Why the National Communication Association Should Host Public Debates at the Annual Conventions

I have been attening the NCA Convention nearly every year since 2003. At first I was enamored and loved it. Now, almost 10 years later, I’m a bit more cynical about it. Going into a nearly empty room to hear someone read a paper composed for the eye in a soft voice is not necessarily my definition of “good communication.” Another would be the fact that I know two to three conversations a night will be ended with “Well I better go up to my room to write my presentation.” But this is a tired old performative critique that doesn’t really advance the goals or the scope of the organization. I want to suggest a different way to go.

Debate is on fire right now. I mean in a good way. The Munk Debates along with the Intelligence Squared Debates are very popular hosts of debates that make it into the podcasting universe. Furthermore, these debates excite and engage the public on controversial matters that need to be discussed. I think the events are great in spirit, but they lack the input of scholarship. A scholarly touch on the theory of debate, the theory of argumentation, or just some good old fashioned public speaking best practices would catapult these organizations to the next level, where they honestly want to be. The Munk Debates and Intelligence Squared have peaked as “journalism by other means.” What exactly is the difference between a Munk debate and a long form panel discussion or interview with a top journalist? The insights are about the same. Debate should not be a modality of journalism we engage with when we are bored of the standard interview format.

NCA should get involved here by hosting a big debate at every convention they hold. The cities that NCA takes place in are huge, and they have huge intellectually-charged publics who, if they felt welcome, would attend an event like this. You only need one name, maybe not even that to hold a compelling debate on communication issues: politics, race, interpersonal issues, or social justice are just a few of the topics that NCA members publish about and are by any estimation, bonafide experts.

We also have experts on debate and public address who can help structure the event to focus on the discourse produced rather than the “crucible” model of debating which is forwarded by debate promoting organizations. This theory roughly believes that sharing ideas and perspectives progressively moves us closer to the truth, if not permits us to obtain it unproblematically, after 90 minutes of talk. Debate does not work this way. Nor should it.

Debate should make us question the positions we hold as well as find elements of the positions we reject to be more attractive than we thought they were. It should also make us realize – through those feelings and others – that we just don’t know enough to make a hard and fast call on most controversies we face. The structure of the debate, and the theoretical ideas of what make debates good or productive can serve these ends.

This could become more normalized in the convention after the first couple of big ones. For years I have submitted panels featuring undergraduate debaters that received good reviews in the section only to be vetoed without explanation by convention planners and leadership. Apparently they don’t see the value to anything other than what they are familiar with or expect a boring academic conference to be. Our conservative nature in regards to expectation is always a problem.

Normalizing a plenary debate as an NCA tradition would normalize formal debate as a convention event. We’d have more panels that were debates more often. And that might be a way to make NCA more attractive and interesting to our students who are not Ph.D. candidates.

Furthermore, can you imagine the diversity and interest of a convention that would draw from the local community? The easiest and most on-brand thing we could offer would be a moment of public address on an interesting controversy that showcases our best and brightest from the organization. The costs would be minimal, and the payout would be massive. Imagine the NCA debate becoming a ticketed event that people look forward to. This could reduce convention costs massively, allowing those graduate students and those on the tenure-track, or seeking employment, to attend the convention at no cost or extreme subsidized cost.

On a recent episode of my podcast In the Bin (which I hope you listen to as well as read this blog) I learned about the Science Policy Forum, a plenary and public debate like I’m proposing that was hosted at the 1998 convention. There’s a transcript of the debate available here. I wonder if and how often these events occur. They certainly don’t become a vital part of NCA history or something that people look forward to. It seems that they exist as a rare oddity or something different that happens once in a while. I wonder why there’s not a lot of juice, desire, or push for the continuation of such events.

It’s upsetting to me how NCA remains silent and passive when private organizations, run by journalistic standards of argument, are allowed to crowd the public’s conception of “good debate events.” It’s past time for the organization to rely on its own experts and its own brand of being the national institution that focuses on communication, and enter the arena.

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