On the train headed to the Lafayette debates, sponsored by the French Embassy and GW in lovely Washington, D.C. A different sort of debate competition that I have enjoyed helping the students prepare for.
During the run-up to all of this, as I have all semester, I have been interrogating why I am so frustrated and short these days with the subject of debating. I’ve nearly lost all interest in it as it seems like an event very loosely connected to the university. There’s little thinking, a lot of copying of speeches, and zero scholarship either going into or coming out of BP debate these days. But the root of my frustration is with something else. I think that I am frustrated because I have confused administering a program with teaching.
When running a large-ish BP program, one mostly takes on the role of a program administrator. You book hotels, tickets, you pay fees, you order checks cut, you know some of the accounting people better than faculty who study similar things to you who are in departments you never go to. You constantly check up on students and ensure they are going to show up, that they brought what they needed, all of that sort of thing. BP with its emphasis on quick preparation and familiarity with how to approach motions within BP (as opposed to how to approach motions in many argumentative forums) discourages teaching in terms of no prep, no laptops, and no advance limitations to the motions.
Where’s the teacher? BP discourages the teacher and pumps up the coach-administrator, who is a figure that makes sure the teams are lined up, the judge obligation is filled, and that his or her teams have a procedure down to construct winning arguments based on the structure of a speech or a motion regardless of the subject matter or content of the debate. The teacher becomes a “chief strategist” someone who maybe has walked that road before (won a lot of important debates) or has some insight into what wins and losses. This is the equivalent of teaching a literature course based on word frequency or number of adjectives used in the book, things like that.
I enjoyed debate because I enjoy teaching, and current practices have worked to eliminate the possibility of teaching from BP. Instead you want someone to offer processes that can be easily mastered and frequently deployed to find the right thing to say on a motion (rather than the best, which is often the goal of university courses, determined by the standards of a field).
What would teaching look like for debate?
I think praxis is what is needed here. The right amount of theory on argument, audience, persuasion and the like that then is critiqued and modified based on practices with audiences who evaluate those arguments. This is very broad, however, compare it to what most people think is happening at BP competitions: The purification of argument in a larger project of being right about issues. There’s little praxis here; the right way to argue has been determined and is reinforced via the hegemonic practices of the CA system and the lack of accessible motion writing norms (as well as the absence of any political will to develop such a thing).
I think this competition will be a good test for me as I really enjoyed walking through some theory and other readings with my students, spending hours talking to them about different arguments and approaches rather than booking a bunch of hotels or going over some YouTube video to extract the structural norms of victory. Instead, I had an opportunity to read some new texts with my students and re-discover some favorites. Teaching is what attracted me to debating at the start of this journey, and my confusion of debate with program administration, or being a coach of some kind, I somehow confused with this art.
Administration is important, but not if it’s the majority of your interaction with debating. Administration also includes the formulaic approach of figuring out strategies of winning, as opposed to strategies of how to explain a difficult text. Audience is key too: Without it, there can be no debate or argument pedagogy that intersects debate with contemporary or 20th century argumentation scholarship.