Tournament-Centric debating

trophies (Photo credit: Shockingly Tasty)
Debate programs have been, for almost as long as they have existed, been competition-oriented. Before there were tournaments, the triangular leagues ensured that debate was gameified - that is, the actions taken by a debate program were within the frame of the dative: "we are doing this for the upcoming debate with such-and-such university." After this level of gamification, the rise of the tournament as the site for debate practice became an easy lateral for this approach. Since then, debate programs have justified themselves in large connection to tournament involvement.

Competition is an excellent catalyst for pedagogy, thought, and argument development. Now though, competition has been reduced to tournament participation. These are not equivalents. The tournament is a time, resource, and energy drain on debating programs.  This means that when the time to justify a program's existence comes around, it's easier to construct that defense based on some amount of tournament participation and success rather than think of other ways the funding can be justified. At its worst, tournament centric debating becomes a recruitment tool - making tournaments offer larger breaks, easier breaks, and more awards in more categories in order to give students enough praise-through-victory to keep them participating in debate. Everyone knows that without colored ribbons, and without plastic trophies, there's very little defense of the team. The problem is that there's very little material defense of the team, and it's become conflated with the entire defense of it - not only to administrators, but to ourselves and to our students as well.

Recent public discussions about the form and function of the collegiate debating tournament show a complete and uncritical acceptance that the debate tournament is the debate program. There are no other ways to organize a program, goes the logic. Tournaments are debate; debates are tournaments.  Alternative methods of running a debate program are not even considered - the tournament centric model consumes all time and energy from large, program-wide considerations of alternative methods to engage students in co-curricular, exciting, and interesting ways to practice and study argumentation.

There are a lot of reasons for this, and I'll be writing against tourno-centrism quite a bit in this space over the next few weeks. There's a lot to say - and most importantly, the idea of what the alternative debate program would look like is the most crucial. This is because most of us (us being those directing a debating program, either professionally or otherwise) have brought our administration with us on the tourno-centric journey, tying tournament participation, success, and achievement with our reason to exist as official University programs.

Tournament participation equates the study of debate with debating in competitions.
I've written before about the dangers of having professional competitive debate coaches commenting on political debates and being debate interpreters for the public. The danger is, in shortened form, the equating of expertise in a limited, competitive venue with an ontological knowledge, applicable and truth-discerning in all moments that have the flavor of debate or disagreement. This has the result of allowing audiences to cynically toss out any public discourse that doesn't meet their expectations of form or flavor. It creates a consumer-capitalist sensed machine that grinds up complicated rhetoric into tasty, easy to chew bits.

It is no surprise that people think that expertise in a small thing makes them experts in the larger thing, but in debate that connection is spurious, yet unanalyzed. Debate, as performed in tournament settings, has sacrificed a huge amount of its natural features in order to be measurable as a game. To have a contest, constraints must be added. Those constraints are always for the game, period. They make the game more fair, easier and clearer to evaluate, and increase the quality of the product of the game - the things that keep us coming back to play again.

Debate outside of these situations is messy, difficult to evaluate, and has rules that do not help with the evaluation of a contest. The rules in these cases are either culturally determined - based on norms of fairness the audience and debaters accept (such things like turn-taking, from discourse analysis, etc) or in order to provide maximum distribution of ideas, statements, and information during the debate. Often times, the debate is a continuation of a larger debate with no possible win or loss to be had (like election debates for example, designed to increase and focus attention on the larger question of the election itself). Ancient rhetorical theorists such as Cicero and Aristotle identified audiences as co-creators of the meaning of arguments, not neutral-ish judges of ontological conditions of argument. We teach, unintentionally, that arguments can be evaluated properly, under any conditions, by the right people who understand what a good argument is. This could not be more opposite than the way the ancient rhetoricians thought, nor could it be more opposed to contemporary argumentation studies.

The problem arises when debate teachers and directors think that tournament participation and success mean that they or their students can adequately speak about debates as if they were all equal - as if they were all of the same material. This comes out in casual conversation about public disputes. It is never the case. Students begin to talk about public debates as if they were malformed "good" debates (aka tournament-flavored debates, artificial colors and flavors) and dismiss many civic interactions as not worth their time. The tournament centric model of argument education flips the natural flavor for the artificial, so that when encounters with natural debate happen, the students hate the taste. When some sort of engagement does happen, public discourse is subverted to the form of the tournament round, and analyzing a debate becomes an exercise in seeing how well it can be parsed up to look like the familiar competitive debate. This is the equivalent of the chef taking nice, natural and good ingredients, and coating them in seasonings and sauces to make them if not good, more familiar, and therefore something that should appear on the plate (for an excellent example of this, nothing is as great an example as SIU debate coach Todd Graham's CNN posts).

This is as bad as choosing to take a football coach's diet advice for his players as diet advice for yourself. Of course, there are elements that will be present in both diets, but appropriateness is determined by many, many factors. Sometimes the accepting of a practice based on competitive success is very harmful to the adopter. When debate coaches and teachers do not actively intervene in the discussion of arguments, pointing out that the good of an argument is dependent on the situation, they are paving the way to this sort of ontological disaster. Students must be reminded that what works in a tournament setting needs serious adjustment to work outside of that setting.

Many of the by-products of debating are very useful, but one we don't use at all is the dissonance between the public idea of deliberation and debate and its contrast to the private, tournament-only idea of what is persuasive. The tournament-centric program gives students no choice about this question of situation. Good arguments are good. That's the end of the discussion.

Moving away from the tournament-centric pedagogy we find tournaments doing what they do best: Serving the larger pedagogical principles of rhetoric. What works here may not work there. What we like may not be likable outside these walls. What works for a monk doesn't work for a layperson - the sermons must be altered. And it happens all the time even in something as invariant as the Catholic church.  Tournament speeches can be altered for public audiences, and the value of both can be evaluated in team meetings or practices. Tournament debates can be held on-campus for students to see how the quality of the decision and feedback change based on the audience. If anything, the tournament should show how little control we have over what we believe, and what small part of that we can use to get others to come to our side.

Having tournament-focused argumentation as your only activity in your debate program is to not have a debate program at all. It's to have a tournament program. If it's such a sin to "teach to the test" in the modern education system, why are debate coaches all over the world happily continuing this process? Variety not only improves the scope of your debate program, it will turn students from debaters into students of debate and argumentation. That's much more valuable than someone who is well trained to parse public discourse into manageable, familiar-tasting bites of argument, leaving out the messier, and more important rhetorical elements of public disputation.

The study of debate should be a study of all of it, not just what works for weekend contests. Students should be using competition to see how debate and argument is limited, not to get a false sense of what good argument looks like, then judge all of society for not being able to perform it to the esoteric tastes they gained from tournaments.
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