[eDebate] debate and public speaking

JeChrist at dwu.edu JeChrist
Wed Apr 25 15:03:48 CDT 2007

Mr. Massey,


Your recent success, which I congratulate you for, infuses your analysis
with tremendous ethos; yet, I still find myself compelled to reply. My
reply is not to you Mr. Massey, but rather a reply from the fringes of
debate. No doubt I'll get flamed for posting this, but I could care


The advantages of competitive NDT/CEDA debate that you list frankly do
not apply; or, as you might say, "No


I don't begrudge policy debaters having a little fun; the endorphin rush
produced by a lack of oxygen to the brain when one speaks at 375 wpm or
more is, without a doubt, addictive. And, with the number of repetitive
positions, it is interesting to watch someone jam a new piece of
evidence into an overcrowded block in a subtle way. Looking for the
perfect card, the "supercard," that eviscerates someone else's claim is
great, like playing Indiana Jones with Lexis-Nexis. Hauling enough
research (I'll reserve the term evidence for more specific applications)
to overburden a pachyderm displays the accuracy of Marshall McLuhan's
dictum that "the medium is the message." Certainly these performative
effort should be applauded; although, I'm not convinced that these
behaviors promote the education of an enlightened citizenry as you claim
in your analysis.  


Periodically, I see posts, usually before the fall term, on the
listserve from folks wondering where the debate teams have gone. These
posts are typically interspersed with politically correct rants about
the overt phallocentricsm of the pen which is used to write the ballot,
or some other matter of that sort. (Is this phallocentric concern the
reason critics do not write out ballots for coaches to read and review;
or is that practice impossible because teams must meet in the hall for
an hour to hash out the debate before they begin debating, which
prevents the critic from having enough time to write out a decision?)
Just a thought, but it is possible that those teams have fled the field
because they found the issue at hand of greater significance than the
politically-correct fashion in which that position was presented. And,
for just a moment, let us apply the Foucauldian (although Laclau and
Mouffe may be better suited for such a socialist argument) implications
propounded in a debate round - ala, language is power - and consider the
discursive production within debate that implicitly excludes alternative
interpretations and practices. The 1AC must be fast. Speed is a weapon
and those who cannot incorporate that technology and the attendant
technologies - obsessive, terse, reductionist note-taking, exhaustive
research, and speech patterns that truncate the most poetic phrase to
the eloquence of radio instructions - reduce debate to a series of
efficiencies. Worse yet, the other speeches follow suit; each person
spinning another scenario, another turn, take-out, flip, setting
rhetorical bear-traps to be sprung upon the slow and weak.  

            These practices are justified as rules of the game. That is
fair. If I don't want to play that game, which I no longer do (and I
suspect that I never did) then I shouldn't show up to the event.
However, I also would rather not try to elevate debate, as it is
practiced, to a stage that would not bear its weight. 

            The two advantages of attentive judges and research are the
last two advantages to the activity, and I fear those lack the weight to
win justify a proposition that states: Policy debate as practiced is

There is a difference between attentive, tabula rasa (not to be confused
with tabula stupid) judges, and politically driven critics. The former
are interested in the team's ability to demonstrate the truth or falsity
of a proposition in a given debate round; the latter hope to enforce
their truth on the debaters until the debaters acquiesce and comply or
quit the activity altogether. Additionally, those attentive judges,
borne by the memory of their own successes or failures, hand out their
trauma to another generation of students in a genealogy of perversity
until, at last, no one remembers what a debate looks like. Instead, a
simulacrum of debates that went before, populated by  politics
disadvantages, warism kritiks, and warming evidence from the 1996
resolution, stretch into oblivion, ever repeating the promise of a great
debate that, if it could be replicated enough times, could be perfected.
A lying promise at best, because the idea of perfection, of a good
debate, is far too subjective under the new paradigm. 

Worse yet, is the assumption that only trained critics can be good
judges. Again, this assumes that the debate is secretly about more than
the practice of persuasion as it pertains to the resolution. "We are too
sophisticated," we say, "the layperson could not possibly understand the
implications of Lacan's graph of desire as it pertains to Iranian
politics." In fact, even those trained judges who have not figured out a
team's position and read most of the literature about the position
before the round are not preferred. With those conditions in place, it
would be impermissible to allow the parents of the debaters to judge a
round. After-all they've only shelled out, in many cases, tens of
thousands of dollars from their "petty bourgeoisie, sexist, racists,
whateverist" in the hope that their students will learn how to convince
other people to do the right thing. God forbid they find out that little
Sally learned how to "cut cards" rather than articulate a defense to a

            At this point in the argument, people usually like to list
all of the debaters who went on to do super-wonderful things. They are
there, but they are there in spite of, not because of, these practices.
Sure they learned to research and yes they learned not to be afraid of
criticism and perhaps they learned how to hyper-dissect an argument, but
are these unique advantages? In other words, is there anything more than
a correlation? How many people have gone on to do extraordinary things
without having debated? Is it possible those who debated would have
succeeded without the activity? Is it likely, that debate, once every
ounce of creativity is wrung from it, will cease to provide any of these
virtues and will only perpetuate the problem? Maybe.


Last weekend, I host a very small tournament in which we reduced the NDT
proposition to Milliken and dropped the times to 8 minutes and five
minutes. We ran four rounds starting at 8 a.m. and finishing at 4:30
p.m. and took an hour and a half for lunch. The teams could run any case
they wanted, use every kritik, counterplan (PICs PECs whatever),
disadvantage, critical or performative position that they desired. The
only catch was that in the back of the room would be a professor, a
professional or, most awful of all, a parent who cared about the
activity. Here is the most dreadful part: the students applied what they
learned in public speaking - stand up straight, dress as well as you can
(we are a poor school so the Salvation Army helped us out there), use
hand gestures and eye contact to demonstrate your conviction and to
accentuate a point, and most of all if you are affirmative defend the
resolution and if you are negative say no to the resolution or prove the
affirmative does not say yes - presumption still works with lay judges
for some weird reason. Things got much worse. Debaters who lost to each
other still respected one another and didn't take personal offense to
someone responding to their argument. Then, and this was the terminus of
terrible, students, who never say a debate before but who were asked to
attend as part of their Expository Writing class project, asked me if
they could sign up. Oddly enough, we didn't have money for awards, so I
made an announcement, congratulated the teams with the best records, and
sent them home with ballots, their evidence of a job well-done (or
advice for more improvement). 

It seemed to me, their coaches, could help them decipher what went right
and what went wrong and that every round didn't require a coaching
session from someone else.


Certainly though, if only a few college coaches and ex-NDT/CEDA debaters
could get their hands on these aspiring students and force them to puke
words out of their mouth while ranting about various forms of
persecution, they would be much better off. For now, I would like them
to learn that argumentation is about proving a proposition, about
providing good research for scientific and historical claims, and about
organizing a position so that a reasonable person of good-will can
understand it.


In the end, I have not met the coach or debater I didn't like; that is
until they wanted to make things better instead of just allowing the
students to debate. I don't think policy debate is bad, in fact I find
it to be the best most reasonable way to coach and learn debate. I don't
think researching is awful, but I do find the obsession with believing
every bit of testimony because it is found somewhere besides someone's
head troubling. I don't think teaching people to be passionate about a
position is immoral, but I do find that an oppressive aura of
disapproval for anyone who merely wants to learn how to reason


I'm sure I sound like an ass. I don't play the game. My college can't
afford to, and I'm too tired to try anymore. (After debating the
"red-spread" it all seems all downhill anyway :-)) I just hope these
comments, sarcastic and snide as they may seem, might give you some
perspective on the state of debate from someone who loves the activity,
but who does not play it the way you all do. 







Jeremy Christensen



Jeremy Christensen

Assistant Professor of English

Dakota Wesleyan University

Mitchell, SD 57301

(605) 995-2635


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