[eDebate] some quick other thoughts on "The Great Debaters"

V I Keenan vikeenan
Fri Dec 21 12:50:43 CST 2007

At first, I was focusing on the silliness being posted here (what else is
new), but in the spirit of the holidays I've decided to concentrate on my
more positive reflections related to the release of the movie . . .

Here's what we should take away (and yes, I SAW the movie before commenting
- no spoilers, really  . . . unless you missed who the "big" debate is
against somehow):

1) It IS reasonably good publicity for us.  Use it.  Start a discussion.
Correct factual errors by engaging the larger public while still being able
to benefit from the media attention.  (or is the art of conversation beyond
our abilities? Since I've done it at least 17 times in the last two days,
and I don't consider myself a "great" debater or coach, I think it's a
reasonable expectation in the rest of the community.)

2) We are an insular, cultish, sometimes misunderstood little community
often .  .  .at least the movie, even set 80 years ago in a different
competitive model, does a good job of portraying the idea that debate as an
extra-curricular has a "team dynamic".  We still have interpersonal issues
within teams that affect the actual partnerships and debates, we still stay
up all night preparing for the "big" debate - drinking too much coffee and
not sleeping enough, and we still do speaking drills that make us look
silly.  It may be your best shot at explaining the convoluted relationships
we have with each other to friends and family, and a good opportunity to
capitalize with administrators.  And we're lucky - we created a debate
system where more than two students can do it at a time now - that's why we
need money :)

3) Watch the movie.  Talk about the nature of good "sources".  You'll

4) The debate about "where your arguments came from" and coaching approaches
is pretty damn old.  The movie, by the way, does actually address the issue
of Tolson "writing their arguments".  It is less explicit on the strategy of
predicting your opponents arguments.

5) um, sometimes, having a sense of history and perspective is good.
Reminding ourselves and our debaters that the game didn't always "look" the
way it does today is an important lesson (you know how I like genealogy
...)  So the movie isn't just good for the outsider view of us, it's nice to
sometimes see where you come from.

6) Debate and and anti-capitalist non-identifying as commie revolutionaries:
predates Zizek and Empire.  And it turns out Louisville isn't revolutionary
- narrative and poetry is retro :)  Just saying, very little of what we ever
do is new . . . and it didn't "destroy the activity" back then either.

7) 1 in 4 debaters will always say they are joining the team because they
think it "will be good preparation to become a lawyer".

8) Bonus Material:  James Farmer Jr. tries to outweigh Malcolm X's impacts
with a nuclear impact to his disad.  Who knew?

That said:
Yes, the whole "beat Harvard" is symbolic shorthand (and btw Art, uh, to
actually engage in the debate - the movie is pretty clear here - isn't being
the enemy, it's kind of supporting the cause).  It's called dramatic
license.  Also, if your movie is released during Bowl Game season, don't you
think there might be a whole other competitive association with USC at that
time of year? (Plus, I'm watching Denzel - Denzel and overcoming odds.  I go
with the football association, I start thinking "Remember the Titans", I go
Boston association, I might get to "Malcolm X" - which one is more useful in
"debate"?  For the answer, see UDL t-shirts for the past decade or so.)
Gotta also say while I love the USC campus (I think we all do in December),
but if I'm "setting" a movie on academic issues, I go with the one founded
in the 1600's with that symbolic value and certain kinds of lecture halls,
and the ivy.  Maybe that's just the dramatic theory education, but if this
is a difficult concept for us, I think it proves we need more performance
theory in debate.  (PS - notice how no one is up in arms that the writer
admits his characterization of the female member of the debate team does
"combine" several experiences from different people for narrative effect,
and they are not necessarily historical to that individual.  It's a movie.
It's two hours. Accept the limitations of the medium.)

Also, as I was attending an event to promote the movie with a number of
other "debate" people and supporters, I was able to reconnect with many of
my former high school coaching colleagues.  I did a mental survey - every
single one is a community activist in some way, and they work with their
debaters in service and activism projects.  Then I watched the movie . . .
yeah, absolutely no connection with debate and activism at all.  sure. . .
(see, this is the part that IS historically accurate in the movie)
Sometimes it's a game, sometimes it's more than a game . . . take what you
want from it.

So basically, buy some damn popcorn.  Enjoy the break if you have it, or
enjoy debating at historic locations.  Happy New Year.


Vik Keenan
Director - Baruch Debate, CUNY
Assoc. Director - New York Coalition of Colleges
212/992-9641 or 347/683-6894
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