Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Lost Debate Pedagogy

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

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

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

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

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

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