Amateur Hour

Looks like I've already made myself sick. I have the weakest immune system - well, weaker than anyone I know. And after a week of student interaction, I feel pretty crummy. Lots of head congestion and slowness. But I won't give up the blog challenge! I press on!

Another late entry. I think the later it is the more first-person it is. Spent the morning working on my courses, grading and such, and recording some upcoming podcasts. Great day, even though I could feel the cold coming on. 

Played a lot of Destiny 2 and the game is really awesome. They've really managed to beat expectations I think. The beta was such a letdown that I'm glad it's really good. The story and the missions are great fun. And the levelling system makes sense! Amazing.

Tomorrow I have to go get Monster Hunter Stories which just came out. And next week is the new Metroid game. It's an embarrassment of riches this month. I might also have to run by campus either tomorrow or Sunday and do some letterhead printing since I didn't get up there today. 


This summer I read a great book by Andy Merrifield called The Amateur. In it, Merrifield argues that instead of lamenting the fact that people are skeptical of experts in public affairs and civic decisions, we should be encouraging the inclusion of the voice of the passionate amateur along side the voices of the institutional experts. It's a great book until he goes full-on Verso Boy at the end and starts talking about the shadow resistance and the international shadow amateur takedown of the government that is coming. Could have done without that. 

But there is real merit in this argument about the need to have passionate amateurs informing how we weigh expert decision making. His example of Jane Jacobs, along with Rachel Carson are spot on. These are people who can inform themselves, but aren't beholden to the systems and the agreed-upon way of seeing that experts come out of school using. Instead, they care and look around for reasons to support their points of view and what it is that they believe. It's a really good way to think.

Debate should be about creating a space for the practice of Merrifield's amateurism. This is where we should not be weighing expert versus expert to determine who is more persuasive, but participants add their own voice to the conversation in order to make sure the experts are not too "expert." The Amateur doesn't care as much about the method, so the expert can look around for other things to consider when making the call. 

American policy debate seems to be all about pushing on the limits of the expert discourse. Everything seems to fall back toward that in the sense that all debate is about questioning whether or not your proof is good enough. In academic debate, it comes down to published evidence most of the time, and whether that evidence is good enough to be deemed expert. Policy debate is eating itself alive over this question right now as it has started to question whether the skepticism of the questioning of the expertise comes from an appropriate positionality. 

BP should be the "amateur hour" of debate - that is, it should be evaluated on the terms of whether or not the speakers did a good job of informing the judges with passion, care, and information in order to make a decision. Debate is valuable because it allows us to find our amateur voices and then use them to evaluate the experts. Debate should not be about mastering the tropes of expertise, nor should it be about being a go-between from the expert information to the public. BP debaters so rarely look to expert information that this is bound to fail as a model for debating. The Economist, Vox, and other such sources are not good enough to use to learn how to thread the passionate voice of the amateur into the conversation. 

Likewise, the public speaking course could also be about the amateur. How do we get our voices into the conversation? I am not sure. It's something to work on and think through. But I can be very certain that learning how to construct an MLA or APA bibliography for a speech is a fine way to show all students that they cannot and do not want to be part of the public conversation. Strict written bibliographies in a speech class only serve to teach students that they are wrong, that they are undisiplined, and that they do not want any part of the larger conversation in their communities.

Merrifield's book is a must-read for those who teach debating and speaking as it gives a really great third way through the artificial binary of expert or public. I have to fight this argument all the time when I suggest reforms to competitive debate, where debaters - who are supposed to be able to argue - immediately respond with the worst possible caricature of the audience. Perhaps a model of the amateur - someone who is informed and cares and outside of the doctrines of the expert - can serve as a model for speaking and judging our BP debates. 

Taking expert opinion and blending it with an eye for public care and attention to others is exactly what training as an advocate should entail. It also has the added benefit of removing all this artificiality from BP debate about judging the "best argument." My students regularly lose debates because they were amazing speakers, they were persuasive and said the most interesting things, but they just didn't get the debate right. They failed to say the right magic phrase to get their side of the motion to the right conclusion. This is an artificial "debate expertise" that we have allowed to grow into BP like a fungus. I thought that at least on the East Coast of the US we established BP to get away from that and back toward the public eye.

Judging the most persuasive argument is to consider what the expert things then to consider the right thing to do. It's a good way to evaluate debates as it's more honest, more like a human being thinks, and also everyone can learn from the exchange. Winning a debate because you were really compelling, not really right from the debate-point-of-view of what this motion "needed," is a lot more satisfying and most importantly, it gets us all thinking about the role we play, or could play, in our communities outside debate.