E3 presents the literature of catastrophic apocalypse

E3 is a conference where all the new games for the next year are announced and displayed. Everything looks pretty great from my perspective as a gamer. From my perspective as a rhetorician, something else was presented: a budding literature of human extinction.

The new games at E3 all seem to address one begged question which is: How will we address the coming inevitable collapse of society, the extinction-level event, or apocalypse? I believe the games displayed this year are attempts to address a coming catastrophic collapse of global order. At a visceral level, we recognize that we do not have a rhetoric, a discourse, or a literature to help us make sense of what that collapse will be like for the survivors. In short, we can’t imagine what gaming, literature, entertainment, or life will be like after the  global market system fails for the last time. We are not sure what life will be like after democratic systems both state and interstate collapse. We need a new literature, and E3 presented it to us in what I’m calling “afterlit” – an open ended literary form that is participatory and is about “trying on” attitudes and motives that we might use or need in a post-governable world that has suffered a catastrophic, extinction-level event.

I believe video games are a literature in all the ways that literature matters. They show us potential attitudes and motives of various characters allowing us to react to those situations. They also set up something we could call the “haunting familiar” where the scene is such that no reader or participant in the narrative would recognize the game world, however that world is haunted by the ghosts of what was – more than ruins of a burned out world, like we get in the Fallout games, we get ruins of a burned out human sensibility – there are the structures and the ethics and economics that they used to reify, that they still somehow compel. The player is something like a ghost, haunting the world with attitudes and motives that are long dead, and the game world “haunts back” – absent the normal reified supports for particular systems of being and doing and thinking, the player is under a lot more pressure to justify their actions in this world. This is similar to Philip K. Dick's theory of what makes good science-fiction. It's not "cowboys in space," it's the guy going to work every day, but one thing is vastly different, and that drives the story.

We identify ourselves via our place in a very complex and very fragile interconnection of treaties, markets, currencies, and governmental arrangement such as party identity. When those go away – as we are more often imagining they will in a quick and painful jolt – what is left? Humanity, defining itself through Fiat money and work roles will have no discourse of identity left. How will people “size one another up?” How will we discover/recover/uncover our modes of interaction? How will life be arranged and lived? There are few literary resources available by people for people who are not trying to be consubstantial to a reified, institutional ideology that, post collapse, will only be fragments of a building and whispered memories.

This literature of human extinction presented to us at E3 communicated a universal pressing need to develop texts that help us navigate the impending implosion of the world, whether that is via weapons or financial markets subsuming governmental structures. The stage is set up by these games but this literature cannot be presented as a finished product. The games are open for the joint creation of these narratives. Think of these games as flight simulators for the apocalypse. What will you do? How will you know what could be done? How will survivors make sense of the silent ruins and each other?

Todd Howard from Bethesda put it best in discussing parts of the game Fallout 76: “We put a bunch of nuclear missile sites on the map, scattered the codes, and let you do what you want with them.” This after driving home the point that in the game, “everyone you meet is a real person.” As an online game, we can engage in social authorship, co-authorship of a literature meant to convey motives and attitudes and responses to situations that we are imagining while they are moving toward happening. All things are possible, except the normal tropes of meeting another person. Now we meet over nuclear silos and fight about destruction, becasue of destruction. 

Watch Todd Howard's entire Fall Out presentation from the Bethesda E3 2018 press conference.

Many games point us toward a world of a few individuals fighting back mobs of mindless creatures, while others suggest that the best use of our burned-out buildings and rusted signs of ideology are as cover for shootouts that are a cross between Hollywood-style gang warfare and the wild west. Groups of friends are meant to assist one another in these incredible military-style assaults. A clip of gameplay from The Division 2 showed how intertextual this new literature is. A group of friends playing online are moving through the ruins of Washington D.C., all of them carrying an array of weapons, saying “what do you guys want to do?” and “we need to level you” – “yea sorry I’ve been busy at work” – the conversation is the same at DuPont circle both before and after apocalypse. A teammate goes down from enemy fire: “Ooh, sorry guys!” “I’m coming to revive you” – connecting the dialogue of the anarchic world of the near future something like the dialogue at an ultimate frisbee event. The crossovers are eerie if not also evidence of a need for a discourse that can address a burned out world. The Division 2 gameplay is an attempt to see if we can wear what we are wearing now to the new party. It raises more questions than it tries to answer.

Watch the full reveal of The Division 2 with gameplay at the Microsoft Xbox E3 2018 press conference.

The Last of Us 2 is the most interesting, maybe even promsing, of what afterlit can be – placing our current uncertainties on a continuum with future uncertainties. This is explored well in the trailer that parallels female homosexual desire with an escape from a group of violent thugs. The Last of Us 2 gameplay/trailer blends the fear and awkwardness of teenage romance with the fear and awkwardness of a teen girl taking on a group of militant thugs in the post-apocalyptic wilderness. After watching them brutally murder someone in the name of “justice” she is detected and chased through the typical, double-haunted environment of the afterlit game world. The violence is personal and immediate in a way that is uncomfortable. People are hurt; they suffer – nobody goes down in the quick video game style we expect. At the end, she comes face to face with her opponent who is unable to fight back and delivers a lengthy killing blow. We are sent back to the teenage dance and are told that fear is a matter of perspective. It’s a really well done trailer not just for the game, but for the space we now imagine we occupy, a space just before collapse where we sense its imminence yet are going to be just as surprised as this young person who will have to transfer her concern from how to deal with romance to how to strategize against a five person group out to murder her.

Finally there are several games that move well past the normal venue of afterlit to what comes next. These games feature kingdoms run by humanoid animals, animal-human hybrids, or suggest a return to a Byzantine age of courtly intrigue where the most advanced weapons are swords. These are very related to the large category of historical-themed games where we work out how to be and act in previous catastrophic moments – such as the Mongol invasion of Japan, World War 1 and 2, and other tectonic conflicts – as training for our coming collapse. These don’t seem as connected to the more immediate games dealing with the recognizable collapse, but address the question as to what ideology and order look like after the last vestiges of our symbolic order have dissolved. We work through our coming dissolution by going back to past dissolutions to work out what works and doesn't in that time and place. We try to learn from opening up history, playing through it, and seeing what our attitudes should and could have been, if that tense makes sense.

The most bizarre and confusing game demo was for the new Hideo Kojima game - a mystical director and creator of games known for being able, in Burkean terms, to "see around the corner" - called Death Stranding. This gameplay and trailer were nearly unrecognizable to me as either game, TV show, or film. It could not be placed what was happening, other than someone was trying to get somewhere and had enemies to deal with. But the dialogue, the interactions, and motives of the characters remain somewhat intelligible. This game, as afterlit, serves as a placeholder for what will become tropistic in ten years as games continue to work toward providing imagined discursive test spaces for coming collapse. Death Stranding is as creepy as it is confusing, and seems interesting and desirable to play, yet the situation, and all intelligible rhetorics of what could be happening are fully detached from our current world. It's tough, maybe impossible to translate, but this might be the point. We need a Rosetta Stone for apocalypse.  Kojima rhetorically sets off our anxiety by offering us a world where it's post-apocalyptic and ordered, yet we cannot make sense of the order. They are not anarchic, nor are they connected to our comfortable ideological arrangements. It reads as new and foreign and familiar all at once. We want to translate it, but can't. 

 

E3 was great this year, particularly because of the undetected recognition that our desire for more shooter and zombie multiplayer games is our desire to identify and practice a discourse of pending apocalypse. The instability of democratic orders, the tremors in the global caplitalist system, and rising frustration and anger among populations have indicated to us, however collectively, that we need a new way of talking about our place in a world that is coming to an end. We need an afterlit, and the video game industry is offering the first glimpses of how it will be made.

Schlossbergese

Everyone is, deep at their core, what they express. Actions speak louder than words. These ideas are very old, and very real, in the way we size up the value of others. Institutions and people are evaluated, positioned, and judged based on expression. What we say, what we communicate, is seen as a direct line to identity. Imagine speech as the hole one looks through to see a diorama within what appeared to be just a simple box.

This idea is very old but who knows how old it is. Aristotle suggested in writing that the testimony of a tortured slave was admissible with the same credibility as a public oath in his Rhetoric. The suggestion being that a body under duress cannot edit and halt the truth of the soul that comes pouring out. There are some in the American CIA who still hold this view. Rene Descartes subverted speech with thought as the location of being, but did not provide a verification mechanism other than speech. To think is to be, but what if our speech indicates that we do not think, or we think incorrectly, or worse yet – that we are wrong about something? What then?

Daily we are all humbly reminded that when we speak, we are making mistakes. When we open our mouths, out come noises that sometimes resemble our ideas, sometimes they don’t. And often we find ourselves wishing we were at a loss for words. The only solution we have for this in our “thought above speech,” “ontology is determined by expression” world is to rearticulate or provide another articulation. Since we have subverted speech’s role in our lives, as the constitution of ourselves and others, we do not have adequate tools to repair situations when speech comes out with all its living force.

The Aaron Schlossberg controversy is a recent demonstration of the poverty of our ability to render accounting for the power of speech. Schlossberg’s rage at the number of Spanish speaking employees of a Manhattan deli was captured on video where he accuses them of living off of his tax dollars, that they are undocumented workers, and that he will call Immigration to have them removed from his country.

His expression was read by everyone as his identity. This is who he is. There can be no mistake; his speech is preserved forever on video.

As news spread and people began to respond – they hosted mariachi bands outside of his office, taco trucks, and someone has now even mailed white powder to his office – we can see that the Cartesian mode of identity is alive and well, thought not withstanding. Schlossberg doesn’t think, ergo he should not exist.

Schlossberg, after his lease was cancelled at his office building (since he does not exist) posted an apology on Twitter.

schlossberg apology.JPG

 

The apology – not to be confused with the rhetorical category of apologia – is simply that, not a defense of what he did. Or is it? The only discourse available to him in the world of unconvertable ideological souls is to deny, deny, deny. He does it three times: He denies being the person in the video in a very direct and literal sense: “is not the person I am.” Secondly he directly communicates his nature: “I am not racist.” Finally he does it a third time, praising the diversity immigrants bring as one of the reasons he moved to New York. Maybe it is apologia? He does take a careful, if hidden position behind civility: “While people should be able to express themselves freely, they should do so calmly and respectfully.” So maybe he believes he pays for those sandwich shop workers to be here? He believes that they should not speak Spanish at work? It’s unclear. All we know is that he has said that he is not racist. We must compare performances to determine the real soul. And under duress, the real soul is always revealed.

We lack the tools to speak about speech as going beyond ourselves. Since speech is merely a tool of expression of truth, we can follow the footprints to the truth of the soul and determine if the soul is good or corrupt. If we see someone emotionally out of control, we believe, for some reason that this is when the real person comes out.

We do not consider the fact that we are all subjects of the power of speech. We have no language for the role speech plays in interpretation and knowledge. All Schlossberg can say is that he is not racist. Yet his speech was clearly xenophobic and racist. If Schlossberg is right, who was speaking? Was it anger? Frustration? Something else? Was speech speaking Aaron Schlossberg? Did he become a conduit for a tectonic, ancient discourse about race, identity, status, nation-state violence, etc.? These are not excuses for him, but inroads for us to try to understand how our beliefs and how ideology is spoken through us by powers well beyond us that, with every utterance, constitute us.

Kenneth Burke discusses the difference between the comic and tragic frames as the difference between death and understanding. The comic frame allows us to separate soul from speech so we can identify with the subject speaking as mistaken. This assumption of universal humility is missing from our national discourse. Imagine if Schlossberg said, “I was simply mistaken” – This defense is impossible. Instead he says the video captured a stranger, someone who is not him. It’s tragic. He is the opposite of this doppleganger who hurt people. He is not the person who hurt, but he apologizes for it. It’s tragic frame all over, and he has to die. If not professionally or attitudinally, perhaps biologically, as the white powder sent to his office attests. The comic frame offers a chance for self-inventory of our own relationship to ideology, which is much more difficult than simply scapegoating the evildoer. Another more difficult comic framing is to take responsibility for a city and a world that allows for someone to speak this way, or to be spoken by such an ideology. The power of speech to rend people’s reality is always an utterance away.

The other path is the Buddhist sense of language – necessary yet fundamentally lacking. We have to speak, and speech fails. Sometimes though speech is necessary although terrible. Where does Schlossberg’s anger come from? We cannot accept, from the Buddhist perspective, that the sandwich makers made him angry. Anger comes from within, not from the outside. We blame the outside, but we are the ones who cook up anger. From this attitude we can generate a feeling of sympathy for such a sad and angry man. What sort of empty, horrible life does Schlossberg have that would allow him to speak, or for speech to use him, in this way? What lonliness and sadness makes him feel people making sandwiches are worthy of such derision? It is incomprehensible in its dark implications.

What Schlossberg did was horrible, no question. But the poverty we have in being able to talk about the role speech has in creating and constituting pain, suffering, horrors, hate, and a whole lot more we normally term “reality” is even more horrifying. If we see speech as only a way to glimpse the quality of a soul, we have no way to account for the operation of speech on our identities and beliefs in severe ways. Democracy cannot function if speech is merely a thumbprint of a being that cannot be altered, cannot be changed, cannot be reasoned with – all that’s left for us to do is elimination, symbolic or otherwise. We must believe that speech is not an indicator of one’s ontic state, but of one’s particular constitution in that moment – and address that person before us in a way that they can, and will, change. This is the root of persuasion, and Schlossberg’s horrible beliefs are not a part of his DNA. He was convinced of them somehow, and it is up to us to interrogate and figure out how belief can be altered. This expression hurt more than immigrants; the whole situation and response should give us pause in our assumption that we live in a democracy where people believe that others, and themselves, can or even need to be persuaded.   

I really like Goodreads and Should Post More Reviews

Upsetting Composition CommonplacesUpsetting Composition Commonplaces by Ian Barnard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Interesting book that takes some sacred terms in composition theory (audience, objectivity, voice, etc) and critiques them from the lens of whether or not teaching is in line with composition theory and pedagogical approaches to writing. After admitting several times in the course of the text a well accepted idea that pedagogy lags behind theory about 20 to 30 years, the author critiques contemporary teaching for being too dependent on objectivity, authorial intent, liberal construction of audiences, and thin conceptions of proof.

Although the critique is well made, I think it would be great to see more of the book written like Chapter 6 which really had me going. It might be my own biases in terms of what I'm interested in, but this chapter on audience was great. I think that what set it apart was specific ideas for very radical assignments and classroom activities. I would have liked to see more of that throughout the book.

I like the idea of upsetting these God-terms, either tumping them over or literally making people who think they are good teachers upset. But the critique really doesn't go as far as it needs to and also avoids some necessary complexity. For example, the chapter on objectivity is very good and very right about its criticism of fact-reliance in pedagogy, which honestly impacts the entire education system. But there's little discussion of the importance of facts for issues such as holocaust denial, conspiracy theory (moon landing and 9/11 sort of stuff) as well as other strange ideas that often appear in American student writing. Making the critique of fact addiction more fuzzy with an analysis of the false-flag conspiracy regarding Sandy Hook, for example, might have really opened up the conversation between text and reader about what is possible in the teaching of writing today (as well as what is needed).

In the end the book was enjoyable to read, it just didn't rock me the way I hoped it would. The critique is obvious and agreeable, the Audience chapter is amazing, and the rest of it seems, well, right - but not radically upsetting.

View all my reviews

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 Academia.edu. 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.

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). 

msdp.jpg

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.