The Literary Society

Recent events at my university have tanked my faith in the institution. It’s at a very, very low point. It's not just my institution; it's all universities. It seems that at every university, decisions are being made about fantasy students who are in fantasy positions. It’s like fantasy football without any actual football to ground it. I think the entire schema is silly at best, harmful at worst.

Student voices and perspectives are crushed on the regular. It’s almost trained as an impossibility for faculty to be able to listen to students when they offer criticism, observation, or thoughts about our incapacities in the classroom. When students offer arguments we immediately turn to discount them because, well, they come from students.

It’s strangely ironic: We have worked hard as faculty to create a discourse where the students are so idiotic they are beyond help. At the same time, our primary mission is to help make them better via teaching, courses, degree plans, etc. And we also assume that they are capable of deciding exactly what they want to do for the next thirty years on day one of university. I wonder if you could engineer a system better poised to catastrophically fail.

As I write this over 37% of the United States government’s assets are student loans. It’s only going to go up. And people will be paying on them in jobs they dislike, hate, or have no feeling about. They will believe university is the sham that got them in this position. And they will communicate that to others. There will be no warning for us in the university; we will just start to experience abandonment. And it will happen very fast. We will be scrambling to figure out what’s happening as the reality of closure faces the university. Not sure which ones will survive, but it won’t be many.

In preparation for this, the university should relax its attitude and control on students. It should provide more actual control to students over what and how they learn. The university should become a place for slow reflection, broad reading, and writing with and for one’s peers to hone a sense of self. Or to ask the question, “What do I want to be?” Strict credit requirements packed into endless semesters to force the question “What do you want to do?” – that’s not going to save the university.

Time for students to reflect, think, and decide what sort of person they would like to be is in opposition to the rest of the world. Nobody wants to be anything.  They just work and accept their work as essential. Time for students to read casually, to explore the library, to sit and think about what sort of person they would like to be and what they should explore in order to become that person allows space and agency to raise questions about what one wants to do with one’s short time here. These were some of the best moments of university for me, and they were permitted simply because there was time built into the week for me to think. Or should I say: I built it in by skipping endless classes and taking very few credits every term.

I feel like that has been eliminated by a lot of bad decisions, in teaching, in administration, and in how we conceptualize of the nature of students and our ethical role as professors in the university. It makes me want to assign a lot less work and ponder a lot more alongside the students.

To that end, debate programs should take a page from the past and inject a lot more of the literary society flavor into their operation. The precursor to the weekend-warrior model of the debate team was the literary society. I named my club the debate society as a gesture back to the days when a 2 day competition wasn’t the defining factor of a debate program. Students read, discussed, conversed, debated, and did many other things together. Why? Because they were eager and excited to practice their intellectual capacity by writing and speaking their minds.

The literary society was eclipsed at the university by the rise of the fraternity system and the arrival of intercollegiate competition as the touchstone of university PR. Before that, intramural competition was student-centered and for student value, not a way to advertise the value of the university to the broader community. It’s return might signal a turn toward the actual interests of students, helping them control a bit of their day and life in selecting what to read and discuss with one another, and practice advocating their ideas before thoughtful others.

The literary society is missing the central rhetorical ingredient of audience. Competitive debating misses this too because they structure it out, replacing it with those who are meant to pretend to be a thoughtful audience. Perhaps there’s little value in a real audience; the other members of the literary society are those who the debater should be working to persuade. But this is more literary than debate, and much more philosophical than rhetorical. I do think a debate program should commit to rhetoric, which means commit to adaptation. Competitive debate and philosophical speculation do neither. They might accidentally accomplish this, but they are very interested in the collapse between the ontic and the epistemic (these courses are often taught together as well!).

I feel like the debate program must add the best of the 19th century to its activity list in order to help produce space to imagine preserving a university of some sort after the imminent financial collapse. Corporations are already acting as if the university has died, providing huge training departments and internal curricula for their employees. What the university must offer is not more job training and not more “do” questions, but more space for students to imagine what their lives could be like, what the “be” ahead of them could and should feel like. When they wake up, who do they want to wake up as? Perhaps the university can fuel this question to keep it going in their lives for the next 20 years.