Debate Scholarship

Good morning!


here’s the sunrise we’ve been getting in Queens the last few weeks. It’s been really great, and I post this today because we have nothing but grey skies and cold rain today. At least I have no plans in going outside.

Stayed up late tweaking and finishing my lecture for Italy this week. I have been invited to speak about debate judging and debate evaluation at the University of Padua and I feel ready for that. A couple of more slides today and I should be set. I didn’t think I would do any more travelling for debate after the spring, but here we are.

One of the reasons I get these opportunities is the bad attitude toward debate as an academic subject shared by debate coaches and rhetoric scholars alike. Both are happy to hang onto the rhetoric of sport surrounding debate: It suits faculty who have no interest in teaching debate as a productive art, and it suits coaches under a rubric of specialization, to keep hold of this one thing that only they can do and nobody in their department, let alone the college, can do. This attitude harms the advancement of debate, making it responsive rather than generative of advances. Like American football, it will only change the rules or the play of the game if there’s a dire need, like a consistent injury that happens from playing. As we have seen, even that isn’t enough to change the fundamentals of the play.

Debate can’t cause this sort of harm, can it? Nothing physiological like that, but it sure can encourage people to avoid discourse and speaking where they need to be. Debate-as-sport encourages participants to view themselves as doing debate “the right way” or at another level, therefore always thinking of public engagement with debate as something beneath them. This doesn’t mean they won’t be political - debate students love activism, marching around at protests, shouting down speakers on campuses, etc. The question is: Is this the political we want to encourage? Is this the political we want to have? From the point of view of rhetoric, this political is a default, one with very little rhetorical perspective or training. From my point of view, it’s hardly sophistic. There’s nothing sophisticated about marching around in total opposition to something without a strategy of how you are going to reach unconvinced, or alternatively-convinced minds.

In treating the practice of debate as seriously as we treat chemistry, biology, or literature we get access to a forward-thinking model and practice of debate, one that can be generative of new ways to approach the issues we face. We can get ahead of ourselves and think about the normative rather than the responsive. We can construct a practice that would work well with scholarship and the university as a whole. There’s a lot to be said for attention this way. And there seems to be a community out there - disconnected from the tournament-addicted crew - interested in having this conversation.

Not sure what to expect, but since it’s the last week of class I have a lot to do to get ready to be gone for 4 days. I think my students appreciate it, although a big concern I have is with missing class as I get older. I want almost everything I do to have classroom implications, I want all the things I study and think about to be directly beneficial to the students enrolled in my courses. I want the cost and the structure of the university not to be something that I work with as a launchpad, or a springboard, or the start of a tangent, but to be immersed or meshed together. The university is an ancient machine for the generation of powerful scholarship, and it’s based on students attending, paying, and feeling like a part of it. My attention to those students is essential for my scholarship to matter.

Thanksgiving was Great & Full

Thanksgiving was spent in a friend's apartment in Brooklyn where 18 people sat down at the same table and enjoyed a huge amount of amazing food that was prepared by a variety of those same folks.

It was really impressive to me. I had a great time talking to people who had all sorts of lives: There were a number of actors there, given that’s probably how most of them know one another. But I talked to freelance writers, photographers, and a number of other folks who I’m not sure what they do, but they weren’t academics, which is a big change for me. It’s also a big change to enjoy a holiday without the constant reminder that the next weekend you will be travelling to another competition.

Here’s the table in all it’s glory:

This semester has gone by way too quickly. I have been enjoying myself much more than I ever have at St. John’s. It feels like a new job to me. There’s always trouble, but I’m thankful that I’m no longer so stressed out all the time. I actually have time to work on my classes, to meet with students and give high-quality feedback, to read and write, and most importantly to think.

I thought about all the Thanksgivings I missed in the name of some higher calling or higher purpose in teaching debate. What a waste compared to time for introspection, and reflection. We are nothing if not reiterations of ourselves, and without time to think about that we are just bad copies. I feel this semester was one of the first times as a faculty member I really had opportunity to think about myself with myself and root my thoughts into particular, clear scholarship and teaching objectives. I hope it turns out as fruitful as the thinking was. It takes a while to get your bearings when you cut out a large part of your daily life very suddenly.

Now it’s December 1st, and the time between this day and the one pictured above feels like it never happened. The closing of the semester is always an acceleration toward speed, it feels like. I am very pleased with the speeches my students have made this term, but there’s still a lot missing. Next semester I’ll try again. Reiteration.

Glad to be at NCA

It’s morning of day 2 of the National Communication Association annual convention, and I’m happy to be here. I didn’t do much yesterday except the thing that I think NCA is about - catching up with people who you know, who you care about, who interest you and you them, and seeing old friends and students. It’s really wonderful. I think I’m one of the few people who is happy to take the negatives of NCA (size, scope, politics, performance pressure, etc) due to the really wonderful moments it affords and the freedom to speak primarily as members of a scholarly discipline.  

I’m also glad I was wrong about the mid-term elections and the Republicans don’t control everything. But it’s also odd how people still call what happened a “blue wave” and are excited that less-oppressive millionaries are deciding how to fight for their version of bad laws we’re all subjected to. Do you want a really massive military or just a massive one? 

I attended a panel yesterday that just really didn’t click for me. I feel that the best papers tend to push a question rather than a result. Part of the mis-step was trusting in the online scheduling tool which doesn’t really allow for the diviniation that the print book does. There’s something about seeing everything there in print and feeling out the panels in total that is a real advantage over just choosing papers via keyword online.  

Today though I have a bunch of panels selected and the Arnold lecture tonight which is going to be fantastic. Tomorrow I present, and last night I was really too tired to work through my notes and get them down to presentation length. Maybe I can do that today at some point, but it’s a pretty full day.  

I’ve been trying to vlog a bit but there’s not a lot of opportunity and people don’t really like appearing on camera. I’ll try some more today and see how it goes. I’d like to have some good examples of it for the off-chance that I get to teach online public speaking, aka vlogging next term.  

Baffled by Debates

Spent most of today wondering about how Democrat friends are going to handle two pieces of contradictory information coming next week: 1) Voter turnout, particularly among young people, will be at exceptional levels and 2) the Republicans will control both houses of Congress. Naturally, they will find some group of young people who are just so sickeningly lazy and ignorant - how could they not decide to vote! I mean, after all, it’s your entire reason for being!

Since they are going to be hit pretty hard next week I should stop making such fun of them. It is very difficult and very complex to tackle the issue of how to teach and generate support for the following things that would improve American politics: 1) curiosity 2) critical appraisal 3) confident and frequent opinion-sharing with explanations. Luckily being a rhetorician and sophist I think I should teach these things and try to do so with varying degrees of success at the university level and sometimes in the public.

A couple of people today forwarded me this essay in The Baffler which conveyed a very baffled viewpoint on the role and function of debates in society. Debates are scary. This author agrees. They are super scary because they don’t determine who is right or wrong! Oh yes, that’s true I’m afraid. Well then, what’s the point of having debates if they don’t serve absolute knowledge about things?? Well perhaps they just generate more talk about those things and that might be a way of dealing with them? I don’t know, I only teach the stuff.

A lot of frustration with debate is how it never provides a solution or a comfortable and clear right answer at the end of it. Audiences who expect that sort of clarity are often like the kids Marty McFly encounters at the cafe when he arrives in the future and shows them the old video game. “Oh, you have to use your hands?” Sometimes the audience is just way ahead of us in debate world where we are pining on about a fun old technology in a nostalgic way. But seriously though, it doesn’t work if you consider it an ending place instead of a starting place for discourse.

And discourse, from the people all over about issues, is what’s needed to make democratic flavors of government work. You need a number of opinions drifting around and you need creative people creating those opinions. It doesn’t work if people are just obedient to the opinions provided.

Anyway, this is all connected to some of my recent work where I have been puzzling over two phrases: debate-as-argumentation and argumentation-as-debate. Both have a different sensibility and neither are very satisfying. In short, my research indicates that debate is its own rhetorical form, not quite epideictic and not quite argumentation. It’s its own form of rhetoric with a number of different possible functions.

I wrote a letter to the editors of The Baffler. Here it is as I’m not certain if they are going to publish it. See what you think. Debate isn’t what we make it out to be so let’s make it out to be something that it can really do. And what it can do is make more of itself, first and foremost. This is why debate is so profoundly unsatisfying; it offers nothing but more things to talk about. That’s not what debate, conceived as the friendly helper of scientism and the Enlightenment, is supposed to do.

Midterms at the Midterms

Midterm exams are overhyped, stupid, and a mode of social control to remind students that they are in the “to be disciplined” category by a group of people (professors and such) that know more than them and will always know more than them. It’s such a waste of time.

Midterm elections are quite similar here in the U.S. where all my usually intelligent, critical, and thoughtful friends become hucksters of angry discipline, making fun of everyone who questions the need to vote, angrily shouting (if possible) across social media that voting confirms ones existence and is the only way to justify having any opinion on politics whatsoever. There’s even a number of people who believe that they are participating in the conversations that will steer the future of the country. I know, I know. You’ll just have to believe me when I tell you that they are normally very, very smart.

Moments of discipline are fantastic for reinforcing social control schemes under the rhetoric of “advancement,” “improvement,” or the more conservative modes of “duty,” “rights,” or “obligation as a citizen.” It’s funny that in any other given time of the year I would see posts about the absolute ridiculous ideologies held up by relations to the state and how those ideologies are best gone and forgotten. But not VOTING oh no. It’s the best thing ever. Ever I say.

Well enough about that. Herbert Marcuse has questioned such angry disciplinarity toward voting in a much more nuanced way than I ever could. And I’m sure you are tired of hearing me go on and on about how a simplistic, binary relationship to voting is exactly what the political establishment wants. All that money time and energy spent to give people a pittance of a selection of who will go to Washington or the State Capitol in their name and accept special interest money. What a waste.

Discipline is something that we teach more than anything else in formal education. Discipline, not creativity, not questioning, not curiosity - we complain that students don’t come to the classroom with these things and then we spend the whole time on 15 page writing guides that tell them how many points a misplaced comma will cost them.

In argumentation and speech we teach a discipline of tearing apart, something that Peter Elbow calls “the doubting game” in composition, but in rhetoric we teach the “cynicism game.” It’s the teaching that no set of proof will ever be enough to prove something, so tear it apart, the argument is meaningless.

I think the doubting game could be good if it were actually teaching doubt. What I mean is if it just hung out around the questions: How do you know? Where does that information come from? What’s the alternative?, etc. Instead we have to take these questions and militarize them toward the destruction of the argument in question.

Not accepting an argument doesn’t mean we have to destroy it. A moderate position is often the most critical and informative position that can be taken in politics. Being uncertain is a great way to approach most questions, but it also affords you the ability to see new possibilities. Instead of camping out on the destruction of the polar opposite of your view, you can pick up some of the other elements of the position and use them for other purposes.

Peter Elbow suggests in Writing without Teachers that we should teach a believing game to counter the most negative effects of the doubting game - namely, cynicism. I think this is the right move, but I prefer the uncertainty game, or the ambivalence game. In how many ways can we interrogate the position offered until we begin to feel the irresistible pull toward affirmation, negation, or a third way?

I think ripping ideas apart has chilled people’s desire to read new ideas, after all, they are probably all wrong. It has also chilled people’s creative urge to express themselves for fear they may be wrong (read: will be wrong). Without curiosity about what others are saying and the creative urge to assemble new texts, you cannot have a successful variant of any form of democracy. You have to generate texts upon texts, assess them, and create others. You have to be generating discourse, not just tearing it apart.

But we’d rather have the ease and familiar fear of discipline in our classrooms and hold those grades up high because then we won’t have to sit in a classroom on a warm afternoon at the end of the fall, silently stare at one another, and realize that we don’t know what we think we know. Maybe this is what it really looks like to be on the edge of Burke’s abyss?

C-SPAN is so amazing so I practiced vlogging at their conference

Got back a little less than a week ago from the Center for CSPAN Scholarship and Engagement conference at Purdue University and it was super cool.

Brought my new GoPro7 along and shot a few videos. There’s one more coming but I don’t want to edit it tonight.

Vlogging is a pretty hard thing to master. I need to learn how to keep the camera more level with me, and also how to get some better audio. The aluminum handle I was using wasn’t any good at all, the mic picks up every single move of my hand on the surface. I have another tripod handle thing that I think will do a lot better.

Here are some videos!

Weekend Waste?

Didn’t really do much this past weekend, and now thinking about it on a Monday morning. I probably should have done a bit more in prepping for the week, writing, doing research, but I really just took it easy. I feel a little panicked about it, but that’s just holdover from a time when I would only have a weekend at home every 2 or 3 weeks.

I’m really starting to enjoy my position a lot more now that I’ve cut about 30 hours out of it. The biggest, and most surprising change to me is that I am never exhausted. Over the past 10 years or so my dominant feeling at work has been being tired. Too tired to do anything more than half-assed. After booking a trip, there’s another one to book. Or finances to reconcile. Or some form to complete. It really is the work of two people. The trade-off is now I’m teaching 3 courses, but I’m more alert, energetic, and engaged than I have been the whole time I’ve been a professor. I can see why people really like this job now.

I’ve got the CSPAN conference coming up in Purdue and I feel ready for it. That will be two weeks from today. After that is NCA, then the quick slide into finals and the holidays. The speed of the semester hasn’t changed at all. Once I accomplish a task, two more appear for completion. It’s nice, but I’m not quite back to the comfortable feeling of realization that I’m in charge of my days. I think next semester will be more like that, where if I’d like to spend the day reading a book or a series of essays, I could do that.

Long-time readers of this blog know I’ve been working on a book that attempts to reconceptualize intercollegiate debate. This is a very slow process, although many of the chapters are at about a 50% completion. The opening chapter feels like it’s going to be a slog where I have to set up the scene of debating and such, so I’m saving that for last. But in the meantime another project has popped up that is more time-sensitive, and I think I could write that book - a popular press book - very quickly and get it out in time for the 2020 election. It’s a book about election debate, something I’ve been thinking about a lot since writing this paper for CSPAN.

I’m also considering buying a GoPro 7 to increase or at least get some regular vlogging going. The YiCam is nice, but it’s not quite to the level I’d like it. I think the 7 has a lot of features that benefit a regular vlogging practice and make it a bit easier. I’m starting to think of vlogging as a compliment to the blog, which I’ve often thought of as a form of publishing instead of long-form social media - which is the style of this post.

Although I didn’t accomplish a lot this weekend I feel pretty rested and good about what I did do. My students have been concerned about the persuasive affect they feel from stories and conversation versus the lack of any feeling they have for well-researched statistics. I thought about giving them some Hayden White to read on this but Walter Fisher came to me and I think I found a couple of good essays to teach next week. I also wrote a bunch of recommendation letters in record time - not having debate to worry about makes the workflow so fast that I feel a bit bad about how easily I can accomplish my daily to-do list. It’s a really nice problem to have.

This week for bureaucratic reasons we have the same schedule for two days in a row, which helps nobody except some legal form filer who has to ensure we’ve had X number of hours in the classroom. At least we are doing speeches, so that makes the back-to-back make sense. Just another reason to file away in the stuffed folder of reasons why online higher ed is superior to the in person classroom.

Perspective by Incongruity

Kenneth Burke has this great tool, or method or heuristic device - I’m not sure what to call it. He calls it “perspective by incongruity” and what it does it help you see something in a disturbingly new way. You use the wrong sort of heuristic or perspective in order to understand, or convey understanding about something that if you just did it the normal way you wouldn’t get your idea across.

When you put two perspectives or two terms together that do not match up or do not come from the same narrative, you get at the same time a lot of fog, but you also get a lot of movement - of trying to see through, around, and past it. This movement and the fog (metaphorical of course) gives you the chance to see things a bit differently than you would have normally.

When I teach public speaking I often teach this as a way of providing statistics so they won’t bore the audience. “Tell the audience how many Yankee stadiums on opening day that is,” I’ll say, “Or how many Manhattans.” These are images everyone has in mind and can easily scale and scope the harm or benefit of the idea being conveyed in the speech.

But the other day I had this happen to me in a way that surprised me, it was totally unintentional and it really opened up my thinking about teaching.

I had a student come to office hours to work on a speech. We were trading ideas back and forth and building arguments. It was a great meeting. I happened to notice his laptop was really cool looking, really light, and had a great screen. I asked him about it and he said it was a Macbook Air.

“yea it’s great,” he said, “My sister gave me this to use in college.”

After he said that, I saw him totally differently. He wasn’t a student working on a speech, he was someone’s brother, someone’s son, a friend, a cousin - someone his family was so proud of for attending college. Someone who was very close with his family, who wanted the best for him. The gift of the laptop opened up this new perspective that I was sitting with someone who really meant a lot to other people.

This small moment of contact -where I was forced into imagining my student as someone who was deeply cared about, and a source of pride for a family I’ll never meet - seems like something that can hedge against the common, cynical tales of students that ooze about the halls of academia.

I hate that students are talked about, then become, something in the way of our work, something lazy that we have to deal with, headaches who keep coming back, who won’t listen. Here’s a young person who is just doing his best. He’s trying, and people have invested in him. The gift of a laptop on top of the cynical student discourse is incongruous enough to let in the chance for some new identifications.

I wish there were easier, or even constructed ways to plan to humanize students for their professors. I think even the most caring of us grow a bit calloused after a few semesters on autopilot. But caring, really deep caring, is essential for excellent teaching. I’ve been convinced of that for a while. Caring about more than rules and policies or material and weeks left in the term. These students, who have made their families proud, who have been given special things to carry with them to help them on their journey, deserve an experience in higher education, an experience that will confront who they are and point to who they could choose to be.

The revolutionary educational experience will not come from cynicism, from re-enforcing the norms of the corporate world, from worrying about your students not being able to hold down a job. It will come from the recognition that they are here to get better. Whatever that means, it is not compatible with the idea that they are here to cheat and trick you out of points.

How do we encourage this perspective by incongruity? How do we increase the chances of this sort of encounter?