Ballance and Praxis in the Argumentation Curriculum

Me preparing my lecture for teaching mid-century NDT debate for class

Me preparing my lecture for teaching mid-century NDT debate for class

I’m tagging all the posts about my emergency last-minute pick up argumentation class with the tag “pick up” so you can easily search for them if you want updates on how that’s going. This is one of them.

The only reasonable approach that I think you can take in teaching this form of debate is to root it in two large contexts. 1) The historical context of the American university after World War 2 and 2) the need to have other metrics than efficacy in order to talk about the value of argumentation.

The first one is a historical treatment of the impact the so-called “G.I. Bill” had on the American university system which was really only for elites up until the 1940s. This meant that universities were taking in a lot of veterans from very diverse places without expected educational backgrounds. The result was the formation of what we now call the core curriculum, a number of courses everyone has to take in math, science, writing, literature, and yes, speech. This also explains why speech departments and debate as they are in the U.S. have little to no correspondence with other countries. The development of NDT-style debating was a result of the rise of core courses in public speaking and argumentation. It was a flat, easy way to practice this idea of multi-positional reasoning and speaking.

The second one is an effect of the first: There needs to be a way to evaluate the quality of debates without relying on a speech actually persuading someone. There were already rumblings from philosophy and other places that this metric allowed for the association of effective arguments with “the good.” We know this isn’t always the case. The development of stock issues rules and evaluation of debates is a rubric that allows us to look at and evaluate the quality of a debate as the debate itself and not the persuasive effect.

So with those two starting points, I think we have a good frame on this type of debate for the students to use in class. We aren’t looking for the truth or for what’s right in the topic; we are looking for ways we can approach information within a controversy and expand the ways we can talk about disagreement. We can test all aspects of an argument to see if it holds up. And through this we whittle away at the various approaches until we are left with some that appear to be good approaches.

Their topic is that the U.S. should disarm the police. A good topic for sure, lots to research and learn about. On the first day I took over, a student asked if the affirmative could ban the police as a way of disarming the police. We wrote responses to this question, and through looking at a few of them and sharing them in class, it seems the students are inventing procedural arguments from the ground up. It’s much better to hear the long-form justification for their claims about what they are learning and why it matters to be able to talk about one set of ideas over another one. This seems like pretty good practice in argumentation.

On the days we aren’t having debates we will read different pieces of argumentation theory and discuss them. I already told the class the final will be one question: What is an argument? The answer should be a synthesis and discussion of a number of approaches to this question through the reading.