Tuesday, March 18, 2008

"debate is for the students"

Sorry that there are so many debate related posts here -- but it is what I'm thinking and really can't say elsewhere...

It is often claimed that, "debate is all about the debaters". I absolutely agree. Without students benefiting from the activity, there is no reason to do it. Coaches and judges can find other ways to make less than minimum wage. Those of us who volunteer to run national tournaments could easily stay home all weekend and watch NCIS (or, heaven forbid write our dissertations).

Clearly, we do this for love and not money -- and the benefits we personally gain in terms of career and skills stop after about 3 years of coaching and judging. We've now learned to write fast, administer tournaments and listen to people screw up philosophical positions. In terms of judge 'education', we'd be better off spending the time we spend judging reading the New York Times, The Economist and the Onion on our own. It is more efficient to get the full story from the source than to have it be morphed into the debate format. We've met people from a variety of schools who might be able to give us a positive on-campus reference for jobs in our field... yea, that is about it.

So, the love is the love of students. We love smart students and we want them to learn. We want them to have the best and most fair competitive experience possible. We want them to be motivated to explore the world and keep up with current events. We want them to speak well and to formulate brilliant arguments in response to the arguments of others.

That does not mean that what the students WANT RIGHT NOW will achieve those things. Debate can, and should be done with the students' best interest in mind. That does not mean that what comes to the student/competitor mind is how it must be.

In fact, the longer those of us who are willing to hang around do so, the more insight and perspective we can bring to how things ought to work. A group of us started NPTE almost 9 years ago. We've just had our 8th national tournament. For those of you who are seniors in your last season, think about how much you've learned in the last 8 years of debate. That is how long NPTE has been in existence. Every year we've learned things as well. We've adapted and changed the rules, we've figured out a way to run a tournament that was good enough for you to want to get into... and we've had some experiences along the way that tell us that what students want isn't always in their best interest.

I know your attitude is very Generation ME. I'm reading the book right now, so y'all are making some sense. That doesn't mean that I (a Gen Xer) am going to give you your way.

Essentially, saying "debate is for the debaters" is like saying "medicine is for the patients" in that the medicine is supposed to improve the person, just like debate should improve the debater. The thing is, the folks in charge of debate are kind of like physicians. We'll listen to alternatives, we'll consider them in light of our significantly greater experience and preference and we'll do what is really in your best interest. That is the only way debate can really be about the debaters.


Anonymous said...

I think your final analogy there is a good one. It's a really tough thing sometimes to admit you don't know what's best and someone else does, especially when what's best isn't what you want.

The_Myth said...


I'm a new reader of the blog but I figured I'd chime in with a little reflection...


It sounds like you encountered a bunch of bad seeds. A plethora of Veruca Salts, all wanting their Oompa-Loompas ...and wanting them now! With no understanding that some things, like earning acclaim and esteem [other than the SELF kind...or perhaps even that] come from hard work, making mistakes, learning from those mistakes, and trying again.

I had the exact same thing happen in a writing class I taught on persuasion and argumentation. I mean, how DARE *I* as the teacher know more than they do! How dare I criticize their opinion! How dare I even suggest ways to improve it, point of argumentative flaws, or even suggest their performance was LESS than those As they are bequeathed elsewhere!

I think that, should you manage to stay in the debate world, you might want to see about incorporating a rules of conduct. Does such a thing exist? It seems some unruly, completely unprofessional trash-talking went around that is completely out-of-line on any public forum. Even by those precious cherubs called undergrads.

I wish you luck and sanity in rsolving this mess, whch really may just be best for you to walk away from....for awhile...

P.S. Lovin' the blog!