What Am I If I Step Away?

The first full, free weekend in a while is bound to come with some snags. I let the day pretty much run away with me, my starship, a few quests, and a whole lot of farming in No Man’s Sky. Time just blows by me without any measure when I’m playing that. But I did manage to pull myself out of my video game haze and tackle some pleasure reading in the afternoon/evening. Now I’m about ready to hit the sack, even though it’s not that late.

The thing on my mind right now is preparation for an invited speech on debating that I’m giving this week to Twitch in California. It happens to coincide with the realization that I’ve been directing debate for 10 years here at St. John’s, and now might be the perfect time to step away from it. So the biggest question facing me is: How do you articulate yourself as a debate teacher, or debate scholar, without that obvious debate connection?

I still feel that debating is valuable to the students and I’m also very happy with what the program has done for them. What I’m not happy about is ten years of missing weekends (still always a trick how to manage one when I get them) missing reading, missing working out writing, missing recharging for the classroom on Monday, missing quite a bit of vital time to get my head and heart back where they need to be to teach. I’m still endlessly fascinated by the teaching and learning of debating as a subset of rhetoric. The importance of oral communication and oral questioning, argumentation, and advocacy imbedded within every class in the university seems hard to overstate. But this sort of working in debate is so far removed from what debate is now, that it doesn’t feel right to call it debating. Debating is much more like sportsball than education, highlighted best by the incredibly passionate way those in the international debating community indicate that they are happily not interested in learning or teaching anything at all. Education is a detriment to what they would like to do, which, at least to me, remains pretty unclear.

The point though is not to bash on intercollegiate debating, but to point out how my recent thinking has just dovetailed into this moment where I’m about to speak about debate to people who, I assume, have no idea what it is or can be. Perhaps a few in the audience have had a brush with it. Regardless, it’s a chance to take an approach to it as something other than a game, but a life approach. Or an epistemology. Or a practice like jogging. Or various other things I’m tossing around in my head. I hope to finish writing it tomorrow so I can see if it makes as much sense to my ear as my eye. The end result will be much more important to me than to the audience. I’m trying on a new understanding or relationship with debate as I start a transition away from it in a formal capacity, but only I know that. Some readers might balk at this and indicate this transition has been going on for quite a while. To them I say they might be right – they have the power and perception of distance that I do not have. I have to live inside this mind and there’s not a good way to get a clear lay of the land. I have been pulling away for a while, but I have thought of that pull as the force of innovation. I’ve thought of my ideas as critiques meant for change or alteration, not the articulation of a whole new approach. But it’s Saturday night and here we are, listening to Spotify, wondering about disciplinary identity, something that is really quite irrelevant unless you are ordering business cards through the university.

Tomorrow also involves a lot of listening: I had my students record their debate speeches from a contest that was held a week or two ago (I forget). I hope that hearing some recordings will help me teach them how to improve the arguments. I’m certain the arguments are good in a laboratory sense. The improvement is that of the sophist, the rhetor, the cook. You can cook a potato perfectly; this does not mean anyone wants to eat it. It has to be seasoned the right way, and that’s the study of rhetoric. Rhetoric too often is about doing it right and not about doing it tasty. We’ll see if I’m right.

All of this is in preparation for a competition in Atlanta that, as time goes on, is revealing itself to be another sportsball-style event. The history of American debate is a history of lateral hand-offs that are meant to say because the jersey is different, the game is different. I think it’s exceptionally hard to change an old system into something new, even if the critiques of the old system are good. I think it’s next to impossible if you toss in ideology and identity as the things at stake in the change. People want debate to look and feel a certain way because ideology has conveyed that value to them for a long time. When you set something up new, the nerves are going to pull the thing back into the orbit of the ideology. Gravitation, like ideology, is everywhere – it’s the weakest force in the universe until you realize that it’s always got a hold on you, always pulling you somewhere toward a larger mass. Pretty sure we’ll go to this competition, but not sure it’s going to be anything revolutionary, educational, or whatnot. I do think the students will benefit from it in some way, so I’ll trust that. I think I can perhaps convert it into something valuable if it tanks. There’s always Waffle House for the post-debate debrief.

In the past 10 years I have gone from celebrating debate across the world to now starting to celebrate debate across the curriculum. It’s taken the development of an international program that faced opposition at every step to get me to see the value of debate in this different way. But as of this moment I’m still a bit trepidatious about what I am. Can I just keep saying I’m a debate teacher? That title always struck me as nice, even though it references the cringe-worthy title “debate coach.” Debate director is a bit too snooty and also unironically hilarious. How about sophist? That’s a good one too. But nobody gets it right away. It’s just an invitation for you to explain. And by the time they understand what you are, you’ve already done it to them. Rhetorician is a good title too. But I don’t want to be associated with the faux political scientists and the slew of endless criticism. I want to teach production, not direct an athletic team, nor hold a course in French theory without one text in French. What do you call this person?

I hope I figure it out by Thursday for my sake. My audience will not be interested. They will want to improve their understanding of misunderstanding; their ability to argue and express their thoughts. And I’ll help them. I will do my best, whatever I am.