Recognizing what’s missing from teaching debate in an online class format

I made the choice to change my debate course to something more active from something where we discuss and analyze the role of debate in society through the meta. In the past, students would discuss, write, and speak about various debates in a hope to evaluate the role and purpose of the discourse we call “debating” in society. I started off with a survey of the spread – very much like a fungus or mold – of the U.S. Presidential debate format around the globe. Part of this is the work of the Commission on Presidential Debates but another big realization of this gross growth is that politicians recognize what a beneficial format the U.S. Presidential debates are for them. They can say whatever, they can hide, they can claim they looked great through a future supercut. It doesn’t benefit any of us at all.

I moved away from this to something more active – a series of debates that students would perform. I felt that experiential learning would be the way to go in online debate. But I have never really taught debating in an asynchronous online format before. It’s all kind of radically new, and making me think differently about how I teach debate – particularly the assumptions I make about what’s available to us when we enter a debate.

The idea that there’s no space and time to practice arguments is one issue that I think I can address by being more lenient in terms of when a “final” speech will be due. I think that the idea of constant revision, or low-stakes debating, is the way to give students the time and space to become comfortable with their own voices and their own approach to practicing advocacy on various issues. The entirety of college becomes practice from this perspective, if you think about it. I believe that adopting a serious process of revision and practice is one of the most valuable things that a rhetorical education can give to people. So now I’m considering adopting it into all of my courses regardless of modality.

I’ve been teaching through video, and here are a couple of the lectures I’ve done so far on debating.

I just love the thumbnails that YouTube chooses for my videos

These two videos took a bit longer to produce than the standard in-class lecture. I think it’s something that I am still not adjusted to – the idea that I can’t base a lecture on the presence of students in the classroom. They provide a lot of material and a lot of indicators of where to go next when giving a lesson. Without that, I just have to look into the camera and hope they are following along well enough.

This is an argument for making much shorter talks and then gauging student opinion on where they are through some short assignments designed to measure what they got out of the video. The next one can adjust to that. I have my online public speaking course arranged like that and it works pretty well.

We are a couple of weeks away from the first debates, which will be audio or video files posted asynchronously, with plenty of time for the other side to respond. At the end I hope to edit them all together to seem like one debate, but we’ll see how well that works. It would be nice to have one contiguous file to listen to later and see if people could tell that the debate was not done in a traditional, aka “in person” format. I think they’ll be able to.

Teaching in asynchronous online format courses that have been traditionally predicated on being in person and next to one another is not a novelty, but something we should explore and create resources to address now. We are going to be using it a lot more in the future, more than we can imagine now.

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