Policy Debate: Exclusive or Exclusionary?

“How do you get students interested in policy debate?”

    I run into an alum of my debate program on the street outside the campus, around 11 o’clock at night. The timing couldn't be worse (or perfect) --  I've just finished teaching my three hour class on debate where the oldest and most technical American debating practice was the subject of conversation. Actually, it was more the subject of practice - as many reading this know I have been trying to teach policy debate to university students who have no exposure to debate at all. It is slow, but promising. But this question, the question of motivation is one that dredges up the large and uncomfortable-to-articulate problems with American policy debate today. How could I argue to this student-turned-teacher to abandon it for other formats, when I am holding onto the faith that there is still much to be gained by the teaching and practice of American policy debate?

My sense of policy debate begins and ends with a slate of unanswered questions: What does policy debate do for contemporary students? What can it do? What is the thing that it unlocks in their mind, their world, their perception? Is it too small to claim that policy debate is a way to practice and gain familiarity with the core curriculum? For their entire curriculum? Is it too big to argue that policy debate provides the organizing slate for all of their intellectual curricular experiences? Is it architectonic? Is it Pinterest? If so, does this mean that first-year students are at a disadvantage in taking debate? These questions, I hoped, would be answered with a semester-long experiment of teaching it as debate in an elective course. What it has done is made these questions even sharper in my mind. 

I think I have to learn to let go of what I think policy debate was if I hope to teach it well. I do believe policy debate has value, but I also believe that the people most capable of articulating and advancing its value have either left policy debate for whatever reason, or they feel that the project of articulation and communication is insurmountable, impossible to accomplish, so they don’t do it, as time and energy is in short supply for those in the roles where their voice would be heard outside of the tournament-oriented community. Working hard to develop student performance trades off directly with time spent writing or justifying practices to administrators, or to the larger public. Yet still, something is being lost as policy debate recedes from any connection to scholarship or to a recognizable model of debating. Seen as a rhetorical problem, the question of how to increase interest when these more easy fixes are no longer available is a serious one, and must be handled carefully.

The problem with contemporary policy debate is often that it is not framed, or described very well. It is not in a lack, or a gap, or a failure of policy debate to be policy debate. The problem with comprehending policy debate is that it is one of the construction of a powerful and particular identity in the debater. Contemporary policy debate presents itself simultaneously as exclusive and desirable, yet exclusionary and limiting. The focus is on the igniting of the individual as an agent, not the traditional defenses (teaching about policy problems, teaching research skills, public speaking, etc.). Reliance on those defenses paints contemporary policy debate in the tone of failure. It hasn’t failed, it just doesn't recognize those rubrics as valuable measures (i.e. you wouldn't test a writing class using an objective test).

If we re-organize a defense of policy debate around these two terms, exlusive and exclusionary, we might just have a new start. Policy debate is exclusive, as in limited, unique, and high-quality. It is exclusionary in that not everyone should do it, not everyone can do it, it’s not for just anyone. This alone might be a good PR campaign as it focuses on a contraction, it’s limited, but hurry! It’s not for you! Buy it!

But it is not that simple. It is an exclusive Format precisely because it relies on specialized language in order to make arguments. This provides a pathway to excellence through imagining that one could learn the language, crack the code, and gain membership to the highest ranks. The exclusive nature of policy debate also appears in the canons of delivery and style - the word choices and presentation of those arguments is both appalling and attractive, but above all it appears that hard work is required to reach the level of accessibility. This is very different from something natural or organic - it’s something that triggers American cultural associations to hard work, focus, dedication, and practice.  

It is exclusionary because most of the most interesting argumentation happening in contemporary college policy debating is based on a critique of the entire process of argument evidence and proof and how that itself has been exclusionary. So does a double exclusion is what must be taught to get people to appreciate the best of contemporary collegiate policy debate.  To access contemporary collegiate policy debate in any understandable way is to see it as the exclusive access to an exclusionary practice. The most common departure point from here is to critique that practice, but that critique is also exclusive - only a few teams can get away with it. It is also exclusionary: No voice from within the traditional practice can access an argument from that realm that would satisfy the critique. To sum up our starting point in one sentence: “Exclusive critique of an exclusionary form is exclusive.” This rarity is a compelling reason to vote for it. And its replication across debates only continues to convey the value - replication of the exclusive rarity only bolsters that rarity. This sentence is the departure point for policy debate these days. Not the stock issues, not the structure of a disadvantage, but the exclusion of the exclusive. The proper response, of course is to exclude that exclusion: “That critique is exclusionary.” Returning to the scene of the exclusion to salvage what might be left is more evidence -- the walls must be repaired!

New students to policy debate then are at a huge disadvantage. I used to think that they were having to “buy in” to debate at enormous cost. It was true - policy debate is full of technical rules and demands that, if ignored, lead to continuous and unintelligible losses. Students spend a lot of time mastering one set of technical elements only to lose because another set was ignored. And vice versa, for many rounds. Now all of that seems incredibly distant to the new forms of policy debate that are regularly encountered, where the performance of the exclusive critique of the exclusion is the starting point.

The exclusion rhetoric is not some nefarious move on the part of policy debate practitioners, nor is it some terrible tragedy. Policy debate does not want to exclude anyone. In fact policy debate wants an infusion of new programs. New programs legitimize the debate portion of the “debates” they have. This is the portion connected to the public perception of a debate.  One does need some minimum amount of audience even if one is engaged in the weirdest ephemeral philosophical conversations, which nobody would deny have value when they appear across the pages of professional academic journals.  But contemporary policy debate, even though it presents itself as exclusive and exclusionary, imagines itself as being in the trenches with the most contemporary relevant and timely social movements of our day. It does not want to be compared to academia at all. Academia is exclusionary; standing with a movement is exclusive. The only way to engage is to transmute exclusion into exclusivity.  How they get that connection, or that feeling of identification/division, is by transmutation of the complexities of exclusive theorizing into solidarity, a wonderful discursive alchemy that is probably the most attractive feature of policy debate to college students who both feel the pull of siding with the less fortunate and diving deep into social theory that is perplexing yet liberating. I find it to be, when done well, very moving. Again, we have another moment of perfect publicity for policy debate. So where’s the door? How do we get in?

What are the effective starting teaching resources? For most college students, debate begins with the active social imaginary. That is, there is a public figure or public sphere present, willing, able, ready and permitted to evaluate your arguments. But this isn’t the starting point for debate pedagogy which is tournament-focused. The technical requirements of policy debate seem necessary in order to make an intelligible argument to a judge about their exclusivity. One cannot just make arguments; one has to make them exclusive (almost a matter of decorum) and also one has to indict some exclusion. In order to identify with the movement one must move away from the technical requirements of debate. One has to do it willfully and with full awareness as well. It’s not enough to just speak to the judge. The move away from the technical is a move to solidify the grounding of the technical. What is placed first is the ideology of the exclusion, something that is much more easy to evaluate in a competition than the construction of someone’s civic imaginary and their capacity to respond to that construction. In that case, the responses are difficult to perform as objective since there is no middle term grounding the discussion (such as the traditional, technical rules of policy debate do). Without that grounding, the competition seems unfair, and it unravels. But competition could happen under the conditions of placing some other capacity as the primary ideology of debating. This task though requires a willing and uncomfortable re-write of the twin terms of modern policy debate, and a forced reconsideration of a process of judgement that has evolved slowly and naturally. But starting students with the stock issues or the structure of a disadvantage might not be the best way in. Perhaps policy debate is finding the only possibility left to advance - abandonment of its core identity by keeping it central to the genesis of new ideas and approaches. One could argue that the breadth of critical and philosophical reading that contemporary policy debaters engage in (or possibly engage in we hope) is only possible due to the gravitational pull exerted by the exclusive and exclusionary poles. By keeping this rubric at the center, they make possible many orbits.

So I guess this whole post is really just about facing my own hubris: Someone who thought they could easily teach policy debate after being away from it for so long. I should have focused more on how students will present and respond to how they imagine and project civic capacity. But there could be a solution to get students interested in policy debate.  It all begins I think with a conversation that starts with some simple questions: Is there any connection between Debate courses and argumentation courses and the act of competitive American policy debate? Should there be this connection? Is this connection something in line with the mission and the purpose of a modern American University? Starting here, with the same terms that policy debate centers itself around - exclusive and exclusion - might be a new approach to open the policy debate experience to the next generation of true novices.