CEDA/NDT Development Conference

In June it appears there will be a development conference for CEDA/NDT practitioners to discuss many areas of improvement for policy debate in the US. This is the modern-day Sedalia conference that I have been advancing for quite a while - well at least since I read the original Sedalia and the Sedalia part 2 conference publications while studying at Syracuse University. I loved reading them and discovered a profound sense of connection with these concerns, even though the very first Sedalia occurred when I was one year old. I would love to go to the conference and chat about these issues myself but I'm unable to go. Are you going? I would love to hear reports so send them along!

I always found it pretty odd that Sedalia resonated with me. I read it (the familiar cover of the proceedings is on the left here, I remember it fondly! My copy was borrowed unfortunately). One night thinking about the problems that collegiate debate perpetually faces I was struck that the recommendations from Sedalia should not apply to me. These problems should have been addressed and/or solved since 1975, and definitely after 1984's conference. All that happened since those conferences, as I can see, is a decline in funding, support, number of schools participating, tenured positions for coaches, and the complete disappearance of over 95% of academic journals that focused on forensics or debate.

I really began to worry at this point. I wondered what the future of collegiate debate looked like if two conferences consisting of the most legendary names in the field couldn't solve these issues, what could be done? The problem must not be of structural or institutional location, the problem must be systemic. So I thought about it, and I've come up with a couple of reasons why recommendations from these conferences do not get acted upon.

Here they are: The first is that policy debate functions like a monastery, and policy debate has given up the rhetorical tradition in favor of logical positivism.

First, the policy debate community looks inward rather than outward. The metaphor for policy debate at the college level is a monastery instead of a church. The monastery is for the members and the practitioners of the monastic discipline. Very rarely do the monks solicit new members or attempt to plan with their neighboring communities. Attention is focused on the esoteric minutiae of the monastic order, the specific disciplines, and activities akin to scholastic disputation. The church is open, actively recruits, tries to explain its faith persuasively to others, and is always engaged in community service/activism and activities. This is not the willful model of policy debate; I think a lot of directors would probably characterize what they do differently. I think this is the model that policy debate "finds itself in" without willful desire to be there and without a lot of planning. Competition drives advancement in relation to the competition, and I think that is probably what sparked this attitude.

Secondly, most policy debate programs are housed in communication departments which, up until recently functioned as monastic places as well. Every faculty member had at least a brush with policy debate and understood its importance. Most importantly, there was never a need to question or challenge it as "debate." It was the way debate was done. And most faculty came to their positions or went through graduate school because of positive debate experiences. This all began to change as communication departments broadened their scope and began to attract more diverse scholars from gender studies, cultural studies, textual studies, and urban studies to name a few. When the faculty began to include individuals who came from intellectual traditions rigorous with debate but absent the peculiarities of American policy debate, questions came up that directors and coaches were unprepared for. Justifications for the moves, tone and style of debating had been lost (or were never created due to the well-documented lag between debate practice and debate theory in the academic journals of the 1970s and 1980s; see JAFA for specifics). The solution was to lay-low, go underground and keep decision makers away from the sights and sounds of modern policy debate. Hopefully your budget could be defended if you didn't let university decision makers see what debate looked like. If a practice was held for administrators, you script it.

Somewhere along the road we forgot that we were first and foremost rhetoricians. Somewhere we lost our connection to the powerful and beautiful tradition of the Sophistic. We couldn't believe that we could convince administrators that such a strange looking debate was not only necessary but valuable - a positive good. I think the inwardness of debate programs fed this idea, and helped the forgetting of the need to welcome questions and challenges to what we do in order to argue for it as a positive good. There were a few defenses of speed, disadvantages and counterplan theory that popped up here and there, but as debate programs began to be cut by faculty unfamiliar with the format, who not only couldn't understand the intricacies of policy debate, and had no willing guides. Opportunity was lost, and as positions were demoted and reconfigured or eliminated, so went the academic journals dedicated to debate. Now only two remain: Argumentation and Advocacy and Contemporary Argumentation and Debate.

This idea of the rhetorical nature of policy debate has been replaced with a strong list toward the tradition of logical positivism, where the words and the meaning are linked, and the audience must meet the burden of rising to the higher meanings of the speaker. The onus is on the judges to be smart enough, skilled enough and good enough to understand the meanings of the debaters. This is great for competition but bad for making connections. The problem is that adaptation to judges occurs on a minute scale, with the preference being that you would never have to really adapt, you just strike those judges who don't accept your framework. You don't debate for the audience, you debate for yourself.

And with this turn to positivism and expertise comes the uncritical and harmful vocabulary of modern policy debate. People refer to their "debate careers," and praise "the activity." They refer to nebulous holy terms such as "research," "evidence," and "advocacy," as well as "projects" and "activism." All of these words would sound strange to the average audience - like medical terms related to heart surgery for cardiac specialists. This vocabulary re-enforces the desire to continue to reach in instead of reach out, functions as a self-persuasive justification for further narrowing the specificity almost to the point where the debate is about the debate which never "takes place." The highly problematic term "The Activity" stands in for community, competitive rules, and esoteric practices of expertise, and a broad-based education in critical thinking all at the same time. There's some tension in there that stands unresolved.

This inward vocabulary and going underground modes of survival could have been disastrous last summer when someone posted to YouTube the now infamous blow-up between two coaches at the CEDA national tournament. The lack of quick response to the blow up when it happened (not the response that happened when it hit the news cycle, which was relatively quick) indicates just how irrelevant the organization sees it's own practices in relation to the rest of the world. Again, this isn't willful evil behavior, just the sediment of an inward looking practice of specialists interested in only each other. Why worry about making or preparing a statement? Nobody is going to care who wasn't within earshot of that exchange, and the internal dynamics of the community can patch things up.

So these two issues I consider to be fundamental to why the solutions argued years ago at Sedalia one and two were never fully realized: Monasticism and the loss of the rhetorical tradition and its replacement with something like positivism. Until these issues are addressed, I think policy debate will continue to have Sedalia like conferences identifying many wish-lists of what policy debate needs.

I certainly hope this conference goes well and I hope to read the proceedings once they are done. I hope they are charged with great ideas and great articulations of the challenges facing policy debate. I hope someone captures some of the plenary speeches and discussions electronically for those who cannot attend the conference. There's nothing quite like being there, but the cheapness of digital media these days certainly provides the next best thing. And I also hope that some national actions take place to stabilize the field and improve the opportunities for people to have policy debate at the University level. I know it's not popular opinion, but I'm not against policy debate, just against the way people practice it. This is sort of like my view on religion as well but I won't go into that.