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.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

A Dirty Little Secret, Both Sides

Why is there no official, or even pedagogical statement on the value of switch side debating from either the NDT, CEDA, or any other large debating organization?

Perhaps it is because switch-side debating is a cover for teaching conviction and engaging in truth-seeking, something that debate can clearly be used for, but is not debate at its best. This rhetoric takes the form of "students have to explore both sides of a controversy" while at the same time, regular tournament practice has students arguing the same arguments on either side of a debate, for years. In fact, the choice not to participate in switch-side debating is seen as a noble act, giving stronger credence to the claim that their advocacy and arguments are authentic, not meant to win a debate, but meant to precipitate actual change.

The dirty little secret of contemporary debate is that switch-side debate - taking a side you don't necessarily personally hold and arguing for it - doesn't interest anyone anymore. The most compelling interest for it is as a foil so one can advance arguments. The switch-side investment or performance is the starting point for a causal link that indicts that speaker. The speaker is someone who has "chosen" to not participate in debate's norms in order to prove an important point about the political nature of debate and how neutral it appears. This has become so boilerplate that many debate programs teach it as beginning strategy to those first learning how to participate in tournament debating.

The value of switch-side should also be considered for what is being dismissed under the rubric of this current trend.

Switch-side debating is meant to divest the individuals participating in it from personal conviction on an issue.

Switch-side is crucial in a pedagogy that encourages debaters to focus on the structures and suasory power of rhetoric and argumentation as it is, tabling the truth or factual nature of the information researched for the claim. It is the one place where this happens in an education system that is largely read, at least in the US, as arbitrary and unpredictable, a game where the rules are constantly changing, and no student wants to be the one to ask the question that provokes the teacher to change an exam or a final requirement in some way.

In a totally arbitrary system of judgement, like higher education is currently perceived, the personal and the political are totally merged. Junior faculty are divested from experimental advocacy and writing at a time when they are best poised to do it. Senior faculty are too invested in the university system to use their tenure appropriately - to investigate and challenge the norms that are related to the hows and whys of the system that now their comfortable, permanent employment depends. Instead, they offer shrill critiques and indictments of large systems primarily due to the fact that they are so well insulated. A more careful, well researched, and damning critique of such systemic processes, seen as possible indictments of the university, could doom a junior faculty member.

We see something similar with those who refuse to participate in switch-side debate. The requirement to argue on different positions on a question is the evidence they rely on in order to argue that the entire system is flawed, biased, and laden with ideology while appearing neutral. Whatever flavor the argumentation, the structure of it is somewhat similar - it all depends on the requirement that debaters are forced to argue on opposite sides of the question from time to time. This move catapults these teams into the center of the most competitive, most admired, and most duplicated strategies in the entire debating community. In short, like the university, the railing against the system is conducted by those who are at the center of the benefits.

The value of switch-side debating is something that the majority of those participating in debate are fairly uninterested in today - the power of words and the ability of rhetoric to shape reality. Many of those participating in debate are much more interested in truth-seeking, and campaigning for a fundamental truth that they have discovered through means unrelated to anything but preparing for the tournament and thinking about the topic. The debate itself is rather procedural, for in essence, they are using it as a forum to refine discoveries made elsewhere - little difference between that and the layperson's view of debate.

Alternatively, embracing switch-side removes focus from truth and onto the appearance as such. Debate becomes a place for the study of the invention and reception of truth - or tropes, topoi, whatever you may wish to call them - the containers that make truth recognizable as such. Investigating the shape and power of the containers of what is believed to be true is an incredibly important study, and makes debate one of the most powerful disciplines in the university. Anyone can acquire facts and information, and anyone can use ad bacculum or popularity appeals to get that information over as truth to a community of like-minded people, such as the American debate world. But being able to broadly discuss, identify, critique, and replace the tropes of truth in broader society is much more valuable than the acquisition of resonant information. The reason being that one day that resonance with truth will fade from that information, and those who did not study rhetoric will be left holding the bag. Adaptability is the watchword here, and switch-side might be a good way of teaching it - not because of the thin, rather non-existence scope of adaptability in tournaments (most judges are very much alike in decision-making compared to the variety one gets from a public audience) or the precision that form of adaptation teaches, but the broader and more difficult question of reformulating treasured facts into other things, things considered valuable for a variety of listeners. What contemporary debate offers is akin to a specialized type of biochemistry, possibly focusing on one or two types of bacteria. What I am suggesting with a switch-side focus is the re-emergence of the art of alchemy - transmutation of the worthless into the valuable, and vice versa.

Switch-side does not teach this directly, but teaches it by numbing the thrill of the possession of truth by forcing students to throw it away at each instance in order to prepare for the next debate. Human nature what it is, debaters will turn toward possessing the next best thing - the forms of persuasion, which opens the door wide for the keen debate teacher to begin the lesson in earnest, showing how the formulation of truth is indistinguishable from the possession of what is believed to be true.



Enhanced by Zemanta

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Debate as the Pedagogy of Invention

Debate pedagogy's primary contribution to the study of rhetoric and argumentation is in the realm of invention – how do we come up with and produce argumentation that both addresses the issue at hand and includes, invites, and engages the audience to consider that argumentation?

Sadly, this contribution is currently ignored.

I learned I have a lot of work ahead of me if I want to continue this project of revitalizing debate-oriented scholarship. I recently gave a paper considering debate on “other terms” as a starting point for debate-oriented scholarship, only to have it attended by the chair of the panel, the other panelists, and a couple of my friends.

I believe the work is difficult as the most receptive audience to discussing debate is the current debate competition community. But they don't really have a lot of motive to go beyond reading or investigating issues that are perceived to have a direct impact on the lived tournament experience. Recent articles by current competitive debaters on gender are a great example of this – how tournament success records indicate whether or not gender inclusiveness is being handled.

The other audience, that of scholars of argumentation have the barrier of ignorance – many have no idea that debate clubs exist or that tournaments are occurring on their campuses. This is partially by design – tournament organizers don't really want a lot of “outsiders” attending debates that are designed to be heard by judges trained to look for specific things in speeches and celebrate the more esoteric arguments in a debate round as opposed to the ones that cut to the heart of the matter as public discourse would frame it. The other barrier is that once identified, most scholars dismiss debate as a game best reserved for some of your undergraduate time, but a pretty big waste of energy and resources, especially for talented students. I've had several management and business professors tell my students that they wish they had some power over them to force them to stop debating and focus on something meaningful. After suggesting debate events to a colleague as a way of engaging the student body for a week-long pedagogy effort at my university, she responded, “That's great, but we should do some real pedagogy as well.” This is primarily due to a lack of any scholarly treatment of debating. The only remnants of debate scholarship out there are aimed toward tournament competition, the rules of such, and the nature of that competition. Within rhetorical scholarship in the United States, debate-oriented scholarship is seen as a good graduate student starting point, best abandoned for serious work once one develops an orientation and some sea legs.

Trading off debate's attention to tournament schedules, national championships, and more toward debate as the pedagogy of rhetorical invention might legitimize debate-oriented scholarship's value within both audiences. The question of “how do I come up with something to say?” is a constant one for those involved in debating as well as those involved in teaching. I am not saying just the teaching of performance-oriented rhetoric courses, but the teaching of any course – for most courses require a paper or presentation of some kind.

This is one of the few universal pedagogical questions, and debate could offer a wonderful service to pedagogy at all levels by being the venue that rigorously develops methods to answer such questions. Composition departments, usually housed in writing programs or in English departments, address this question as well, but it is within a basket of additional questions such as style and voice. Debate can provide more intense scrutiny on the question of coming up with what to say, and also unique method on the question of coming up with what to say when time is limited, and preparation is restricted – the trope of “thinking on your feet.”

Debate teaches invention when the resources are limited and the time to speak is upon us. This is the situation of reaction, the pub conversation, the interview, the impromptu debate about policy among friends or at work. When one has time and resources, one can rely on the methods of composition for the generation of arguments – although often students don't, preferring to wait till the last minute to begin work on a paper. It seems the more we teach students to take advantage of the time they have to prepare and generate a range of argumentation from which to write, the less they do it.

Debate is often criticized for being response oriented – a critique that reaches back to Plato's criticism of Sophistry for being about nothing but technique, and having no substance. Over the centuries, this has cast doubt upon Sophistic philosophy and work, to the point where many distrust the acts of debating and speaking themselves, often contrasting them with “finding the facts” or “the simple truth.”

The Sophistic approach is necessarily reactive, since the Sophists, for the most part, viewed the world as contingent and ever-changing. Opinions and views change, which change the standards by which facts and reasons are judged. The Sophist must be ready to react – to invent arguments on the fly that both address the controversy and appeal to the audience in the same movement. On top of that, humans really don't like to be pandered to – or realize that they are being pandered to, more accurately. So good rhetorical invention must appear to be universal, addressed to all reasonable people, not just the ears and feelings of the present group.

Motivating all of this is the concept of opportunity, or kairos in ancient Greek. Rhetors must be able to recognize the key moment in which to deploy their arguments. An argument that is not timed well could fail, or worse, could fail to be recognized as an argument by the audience – they could have moved on past that topos by the time you speak. Debate teaches this painful art of time management in the well known scenario of having to ditch the argument you love in order to remain relevant and engaged in the debate as it is happening.

It's a tall order, but a return to Sophistic thought – a recovery effort that has long been underway in the field of rhetorical studies here in the U.S. - can help root debate's uniqueness as the pedagogy of reactive rhetorical invention, when time and situation hamper our ability to conduct a full and complete investigation of the situation to determine the certainty of truth. When “best guess” is what we have to work with, what are our methods for coming up with arguments that seize the tri-partite moment that speakers face?

Returning to the Sophists is one way to root the scholarship, but another is in contemporary theories of argumentation. Debate offers the missing element of invention from a field that is obsessed with critique, measurement, and evaluation. It is rare to hear or read a piece from a contemporary argumentation scholar that discusses how to generate arguments within a controversy. Instead, they discuss old controversies, evaluating the arguments of the participants using the theoretical meter sticks they have developed.

Valuable work to be sure, but where's the space for someone who wants to intervene? Debate-oriented scholarship can take the best of argumentation theory work and generate some ways to develop arguments that fit the best argumentation theory has to offer, while also answering the three-part question of invention that faces anyone who rises to debate.

Finally, the anchor point with the biggest pay-off is for debate as rhetorical invention to get involved deeply in the recent reflexive scholarship about what the university experience should be for undergraduates. Facing a world where a rigid, disciplinary major might be a career and intellectual hang-up for students, debate training as training for the rhetorical invention of the situational self could be invaluable if implemented across the curriculum. The ports-of-call are already established: Biology courses teach people to think like a biologist, history courses like a historian. All that is missing is the complex question – such as Roman declamation might offer – that when faced with a couple of these challenging audiences, how do you speak the terms of one audience into the other? This question, if practiced via debating at the university, can be as valuable as an undergraduate research symposium, but unrestricted by disciplinary identity. The only identity at question here is the sophistic one: What am I, what can I be, for this audience, given this question, if I want them to believe me?





Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Debate Format Camp vs. Debate Camp

Debate camp in the United States was a large mainstay for many years. It still continues, mostly in edited form, across the country. The major reason that debate camps dried up in the early 2000s was mostly due to funding. When schools no longer have the money to subsidize attendance at debating summer camps, they are unable to run.

Another factor is the university's endless quest for revenue streams. Seeing summer camp as a way to supplement dwindling revenues, dorm rental rates and room rentals for summer camp activities are just a couple of ways the university attempts to supplement themselves at the cost of the debate camp's margin. Paying good faculty for time and travel are essential.

Even given these barriers, there are still a number of debating summer camps in operation. Sometimes they are referred to as debate institutes, or debate summer institutes.

This title doesn't really work for most of them. I believe they should be called debate format summer institutes. The scope of what they instruct and practice rarely skirts beyond the ideology of a particular format of debating, used soley at tournament competitions at a limited selection of universities on a few weekends a year. Hardly something worth spending thousands of dollars of travel and fees.

If debate institutes would focus on the idea of being a debate summer institute, most universities could host a thriving and valuable summer camp experience for a much larger number of students, engaging them intellectually in ways that their schooling fails. Debate is a much broader concept, intersecting almost all disciplines at the university, as well as public policy and civic life. Exploration of the nature of debate, from invention to delivery to critique and response of audience is something worth spending a large amount of money and time to study. Here's how current debate format summer institutes could alter their practices very simply in order to access this:

Replace Debate Coaches with Subject Matter Experts
Too often the debate format ideology believes that once something becomes a debate topic, a debate expert is all you need in order to teach the controversy and clash surrounding the issue or issues. This leads to terrible instruction, as I recently saw in a high school topic lecture on YouTube at a major summer debate format institute. Since these are university hosted and sponsored events, why not ask faculty from the relevant schools to give short talks on the state of the debate within the field? These would be much more dynamic and much more engaging than what passes now. As I witnessed, the lecturer, an assistant debate coach, suggested that if the people attending his topic lecture wanted to learn more about the topic, they could read Wikipedia articles. Debate coaches are experts on format, for better or worse, and they should defer to actual subject matter experts in these situations. Debate coaches usually know little about the topic, but do know how to research it. Giving students access to this distinction by providing the contrast between the scholar of the issue and the debate approach only makes the student more savvy on the question of how to engage multiple audiences. 

Stop Having Camp Tournaments
Tournaments tend to attract more attention and investment than they are worth. Their very presence in the near future tends to trump the direction and focus of debate work, ensuring that most students are interested in working to defeat the teams that they have identified as threatening. This limits the aim and the scope of research and argument development to a very narrow band use. One or two uses, and the argument as served its purpose. Contrast this with a debate camp that considers its aim to be engagement with the public on controversies that have no clear solution in sight. The research and development of arguments become long-term, much more so than the camp tournament or the trope “You will be able to use these arguments in September at the first tournament.” Tournament debating is fun, but it isn't debating. It is actually restrictive and amimetic to argumentation conducted in the public. Without a tournament to turn the focus of the students toward one another within the small community of the institute, which audiences will you choose to have the students address? What are the limits of such an intense summer experience? This goes a bit beyond the “side-effect” argument most debate coaches make – that participation in frequent, intense tournament experiences create people willing and able to engage the public. I would say first, it is not true nor-supported that this happens. Usually one creates people who want to hang around the debate community due to their ethos there and the comfortable familiarity of the discourse. Secondly, cut out the middleman. It's bad to take a drug for the side-effects. Here we have the option of engaging the issues directly. Why wouldn't we?

Engage the Public 
Most of the university community has no idea that a debate summer institute is happening on their campus. A few events where students and instructors debate for the university faculty and students about issues facing the campus and community would go a long way to including the surrounding population. Often, the university’s work is critiqued as being an ivory tower, isolated and cut off from public utility. Debate format institutes are doubly so, cutting themselves off even from the ivory tower institution. Inclusion not only sparks curiosity and excitement that such an event is taking place on the campus, it allows the participants to interact with people from varied backgrounds and varied viewpoints – well beyond the ideology of debate format, which would be 100% of the instructors and audiences for the debates they currently have – expanding their thought process about adaptation, persuasion, evidence, proof, and of course, argument.

Teach Rhetorical and Argumentation Theories
The subject matter experts that are closest to home for the debate coach are rhetorical and argumentation theory. Most have encountered it, read it, or written a master's thesis on it. As for the other portion of instructors – those who have tournament success – they might have it via their undergraduate work, or by virtue that they were introduced to it by their coach. Either way, the access here is much easier to obtain. Teaching theories of rhetoric and argumentation give students interesting frames from which to approach argumentation beyond the over-simplistic and incorrectly taught Toulmin model, which dominates debate format camp instruction. As an alternative, the use of contemporary argumentation and rhetorical theory in lectures to address the topic, the potential arguments, or key elements of a debate would push students into thinking more creatively about what they are crafting in the workshops, pushing the material in ways that could go beyond the traditional, “No, don't write that, it won't win” pedagogy we so often see at debate format camps.

Publish The Product
Debate format camps are experimenting with YouTube, clearly unaware of how it might expose them to criticism of the quality and nature of their instruction at the debate format camp. They are okay however – modern debating has been rendered so irrelevant to the public that the only people who would watch a topic lecture suggesting reading Wikipedia to learn more about the topic would be the format entrenched crowd. A debate camp, in contrast, would work to publish, either through video, blog, webcast, or print – the work that the students accomplished. This is a public intervention as opposed to a battle chest of cut cards, or a cache of possible strategies to unleash in September upon the uninitiated in round 1 and 2 of a local tournament. This is practice in intervention in public, intellectual affairs. What sort of product will both convey the value and the power of what we work on here? What would be intelligible to someone who has not been to a debate tournament? And what was the value-added to my writing and speaking that this institute provided? A good product would answer all of these questions in an engaging manner meant to sustain general audience attention. And it would cause the audience to wonder, “Does my university do this? Does my child have access to this? Perhaps they should!” - which is the best ally debating could have in the world of dwindling public funding for intellectual pursuits.



Saturday, July 05, 2014

ISSA 2014 Final Thoughts

The conference ended yesterday, and I believe it lives up to all of the hype. The papers were excellent, and so were the questions in the discussions. Serious people attend this thing, and it is a great time.

There are a lot of advantages to the way this conference is scheduled that other academic conferences should think about. Each panel is arranged to where you know when someone is going to start speaking. This creates a bit of a flurry as after one paper many people get up and leave a room and are replaced with another group of people, but at least it's honest about what people do at conferences and how they actually schedule their time. I appreciated it.

The other great thing was the lag time between panels for coffee and conversation. This is something that is often overlooked in the desire to get as many papers done as possible. But this conference made me think about the need for reflection and conversation about the papers. It's good to digest a bit between courses.

Now some specifics.

Day two's keynote by J. Anthony Blair was as meticulous and clear as van Eemeren's on day 1. Blair gave an overview of the development and the state of informal logic and where it is now. He very rightly pointed out the overemphasis on the study of fallacies by informal logicians, citing a number of other things that informal logicians explore. The reduction of the Canadian school to fallacy theory is convenient, but a misnomer. He also spent a lot of time covering the origins of informal logic, which were pedagogical - how can we teach logic using newspaper op-eds? They, in the spirit of people like Stephen Toulmin, are interested in teaching people the skills to argue in everyday life not in philosophy departments or for formal logic. I think it's quite interesting how Informal logic now is quite removed from this idea in the scholarship, and serves as a heuristic for argumentation criticism and evaluation.

I also saw an amazing paper about the history of Japanese debate where the authors clearly proved that the typical story - that debate in Japan was nonexistent from the 19th century until the end of World War 2 - is not true, and there were vibrant debating societies in Japan from the 1890s all the way through the 1930s. One of the first intercollegiate debates debated the motion on whether Japan should go to war with the United States. Fascinating well researched stuff which throws into question the annoying debate exceptionalism we hear from many debate evangelists and coaches who consider themselves intellectuals.

The third keynote was a perfect example of American argumentation research from the rhetorical perspective. While the first two keynotes were theoretical and sweeping in their nature, mostly interested in the quest to provide a workable theory of argumentation, Jeanne Fahnestock gave three case studies on how argumentation changes based on the genre in which it circulates. Her examples were very good - the case of the "return" of the ivory-billed woodpecker, the bacteria that live on arsenic. the finding of the "hobbit" skeleton, and the preserved dinosaur feathers in amber. These were explored in how they were presented in mass media as well as scientific magazines with the goal of indicating how context is of key importance in constructing rational argument.  A nice American punctuation mark to the highly European-style theoretical approaches of the first two keynotes.

The last day I saw several good papers on the use of rational argument in medical settings, and the connection of argumentation made rationally to patient compliance and perception of the doctor knowing what he or she is doing. Interesting stuff. I also managed to see an interesting panel on Perelman, Olbrects-Tyteca, and the role of the epideictic. However, I believe that American rhetorical theory comes to European scholars through several gatekeepers, and it limits the ability of these scholars to really access a more robust understanding of rhetoric. These papers were quite interesting, but considered epideictic rhetoric from an Aristotelian perspective at the very most. There were a number of good essays over the past 20 years or so that complicate and develop epideictic rhetoric in a manner that would make these sorts of arguments - primarily that the epideictic is essential for argumentation to begin - more persuasive and more robust. However, the other explanation might be more realistic - If Aristotle was good enough for Perelman and Olbrects-Tyteca, well, then it's good enough for me. Devotion to one theorist or one book can certainly make you think there's little value in moving away from it to other sources to make your argument.

The conference was fantastic, and I look forward to the next one in a few years.