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.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Day 1 Wrap Up at ISSA 2014

Here are some of my thoughts after day 1:

Frans van Eemeren presented the first of three keynotes, where he divided argument studies into three sections  in order to take stock of argument studies - empericism, context, and formality. Empiricism is necessary for the development of argumentation theory, however we cannot merely rely on it alone. To do so is to only further understanding of the particulars of a case. It must be appropriate to the issue and to the advancement of argumentation studies.

Context is the study of more than just the case or the issue or theory in front of us. But it must be more than just audience, as Perelman and Olbrects-Tyteca offer. There are a robust number of contexts that can be appreciated in argument work.

Finally formality - creating formal systems of argument based on our theory - this is most applicable to artificial intelligence and such, but I thought it had many applications to the big, undercovered aspect of argumentation theory, that of how to teach invention from an argument theory point of view.

I saw a few papers after that, some of which were about the theory of analogies, some others about religion. The most interesting exchanges were on papers about Paul's argumentation in Corinthians, a topic that rhetoricians have covered quite a bit, but it was pretty interesting to see some people who were not rhetoricians engage with that text and account for Paul's argumentation.

More to come!

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Abandoned Blog?

Is this blog abandoned?

No way!

Just taking a bit of a long break from it after a hectic end of the spring semester. Now that summer is in full swing, I'll be posting more regularly.

This week kicks off the return as I am in Amsterdam for the International Society for the Study of Argumentation conference! This conference happens every four years, and brings together the best scholars in the world to share their research on argumentation. It starts tonight with a formal opening and reception, and tomorrow the paper presentations start with keynote speeches at 9AM followed by sessions all day until 6. In the evenings there are various events from a boat tour to dinners to a session with some government officials. It looks to be an excellent time.

One of the things I'm tracking at this conference is research and papers that are directly about the practice of debating. I think they are virtually gone by now, and I'd like to support them as much as I can. I think that the time is right for a resurgence of scholarship on and about debating. I'll post a bit more as to why I think that in the coming weeks. But for now the morning is well underway and Amsterdam awaits. I also need to get a SIM card.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Policy Debate and Race: No Defense

Policy debate's focus on race has attracted some media attention.

The Atlantic ran an article that wondered if the way that winning debaters were interrogating the question of institutional racism, or white privilege, was doing harm to debate.

Not far behind, the blog Powerline argued that yes indeed, from their point of view, these changes to debating - performance, poetry, rapping, and angry swearing about time limits - are indeed a threat to the advantages of debating, such as logical thinking.

The response from the policy debate community so far has come from Dr. Ede Warner, who argues in a blog post that, yes, there is white privilege in policy debate. He argues that he will unpack debate historically to show that black people have always had to break the rules in order to succeed at debate.

While I have no doubt that there is merit to Warner's claim, what we have is another example of debate's inability to defend itself from people who are not grounded in debating.

Both the Atlantic piece and the Powerline piece, in different ways, accept the idea that debate contains and is possibly construed via white privilege. The Atlantic interviews a critical race theorist. The Powerline bloggers happily admit that college has always been a place of white privilege, and therefore debate probably is too - but for them there's little impact to this: "so what?" they write.

What both articles are concerned with is whether or not this method of getting to white privilege  in debate is worth the cost of harming or damaging debate and its myriad benefits. This is where both the Atlantic and Powerline are inviting the debate community into a conversation. Instead, they get nothing.

I will never understand why debate professionals and former debaters have such trouble defending debate itself. Perhaps it's a part of the history of debate that Warner does not unpack. There was a time, probably close to when the Powerline authors were debating, when debate required no defense at all. It was a part of any communication program. Examining issues of the Journal of the American Forensic Association from the 1960s - 1980s and you find many advertisements for graduate programs. Debate was a pipeline into rhetorical and communication scholarship. It needed no defense.

Now communication departments are far more diverse in background of the faculty and objects of appropriate research. Debate is no longer an obvious part of a communication department. And we still do not have an adequate defense of it to provide to those from outside a debate pedigree. Although many conferences have been held since the 1970s, and the turn toward representation in the humanities, every conference on debate since Sedalia has been thwarted by its own positivist outlook. We cannot stop believing in our own tournament winning strategies. Until we distance ourselves from the tournament governing our discourse, debate is in jeopardy.

The tournament has us. Warner's defense begins with an explanation that the essay will use the method that was taught to his debaters. Although this technique and pedagogy is admired within the debating world, and probably has great success (the impetus for the articles being written was the dominating success of non-traditional African-American teams) it generates arguments for the tournament, arguments about the presence of white privilege in debating, something that both articles accept. The rush to the familiar tournament logic trumps other forms of engagement, forms that both articles are ready to accept. But in a world where listserv disagreements often proceed line by line, and interlocutors accuse other participants in the discussion of "not answering" other participants, it should be very clear that we are always already mired in the debate tournament rhetoric.

In order to engage with those outside of the debating tradition, we need a rhetoric of debate. We need to be able to articulate, explain, and defend the practices that we engage in for the broadest audience possible. The reason being is that decision makers - on longevity of programs and funding - read publications like the Atlantic. If there is no defense coming, there may be no funding coming. And no matter how saturated with privilege debate might be, I doubt anyone wants to see it fade away. Creating a divide between tournament debating and arguing might be a good first step. What works at a tournament will not necessarily work outside of it. Why? Because of the demands of form, situation, and audience - in short, the rhetorical tradition.

As a start, let me borrow an example from Warner's essay - the example of the character of James Farmer in the hit film The Great Debaters. At the conclusion of the film. Farmer offers a personal narrative from his experiences in the south as an argument in his final speech to win the debate. Warner interprets this scene to be evidence that Farmer had to break the rules in order to win a debate - proving the dominance of white privilege in debating.

I suggest that we read this scene as Farmer exploiting the ancient rhetorical theory of kairos, or opportunity lodged within the temporal. Kairos is when the speaker recognizes a moment in time where the inappropriate ontologically becomes the appropriate politically. Farmer knows what to do, and what not to do - and he chooses to tell a personal story rather than make a traditional argument. I see this moment as a place to engage both the Atlantic and the Powerline and remind them that debate is a place for rhetoric, for human communication, for human contact, and the development of it.

Here is our kairotic moment - engagement with the media. These are not opponents, and do not require a line by line response. There is no ballot. What is at stake is the legitimacy, in the media and to the readers of these pieces, of the method, art, or procedure of debate as a pedagogical contribution. They are seeing tournament debating and not getting it. If we had a rhetoric of debate that could distinguish between tournament debating and argumentation, that would be a great way to approach the media.

I am not saying that what is going on inside policy debate is somehow bad or wrong. What is happening in policy debate now? How is it different than the activities of Bobby Seal, patrolling the corrupt police in order to call attention to how laws are enforced? What about the arguments of either Ralph Ellison or Richard Wright, two authors who bent the rules, possibly broke them? And their arguments were found persuasive, sound, and yes, even logical. But we would not be able to find the object of their arguments without their seizing of an opportunity to use the rules as a platform of investigation. Most notably here is Malcolm X, who claimed his experience in debating in prison gave him the insight into rules, how they functioned, and how audiences of different races responded to different rhetorical approaches. Breaking the rules? Hardly. Making the rules? Possibly. Exposing the arbitrary nature of the rules? Definitely. But debate, like any other form of communication, can hold those rules in suspense and highlight them in ways that are particular to that form - and seeing it from outside might not make much sense. Legal reform, for example, might begin with something procedural - something most people would feel is a waste of time, or boring. But the change to the entire operating procedure of the court might allow access to a discourse for many who were left out by the designs of power. This is the advantage of being able to explain explanations meant for a limited, specific, and very small audience to a very large one.

It might not look like debating should look, but who is to say what debates should look like? Is a trial a debate? An appellate court? A congressional hearing? Who got to decide those? Who gets to decide what policy debate looks like? Oh, history? Who wrote that? Who decides what gets remembered? And who is in charge of the forgetting?

Debate changed massively with the introduction of switch-side debating. And counterplans. And paradigms. And utopian counterplans. And PICs, and Critiques. And it continues to change. Why? Because it continues to push against its own limits to derive value. It always has. The Powerline essay accepts this - the challenge of debate was not the following of the rules, but the pushing up against them with logic and worldly experience that made it good. If it was merely rule following, why such admiration for their coach?

Warner believes policy debate, and black debaters breaking the rules has been going on for hundreds of years. But policy debate has not been around for hundreds of years. What has been around for hundreds of years is people from different experiences, different approaches and thoughts, and different levels of privilege interrogating why things have to be a particular way. Policy debate - the kind defended by the Powerline blog - is a result of the methods that Warner is defending. That is, without changes and challenges and pivots off of and to the rules, none of us would have the debate experience we treasure and value. This recognition, this kairos, can only come from a distancing of oneself from what works at a tournament. Today's tournament innovation is tomorrows hilarious van-ride humor. If you don't believe me, pick up an old debating book from 70 years ago. Read passages of it to your team mates. You'll see how fragile our best ideas will be in another 70 years. But this is the beauty of debating.

Atlantic, Powerline, and CEDA/NDT all care about the value of debate. But without new techniques of investigation, debate will not be able to provide the type of challenge that makes people want to return to debate. That value though must be rhetorically constructed each time. It cannot be good enough that it won a round or a tournament. That isn't good enough, especially when those outside can easily read that victory as evidence of an activity in decline, or ripe with political dogma.

At the same time, being able to explain the value and nature of the process to those outside of debate requires a turn away from the tournament. Developing a rhetoric of debate requires a place for the tournament, somewhere between examination and thesis, somewhere between advocacy and theater. It is not enough for arguments to win a tournament, the winning of the tournament via those arguments requires an explanation to those on the outside.

Policy debate is undergoing a huge self-reflexive and critical examination. I wonder if those in policy debate will also see the kairotic moment to construct a defense of what they do for the outside. Powerline and the Atlantic seem ready to dialogue. Are those of us who take debate seriously ready to leave competition behind, sit down, and explain what we have here? Or are we just going to continue to use casefiles written for competitions when we choose to engage with those outside of debate?

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Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Parachutes are not for Reasonable People

JGSDF parachute(696MI)
JGSDF parachute(696MI) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sorry for the delays in posting, I've been very sick, and finally just getting this one out. More to come, more frequently, especially during and after the USU Nationals this weekend.

I love learning something new. 

Upset after losing a debate that he "shouldn't have," the debater comes into the tab room to tell the CAs about a terrible chair. At the end, he requests a "parachute."

I'm still quite new to BP, and my experiences so far in it have not given me any indication to think that BP, as it was characterized to me years ago, corrupt and filled with manipulation of the tab to get the "desired" result - that result being the teams that are supposed to win appear near the top. I get judge rankings, and I understand why they exist. But nothing had prepared me for this. A parachute is a request for a judge that "gets BP" for a team that is not doing "as well as they should be doing" in the tab.

It seems reasonable to assume that a competition decides who is good or bad on that particular day. But if one has a positivist conception of "being good" - that it is out there and attainable at all times given one's skill - then parachutes make sense. We can't have reality manipulated. Debate tournaments are meant to expose the properties we know are deep in the minds, brains, hearts, etc of those "good teams" or "good speakers."

So it was met with shock my equating "parachutes" with "tab manipulation" - for the tab had already been "manipulated" because a "good" team had been hurt - they were not where they "should" be.

If one takes the Aristotelian view, that excellence (Gr. Arete) is not an act, but a habit - one finds a very different view. One could certainly not be excellent after just one action. One has to cultivate it, work on it, dive into it, practice it. It's something one does, not something one is. And it's always up for grabs. This is the spirit of competition, that makes tournaments challenging and fun - that you could really lose or win it all.

But in the debate universe it seems enough that one was a World's semifinalist, or a champion, or even if they do very well at certain tournaments for them to be able to request alterations of reality. When a team requests a parachute, they are requesting the poor judge - a judge they are calling bad at the total act of judging - be assigned to other teams in the tournament. Seems a bit contradictory to me. Why would one want to be a champion of a tournament where the other teams you might compete against were chosen to meet you in elimination debates by "bad judges?" It is definitely not the Aristotelian view of excellence. It is the view of debating elites that their valuable property has been taken from them by some lower form. Justice requires the returning of their stolen property.

Debate creates some of the most committed positivists I've ever met. They believe good is a property that once earned, it's yours. It's not something that is determined by situation. They believe particular arguments are good - like magic words, when they are uttered, the spell is cast. Speaker, audience, and situation do not matter. They also believe that speaker scores can be known outside of any context: "82? I've never spoken an 82 in my life!" If you are good at arguing, you are good at arguing. Period. Not much space for the fluid nature of things in this worldview.

This perspective is dangerous in the extreme, and things like parachutes - apparently commonplace enough to where nobody bats an eye at such a request - are a threat to debate's legitimacy.

The notion of parachutes reveals another side of the rhetoric of the reasonable person, that of smokescreen for a vanguard presence in BP debating. Under the rubric of reasonable person, both in the meta and the micro, a vanguard of elitists can comfortably hide, trading spaces on the board in an eternal lateral competition to see which of the chosen will emerge on top this week. This process must necessarily remain invisible at the same time that it is apparently transparent. The CA system, and the emergence of things like parachutes - meant to ensure the vanguard’s membership roles are maintained - are systems of power maintenance that exclude those that don’t meet the requirements already being designated as “good” by an accidental system of privilege mixed with some luck and some ability.

Parachutes are the privilege of an elite class, who really "get" debating, and painfully have to suffer through preliminary rounds on their way to the coronation. For it's ok if they lose then, because the other teams present also "get" debate, and they are worthy. The vanguard is always crowned a victor, and the membership gets to universally celebrate. Parachutes are the police, the justice system, meant to right wrongs done to one's personal property - being good on the tab. They are meant to make things right again.

Some might say that parachutes do not do any active harm to the tab, and, on the contrary, positively repair injustices done in the tab by judges who don’t know how to judge BP. Parachutes do active damage to not only the tab of the tournament where they are deployed, but they do damage to debate itself on the meta level.

If we assume that parachutes are only deployed in situations where the judge is objectively bad - or bad in the opinion of the vanguard on the basis that they “don’t know what they are doing” - the parachute moves this judge away from other vanguard teams and into the realm of the teams that are not vanguard members. This serves to create artificial ballast for the vanguard at that tournament. 

Additionally, if the judge was truly “unreasonable,” that judge should be removed from the tournament or given some guidance on judging from the tab. Perhaps that judge could be placed as a wing with a CA for instructional purposes. This would not happen in most cases, because the judge is probably reasonable - just not “debate reasonable” - the judge does not think in the way that the vanguard thinks about debating.

This also actively removes a “good” judge from a room they were assigned to, and places them in a room to support a team that “needs help.” This skews the rotation of the judges, taking away one that the CA team agrees is good and giving that person to the team that they all agree is “good” - or at least, better than the results so far would indicate.

A tournament has plenty of wiggle room for the “bad call” - although most of the time I would argue the “bad call” is anything but that. Often, we find a “bad call” lining up against our (dangerous) expectations as to who “should” win a particular matchup. This upends the entire idea of having a competition - if the teams that are perceived as good can walk into a tab room and ask for a parachute, why are we wasting so much time on these tournaments? We could just start them at the semifinal, after the registration concludes.

On the meta level, the reasonable person standard, what makes BP attractive, powerful, and enjoyable, is eroded by parachutes. There is no such thing as a “good” team being harmed by “bad” judging - either the judge is unreasonable and cannot judge anymore or needs assistance, or the judge does not judge in the manner ascribed by the vanguard. This choice of identifying the judge erodes the idea that reasonable people are the paradigm for judging. It is possible, and it happens all the time, even at high levels of government that reasonable and well-informed people - often times experts - disagree on a decision or on a call. But this does not mean that the next meeting is populated with people who see the world your way. Any organization that ran its meetings that way would not last long.

If a team is doing very well in a competition, and they are doing better than they are supposed to be, why do CA teams not issue “lead balloons” - assigning a poor judge to their next room to ensure that their performance matches up to expectations? (There is no doubt I would abuse this request for my teams, if I felt they were hitting a streak of luck). Actually, the effect of the policy of the parachute is to do just this - condemn the rooms without name recognition or vanguard elite membership at the competition to cycling through the supposed bad judge round after round. This is a fake tournament, meant to distract the plebeians while the “real” teams deal in "real" arguments, at their cocktail party before the final.

Defense of a vanguard is setting up a dilettante organization in BP tournaments where self-reflexivity on argument quality is minimized, and most concern about argumentation is the judge being in harmony in his or her RFD with the key changes suggested by the speakers. They develop a hyper-inflated view of "good argumentation" that in reality only appeals to a very narrow-band audience of people. Contrast this to the reasonable person standard of judging where teams must be incredibly self-reflexive about argument selection and development, where an elite interpretation of the motion is not at play. Teams under this rubric have to consider and reconsider what it means to be reasonable, in many different situations. They can never be comfortable saying "this argument always wins." This is healthy. This produces a capacity for critical judgement. There is little capacity for critical judgement engendered in an event where one continues to make boutique-style arguments in front of a very limited, and selective audience of experts. One might win the tournament, but at what price? 

The reasonable person standard is in line with all argumentation theory and research done since 1950. The parachute vanguard mode is old philosophical understandings of argument, pre-World War 2. The idea that one can summarily dismiss the audience because one's arguments are "right" is what a parachute is. This sounds painfully out of date in a postmodern, postcolonial, hyper-individualized world where we have access to vast amounts of information. 

Parachutes save the vanguard, but what about the reasonable person? The most valuable aspect of BP has been its tie to the non-expert, non-professional audience. Constructing and supporting a vanguard - the ones who "know" - gives us the servile audience, or the student audience. If one is placed in a position of "knowing less" or being beneath someone's brilliance, one listens to that speaker differently. The reasonable person standard is meant to check this - it's meant to ensure that all speakers must notch what they say against a universal audience (in the Perelman & Olbrects-Tyteca sense) the reasoning that would be acceptable to good minds, not to a specialized elite, or an expert.  This puts the judges where they should be - arbiters. This places teams where they should be - appealing to the judges. Once you start making distinctions during the tournament about whether one team can actually be beaten or not, that is the end of the reasonable person guideline. 

The vanguard see themselves as reasonable, but they see their way to it as the only way to be reasonable. There are many approaches to evaluating an argument. We can revel in this, study it, and reflect on it, or we can try to stomp it out and homogenize it. Tab manipulation, parachutes, whatever you want to call it eliminates a very large portion of how to think about persuasion and arguments, delegitimizes competitions, and spells the end for BP as an inviting and engaging format. 
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