap of thinking that production of text, either writing or speaking, is a part of the problem. We don’t think of a critical thinking exercise as creative.

This is often apparent in bad assignment design where students are asked to replicate and repeat good, valid sources that are determined by the instructor. They are not encouraged to think about what they would like to contribute to the conversation outside of how they are going to quote and cite the sources that they found. Professors often establish a hierarchy of quality sources without the necessary discussion about why one source might be better than another. For many students, it doesn’t make a lot of sense why academic journals would be superior to their own eyes and ears. This has to be explained in a way that they can understand. But too often this is set out as dogma, and people who reject research are laughed at. This doesn’t make them respect professors or peer reviewed work whatsoever.

Professors are very scared to grade quality. They would rather grade via a rubric that establishes points per source cited, APA format citations, and the like. This teaches students that these requirements are mere arbitrary, bureaucratic demands to a functionary. They are not invited to see themselves as potential scholars or as people who belong in the conversation. They are more like file clerks, and as such, are eager to see the rubric so they know where they can cut corners - not where they can excel. Professors have somehow come to the determination they are there to police students, to discipline them, to show them when they can’t follow rules or instructions, without the necessary compliment of helping them improve the quality of what they are crafting and making. Following rules is the secret major that all college students are forced to take. What about inquiry? What about trying something new based on the readings? Why all this reporting on other things said by others? What about the development of the future ortators, future producers of smart texts?

Quality is a whole different issue and it is often a source of anxiety for professors who have become very comfortable in pointing to point totals and math to justify grades to worried students. It’s as if they too depend on the rubric to find meaning in the assignments they give. They cannot just talk about how a paper or a speech was not great, and give advice for how to make it better. They also don’t realize they could just have the student do it over - why not? What is the point to having university classes? It’s certainly not to follow rubrics as if they were laws.

The value of the rubric is in helping your blindness as a person when you are grading. There are tons of biases that instructors could have toward student work. Keeping names off of assignments is one way to address this, but that harms the ability of the instructor to grade on a continuum - to recognize micro-improvements as they happen for each student. The second way is a rubric that you use as a professor and perhaps don’t share with the students. This ensures you give equal time to all aspects of the assignment rather than just to one or two things that bother you about it. The things that bother you often are cultural or issues of privilege; what you think is appropriate and good. A rubric can help you snap out of these biases and look toward improving that student’s production where it is and how it is manifest.

Platforming speeches seems like a good rubric-oriented move as it lets students do the one thing that they never get out of public speaking and the like - an audience. The audience is the most vital element of speech instruction that you can have. But we teach our courses like swimming without a pool, like basketball with no court to practice on, and like chemistry with no laboratory experience. These would be considered incomplete experiences at best, and perhaps not the courses in another sense.

This can be achieved with community involvement of some kind, or perhaps community partnerships with the university. This requires a lot of work and a lot of investment. There might not be a good way to attract audiences to have a look at student speeches. The other way might be web videos, but these would have to be made for a web audience, not just a lateral of the classroom speech with broken podium and dusty chalkboard. Maybe streaming is a good way to do it? This is a nascent thing, but there are many programs out there in forensics who do a show night of their top speeches for the community as a fundraiser. I wonder if this could be expanded to the entire curriculum of public speaking (as well as related courses) as a starting place to see how these speeches play with the presence of a manifest audience.

It then must expand to club status beyond the university to give people space to practice oral engagement with others on ideas. Local interaction and normalization of this is very important. Part of the practice is the normalization, locally, of rhetorical styles. The idea that one attends a debate or a display of good speeches as a normal part of community should come back. This could be funded by the university, but it could also be a civic project as well. This interaction - serving only as consumers of persuasive speech rather than the creators of arguments - is responsible for a lot of our failing in political conversation today. And it’s a failing of those who should be promoting it - the rhetoricians.