In Los Angeles for the Civic Debate Conference: Day 3

The University of Southern California is a very, very pretty place. 

Aside from the inevitable technical issues on the video call - why can’t any university just make it easy to do this? Everywhere I go there is a camera that isn’t connected, microphones and speakers that are not connected, logins and other security measures that only keep out and frustrate legitimate users of the systems, and on and on and on. Not to mention that faculty and others at the university think it’s amusing that computer illiteracy is rampant and epidemic across the academy. Anyway, we’ll try again today and see if it works. It’s so frustrating that there aren’t just simple computer setups at universities dedicated to video conferencing. 

The conversation yesterday was pretty good. I presented a talk (I am just now realizing I forgot to record it) that I should post on I argued two lines of thought about civic debate: First, that we should start anew in considering what civic debate is when we engineer it for student debaters. To do so, we should start with the Roman commonplace questions: Is it? What is it? And finally, What kind is it? These are questions for the generation of argument: Existence, definition, and quality. If you skip one, you open yourself up to trouble later on.  

The second thing was a discussion of Robert Newman’s passing, which really marks a moment in American debate history. Newman was (and is) a titanic figure in American debate education. He was called a subversive by his own university in the 1950s for hosting debates on the question of the United States government formally recognizing China. Serious stuff.  Anyway, I reflect on his brand of subversion and what it can teach us about what civic debate ought to look like. 

 You can read my draft of the comments here. 

We talked about a number of civic events with different partners that might be possible based on our connections. I’m more of an attendee rather than a planner at these events simply because my Univeristy, as you probably know by now, has zero interest in anything outside of itself. It’s a total “walls up” institution where rooms cannot be reserved for any purpose during final exams, and the idea of taking undergraduates places for their benefit is seen as a problem. It’s impossible to reserve rooms for events or host things on campus - you are treated by the staff as a huge waste of time, annoying, and a problem. The University claims to be interested in students and student transformation, but in the end they are really only interested in getting paid on time, and making sure that students go to class. Some transformation.  

I’m happy to take students to events though which is why I attend this. And I’m even happier to discuss pedagogy of debating. I just have to deal with feelings of jealousy when i hear about all the great stuff that other people are doing simply because their university functions normally. As professors, they can reserve rooms when needed for academic purposes. They can develop partnerships. When I bring a complete overseas program to my university’s study abroad office they say, “good luck developing that, here are the forms to fill out.” Nobody wants to do any work. They want to collect a check and share pictures of their children on the university email. They want their summers off; they consider tenure a retirement plan. Pathetic.

I’m actually interested in teaching although I’m terrible at it right now. The conference is really thought-provoking, and makes me think about the classroom a lot. The classroom’s status as a transformative space is undervalued. People, even thoughtful high-ranking university folks, have written the classroom off as a static space that has an absolute set of practices. Where’s the imagination? 

Today’s discussion will focus a lot more on best practices and ways of talking about and justifying civic debate as more than a firm “not that” directed at other types of debating. Then this afternoon I have nothing but time to kill as I wait for my midnight flight back to New York. 



In Los Angeles for the Civic Debate Conference: Day 2 was on a Boat

A lot happened yesterday that involved good food and wine and a boat. I didn’t have the time last night (because I went immediately to sleep) to download and have a look at the videos I took of the boat but maybe I’ll do it tonight after the conference. 

Had an amazing dinner yesterday at a place called Sol in Newport Beach. Amazing food. There was a good conversation we had (it was happening on and off on the boat as well) about assessment.  

A big question to think about in assessment is how to be fair about evaluating student efforts. One of the difficult things to evaluate in rhetoric courses anyway, is how well students do with uncertainty or ambiguity. If we directly craft moments of ambiguity to help them deal with ambiguity, is that good? If we provide an ambiguous criteria for evaluation, is that helpful? There is an argument that one is often evaluated and judged on ambiguous criteria.  

I believe the rhetorical response here is to teach students how to cut through ambiguity and make a descriptive argument as to what should be judged and how. But by a descriptive argument, I mean they do not advocate for a change in an open and clear way. Instead, they place their advocacy as something that exists and is unrecognized. They point out that there’s a way to judge and evaluate right in front of us that is the normal and natural way to do it.  

Most students would have trouble with this since their school experience is 98% discipline and 2% creativity and ingenium. When we ask them to obey a rubric, even an ambiguous one, the impulse is to try to follow it to the best of their ability then prepare appeal-style arguments when the grade is bad. Trying one’s best is often a reason to increase a grade in the contemporary college environment.  

If one wanted to teach responses and handling of ambiguity, one would want to do it in cooperation with the students, not holding it over them or being someone in charge or something. We often forget that one of the roles of a teacher is to cooperate and help students. Thinking of the classroom as a site of encounter for everyone there - including the professor - helps us focus on this idea of cooperation and help as a central element in teaching practice. Too often professors believe their role is guard of some vault full of points (imagine Scrooge McDuck’s money bin) and they have to make sure that nobody steals any points or gets points they are not worthy of having. 

Instead of this metaphor the cooperation metaphor might increase performance in the course as the professor leads the class through different ways of approaching ambiguity and wrangling it. There is no correct answer but merely good approaches. There’s not much of a question of grading process or product here - what product would you grade? The process is the only thing on offer. This also addresses an old question of whether you grade performances or understanding in a course. What about those students who are brilliant public speakers yet understand none of the principles of the course? What about those who are terrible at speaking but understand the principles very clearly? This final question is the ultimate ambiguity that professors must wrangle as they attempt to create a fair and meaningful grading system for their course. 

In debate, we side with performance 100% of the time. There’s nothing else. But how would debate alter if we decided to judge debates on process rather than performance? This might be a question or idea that the civic debate conference I’m attending for the next two days could perhaps one day entertain. 

In Los Angeles for the Civic Debate Conference Day 1

the race is on! Who will get to LAX first?

the race is on! Who will get to LAX first?

Flew in pretty early and arrived around noon. The last 30 minutes of the flight we were involved in a drag race with what looked like an American Airlines flight?

I have a few of these photos but I think one really is enough to show you how weird it was. 

Anyway, the flight was uneventful. Got a bunch of reading done, which is the sign of a good flight.


Took no time to get from LAX to my hotel which is in what some have called an ok area, some have said kind of “not great” area (I leave interpretation of that up to you, o readers). So far so good. Pretty quiet and the rooms are clean and inexpensive. Glad I found the spot. Although a police helicopter did circle the hotel for like 90 minutes this afternoon. 

I only brought my still camera and this action camera on this trip as I’m trying to pack light. Also rocking the iPad Pro again - still getting used to it and don’t really get it yet. There’s a lot of stuff I’m much more familar with doing on a laptop and doing it here on this IPad just doesn’t work the same way. But I’m learning. 

it was amazing.

it was amazing.

After checking into the hotel here I examined my Facebook feed where my loyal and intelligent LA friends made a list of suggested spots to eat and check out. FIrst on the list was some Mexican food. I went to Al & Bea’s Mexican food. Amazing. 

This is a bean and cheese burrito with red sauce and it was really good. The thing about it that I thought was weird though was the tiny bits of cheese that are somehow evenly distributed throughout the beans. I’ve never had a burrito like this before, it was great. Very different than Texas and a vast improvement over the horror-show of Mexican food that exists in New York City.

I was finishing eating and messing on my phone when the strangest thing to ever happen to me (most likely) happened.

A woman was getting burritos and she started staring at me. She approached me and asked me if I was from New York. I said yes. She then identified herself as the mom of one of my students who is graduating on Sunday. We were supposed to meet on Sunday but I guess fate, the spirit of Los Angeles, or some other force deemed that we should meet today. Of course we took a selfie and tagged her daughter in it and put it on Facebook. Los Angeles, what a small town.

This seriously has to be one of the strangest things I’ve experienced. It was pretty great though, and we get to meet again on Sunday!

I told her I was planning to head to a place called The Last Bookstore downtown and she offered me a ride, so off we went. After saying goodbye (“See you Sunday!”) I went to check out the Last Bookstore. I’ts seriously one of the best bookstores I’ve been in!


I only bought 4 books so that’s doing pretty well considering they had some great stuff and most every book was $5. Got some weird ones too but also a couple that are actually pretty good. This footage is from my Snapchat specs, version 1. 

I found a lot of great old pals in this bookstore. Love that Watson translation (he did several good ones across religious texts). Of course Sophist and Vico. This was a great bookstore.

Had some coffee after that in a great spot suggested by someone who knows where to get good coffee. Waited there to get hungry and explore some dinner options downtown, but I never got hungry so I returned to the hotel and did some writing (including this post).

So that’s the day so far. Now time to go have a drink or two where Bukowski drank (supposedly!). Very excited to see some more spots.

Why My Modern Rhetorical Theory Course Failed Spectacularly from a Roman Rhetorical Perspective

great job plane crash.jpg

Thankfully this semester is over and I can slowly, over time, forget the terrible course that I just "taught." In trying to figure out what went wrong I'm looking for various theoretical explanations. I want to avoid any and all explanations that blame the students, I.e. "You didn't spoon-feed them the material," "Where is your active learning?" "Where are the group assignments?" "I make my students post 2 comments a week on Blackboard to one another," etc.  I don't think such activities do more than replicate a mid-level job in a corporation where one is told by a boss of some kind to accomplish disconnected tasks by a certain date. They have no need to, and no desire to, ask why, or what is it for, or how does this fit in with who I am and what I do. They aren't good for students or for professors. Students don't understand and pretty much hate the work they are assigned; professors don't like the lack of engagement on assigned tasks and dismiss the students as incapable and beyond teaching. So we have students who dismiss professors as weird bosses that just make arbitrary demands and professors dismiss students as beyond teaching who just expect points and grades for doing the basics. 

I think I'm just going to have to provide my own analysis. If you don't like analysis of teaching then I have some sad news about this blog: There are going to be a lot of posts about analyzing failed teaching for a while. I have to figure out what went so terribly wrong with what I thought was a pretty well-designed class. The first question that comes to mind is the petitio - well-designed for who?

This leads me to the Roman point of view, something I've been reading a lot about in the hope that my public speaking course in the fall will be a mix of Roman pedagogy and modern declamation (tech conference unveilings, CES, and of course TED talks). So Roman pedagogy has a lot to say about how to get people motivated and interested in something that they might not be. It's the basic elements of a good declamation that can prove what I did wrong as a teacher. 

Exordium: The Way In, the Attention Part, the Getting everyone On Board Part

I took absolutely no time in the course to connect what I had laid out, what was motivating this course, and what the reasons for sustained attention would be. I didn't try to hook anyone, and I didn't try to get anyone excited or connected in a state of interest or worry that the course might be vital to them. I just talked about rhetoric from my own point of view and what questions I had. I didn't consider one of the central ways to get a class going: Treat your course as a petitio principi - the fallacy of the Begged Question (eg. Why is this a course?)


Narratio: The story so far, the facts of the case, the narrative frame for what's happened before you got here leading up to the current moment when I'm giving this speech.

I should have spent a few days on the history of rhetoric, why it matters, and such. Or I could have started with the big questions about persuasion and argument and what the responses have been up to the 1940s or so. Or I could even narrate my own life and experiences up to this point and why I'm now standing where I'm standing and thinking what I'm thinking. It doesn't matter, but there needs to be a backstory and there needs to be a plot. The students need to see what's happened before they walked into the room. And I'm not against lecture and direct instruction to accomplish this part. I did not do this. I assigned a book and said, "Let's read it!" - this was a huge mistake. There needs to be a story that leads us up to the reason why this is the book to read. 

Divisio - this is where the speaker brings their point of view in from the less controversial, more agreed upon narrative of the "facts" or the "story so far." They start to weigh in on parts of the story they don't agree with, or they lay out a decision or a derivative from the story that must be decided upon. 

This would be the elements of the course that take that story and challenge it from the texts that are read and discussed. This is where we decide, as a class, what our intervention is going to be in this story and this set of knowledge. This is the part where we advocate for the things in the story that are most or least important (depending on how you read those terms). This is also where the teacher can lay out the "quest" for the students, the completion goal, whatever that big question or decision should be. The important thing here is that there is a break in what the expected conclusion of the story might be. This is where the professor might also establish their point of view on what the class is doing or being or studying but it's done in a way that assumes possible challenge.

Confirmatio - Where the speaker supports and expands on the arguments laid out in the divisio. This is the place where proof lives and the convincing arguments are made. 

This is the part where professors should "profess" their views on things. I didn't do this so much as I'm concerned about setting an expectation for repetition. Maybe at other universities it's not this bad but where I work there's a very deep and very disciplined tie between student opinion and the professor's perception being on the same page. If a student writes or speaks an assignment that goes against the professor's view, the professor will most likely fail that student, even if the argument is well made. Furthermore, they will call the student "disrespectful" and really lay into them. Any question or challenge of professor opinion is treated as if it were treason. That being said, I do think there's value to the professor advocating for an interpretation or a point of view on the course and the readings. The trick is to figure out how to establish that great environment to begin with. Once you get that going, over time, you can be a bit more confirmatio in the sense of being an advocate. A page from the Roman declamation instructors would be to take the position no student wants to take and invite challenges from every student in the room. This also feels like martial arts to me. But the environment must be set up properly first for this to work. Make your case, profess your art, and use examples that are persuasive and make contact with the students. I did not do this at all, I let them express views that I questioned. They probably felt pretty adrift. 

Digressio - Where the orator takes opportunity to use the case he or she is arguing to make larger social commentary, or investigate the roots of a value or principle, or to praise or blame the ethics of an age or era. 

This is more of the metaphorical section of the critique of pedagogy, but I think of this as the place where the students inject their own material into the course - things happening on campus you might not be aware of, popular culture trends, music, film, etc. and the controversies around it. This is a place where connections to the current are made from the arguments that you establish from your field, from research, from the principles of the art that you profess. It's a planned digression, but one that shows the importance of the case as either a metonymy or a synecdoche. The particular thing you are studying in the course is a container or a part for a larger whole, that is, society, the state, life, thought, whatever it might be. A good teacher plans for digression which is not a contradiction: There is time reserved to make and explore the connection to the big questions as the audience (the students) sees them playing out. I failed to do this at all, thinking the students would pick up my questions, or find things interesting in the text themselves, decontextualized, or offered as self-contained readings. This is really where the course broke down. 

Peroration - the conclusion, where judgement is asked for and how judgement should be arrived at, where the speech and the case fit into thought on society and personal responsibility. What duties are and how to carry them out. What is the role and charge of a judge? 

This is the end of the course - what did we accomplish, how did we know we accomplished it, and what does it mean? How are we to judge the course, the materials in it, and what we produced? This is the end of any course - and I used to be much better at this years ago - where you go meta. I think that beyond a teaching evaluation, the audience should be called on to judge the merits of the case, i.e. is this course necessary and valuable? Does it matter? If so, how? If not, what points to what should be offered? Nowhere in my course did I call for judgement on what was happening. The only thing I called for was understanding - as vague and useless a term as any. Assessment people will always say, don't ask if they understood. Ask them something more specific. I didn't do this and should have asked for a vote on whether or not these theorists advanced work on the vital questions, and whether or not I was able to defend them (or prosecute them) in my role as professor/advocate. 

Reading back over this I feel depressed. So much opportunity wasted because I was careless. A course is much harder to put together and maintain than a book or a pet. You have to constantly nurture it. I really wasted this term and I'm very glad it's over. But now the challenge is to protect from this happening again. I think that practice is central, as well as a daily awareness and daily engagement on the focus of what you are doing. If the Roman metaphor holds up, it seems to me that the attention should be that of a trial attorney. This trial lasts 14 weeks, and at the end of it the quality of the jury's deliberation and verdict will be your fault, whichever way it goes. As Miyamoto Musashi wrote, "An accident that happens or is committed by your opponent should not be counted as a victory." Relying on the situation is not enough. Clear focus on making a good case for the class is a must. 




I Judged the Final of a Middle School Debate Competition

I was asked by the English Speaking Union to come out to NEST and judge the final debate of their middle school competition yesterday. Seems like a good way to end the semester. The middle school debates by the MSDP are always of a good quality (I've judged a couple before, one at the Hackley School up in Tarrytown, NY and the other was held at the Morgan Library). 


It was incredible to see how many family members and other supporters had gathered for the event. I wondered if they had been there all day. It was full of people. I only came in for one debate, but these people had to have been there for the previous 5 debates. Doing 5 debates in one day seems to be a lot in my view, but I think maybe with middle school students they have the energy and the desire to do that much in one day. I do wonder how much time they have for thinking about what they've said, what was said to them, and what they heard. I'm much more in the less as more camp on number of debates. 

The final round was about the US government providing a universal basic income to all citizens. I think this is a great topic since it's something that circulates a bit in the press and has a lot of research that's pretty accessible. It hits the marks for me on a good topic. But what was strange to me was how the debate played out. 

The proposition side indicted the welfare system saying that it was corrupt and holds people back. A universal basic income would solve this problem because it would allow people to choose what they would want to spend their money on - meet their own needs. The opposition argued that the universal basic income would be expensive to administer and could be exploited by people. They argued instead that we should take the money for universal basic income and use it to repair the broken welfare system because that system has restrictions on use. 

It was good for me to come see this debate since I've been rethinking my whole approach to public speaking, which is a much more important class than people think. I believe it to be the class that teaches invention for the whole university, helping students figure out what to say across the different classes they would take. This debate indicated to me just how much we as a society think that debate is about fidelity to the truth rather than fidelity to persuasion and audiences. The difference is in what we teach about the world: Are we to teach students how the world operates and how to conform to that world, or are we to teach them how to imagine something better than what we have now? Of course, the easy answer is somewhere in the middle. But conformity is pretty easy so I figure it doesn't need a ton of classroom time. 

Here's an example: The proposition team provided "evidence" that universal basic income works - all statistics from the Alaska permanent residency fund which indicated that people like the fund and that malnutrition and illiteracy rates go down with the application of these funds. It seemed to me they thought their work was done by providing this information. The opposition also provided the idea that people take advantage of welfare systems and could cheat, and that seemed like enough. Both teams got a lot of applause and cheers from the audience. This sort of speaking is fidelity to the fact, fidelity to the information, or state-of-the-world speaking that we all recognize as the function of debate - to convey what is right and true, etc. 

But neither of these teams provided any perspective on what it was they were asking us to judge. For the proposition side, it would have been great for them to give a bit of a story about what our values are and how we best enact those values in our policies. There's a great story about individual choice, or putting family first, or any number of narratives that could be provided here. Then they can contrast that value story with whatever the other team offers. If the opposition, like in this case, says we should repair the current welfare system, fine. The welfare system goes against the value of choice and allowing people do to what they think is best for their children.

It's an old idea from the teaching of oratory - which might be why it's left out in contemporary post-Cartesian models of debating - where Quintilian (who didn't come up with it but his writings are preserved) teaches that the narrative should be followed by the division - you tell the story of what you are all about until you reach a point where it makes sense to tell the audience how and why you disagree with your opponent. Narratio is followed by partitio. The what-we-stand-for and the who-we-are is followed by the what-we-must-stand-for. This goes beyond the team: Any good orator would try to constitute the audience as being a part of the team as well. Making your judges your co-conspirators against a great and powerful, but wrong, opposition is very persuasive.

The opposition could have benefitted from some oratorical pedagogy as well. Instead of saying that universal basic income is expensive, let's use the money to repair welfare they should have told a story about caring. About how society must be protected, and that American society is about equal opportunity. Let's use that money to repair and better our collective social good. They mentioned the schools as well - which should have been the whole case - and then they could talk about what free choice really is: Being educated and being able to make a critical choice when it counts the most. 

What was really missing from the debate was clash - serious disagreement on identity and values. Instead, the debate was about whether people will cheat in welfare or on universal basic income more. I think that fidelity to facts instead of fidelity to persuasion makes arguments like this more frequent. Fidelity in debate education should be toward creation - what can we make up? What can we create? What can we imagine? Opposed to the Cartesian tradition of folding argument into inductive or deductive "knowns:" We know people cheat on things like taxes, so they will cheat on universal basic income too. This is true, and probably will happen. But is this something that should be considered a good debate argument? Or something that should be offered in debate at all? 

The question of what debate teaches and what should be taught in debate is always that debate should teach creative invention of argument. That means that finding evidence that conforms to a known position in the world is less than half of what should be happening. Instead, students should be encouraged to tell a story about why their side of the debate matters, what it connects to and with, and what they imagine is the good that comes out of agreement with their side. From there, it is a simple matter to talk about things like workability or mechanism - because who cares? There are always bumps on the road to enacting and supporting our deepest values as a society and community. Teaching students how to string together a good narrative, then how to differentiate their position from the position of opponents are two of the most important parts of debate pedagogy - both absent - from the debate I judged. 

It was good to see. They all spoke very well. Now I am wondering how to teach and reinforce these practices among my own students. It's not really clear at the moment, but I'm sure I'll update here when I think of some assignments. 

Kate, who runs the MSDP, said before the final to the assembled crowd that we approach debate in a "spirit of abundance," so there's no reason to be angry, jealous, or mean to a team who is speaking if you feel that you should be up there instead. This is a good point to make, but I've been thinking about this abundant spirit since yesterday.

Perhaps argumentation studies and debate scholarship itself should approach things with a "spirit of abundance" due to the incredibly vast array of potential arguments out there, potential ways to say them, and potential ways to be wrong. Instead of focusing our research attentions on good and bad arguments, right and wrong arguments, how about more focus on the ways to make and take arguments, the ways to break and reset them?

Too much attention and energy is spent on being argument critics and not very much energy is spent on helping others produce and learn to produce them. Events like what I saw at NEST represent a type of politics, a politics of "let's see what they say." This is very different from "They'd better say what I like," which passes for political practice today. More fidelity to imagination and less conformity to what we think we know is the politicization of the classroom that debate pedagogy brings, and should bring, anywhere it's taught.  

The False Sense of Closure

So incredibly relieved that I no longer have to deal with my Modern Rhetorical Theory class which was in every sense a total failure. I thought I would feel happy about the end of the term, but the only feeling I have is relief. Relief in the sense that something you were close to is no longer suffering. I do so wish though I could go back to January and somehow "fix" things. Might be something beyond my fixing, might be that it's 90 degrees outside yesterday. 

One of my theories about the term is that students are bright and well prepared by the core classes to advocate for themselves in bureaucratic battles. They learn quickly that the language of the syllabus is there to entrap them and they learn how to use it to bend things to their favor. The other result of bad professors merely enforcing point and percentage limits on dry assignments is there's no practice in imagining or sharing opinion. They get no practice for the harder things that I might want them to do (or expect them to be able to do) at a higher level course. With the syllabus being absent the codes of numeric resistance and the texts being books for discussion, the students in this course would rather just not show up than risk saying the wrong thing.

Where I work there is a premium on making fun of and talking down about student ability. I call it the cynical pedagogy. You show someone what you are going to have the students do, they sneer, chortle, and express some trope about students being lazy or unwilling to do things. Recently I was at a meeting by a publisher who was showing us a new web suite they have designed for teaching. The professor next to me offered, in his best cynical tone, "What are we going to do about the students who just don't buy a code, don't want to log in, can't log in, blah blah blah?" The company rep was very kind and thoughtful: "We understand that many students at the start of the year have no money, so we can do a 3 week grace period where no login is required. I get how student loans are late and paychecks don't come in until the end of the month." The professor replied, "Oh I didn't think about that. I was referring to their laziness."

Yes, a faculty member assumes that poor people are lazy. Just another day on my campus, honestly.

This cynical pedagogy comes out in two ways: First, the syllabus is designed for the students who can't do anything. It's limited and asks little of them except route work. Secondly, the professor has a haughty attitude toward questions. The students are frequently made fun of or belittled for asking questions in class (I was led to believe this was the function of class). So by the time they come to this late course on Modern Rhetorical Theory, they understand it's better to be quiet and absent than invested and wrong. This is the fault of my colleagues.

But are they colleagues? The university's insistence on treating teachers like contract employees develops a sense of community and investment in the community just shy of an Uber driver's investment in the workplace community. Developing tenured or long-term 3rd way relationships with professors is the way to fix this. But that's a whole other issue. We need more people less worried about whether they will have a job in 2 years and more worried about how they will teach their subject over time for the community they are a part of. 

The term is ending sadly for me. It's a false sense of closure. The problems are still here even if the class is blissfully out of its misery. I feel like such a disappointment. I couldn't adapt to what the students needed. I spent all term reading books and taking notes just to show up to a barely full classroom who had not read much of anything. I tried to adapt by lowering the assignment burden and making them more open. The results were still not that great, as people were not reading. They were not coming to class to ask questions. When they did come to class, they were silent. 

My solution is to return to the core curriculum and teach there. This might help a few people question the limited and rather stupid position most core teachers take on the side of discipline: "They have to learn what college is about." I stand on the side of imagination: "They have to craft a valuable college experience." One provides tools, the other provides limits. I can't do anything in a course where the people were actively shamed from sharing ideas and engaging in difficult texts. I can teach a course that is supposed to activate those tastes and attitudes: Public Speaking. More on this later. 

Today I am going to work on my RSA paper, do some reading, some grading, and then I'm meeting with a couple of seniors to talk about Foucault. Not such a bad day honestly. The end of the term is not an end at all, but a mile marker. 


Disaster Term

This semester has been the worst semester I've had in my whole career. 

When I started teaching in 1997, I thought I didn't do a very good job then. Makes sense, since I was new. But that year looks amazing compared to the dumpster fire of shit teaching that I have accelerated this semester. I really thought I had a good plan going in and some really innovative things to offer. But I made such a simple mistake I'm almost embarrassed to write about it.

I assumed the topic of the course was interesting. I didn't consider why it was interesting, or what would be interesting about it to the audience. I assumed they were all there to read and discuss texts. 

This is a rookie error. Any good sophist knows that one has to read the audience for these assumptions. Then they use these assumptions to construct the audience into what they want - a group of people constituted around a question, a set of problems, or a concern that needs - and must - be addressed.

There's nothing naturally interesting about anything. That phrase "you should be interested" is always normative. When teachers claim students are bad because they are "not interested," it is a point of self-criticism. It is the failure of the teacher-as-rhetor to generate that interest.

Part of the challenge here is that often when we teach we have to reach beyond and outside of what interests us as teachers. This means we have to extend our reach into areas that are uncomfortable for us and have no connection to why we got into the subject in the first place. Such a challenge makes the rhetorician think of the topics and the invention of arguments based on these general areas where one can make connections between what one knows and what one wants the audience to know. 

There is little to no teacher education on this rhetorical practice. Educational design is always aimed at rational, deductive claims about humans. It is rarely about the uncertainty or the fluidity of moments of encounter. Encounter is a word that does not appear in education theory in any way related to the classroom. What does appear are terms like objective, assessment, plan, rubric, etc. But what about that initial encounter? 

There's a lot to say about that but to wrap this post up, the major error I made that turned this semester into a nightmare was to assume the students were interested in the same way I was in the course.

The second error I made was to not take the temperature of the course through regular writing assignments. I had in my mind large writing projects that I thought would be challenging and interesting. But I didn't think about how to prepare for that large ending through a number of smaller tasks that led up to it. I think the big, final project is overblown and is probably a part of the larger ideological demand that education be productive in a material sense (20 page papers) and a commodity sense (is this assignment on-brand for students? Does it help them in their career?). The new approach I'll use is small writing prompts through the semester. There's no need to assign a larger paper if the smaller assignments, strung together, could create a nice narrative.

Finally, there's also the issue of corruption from the university's insistence and faculty acquiescence  to the idea that upper-level courses are somehow "better" or a "reward" for doing a good job. This means that the best faculty are not distributed across the curriculum as they should be. Everyone deserves an uninvested instructor now and again, but a steady diet of uninvested, overstressed, unsupported people like adjunct faculty only serves to reinforce the idea that the material isn't going to be important after the term. Having more invested, less stressed faculty in these positions by either distributing adjuncts broadly or just hiring them on in ways where they feel comfortable and invested in the university would help so much. You'd be less likely to get a group of students in an upper level course who are tuned into the semester-long knowledge model and are not seeing connections to something they learned 2 years ago. If something is burned, you aren't going to fix it by adjusting the oven temperature. The way to fix it is in the preparation long ago. And monitoring it before that point.

I think that teaching the basic courses is a real honor and something that we should do more often. Why have we allowed this disconnect between upper level and basic? Why do we like and revel in our list of upper-level courses? At the same time, we complain about student performance in those courses too. This is more than an assessment issue; it's an issue of having someone in the basic courses who is invested in the university because it supports them, and they can see the long path ahead and how things interconnect. What will they need now in order to be able to enjoy and engage in the more complex material to come?

It's nearly time for me to go teach and wander around the wasteland I've made. I really hate this semester and it hates me back. But hopefully I can avoid these problems in the future by actually thinking about what I'm doing in the classroom, not assuming without the topics nearby, and spending more time in the basic courses. 

The Productive Bias Fallacy in Higher Education

University students are dying the death of a thousand rubrics.

From daily blog posts, to discussion board questions and answers, to short papers, to quizzes, to exams, to the ultimate capstone, the 20 page research paper due at the end of the term, students are immersed in thousands of small tasks that have very firm deadlines, often administered by a Blackboard or Moodle algorithm.

I call this rise of work the productive bias fallacy. It is a belief that because students are producing pages of writing, text, or other material (i.e. It can be held and seen) products, they are learning. More than that, the course is challenging, good, and the professor is really “doing something.”

This fallacy operates on the assumption that more is more. That writing something long is valuable. It’s almost the stereotype of the movie professor holding up a thesis and weighing it saying, “This argument seems incomplete.”

The fallacy quells the professor’s anxiety that he or she might not be reaching students, that learning might not be happening, that the class might not be “real.” The fear that college has little value in the world of work is a motivator here. We see the productive bias the most in the humanities.

The productive bias is a result of the loss of trust between faculty and students. What happened to faculty assigning a book and trusting that students would read it? Or attempt to read it? Or read part of it? As faculty began to doubt student honesty or engagement in reading, out came the writing responses. And the quizzes. And the discussion board (post your question and answer one from a peer). And the blog post (thankfully long after blogging’s popularity had died). As the busy work of production increased to meet these often graded demands, the time to read, to engage with a thoughtful book or article declined.

It is the most ironic inverse relationship, and it is perpetuated by professors. Lack of trust in reading and engaging creates assignments that whittle away the time needed to read and engage. But don’t worry: The class is good. Look at all the writing I am making them do. Look at the daily discussion board, there are over 100 entries today alone!

The productive bias cannot be satisfied. No matter how many pages students produce, the value of those pages will never connect with the perceived demands of “future employers.” After all, that’s who the university serves these days, isn’t it? If liberal arts professors, and humanities professors continue to try to please “future employers” (who are these people anyway? Are they on campus somewhere? How do we know what they want?) on the terms of production, they will always lose. The struggle to produce will serve as evidence that the humanities and liberal arts are no longer necessary.

Perhaps some fields can survive through their service component — teaching how to write or speak or do mathematics — but that’s bare survival. What is needed is a rhetoric that challenges the dominant narrative of value. That narrative can be found in professors taking a risk to trust. It can be found in the class where everyone is sitting around, books on desks, chatting on a Tuesday afternoon about the value of what they read. And by doing so, they will be creating the value of the university.

Good Debate, Debate as a Good, and Stoneman Douglas High School

Much has been said and written about the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and their sudden and violent non-consensual entry into the national gun control debate. Many were impressed, surprised, confused, and pleased with these students’ incredibly composed, organized, directed and well-articulated claims that the government had failed in its basic duty to keep them safe at school. Right wingers were perhaps the only ones to vocalize this surprise as doubt, calling the students “crisis actors,” either voluntary or paid professionals who showed up at the crisis to pretend to be high school students and control the national narrative, much like the members of Tim Robbin’s cult in the film Arlington Road.

But upon some media digging, it turns out that not only these students but all students in the Broward County school system are taught debating. It is a part of the curriculum, along with the standard courses that one would expect in high school. But the presence of a course on advocacy taught in the debate way – that is making appeals based on reason and information not to change the mind of an opponent, but to change the mind of a decision-making body – has crafted surprising subjects out of these students. Perhaps we should be ashamed that we are so shocked that teenagers can be so articulate and thoughtful during horrific violent trauma. Why isn’t this the expected result from our schooling efforts?

It’s an even more powerful moment of realization when you look back to the number of school shootings that have happened in the United States on campuses that have debate teams. With the amount of people participating in competitive debate activities around the country, it seems odd this would be the first time articulate and passionate student advocates would catch national attention. It seems odd that, giving how the NSDA and other debate organizations have praised the Stoneman Douglas students, simultaneously push the number of students involved in debate activities nationwide. Why is this not more frequent, and on many different issues?

What is unique in this case is a radical departure at Marjory Stoneman Douglas from how debate is usually taught. It is the school district’s choice to tie debate to the curriculum instead of to competition. Making the focus of debate an epistemic tool for understanding and appreciating the world, as well as a path for engaging in idea construction and destruction within a larger curriculum has had the impact we all imagined debate could have. There are competitions, of which about 80% of students in the Broward county schools have participated. But the competitions are not the reason for the existence of debate pedagogy. Broward county has reversed the traditional formula.

Tying debate to winning weekend tournaments, pursuing a national championship, or coming up with the thing to say that will render opponents into confused and frustrated silence doesn’t seem to have activated students in the same way. This connection codes debate as a tool for success at competitions rather than a tool for success in the everyday. It is true that tournament champions go on to great success in life, but there’s little data that participation in these events is the most significant reason, or even a relevant reason this happens. I think to all the criticisms I’ve had against my ideas for making debate centered more on the world and less on itself. Many responses dismiss me for making too much out of a “hobby for smart people” – which is what debate is seen as at most campuses, I’m afraid. What about considering debate, as a county in Florida did, as essential to the entire educational enterprise? Why is that so difficult?

Broward county schools had the right idea in envisioning debating as something like composition – hard to do but essential to teach as a way in for everyone to appreciate material in the classroom better. Classrooms are not allowed to select who gets taught or not. Teachers are required teach those who enter and are responsible for making sure they understand what’s going on. It’s not the teacher’s fault if the student fails, but it is the teacher’s fault if they ignore the student because they think they aren’t talented enough. Debate teams reject and accept participants based on this all the time. If a teacher does so, they lose their job. The ethics are totally different and should be. Sports teams do not necessarily exist to teach people how to play the sport. Debate teams, thought of as sport, have the same obligations. But debate should not be thought of as a sport.

Debate is taught primarily by “coaches” who exist, as they do in sport, to help talented people with mastery of a difficult game that one wants to win. The rise of neo-convictionist discourses in the coaching of debate under a guise of liberalism and openness is concerning to an ethics of teaching. Such discourses take the form of, “You already know, so let me make you better at the form.” These discourses are not necessarily exclusive of interrogation of ideas, where they come from, and whether one should hold them, but the presence of the competition next weekend is the master motivator and pushes these other concerns to the side. The neoliberal revision of the goals of the university are complicit in this, with faculty and administrators abandoning interrogating students about what they would like their lives to be instead of helping them quickly and efficiently take the courses needed for certification in a degree. Debate, seen from this unhealthy perspective, is a way of sharpening people to cut through society on the way to the top. Debate taught oriented toward curriculum must consider assent by the communities that expect to be persuaded, not judges who are looking for effectiveness and mastery of the form. The gap is so wide, no wonder we are surprised at the power of debate pedagogy when separated from the sports metaphor.

If debate is such a valuable educational experience that transforms lives of desperation into lives worth living, why is the primary mode of debate education through “team” models that one must either audition to be a part of, or have the confidence to attend? A person must automatically accept the idea that debate must be taught under a team rubric, with all the terrible associations of sports that come along with it just to walk in the door and see if debate club is right for them. Instead of the dominating team model, why not the Broward County model for all of us? Why not make the instruction of debating compulsory, tied to what’s going on in the state and the world, and have competitions from that? The current model (one I have been touting for years) is that the side-effect of a debate team is that we get students who are well-prepared to enter classrooms and engage directly, without fear of being wrong (or right sometimes). Does this really make the classroom better? This “trickle-down” model of debate pedagogy often alienates the debate team from the rest of the student body, something the team model encourages as students begin to think of themselves like talented athletes, people who are “simply better” than the others around them at arguing, evaluating evidence, persuading and being persuaded, and determining the best course of action. Hardly an orientation that encourages these students to go out and engage the public on issues. Why bother? The public doesn’t even know how to debate properly!

It is a real shame these students at Stoneman were thrust into the national gun violence debate by being victims of violence themselves. The one great thing to come out of this awful affair is the huge question for debate teachers as to the value of the coaching and team model. These two terms force us to consider debate as something to the side of the normal school day, something extra for the special students. This horrific violent act and the brave voices of the survivors using their debate education to advocate to save the lives of others is the best result of a horrible experience, provided by sound debate pedagogy. Tied to the normal school day rather than the after-school team is the central element to consider here. The existence of a debate team is not the existence of well-trained public advocates.

Recently I was pushing this model of debate and got a response that made me think quite a bit about our assumptions of debate as “extra.” I said, “Debate can really extend the classroom,” meaning that debate allows students to see what’s there as important in other places. I remember many times talking to teachers and librarians about something I was researching for debate and finding a much larger discourse out there circling around the same interesting questions I was making arguments about. The response, from someone who is invested in the weekend-competitive model, was quick: “My students have already had the classroom experience. They want something else.” This stunned me. I realized quickly that I was basing my ideas on my debate experience at my tiny Texas high school which was tied to the curriculum. This isn’t the normal experience in debate. This response cuts to the heart of what’s wrong with debate education, that it is an alternative to the classroom, a place where the best students receive the best engagement. Instead of thinking of the classroom as a place where debate could expand thought and education, classrooms are thought of as failed spaces where the power of debate can be held up as an alternative. Why do we not consider debate in some other relationship with the classroom, such as prior, during, or in cooperation with it? Why do so many debaters resent their teachers, professors, and the schooling experience in general, dropping out or failing numerous classes? Elton Abernathy wrote about the danger of “debate bums” from a steady tournament-diet, indicating that the tournament centric model creates a lot of people who hang around the periphery of the university but do not want to engage in the most serious conversations within it. The reason is that the tournament model has taught them that they already know better than most of the people within those buildings; there’s no point. Of course, this is as big an ad ignorantum as my earlier claim that schools that have experienced gun violence and have debate teams did not become politically active. They may have, as the debate bums may have found great lives. The point I’m trying to make is not causal, but an argument of scale. Why keep something so powerful, so influential, behind the label of a “team” or focused solely on competition? Why have a “coach” responsible for deciding who gets taught the arts of debate and who doesn’t?

At the university level, all students should be given as broad an access to debate education as we can figure out how to provide. Writing instructors realized this with writing a long time ago. No longer consigned to an after-hours club where those who love to write exchange pieces with one another in a social-authorship style relation and produce a magazine occasionally, the writing center purports to consider all students as people who love writing – they just don’t know it yet. Writing is an art, a craft, and essential for recognizing one’s place in the world. Broward schools recognized this and broadened this attitude to all formats of meaning creation, including debate and drama. All students should be considered excellent and in love with the art of advocacy, from establishing a position to researching it to presenting it before a crowd of interested observers for their assent. We must broaden our conception of debating to do so. And this horrible act of gun violence perpetuated by irresponsibility in our laws and how they are made shows us exactly what’s at stake, what can happen, and where the value of a broader debate pedagogy lies.

On Mediated Representations of the Value of Debating

Attempts to mediate the experience of  debate are troubling. They are not troubling in the good way of troubling that can be appreciated – creation of static in a clear picture, the presentation of uncertainty as a good, the celebration of questioning over answering. The trouble that these mediations present is one of too clear of a picture, to certain of an understanding, too solid of a substance. The end result is to undercut the value of debating as a tool for constituting and reconstituting selves.

Obviously, the biggest media story in debate right now is the discovery that the survivors of the Stoneman mass shooting were all trained in formal competitive debate. This was the result of a district-wide policy that folds debate into the curriculum. Making debate work with curriculum, most notably a curriculum in communication and rhetoric, is the “co-curricular” theory put forward in 1952 by debate scholar Douglas Ehninger. As an extra-curricular, debate loses its potential to be transformative, and becomes transformed – it falls into the ready-made envelope for its distribution under a host of signifiers that convey meaning as natural and unchallengeable. More to come on Parkland later. For now, let’s explore a couple of recent attempts to provide the public insight into the value of debating.

The two examples in this post are a start to articulating trouble with firmness. Defenses of debate are always needed, and narratives about the value of debate are fantastic. But we must be very careful how we allow those narratives to be framed. Framing debate within an easily acceptable metaphor makes it very easy to communicate what we are doing when we teach debating, but incredibly difficult to have any purchase on the unique elements of it. Often, the excess of the metaphor spills over on its own. The audience runs with the familiar interpretation down the line, often to a point where the metaphor no longer serves the term, but redefines the original terms to suit it. The metaphor no longer helps the communicator; the communicator is a helpless object within the terms of the metaphor. The one that I think bothers me the most is “Debate coach.” A coach is someone who brings out talent and makes it good within the confines of a contest. A teacher does not work like a coach. Teachers must deal with the untalented and difficult. A coach can have tryouts. The list goes on. I feel that debate does not need coaches, precisely because imbedded within that term is the notion that there’s a binary win/loss as a goal, and talented people should be brought to the coach for perfection.

Since the dawn of the speech communication discipline (or “rhetoric”) in the United States, there has been no shortage of anxiety about metaphor among teachers of debate. The dangers of claiming debate as a sport surface as early as 1916 in the Quarterly Journal of Public Speaking. It could be said that the history of teaching debate in the United States is a history of anxiety localized around the question, “What is the value of this?” Such a question comes with it panic when it is raised, leading toward easy to get comparisons, like sport. The impact of which is not a defense of debating per se, but the defense of debating “as a kind of sport.” In these same issues, there is concern that thinking of debate as a “game” is harmful, limiting, and corrupting of the material and the student. These debates about disciplinary anxiety are still with us.

Last week in the Wall Street Journal high school debater Marie-Rose Sheinerman is profiled as a “speed talker.” The short video compares her spreading versus the fastest talkers they could find in the Journal’s office.  Demonstrations of her spreading are accompanied by a pleasant voice over from a journalist who claims that it is a “necessity,” because, “The faster you talk, the more information you get out.” The rules of debate require things to be read aloud to “count,” we are told. Then this is followed with some comic music, and examples of the debate student reading text from a commercial for Old Spice, the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, and the lyrics to the theme of Friends. Of course, Sheinerman is much faster than anyone, and we are meant to marvel at this amazing ability.

The obvious comparison to professional athletics is not stated, but it is clear that Sheinerman has a gift, or a talent, or some sort of ability that not everyone has. Perhaps it comes through rigorous practice over time as well as a familiarity with complex research (it does), but this is not mentioned by the Journal. Nor are the hours of university-level research that the students have to do to compete at a national level in high school debating. Instead, we are shown debate via the metaphor of a very difficult skill that someone has perfected due to the rules of a competition. We are shown how fast someone can run, if they make a life out of it. We are not told the health benefits of running, or that any of us could benefit from the practices that constitute a world-class runner.

Hedging back against a complex model of debate is the perception that debate is for people who want to hone this strange ability. Very little is said about why spreading matters, its educational value, or what the connection is from it to the act or art of debating. It’s worse than just a surface depiction – the trivial texts that they have her read along with the office staff only serve to make debate appear more trivial, just a contest of getting a ton of information out, or at least more than someone else. Why was debate allowed to be depicted this way?

Very much like showing a unique athletic skill or something only a pro athlete could do, this depiction confirms a view of debate as something like speed skating. Loosely based on skating, something many people can enjoy, it takes that practice and amps it to a level of technical prowess that only a few can master. Of course skiing and speed skating (on my mind because of the Olympics obviously) are not that serious as their practice, relegated to elite performers, does not interfere in the operations of a democratic order. But the question of what a good debate ought to be, since we are called to debate so often when various phenomena occur (such as mass shootings), should be the thing that is brought forward whenever debate becomes mediated and publicized like this.

The second, and less simplistic troubling mediation of debate recently is the Wake Forest Debate mini-documentary, expertly shot, edited and presented on their website in a multimedia mixed web format. It’s slick – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a defense of intercollegiate debate appear to be so professional. The rhetorical tone of the whole piece is, shot-for-shot, trope-for-trope, a profile of a university athletic program, complete with the smoke, the spotlights, and the slow motion portraits of the star “players,” nodding in slow motion while presenting confident smiles at the viewer. Filled with the tropes of power-over, and the affective thrill of conquering other people in competition, the video would not be out of place on ESPN. But can Wake debate steer out of the spin of the athletic/sport metaphor here?

There’s a lot to talk about in this video. I’m not going to hit it all here, but provide a general critique. It’s overwhelming how good it is. The profile of debate built here by the teachers and the students in the program is one that I never thought I would see in my lifetime. The Wake Forest defense of debate takes the supposed defeat of the convictionist school of debate pedagogy from before 1950 and revitalizes it with neoliberal discourse. Switch-side debating, meant to provide training in democratic decision making, the dominant defense of debate since the mid 1950s, feels like a critique of convictionism that Wake Forest has found the way to satisfy. This is a table-flipping establishment of the value of a particular pedagogy of debating.

Convictionism was a very long-held ethics of teaching debate that remained unquestioned until two events happened near one another – the Great Depression, which spelled an end to complex travel arrangements of the triangular and pentangular leagues that dotted the United States, and the rise of the debate tournament, the invention of J. Thompson Baker, professor at Southwestern University in 1923. By the rise of the Depression, the tournament was stable enough to start experimenting with what was called switch-side debating, where a team would have to be prepared to debate either side of the annual topic. The tournament was a cheap alternative to the multi-night, multi-city pentangular leagues, which were expensive. The tournament allowed students to have many different debates all within the same day or two. In order to facilitate this, students were told to prepare arguments on both sides of the topic, not just the side they agreed with. This reached a crisis moment in the mid 1950s when the national topic raised the question of the US officially recognizing the government of China. Debate teachers believed it would be unethical to force students to say things outside of their own convictions about communist regimes. The crisis, for Ronald Greene & Darrin Hicks, precipitated a defense of debate that centered around constituting debater-as-subject rather than helping debaters constitute better arguments around their feelings or opinions. Switch-side debating has been the dominant defense of intercollegiate debate since then, and it usually follows a formula where debate is touted as a social good because it forces people to examine both sides of an issue.

In the video it is reiterated several times that Wake Forest operates under a “big tent” rubric, meaning that the only things one needs to do to participate is commit to excellence and have a desire to win. After that, the coaches and teachers commit to a role of helping you argue whatever you want to argue better. Gone is the idea that you might arrive with particular opinions about political issues that need to be challenged through the switch-side model, back is the convictionist model that we will help you improve the arguments you already know. Switch-side is incorporated as a small criticism of convictionism, dismissed in the video as an inventional challenge to finding the rhetoric for the extant belief you hold on that side of the topic. One is never in a position to go against what beliefs one has in big tent debating, merely locate what you want to say and it can be developed.

This works exceptionally well as a defense of debate not just in the NCAA-style profile of the video, but in the modern defense of the university system itself. Instead of the switch-side defense of debate as constituting liberal subjects who can then operate within democratic communities, debate done this way helps you process “information overload,” at the level of an “MA student working on a Ph.D.” and renders the rest of the world “literally in slow motion.” The end of the video laments that there’s no pro debate league, but does indicate the presence of a defacto pro debate league in the realm of science, law, politics, and other careers. The enthymeme is pretty convincing – debate is practice for handling the complexities of the careers that are perceived as successful. Nowhere in the video, except for the last part where there is some discussion of the relationships formed on the team at Wake over the years, is there any traditional switch-side appeal to constituting liberal citizens who can occupy controversial spaces and manage the arguments within. Instead, neoconvictionist debating gives you advantages over others – in life and in your classes – by making you so much faster than they are when engaged in critical analysis of information.

The university system is making a similar claim – you can have what you need out of life by presenting, and having certified, your ability to have a particular sort of career or job. The university is reconstituting itself as a place not to find yourself, not to interrogate certainty in belief, but a place to supercharge who you are. It’s not about constituting identity, but confirming and certifying that identity as a commodity, which of course has a value on an open market of labor. The university provides each student special skills and perspectives that they add to the degree to make them unique. Each university conveys what is particular about its educational approach along with the quality of faculty and the diversity of degree programs.

The neo-convictionist “big tent” model is shown to provide tools to an atomistic subject who is already well-versed in what argument they want to say. As that argument is perfected, the subject learns how to accent him or herself with these advantages to go on into a powerful career. Throughout the video, individuals are profiled as certain subjects. They are certain they are “Kritik” debaters and “policy” debaters, they are certain about what they care about, they are certain about the role of debate, how to practice it, and the absolute clarity of the value of a win. All of this certainty orbits an unchallenged subject formation of the debater – again the role of the debate team is not to reconstitute subjects, but to improve the ready-made subject that arrives. The Wake video is a clear return to convictionism with an enthymematic neoliberal answer to switch-side debate’s claim of why the subject must be reconstituted for debate to have value. It’s really masterful, and represents a real sea change in debate pedagogy for the 21st century. It could also be that I’m out of touch with these articulations, and Wake represents a very conservative reiteration of an understanding of debating that is alive and well on the policy circuit.

The Wake debate video follows the rhetoric of a sports promotion but with a couple of very nice twists. The first being the huge amount of time spent on the value of hosting the Wake Forest tournament. This started to bleed into a discussion of how intercollegiate debate forms special spaces of practice and thought, but we never really get too much depth here. There is a glorious opportunity to go deep on the recurrent phrase of “southern hospitality,” particularly on the way that the term hospitality has been reconsidered since the early 2000s as a new sort of politics, but in addition there could be a discussion of how much of a safe space tournaments are for the sharing of political thoughts, how the side conversations over a meal blossom over the years, and the relationship of competition to academic merit. Instead, it is continuously portrayed as a large event that attracts people who we are (again) certain are good at debating. And they certainly prove it as former champions go down to the “big tent” trained debaters time and time again.

There is an inadequate amount of time in the video speaking about how peer-driven and peer-education centric debate can be. There’s not enough time spent discussing how people can locate themselves as speaking subjects through the gaps and rifts created through a good campus debate practice. There’s little about discovery and a lot about ability. I think the tone of it perhaps has been hijacked by the sport metaphor, and a lot of good perspectives are lost in this iteration of the value of the debate program. Are they still there? Perhaps. Are they hard to see? Yes. The metaphor, as Paul Ricoeur among others has said, obscures as much as it illuminates. Discourses of promotion are distinct from discourses of practice. The danger is of course that promotional discourses that are reductive are double-edged. They cut anything they touch if made well. The risk is that they will trim the uncertain edges of the practice as well. I suspect that the debate folks at Wake were approached to make the documentary and it was made by those with an eye toward promotion, rather than the other way around.

Why does it matter what’s missing? To get an appreciation for the value of debate, things like the familiarity of being unsure, the continual loss even though you have said it in the best way you know, and the most important yet least talked about aspect of debating – losing when you shouldn’t have – need to be included in discussions of the value of debate. For those of you familiar with other posts here and my other writing on debate, I couch this idea in the term “uncertainty,” but I am not sure if it is a perfect fit for the sentiment. The value of debate in our colleges and schools is not that it rewards the development of a particular skill or talent, but it provides a multi-variant experience of being uncertain. It is practice with being close to uncertainty and to confront it continuously. The discourses surrounding debate strategy betray the anxiety of uncertainty – “They will have nothing to say,” is often a trope of congratulations upon hearing a well thought-out strategy for a debate. But the trope indicates some discomfort with the uncertain nature of the “said.” If they can say something, we might lose no matter how good our arguments are. In debate, we struggle against uncertainty but always find ourselves within it. And in the university system, and schooling system that has gone nearly fully over to a neoliberal philosophy, uncertainty is not a value, it’s a threat. This is one of the subversive values to a good debate practice.

The question for the mediation of debate is: How do we best promote debate’s value without letting the metaphor oversteer the meaning? There are mentions of process a couple of times in the Wake video, quickly followed by speech that confirms a team’s talent, or ability, or another sporty metaphor for a good player. Is there a way to talk about debaters without talking about them as good players? Is there a conception of the good that favors debate’s value that is not easy to confuse with the ontological? What is the better metaphor for defending debating in the 21st century? What is process, and can we discuss it without lapsing into a discussion of its exchange-value for economic subjects?

A neoconvictionist model that is separated from the university’s neoliberal self-defense play would be an interesting way to start. I was stunned to hear this defense from the Wake video; it still blows my mind. There’s potential there as a break against the waves of the transformation of the university into a servile, corporate ropes course. The temptation is that it simply folds into the university’s bid to be a gatekeeper for corporate power.

There are others, but a simple process might be to work to complicate the media’s natural tendency to be reductive. To insist on complexity when debate is profiled. To forward an idea that is not so tough to get: We need to practice being uncertain. We need to face that burning sensation in our chest when we are proven wrong, when we don’t know and we know we don’t know. We need to confront our limits as thinkers and speakers. To base a democracy on a group of people who don’t know how to do that is to welcome the calming presence of oligarchs who can make it all better for us. Either we find ways to grapple with uncertainty, or we will happily take on the control of those who claim they can protect us from it.

We can’t avoid the metaphors, but we can weaken them just enough to be unsettling. We want debate to be alive and unknown, not deterministic and settled. Everyone knows what basketball at the college is like. That's a rhetorical advantage, assuming you can steer out of the powerful skid the metaphor will put you in once you decide to drive it.