In Los Angeles for the Civic Debate Conference: Day 3

The University of Southern California is a very, very pretty place. 

Aside from the inevitable technical issues on the video call - why can’t any university just make it easy to do this? Everywhere I go there is a camera that isn’t connected, microphones and speakers that are not connected, logins and other security measures that only keep out and frustrate legitimate users of the systems, and on and on and on. Not to mention that faculty and others at the university think it’s amusing that computer illiteracy is rampant and epidemic across the academy. Anyway, we’ll try again today and see if it works. It’s so frustrating that there aren’t just simple computer setups at universities dedicated to video conferencing. 

The conversation yesterday was pretty good. I presented a talk (I am just now realizing I forgot to record it) that I should post on Academia.edu. I argued two lines of thought about civic debate: First, that we should start anew in considering what civic debate is when we engineer it for student debaters. To do so, we should start with the Roman commonplace questions: Is it? What is it? And finally, What kind is it? These are questions for the generation of argument: Existence, definition, and quality. If you skip one, you open yourself up to trouble later on.  

The second thing was a discussion of Robert Newman’s passing, which really marks a moment in American debate history. Newman was (and is) a titanic figure in American debate education. He was called a subversive by his own university in the 1950s for hosting debates on the question of the United States government formally recognizing China. Serious stuff.  Anyway, I reflect on his brand of subversion and what it can teach us about what civic debate ought to look like. 

 You can read my draft of the comments here. 

We talked about a number of civic events with different partners that might be possible based on our connections. I’m more of an attendee rather than a planner at these events simply because my Univeristy, as you probably know by now, has zero interest in anything outside of itself. It’s a total “walls up” institution where rooms cannot be reserved for any purpose during final exams, and the idea of taking undergraduates places for their benefit is seen as a problem. It’s impossible to reserve rooms for events or host things on campus - you are treated by the staff as a huge waste of time, annoying, and a problem. The University claims to be interested in students and student transformation, but in the end they are really only interested in getting paid on time, and making sure that students go to class. Some transformation.  

I’m happy to take students to events though which is why I attend this. And I’m even happier to discuss pedagogy of debating. I just have to deal with feelings of jealousy when i hear about all the great stuff that other people are doing simply because their university functions normally. As professors, they can reserve rooms when needed for academic purposes. They can develop partnerships. When I bring a complete overseas program to my university’s study abroad office they say, “good luck developing that, here are the forms to fill out.” Nobody wants to do any work. They want to collect a check and share pictures of their children on the university email. They want their summers off; they consider tenure a retirement plan. Pathetic.

I’m actually interested in teaching although I’m terrible at it right now. The conference is really thought-provoking, and makes me think about the classroom a lot. The classroom’s status as a transformative space is undervalued. People, even thoughtful high-ranking university folks, have written the classroom off as a static space that has an absolute set of practices. Where’s the imagination? 

Today’s discussion will focus a lot more on best practices and ways of talking about and justifying civic debate as more than a firm “not that” directed at other types of debating. Then this afternoon I have nothing but time to kill as I wait for my midnight flight back to New York.