Debate Scholarship

Good morning!


here’s the sunrise we’ve been getting in Queens the last few weeks. It’s been really great, and I post this today because we have nothing but grey skies and cold rain today. At least I have no plans in going outside.

Stayed up late tweaking and finishing my lecture for Italy this week. I have been invited to speak about debate judging and debate evaluation at the University of Padua and I feel ready for that. A couple of more slides today and I should be set. I didn’t think I would do any more travelling for debate after the spring, but here we are.

One of the reasons I get these opportunities is the bad attitude toward debate as an academic subject shared by debate coaches and rhetoric scholars alike. Both are happy to hang onto the rhetoric of sport surrounding debate: It suits faculty who have no interest in teaching debate as a productive art, and it suits coaches under a rubric of specialization, to keep hold of this one thing that only they can do and nobody in their department, let alone the college, can do. This attitude harms the advancement of debate, making it responsive rather than generative of advances. Like American football, it will only change the rules or the play of the game if there’s a dire need, like a consistent injury that happens from playing. As we have seen, even that isn’t enough to change the fundamentals of the play.

Debate can’t cause this sort of harm, can it? Nothing physiological like that, but it sure can encourage people to avoid discourse and speaking where they need to be. Debate-as-sport encourages participants to view themselves as doing debate “the right way” or at another level, therefore always thinking of public engagement with debate as something beneath them. This doesn’t mean they won’t be political - debate students love activism, marching around at protests, shouting down speakers on campuses, etc. The question is: Is this the political we want to encourage? Is this the political we want to have? From the point of view of rhetoric, this political is a default, one with very little rhetorical perspective or training. From my point of view, it’s hardly sophistic. There’s nothing sophisticated about marching around in total opposition to something without a strategy of how you are going to reach unconvinced, or alternatively-convinced minds.

In treating the practice of debate as seriously as we treat chemistry, biology, or literature we get access to a forward-thinking model and practice of debate, one that can be generative of new ways to approach the issues we face. We can get ahead of ourselves and think about the normative rather than the responsive. We can construct a practice that would work well with scholarship and the university as a whole. There’s a lot to be said for attention this way. And there seems to be a community out there - disconnected from the tournament-addicted crew - interested in having this conversation.

Not sure what to expect, but since it’s the last week of class I have a lot to do to get ready to be gone for 4 days. I think my students appreciate it, although a big concern I have is with missing class as I get older. I want almost everything I do to have classroom implications, I want all the things I study and think about to be directly beneficial to the students enrolled in my courses. I want the cost and the structure of the university not to be something that I work with as a launchpad, or a springboard, or the start of a tangent, but to be immersed or meshed together. The university is an ancient machine for the generation of powerful scholarship, and it’s based on students attending, paying, and feeling like a part of it. My attention to those students is essential for my scholarship to matter.