[eDebate] Reconnecting debate to the academy

kelly young kel1773
Mon Apr 17 20:26:42 CDT 2006

Hello all,

This has been a subject on my mind for over the last two years, mostly 
because I was on the job market last year and nothing makes you think about 
the pedagogical value of directing a program better than going through that 

>From my experience with working with 3 different universities and 
interviewing at a half a dozen or more, questions about debate practices and 
the pedagogical value of them are by far the easiest to address. I have yet 
to have an administrator doubt the pegagical value of speaking quickly, 
debating policy questions, etc.

However, the SINGLE question that is most difficult to answer--which I think 
is really the core of this discussion--is what PRODUCT does the program 
produce for the thousands of dollars spent for a select few students (even 
if you have a "larger" program of 25-30 students). Malcolm hits it squarely 
on the head when he says that universities run like a business and they care 
about the ratio of resources allocated to number of students affected, 
especially in a tight financial environment.

Of the thousand of vital lessons that I learned from George Z., the two most 
important that I learned were: (1) University administrators understand the 
product that a program produces and very little else. Attempting to justify 
a program's budget and existance solely on some intrinsic value of 
debate/public advocacy is never a winning strategy. Worse, administrators 
constantly come and go and their understanding of debate varies tremendous. 
However, the constant is that they understand it when you explain that a 
program serves a much larger community than the small number of students 
that may participate on the forensics program. For me, the strength of my 
program and what administrators always talk about are the number of services 
and activities that we support that have expanded the number of people and 
communities that we serve. For instance, we support on-campus debates, 
provide key services, support and resources for the Detroit Urban Debate 
League, host two tournaments and other one day training events for hs 
students, co-sponsor a number of programs and events on campus, etc. 
Anything that we can do to advertise that our budget supports hundreds of 
students at Wayne and potential in coming students and the surrounding area 
and communities demonstrates the product that our program produces and 
radically changes the ratio of money spent to number of people affected. 
Instead of having to say that my budget supports only 35 or so people, I can 
honestly tell administrators that my program supports and aids hundreds of 

(2) never assume that university funding and support will last. No matter 
the size of a program, in this particular economic environment, nothing is 
for certain. One of the things that I most appreciate about George was that 
he established a tremendous alumni support system and endowment for our 
program. Not only does this provide us with a great cushion against budget 
cuts that may come, it also adds to our arguments about product. Our alumni 
are some of the best donators to the univeristy. This gives a program 
amazing clought, particularly when capital campaigns are in full swing. 
While I think it is a terrible idea of ever use this support as economic 
leverage, it can be used successfully to justify how the program gives back 
to the univesity. We may spend a lot of money each year, but we also draw a 
lot of donations back to the school.

I, like many, are highly concerned with the growing disconnect between 
communication departments and the forensics community that has been occuring 
over the last few decades. As more and more director/head coach positions 
have become non-tenured staff/administrator positions, we've given up on 
academic journals as a source to develop argument and practice theory, 
programs move towards total economic independence from their universiites, 
etc., I think these moves only hurt the future of our activity. While the 
style of our activity impacts this somewhat, it's drawfed by our own choices 
to isolate ourselves in terms of the structure of our programs and how they 
are financed.

As we discuss how to "reconnect" to the university, I dont think anyone is 
incorrect in their efforts to find new ways to demonstrate the product that 
they produce. The key is that we demonstrate a tangible product that 
justifies dollars spent with number of students impacted by our expenses. I 
am not sure that the style differences between Louisville and Wayne State 
matter all that much in the end. I really respect how successfully 
Louisville can point to how the practices that they use are translated into 
activism on the local level in their communities. This is one very 
successful strategy to show evidence of product. But at Wayne State, we are 
also quite successful in demonstrating that our program, our staff and the 
dollars spent on both are important to the health of dozens of activities 
and events that assist campus life, the univerisiy and several  hs 
activities. In the end, it's about product produced and packaging and 
demonstrating this.

I would be really surprised if a univesity adminsitrator cares tremendously 
about the specific practices that we use in comparison to the larger 
economic questions. I also agree with Mike Eber that if we really want to 
help programs substantially, we need to make it a community norm to reduce 
costs across the board to attend tournaments. Let's face it, even if we can 
justify keeping the resources we currently enjoy, it's harder and harder to 
get more resources in this economy. And with travel expenses rapidly 
increasing, anything we can do to make our budget dollars stretch future is 


Kelly M. Young, Ph.D.
Director of Forensics/
Assistant Professor
Communication Department
Wayne State University
585 Manoogian Hall
Detroit, MI 48201
(313) 577-2953

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