That Semi-Annual Introduction to Rhetoric Talk

By now regular visitors to the blog should be aware of my twice a year sojourn to Cornell University to introduce a fairly good number of Cornell students to the art of rhetoric. Of course since they are alive human beings in their 20s who are in college they have been practicing rhetoric for quite some time and quite successfully. But naming a thing is often a transformative moment.

It’s become a pretty fun and cool ceremony for me of all people to return to the site of Herb Wicheln’s career and introduce a bunch of people to the formal theory and study of rhetoric. It’s odd that nothing of his legacy survives there outside of some archive which I suspect doesn’t get called on much. One day I’ll have to go take a look.

I always try to account for and capture these talks as I’m interested in how they vary. YouTube has a good number of the one’s I’ve recorded. Here’s the most recent one, delivered February 15th, and it’s not really edited that much. I took out some of the sidebars and other random conversation during the class break and stuff like that. I tried to preserve the conversation as it was, both the mistakes I make in the talk and the discussion afterwards. It’s audio only, but everything is here. I wonder if people prefer the audio to the video. It seems an audio lecture is easier to take in than a video one sometimes (plus we are all burned out on video chats).

Thoughts and comments welcome!

In the Bin Visits France in this New Episode

Another new episode of In the Bin is now ready for your ears. Listen here or you can choose to listen through the podcast provider of your choice. The series is everywhere.

at Anchor.fm you can leave us a voice message. We’d love to hear from you and might even play it on a future episode.

There are Topics Not Worth Debating. How Do We Know?

Got a great question along with a great article from a friend last month, now I’m finally getting to it.

The simple response is, yes of course! But the more complex response is to examine how we should determine what debates are not worth having, and the criteria for this choice should be based not on debate’s limitations, but debate’s strengths.

Deborah Tannen’s best-selling book The Argument Culture might be somewhat dated now (it came out in 1999 I think) but it holds up thanks to people’s addiction to cable tv news programs, even if they are on YouTube.

The argument of the book is simply this: Bad models of debate are harmful to our ability to construct meaningful and useful social policy. Somewhat like the idea that taking too much or too little of a helpful medicine will kill you, debate, poorly dosed out will indeed destroy our ability to reason collectively, think through complex issues (which often requires more than one human mind I’m afraid), and make sure we have the appropriate perspective on whatever it is we are trying to sort through, evaluate, judge, enact, or any number of other verbs.

Tannen’s criteria is what we hope to avoid here. We don’t want to prop up reasons to not have debate based on debate’s weaknesses. We want to be able to say that debate’s strengths are why we should not engage it on every issue that seems like it would fit in the debate slot. Very much like kitchen equipment designed for certain purposes, using debate to make something that it’s not meant to make will render something inedible. This simple realization is lost on debate-critics who think that debate ruins what it touches no matter what you try to make with it.

In the article from Psyche Malcolm Keating provides an excellent explanation of how Naya philosophy in the 10th century did exactly what I’m looking for: Established a conception of choosing to debate because of what debate can provide, not in spite of debate’s limitations, faults, or nature. Naya philosophy prescribes some very good reasons to debate because of what debate provides or forces upon us when we agree to do it.

One of these is being open to changing your mind. Debate absolutely requires this, and the Naya philosophers accept this too. This isn’t simplistic zero-sum gaming, but the idea that what is said in the debate should influence how you articulate your views and hold your views from that moment forward. Douglas Ehninger in my field of rhetoric wrote beautifully about this in his essay “Argument as Method” which was published in 1970 (this definitely still holds up).

In that essay Ehninger isn’t discussing debate, per se, but he sets up exactly what you’d want in a debate to make it work. His model of the “corrector” versus the teacher or the authority figure is essential to the model. He argues that debating someone else must be predicated on the idea that you are as susceptible to quality reasons and believable evidence as the person you are engaging. In short, the rules apply to everyone. If something is convincing either way, it should be accepted by both. Please note how Plato’s Socrates seems to lampoon this model in most of the dialogues. We never see him alter his point of view although he does pretend to be surprised quite well like you would in front of a jury or something.

The point is that this model of debating excludes all topics that one couldn’t imagine holding up to that standard of conviction. There might be some issues we feel so strongly about that we would be unwilling to change our mind about them even given a lot of great evidence. In cases like this, we can soften that feeling by engaging in “switch-side” debating (as it’s called in the United States) where you are assigned a side of a topic and are supposed to craft arguments for something you might not believe or (even worse) don’t care about that much. This practice helps us make a stronger connection to the ideals of Ehninger-style argument as well as inform us about the various things going on in a number of controversies worldwide.

Keating does fall into the philosophical norm of viewing debate through a Platonic lens as a given, not a choice. Rhetoric, sophistry, and debate are all dismissed as packing materials for philosophy’s fine and delicate pieces because of these deeply held Platonic ideologies; there are very few who would consider the Sophists philosophers of any kind, even educational philosophers, because of this deeply held bias. Here we see it in characterizations of “unreflective” debate being ironically this very clever attempt to deceive, trick someone, or score points (all of which involve a lot of planning and strategy, so I never really get how or why these assumptions are made about it). To decieve someone you really have to get to know them, or get them to place a lot of trust in you, which requires at the minimum a workable model of human motives based on acute and accurate observation and study.

Philosophy’s attitude to debate is always, “We can debate in spite of the failings that people have.” The rhetorician’s attitude is, “Let’s talk about all the different ways we can debate.” It seems to me that without the Platonic ideology framing the Naya discussion of types of debate, these philosophers are perhaps more rhetorically inclined. Who else would come up with different kinds of debate for different purposes, then tell us to either do it or not based own what we think the value of the exchange might be? Keating seems to miss that truth is not a prerequisite here, but something that may or may not come out of one of the various modalities of debating these philosophers practiced. These are not opposed models, but different levels of practice that serve the purpose that all debate practice should have: To prepare the mind to change given the appropriate conditions.

Debating any topic at all with no conditions does not prepare the mind for much, only fuels the anger and frustration that we inappropriately aim at debating itself. As far as what topics do not qualify for debate, those we cannot subject to the ethics of good debate, i.e. “I’ll change my position if I find really good reasons to do so” are off the table. We can soften up that conviction by practicing the rival conviction, that of rhetorical reasoning, through doing some of the “lesser” forms of debating as Keating seems to want to call them, which give us a lot of insight into how human motives, language, and speech are intertwined in complex ways. This combination of various moving parts help us understand the complexities of commitment, and further our desire to hold the principle of rhetorical reason through debate as primary, and being right second. That’s the only way we can ensure that a topic will be treated appropriately and fully.

Keating’s essay has made me want to investigate these thinkers more as I think they can offer a very complex, necessary, and wonderful discrimination of modalities of debate that all serve the same purpose: To answer the question of what to debate and why to debate it. There’s no hierarchy here, only different modes of speaking for different purposes and people. This is the heart of the Sophistic position. It’s also a very human-centered ethic about how to change minds, given that it forwards how complex people are in their attitudes and beliefs.

So how do we know a topic shouldn’t be debated? I think we have to first get comfortable with the idea that there’s not just one “debate” out there, and we can thank Keating for that in this great essay. Secondly, we need to be honest about whether we are debating for the benefit of the topic and our own minds. Are we debating to correct course, or are we giving orders? Topics that we feel don’t require a course correction are difficult to debate unless we do a lot of low-stakes practice frequently with one another (which seems to be what the Naya philosophers were doing from what little I glean here). Low-stakes practice helps you see how wrong you can be and how often it can happen, encouraging an increased faith in the method of debate. Finally, there are topics that we might not want to debate that come up so often because we are bored, or tired, of having those debates. Audiences are good indicators of whether this is true or not. Often once we have engaged a topic many times we feel there’s nothing left to explore. But this is indicative of failing to uphold the debate ethic. We can only feel we’ve fully explored a topic if we think of the reasons and topic as being “out there” somewhere and not “here with us” in the form of audience. We also fail to uphold the debate ethic if we feel we have it right and couldn’t have it better through a re-articulation of our reasons before others who are mulling over those reasons, or who have a stronger hold on their convictions rather than on how they got to those convictions.

A First Resolution for 2021, emphasis on “resolution.”

If I have one thing that I want to establish over the course of next year is the elimination of the phrase “public debate.”

I used this term a lot without understanding the full implications of the insidious nature of this phrase. It’s used by those who are deeply involved in the world of tournament-contest debating in order to make what they do legitimate.

You will never hear those who support tournament debate call their work “tournament debate” – they use the term “debate” for it, referring to things made for general audiences as “public debate.” This is no accident.

What this does is make debate that is created for audiences about publicly interesting topics appear to be the diminished, non-real, trivial form of debating. “Real” debating is for elites; it is for those who know what true debate looks like. It takes years of hard work to master. It’s an exclusive realm for debate experts. Not only do they know the right arguments, they know the right topics too.

This is in direct contradiction to the art of rhetoric, which is always about audiences. The measure of a good argument is whether the audience buys it. It’s a thwarting of “real” debate to totally remove audience from the picture and then claim that you are studying how to make good speeches to move minds on an issue.

The centering of the bizarre practice of tournaments-as-debate has been accepted without critique by most rhetoric and communication scholars. To resist the centering of a very limited and very anti-rhetorical practice of debate, I believe we should stop saying “public debate.” The reason why is that debate necessitates a public in the form of the audience, which serves as a synecdoche for the public.

Instead of saying “public debate,” let’s indicate that this is “real” debate by calling it “debate.” That is, any debate for an audience on an issue that most debate coaches and tournament champions would consider boring, too simple, unfair, or “played out” is what debate is, and where it lives best (bios). And yes, debate can be characterized as a living thing. More on that in a future post.

For the tournament-centric model of debate, we should push that from the center by calling it “contest debate” or “sport debate.” I don’t think there will be much objection from the tournament-centric participants as they already envision themselves as participating in something they already envision as a metaphor of American intercollegiate football. The approach says it all.

Perhaps this is a triviality or a strange bone to pick. I believe in the power of words, the power of naming. For too long we in the debate world have used the phrase “public debate” without understanding it’s full and sinister implication of removing debate from the discourse forms that everyone should be able to engage in productively. By making it something elite, something that requires the ample time and resources of privilege to master, we have done a disservice to rhetoric, to communication. Perhaps a renaming is all we need to start a revolution in conceptualizing debate where it should be: Something base, something everyday, and something that anyone and everyone should be able to practice in their daily lives. Contest debate doesn’t offer that. We don’t casually hold pick-up debates like we do with basketball and football, even though there’s an NFL and an NBA? Why? There’s a lot less insecurity there, and a recognition that practicing the art, no matter the skill level, or the reason, is valuable. Tournament debate professionals have missed that insight by dismissing debate’s place, it’s heart – the art of rhetoric.

Who Gets to Determine the Available Arguments on an Issue?

The ancient question of what topics are appropriate for students to speak about, debate about, or write about is evergreen. I think about this at the end and start of every teaching term.

I see several approaches to this question that are well-warranted. It doesn’t mean that I agree with any of them though!

The Word Bank Model

Remember being in primary school and sometimes you’d have a test or exam that would feature a “word bank?” You were meant to take the words from the random collection in a box and use them to complete the test questions. It really helped a lot if you were stuck, and probably forwarded an idea of learning relationships and meanings rather than rote memorization.

The Word Bank Model as an answer to this question is when the instructor selects the potential topic areas, and the student selects from these areas in order to complete the technical or structural requirements for the assigment.

For example, in public speaking it’s quite popular to assign something like a “policy speech.” This assignment requires the student to propose and persuade an “audience” that a particular policy should be adopted or should be chosen over some set of competing policies either in place or in consideration.

An instructor might write, “Select one of the following policies: The Green New Deal, Medicare for All, Tuition-Free Higher Education, Assault Weapons or handgun ban. . .” etc.

That was a very American list wasn’t it? The point though is that the typical instructor should draw on things that are circulating, current and happening right then in the society so the students have ample discourse to root around in, embrace, and explore on these issues.

Most instructors might not feel comfortable wtih not “knowing the right answer” to some of these policy questions, but that’s ok – we are teachers of persuasion and rhetoric, not facts and truth. Instructor discomfort with such suggested topics is more indicative of instructors feeling like they are losing their classroom authority (read: authoritarianism) by not being able to definitively say what the right answer is on these questions.

The downfall of this model (there are many) is that the instructor is often only educated on controversial issues by the mass media (CNN, NBC, etc.) and does not have a grasp on the nuance or depth of these controversies, nor how to access the deeper arguments on these questions.

An invitation to a research librarian to assist the class on curating resources for these topics is definitely in order, as well as a strict ban on mass-market news sources as more than 20% of the cited sources in the presentation.

Controversy is the Source of the Topic

Even less control over the topics comes from the instructor choosing to teach the structure and habits of controversy itself rather than a particualr issue. The students are charged with finding a topic that meets the standards and definition of controversy that was defined in the classroom.

Whenever a controversy is brought up, research should be conducted by the students or participants as to what’s out there on it. This can be as broad or narrow as you want. For example, the vaccine controversy is not going to go very far as a topic for debate if you restrict it only to the scientific literature. If you expand the notion of what’s out there to include the mom bloggers and the religious folks, as well as the clean lifestyle folks, you have a debate there that becomes more about what evidence is good and appropriate, not the relatively thin and uninteresting question of “what’s the real evidence?”

Letting the controversy decide is a great way to show us how language pushes us around into the identities and positions that it wants us to hold as well. Being moved by an argument that goes completely against classroom standards of a “good source” is an experience that should be talked about as a normal part of education. Too often we get the articulation that only “stupid people” (whoever they are) will believe a position, and those on the right side of the issue understand the “facts” and “evidence.” These are all, in the end, preferred ways to understand the world and the controversy will, as it pulses along, give credibility to various positions that those opposite will be stunned by. This is what it means to argue – to be baffled by what counts in the words and meanings of your opponents.

This should also point out that those who support calls for “evidence-based debate” are not offering anything to rhetorical or debate education except a retread of a tire that just shouldn’t be driven on. Of course debate requires evidence – that’s not the controversy. It’s what counts as evidence that should be explored precisely because it moves from context to audience to situation. Contemporary debate coaches who make this appeal are simply guilty of equivocation.

The Quality Source or Professional Niche Approach

One of the defenses of teaching public speaking or debate is that it is a professional skill set that aids people in working on professionalizing. So why not have students select a controversy or disagreement from their major field and speak or debate about that?

This allows instructors to assign work for reading that might be off-base for the story they are trying to tell about their field or the topic of the course, but allows the students to discuss the differences between various publications, practicing using the thought processes, practices, terms, and culture of the field.

Such debates in class are also the heart of the model of undergraduate research, something every administrator pushes and pushes without much of a concept of what that really looks like. I had an undergraduate student who did some research for a professor that primarily involved buying him a yogurt and a banana every day from the cafeteria. Why a symbolic appointment when you can have the symbol and the work for everyone during class? Opting in shouldn’t be the model for the most important bits of education. This extends to the model of the contemporary debate team as well. If debate is such an important way to learn, why limit it to those who the coach thinks are “good,” whatever that means?

Good Citizens Can Advocate

It seems like the controversy driven model, but this model is one where larger questions about the normative, ethical, or valuable tasks or perspective on things like social issues, governance, or culture are explored. Instead of “Should we withdraw our troops from this or that place,” the topic becomes “Should governments have a standing army?”

This is a much more philosophical approach at first glance, but I’d hesitate to say that. Instead, think of this as an accounting exercise for the students where they are asked – possibly for the first time in their lives – to provide a detailed accounting for the principles of the right or the good they rely on as citizens. These are the hidden and unarticualted principles of the good they rely on for all political choices and decisions. And now we have a chance to make them plain; to investigate and examine whether they make sense when articulated socially.

Students can bring up controversies which the instructor then treats as the begged question, i.e. “What prior question must be answered before we can address this question?” Here’s an example from an assignment where I turned my whole public speaking class into a big debate

New York City should be a sanctuary city (this means that the city authorities will not cooperate with the Federal immigration authorities on any requests to detain possible undocumented people).

So the begged question is: What is the appropriate relationship between the local and national government? Or: What is the appropriate relationship governments should have to people?

You can of course derive other ones, but you can see that hidden within an answer to the sanctuary city topic there is this larger assumption there that the entire meaning of the argument or position rests on (Toulmin would call this backing for those of you still gnawing on that old chestnut – it’s December so chestnuts are the appropriate metaphor).

The practice of being a citizen should be connected to the idea that expressing your view on issues based on your own experiences is normal and welcome. It is also normal and welcome to listen to the views of others who live in your polis, whatever that might be defined as. And it’s normal and welcome to change your mind, several times, as you incorporate the lived experience and beliefs of those who share that space.

How do we encourage and get argument innovation? By allowing students huge amounts of latitude in how they articulate connections between their own experience and what they hear and read in courses. We should not be choosing topics for courses or limiting what can be said; this is the true heart of academic free expression. The ability to express ideas freely is to show one’s work, and if you are not permitting students to do this regularly within courses, you are not teaching.

What is Missed in Calls to Return to In-Person Teaching

We are told continuously through the pandemic that students are demanding an “in person” experience for their education. The university is not a remote workplace, and online education is not and never will replace the in person teaching experience.

This demand is often couched in the terms of market economics. Education is easily considered a product (I don’t even think there’s a metaphor here, at all) and students are customers there to consume a product. If they are unhappy, and they don’t enroll in courses, then there’s something wrong with the product and it should be adapted to what the customers want.

All of this makes sense if you accept that education is a product, and not the place that allows us to imagine, iterate (and reimagine and reiterate) the principles by which we would like to, should, or fail to organize human experiences in the world. What sort of product is that?

What sort of product or market forces can be used to evaluate the quality of a space that allows for the practice and development of human imagination?

This question, big as it is, is never considered. It’s never brought up. The university sees itself as responsible for making the best possible product for students to pay tuition for, and their satisfaction isn’t necessary connected with this larger question – a blend of rhetoric and ethics that we might term praxis.

What are students claiming is missing? Familiarity. The demand for the in-person educational experience is not a demand for higher quality. It’s demand for a recognizable quality. Very much like how Coca Cola reverse engineers water sources to match the Atlanta water supply (for good and bad) worldwide, and how McDonald’s adds and subtracts elements from food production worldwide for consistency and customer expectation, students want the classroom, for good or bad, for purity or impurity, to resemble what their expectations are. They want to feel comfortable.

This might not be such a bad demand if met correctly. After all, we want our students in a good mental and physical space to be able to find pathways to engage with the material. But this comfort is more of a strategy than anything else. They want the familiar classroom because in there they have access to a familiar politics of figuring out the class – what they need to do and what is mere professor bloviation, wierdness, or eccentric demand. After all, the familiar classroom is a market – students want to buy As at the lowest possible exchange rate, where they exchange their time and energy for points.

The in person classroom is not immediate; it is highly mediated by this philosophy of a currency exchange. On top of that, it’s highly mediated by the expectations that students and faculty enter that space carrying from film, television, and popular culture. As one of humanity’s most common experiences, being in a classroom has been saddled with expectations of all kinds, which modify behavior in comfortable, understandable ways. These modifications, along with the ultimate goal of “buy low” create a difficult environment to encourage any sort of radical engagement of the mind.

When we accept the student demand for the in person course as a request for higher quality instruction, or more immediate and personal instruction, we are accepting the claim on the basis of equivocation. The begged question here is who gets to determine quality? The question of mediation is settled; you can count on one hand the human spaces that are equivalently mediated like the classroom. We have no access to a classroom, or an in person educational experience, that can avoid the weight of expectation. We must understand that students prefer the in person class because it is comfortable, familiar, and well mapped – all the routes are known, and the steps are familiar.

The necessity of education to be a rupture, a transformation, or a classically revolutionary experience requires disruption of the familiar and comfortable in ways that are not distressing, but recognizable as different. Online education has done that to faculty and to students. And for those who have tried to do something that works for this forced environment, they now are wondering if they can ever return to the traditional classroom as it was. For those who tried to replicate the in person experience, this was the most frustrating and disappointing times of their career. What this moment can be is the recognition that the demands of education, a valuable education, requires deep skepticism about the role you have, the role you think you have, and the role that is filtering everything you say and do in a classroom, whether you are a teacher or a student.

What’s in a Debate Name?

Debate Coach makes me cringe for so many reasons. I’m not sure I can list them all here. The first concern with this term I share with William Hawley Davis, Professor of Speech at Case Western in 1916, who worried that teaching debate for competition made his role “adjunct to sport.” If there is a debate coach, there is a debate sport. There should not be a debate sport, unless it’s something that is performed with everyday activities that can be evaluated as having moments of practiced excellence. For example, throwing or catching a ball, running, swimming, jumping – all are elements of things anyone can do, they understand how these things are done. Debate eliminates the connection with everyday rhetorical practices, providing their own “purified” modes of speaking, listening, note taking, evidence, that are designed to be inaccessible to everyday people, and they then call that inaccessibility excellence. There’s no recognition here of excellence, just something surprising.

I’ve always thought the best metaphor for debate is a martial art, where the competitions are based on mastering particular moves, and then mastering those moves in combinations. Most interestingly, martial arts competitions are examined for evidence of practice as communicated through form and execution. Tournament debate is often judged on what is novel and surprising; what exciting new position can be created in the moment. There are few techniques and even fewer practices that can be taught, or seen in evaluation, in tournament debate. It’s most often about surprising the opposition rather than relying on process to invent convincing arguments.

Debate competitions designed like martial arts would have elements of Roman declamation along with elements of exchange on an issue that everyone can access and discuss. What sets the excellent debater apart will be the ability to craft and deliver arguments in a way that improve the quality and the possibility of argument for the audience. The judge should be able to recognize someone who takes this art seriously and has practiced it, they have a process where the weight of engagement with the issue is communicated in the delivery and nature of the arguments.

This though is not a sport, which is probably for the best. It’s a way of self-assessment in your discipline to see how you measure up in your practice and focus on debating.

Debate Educator is a better term perhaps, but this term is often hijacked by tournament addicts to make their style or preference of tournament sound superior to the tournament style they hate.

I hear this term when people are trying to position themselves as a leader or influencer of some novel type of debate activity. The idea is a good one: Someone who educates through debate seems like something I’d support. But the reality is that these people are often educating about debate, i.e. the right way to do it.

The rhetorical understanding of debate, and some elements of the philosophical side of it, all agree that the correct way of debating is tied up intensely with audience. You cannot create a modality of debating and ship it wholesale onto an audience. They always have a say in what is going on. Or in highly rhetorical views, like my own, debate does not exist without an audience. If you have audience-free debate, you are doing something else. The fact that recordings and internet broadcasts of debate tournaments are not a required part of the competitions indicates the flat dismissal of the rhetorical perspective, placing debate tournaments out of synch with the history and theory of rhetorical scholarship.

A debate educator would be someone who would use debate as a significant part of a plan or a process of approaching pedagogy on a number of subjects. It would not be “this form of having a debate with other people is superior to this other form.” This is far too often what the debate educator sounds like.

Teacher is my favorite title for the sort of work that debate engenders, and it’s strange to me (although I do recognize the historical reasons here) that few professors like the title teacher, or consider teaching to be something praiseworthy. It was taught to me in my PhD program as something one tolerates in order to do the “real work.”

Debate Teacher has some weird issues with it that are similar to debate educator, or can fall into the same sorts of traps. Educator is rather snobby, and teacher sounds like and feels like someone who gets down into the trenches. An educator I can see speaking at a conference; a teacher brings to mind the image of someone leaning over next to the desk of a student engaging what they are engaging, ensuring and assisting something educational.

I’m very upset about how the title Professor of Practice gets a negative rap as the title that austerity administrators at the University are using to designate non-tenure track professors. I love the title, as it indicates a powerful relationship between the art of teaching, professing something (as in an emotional expression of what and how things should be in the world), and dedication to practice as the thing, not preparation for the more important thing coming later, which is how sports are coached. A focus on practice as practice is what rhetorical pedagogy needs and is and should be, all together. I love this title, but unfortunately it has been co-opted by the economic realities of the university.

Professor of Debate Practice might be cool. An emotive, passionate advocate for the practice of debating as a pedagogical orientation to the world. That’s what I have always found most exciting about debate are the moments when students start to look for process. Once they find something that works, they go around testing that part of process on everything they find worth thinking about. Tournament debate is so limiting in it’s methods and capacity for thought that eventually students grow beyond it pretty quickly if they are being taught right. They do preserve the element of process though and hopefully create connections between that experience and later inquiry.

In composition, they have the titles Writing Consultant (a bit too corporate for my tastes, but I get the idea) and Writing Center Director as well as Composition Professor or Rhetoric and Composition Professor which is really great, as it communicates that there are two elements here. But people from NCA oriented departments would never accept a title like Rhetoric and Oratory Professor because it would indicate too plainly that they teach, and there’s a weird negativity in NCA-focused departments on the teaching of public speaking. The representative anecdote for this is the story I heard from a pretty high ranking professor dismissing the idea that all new faculty hired should teach public speaking by saying, “We don’t want to punish them.” This is a pretty common attitude, and one that Writing Centers, and most Rhetoric & Composition people would find extremely alien. It raises a big question for me: Who would claim to be a Rhetoric Professor and not want to hear and help people gain new perspectives on their speech?

What’s in a name indeed. The naming convention of Debate Coach needs to transform into something that highlights the powerful elements of pedagogy that are deep within the debate experience. Coaching is a gestalt that brings forward sports and zero-sum games. It conjures the idea that there’s talent related to the democratic art of debate rather than this is a difficult necessity that all must learn how to do; all must struggle through the never-ending challenges of deliberation.

Not sure what title would work best, or what people would be proud of. I certainly hated being called a coach, but I recognize I’m in the minority. What title best communicates the complexity, power, and necessity of education through the act of creating and advocating two-sided arguments before an audience or judge?

We’re Hiring Someone who Does Debate, What do you Think?

The title of this post is a note I often get. I thought I’d make my common response public.

Don’t hire a debate coach to run your debate program. Don’t hire someone who has a record of tournament success.

Instead, hire someone who is a radical teacher, someone who is a critical pedagogue. You want someone who recognizes that the classroom, and the “outside the classroom” exist in a yin-yang relationship. Hire someone who is frustrated by the college classroom not because they have to be in there teaching public speaking, but because they are frustrated by the innate design flaws of such a system of teaching.

The outstanding debate program is one that supercharges your existing communication curriculum by providing engagement with populations, communities, and people in the world through rhetoric, oratory, and speech. The students who opt in for debate programs take what they get excited about in the communication curriculum out to these communities, they roll it around, and bring it back covered in insight from the audiences (and sometimes opponents) they encounter there.

In short, a debate coach is someone who is committed to creating students successful at navigating and mastering the norms of the debate tournament – an extant group of people who want to fold others into their norms of thought and speech. These norms unfortunately serve the norms of what makes tournaments work well, not what makes rhetoric work well, and certainly not open to the idea that we are being operated by these norms, put “through the motions” of speech and argument, spun like a top by the ideological commitment to tournament debating.

What you want is someone who is committed to teaching in a way that they find the classroom incomplete – it’s too antiseptic to be meaningful for teaching. They are someone familiar with student-centered, active and creative engagement, and have a healthy respect for assessment and rubric design over grading.

The model for a good debate program is the writing center. Over the past 40 or so years, the academic conversation among writing centers and writing instructors has moved to a place of student-focused creation of texts and their interaction with communities and ideology. Debate, as it’s practiced now, is more like 1950s or 1960s composition, where modality is taught, and the correspondence to a set of rules for modality is the sign of good writing. Debate though only has one modality to teach, and that’s what the tournament calls a “good argument.” At all BP or World’s competitions, for example, the notion of fairness of a motion is always held above any other conception of the motion.

If your university is considering a debate hire, or a debate program, hire a teacher who wants to create additional opportunities for students to engage other communities with the rhetorical and communication concepts that are taught in your classes. Have them return and share with these classes what they experienced. This model keeps argument, rhetoric, speech, oratory, and communication theory alive. It’s praxis, one of the best governing principles we have for determining if our pedagogy is sound.

I wave off most people from trying to hire a tournament-forged debate coach type. It’s better to hire a generalist in research who loves to teach, and the department can empower that person with a budget and some faculty-determined goals for the debate program. The rest should come as most of the best pedagogy does, action and reflection on that action to create theory that governs another action. This will provide the entirety of the students in the department with the benefits of an engaged learning program based on external partnerships. Perhaps the writing center mixed with an ecology program? A day trip to the forest, the wetlands, or the shore seems like a good metaphor for what I’m suggesting.

The last thing political discourse needs right now is a program that encourages people to believe that they have found the “right way” to argue, “real” debate, or any other such nonsense. What is needed are experiences to remind ourselves, and our students, how incredibly difficult it is to stand before an audience and offer them reasons to alter their attitudes about something. This moment never gets old, never is easy, and most importantly, is never the same. Debate education based on rules of fairness will never prepare people for this moment, it will only serve to encourage them to dismiss it in favor of other rules-based argumentation environments, such as the law. This fetishism doesn’t help create practice in the messy and frustrating necessity of debating in a democracy, which could be conceived of as a continuous “adaptation of adapting,” or the moments where you feel that pressure that you have to account for your position on something with mere words alone, nothing else.

Rhetoric, Kairos, Metallica, and PBS

It’s 202o, so of course PBS is airing the San Francisco Symphony and Metallica’s second live concert together. Such a strange combination might just be evidence of getting older, nothing else. Probably not going to get over that this is on PBS. But PBS is where I discovered Doctor Who, so perhaps this is on brand for them.

When S&M first appeared, it was a very strange but delightful combination for me. At the time I was thinking a lot about rock operas such as Tommy and Jesus Christ Superstar and so the idea of symphonic heavy metal was quite nice. I thought it worked pretty well and still really enjoy that album.

Now watching the second go round, it appears they aren’t really changing up much of the set. It feels like a “lets do that again!” Or it could be the anniversary of the original S&M concert, somewhere around 1999 or 2000 I’m guessing. Could be an anniversary, or a marking of the moment.

What it isn’t is anything like the first one, even if they play the exact same set list in the level of mastery you’d expect from that many career professional musicians. The first collaboration is an example of kairos.

This ancient Greek term is poorly defined in many places as “opportunity” or “the opportune.” This makes kairos seem like a natural force, and those who can use it incredibly lucky. Or perceptive. Or a bit of both. Kairos has little to do with luck, and a lot to do with one of the most important practices that the discipline of rhetoric teaches: Recognition.

I think the best way to teach kairos is to couch it in layers of recognition: First being that we must recognize that any rhetorical intervention is temporary. That’s how it has meaning at all. It’s contingent, of the moment, and will have to be rearticulated, or created anew, at some point in the future. It also is the recognition of the complexities of the moment, situation, reason for the articulation, and the audience. It’s also the recognition that our words are always incomplete and that the audience isn’t there to receive them but to work with them.

One of my favorite definitions of kairos doesn’t come from professional rhetoric scholars, but from Paul Tillich, a theologian, who defined it as moments where “the eternal breaks into the temporal,” moments where one moment becomes hyperweighted, a moment of decision or realization, one where one is compelled to respond by the sheer weight of the realization of the moment and it’s relation to what has happened and what shall be coming.

There are a lot of great definitions that might be better. I’m a big fan of:

Roger Thomson, writing about the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson, defines kairos as, “A moment of spiritual insight and propriety.” Also: “Invocation of the eternal during a specific moment in history to enact change.”

James Kinneavy: “Right timing and due measure” (seems almost like opposites?)

Augusto Rostagini explains Gorgias’s understanding as three fold: 1) Knowledge of the different forms speech can take, 2)adapt it to the situation before you and 3) harmonize it with the speech around you.

Eric Charles White defines it as the recognition that, “there can never be more than a contingent and provisional management of the present opportunity.”

Also: “understanding willing to begin again” and “A unique opportunity to confer meaning upon the world.”

John Poulakos says that kairos, “expands the frontiers of language and invites audiences to settle them.”

These are all present to some degree in S&M, but maybe not so much in S&M 2. Right timing and due measure seem obvious for musicians, so that one is present. But is the concert timed right? It seems like it’s the twentieth anniversary of the first S&M, so maybe that’s something. But that seems more like appropriateness. Perhaps there’s a kairos that is just for epidictic moments? This is more a celebration of the initial collaboration as not much changed. Reiteration can’t be kairotic, can it?

Perhaps it’s like White – this is the understanding of the initial combination of heavy metal and symphonic sounds articulating and understanding itself again. Maybe this is another “opportunity” to appreciate how weird, natural, or unique this music is.

Gorgias, through Rostagini, is the musician’s method here: Harmony. They know what they are supposed to do with their instrument and how to play it. But what applies to this new and contingent situation? How can I bring the form I know into concert with the situation that is unfamiliar? That’s the practice of kairos, or maybe rhetoric as a whole – not sure.

Poulakos is the most obvious really. Let’s push the envelope because we can, and let’s see the audience push back. The audience is a contributor at this point, and as we see many times in the concert, an additional musician.

There’s another definition I wish I had written down that I heard several years ago at the Rhetoric Society of America conference. It was a super weird Sunday morning panel, the last day of the conference. It had a woman working a loom in the corner, a speaker handed out porcupine quills to us, and another professor talked about how making lines on rocks 15,000 years ago was indeed rhetoric. I enjoyed the hell out of it. One of the speakers talked about kairos as being a term from weaving, which was related to being able to deftly move the thread up and down, between the perpendicular threads in a way that was efficient and good. Weaving is something we naturally associate with rhetoric (Weaving words, spinning a yarn, creating an argument out of whole cloth) but this really solidifies the connection, perhaps ironically.

Kairos might not be a big PBS aired concert like this, but playing the music together, hitting the notes at just the right moment together, would be. It is kairos to take a look at the music of a metal band and say, “I wonder how I can weave this into a symphony performance?” Kairos is not the memory of the concert, or even being able to go, but the recognition of a weighty moment that draws into contrast the expected, and compares the past to the future. I liked watching it, but it was nothing like the 1999 concert, more of a tribute to it. However there were still those moments of play in the concert that brought to bear the beauty and intensity of the symphony and Metallica’s music in ways that both heightened and dissolved those distinctions into meaning.

Favorite American History Documents and The Pedagogy of Argument and Debate

Two days ago, someone asked me what my favorite American historical text was. It wasn’t that weird of a question: This is the time of year where I start to plan out my next semester’s courses and figure out the themes I want to teach.

Something that has been on my mind since the Amy Comey Barrett hearings has been the position of Constitutional Originalism. Although made fun of endlessly by the left – mostly revealing the shallow nature of political conversation these days – I am much more intrigued by the nature of this position as a hermeneutic. How do you read this ancient document? Surely you can’t just read it like you are this post? Can you read it like an older book, “Oh that was a good view for back then, but now . . .” – How are you determining that it was a good view? I have so many endless questions about this hermeneutic, and I have to resist the urge to buy a bunch of books on it and just lose myself in figuring it out.

I assume it’s a hermeneutic, but it’s more likely a practice. Joseph Ellis in his recent book American Dialogue: The Founders and Us shows that there is no such thing as being able to read these ancient documents without the practice of engaging the archive and positioning one’s read among the documents that exist there. Although we can never know the minds of the founders, we have many of their expressions of belief, feeling, and attitude about things, and we can assign convincing motives to them that will then apply to other matters. His book is masterful in how to use archival documents to create contemporary arguments.

Originalism, if it makes any sense at all, would be a practice in continuous re-reading of the archive. I doubt that’s what most originalist justices do. Re-reading is a notoriously unstable and threatening practice that people whose credibility rest on them being THE interpreters of something would not be willing to accept. Credibility of the Supreme Court is based on them being the last word, not one word among many (perhaps one of the best reasons we shouldn’t have a Supreme Court under democratic governance, which, is many things but most commonly ‘some words among other words’).

One of the themes I thought about teaching my debate class under would be the Constitution. Read the Federalist Papers (not all of them), Ellis’s book, and perhaps some of the originalist stuff (conservative and progressive texts on originalism [yes, there are progressive originalists]). Traditionally I have just taught the course based on examining the Presidential Debates, Malcolm X’s debate at Oxford Union, James Baldwin’s debate with Wiliam F. Buckley, Jr. at Cambridge Union, and John Quincy Adams’s many debates in the House on the question of abolition. Could still do this course, but would cut the Presidential Debate part out I think. Maybe wishful thinking that the Commission on Presidential Debates will be irrelevant after this election.

So I have been thinking about this list, here it is in no particular order:

The Federalist Papers

Who wouldn’t love a collection of arguments aimed at the public about why the Constitution is a really good idea and not a trick to enforce tyranny and absolute rule on everyone? These were all published in New York newspapers, and well, like we see today, the Federalists had the upper hand because their opponents didn’t own as many great newspapers as the Federalists did. All of them are great, but there are a few standouts, notably 10 and 51, but I’m sure you’ll put your favorites in the comments. A great way to teach this is to have students read the Constitution without the Bill of Rights, since those were not a part of the document being debated – they came along after ratification, and mostly due to the work of James Madison.

Notes on the State of Virginia

The only reason I like this collection of really, really weird observations about Virginia is that they reveal what a messed up person Thomas Jefferson was. Imagine being smart enough to understand the deep connections to scientifically gathered data to agriculture and national/global politics, but also being able to predict the hazards and benefits of a globalized economy. Now imagine you can see all that, but you can’t accept for one second that your slaves are human beings. What a mind?

Common Sense

Thomas Paine was a madman. Not only did he write this document knowing full well that if the revolution didn’t happen or was lost he’d be executed, that wasn’t enough for him. Later on he wrote Age of Reason, an argument against Christian thought in governance while waiting to be executed for being a foreigner involved in the French Revolution. I think I’d be a bit distracted. Anyway, Common Sense is fantastic, making a direct, public argument for why the colonies have a unique duty to resist British rule as they are one of the last safeguards of the concept of liberty (not just liberty, but the concept of it, which is a pretty cool argument).

Civil Disobedience

Henry Thoreau, according to all scholars, was an edgelord, but even edgelords sometimes have a really good point. This is pretty far removed from the earlier documents (which really don’t have that clean of a temporal relationship) but probably wouldn’t exist without the historical sediment of all the rhetoric of the earlier documents. Thoreau writes masterfully here on the duty we have to not obey or follow unjust laws, and that resistance can be many things. Would be nice to assign students to re-write the argument in the contemporary context of police violence and America’s role internationally in making many people’s lives miserable so we can have cheap sneakers.

That’s the list I came up with but I am sure there are many others that I could add here if I thought more about it, but that was my initial reaction. Some other ones that really matter would be Leaves of Grass and of course Adams’s Lectures on Rhetoric which might make fragmentary appearances in any course.

I think an examination of America as a country that was founded on really intense, high-stakes debates would be a nice contrast to all the calls for civility, logic, and empathy that we are seeing from people who really should know better. People don’t have long public debates about things that they aren’t passionate about, and our feelings have just as much right to expression as the cleanest logical formulation. Argumentation and debate are human activities after all.