Thursday, April 18, 2013

Musings on debate

I was reading some LD cases on the good old case wiki, which demonstrates beyond any measure how I don’t have enough hours in the day to do all the things I shouldn’t be doing. (It was either that or buy an Xbox, and I figure I can wait for the 720 at this point, having slept entirely through the 360. It’s that damned Bioshock game. It’s almost enough to get me to gear up, but with a new generation coming down the pike, I just can’t justify it.)

Anyhow, reading the cases, and meanwhile following this and that on the old interwebs, got me to thinking about one of the great conundrums of debate. At some point, if we allow it to happen, debate moves away from the content of resolutions into the meta world of debate itself, at which point it becomes a wholly separate entity from anything other than itself. (CP has discussed this phenomenon as a universal one beyond just the debate community.) For us this is not a simple progression of content per se, and in fact, it would seem that some of the drivers have nothing to do with what’s written in a case but instead things like how it’s researched or how it’s delivered or how it’s judged.

If we were to look at some theoretical state of educational nature before the invention of high school forensics, we would have to assume that the introduction of debate into curricula was intended to serve some specific and obvious purpose or purposes. If high schools exist to prepare one either for employment or higher education, than those purposes should be commensurate with one or both of these. If we assume (and frankly, I can vouch for this from personal recollection) that early debate required general research skills at the local library that essentially led to copying information from magazine articles onto index cards, and straightforward far-from-fast presentation skills, and logic and arguing skills, and adjusting to partnerships, and intellectual competition as compared to (or in addition to) athletic competition, then we can see how debate allowed high schools to fulfill their goals of preparation for the future. The skills learned from debate might be more obviously useful in a college environment than in employment not requiring a college education, but even if, say, one were heading off after high school to be a chef or racecar driver or a florist, there are probably situations where having learned to research a little and speak a little and deal with others and compete with grace would not be a bad thing.

We all know the saga of policy debate, an activity in which, as I parenthetically alluded above, I was a participant back in the day when there were still mastodons roaming the earth. We slowly and carefully created cases from the research available, then presented them with vigor and efficiency, and my partner Brian and I did pretty well, and the way I remember it, anybody’s great-grandparent would have been perfectly capable of adjudicating the rounds we were in. There was nothing about them that required special knowledge. The debaters needed to learn about the subject area, and then they needed to present logically and to rebut and refute carefully and clearly. We would be judged on our merits, and that would be the end of that.

The theory is that it was the Xerox machine that marked the first step on the road to today’s policy. The ability to quickly collect great masses of evidence led from those great masses of evidence to a need to get that evidence into cases, thus evolving the need for speed. If anything, computer resources allow us to collect even greater masses of evidence, as we are no longer limited to the number of Rubbermaid tubs we can fit on the bus. The increase in speed limited the number of people capable of adjudicating the rounds, meaning that the judge pool was technically circumscribed to folks who themselves were capable of generating that speed, i.e., debaters or former debaters. At the point where the only people in the room were heavily invested in debate at the most basic level, meaning that they had mastered not only the material but the methods, the participants were enabled not only to develop incredibly deep lines of research analysis, but also complicated lines of logic and argumentation, as well as proposing philosophical, ethical and political theories far beyond the core of the standard content of the days pre-speed. Simply put, the average person of high IQ and vast knowledge stumbling for the first time into a high-level policy round today wouldn’t have a clue what was happening; on top of that, if it were slowed down to average speed, that person still wouldn’t have a clue what was happening.

One must keep in mind that, despite is arcaneness, this policy debate fulfills all the educational goals originally imagined in the state of educational nature, unless one were to include persuasive oratory as one of those goals. (Public speaking and learning to do it comfortably can, I think, be presumed as a lesson learned, even if it is at great speed. Overcoming nerves of being on stage is mostly removed from the content of what one is doing on that stage.) Research, logic, intelligent competition—they’re all there. To suggest that this version of policy does not prepare one for the real world, or does so less effectively than the original slow versions of policy, would be wrong. It’s pretty much doing the exact same thing, only via different methodology. The effects are the same, short of, as I say, general public speaking skills.

But there is one very steep price that policy pays for its arcaneness: the mastery of its arcane arts becomes progressively more difficult and, more to the point, limited. As a result, while there is still plenty of policy in high school, one doesn’t have to look far to see that there’s a lot less than there used to be. And it’s no great stretch to suggest that a school wanting to start up a debate program, if it wants to do policy, will have to find someone already versed in all the arcaneness of policy, whereas if that school does PF, it can rope in just about any social studies teacher with a little ambition. I’m not suggesting that I think policy is going away any time soon, because there is, I think (and hope) a good solid core, especially around my region where the Urban Debate Leagues are very active. But it’s not in any sort of growth cycle, and it’s never again going to be. We have few invitationals in the region that even offer policy anymore; schools that want to debate policy must of necessity travel vast distances and incur higher expenses than schools around here that want to debate PF. This is not to suggest that we should make a value judgment that PF is therefore somehow better than policy, but it is unquestionable that it is more accessible and more available. These are matters of fact, and I think they’re indisputable.

Obviously, LD has gone down a similar path to policy, although I think the order of things isn’t quite the same. I’m just thinking out loud here, but I wonder if the creation of a cadre of the arcane preceded the speed in LD. One thing that is clear is that, in the 90s, it was not terribly unusual to see lay judges in important LD rounds. Like me, for instance. I had a fairly long apprenticeship in the activity before I seriously began coaching, and during those years I judged a lot, I would claim that my first learning was from all that judging. My presence was not unusual (although the fact that I wouldn’t go away was not the norm, as most lay judges disappear when their kids do). Parents were not the vast majority of judges, as they seem to be in PF, but they were not unusual, and more to the point, they were not balkanized to the extent that they are today. At the time, there was no reason to vilify them, because if they had the proverbial brain in the head, they could adequately judge a round. You didn’t have to know anything special to do it (which is one of the things I say now to PF judges in their training). Although the debaters might talk quickly, that was their problem and not yours, and if they had any sense, they would recognize you as a lay judge and would slow down. I’m not quite sure what the mechanics of change were precisely, but I suspect it was the introduction of pomo into LD about a decade ago. College students were being introduced to this material for the first time and found it intriguing (even though, apparently, it had pretty much run its course in academia). The old ethicists and Enlightenment folk were pretty straightforward thinkers, and even if you had never heard of Locke or Mill, you could get the gist of their thinking easily enough into a round and proceed accordingly. One could divide actions in deontological and consequential, and that was good enough and simple enough. But once you started seriously proposing Nietzsche as providing ethical structure for argumentation, you were a long way from something that could fit easily into a round, and a short way from bringing in everybody up to and including Derrida. Needless to say, this material was never really worth much in a short constructive case, because even if you accept the thinking and assume that it has argumentative value, it was too complex to do much more than assert a few things and hope that your audience already had some sense of the Lacans and Lyotards and Peirces and the like so that you could drop a few hints in “evidence” and then proceed from there. In other words, your audience already had to be initiated into your underlying assumptions for those assumptions to make any sense. (I never could buy into that myself. The fact that I probably knew a lot more about these folks than any debater I ever heard spouting them didn’t mean I was going to give them a free ride, that by uttering the shibboleth “Derrida,” say, I would grant you textual deconstruction without your having to explain it. Debaters, of course, when they lost on this stuff, blamed their judges’ ignorance.)

At around about the same time, framework became more important in LD. Your judging audience who knew the people you were citing were also drawn from serious debate circles and like their policy predecessors were interested in the heuristics of debate. Even the NFL finally came out and said that LDers needed to have values in their cases (and that there was no presumption for either side, which may be the number one most ignored “rule” in all of LD, other than the need for both sides to have advocacies, which at least most people have the good grace to argue against rather than to presume against). The use of theory in debate is an example of this interest in exactly how a debate is being conducted. On the one hand, many theory arguments are useful in handling silly or abusive material, against which in the past one was sort of beholden to the wit and wisdom of a judge agreeing that something was silly or abusive. Theory could provide a real method of addressing that material. But on the other hand, theory does not of necessity have to address a true foul. When it simply addresses procedure, it is merely another argument, another tool in the proverbial rhetoric toolbox.

At this point, LD debate moves away from being about the resolution, and one is as likely as not to have a round where the resolution never seriously plays into the decision-making calculus or in much of the argumentation. A side can argue prima facie why they ought to win on face and spend the rest of their time explaining it in detail. More to the point, reasonable people adjudicating the round will accept this as valid LD. Meanwhile, of course, for whatever reason (perhaps because even back in the 90s resolutions were moving away from philosophical to real-world issues, and following that the need to condense On The Genealogy of Morals into a two minute card) speed has also taken over the rounds, almost at the same rate as policy rounds. In a word, LD’s evolution has emulated policy’s. They remain different beasts, but insofar as they are arcane and impenetrable to outsiders, as much about themselves as about their ostensible content, and as far as possible from the original intention of any proverbial founders, they are one and the same.

The question is, so what? Am I suggesting some error here, that the path is somehow wrong, that a different direction be taken? After all, I’ve conceded that the skills of present-day policy are unquestionably useful, and one could infer a similar concession on my part with LD. So what’s the problem?

There isn’t one, really. I’m not suggesting that we are in some sort of dire straits with LD and that we must fight our way out of it. Honestly, I’m perfectly content not to be able to walk into a high-level round and be able to make heads nor tails of it. I’m obviously amused by the fact, but I’m not terribly torn apart by it. My role in debate these days in not in the back of the room in LD rounds, and I’ve redirected my team in general into PF. I don’t really have a horse in the race, so to speak.

My guess is that we will see a similar balkanization of LD as we have with policy, with less general interest in the high school community, but that it will continue to have its place and to be quite popular with schools seriously pursuing a certain level of debate participation. But I would imagine that PF will become (if it isn’t already) the main debate high school activity. The event has plenty of flaws, but at the moment, the fact that it is judged more often than not by lay judges or coaches of a decidedly non-“progressive” state of mind, and that the topic changes so frequently that even before you’ve debated the last one the next one has come out, it’s probably got a good chance of not going down the same path any time soon. This will require some effort on the back end as well, though. We probably shouldn’t introduce all kinds of restrictions into the judging pool, for one thing. While I’m the world’s greatest advocate of MJP in LD, I think it would be the kiss of death in PF because it would be a tool to isolate and promote arcane judges, and I’ve already shown where that leads. I don’t mind a couple of strikes, but that’s it. The PF community also has to get its act together in some of the rules and instructions to judges. I may be wrong on this, but I don’t get a warm and fuzzy feeling about PF coaches playing nice with one another all the time. Maybe it’s because it’s still a relatively new event. I don’t know. Or maybe I’m wrong. There’s also the questions of evidentiary honesty and procedures, and the general nastiness of a lot of rounds, the latter not being something coaches seem to work against. (When I give PF training, I tell the parents point blank that if a team acts like a couple of sons of bitches, they should pay the price for it.)

Granted all these issues in the last paragraph about PF are more asserted than proven, but this is just a think piece. My thinking can easily be wrong. But it is what it is.

I'm enjoying watching all of this play out.

1 comment:

Ryan Miller said...

As a late 90's LDer, I don't buy your story. I hated pomo, hated theory, didn't enjoy more than middling speed...but I slowly began to go to tournaments where opponents used (and judges accepted) such tools *because I wanted intelligible ballots.*

Lay judges may be fine at deciding who won the round, and you're right that the whole architecture around them is much lower-overhead, but they basically don't ever give you specific, concrete advice about what to do differently in order to win. The PF ballots my kids get never tell us anything we didn't already know.

So, I guess I've argued this before, but what you get out of the high-overhead system is clear RFDs without intervention, and almost all of its costs are a direct result of that benefit.

Which is not really to disagree with much of anything you've said--there's a place for both kinds of debate, to be sure, and always will be. But I think it does give a clearer picture of why, as debaters and coaches get serious about trying to win, and want to see returns on expensive investments like camp, they gravitate toward the high-overhead environment. Then the community bifurcates and hates itself, and the NFL introduces a new debate event.