The Archive

I had the best time this week going to the University of Maryland special collections. I spent about three days there and that was a good amount of time. However I feel like I could just look at old stuff in the archives forever and not get bored. Seems like there’s a lot of it there. 



This is just a small part of the media archive which one of the archivists took me around to see. Most of this is history of broadcasting stuff - old TV broadcasts, films, transcripts and the like. I thought that the library might have a collection of transcripts or some recordings of the National Student Federation weekly broadcasts they did during the 1930s - often on the subject of the role of the university student in politics or the depression. My assumption is once the war came these broadcasts probably stopped. The NSF was very interested in being anti-military, anti-war, pacifist, and helping students build communes in order to make university affordable. I can’t think of a more relevant political platform for 2018 for students.

Archival material doesn’t have much value on its own no matter how it was acquired. It gets value through a process of rhetorical invention which is more hermeneutic than anything else. The researcher goes to the archive for sources for her arguments. She looks at the material with a sense of “what it is” in her head. The result is the genesis of persuasive rhetoric that explains the past to the present. This does not mean the archive has been used up. On the contrary, it should be preserved for a re-visit by another scholar over some time.

These materials are valuable because of their inventional capacity. The idea is they help us create a world based on what came before. This can happen by mimetic property: “They faced these same issues and did X,” or it can come through an identification: “They thought like we do, we think like they did, they recognized things about politics or the world that we feel are very modern, etc.” It can also come through recognition of a scene or a slate of possibilities as familiar to us today, as I did just above in my thinking about the NSF.


What helps us avoid a charge of revisionism here? I think this question is only relevant if you are doing a particular kind or type of history, a modality of history that even historians would consider to be oversimplistic and a bit rediculous. That modality is one where we recover the past to know what happened. We determine the facts and then we know about that time. No historian, I hope, does this sort of work. If they do, they are not really that interested in the critical application of history for today - it’s more of a sort of preservation of really nice dishes that are never used. That sort of preservation has value I suppose, but it’s a lot more dangerous to believe one has accessed or acquired the past rather than one has objects and texts from the past that need interpretation for us here and now. It is that operation that gives the archive value.

I had a great time talking to the archivist about some of the political issues involved in archiving. One is a shift in mindset by archives to be a lot more about product not process. A horrifying statement to anyone who works in composition or rhetoric to be sure. What he means is that there’s a trend for archivists to consider themselves creators of knowledge instead of just the custodians of a set of materials who investigate, sort, and make labels for that set. This seems like a good change as they can articulate what the archive itself means. In fact, there are people who do work on the history of the archive - meta to be sure, but meta interesting.

Finally there’s the archivist question of value. There’s limited space and limited labor to classify everything, but then there’s also limited understanding of what might be important in the future. How many rediculous coffee cups or jackets should be preserved in a collection? What if you toss the one set of forks that really matters for future research? This sort of thing seems very pressing and interesting and there’s no good answer. A question of situational reasoning to be sure, and worth some study.

It was a great visit, and I got a lot out of it. I made some vlogs about it, but the hotel internet and my hotspot were way too underpowered to upload what I made. I’ve been using Lumia Fusion on the iPad and I love it. It’s the perfect video editor for me - very basic and to the point. However my little iPad barely has the memory to hold the rendered files, so it would be good to be able to upload them right away. Once I’m home this afternoon it should be no problem. It was pretty annoying not to be able to post those videos every day. They’ll be up here soon.

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.