Farewell Tournaments!

Up at 6, drinking the flavored coffee I love, reading an essay on Poetry.org, feeling happy. Feeling much happier than I did yesterday leaving the restaurant, hearing, “Thank you and come back and see us,” knowing as I did the overwhelming evidence this would be my last trip to Burlington, VT, a city that I’ve spent so much time in, and like so much.

I suppose I could still randomly go for various reasons but debate, the thing I associate with that city the most, is no longer the interesting, attractive, thought-provoking thing that it’s always been. It’s much more the site of dark ridiculousness, uncompensated labor, dread, and fake knowledge. It’s always been these things too, you are saying. And you are right. These things are what are most forwarded to me at the moment.

The Huber tournament wasn’t bad by any means; I am so pleased it was not the horror show I dreaded since Denver, full of racist and sexist discourse, predatory middle-aged judges, predatory college-aged debaters, all supported by the cult of fairness and so-called teachers and professors who feel that defending the rules of a competition are far more important than the ethics of teaching. This tournament was me holding my breath, waiting for the shoe to drop, then the other one, then the spiked cleat on my unsuspecting students. I’m glad my dread was wrong, so very glad, but why would I put my students in a position like this in the first place?

The answer is so sickeningly liberal I can barely type it: I am not certain that my own opinion should be policy, and even if I was, who am I to impose that will on other people? The judgement of the tournament is my own: A critique I openly share pretty much anywhere I can type something. People should know there were other forms of competition, many different ones, and the tournament was merely the administrative solution of a Western debate coach, who thought we could play debate like basketball. Not an intellectual decision, possibly a thoughtful and definitely a pragmatic one. So I thought we’d try it out. Expensive, but I suppose I’m not totally convinced of my own position. Or maybe I just entertain the idea I could be wrong.

What I realized is that I no longer have a place for the debate tournament myself. Since this terrible job I have requires me to “be” the debate team, with little to no assistance of any kind, this spells out that the debate tournament is not for my institution either. If I had full-time assistants, or administrative support of some kind, or more curricular help (read: teaching and running practices) I think things would be different. The climate of continuous, light-level resistance from staff on everything I do I think has just finally gotten to me.

So no, I didn’t have a good time over the weekend but it’s moot – nothing horrific happened and we got home safe. This can easily be the last debate tournament I attend, and sitting here, typing this as the sun comes up, that decision feels really great. But it haunts me how much I’ve changed, how different my attitude is from just a few years ago. Things would absolutely be different if I could have been hired somewhere else. But I’m pretty clearly un-hirable at this point. The politics seem to become: act like the middling professor you are. And that’s a good life – teaching and reading and writing. In this position I barely have time to be a second-rate debate director, second-rate teacher, second-rate writer. If I drop something, at least quality has a fighting chance.

The study of debating, the teaching of debating, the consideration and reconsideration of argument quality – these things cannot be properly served by a life of travelling to debate tournaments. They can be introduced by attending a debate tournament, but to lean on this institution for more than that is to prepare to fall over. My critique isn’t that they shouldn’t exist, it’s that people depend on them to do and be “argumentation supercenters” where everything will be practiced and played out in an intellectual way. But if there’s one thing that debate is good at in the tournament form it’s supporting and promoting anti-intellectual behavior: The belief that one only needs one’s heart and mind to know what’s right; that other sources of information get in the way or corrupt one’s thinking; that learning from books will always be a distant second to looking into the eyes of the suffering other and knowing what you need to do. Such sentiments are not straw people. On the contrary, such sentiments win debates in tournaments on the regular under the guise of critical thought.

Farewell tournaments! Huber 2017 was a great one to go out on. Now the question is, how long to stay in this job? And what to do next? The obvious choice is to concentrate on the classroom and the pedagogy of debating (as opposed to the practice of the tournament).