When Only A Sport Remains

I predict here in a short amount of time I’ll be posting some definitive news about a move happening in intercollegiate forensics and debate that will no-doubt signal the end of any sort of conflict between educationally-minded directors of debate and those who love prizes, trophies, and saying that they coached a team to win a tournament.

I don’t want to say too much, but the evidence is already everywhere that intercollegiate debate is not a place for inquiry, scholarship, or intellectual work. It’s a place for people to go to confirm their rightness, to speak at others, and win prizes.

There isn’t a role for the person who wants to teach critical thought. There is a role for the person who wants to craft a “hit” on an opposition case and then moan in frustration when the students don’t “run” their brilliant argument “right.” There’s no place for someone who wants humility and doubt to be values, but there is a place for those who believe strongly in the Truth, and that it is easily accessible from a cursory glance around the world, and even easier to communicate in 7 to 10 minutes.

Debate programs no longer have a place or space within academic departments, they should be in athletic departments, for they have as much relation to the curriculum as the basketball or football team. They teach a set of esoteric rules for esoteric acts, witnessed by few, understood by even less, and with the amount of impact and influence on the world you would expect from events taking place on a Sunday morning in a windowless classroom in a brutalist building on some state university campus.

Now is a vital time for debate directors, and those with license and interest to teach to reinvestigate debate’s place in the curriculum. This is not another call for a developmental conference; reading the one from Wake Forest University is as cringeworthy as it is repetitive (with the exception of William Keith’s paper, which, I might add, was written by someone outside the tournament-debate model). Debate is in no danger of dying or vanishing because it died a long time ago. Now there is a sport modeled off of human argumentation - kind of - that a small percentage of college students participate in and an even smaller number enjoy.

The abandonment of director positions and debate coach positions held by Ph.D.s who have an interest in scholarly activity continues to fade. Now might be a good time to revisit The Debate Authors Working Group principles and practices, published in 2010.

I was lucky enough to attend several of these sessions as a graduate student and even luckier to co-author on a paper with the group. I dare say I was a member, if only for a year or so. But the idea and the work has never left me. It was the creation of an endpoint of debating that most people don’t think about. Debate ends when you win or lose, most sportmongers think. Then come the excuses for poor performance. This model encapsulated all that as aiming toward research and publication. It gave debate a point outside of eristics, which I would argue dominates all conceptions of intercollegiate debate today.

It’s time to reconsider this fundamental essay as the purpose of intercollegiate debate, but also the purpose of any round. What is happening in this debate that is serving scholarly ends? What is happening in this speech, or these speeches, that is forwarding inquiry? What has happened in this debate that could lead to publication?

In revisiting this essay, I find too much attention placed on the idea that the humanities eschew collaborative research. I think that might be true, but the larger problem is that most debate practitioners believe they are participating in a final-form event. They do not believe in process or reiteration. They believe the debate round is the presentation of formed ideas, and the work on those ideas - the inquiry - happened somewhere else, at some prior point to the debate. The research was done, the speeches prepared, now this is the final project presentation - not a good model.

A return to the DAWG model means every debate is an incubator, and every debate discussion becomes something of an agenda item for the DAWG meeting. That might be one way to think of it.

Another approach is that this connects debate to the department as it is undergraduate research under faculty supervision. The professor who directs the program would run the working group, and all those who debate should participate in some way, if only to raise potential topics. When we met as the DAWG, this is how it went. Nobody was compelled to write on a project, but everyone should contribute to the discussion or to the suggestion of topics or venues for publication. As an undergraduate research model, I don’t think you can find a much better one.

I’m going to consider revisiting this DAWG essay as it approaches its 10 year anniversary. It’s worth taking a look at the ideas in it and seeing if they are still relevant, needed, or require a bit of editing. My initial thought after re-reading it is that things haven’t changed that much, except the university system is approaching severe crisis and people are still much more interested in enforcing grammar rules and calculating attendance in their courses than stoking intellectual spirits of doubt and wonder. The DAWG is most likely needed now more, if anything.