Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Debate process and the koan

It fell out from the back of the book I was flipping through, looking for a quote for a piece I am writing about conceptualizing debate as a spiritual practice.

Upon seeing this paper, in a book on koans, of all things, made me realize that debating, for me, has always invoked a certain rhetoric of connection.

In the Buddhist traditions, statements such as "here is there, there is here" are so frequent to be commonplace. The rhetoric of such utterances is meant to de-center the comfortable position of subject vs. object when relating to the world. Instead of critiquing that position, or offering an alternative, Buddhism's rhetoric attempts to provide a comfort with the dis-comfortable notion that such dichotomies are both constructed and real, both something that we have made and something that exists out there that we must take into our accounting. This reformation of the relationship of things to self is hardly a reformation at all in one sense. The koan acts to disrupt the belief that these relationships are not constructs simply because they are constructs. It's moving around the items on your desk precisely to place them all back where they just were, but you know that they can be arranged.

Debate functions this way, and I've written some about the relationship of the koan to debating. But thinking of the entire process of debating as a pedagogical practice stretches the limits beyond just the act of debating. It stretches them to include the travel, the people, and the milling about as a part of the practice of debating. The people on this list, and me, have been moved around by debating. Are we where we were as subjects? Perhaps so, perhaps we are a little different. But the point is that we have been moved in a way that allows the chance to recognize the potential for the movement of that we consider subject and that we consider object in the world.

Does debate fundamentally change people? This seems to be something that we agree on and share narratives about. But how does it change them? The traditional explanations that it makes people critical thinkers, better lawyers, or the like become less persuasive when we try to identify the elements of debate practice that link up with critical thinking as defined by most CT scholars. When we try to find things analogous to law school or the practice of law, we find more differences and gaps present between debating and practicing law. Perhaps the practice of debate itself, in all of its elements is a koan, designed to dissociate our conception of self vs. others, subject vs. object from reality and into a space of fungibility, a place where we realize most of these relationships are posited and convincing, that they are things we have invented that have the force of the real, in all of that immutable sense we associate with reality.

This receipt tucked into this book about koans serves as a koan for me. Who were these people? Where were we going? Where are we going? Who are we now? Without debate, things would be just as they are - it doesn't have that huge an impact. With debate, things would be as they are - it doesn't have that huge an impact. The practice of debating changes everything in exactly this way.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Explain It To Us!

English: Bakhtin in the twenties. Español: Mij...
English: Bakhtin in the twenties. Español: Mijaíl Bajtín en los años '20. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Not everything is meant to be accessible to the public. The definition of "public intellectual" these days seems to be someone associated with a university who is a professional explainer. Someone who can reduce what research they are doing into terms that are immediately and unquestionably valuable to the general public.

This recent post about a podcast pairing comedians and academics shows the danger of limiting this definition of public intellectual. Here we have an interesting idea of smashing up two different ways of talking (and therefore knowing) about the world - comedians and scholars - in order to provide a result of understanding the scholar's world to the audience. This heteroglossic experiment unfortunately has saddled itself with the burden of a filter - the host decides ahead of time what research is accessible to the audience, and it primarily seems to be hard science. The host is not meeting his or her own obligation of letting the dialogue craft the accessibility. It's a trick, designed to get the sort of accessibility that he or she wants, even before the languages are allowed to combine, clash and blend.

Mikhail Bakhtin's idea that one speaks in a language that is permeated with other meanings from the contexts in which is it crafted - polysemy - led him to believe that novels were an amazing environment where you could pit different languages - that is, ways of speaking against one another. This would reveal how different we speak to one another for sure, but more importantly, it would result in some verbal mash-ups that might create new ways of speaking about, and therefore knowing, the social world of human beings. Humans speak differently to different people from different classes and different roles in society. This is what he means when he uses the term heteroglossia. The novel is where we become aware of these different discourses, and we become aware of our ignorance about how language works us over.

Why filter the podcast? Seems like the combination of a scholar and some comedians would work itself out, if Bakhtin is right (he has a few books that you can read if you want him to really prove his case). However, there's a much more dangerous aspect to this podcast and the way it is set up - the podcast, under the guise of explanation, is an agent of the continuous flattening of explanation and knowledge that we face in our era: The reduction of everything to hard data.

If hard data is most accessible to people, it's because they are comfortable with the idea of hard data, not necessarily the data. This comfort might not be warranted - any scientist will tell you that data needs a good heuristic in order to be meaningful. A bad heuristic can lead to some bad conclusions - and the heuristic is only as good as one's knowledge about how the data was collected and in what capacity it is being measured.

The audience needs a dose of discomfort, if ethics mean anything here. That discomfort should come in the form of hearing a humanistic discourse about a contemporary problem, and watching the comedians attempt to address it using their own, inappropriate, language. The result could be a new way of understanding understanding, showing the audience that science and social science is but one way of addressing our problems. There are many ways to confront the questions we face, and some of the best lead to a deep sense of uncertainty. What better way to carefully introduce audiences comfortable with the pleasure of hard-data than through a comedic mash up with scholarly humanistic theories?

Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrects-Tyteca offer a check on the speaker, the rhetor, to ensure he or she is being ethical. They call it the Universal Audience. What it is is your imagination crafting the audience you wish to speak to, not the actual audience. You use this created audience as a check against anything you might say in order to avoid pandering to the actual audience - giving them what they want more than what they might need. The Universal Audience has the added side-effect of boosting the quality of actual audiences, providing them not only engaging material presented well, but a bit of a boost in quality, giving them something a bit more complex than they expected. We could think about this as a small puzzle, or a moment of confusion about something they might believe. This, over time, raises the quality of the audience. It also ensures that the person, or people addressing the audience hold themselves accountable for the meanings they are permeating through their rhetoric.

In this case, there's no universal audience at play. We have pandering to the audience. And as anyone who speaks for a living - such as teachers - can tell you, what you expect your audience to be capable of is often what you get. You get it because you create it. And in this case, we are not going to get public intellectuals. We are going to get audiences comfortable that they know all about things that are probably best left uncertain, or out of reach.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

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.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

How Was Your Summer Debate Institute? A Few Questions

Summer's over folks, and that means back to the classroom for most of us. The positive spin is that debate begins to heat up with the return of the regular competitive debating season in the United States. September also means the ramp-up to WUDC as well, with the first big IVs coming along in Europe and Asia.

Many debaters spend some portion of the summer at a summer debate institute, or "debate camp" as we call them colloquially. Here are a few questions to evaluate the quality of your summer institute experience. Think about them next spring when you are making summer institute plans.

I ask these questions because I believe most debate institutes would not pass basic university quality control standards, regardless of the accrediting institution. I also believe most instruction given by debate coaches at summer institutes is a model of teaching that has been rejected across the university and supposedly opposed by most debate educators - the banking model, identified by Paulo Friere. Furthermore, I think most of the teaching practices and the information given to the students in these sessions would be grounds for dismissal if university faculty were to teach this way.

Here's the list. Think about the implications for pedagogy, and for your ability to take the summer institute experience and use it to advance your education, not just your win-loss percentage.

How many times were you involved in direct instruction (i.e. lectures, a model of instruction where someone talks to you in a group and you listen more than you speak)?

How many times were you involved in sessions where you talk with your fellow students more than an instructor talks to you?

How much time was reserved each day for reading articles and books?

How many times were you asked to present summaries of your research to your peers?

How many times were you taught an issue of politics, economics, history or another subject by someone whose only credentials were that they were a debate coach or a "winning" debater?

How often were you given instruction by someone who is an expert in something other than the format of debating or winning competitive debates?

How often were you asked by an instructor to give your point of view on a question of strategy or preparation?

After a practice debate, how much time was given to you to reflect about the round with your teammates and opponents?

After a practice debate, did the critic give you suggestions on what to do with your upcoming instructional or research time as a part of the critique?

How often did your instructor suggest or provide short readings from scholarly materials about the topic you were working on?

How often did your instructor suggest strategic tricks for tournament success instead of potential avenues for access of information from scholarly sources?

If your institute was on a university campus, were you given significant amounts of time to use the research library on campus?

How often were students asked to instruct or provide instruction to their peers?

How often were you consulted on curriculum (i.e. what should we be teaching to you guys?)

How often were you told what to do by an instructor without space to debate, challenge, or question that demand? (i.e. Organization of a speech can only be this particular way)

Did you participate in any speaking or debate activities at your institute that had nothing to do with the rules and restrictions of tournament debating?

How often did your instructors access and instruct you about rhetorical or communication theory, making it applicable to the challenges you were facing in rounds? (Most "debate coach" types do have at least a Masters degree in this field)

What sources did instructors offer to you as the basis for their content lectures? Did they internally cite experts or expert sources?

Did instructors cite their research on powerpoint or through a bibliography distributed to you during or after the lecture?

Did your instructors approach the topic with an enthusiasm and energy to get you engaged in the material, or did they approach you with a cynical rhetoric, almost bored with their material?

How often did instructors connect the debate material they were teaching you to other formats of debating or arguing that we find in the "real world" (i.e. institutions of democratic governance, etc)

How many times did instructors debate against students, then critique the same debate they were in, identifying winning arguments?

How many times did instructors participate in debates where a student from the class or institute offered the critique?

How often did you debate your peers and were also judged by your peers?

What percentage of the research you were given at the institute was a product of you or one of your peers versus a product of an instructor?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Teaching's Dangerous Assumption

This recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education tells a story as to how a professor realized that it is ok to say that she doesn't know the answer to a question, or that she might be uncertain about something a student has said in class.

My response is quite simply disappointment that this still counts as an interesting observation. It shouldn't. It shouldn't be anywhere near the category of things that one learns after teaching for years. On the contrary, it should be a first-order principle of teaching: It's fine not to know. The most dangerous assumption about teaching is that a teacher knows, and students do not. 

A couple of times a year I work with high school teachers, and it always amazes me how quick they are to jump in and fill the uncomfortable silences and moments of student exchange that I try to craft with my pedagogy. Once the tension gets to the point of simmering, the high school teacher breaks the tension with a cool, refreshing dose of  "here's how it is" which the students gleefully write down, happy to once again be deposited with valuable information. The script is familiar and comfortable. The students and teacher experience pleasure by filling out these roles. But is it teaching? Is learning happening? Unfortunately, it is, and it is teaching some dangerous assumptions.

I am always a bit surprised that the high school teacher is not immune, or does not celebrate the moment where the students are adrift and questioning one another. I too, participate in these moments, explaining that I am uncertain as well about them, and perhaps we should investigate further. I feel this is the best way to teach students that the solution to their recognized gaps in knowledge is not to guess, not to depend on an authority figure (which is pretty much all a high school teacher is these days), but to make a plan to address the lack of knowledge and shore it up as best they can for their purposes. Usually, this is the purpose of trying to sway an audience on an issue, one way or another, since I'm mostly teaching debate.

I think the reason that the above article is still interesting and a bit surprising, and the reason that high school teachers can't help but jump into and disrupt productive silences with banking-model discourse is because the trope governing the reality behind both is the same. That trope is that knowledge is at the root of authority. By this logic, the teacher risks losing all authority and control of the classroom if he or she is not the source of knowledge. 

This is present in the rhetoric of the Chronicle essay as well. Discomfort at presenting a professorial subject that is not complete, or that is fragmented in some way is to risk upending the entire value of the course. It seems equally reasonable that a course in anything would teach you how to find out about it, not just information about it. Why does this trope hold so much power?

One reason might be that it dovetails nicely with capitalist narratives and capitalist desire. When someone is in a relationship in capitalism, the exchange must be even, or even for those involved. Not providing the right answer to a student question, or suggesting that you don't know the answer to a student's question is a very uncomfortable response in an exchange-system rhetoric. Not being able to provide what the customer wants is a terrible mistake, and can cost you everything. 

The alternative trope is one where authority in the classroom, or perhaps the more soft version of the word for professors - quality in the classroom - is connected to the professor's ability to manage questions or the art of questioning. For this is the life-blood of the university, not providing an exchangeable service. The university should be equally preparing people for career and civic life - a life where the answers are not forthcoming, and we are generally operating on a best-guess basis. Those who can sift through the questions, reframe them, and suggest directions for answers are of the most value to society.

Training young people that older people will come along and spout out the unsatisfying, yet appropriate answer to everything is not the way to prepare people for a functioning society of any kind. What the author of the Chronicle piece has as her conclusion - that a student confronted with a professor who willingly admits she does not know the answers can inform career and life choices - should be the introduction to the preparation of future faculty and teachers for the classroom. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Robin Williams and Immersive Invention

This New York Times article about Robin Williams's habits of preparation for engagement with audiences raises a lot of interesting ideas when rhetoricians talk about invention - the art of coming up with what to say, or as I like to call it "putting something together." I often talk about argument construction in terms of assembly, and it seems Williams had created quite the assembly method for his own practice of inventio.

Rhetoricians most regularly teach invention when they are teaching debaters or when they are teaching a course such as public speaking, or another "performance" course, as some in the field call them. We generally seem to teach a trajectory where we claim that rhetoric is a powerful, meaning-making field that is capable of creating everything from emotion to fact. Then we turn around and deduct lots of grading points off of student work that doesn't include "quality" citations or information. That information needs to come from good sources, which, according to our own rhetoric, come from somewhere other than rhetoric. This can leave an aftertaste in students' mouths that rhetoric is something of a servile art, something that dresses up information that is determined to be valid and meaningful elsewhere, through other methods that are far removed from the rhetorical world.

Contrast this approach to how Williams created his rhetoric. He immersed himself in topical readings and held conversations with many people. He secretly polled the audience for their pathos, yet at the same time respected the ethics of the Perelman/Olbrechts-Tyteca Universal Audience - making sure that his words were not just pandering to those who might uncritically accept them. What's missing from this article is how Williams decided to combine what he was reading with what would get his audience to adhere or assent to his desire - he wanted them to laugh, to "get it" whenever he would perform, I am assuming. Perhaps an explanation is the ancient rhetorical method of copiousness - surrounding and immersing oneself in topoi in order to have the invention come out of the soup, so to speak. But it seems Williams was much more selective than that. He chose his books, moments, and topics with precision, based on the situation he was facing, and the issues that the public were attuned to.

Tribute after tribute to Williams indicates his ability to very quickly generate relevant, effective material that did not rely on old jokes, or previous methods to get a laugh. This might not be the marker of genius, which is what CNN and other news outlets call it. Genius might be the pathos we feel as the result of watching a master of invention display the results of the immersion-invention he spent his life developing. I see it as an excellent model for teaching invention to those who wish to be constantly engaged with audiences in ways that parallel the work that Williams was doing.

What would public speaking be like if we assigned each student to become immersed in a relevant, topical issue facing the public which we imagine they will be addressing in life? Would each student come up with a different way to generate new material week to week about the same thing? Instead of the horrible public speaking textbook, why not require them to spend $80 to $100 on books about their issue? Have them keep a notebook, digital or otherwise, where they are engaged and combining this material to keep the class interested and excited about their weekly presentation? Could examples such as Williams finally push public speaking out of the delivery business, as formal and cold as the scientific facts that is supposedly services in our classes and into the warm world of ancient rhetoric, where it was not only the source of knowledge, but provided the boundaries for the recognition of knowledge as such?

Another way to ask that last question might be - Would we recognize Williams as a genius without his method of invention, uniquely his, but something we identify in our responses to his rhetoric?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Debate Coaches and the Canon of Invention

How do most debate coaches teach the canon of inventio? By pointing toward tournament success. By showing videos of good, successful speeches. By having students watch and learn from those who have won big tournaments. By getting them to read, or cut, or memorize the sources of the arguments that the winners have run. Well, usually not read.

In short, they don't teach it. They teach debaters how to copy what happens at the "best" tournaments. They teach a hermetic, repetitive, and limited form of invention, the basics - use what works for your goal.

Over time, this becomes conflated in the minds of the debaters as something ontological. Because they are good at coming up with persuasive arguments in tournament settings, they must be good at inventio broadly. They must be good at argument if they are good at debating.

For whatever reasons, historical or practical, we are at a point in history where debate coaches are somewhat embarrassed to admit that they spend most of their time teaching the rules of a limited game. I think perhaps we have bought our own story that we are teaching some sort of democratic engagement, or some sort of larger connection to helping others understand the human condition.

I think that's the value of debate for sure, but I think in order to get there - and not create people who have an artificially inflated conception of their rhetorical prowess, we need to place the tournament in proper perspective - as something that is a subset of a larger category: rhetorical situations. Debate should be the place that the department and the university come to for help across the curriculum in the category of coming up with persuasive, engaging arguments. But we simply don't have the ability to do that now. We come up with arguments that often confuse the audience, justifying it with tropes such as "they don't understand debating," or "In a real debate this would work." A real debate is a far cry from a tournament debate. What's wrong with teaching that?

In speech comm derived rhetoric, there is a real lack of exploration of invention and pedagogy right now, but in English composition derived rhetoric there's a lot of cool stuff that speech comm people often overlook. Perhaps debate coaches could recover some of their value by being the go-between in invention. They could be the people who have the knowledge and ability to connect rhetorical resources in invention between fields, and for fields that haven't thought much about it as an art. In short, debate coaches should be the Sophists-in-residence at their school. Instead of "come to us if you want to learn what debate really is" - something a philosopher might say, we should say "Come to us if you want others to learn from you." For that is, if you get down to the root of it, what the sophists were teaching - the art of making sense out of something senseless, complex, or confusing.

I found this book the other day and the requisite praising of it among composition teachers. Where are the speech communication people? Where are the debaters? Books like this and their value should be standard issue for those teaching rhetoric. Why discriminate? Why did I not hear about this book in my PhD work? Why are we embarrassed to teach the creation of arguments? Why do we quickly substitute things like the tournament for the hard work of invention, or the criticism paper for the difficult work of confronting a difficult issue in front of an audience that wishes to be engaged?

Surely it isn't simply because it's difficult and hard to measure. A trophy is a clear sign. Too bad it's not made equally clear how limited a sign it is.