Public Engagement

More strange than academics engaging the public is the idea that academics engaging the public is strange. In the field of rhetoric, we’ve nearly totally pulled away from this idea. Debate teams exist at the margins of rhetoric and communication departments, structured like sport teams. Faculty push to publish in journals were 7 to 10 people will read and possibly use their work. Rhetoric and communication courses are taught with total fidelity toward theories and principles from the academic literature, not with an eye toward helping students improve their ability to capture audience attention and persuade. Courses at the higher levels draw on and celebrate ideas and writing that have little to do with the rhetor’s art of crafting meaning and working to carefully untie the knots that moor audience belief. The field is almost totally inward looking.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately and how to engage in rhetorical work that’s valuable while reaching a broader audience. I don’t think rhetoric exists without audience; you could have all the other elements there to it and not have rhetoric. The audience is the thing that is necessary for the rhetorical.

It doesn’t have to be a real audience, but material. There should be the presence of a material manifest audience of some kind. So when I’m typing this blog entry I think about the report I see as to how many people clicked on the last one and what the monthly traffic is like to this site. When putting something on YouTube I think about the numbers of views and sustained minutes. These aren’t real as much as they are material. They are guideposts for what works, as long as you can honestly imagine what the audience might want.

I’m pretty disappointed we don’t have a journal dedicated to this sort of thing. Contemporary Argumentation and Debate always has promise, but is really trapped in a bad situation. As a debate journal, it has the twin prongs of 1)pressure to be something “better” than debate, the inferiority complex of debate as not a real thing passed down from the scholars-on-high who forget how their critical acumen owes a debt to intercollegiate debate for sparking it and 2) the event horizon of intercollegiate debate itself. When you are in the event horizon, the rest of the universe looks askew and becomes a problem. As you try to move away from the singularity, you rely on distorted information - in this case light - to navigate. You could easily be headed right into the singularity as you start to move. Even basic information is distorted in the area of the singularity. So even well-meaning people can still be pushing a monastic, non-public model of debate and scholarship while claiming they are getting out of it. As an example think about the following attempts to break the event horizon: Lincoln-Douglas Debate, Ted Turner (now Public Forum), CEDA Non-Policy Division Debate, and finally British Parliamentary debate. All these forms are now nearly inaccessible to audiences without a lot of training about how to stop doing what they would normally do when listening to arguments, and instead “follow the rules.”

I do hope that some debaters take seriously the pieces/interviews that Shanara Reid-Brinkley gave a few years ago about how debaters are scholars. This can be true, although I don’t believe it’s automatically true. A well researched position in a debate is aimed at winning a tournament, so it suffers from that. But what’s the difference between that and the conference paper or journal article written by an academic in hopes to fatten a tenure file or lead to a promotion? The utilitarian element of a paper or a debate case need not be totally deterministic of the quality of the work. What’s missing is a venue, or a way out of the event horizon of the tournament. Similarly, the event horizon of the academic department, or bureaucracy is equally devastating. I wonder what publication possibilities there are out there.

Currently working with many others on the reboot of Timely Interventions and perhaps this journal could be a place where debate arguments could transform themselves into interesting pieces for a broader audience. Debate podcasting that is not about debate would help, but about the work, insights, and understandings that debate has brought to people. In The Bin was my podcast for a long time and some of the episodes seemed to bend that way, but the stronger forces were always toward talking about the tournament. Without legitimate competition to the tournament, debate will never provide all the possibilities for transformative education that it could. What is needed is for a few debaters and their teachers to imagine and implement serious alternatives to the tournament schedule, competitions that do not rely on tournament structure, and give debate back its rhetorical aspects - the big audience - in order for us to benefit from its power. I like the idea of debater/scholars very much, but I’m uncertain we can get there given the obsession over breaking, octafinals, and speaker awards. These don’t belong in scholarship. Yet, professional scholars run a similar conflicting system for tenure and promotion that strips away the possibilities of thought and research in the same manner.