Answering Some FAQs

Q: Why so cranky/are you depressed/mentally ill?

The etymology of crank is a good one – the “crazy person” is related to the person who is angry, upset, sad, unsatisfied, or hysterical (women 99% of the writings say). I’ll take the crazy but not the mentally ill – it’s a very old and sad tactic to label your political opponents as nuts. But it’s expected from a group of people who regularly think that analogies to seat belt laws are the best thing to bring up when discussing the scope and scale of the appropriate use of state power.

Remember this is the same mind that brought you all the writing here that you like, that you quote to your friends, that you read in debates, so I would say it just comes with it. Consider it part of the machinery that regularly produces discourse that you like. If anything, I’m frustrated because of my current institutional position. There is such opportunity to do great things, yet they squarely place it on me to do it all for a very small amount of compensation. Instead of assistance I have reluctant sort-of agreement to kind of help, but this is done with the maximum amount of passive-aggressive assistance. I regularly have a graduate assistant, but this poor person is barely paid, and on top of that is a student in a master’s program, and probably should not be doing paperwork and making phone calls. Feels like a waste.

Frustration is one of the worst feelings since you can see the better, know how to engage and enact the better, but things just don’t come together. And probably never will.

Q: Why do you still come to debate tournaments if you hate them so much?

The last debate tournament I attended will hopefully, barring any sort of strange twist of fate, be the last one I attend. That was the Huber debates at UVM in early November 2017. They aren’t working for me and they fill me with dread. They don’t seem to do much for students except to make them think about rhetoric in some pretty poor ways. There’s an anti-intellectual bent to them, where knowledge about the rules of the game stands in for knowledge about the discourses surrounding the topics. One doesn’t need curiosity or research, one merely needs to open one’s mouth after 15 minutes of feverish scribbling.

But you probably don’t hate them, you probably love them. They are pretty great – fun and entertaining, full of smart folks that you would have never met otherwise, the feeling that there’s some hope, some community out there of thinkers that care about the issues you do, and all that. That’s great. But a university level event about compelled argumentative discourse should be a lot more than a “good time.” From the point of view of a professor they are not a good time. They feel like a real waste of an opportunity. There are some sharp people here who have come to get sharper. They should have something adequate to test their blade against. What they get is a very soft, very predictable target. And they think that’s going to test their skill.

There’s a great old story about a Zen master archer and a tournament archer who have a contest. The archery master can hit the bullseye, and the tournament archer can split the arrow of the archery master monk. The monk then invites the tournament master into the woods. He approaches a ravine and steps out onto a narrow, dead branch. One wrong move would mean his life. He draws, and fires and arrow, perfectly hitting the center of a knot in a tree across the ravine. The tournament archer cannot summon the courage to step out onto the dead branch. This is what the security of fairness in motions and all the slotting of judges and all the nonsense about a good debate gets you – someone who has a lot of skill in a very controlled environment. I’d rather spend more time thinking about the classroom and the university – a very controlled environment within a less-controlled community – and how debate can be used and studied there. So don’t worry – you most likely won’t see me again, unless you Skype me.

Q: Why don’t you work to fix tournaments?

Probably the most legitimate question I get so oddly, it’s going to have the shortest answer. It’s not a dodge, really. If you want more depth I’ll provide it.

The reason is that I can’t. I have very few resources here, and I cannot host a tournament. Getting one classroom reserved for one event is a nightmare by itself. The staff here is incompetent: I once gave them four months notice to see if they could host an Urban Debate League competition that was co-sponsored by the New York City Education Department. The idiot in charge of conference services finally called me one week before the proposed date to tell me he wasn’t sure if they had the right insurance paperwork to be on campus. I assured him they did, and then I told him that if I were in charge, I would fire him for just now reaching out to speak to me about this. What had he been doing for the past four months?  It’s this kind of incompetence and lack of support that makes fielding a debate program incredibly difficult from the get-go. But somehow I still manage to do it.

So since I can’t host a competition, I can’t offer innovative options. If I did offer innovative options, I don’t think people would attend. How would this help us break at worlds? The answer is it wouldn’t, but you might be able to step out over the ravine a bit more regularly. And if you don’t want to change, innovative tests of the concept help you generate better and more interesting reasons why you should stay the course. To keep doing something because it’s what you’ve always done is not a good argument, unless you are a debater.

Fixing debates is not necessarily in opposition to leaving the circuit of tournaments. Some of the best debates occurred within triangular leagues, contract debates, and other competitions. To fix debate you have to do the one thing nobody wants to do: Let in the public and give them a ballot. This changes everything, and sends a chill down most spines because debate teaches you that not only are you good at the technical rules of winning a debate tournament, you are a better thinker and reasoner than everyone else in the world. Probably not the best thing to accidentally teach a bunch of people if you are interested in preserving a healthy and critical democracy. 

Once the public comes in, people also lose social capital. Gone is the throng of fans wanting to know the four steps to provide a good extension, how to counterprop effectively, “killer POIs” (and other such nonsense). Now everyone becomes a potential expert, because everyone knows a way to reach other people. It becomes a larger community-oriented discussion about persuasion and people rather than about the talented sport-heroes of debating and being “right.”

Q: Why so negative? We are all having a good time.

Having a good time does not have to occur at the expense of a discipline, a way of thought, or propping up harmful ideologies. Having a good time often is based on comfort and familiarity, two things that prop up the worst of persuasion and argument in society. The appropriate subject for speaking truth in matters of urgency and importance is the white, male body. It’s uncomfortable for most people to imagine a body in power and authority, an arbiter of vital information, as anything else. It reads as a mistake if the overall ethos of the situation is “good time having.” This is just one example.

A good time can be an effect of rigorous and valuable university events, but the university shouldn’t be supporting and directly funding a “good time.” We should eliminate Greek life (Fraternities and Sororities) while we are at it.

Q: Why are you a debate coach if you hate debate?

I’ve always hated being called a debate coach, I like the title teacher the best. Professor is an ok title, but it comes with some baggage that I’d rather not take. The biggest problem is that it makes students think that they have to police their discourse around you, which usually makes for very boring conversations that are not insightful.

I’ve never been a debate coach; I’ve professionally identified as a sophist – a paid teacher of persuasion and speech – since I took my first teaching job at A&M Consolidated High School in College Station, Texas. Being a teacher is a cool thing. Being a professor is a powerful thing. Being a debate coach is a . . . what exactly?

Coaching assumes that you are helping others with their natural abilities and talents. The help you provide is to steer these abilities and talents to pragmatic use within a closed system: Often a game or contest of some kind. You don’t really teach anything except the limits of the contest and how to take advantage of those limits given the skill-set that the competitor comes to you with.

This does not sound good at all to me. This goes against the important understanding of rhetoric and argumentation as “things people do” in the world in order to move minds around. It’s natural, but it’s also learned. Isocrates talks about this in the most depth. The Sophists assumed everyone could be trained if they could pay. There are problems with both interpretations. The goal though is that rhetoric, persuasion, debating, and speech are things that can and should be taught if you assume that there’s some good in a democratic order. Calling yourself a coach of these things limits the scope of who can and should be taught.

What we call ourselves and what we name others is the starting point of politics. To call someone talented at something that everyone needs to know how to do in order to have a great life with others is pretty gross. It might exist; this is beside the point. As someone with the capacity to teach debate effectively, it falls on you to defend the ethics of how and whom you choose to teach. I’m more and more convinced that by the very naming and setting up of a “Debate Team” we have dodged this responsibility, punting it to the students to self-select for something loaded with the ideas of the game, the sport, the contest, the competition, the “being better than” attitude. The people who would benefit from what we teach the most never turn up, revolted by the idea of making the sharing of ideas into a game. The best example of this I can think of is Teddy Roosevelt, who wrote with pride that he had never been a member of the college debate team. Unfortunately, he missed a lot of practices that can temper the mind into a state of critical examination that benefits the quality of your decisions and everyone around you. But calling it a team, or having a coach, makes it seem like there are people who are naturally good and can harness those talents to play a game.

Right now, the companies that control access to the sites where most people in the world get their information are having discussions about how to control the influx of “fake” content into their sites. Facebook and Google are trying to figure out how to think critically for us. They are going to censor content in the name of protecting those who cannot critically analyze a message. There can be no clearer call that people need these practices whether they show talent that could be used to win a weekend competition or not.

So no, I’m not a debate coach, is the short answer. I’m a teacher of debating and rhetoric and I hope to stay one. And anyone who also identifies this way should be worried, or at least bothered, by the way we’ve chosen, as a community of professionals, to select who gets the best of our teaching and why they get it.

Q: What can I do to help you?

Keep reading the blog.