I was wrong about debate videos

Reading Recovery
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I am wrong about the importance of videoed debates. Not for the reasons that many of you reading this might think. I still maintain that only other debaters watch them, and I don't believe the APDA debater who ran for office in Long Island a few years ago was defeated because of a debate video (it was more that he was a Democrat trying to get elected in small-town Long Island). I was wrong about debate videos because they are eroding the very principles that I want to teach, and think debate teaches best. I used to think that students could learn how to debate better from these videos, but I was wrong. Students can only learn habits that restrict the potential of their debate ability if they think passively watching online videos of debates is going to improve anything about their ability. Debate videos can actually hurt the quality and ability of debaters. Debate videos do this by making a debate look like something that if you followed the form you will do well.

Now if this last statement is true beyond debate videos, heaven help us all. Who wants to be involved in something that merely teaches itself? Would you study what you study if it only existed to serve itself? Most of us engage in study with the hope of improving something with our new found knowledge, or skill, or experience. Debate should be the same operation. Debate should be something we practice in order to make our practice of being human in the world something valuable, something that adds value to the experiences and lives of others - no matter where we decide to apply our efforts after that very last round is won or lost.

Debate helps teach skills that I think are needed in a contingent, polarized world of symbols and people. It teaches the disappointing nature of reality as contingent. It teaches that you have to change the words you'd prefer into the words that your decision maker would prefer. It teaches that you have to give up your favorite argument, or line, or joke, or witty comment in favor of the one that your audience loves. It teaches you that even at your best, people will still not agree with you. It often times teaches you just how powerless you are, even if you are really smart and have great ideas.

Even though that's depressing, consider this - debate teaches you how to moderate and navigate a world full of people who have not had your experience. It teaches you how to consider and re-consider, and consider again how to put something just so that others will understand your point of view, or even go along with it (if you are lucky). It also exposes you to the idea that you could, and in many cases are, not quite knowledgeable enough to make a call on a question - and how to handle that. In short, debate helps you become comfortable with the limits of human-ness, as opposed to what non-debaters get in University - great comfort and certainty in the power of ideas from authority, in the power of human knowledge, rationality, reason, and logic. When those fail to work, there must be something wrong with your audience. Dismiss them; they are idiots.  Debaters, if taught to examine their own experiences carefully, realize that rational thinking is never enough, unless it is, in that situation, with that issue, at that time of day, etc.

So debate videos - of course they are a great way to watch good debates from competitions you couldn't attend. They are good to show to your parents and friends so they finally get a sense of what you are doing with your extra money and time on the weekends. But they are not good for teaching what I want to teach. Debate videos re-enforce the idea that debate is an objective, non-contingent thing. That you can figure out the right thing to say that will work every time if you just watch enough videos. They encourage you to be a formulaic, emphasis on form, thinker rather than a contingent thinker.

The issue of debate videos is that they so easily substitute for study or research or reading because they have been conflated by intermediate students as both the ideal and the practice of argument. Even the most philosophical and ideal theorists of argumentation around today would argue that even though an ideal model of good argumentation is essential, such a model is just that - it does not and cannot exist. However, once we have it structured we can measure our own worth by it. We can see how our discourse is measuring up to our imagined ideal of good debate. But most importantly, watching a debate video makes you feel as if you are working on debating better, but you are trading that time off with serious study that actually will make you a better debater because it will give you the commonplaces and topoi you need to construct good argumentation during the tournament. A witty speech from 4 months ago is not going to help you do that, because debate just doesn't work like that. Debate wit has a very short shelf life before it goes sour.

Debate videos serve as a poor ideal because they are recorded, situational moments of practice. They fail to be good models of contingency because they are so disconnected to their time and place. They could be any round, any where. Debate videos hover between the two terms needed for solid debate pedagogy, but they don't serve either very well.

I say keep the videos to show to friends and family. Keep them to showcase what your debate club has been up to. Administrators and other officials love that stuff; I use it a lot, I must confess. I may also start using them to improve speaker style, which might be a good reason to use them in your debate practice. This is highly individual though, and really needs to be done with the speaker and the instructor/audience critic together going through the video and pointing out the problems - this is way too time consuming to be very practical for large programs. However, studying debate videos to get better at debating seems to me to be a non-starter. Read something, discuss something with your peers, and practice as much as you can at debating. This seems to be the type of improvement that debate videos either short-circuit the value of, or seem like good preparation because it's easier, much more passive, and much more fun than putting your head down into a difficult book or journal.
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