Debating with Reservations, Part 2

A teacher is not someone who knows more than the student; A teacher is someone who knows differently than the student. It is a fallacy to believe that students, by definition, "don't know." Particularly in the teaching of the art of rhetoric this is doubly offensive/hilarious since most students have been speaking and arguing their entire languaged lives. The first teachers of rhetoric, the Sophists, recognized this and offered the chance to increase the win percentage of their students. But often this was a ruse; most Sophists were deeply committed to improving society through improving the quality of speeches among the citizens. Protagoras is one that comes to mind right away. 

This assumption takes on darker, violent tones when used as a pre-encounter assumption about groups of students who come from disadvantage. Cyclical, legal, enduring, financial oppression creates another layer of misery, that of the assumption that the teacher is coming to save them, or give them things they are unaware of. I just heard a faculty member the other day say that one of the primary problems with students is that they are unaware or ignorant of the world around them. A preference for a world is not a pathology. How are you not-ignorant? What are the moves to make to avoid ignorance? We prefer worlds that look like worlds to us; we respond when these worlds are threatened. We make allies through rhetoric to improve our defenses or to lay claim to new spheres.

Let's just improve speeches. Let's make everyone talk differently. Let's improve the taste of the students for a discourse that they recognize, yet is alien to them. Debate does not discover the facts, or offer the right set of facts to the uninitiated. Debate questions the provenance of the facts; debate keeps the questions alive. 


This is what has been happening over the last couple of days. We have been to 4 reservation colleges and have debated at all of them. 

We visited The Crow reservation, Lame Deer, Fort Peck, and Rocky Boy reservations. The events went well, and attendance varied between 3 to 4 people to over 20 people at events. The idea of debate and the value of debate events is a new quantity for these institutions and I expect it to improve. 

These thoughts will be teased out over the next few days, but the most shocking thing is both the relevance and irrelevance of competitive debate formats for the teaching of argumentation, rhetoric, debating, and persuasive speaking. Simultaneously, students and faculty at each event have expressed interest in debating, a belief they could do it, and for some regret that they did not debate earlier in life when they were a student. This contradiction might be one of the sources of the value of teaching rigorous formats of debate (as opposed to teaching debating however it comes together in daily life) while excluding the tournament as the endpoint. 

The power of tournament logics and tournocentric thinking conflating itself with persuasion is well-exposed in these events. Things that students gravitate toward as important arguments that have persuasive value seem irrelevant to audiences outside the tournament, who make legitimate demands on the quality of the debate they hear. The comments sound like the teacher of the first year public speaking or debate class who wants to encourage the students, but also must state the obvious - "specific examples help," "define what you mean,"  "I don't see the connection here, but you spoke well" - this really reveals both the power and the failure of tournament centric debate education to replace itself with the norms of debating and arguing in the world, as well as the irrelevance of doing research or studying deeply the situation an audience is in for a debate - arguments are true if they come from the heart, or circulate through the top rooms of an IV. Apparance, exposure, and circulation are the three terms that govern good argumentation at the tournament. There are connections here to in how arguments mediate across society of course, but tournament-centric debate purports to be the corrective or improvement or superior form of debating. Yet the ideology driving the arguments is similar. What's missing is the lesson to adapt, change, conform to audiences you encounter - something effaced from tournament-as-argumentation pedagogy. 

The reservation colleges will benefit from more debate exposure, as will those who go to debate at these places, but much work must be done to expose and correct the norms of tournament debating that are not even norms, but read as the only way to locate the best arguments and the only road to travel when persuading an audience. In the end, such a pedagogy appears to concerned and interested publics as a "nice try by some well-spoken college kids."