Debating Masterclass; Debating Workshop

This week I will be travelling to Montana for my now apparently annual debating workshop that I present there. This started a couple of years ago after meeting people in Mexico after the IDEA youth forum. At the forum, it became clear to me that it is important to create an environment of solid argumentation pedagogy if one expects to teach debating, rhetoric and argument. Without the environment, and a good large environment, there's very little that can be done to teach rhetoric well. At least that's how I see it. They were very happy to invite me to big sky country and I was happy to go. I am still quite excited about this, it still contains newness and the sense of frontier. Perhaps that's my own association with this state and my ever constant fantasy that I will live and teach debate there one day.

The first workshop was in Billings, as is this one. Last year it was in Helena, where Brent Northup called it a debate "masterclass" - something I'd never heard associated with debating at all. I'd always thought of masterclasses as something associated with artistic endeavor, and debate as associated with - well - not that.

Considering debate as a performance is rare. A workshop is for crafting and building, making something practical perhaps or at least producing something - like a writing workshop. A masterclass is for putting yourself in touch with artistry. Acting workshops are for the production of better acting perhaps, but a masterclass would be for the refinement of the connection with the art. Something a bit more self-focused rather than product focused, perhaps. Usually reserved for advanced students, the masterclass - at least somewhat - suggests that there's other learning that must come first. Something more programmatic. Something more practical. Something "not advanced."

There are other ways to go with this word as well - thinking about music, a field that is where masterclass is used most often in reference to something performed, or performance. This is what I think masterclass in debating means - seeing debate less as something to be made and more as a performance.

A performance is about the moment and the experience of performing in that moment, with that context. The principles of this are much more focused on relationships, between the self and the audience. There is also a lot of focus on creation and generation, as well as reaction.

Thinking of debate as a product - something to be made in a workshop - this is about standards. This is about fitting expectations that exist in the world of the workshop. This isn't necessarily about an audience or a moment, but about making something that is high quality and built well. It is about meeting the expectations of the craftspeople with whatever your relationship to the work might be.

Debate workshops forge the tools that one uses in order to create tournament victories. Debate masterclasses allow one to work out the connections between oneself and one's debate performance. Seeing debate as a tool is not necessarily contrary to seeing debate as a performance if one sees a violin as a tool as well. Some people do.

The lack of anything other than debate workshops indicates where our thinking about debate lies. Against my better judgement I've watched a number of recent debate workshop lecture videos online. And the emphasis is on workshop.

Nothing but the bare bones. Direct delivery in a manner that most contemporary teaching theory would indicate doesn't work. No introduction or orientation at all - "Today my lecture is on. .  ." No questions for the audience to bat around. No, this is instructional in how to handle and make tools that have specifications to do certain jobs. That's it. There's no education happening in these videos. There is a better word for it - and it's often heard at debate workshops these days - "training." These lectures are clearly built on the assumption that debate is a skill in tool use, and those tools must then be surveyed, detailed, and students need practice in using them to make arguments.

Training for what? It seems as if it is a training that goes little beyond tournament utility. Then what? What use is it after the tournaments have come and gone?

Debate masterclass, in contrast, brings up the thing that most debaters don't want to discuss or confront - the uncertainty and lack of control of it all. Masterclasses highlight this lack of formulaic tools, and instead opt for exploring what is available to aid the performance - something that is always fleeting, especially in its most desirable form. Without a tournament, what will debate do for you? What relationship will you have with it? Imagine what pedagogy would look like with this mentality. For one, it would not look like shop class day one instruction, or on-the job factory training - a bland delivery mechanism of truths in the operation of machinery.

Debate workshops train people on how to build a road - how to level the ground, how to pour the asphalt, and most importantly, how to mark it with colored lines for use and limits. A masterclass is a walk in the woods, those same woods you went to last week, but are still unfamiliar. Very few markings exist. What you think are markings in an instructive pattern are created by your mind. Ephemeral, the walk does you good, but takes you nowhere. Roads are good for getting places, but the wilderness is good for figuring out where you are, and where you might want to spend your time. Debate as performance - that ancient and deeply rhetorical sensibility, has been blotted out nearly completely by the tournament-dominant theory of debate-as-skill.