[eDebate] Reconnecting debate to the academy-topics that reflectthe literature

William Newnam wnewnam
Mon Apr 17 09:36:36 CDT 2006

Really did not mean to be all that controversial or critical.  Ede has spread me out here.  I am not going to engage in a long line by line but I should stress the following:

1.  I still think criticism of the activity is good. I do worry that we sometimes drift into hypercriticism that is too negative and self-destructive.  I am not accusing anyone of doing that here, just pointing out that I think it happens.

2.  My major point is that there are many causes for program decline, they cannot be traced to a single cause such as "debate is bad."  Often those problems are traceable to budgeting and politics rather than to the qualities of the debate activity itself.  I think Alabama's situation actually proves that.  The students and graduate students who tried to keep that program in policy debate I do not criticize.  I tried to help them as best I could.

3.  We should stress that debaters do well after debate is over in order to prove it is a good activity. This is a good selling point.   It does not matter if those debaters debated at Emory, Harvard Butler, or my old schools the University of Central Florida and Broward Community College or Fort Lauderdale High School.

4.  It is hard work to preserve and maintain programs--no simplistic solutions will do.

5.   Ede says, "Frankly, it is unclear if Newnam concludes that debate programs are better off outside of academic units, he certainly seems to imply that.  I'll take the other position:  the future health of debate requires a stronger connection to academic units."  It depends, as Ede says later,  "one size doesn't fit all.  The politics of each institution is different and understanding that political landscape is important if argument strategies will succeed."

6.  My point was that one of the problems is that the way the academy is set up makes it difficult for some debate coaches to get tenure, the competition for resources within academic departments can sometimes overwhelm a department's willingness to support programs.  Unexpected increased costs such as sharp energy prices or sudden declines in revenue from tax cuts and state budget decisions can have tremendously negative effects on programs Sometimes these two variables (politics and budgeting) can come together and make programs housed in some academic departments very vulnerable.  This has happened in the past.  I bear witness.

I agree that complex problems require complex solutions.  Complex problems also have complex causes--that has been the major thrust of my commentay.  My point was not to attack anyone's argument or ideas, but merely to point out that we should not come to the conclusion that debate praxis is bad, therefore we should and can change it and that will save existing programs and increase programs. Nor am I trying to stifle criticism of praxis.  That is in the long run healthy.  But I do think that tying program decline to criticism of praxis is simplistic--not accusing anyone of doing that just worried that this is where this discussion sometimes lead.   I was trying to say that at least one of the solutions to salvaging programs is to sell our administrators on what our alumni from our own and other institutions have accomplished. 

I think Ede and I agree on many goals of debate.  I am not sure how I have become his foil but I guess I am.  

I apologize for any lack of clarity in my arguments.

bill n
  ----- Original Message ----- 
  From: Ede Warner 
  To: William Newnam ; eDebate at ndtceda.com 
  Sent: Friday, April 14, 2006 5:34 PM
  Subject: Re: [eDebate] Reconnecting debate to the academy-topics that reflectthe literature

  Again, here we go operating without much evidence to support claims.  Simplifying the solution to "we just need to advocate the beauty of what we do" implies we shouldn't criticize ourselves or each other is antithetical to the foundation this activity was built upon and ignores the history where debate consistently challenges itself.  Why is criticism synomous with "apology"?  Why is positing questions about the activity synomous with "embarassment"?  I love the activity and I hate the activity.  Dubois called this "double consciousness" and I have it.  I can fight for the growth and existence of debate while fighting for change within it to make it better.  I can interrogate my choices while also questioning others.  And I can build and progress while doing both.  I have the hope that this community can as well.  But it won't if it simplifies solutions (Bill says that the decline of programs is complex with mulitiple reasons), then just assert simplistic solutions (to advocate the benefits and beauty more) is all that is needed to fix it.  Several problems with this assertion:

  1)  Are the folks fighting for debate at Alabama, Oregon, and everywhere else that has lost a program in the last decade, not making these arguments, consistently and loudly and strongly?  Where is the evidence that they haven't sold debate enough?  Because they lost?  Or because they couldn't produce a winning argument?  Perhaps there are other reasons:  administrators thought they couldn't be successful in NDT/CEDA or became cost/prohibitive  for the number of students served or they just didn't agree with the educational benefits that we see?  Any or all of these means that just "talking ourselves up" isn't enough.  I know it wasn't for me the first seven years here to acquire additional resources.  Those arguments and I made them consistently, loudly, and forcefully.  It simply wasn't enough to overcome the attitudes and beliefs of others about the value of what we do.

  2)  What relationship does fighting about debate in debates have with making these arguments on the outside?  I'll concede that public fights about debates (on CSTV, in books) certainly impact administrators that see it.  But the flip side is true:  current faculty who are former debaters at our University have become re-engaged and interested solely because they agree with "our" fight with debate.

  3)  If debate produces great students at Emory, but the list isn't nearly as distinguished at Bulter, is there any evidence that Butler faculty and administrators will continue to support debate at Butler?  Again, claims being made without warrrants?

  4)  Historically incorrect.  I just finished acquiring all of the articles from the sixties and seventies cited by Newnam in his NCA article.  Guess what? Fights about debate have occurred throughout the history of debate, back to Plato and Aristotle.  Speed was a fight during the highest participation in NDT.  Counterplan theory; Counter-warrants; and Kritiks are just a few of the fights that have occurred.  And it grew in spite of those fights and decline during those fights.  

  5) Not sure what Bill means in his solution.  Does he mean stop criticizing practices in debate?  Does he mean that everyone should debate the same?  If so, what does that look like?

  6)  I agree, we should critique constructivelly.  We should think introspectively.  And we should look for solutions when we criticize.  And God knows, I am guilty as charged about the need to interrogate my methods sometimes.  But this "since we believe we are doing good things, we shouldn't think critically about what we and others are doing" seems antithetical to the foundation of what we teach.  As the ONLY (meant for emphasis) Phd active Black debate coach, my willingness to engage, critique, and participate with urban debate league populations, with large Black populations, should be encouraged by others, not complained about. And I have a responsibility to engage and I will, whether or not Bill is willing to listen, or demonize those who criticize.  I believe I also have the responsibility of providing solutions and acting ethically to address things I complain about, and I do so.  Finally, I also have the responsibility to give balanced criticism, and give folks credit for what they do, something else, I and Louisville as a whole, hasn't done as well as we should.

  7)  Josh, the argument that we must persuade the larger community before change can occur is equally true of the community relative to the non-debate community.  Perhaps more positive advocacy can persuade more colleges and universities to support debate.  Perhaps they just don't agree with the community's claims.  But the point remains:  until they come on board, we are more vunerable than if we are not.  Frankly, it is unclear if Newnam concludes that debate programs are better off outside of academic units, he certainly seems to imply that.  I'll take the other position:  the future health of debate requires a stronger connection to academic units.

  8)  Study, study, study:  we need to talk to administrators and faculty about what they need from us to support it.  And then we need to provide it.  Those that have successfully done this should reach out to those who haven't, recognizing that one size doesn't fit all.  The politics of each institution is different and understanding that political landscape is important if argument strategies will succeed. We need to tie debate back to the academy.

  9)  Why?  In the sixties, when debate coaches fought, they published in peer reviewed academic journals that stressed quantitative research to support claims and assertions.  Now, when coaches fight, they publish qualitative articles and edebate posts with little evidence that reaches beyond antidotes and personal examples. Almost every article that Newnam cites in the sixties was a formal quantitative study used to discuss debate.  His evaluation of those articles included used a survey without any quantitative statistical rigor in making his conclusions.  This post below again engages in his personal examples as the best only way to argue.  There are discussions on this listserve right now reduced to voices being legitimate if one is or is not participating, sometimes justified by a misinterpretation of methods to increase additional types of knowledge construction.  The need for empiricism in these discussions has been lost and debate coaches and pariticpants selectively use it, including my last few years at Louisville.  The goal should be for all voices to supplement/validate their voice with the alternative forms of knowledge, not replace or ignore the quantitative data.  And getting back to the production of quantitative data as an institution seems like one of our bigger weaknesses.

  Michael Douglas- Complex problems require serious, complex solutions.  Something like that.

  >>> "William Newnam" <wnewnam at emory.edu> 4/14/2006 11:53 AM >>>

  I just have two quick comments regarding the current discussion.

  First, I agree with Ede that debate has become more removed from the academy and that has some serious downsides.  Mainly, it hurts our credibility and it weakens our ties to scholarship.  On the other hand, when debate is too closely tied to academic departments, debate is also extremely vulnerable to the political whims of the professoriate as well as to the zero-sum game of academic financing.  This in turn, leads to my second point.

  Two.  It is extremely difficult to identify a "singular" cause for the decline in debate programs, but I think there are three reasons that tend to dominate.  The first of these is economic pressure.  I have been in debate for a long time and there were a couple of major waves of decline in programs.  The first of these occured around 1974.  We were debating an energy topic the year of the Oil embargo.  Gas prices shot through the roof and substantially limited travel.  Gas rationing meant that you could only buy gas on even or odd days depending upon the last digit of your license plate number.  This event and the permanent rise in gas prices virtually gutted a strong regional debate circuit in the Southeast.  Traveling to debate tournaments is expensive and the high cast of energy made it easier to justify cutting programs, or curtailing them so much that many professors decided it was not worth it.  And, once a program is cut it is hard to restore it, especially when the residual funds are dumped back into an existing academic department's budget which are then used to hire other professors or to buy new technology or to hire more support staff.  A second wave of decline occured in the eighties when state budgets for universities were being cut back.  I am sure many of my peers in California can attest to the effect that budget cuts in education had on programs there.  During a powerful wave of anti-taxation, schools were forced to do more with less and debate was an easy target for cutting.

  A second reason for debate programs being cut is because, to quote president bush, "its hard work. Its hard work being" . . . a debate coach.  And, the challenge of running a competitive program while trying to publish enough to get tenure is a difficult struggle.  Many coaches have been lost because they must publish for job security reasons and debate coaching does not receive the same status of privilege.  Recognizing this, the AFA crafted a tenure document for debate coaches which helped some programs but not every program.  If the academic department, either the department chair or the full professors who usually sit on tenure committees, do not value debate, the debate coaches argument for tenure could be easily ignored.  And, given that housing debate in academic departments means that departmental funds that go to debate are not available for other purposes (including a tenured professors salary) there is a strong incentive among some faculty and some departments to deny debate funding.  At that point, the pressure against debate builds from two directions: both the denial of tenure for debate coaches because their coaching demands trade-off with their publishing demands and the competition for an ever shrinking higher education budget.  These pressures killed many debate programs.

  Finally, the development of alternative forms of debate definitely had a negative impact on policy debate.  The financial and professional pressures I discussed above interface with this development.  Those old enough to remember might recall that CEDA initally began as a lower research, less time commitment alternative to policy debate.  Given the economic pressures, tenure issues, and poltical issues I just mentioned, CEDA had an enormous growth spurt in the eighties.  But, as the competitive pressure grew CEDA itself started to experience some decline.  The more rigorous research demands (generated in no small part by the student participants) not foreseen when Jack Howe started CEDA resurfaced as they existed in policy debate.  The bottom line:  better evidenced arguments won, increasing the demand for better research.  Given this, and the decline of policy debate, it was only natural that the two circuits would, as former Vanderbilt coach Kas Kovalchek predicted as early as the late 70s, merge together.   The alternative of parliamentary debate provided a way out of this that CEDA had provided many years before.  We will see if Professor Kovalchek's prediction for CEDA bears true for NPDA overtime as well.

  I admit that some of the criticisms of contemporary practice, esoteric debates, rigorous research demands, and economic disparities in programs, all interact with these factors to add to the pressure to cut programs.  But, I don't think that they are sufficient by themselves to either prevent or, if corrected (assuming that were even possible) to solve what I see as the greater cause of decline of programs.

  Instead, I think that the alternative needs to be to stop apologizing for debate and being embarrased by it.  Debate, as practiced in the CEDA/NDT community helps to produce great students who go on to produce great work outside and after debate is over in government, outside of government, in business, in opposition to business, in education and in research.  If we as individual programs and as a community learn how to sell ourselves for the "end product" of debate and stop in-fighting we can do a great deal for ourselves and our communities.  The movement to enhance participation and representation among previously underrepresented communities (ethnically and racially) is another strong development in the value of debate as empowerment and as a progenitor of civic minded activists.  

  to continually look at debate programs and describe them as evil does not help the cause.  Debate is an expensive per pupil investment and the cost to the academy is great.  We have to recognize and accept that and instead of pretending our problems lie elsewhere, deal with it.  We have to aggressively market (I hope that does not offend my anti-capitalist friends out there) what debate does for the students we serve and convince our colleagues that debate coaching is, unlike sports, a valuable expenditure of our professional energy and time so that we are more respected in the academy.

  It might be "hard work" but it is far wiser than, to quote my boss, "throwing the baby out with the bathwater."

  this was meant to be shorter, but when I start talking about the historical cycles of debate I just get so excited I can't control myself . . . .

  bill n
    ----- Original Message ----- 
    From: Ede Warner 
    To: eDebate at ndtceda.com 
    Sent: Thursday, April 13, 2006 7:44 PM
    Subject: [eDebate] Reconnecting debate to the academy-topics that reflectthe literature

    In all likelihood, we can't save Oregon today.  If we could, we would.  But tomorrow it will be someone else.  But we do have the power to engage in practices that can prevent the next one.  Why do I say this?

    1)  The connection between debate and the academy has been destroyed.  Newnam concludes in his article that the debate about debate has been had forty years ago, and those fighting switch side debate and debate activism must have lost.  Why?  Because of the way debate is practiced today.  It's ironic that sometimes what we think is a short term victory in a battle only sets us up for a longer term loss in the war.  Forty years ago, hundreds of debate programs were firmly entrenced inside academic units, being run by Phd's and connected strongly with departments.  You can count the number of those programs left on a couple of hands.  Many programs have non-tenure track faculty or master's level personnel running them, are completely outside academic units, or are inside but constently fighting for resources and support from a majority of folks that have never seen a debate, and will never (at least if the coach or director can avoid it).  As the exposure through CSTV and books and articles grow, so does the risk that the wrong administrator will actually see what we do.  I get the impression that Oregon never had through and through support by adminstrators or faculty for CEDA/NDT policy debate.  And if Josh is right, that Jackie and I can't persuade others that our call for change has merit, then what happens if CEDA/NDT can't persuade a critical mass of administrators and faculty to continue supporting debate.  I'll concede that all of this is antedotal and speculation based on my observations.  But that brings me to...

    2)  The need for study.  These edebate discussions (and I'm certainly guilty of this) become antedotes and speculation with little solid research to support claims, although many of the claims are easily verifiable.  We could write down five different types of topics and ask people without debate experience to rank their favorites as just one example.  We could survey administrators and faculty about their perceptions of what they think policy debate should look like and whether or not they feel policy debate does this.  Newnam cites articles by Murphy, Murrish, McBath, Cripe, Gow, Graham, Rive and others about the need for debate to not just engage logos and the need for less expert debating.  His conclusion was that since expert debating and competitive debating survived, these folks must have lost.  But the academic question is what happened next?  Did they become department chairs or administrators and withdraw their support for debate?  Did they continue to coach and just stay disgruntled?  Were they the early pursurers of all of the "retrograde" ideas promugated now by the left like critical argument and performance?  Once their call was lost, was a larger consequence the loss of academic mainstream political support?  You see, while they may have lost the ability to influence the activity, we don't know what impact their response had on the activity, especially if they stopped supporting it?  

    3)  Debate conventions to create competitive equity have destroyed a connection to the literature and as a result, a connection to the real world, especially in policy making.  My argument is that debate conventions to create more affirmative or negative ground, also began to divorce debate from the literature.  Here are a few examples:

          a.  The "meet need" aka "plan meet advantage" aka "solvency takeout".  Because of the way we evaluate impacts, debates almost always can't be won on this argument.  "The USFG has tried to do this 17 times and failed" won't win a interscholastic debate, although it could certainly win in the Kentucky state legistature.  The fact that it doesn't win in our debates, forces us to move away from the literature.  Feasibility or workability is often the sole consideration in passage of a policy, but not for us.

          b.  The PIC.  Intended to destroy the small affirmative, it instead has destroyed the "big stick".  You can't run affirmatives with multiple plan actions, at least that is what three topic committees have told me, too easy to pic out.  The irony is, many believe this is true EVEN (point of emphasis, not disrespect) when the literature supports multiple actions.  Why?  Because if I got one article, saying that one of the three things is bad, it will likely trump any larger comprehensive solution.  So although the negative doesn't have evidence saying we can get the same big advantages if we do it without one of the components, our game is set up to shift the burden back to the affirmative to each component separately as well as together.  Again, not consistently with the literature.  

           c.  The goal of limiting ground.  We ended up with an Africa topic that had a mechanism (development assistance) that didn't jive with the area (Greater Horn) we selected.  How did that happen?  Because the overriding concern was to limit the ground.  This is not a committee problem, as they are given 2 ? days to figure out how to mix and match different components to create a topic (an unrealistic task).  

            d.  why this won't change any time soon?  The topic committee we have is overwhelming trained and supportive of selecting topics in this manner.  Last year, I chose to support their choices and work to make those choices the best they could be, because I thought that was my role as 2nd vp.  I too, would much prefer three broad topics:  1) that the USFG should substantially change it's policy towards change; 2) that the USFG should substantially change its trade policy with China; 3) that the USFG should substantially change its human rights policy with China.  But again, why not study.  There will be antedotal claims that these topics destroy debate, as well as claims for the more narrow topics.  But define what is important to the activity and actually study the impacts.  Take five years, selecting topics of different sizes and study the impacts those topics have.  Or again, try to find a ground solution that leaves the literature in tact, even if that means we have to reconceptualize current debate theories and practices to do so.  

    The priority should be to 1) decide what the heart of the literature is (sometimes easier said than done); 2) create topics that allow for discussion of that literature; 3) realize that the community will create competitive ground as a response to any imbalances in the topic, it always has.  If the policy literature on a topic has at it's heart the "meet need", then debates should be won or lost on that issue.  The further you move from that as a standard, the further you move debate from the literature, which spirals to the academy.  And from there, you have no support for programs.

    When department chairs, deans, provosts, and faculty are persuaded to see the beauty of what we do, whether or not THEY HAVE debated, then we will start gaining programs.  Before you start dissecting my arguments, keep the holistic point in mind:  support in the academy means recruitment and retention of programs.  

    If we already have that support, then why do we lose program?


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