Debate as the Pedagogy of Invention

Debate pedagogy's primary contribution to the study of rhetoric and argumentation is in the realm of invention – how do we come up with and produce argumentation that both addresses the issue at hand and includes, invites, and engages the audience to consider that argumentation?

Sadly, this contribution is currently ignored.

I learned I have a lot of work ahead of me if I want to continue this project of revitalizing debate-oriented scholarship. I recently gave a paper considering debate on “other terms” as a starting point for debate-oriented scholarship, only to have it attended by the chair of the panel, the other panelists, and a couple of my friends.

I believe the work is difficult as the most receptive audience to discussing debate is the current debate competition community. But they don't really have a lot of motive to go beyond reading or investigating issues that are perceived to have a direct impact on the lived tournament experience. Recent articles by current competitive debaters on gender are a great example of this – how tournament success records indicate whether or not gender inclusiveness is being handled.

The other audience, that of scholars of argumentation have the barrier of ignorance – many have no idea that debate clubs exist or that tournaments are occurring on their campuses. This is partially by design – tournament organizers don't really want a lot of “outsiders” attending debates that are designed to be heard by judges trained to look for specific things in speeches and celebrate the more esoteric arguments in a debate round as opposed to the ones that cut to the heart of the matter as public discourse would frame it. The other barrier is that once identified, most scholars dismiss debate as a game best reserved for some of your undergraduate time, but a pretty big waste of energy and resources, especially for talented students. I've had several management and business professors tell my students that they wish they had some power over them to force them to stop debating and focus on something meaningful. After suggesting debate events to a colleague as a way of engaging the student body for a week-long pedagogy effort at my university, she responded, “That's great, but we should do some real pedagogy as well.” This is primarily due to a lack of any scholarly treatment of debating. The only remnants of debate scholarship out there are aimed toward tournament competition, the rules of such, and the nature of that competition. Within rhetorical scholarship in the United States, debate-oriented scholarship is seen as a good graduate student starting point, best abandoned for serious work once one develops an orientation and some sea legs.

Trading off debate's attention to tournament schedules, national championships, and more toward debate as the pedagogy of rhetorical invention might legitimize debate-oriented scholarship's value within both audiences. The question of “how do I come up with something to say?” is a constant one for those involved in debating as well as those involved in teaching. I am not saying just the teaching of performance-oriented rhetoric courses, but the teaching of any course – for most courses require a paper or presentation of some kind.

This is one of the few universal pedagogical questions, and debate could offer a wonderful service to pedagogy at all levels by being the venue that rigorously develops methods to answer such questions. Composition departments, usually housed in writing programs or in English departments, address this question as well, but it is within a basket of additional questions such as style and voice. Debate can provide more intense scrutiny on the question of coming up with what to say, and also unique method on the question of coming up with what to say when time is limited, and preparation is restricted – the trope of “thinking on your feet.”

Debate teaches invention when the resources are limited and the time to speak is upon us. This is the situation of reaction, the pub conversation, the interview, the impromptu debate about policy among friends or at work. When one has time and resources, one can rely on the methods of composition for the generation of arguments – although often students don't, preferring to wait till the last minute to begin work on a paper. It seems the more we teach students to take advantage of the time they have to prepare and generate a range of argumentation from which to write, the less they do it.

Debate is often criticized for being response oriented – a critique that reaches back to Plato's criticism of Sophistry for being about nothing but technique, and having no substance. Over the centuries, this has cast doubt upon Sophistic philosophy and work, to the point where many distrust the acts of debating and speaking themselves, often contrasting them with “finding the facts” or “the simple truth.”

The Sophistic approach is necessarily reactive, since the Sophists, for the most part, viewed the world as contingent and ever-changing. Opinions and views change, which change the standards by which facts and reasons are judged. The Sophist must be ready to react – to invent arguments on the fly that both address the controversy and appeal to the audience in the same movement. On top of that, humans really don't like to be pandered to – or realize that they are being pandered to, more accurately. So good rhetorical invention must appear to be universal, addressed to all reasonable people, not just the ears and feelings of the present group.

Motivating all of this is the concept of opportunity, or kairos in ancient Greek. Rhetors must be able to recognize the key moment in which to deploy their arguments. An argument that is not timed well could fail, or worse, could fail to be recognized as an argument by the audience – they could have moved on past that topos by the time you speak. Debate teaches this painful art of time management in the well known scenario of having to ditch the argument you love in order to remain relevant and engaged in the debate as it is happening.

It's a tall order, but a return to Sophistic thought – a recovery effort that has long been underway in the field of rhetorical studies here in the U.S. - can help root debate's uniqueness as the pedagogy of reactive rhetorical invention, when time and situation hamper our ability to conduct a full and complete investigation of the situation to determine the certainty of truth. When “best guess” is what we have to work with, what are our methods for coming up with arguments that seize the tri-partite moment that speakers face?

Returning to the Sophists is one way to root the scholarship, but another is in contemporary theories of argumentation. Debate offers the missing element of invention from a field that is obsessed with critique, measurement, and evaluation. It is rare to hear or read a piece from a contemporary argumentation scholar that discusses how to generate arguments within a controversy. Instead, they discuss old controversies, evaluating the arguments of the participants using the theoretical meter sticks they have developed.

Valuable work to be sure, but where's the space for someone who wants to intervene? Debate-oriented scholarship can take the best of argumentation theory work and generate some ways to develop arguments that fit the best argumentation theory has to offer, while also answering the three-part question of invention that faces anyone who rises to debate.

Finally, the anchor point with the biggest pay-off is for debate as rhetorical invention to get involved deeply in the recent reflexive scholarship about what the university experience should be for undergraduates. Facing a world where a rigid, disciplinary major might be a career and intellectual hang-up for students, debate training as training for the rhetorical invention of the situational self could be invaluable if implemented across the curriculum. The ports-of-call are already established: Biology courses teach people to think like a biologist, history courses like a historian. All that is missing is the complex question – such as Roman declamation might offer – that when faced with a couple of these challenging audiences, how do you speak the terms of one audience into the other? This question, if practiced via debating at the university, can be as valuable as an undergraduate research symposium, but unrestricted by disciplinary identity. The only identity at question here is the sophistic one: What am I, what can I be, for this audience, given this question, if I want them to believe me?