Weekend Hiatus

As a free discourse evangelist, I’m putting my money where my mouth is and judging a few college debate rounds this weekend at the lovely University of Richmond. Posting will be light, but while I’m gone, I invite you to ponder this article on postmodern debate strategies from the Chronicle of Higher Education. The entire thing is stuck behind a subscriber firewall, but my old coach thoughtfully sent along a copy. In any other case I’d add some judicious highlighting, but you really should read the whole thing for context:

Competitive debate has traditionally served as a laboratory for the democratic process and an important training ground for future policy makers. But in recent years, a growing number of teams have played the game out of traditional bounds. They have turned events into commentaries on debate itself, in performances that bear little resemblance to the debating traditions that had a place on campuses for more than a hundred years. But the freewheeling aspect is what makes debate so exciting and challenging for students, according to many debate coaches, who say teams should be prepared to respond to any argument.

Now some college officials are asking whether debate is living up to its original educational mission.

And here’s where it gets interesting:

As a pioneer of the strategy of turning debate rounds into questions about the very framework of debate, Mr. Shanahan says he helped bring in philosophy and the disciplines of critical legal studies and critical race studies to an environment that had been dominated by policy wonks.

And he’s proud of that legacy. “It has literally changed the intellectual contours of the activity,” he said, arguing that it lets students grapple with ideas that are more common in graduate school than in undergraduate study. “For many it’s difficult to even recognize it as the activity of their youth.”

Fighting a ‘Cookie-Cutter Style’

It was another debate coach, Ede Warner Jr., who first focused on issues of race and identity during debate rounds about eight years ago. Mr. Warner is an associate professor of communication at the University of Louisville, and many call the approach “the Louisville project.”

In the 1960s, debate began moving to a format in which participants talked fast and tried to lob as many arguments as they could at opponents, and in the 1990s, the pace got even faster, according to some longtime debate coaches. The result was a move away from oratory, as debaters focused on absorbing information and responding to it. Meanwhile, the demographics of debate had become more and more diverse in a competitive system that is unusually open. Teams from community colleges and small colleges often go head-to-head with those from Ivy League institutions and large state universities. But Mr. Warner felt that the “cookie-cutter style” of standard policy debates left little room to discuss matters of race.

“It was easy strategically to make those issues less relevant to the debate,” he says, and he saw his approach as a way to force the issue of race to front and center.

But in 2005, after debaters at several other colleges had embraced “the Louisville project,” Mr. Warner abandoned it, concluding that it had become unproductive. “I thought the community was becoming desensitized” to the strategy, he says.

When asked whether Mr. Hammond, the president of Fort Hays State, was correct in calling debate too uncivil, Mr. Warner conceded that “there’s some merit in some of those charges.” But he and others inside debate wonder whether it is possible to impose new rules on conduct without destroying the essence of the activity.

“You can’t just magically snap your fingers and fix this problem,” he says. “By now most do think there’s a need to change, but there’s not much agreement on what needs to be done.”

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