Debate Format Camp vs. Debate Camp

Debate camp in the United States was a large mainstay for many years. It still continues, mostly in edited form, across the country. The major reason that debate camps dried up in the early 2000s was mostly due to funding. When schools no longer have the money to subsidize attendance at debating summer camps, they are unable to run.

Another factor is the university's endless quest for revenue streams. Seeing summer camp as a way to supplement dwindling revenues, dorm rental rates and room rentals for summer camp activities are just a couple of ways the university attempts to supplement themselves at the cost of the debate camp's margin. Paying good faculty for time and travel are essential.

Even given these barriers, there are still a number of debating summer camps in operation. Sometimes they are referred to as debate institutes, or debate summer institutes.

This title doesn't really work for most of them. I believe they should be called debate format summer institutes. The scope of what they instruct and practice rarely skirts beyond the ideology of a particular format of debating, used soley at tournament competitions at a limited selection of universities on a few weekends a year. Hardly something worth spending thousands of dollars of travel and fees.

If debate institutes would focus on the idea of being a debate summer institute, most universities could host a thriving and valuable summer camp experience for a much larger number of students, engaging them intellectually in ways that their schooling fails. Debate is a much broader concept, intersecting almost all disciplines at the university, as well as public policy and civic life. Exploration of the nature of debate, from invention to delivery to critique and response of audience is something worth spending a large amount of money and time to study. Here's how current debate format summer institutes could alter their practices very simply in order to access this:

Replace Debate Coaches with Subject Matter Experts
Too often the debate format ideology believes that once something becomes a debate topic, a debate expert is all you need in order to teach the controversy and clash surrounding the issue or issues. This leads to terrible instruction, as I recently saw in a high school topic lecture on YouTube at a major summer debate format institute. Since these are university hosted and sponsored events, why not ask faculty from the relevant schools to give short talks on the state of the debate within the field? These would be much more dynamic and much more engaging than what passes now. As I witnessed, the lecturer, an assistant debate coach, suggested that if the people attending his topic lecture wanted to learn more about the topic, they could read Wikipedia articles. Debate coaches are experts on format, for better or worse, and they should defer to actual subject matter experts in these situations. Debate coaches usually know little about the topic, but do know how to research it. Giving students access to this distinction by providing the contrast between the scholar of the issue and the debate approach only makes the student more savvy on the question of how to engage multiple audiences. 

Stop Having Camp Tournaments
Tournaments tend to attract more attention and investment than they are worth. Their very presence in the near future tends to trump the direction and focus of debate work, ensuring that most students are interested in working to defeat the teams that they have identified as threatening. This limits the aim and the scope of research and argument development to a very narrow band use. One or two uses, and the argument as served its purpose. Contrast this with a debate camp that considers its aim to be engagement with the public on controversies that have no clear solution in sight. The research and development of arguments become long-term, much more so than the camp tournament or the trope “You will be able to use these arguments in September at the first tournament.” Tournament debating is fun, but it isn't debating. It is actually restrictive and amimetic to argumentation conducted in the public. Without a tournament to turn the focus of the students toward one another within the small community of the institute, which audiences will you choose to have the students address? What are the limits of such an intense summer experience? This goes a bit beyond the “side-effect” argument most debate coaches make – that participation in frequent, intense tournament experiences create people willing and able to engage the public. I would say first, it is not true nor-supported that this happens. Usually one creates people who want to hang around the debate community due to their ethos there and the comfortable familiarity of the discourse. Secondly, cut out the middleman. It's bad to take a drug for the side-effects. Here we have the option of engaging the issues directly. Why wouldn't we?

Engage the Public 
Most of the university community has no idea that a debate summer institute is happening on their campus. A few events where students and instructors debate for the university faculty and students about issues facing the campus and community would go a long way to including the surrounding population. Often, the university’s work is critiqued as being an ivory tower, isolated and cut off from public utility. Debate format institutes are doubly so, cutting themselves off even from the ivory tower institution. Inclusion not only sparks curiosity and excitement that such an event is taking place on the campus, it allows the participants to interact with people from varied backgrounds and varied viewpoints – well beyond the ideology of debate format, which would be 100% of the instructors and audiences for the debates they currently have – expanding their thought process about adaptation, persuasion, evidence, proof, and of course, argument.

Teach Rhetorical and Argumentation Theories
The subject matter experts that are closest to home for the debate coach are rhetorical and argumentation theory. Most have encountered it, read it, or written a master's thesis on it. As for the other portion of instructors – those who have tournament success – they might have it via their undergraduate work, or by virtue that they were introduced to it by their coach. Either way, the access here is much easier to obtain. Teaching theories of rhetoric and argumentation give students interesting frames from which to approach argumentation beyond the over-simplistic and incorrectly taught Toulmin model, which dominates debate format camp instruction. As an alternative, the use of contemporary argumentation and rhetorical theory in lectures to address the topic, the potential arguments, or key elements of a debate would push students into thinking more creatively about what they are crafting in the workshops, pushing the material in ways that could go beyond the traditional, “No, don't write that, it won't win” pedagogy we so often see at debate format camps.

Publish The Product
Debate format camps are experimenting with YouTube, clearly unaware of how it might expose them to criticism of the quality and nature of their instruction at the debate format camp. They are okay however – modern debating has been rendered so irrelevant to the public that the only people who would watch a topic lecture suggesting reading Wikipedia to learn more about the topic would be the format entrenched crowd. A debate camp, in contrast, would work to publish, either through video, blog, webcast, or print – the work that the students accomplished. This is a public intervention as opposed to a battle chest of cut cards, or a cache of possible strategies to unleash in September upon the uninitiated in round 1 and 2 of a local tournament. This is practice in intervention in public, intellectual affairs. What sort of product will both convey the value and the power of what we work on here? What would be intelligible to someone who has not been to a debate tournament? And what was the value-added to my writing and speaking that this institute provided? A good product would answer all of these questions in an engaging manner meant to sustain general audience attention. And it would cause the audience to wonder, “Does my university do this? Does my child have access to this? Perhaps they should!” - which is the best ally debating could have in the world of dwindling public funding for intellectual pursuits.