A Very Special Collection


Started my work in the special collections at the University of Maryland this week and I have to say, it’s incredible what I’ve already discovered in these documents. It was well worth the trip. There are a lot of documents missing that would make things a bit clearer, but I’m already sitting at 1000% more information about this stuff than I was last week.

The project is tracing down who, and why, German university debaters came on a debate tour of the United States in 1930. I found a transcript in those old books that I love that are collections of debate speeches from across the country. If you have read this blog you know about the Edith Phelps Debater’s Annuals. So far I have found two transcripts of German debates against American debaters on the question of military readiness.

There’s a passing mention by Phelps as to who was behind hosting these debates, so I went down that path and found it to be a rabbit hole. There are three, possibly more, organizations that rose out of World War 1 that have the express purpose to generate international understanding and goodwill among young people, often high school and university aged students, and they all have similar names. They all also have offices in New York City. So most of today was sorting out who was in charge of what and what they thought they were doing.  

The weirdest thing so far is the obsession these organizations have with hygiene and self-help. I’m not sure what the latter term means, I think it means getting the money or support together yourself to go to university. The first term is pretty clear. Although to the credit of one organization that was having a large, international conference on student self-help, one of the organizers wrote to a government official (not really sure who he was as his response letter doesn’t appear in the archive) asking him to make sure the students pass through Ellis Island 2nd class passengers not the steerage rate, as they are university students who are only traveling that way as that’s what the money could provide. Such a shame if their welcome was to go through that “process.” Not sure what it entailed, but I could imagine a pretty invasive and embarrassing examination of the body. Times haven’t changed that much. 

Tomorrow I’ll go in more detail though the boxes. Today was cut short - only a couple of hours of research - because Uber drivers here in Maryland (or the DC area) are incompetent. I have had the worst trips I’ve had in a while today. I even think one driver racially profiled me: When I got into the car he was playing some great hip-hop stuff, then it suddenly changed to old country. Do I look like an old country fan? I am a middle aged guy. I’m not sure I like this racial profiling thing.  

I hope to connect more dots tomorrow. Today I got a lot of great information but sadly it only opens the case further. More research to be done. Now there are a number of debate tours I have to track down. So far there’s an Oxford tour, an English Universities tour (would love to get the difference there!), Scottish (although in the secretary’s hand in the margin there is a note “Nothing mentions Scotland in the files, did he misspeak?” In talking about a typed dictation from the President of the organization), a Dutch tour, and a Turkish one. Tracking these down is going to be pretty time consuming but might be a really great piece of debate and higher education history. And here we are, thinking that international experiences are still kind of unusual for undergraduates.

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. 



The Lost Debate Pedagogy

The 1930 Wiley College debate team. Wells is i...
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From the 1906 version of An Introductory Course in Argumentation by Francis Perry. He's why he arranged the textbook the way he did:
In the first place, the student is practiced in the processes of argumentation without the added difficulty of research. No teacher of narration begins his work by demanding that a student write a historical romance requiring serious preliminary study of the period in which it is placed -- he begins, rather, with simple pieces of work exercising the student's power of imagination on material that lies within his experience. The beginner in the study of argumentation should, in like manner, be set to work to exercise his reasoning power on familiar material. This is not a loss, but a gain. Even advanced students, when allowed to write at the start on subjects upon which they must 'read up' develop little power to argue; they too often count their work done when they have gathered from a  book and summarized the arguments of another. The student required to argue on material already at his command finds pleasure in turning it over, seeing it in new lights, in new relations, with new significance, and argument seems to him serviceable and pleasant work. I do not, however, advocate suiting endeavor to power, and at the close of the course the student is instructed in methods of research with the epxectation that he will be ready to encounter added difficulties. (5-6)
This seems like sound pedagogy to me for debating, and makes a hell of a lot of sense for teaching WUDC debate. However, I think I used to do this when I taught American Policy debate (I'd always start with the motion "Resolved: We should go to the movies." You can teach any policy debate theory concept in a tiny amount of time if you make people work with this).

I think this pedagogy isn't really followed much today - whenever people think of debate or the teaching of debate they think "facts first" or set up a component for finding information first then use the debate as a technology of dissemination. This might be good for teaching research skills, but as Perry rightly points out, this backgrounds debate to an instrument of teaching research, and risks ruining the whole thing.

Since it was written in 1906, the "switch-side" movement did not exist. Perry is a "convictionist" debate coach - helping students refine beliefs they come to by other means. He continues:
The subject is further simplified by leaving persuasion out of consideration until the student understands conviction. This too, is a gain; the student who begins by suiting his argument to the hearer too often comes to value sophistry above thoroughness and accuracy; like a sharp bargainer he prides himself more on a fraudulent victory than on an honest one. (6)
Contrary to Perry's conventional use of the terms "persuasion" and "sophistry," his style of teaching debate might actually be more properly "sophistic" in the sense that the debate teacher becomes a hired adviser, irrelevant of position or stance of the client. Switch-side debate, after reading Perry, struck me as more properly "Platonic" due to a heavy investment in the theory behind dialectic. Socrates often worked from assigning positions, although they were derived from statements of conviction from those participating in the dialogue. Plato assigned positions in writing each dialogue. The extant sophistic speeches, minus Encomium for Helen, were not produced this way, but used a kernel of conviction (i.e. "I didn't kill that person, I am innocent") as the start of constructing the speech they were hired to write for Athenian courts. I wonder if the convictionists are onto something here. We don't know that much about how they taught; we do know a bit about what they believed they were teaching.

I am assuming that the portrait we get of Melvin Tolson from The Great Debaters is a two dimensional caricature designed to serve the familiar plot of film rather than advance our understanding of the issue unraveled. Tolson is the convictionist's convictionist in the film - but surely he was more strategic in his teaching than what the film depicted. Can we consider Tolson's methods sophistic? Not properly, no - he is much more like Socrates in the film. But that is most likely a device for our entertainment benefit. Tolson might be the first modern debate coach in the sense that he thought he was teaching students the "right way to think" about politics, ethics, and the world or debate as "truth finding" - something we see far too much of in contemporary coaching methods in the US. I don't think convictionists would agree that this is the right way to teach debate either. I think their position, if Perry is a good example, is a bit more nuanced than that. As I have it from these short passages, it seems like it is "Find out what the student believes and is interested in. Explore the structure of it. Have them speak about it. Have them consider effective ways of presenting it. Then go research it further."

I wonder what other pedagogical insights we have lost from the dominance of the switch-side theory. Is there value in perusing a project to recover the convictionist teaching methods?

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