The Well of Debate Tropes

Currently Playing: Loreena McKennitt - An Ancient Muse

The old issues of The Journal of the American Forensic Association are some of my favorite things to leaf through to generate thinking. This journal, edited by debate teachers, was filled with the thoughts of those who immersed themselves in debating as a vocation. As the 1980s became the 1990s, the inexplicable rise of embarrassment at being a "speech teacher' or "debate coach" infected the discipline, and the JAFA was converted into something "better," The current journal Argumentation & Advocacy. The move was meant to make a journal about the teaching of debate a place for greater and broader insight about argumentation and issues that impact the world. I'm pretty sure that less people read A&A than they did JAFA. At least with JAFA a younger student would be motivated to have a look to see if there was something there to help them improve. 

The loss of this journal, and the other debate journals that were out there, was a blow to the practice of valuable debate via a loss of the idea of community. Now there was no forum for aspirational discussion about what teaching and coaching debate should be about. Yet the demands of the institutions for debate programs to justify themselves was directly increasing. As communication departments expanded to include those scholars who came up in cultural studies and other disciplines, the questions about debating became more common in faculty meetings. Instead of a faculty that all came up assuming debate "had to be" a part of a department, these new arrivals rightly questioned the small size of the programs, their insularity, and the trigger of cost. With the loss of a larger collection of aspirational tropes in the pages of JAFA, coaches who were caught up in the tournament slog, who thought preparing for the season was both the activity and the goal, were unable to defend themselves or their programs from this scrutiny. This was the end of the "golden age" of collegiate debate, and sparked a number of developmental conferences on debate preservation as a reaction. You could argue that Sedalia was the only semi-proactive response to the threat posed by the shifting communicative landscape in higher education. 

This brings me to one of my favorite books - Kruger's Counterpoint, an edited collection of all of the best writing in journals like JAFA and others about the controversies that arose between thinking practitioners of debate education. In a lot of ways it reads to me today like the Hagakure, the collection of samurai wisdom put together by a former samurai who palpably felt the end of an era coming and wanted to preserve what was most important - the tropes, the points of invention for discourse about what it meant to be a samurai. Kruger's book, published in the 1960s, was pretty far away from the very quick obliteration of debate programs twenty years in his future. Kruger, oddly enough, spent a lot of his career at C.W. Post University, a scarce 30 minutes to an hour from here in Long Island. I occasionally jot a note to myself to make an appointment with the University Archivist there to see what might be hiding out in the stacks from his work. I also happen to have his textbook, Modern Debate, in my collection as well. For me he symbolizes a time when it was a point of pride to be someone in the field of communication who not only taught speech production, oralcy, and verbal argument and debate, but who thought about it a lot, and who put their thoughts to paper to share with others. 

Such slowness of practice has immense value for the aspirational discussion about what we do when we teach debate, which then becomes a well of tropes we can draw from when times get tough. When the pressure is on from the administration to justify your cost, space, time, and energy we would have a resource. But it's all dried up. The loss of this community has been gleefully replaced with a community of critics who wind up accidently giving credit to forms of debate and speech that probably don't deserve that legitimation (i.e. an expert critiquing a political speech unwittingly or unwillingly confers upon it the status of "political speech" which draws some immediate borders in the imagination) and on the other side a community of people who are happy to teach eristics to their students because they have an intense faith that the practice of winning tournament after tournament is somehow going to teach them how to be excellent at crafting persuasive speeches, convincing arguments, and interesting debates. The "good" always comes later in critiques of debate teaching, that somewhere down the road debate will translate into success for them in life because it gives them "skills" or "portable skills" or "tools" or whatever. Such separation of the art of debating and oral production of argument from its context is like suggesting that a handful of false teeth is the equivalent of a mouth for chewing. Those who are interested in the teaching and learning of debate have to be satisfied with short, passing interactions in hallways of tournament competitions where a few ideas can be exchanged but only quickly as there is a round to judge, students to check on. Rarely is time given for the deep dive on the aspirational aims of debate education. In fact, we can count them! Sedalia, Sedalia 2, Quail Roost, and The Wake Forest University session. All suffer from a new fallacy I'm playing with that I call the "productive bias." It works by assuming that if we have produced something, we've done something or accomplished something. All these conferences have produced similar documents that make similar claims and demands on the university. All have been similarly ignored by the University, and life goes on. 

I hoped to perhaps start a return to the slow, thoughtful exchange of ideas about the teaching of argument production. Without the recovery of teachers talking to one another in their capacity and identity as teachers, we don't really have a chance of recovering inventional resources for the defense of debate.  My library has the full run of JAFA which I was hoping to digitize. You see, the journal exists only on microfilm or print. Since I doubt there is anyone out there willing to send me a whole print run of the journal, I thought it would be good to use one of the two microfilm machines (how things have changed) that the library owns in order to convert the run into PDF. This request was denied by the librarians, who not only are rightly concerned about the time I might spend monopolizing the machine, they also are wrongly concerned about copyright. If only it could be communicated how little my field cares about any conversation about teaching students how to make oral argument or persuade well - we are now in the business of creating critics of speeches. The turn of JAFA into A&A is pretty good evidence of what we value: commentary from expert receivers of speech instead of conversation from practitioners sharing and addressing issues in invention. 

A full PDF run of JAFA would have numerous benefits, most obviously the ability to full-text search the range of the journal for key words like "teaching" or "argument" and trace how those conversations played out over 30 or 40 years. I might still just surreptitiously begin this project with what little free time I have and just be patient.  It would eventually be worth it. More to come on this as I get ready for a day of listening to debate speeches, something that the ideological and hegemonic voices of the university and the field of communication tell me, in my head, is a waste of time, that I should be writing something for QJS. Both exercises, ironically, will involve the exact same number of people - about ten. 



Great Extinctions

When we think about the loss of biodiversity, it evokes the idea of loss of variety, the loss of a diversity of creatures that, in essence, share a number of common traits. They have the same genus, and from that, they specialized, adapted, and spread out into their environments. 

Here's some evidence that we've suffered catastrophic losses in debate biodiversity (assuming you are with me in the idea of an equivalent sense of biodiversity for intellectual practices). This chart, taken from Nichols & Baccus's 1936 volume, Modern Debating, hoped to guide the reader through the dizzying array of different events that would be called debate. For students in the early 20th century, debate could take on many forms, and these forms could all co-exist. 

Today what do we have? We seem to have a number of forms, but our entire tree is structured from the roots of the tournament. CX, LD, PF, CEDA, NDT, NPDA, NPTE, APDA, EUDC, North-Ams, BP, CUSID BP Nats, USU, WUDC.  All acronyms, save one, and all derived from types of debating done for one purpose - tournament style contests. 

Take a look at the variety on the above chart and think - if such a chart were made today, there would only be one line - the argumentation line - and on it would be all the competitive formats. The persuasive line - where debaters reached out in a competitive sense to broader audiences - has evaporated. 

The division the authors make is interesting to say the least - argumentative forms are more competitive forms: These are the types of debate that focus on competition the way we understand it today. Persuasive forms are more general: They can be competitive or not - really depends on the audience.

Perhaps the division is one of audience. Persuasive forms focus on an audience with a high concentration of members of the public. Argumentative forms focus on an audience that has little to no public. However in 1936 it is hard to imagine a debate contest that wouldn't draw community interest. Today we don't have to expend any effort to imagine that. 

Today's chart would be one line. Purely argumentative. We don't even bother teaching debate students anything from the persuasion line. In fact, recent attempts to help debate pedagogically, such as the Guide to Debate produced before WUDC Malaysia, attempt to flatten the distinction: What is argumentative is persuasive, and vice versa. Why keep the distinction when the people watching and evaluating your debates are so homogeneous that the consideration of variance in how they hear you has been eliminated with a joyful medical precision?

Most current collegiate debaters would see the loss of the persuasive line as no big loss at all. Those are side projects to the "real" work of debating. Others would say the distinction is false: Contemporary debate focuses on persuasion. I wonder. What would be needed, and what would be the value, to teach all these forms in a contemporary debate program? The monopoly of tournament contest ideology is a difficult regime to break. Returning to history might be a good way to show the impermanence and newness of the "tournament as debate" model of debate instruction that is thoughtlessly reproduced pedagogically across the world.



Montana bound

I no longer prep like I used to.

Perhaps it is a sign of maturing as a teacher. Perhaps it is a sign of becoming comfortable with the role. More darkly - perhaps it is a sign of being over it, of losing feeling for it.

I'm thousands of feet in the air above the middle if the US writing notes for a weekend of debating workshops I am conducting in Billings at Rocky Mountain college.

I'm certainly excited about the rhetorical situation. At no other time in debate history have students and programs been able to choose and switch back and forth between formats. At other times the splits and changes came with forced allegiances. But not at this moment in debating history.

Many factors are involved in the appearance of that possibility. I won't detail them here. Only one concerns me, and it is a consequence. Debating, in a multiformat world, is as close to the rhetorical field as it has ever been.

We are finally, in explicit debating practice, allowed - no, forced as teachers - to consider format as such, as a structure, as something chosen and applied, as something to prepare for sans debate. We must teach it oppositionally, as a Roman would learn the distinction between the court and the senate. And hopefully understand chat at the circus maximus as its own distinct demanding form as well.

In short, debating has acquired historicity, if we are wise enough to use it. The elements are here already! See them come rolling off the tounges of those who defend "real debate" versus the strange new interloper of WUDC! All we should hear is the lapping of the currents of a river of history that seemed always to have stopped flowing at a perfect format years before we arrived. Debate was form. Form was not discussed in a way we can now, and must, take it up.

We as debate teachers, have more to do and more to do it with than ever before. And it's not saddled with specifics, but with dynamics. Interplay and difference rule where once there was no way to discuss form as option.

That's why I am comfortable. That's why I am not producing copious notes to help me teach a transition to a new format. And that's why I can't help but smile as I jot down ideas for my sessions.

I've not lost interest, I'm just finding a familiar flavor surprisingly new again as debate ferments with rhetoric. I hope it turns out to be a good vintage.


Yuzen, a buddhist monk from the Sōtō Zen sect ...
Yuzen, a buddhist monk from the Sōtō Zen sect begging at Oigawa, Kyoto. Begging is part of the training of some Buddhist sects. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It's one thing to go around spouting off Buddhist quotes because they sound good, or because they are apt to the situation/audience (like a good Sophist does, so I try to do). It's another thing when you encounter a moment that really hits you, where you are so squarely and so completely struck that the only thing that can be thought is that everything, all of it, all the things you've been reading and thinking about for years, all those things that swim around in your head, are all true. I have never been persuaded like this before, but this happened to me in Philadelphia this past weekend.

What I thought was, or what thought me, or what struck me was this - everything is connected. This very simple propositional idea from Buddhism that is at the core of any koan, any Dharma talk, any quote, or any stura that you may come across.

A large part of my recent troubles has been brought about by my own anxiety driven desire to have a compartmentalized existence. This is clearly not only impossible, but so incredibly imaginary there is no way to make it plausible even inside the fantasy. It is a fantasy of fantasy.

The reality is that my problems are all mine, and mine alone and I get to be with them forever if I want to be. The reality is also that it's incredibly easy to blame other things for my issues. But the best reality out of all of these is that when I go a bit too far, or blame too much on external factors, the universe nicely snaps back with clean and clear reminders that I have ordered things this way.

What is actually going on though? Everything. The elements I would rather not have in my life are providing me excellent people, conversations, experiences, thoughts, and being. The things I would like to fill my life with are providing me with sadness, misery, want, lack and frustration. Of course both of these sentences can be easily flipped back and forth. So there really is no way out. Which is fine. Because "no way out" - the recognition of it, is the way out. Until you think of it that way, then the door is shut. No escape.

I know this is a bit extreme, but it was an extreme weekend. I had a great time. I was reminded of a lot. I forgot a lot. I thought a lot. I tried to speak French in front of Independence Hall. I drank a bit too much. And I was very happy to be there. Not just there at my friends' wedding but very happy to be there.

Tomorrow it's time to teach debate again, and I wonder what other connections will appear/be revealed.  There are a lot of vehicles toward realization, and teaching debate seems to be the one I am in right now.
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2012: Summer of Debating

I did not plan, and usually don't plan to have debate in my summers, but this summer has been an exception.  Opportunities to do some off the path teaching for me have been too hard to turn down.

I've recently returned from my first event with the International Debate Education Association (IDEA) in Leon, Mexico where I finally saw Karl Popper Debating live and in person. I find this format to be not as bad as the rumors suggested, but it could use some small adjustments. The people most qualified to do the adjusting are of course those who are coaching and participating in the format.

KPDC 2012: Should We Track The Associates of Convicted Terrorists? from Steve Llano on Vimeo.

Here is a video I took of a debate between Tunisia and Japan on the question of whether or not we should monitor the friends and family of convicted terrorists. I think it's a pretty good debate, but one thing stuck out at me the whole time I watched Karl Popper Debate - the format is a graft, it is totally created and is artificial. It isn't something that has room to evolve or grow. I think the reason behind this is that it was a format that was created by some American debate professors years ago and nobody feels they have the ethos to change it.

It's a good format due to its simplicity, ability to handle a number of different types of motions, and the complexity of elements in it like cross-examination and rebuttal speeches. I would like to research the history of this format, how it was made and what elements were rejected. It would be a great paper I think and would elucidate a lot of these issues that I see under the surface of the format.

Along with the KPDC and the workshop there, I am currently in Houston, Texas visiting family while I wait for the Houston Urban Debate League to kick off their summer debating institute on Sunday. Looking forward to this as it's another first -  I've never formally worked with the Urban Debate League, and I'm quite excited. I'll be doing that workshop for about 7 days, then eventually head back to New York.
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Infrequently Asked Questions

Circle-no-questions (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Why do I feel that coming to an event like this, ostensibly only about debating, do I find more people interested in my research and interested in my writing than I found among the professors in my field that I studied with in graduate school?

Why is it that "the choice" - that you have to either become a debate coach OR a scholar, seem so incredibly silly when I am at these events? 

Perhaps it's because that NCA or field of rhetoric "old guard" who assume debate is for immature thinkers to gain maturity, or for students to be introduced to rhetorical or communication theory, but after that it really is for those malformed thinkers that could have been scholars, but failed/chose not too/couldn't cut it, are not present, and would never be present at an event that centers around teenage students, high school students, or beginning undergraduates. If this is true, how do you persuade these reviewers that debate, as a practice, as a living thing, is just as valuable as the discourse of Mitt Romney for the study of rhetoric? Does pointing at how English Composition departments are ahead of us in this respect help?

Why is it so clear that there is a field-wide bias against debate in the scholarship of the field of rhetoric, mostly perpetuated by senior scholars who either practiced debate as an undergraduate, or perhaps couldn't "cut it" as debaters, like the negativity I experienced toward debating as an undergraduate from particular scholars in my rhetoric department at that time?

Flipping the classroom is a popular idea in teaching right now. Could debate serve as a place which we can innovate, as it traditionally has in the field of rhetoric, by flipping the scholarship of the field in an analogous way? Imagine journals containing the narratives of experiential learning from debaters that are explored in the 50 minutes of your University class for connections or disruptions to theories that often take on no more reality for students than that of a spectral powerpoint slide?

How do you persuade scholars of argument that they have the best living laboratory in which to workshop ideas, test theories, and explore the limits of propositional argumentation as an idea every weekend at a campus near them?
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I was wrong about being wrong about debate videos

BERLIN - JANUARY 16:  A visitor walks among do...
 (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)
Now, after just having written about how I think debate videos are bad, let me explain why I think it is incredibly important to keep making them.

A couple of months ago, my external hard disk died very suddenly. I was really sad about it, because I knew I had lost some data I didn't back up. I wasn't exactly sure what was on that disk, but that's what I get for not backing up regularly.

I didn't throw it away, just kept it on a shelf and forgot about it.  The other day I plugged it in and it worked!

On this disk were a lot of debate videos. But not just rounds, videos of people between rounds, videos of conversations about debates, and other such material.  I started uploading it to the cloud right away as I wasn't sure when this HDD would fail again.

The videos are pretty silly - lots of post round conversation, lots of practices and practice speeches, all kinds of debate rounds from various tournaments that, for whatever reason, I never got around to uploading. Looking at some of them made me realize that I've been here at St. John's for longer than I concieve of it in my mind, and it made me a bit nostalgic for the early days.

However, this material is a lot more valuable than just that. These videos are our history. They are a set of practices and norms of communication. These videos are a record of those practices that we take for granted. In the future, they might be eye-opening for people interested in our communicative norms or our approach to debating.

We are lucky to be participating in global debate at a time when digital video is inexpensive and storage media are decreasing in cost. It's time to start considering seriously the idea of a digital archive for debating.

The most frustrating thing that I have had to deal with in recent years was arriving at St. John's University to reboot (using the term like they do in film) the debate program. The previous director retired, and left not one piece of paper or any type of information about the team anywhere.

This was frustrating because I knew what it meant: I was going to have to re-invent the wheel. I was going to have to chase down every dead end that he probably did. Audio video technology did not exist in the easy and cheap form it does for us, but what about some notes? Handwritten acccounts or reflections? Meeting minutes? History, if it is anything, are records of practices.

But more important than that is all the lost stories about the old team. In our Debate Facility which we call the Debate Dojo, there are numerous trophies extending back to the 1950s. They sit as silent witnesses to a team dynamic that may well be lost. It might seem hard to believe, but practitioners of debate in 20 or 30 years from now might really want to know what it was like to be at your IV, or be a member of your debate club. In a couple of hundred years, who knows what might interest those people. The videos we produce and preserve seem somewhat silly to us, but future practitioners will find them incredibly valuable.

I'm trying to recover those stories by starting a program of interviewing alumni and trying to get a sense of what it was like to be on the team during different eras. I try to shoot some candid conversation shots here and there to get a sense of what's on peoples' minds. I also, of course, shoot as many debates as I can. Even looking at some of these older debates gives me a sense of the trajectory of style in debating here in the Northeastern U.S. It might turn out to be an interesting catalog of the changes in persuasive style over the years.

At the University of Pittsburgh, where I received my Ph.D., there is a cabinet in a small room near the debate squad room. Years ago, a coach of the William Pitt Debating Union decided to record public debates on a reel to reel tape player. I found a player and tried to archive these recordings to mp3 in order to start a digital debate history project. Unfortunately, my time was limited and I was unable to see the project through.

In my view, it's great that those tapes exist whether many people can listen to them or not. At least someone can listen to them and get a sense of what debate was like in the 1950s. I listened to several debates between Pitt and the University of Vermont - and they were nothing like any style of debate that currently exists. More than that, these recordings are amazing evidence of the practices of a different era. Listening to them and thinking about them provide an irreplaceable way to reflect on your own practices, to see what was valued and what we value now in debating.

I think it's vital we create digital archives similar to this analog one that sits in Pittsburgh. Here at St. John's we have a new graduate program in public history. These graduate students will be working with new methods for digital archive and information preservation. I hope to get them interested in my project and provide a nice resource for those interested in working on the history of debate practices. We might not think it matters, and we might even feel strange about making these recordings. But in 100 years some scholar will look at them and gasp - for she will have seen something that makes our era click for her in a way that allows a greater understanding of what we are up to for these people who we will never meet (but would love to).
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Teaching Debate From The Wrong Book

It's late and I should have gone home a while ago. I did plan on going straight home but it's just too tempting to go talk and have a drink with my fantastic colleague and a brilliant graduate student (and former student of her's).

We are talking about strategy, for the most part. How to approach difficult situations and how to act in the best sense, given a dicey situation. The University is full of such moments and such issues. And normally, I love thinking about strategy.

For most of my life one book has governed my approach to it. That book is Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi. And if you have spoken to me for around ninety seconds, you know this book is very central to my way of thinking.

Musashi identifies strategy as central to the art of being a samurai. However, this is not his major point. He defines strategy as being "all things with no teacher." Suddenly, strategy seems to be the ideal of the University. Well, the ideal of a University that used to be, and an ideal they never quite live up to. We might be too specialized for this to really be a thing we do anymore, but I like to hold out hope and be naive. You'll get that if you talk to me for thirty seconds.

This fantastic conversation reminded me why I dig what I do. But also, through the course of it, I kept thinking about a book that is marginally related, but quite a split away from Musashi's book: Shantideva's The Way of the Bodhisattva.  This book is about how to develop an enlightened sense of relation to others - and basically suggests that you connect to both your impermanence and the impermanence of others while at the same time recognizing the limitless potential of each moment of existence. Basically, realize that you are the Universe, and that you are inevitably going to end one day. How could you hold a grudge, or begrudge others if you realize that?  

I kept thinking about that book and about the approaches in that book for developing Bodhisattva consciousness - basically a kind heart. Musashi isn't really into that, surprisingly enough. He is much more into being fluid and flexible and rolling with the moment so you can beat others in combat.  But he's also suggesting the use of this idea for the creation of paintings, poetry, art and other works.

It was my colleague who then brought up Levinas as a response to a discussion about Camus and his question of why not suicide. Levinas, someone who I should pay more attention to, sort of showed me through her comments that these books are not as unrelated as I made them out to be in my mind.

Strategy: Have I had the wrong book this whole time? Probably not. I have had both books on my shelf for many years. After this night though, I have them much closer to one another.

To be strategic just might include struggling to understand why you consider yourself so distinct from the Universe. To deploy strategy might be to take actions that lead to better understanding of yourself no matter what happens.

This might make it impossible to lose a debate. But that is for another post.

"My enemies shall cease to be. My friends
and I myself shall one day cease to be. And
all is likewise destined for destruction."
This quote from Shantideva is one of my favorites. If all things are related in their fundamental and inevitable end, why hold so tightly to them?

Perhaps the practice of debate helps to address this question. But remember: I am hopeful and naive. A better answer would be - Perhaps debate helps us ask this question in a better way.

Debate as a practice of realizing your fragility, your impossible existence and your inevitable demise. Debate as a struggle with the self as subject. This is a model of debate practice I can get behind.

Is it contradictory to Musashi's teachings?

At first thought, no, not that much. Upon deeper reflection, not at all. But Musashi's spirituality/theology is less developed than Shantideva's - writing a long time before Musashi, and from within a religion that had not gone through the temporal, political, and cultural filters that allowed it to diffuse into Musashi's flavor of Buddhism - Zen.

A defense of debating from non individualistic, fatalistic premises. Now that could never be a bad book from which to start teaching advocacy.
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The Irish Times Debate in New York

Irish Times clock on the new building at Towns...
Irish Times clock on the new building at Townsend Street, Dublin. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This is our second time hosting the Irish Times debate champions in New York. We were very pleased that the NPDA and the Times chose us as the anchor point for the start of this tour.

The debate we had was quite good. The Irish debaters are more Irish Times format debaters and not BP/Worlds debaters, which made for an interesting BP/Worlds debate.

Since I was hosting the debaters at my house, there was plenty of time to discuss debate and the various issues surrounding it. The best part was the critiques of BP/Worlds format offered by the Irish debaters:

1. Worlds format has too fast a delivery to be meaningful.

2. Arguments that are automatically persuasive in Worlds format would never be persuasive, or hardly ever persuasive, outside of that particular audience.

3. The debate is too technical, and people make a large amount of arguments in each speech

This sounds familiar, doesn't it? Worlds is more like Policy debate than we realized.

I suppose any style of debate, modified for competition would lean toward these issues. As the audience becomes cut off from the general public, the audience demands more specialty from the speakers. Ironically, this marking is under the rubric of "more persuasive" argumentation.

How far down does the rabbit hole go?

Here is the public debate we had with the Irish, in Worlds format. I hope you enjoy it!

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Championship Debates from the Northeastern US

Here they are all together for your viewing pleasure, the elimination debates from the recent Northeastern Universities Debating Championships (NEUDC).



There is a quarterfinal video, but for whatever reason, it always has an error or some problem when I upload it. It will eventually appear on this post, so keep an eye out for it.