Friday, March 21, 2008

The purpose of a debate coach...

I'm pretty much over the punks on the forum... but, it has lead me to think about some interesting aspects of debate, and this time it is the relationship between the coach and their students.

One school of thought seems to put the coach and students in a peer to peer relationship. Thus, the coach is somehow on the team and their function as a team member is to facilitate travel, get money from the school and lend their knowledge in recruiting and then training debaters. This is the sort of coach who drinks with his students, defends them no matter what they say, and doesn't see themselves as anything more than a moderator of the group.

The opposite school of thought sees the coach more like an instructor who takes her class on extended field trips. There is a closeness between coach and student that isn't possible without extended contact and travel, but in the end, there is a definite difference between the coach and the student -- and both know it. They aren't peers and the purpose of this sort of coach is to improve the debate skills of the debater and to assure the continued existence and competitiveness of their current and future students. This sort of coach would rarely, if ever drink with her students and if those students behaved badly in public (either in a forum or face to face) that coach would call the student out on it.

There are pros and cons to each side -- and many, if not most coaches fall somewhere in between. it is also, clearly the case that administration and those providing debate travel budgets want to think their coaches are not in the first category ---

It seems to me that coaches have a significant amount of responsibility -- (whether or not they want to admit it). That responsibility begins with the fact that they are a traveling representative of their institution's faculty. Their behavior sends signals to other faculty members and those faculty members make judgments accordingly.

Second, debate coaches have responsibilities to their individual students. Among those responsibilities are those you'd expect -- making sure they get the skills and opportunity to debate. They also have the duty to help those students navigate the tricky years between high school and college graduation. Often students have difficulty there, either due to their own choices or their struggle for independence from their families -- but, it it seems to me that a good debate coach will help them navigate those tricky situations, and this often means having difficult conversations. Sometimes those conversations start with 'dude, you messed that up' and perhaps even end with 'maybe doing debate isn't right for you'...

Debate coaches also have a responsibility to their squad as a whole. I've seen many of my close debate coach friends make difficult decisions in which they tell an excellent debater and brilliant student that they are no longer welcome on the team. These conversations are generally necessary to preserve the squad -- and to insure that everyone on the squad has the best possible experience debating. This responsibility to the squad also includes managing the public image of their squad. So, it may include prohibitions on posting on forums, it may include dress and behavior requirements at tournaments or it may require having difficult conversations with students who make the squad look bad via their bad behavior. In debate, more than other areas of academia, perception is reality -- and if your squad reputation is some variation of the 'drunk and disorderly' sort -- that is the fault of the coach who refuses to take charge.

Finally, coaches have a responsibility to the community. They should make sure they are contributing to the ongoingness of the debate community and to the overall academic community to which they belong. Part of that may include traditional scholarly work such as writing papers and serving on committees, but it also includes communicating elements of the past to current squads. So, knowing answers about the history of debate organizations, knowing (even if you were elsewhere) what the debates in distant years looked like etc... This is because the only repository of knowledge about the history and development of debate lies in the coaches...

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