The Well of Debate Tropes

Currently Playing: Loreena McKennitt - An Ancient Muse

The old issues of The Journal of the American Forensic Association are some of my favorite things to leaf through to generate thinking. This journal, edited by debate teachers, was filled with the thoughts of those who immersed themselves in debating as a vocation. As the 1980s became the 1990s, the inexplicable rise of embarrassment at being a "speech teacher' or "debate coach" infected the discipline, and the JAFA was converted into something "better," The current journal Argumentation & Advocacy. The move was meant to make a journal about the teaching of debate a place for greater and broader insight about argumentation and issues that impact the world. I'm pretty sure that less people read A&A than they did JAFA. At least with JAFA a younger student would be motivated to have a look to see if there was something there to help them improve. 

The loss of this journal, and the other debate journals that were out there, was a blow to the practice of valuable debate via a loss of the idea of community. Now there was no forum for aspirational discussion about what teaching and coaching debate should be about. Yet the demands of the institutions for debate programs to justify themselves was directly increasing. As communication departments expanded to include those scholars who came up in cultural studies and other disciplines, the questions about debating became more common in faculty meetings. Instead of a faculty that all came up assuming debate "had to be" a part of a department, these new arrivals rightly questioned the small size of the programs, their insularity, and the trigger of cost. With the loss of a larger collection of aspirational tropes in the pages of JAFA, coaches who were caught up in the tournament slog, who thought preparing for the season was both the activity and the goal, were unable to defend themselves or their programs from this scrutiny. This was the end of the "golden age" of collegiate debate, and sparked a number of developmental conferences on debate preservation as a reaction. You could argue that Sedalia was the only semi-proactive response to the threat posed by the shifting communicative landscape in higher education. 

This brings me to one of my favorite books - Kruger's Counterpoint, an edited collection of all of the best writing in journals like JAFA and others about the controversies that arose between thinking practitioners of debate education. In a lot of ways it reads to me today like the Hagakure, the collection of samurai wisdom put together by a former samurai who palpably felt the end of an era coming and wanted to preserve what was most important - the tropes, the points of invention for discourse about what it meant to be a samurai. Kruger's book, published in the 1960s, was pretty far away from the very quick obliteration of debate programs twenty years in his future. Kruger, oddly enough, spent a lot of his career at C.W. Post University, a scarce 30 minutes to an hour from here in Long Island. I occasionally jot a note to myself to make an appointment with the University Archivist there to see what might be hiding out in the stacks from his work. I also happen to have his textbook, Modern Debate, in my collection as well. For me he symbolizes a time when it was a point of pride to be someone in the field of communication who not only taught speech production, oralcy, and verbal argument and debate, but who thought about it a lot, and who put their thoughts to paper to share with others. 

Such slowness of practice has immense value for the aspirational discussion about what we do when we teach debate, which then becomes a well of tropes we can draw from when times get tough. When the pressure is on from the administration to justify your cost, space, time, and energy we would have a resource. But it's all dried up. The loss of this community has been gleefully replaced with a community of critics who wind up accidently giving credit to forms of debate and speech that probably don't deserve that legitimation (i.e. an expert critiquing a political speech unwittingly or unwillingly confers upon it the status of "political speech" which draws some immediate borders in the imagination) and on the other side a community of people who are happy to teach eristics to their students because they have an intense faith that the practice of winning tournament after tournament is somehow going to teach them how to be excellent at crafting persuasive speeches, convincing arguments, and interesting debates. The "good" always comes later in critiques of debate teaching, that somewhere down the road debate will translate into success for them in life because it gives them "skills" or "portable skills" or "tools" or whatever. Such separation of the art of debating and oral production of argument from its context is like suggesting that a handful of false teeth is the equivalent of a mouth for chewing. Those who are interested in the teaching and learning of debate have to be satisfied with short, passing interactions in hallways of tournament competitions where a few ideas can be exchanged but only quickly as there is a round to judge, students to check on. Rarely is time given for the deep dive on the aspirational aims of debate education. In fact, we can count them! Sedalia, Sedalia 2, Quail Roost, and The Wake Forest University session. All suffer from a new fallacy I'm playing with that I call the "productive bias." It works by assuming that if we have produced something, we've done something or accomplished something. All these conferences have produced similar documents that make similar claims and demands on the university. All have been similarly ignored by the University, and life goes on. 

I hoped to perhaps start a return to the slow, thoughtful exchange of ideas about the teaching of argument production. Without the recovery of teachers talking to one another in their capacity and identity as teachers, we don't really have a chance of recovering inventional resources for the defense of debate.  My library has the full run of JAFA which I was hoping to digitize. You see, the journal exists only on microfilm or print. Since I doubt there is anyone out there willing to send me a whole print run of the journal, I thought it would be good to use one of the two microfilm machines (how things have changed) that the library owns in order to convert the run into PDF. This request was denied by the librarians, who not only are rightly concerned about the time I might spend monopolizing the machine, they also are wrongly concerned about copyright. If only it could be communicated how little my field cares about any conversation about teaching students how to make oral argument or persuade well - we are now in the business of creating critics of speeches. The turn of JAFA into A&A is pretty good evidence of what we value: commentary from expert receivers of speech instead of conversation from practitioners sharing and addressing issues in invention. 

A full PDF run of JAFA would have numerous benefits, most obviously the ability to full-text search the range of the journal for key words like "teaching" or "argument" and trace how those conversations played out over 30 or 40 years. I might still just surreptitiously begin this project with what little free time I have and just be patient.  It would eventually be worth it. More to come on this as I get ready for a day of listening to debate speeches, something that the ideological and hegemonic voices of the university and the field of communication tell me, in my head, is a waste of time, that I should be writing something for QJS. Both exercises, ironically, will involve the exact same number of people - about ten.