Taylor Swift and Good Research

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

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

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

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

Late to the Debate Party

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NCA Reboot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are a few ideas.

Titles are for Future Action not a Reward

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

Where are the Distinguished Teachers? Distinguished Practitioners?

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

Fund all graduate student attendance to the national convention

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

Engage and interact with publics at the convention site

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

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

The Rhetoric of Flash Drives and Archives

Check out this excellent piece by Lance Richardson on the difficulties of digging through the hard drives and digital files of Peter Matthiessen. Apparently he had over 39,000 files on one flash drive. As someone who is madly in love with flash drives and someone who admires Peter Matthiessen greatly, this piece could not have made me happier.


Flash drives are so cool. I love the idea of the terminal versus the portable computer, where you move around all your stuff on a device to other computers to work on it. The chromebook is really special to me because of this infatuation with moving around my stuff to different computers. The chromebook is a twist on that, moving the computer around but your stuff stays all in the same place, somewhere in California or Iceland? Who knows.

Several thoughts here - currently people use Google Docs for a lot of writing and it tracks every single change you make and keeps it indefinitely. Freud regularly burned his drafts and discarded papers to keep his idea - psychoanalysis - on track, “pure,” etc. Future Freuds will not have that option. Imagine how different psychoanalysis would be if we had access to all that destroyed stuff. I like the idea because I like the idea of uncertainty as a productive presence but you probably know that by now.

Secondly wouldn’t it be so cool to have a life like Mattheissen’s? Now I don’t know much about his personal life and whether he was horrible to anyone - I’m sure the biography will cover all those aspects when it comes out - but I love the idea of writing away on things that interest you, having an audience for those writings who really likes those things too, and also being involved deeply in Zen and not really having many boundaries or barriers between all these things. I think it would be pretty great to teach and write and think and interact with audiences. I think that last part is the ironic kicker for anyone trained in rhetoric and communication at an R1 these days: No need to think about audience as your audience is always going to be your peers in the field, and also we know better about audience than anyone else, so why reach out? This might explain why people in the field don’t like Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca. Too much reliance on audience, not enough on knowing special things. “Let me tell you all about what audiences want and need,” says the NCA scholar to 5 people in a Hilton hotel ballroom on a Saturday afternoon in November. I think it’s much more within the practice of rhetoric to be addresing as many audiences as you can, whatever that might mean. Maybe all together. Anyway, I have clearly not figured this out yet and probably never will, but I think about it all the time.

Also I do know I overuse that trope, but I just can’t help myself. I love it. Poor NCA. Really taking a beating all the time.

Finally when my grandfather passed away my dad found some drafts on his computer titled something like “autobiography” - there’s some good stuff in there and some insights that follow this paradox: I”m drafting for someone other than myself, so this is meant to be read, but we will never know if this version of the thing is the one meant to be read. Best case scenario: He was thinking about his audience and creating text, but it’s always going to be hovering in this draft-space. Is this Schrodinger’s argument? Both meant for an audience and not meant for an audience at once? The difference is that with digital trails we can look into the cat box whereas physicists cannot. I’m sure they’ll be jealous.

I still use flash drives a lot and now with the announcement that iOS 13 for the iPad Pro will allow you to plug them in, there’s even more options for using them. I should post a picture of my whole collection. Or better yet, a video of them all.

Gatekeeping Rhetoric

When a veteran rhetorical scholar chooses to make a case you’d expect it to be very difficult to critique, or at least very well constructed, using all of the arts that they study in such a way to make the criticism of it difficult or tricky. But in this case perhaps the mechanisms of gatekeeping are so well embedded in the field that merely pointing at them as obvious goods is enough for those who believe in them.

The recent editorial by Martin Medhurst who edits Rhetoric & Public Affairs (for now) wrote an editorial that I won’t reprint here. It’s been pasted all over rhetoric social media. I can do no better than this critique of Medhurst’s comments by Mohan J. Dutta, so I’m not going to try. If you want to read Medhurst’s post it’s here, and Dutta does an excellent job of indicating the problems with the essay. Suffice it to say that it’s embarrassing that a rhetorician would use such obvious equivocations to make an argument that is purportedly so vital to them. You would think that the argument would be so much better assembled by someone in such a distinguished position.

Two things I will add to the growing critique. First is that it’s no straw person that people believe that strong individual will is all one needs to achieve excellence. Here a scholar with a great record and the power of editing one of the top journals in rhetoric clearly believes that individual accomplishments are the only way to measure excellence, are clearly discernible and measurable, and only those who have these accomplishments enumerated are in a position to determine who else has them. This is disturbing enough. To add to it, it is the graduate committees of what he calls “diverse” scholars who are in the best positions to evaluate their merit and accomplishments. Such certainty is quite good for maintaining systems of power, and absolutely terrible for those interested in advancing communities based on inquiry. Looking back to determine what innovations count is not advisable or healthy. It’s a system that relies on replication in order to determine value. That’s not good for scholarship.

We must recognize the structural and community debts toward and about knowledge and scholarship if we hope to keep advancing thought, which I was under the impression we were supposed to be doing. I believe we need to always be at the ready with argumentative resources about the value of communities that are focused on engaging questions and being critical over the value of the individual genius slaving away in his study (deliberate pronoun choice here, in case you were wondering). This editorial, however narrow-minded it is in its capacity, does do us the valuable service of starkly showing how little critical thinking is employed in determining the slipperiness of terms. “Distinguished” could never be a neutrally arbitrated designation, nor could a place of pure judgement be recovered for such a designation. These things are determined contextually. A rhetorician should know better. We should know better. If we have such designations, they should fully reflect what our ideas teach us. Advancement of thought and scholarship seems to me to be opposed to maintenance of a system of doing scholarship. Diversity of method, diversity of object of study, diversity of scholar, diversity of evaluation - all seem to be givens if one’s aspiration is to advance thinking.

My second thought about this editorial is that it is important to keep the uncertainty about what it means to be distinguished alive and in play. The decision of NCA to open up the process is a good one. This is the right direction, as now we get to ask this question, argue about it, decide what counts and what doesn’t, and most importantly it stays open. An open and direct encounter with the meaning of the term is one of the better ways to prevent the word from being used to curtail the involvement of those who do not have access for historical reasons to the massive resources that most distinguished scholars have had. We, the practitioners of rhetoric, should be engaged on what it means to produce excellent work. It should never be a given - the category itself is value-laden. I think we have ample resources in the field to see how ideology gets us all and how much we need to question and reconsider our judgements and especially our reconsiderations. I do not understand how a flexible and ever-present, ever-rearticulated model of being “distinguished” in scholarship harms the quality of the designation. The consistency comes by the only way rhetoric has remained consistent over time, by adapting itself to the people and places that need and use it to work out meaning. It makes little sense to hold to a hard and fast designation of permanence across time in a field that rightly identifies such beliefs as contingent and historical.

This editorial is nothing short of a gatekeeper pulling off the cover of the machine, showing us the complex and rusty gears, and admonishing us to “be careful with the precious machine! It’s fragile!” Deciding what distinguished means, and who should get that designation, is not a mechanical process and should not be. It should adapt to the ever-changing conditions that we all face in scholarship and in life. This is supposedly the nature of the art we study. Setting up what it means to be distinguished, important, and valuable should be something we all discuss and ask questions about. It goes without saying how weird it is that a rhetorician doesn’t want that discussion.

Mental Illness and Accomodation in The Classroom

Spring term was a bit bumpy for me as I took on teaching online public speaking for the first time and took over an argumentation course for a colleague who had to be out for a time for surgery. Both experiences were educational for me. I hope the students learned things too. Most of them did.

I had more failures than ever this term, and I’m not sure why. I think it might be due to students adapting to a slate of teaching practices that are forwarded by people who either don’t care that much about the classroom, see the classroom as a precursor to corporate employment, or think they are doing the right thing by cutting low-performing students a break. The pattern I noticed was low to no class attendance, performance of minimal requirements based on what they imagined I wanted them to do, and upon failure or just not turning in anything at all, claiming anxiety/mental illness as the problem (e.g. “I’ve had a really hard semester, feeling depressed and anxious, I’m struggling,” etc.)

I think that mental illness, anxiety, and fear of failure, et. al. are serious concerns, but more serious is our social phobia/inability to speak about these issues as if they were real. In my syllabus I make a point about illness - I get sick easily so the last thing I want is someone with the flu or some horrible illness coming to class infecting everyone. I say if you are sick stay home. There are plenty of ways to catch up with the course later on. I write about it on the courseware, I record it on audio files, so there’s no reason to be there unless you want to participate directly. My goal now is to try to figure out how to word the syllabus to account for this trend and to handle it in a way that makes sense.

The trouble is I don’t want to make students feel they have to disclose a very stigmatizing and personal issue to me to get assistance. I need to think about wording it in a way that shows I’m happy to alter the conditions of assignments/work/due dates to accomodate for such issues. But I don’t want to make a bad thing worse.

The goal with such wording should be emphasis that although the illness is important and requires due attention, the work is not trivial in the light of anything. The assignments, readings, writing still must be done. I think that treating mental illness, anxiety, depression, whatever it is as a reason to do sub-par work or to not do work at all is very insulting to those who suffer from it.

Like any illness, we can adapt the curriculum to handle it. The question is how to word it to not make matters worse. And how to word it to indicate to students that they won’t be made fun of, insulted, called lazy, stupid, entitled, or any of the things I hear faculty describe students as with frightening regularity on my campus.

I’m happy to work with students to meet their needs as I feel the work of the class is important enough to justify such accommodation. The students benefit from the course; it really matters. The things they read and are asked to do matter. These practices are vital and should be treated as vital. They should not be treated as something either too hard, or too insignificant to matter in the light of a student admission that they are suffering from anxiety. We need students to feel comfortable coming forward and asking for help. If we don’t communicate this as necessary and appropriate, and find a way to do it well, we are communicating that our courses are not important at all.

Competitive Debate versus Tournament Debate

I still regularly hear that people continue to say that I am against competitive debate. I am not. All debate is competitive, by definition. A debater is trying to sway an audience to their side, or at least, away from the side of the opponent (Yes, everywhere else but intercollegiate tournament debating, “critique without alternative” is a fallacy).

I am against tournament debating for many reasons. The tournament over determines what debate and good arguments look like. It encourages a flattened view of rhetoric as eristics instead of a complex view of rhetoric as meaning-making. Worst of all, it makes students believe that the best part of debating is rendering your opposition into silence, because it means you’ve won. Silence, as we all know, means we should probably go research a bit more and have the debate again before we determine what’s best or good - but then, tournament norms are not interested in the best or good. Too sloppy. Better to have clean arguments for clean decisions, otherwise we won’t know who the champion is.

I could email and personally correct these people, but I would be losing an excellent source of evidence that tournament debate teaches poor critical thought. Such a first-class equivocation proudly stated by a 4+ year tournament debater indicates both dangers of the tournament: Thin thought where complexity is eschewed because it doesn’t help you win, and equivocation as content (as opposed to device for inventio, which is the better use of the fallacies). I think a good sign of a poorly taught rhetor is use of the fallacy to silence the opponent or the fallacy as a reason to win, i.e. “They committed a fallacy, we win.” Instead I am just going to provide examples of my critique to provide more relief to it.

This week the parents of a 14 year old kid are suing his school for slander over how his debate team and coach treated him after a recent loss.

The lawsuit provides a narrative of events where the coach and team turned on a student for (and I need to italicize this I think) talking to students from other schools about ideas.

Think about that for a second. The role of debate is, ostensibly, to improve thinking, improve the quality of ideas, and hopefully for us to arrive at solutions, better plans, or at the least, better framings of the questions we face in our world.

But this coach (clearly not a teacher) and the students thought it was appalling that a student would share thoughts and ideas, talk about the debate topic, and compare quality of evidence with a student from an opposing school. They berated him for engaging in appropriate and valuable intellectual activity.

Any teacher would be thrilled to know that a student was engaged in conversation with someone who was not in the student’s class about what was being taught there. But we must remember that tournament-oriented debate directors are not teachers. They are coaches. They see their role as creating wins. They want to help create arguments and people that win debates. This is in serious conflict with the role of debate to improve the quality of thought in the world, to test evidence, and to engage in thoughtful conversation.

This reminds me of the nonsense pedagogy I experienced last summer at the New York Urban Debate league summer workshop where my attempts to encourage young students to read, engage with the topic, and examine varying perspectives on the arguments in law and society on an international treaty were dismissed in favor of playing games and throwing candy to students who were able to quickly answer or quickly give a speech about a trivial matter. Responses that conform to the rules of the tournament are the curriculum. Engagement with the complexities of an international treaty on the level of law, culture, and ideology are not going to help the students “win debates.”

This attitude grotesquely cuts out the most valuable aspect of debating which is uncertainty. A difficult feeling to be sure, but a quick look at politics these days should confirm to any thinking person that we need some doubt. Certainty, and the witty response - the “clap-back” - are killing space for reconsideration and thought in our most pressing problems.

What could replace the tournament? Here’s an idea.


On Monday, the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris caught fire and burned for hours. It was nearly totally destroyed. The French government has now started to debate how to rebuild the cathedral, starting with a competition about the spire. This is competitive debate in its full form: We have a problem - we are unsure how to address it - everyone has some ideas - let’s test them.

What’s central here is the approach to a community good, or a cultural good, instead of the idea that the people who will argue against you have nothing to contribute to the topic as a whole. Instead of trying to win with my idea about rebuilding, let me tell you why I think it is the best way to recover the building. Let me argue why this approach is best for us.

And conversations between people with differing ideas might happen outside of any formal legislative debate or contest submission. Why? Because the focus is on addressing the question well. If the focus is not on creating discourse worthy of the question, we all lose. What we get is a very narrow idea of what a few people think is best. Debate’s power, when freed from the norms and conveniences of the tournament, is to create solutions that no one person, nor group of people, could come up with on their own. The process of debating introduces what I call “debate’s desire” into the conversation, forcing people to yield, to concede, and to focus on different points during the process in order to better represent their claims.

In the Notre Dame example, there are no prizes except to solve the issue or address what was lost in a fitting way. This could easily be done with debate programs that focus on the school or community, or on what the students feel should be addressed. The reward for debating well should not be an artificial feeling of superiority in individualist thought, but the pleasure of community and the benefits of speaking well in response to a difficult question along side others who care. There is great pleasure and great learning in realizing that one spoke very well to the question, as did others, but the question was wrong. Or it was underdeveloped. Or it comes from a shallow ideology. Or any other result that would jam up a contest that is always oriented toward the question “Who won?” This topic would be rejected because there’s no easy way to determine the winning idea. The best ideas will come out of debating it, which will be the ones chosen. But the debate will be structured in a way not to exclude others from the inventional process, but to highlight the communal effort. Oddly, most debate topics are topics that require a multiplicity of voices, and attention on something other than the speaker, but these elements are trimmed away for the convenience of the tournament.

Imagine a competition that didn’t focus on creating silence but creating conversation. Creating the sharing of ideas not to get one over on someone, but to rise to the quality of the question. The only silence here would be that of the teacher’s surprise to find that their students are in conversation with students from other schools about controversies that vex most adults. Debate teaches confidence and questioning like nothing else. These things should inspire those who practice it to want to create and share, and to see thought and intellectual work as rife with uncertainty and full of community.

The joke of academia is that there is no such thing as a monograph. It’s full of voices and conversations of others. It exists because others speak, not because someone shut them up with a killer argument. Tournament debate has it so backwards. And the most dangerous part of this is how those who were shaped by its ideology use it as a stand in for all competition, ensuring nothing can rise to threaten the tournament, which also shapes their idea of good argumentation across society.

Exploring competitive debate should not involve an automatic integration of a “break” and a quarterfinal bracket. It should consider the role of competition in society and why we have debates in the first place. The quality of reason is always contextual and to think that reasoning could be taught in a vacuum through a series of weekend competitions is a very impoverished view indeed. Even worse, it creates a lot of very confident, very well-spoken people who automatically assume that arguments phrased in unfamiliar ways - that don’t follow “rules” - are evidence of poor minds not worth engaging. What we are left with is a parody of philosophy indeed: The speaker of truth addressing an empty room, seeing the absence of listeners as the best evidence that they are not only smart, but right.

Competitive debate is harder than tournament debate as the evaluation is much less clear. It’s contingent. There’s no checklist of right moves. There’s no consistency from debate to debate. There’s very little connecting the wins at one competition to the next. This frustrates most of those involved in tournament debate today, so they continue to create rules and policies to make debate even thinner, even more shallow. Uniform depth is what attracts these people to a massive body of inquiry. The lack of curiosity is frightening. The tournament is comfortable and provides that certainty that your argument is good. Historically we can compare the tournament debaters with the Peripatetics (as I have done with Prof. Eckstein) who crafted the 5 part canon of rhetoric as a pedagogical device. As philosophers, it’s good to have a checklist. And their students did well, going on to live very successful lives in a society whose laws and institutions were crafted and governed by the students of Isocrates, who taught no such certainty only questioning by the stasis, in contexts that were as dynamic as the day required. Who won?

Jealous Much?



After reading this piece on “erisology” in The Atlantic my thoughts instantly went to one of my favorite pieces of writing when I think about the impossibility of civil political argument. “Homer’s Contest” by Friedrich Nietzche.

In this piece, Nietzsche spells out the relationship the ancient Greeks had with competition and how a competitive edge kept their society going. Competition lifted everyone up through a conception of “jealousy” - I want to outperform my neighbors, in public, in various arts and athletic abilities. This sort of competition kept society organized and stable because one wants to excel, to work to be the best at something, and to prove it through performance in front of others.

Nietzsche calls this practice “eris” after the ancient Greek goddess of jealousy and envy. But he says our conception of jealousy is vastly different than that of the ancient Greeks.

This isn’t a jealous about things or about limited resources. That’s the bad eris. The bad eris considers people a problem, and that they should be eliminated so you can have what is rightfully yours.

This dark eris is responsible for collapse of civilization as people no longer work toward a collective end nor do they see the point in investing in public services or things. Everything is a threat, because everyone wants your stuff.

The good eris is responsible for community because you need a group of evaluators, judges, and critics to say who did the better job. Instead of worrying about what public places might take from you, you worry about what you can perform or share there. Instead of worrying about someone taking your stuff, you worry about someone outperforming you.

I think the concept of Erisology is perhaps too scientific to be useful in its current form, but if we start to think more about eris and the role of envy and competition in political controversy we’ll be on a better track. It starts with some simple givens: In order to be right about a political view, you need an audience. Being right by yourself is just getting closer to your own opinion, isn’t it? There has to be some verification, otherwise people wouldn’t post their thoughts online.

The funniest thing about the essay is how angry so many rhetoric scholars got about it. Imagine, people we’ve never heard of talking about OUR field and not mentioning US! Yes, there’s plenty of bad Eris floating around the university. This should surprise no one. Where’s the good Eris, where’s the professional or academic rhetorician desire to compete, to show that we get it better than the Erisologists? That we have better, more useful perspectives? Where’s the desire to add to their performance something they are missing? All I see on Twitter are professors making fun of someone who is asking pretty good questions. Not a great moment for the field, but a common one whenever anyone dares to mention things we consider in our territory.

Since the contemporary field of rhetoric is much more interested in talking about oratory and persuasion than teaching people how to do it, it makes sense that other people would rush in to fill the gap. More attention is obviously needed on the question of how to teach people how to argue, persuade, discuss, and advocate, and if the professional rhetoricians in rhetoric departments aren’t going to do it, other people will fill that space because it’s important.

Good envy or bad envy. Envy-ologists might focus on what makes someone want to share their view. It’s odd isn’t it? If you are right about something, and if all the evidence supports your view, why do you get so upset with other people when they don’t agree? Let’s see who has the best answer to that.

I like to make videos

This is a video I made for my online public speaking class addressing some of the things that after two formal presentations they still need to work on.

The biggest problem in teaching speech and debating is the problem of performing to teacher expectations which expect students to exceed teacher expectations. This is the problem identified by Buddhists as “Pointing at the Moon.” There are some good koans about this problem. I talk about it in this video a bit. Much more to say about it in an upcoming post.

What I like about this video is the way it was shot, which is something we don’t teach in public speaking even though the types of public speaking our students will be doing will be highly web mediated. I want to point this out in my instruction, which is happening all online. This seems like a good way to do it.

Teaching online means that we need to study video techniques, techniques of lighting and storyboarding, but also the process of post-production: sound editing, color grading, and so on. It’s a terrifying new world for the professor who loves the chalk and talk.


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I have been using Last FM for over 10 years now - a couple of students of mine from 2007 clued me into it and I haven’t really left. There was one year where I didn’t record any listening stats of my music, mostly because it was too difficult to do it (I was using a PSP as my MP3 player most of the time). Now with streaming music it’s super easy to just let it keep track of what you’re hearing and generate some great data about your music habits. Here’s last week’s profile of my listening.