US Nationals 2010: Preface

Having a coffee waiting to give a judge briefing for an internal University debating competition here in Manhattan. The weather is fantastic. I have Germans sitting to the left of me, and Brits on the right (is this a song reference?). And tomorrow I head off to Denver for my third trip to the US Nationals in the BP format.

Thinking to a year ago it's impressive to me how much better the quality of each round in the US is from tournament to tournament. I remember my first US Nats in this format thinking the final round was much worse than some of the late prelims I had judged. Not an unusual feeling since most of the tournaments I'd judged were on the East Coast, and we were beginners in this format.

Now I imagine how much different this nationals might be. On the East coast the quality of debate is quite good. On the West Coast, the teams are really solid. Meeting in the middle of the country is somewhat symbolic for our heavily regional BP practices. But we are inching toward a national circuit faster than I think most of us realize. And there's very little reflection on our practices. I think Frans Van Eemeren puts it pretty well when he writes that the problem with American argumentation scholarship for the most part is that there has been traditionally an unproblematic link between the practice of debate and theorizing good argument. The relation is one that is unquestioned - practice in debating makes someone make good arguments (don't have the book with me right now or I would cite it, I'll add it here when I get back to my office). How ironic to be sitting between these Europeans and thinking about going to a tournament in an international style that will host mostly American debaters and American judges. How ironic to think the country with the most varied and most access to competitive debate at many levels of schooling would have thought so little as to the connection of debate training to creating good arguers.

This brings me to my first point about this tournament. I hope this tournament doesn't reveal an Americanization of world's debating. I'm not sure what that looks like, but I think it would have something to do with prioritizing the distribution of information, facts, background and evidence to the judge over the art of persuading the judge that the points of advocacy being raised are correct in that round. There should not be an American style of BP, only BP.

Currently NPDA is in crisis. Their listserv lights up from time to time with reflection, disappointment and conversation that perhaps the technical or "transmission" elements of their format are trumping the intent of why NPDA was formed in the first place. CEDA/NDT continues to host semi-regular development conferences in hopes of trying to infuse their format with public and rhetorical relevance. I hope those who practice BP in the US take a lesson here and don't want to end up in that position. We should be having these conversations now, at the beginning, but the speed sort of takes over, and the excitement of watching something grow so fast and provide so much rhetorical stimulation sort of kills the exigence for such a conversation.

We should take some moments to reflect on what we are doing, why we are doing it, and what we would like this to look like in 10 years. We have a nice litmus in the international debating community. Practices that don't work there shouldn't work here. And the technical transmission of correct information shouldn't trump the art of integrating information with reasons and general appeal. Of course, every format aims for the latter, it's just a question of not fooling yourself that your small group is some sort of general audience. This is our biggest threat.

Denver of course has personal appeal to me as well as I write about this - it's the city where, in On the Road Sal Paradise recognizes he is alone at a party because he is becoming a part of a strange, new 'beat generation.' Denver was the center of the US in Kerouac's mind, since he did see the US as a combination of both coasts, transitioning from one to the other as you move West (as he thought everyone should). He also felt due to the altitude it was a point from which to symbolically survey all of America. Denver always had mystical appeal for Kerouac and the Beats, and now it serves as a reflexive point for me at least, looking back on the last 3 years of trying to teach the BP format, or as it was referred to many times in the CEDA East region - "The Experiment." I hope to have many good conversations, see many good debates, and of course enjoy the whole experience. I wonder what mystical experience awaits, probably nothing, but I also wonder what strange, new generation I am involved in here at this waypoint in the development of US BP debating.