A practical Habermasian structural analysis of the contemporary speech situation of the NPDA debate round. (Part 2)

So You Think You Know Debate Huh?

Part 1 can be read here

Part 2 can be read here.

Part 3 can be read here.

Part 4 can be read here.

In part 2 of my unreasonably long analysis of NPDA debate, I would like to analyze intercollegiate debate itself, and its history. I will argue that intercollegiate debate is heavily framed by social discourses, particularly in news and media, and then I will discuss a series on controversies which have been posed by intercollegiate debate since its start in the early 20th century.

Debate is framed by inter-debate discourses, and is heavily influenced by larger institutional changes in society (Harrigan, 2008). The reason for debate came out of the new age of discussion enabled by mass printing technologies and the availability of information. This means that the media, the news they report, and the information that is supplied to students greatly affects the arguments and sorts of arguments which are run in rounds. Debate has changed a good deal in the past hundred years, but the contemporary issues of debate continue to be framed by similar tensions created through the discursive construction of the debate space.

The development of intercollegiate debate spaces

John Dewey (1927), a pragmatist and public intellectual in America, was studying what he described as the “problem of the public”. The development of modern technology was causing an emerging public consciousness which hadn’t been possible before industrialization (Dewey 1927). John Dewey was interested in a pragmatic deliberative sense of discourse, much like Milton which would later be mirrored in the writings of Habermas, though it is unclear if Habermas read John Dewey or Milton. This problem of the public spurred on American intercollegiate debate, student journalism, and student government, all disciplines interested in civil discourse (Nichols, 1936). It seems like the discussion of discourse in that time may have been similarly popular to discussions of gender in our time. The problem of the public framed the early discourses surrounding the original development of debate (Hogan & Kurr, 2016).

Early theorists like O’Niell, Davis, and other progressive english educators considered debate to be an act of deliberative democratic training (O’Neill, 1916; Davis, 1916; Woodward 1915). These theorists engaged in discursive argumentation about the nature of debate, all of them however agreed that debate as an activity was meant to train students to engage in the “age of discussion” (Washington State University, 1910). The earliest forms of intercollegiate debate were three school groupings, called the triangular formation (Nichols, 1936). Each school would select one team who is in favor of the topic and train one team who is against the topic (Nichols, 1936). Debate soon adopted a switch-side debate format, and larger formations of schools. This expansion of debate was an exigence for the development of argumentation and communication classes at universities, and this brings debate historically in line with the development of the critical approach to sociology, and as an integral piece and activity for communication departments (Nichols, 1936).

The discursive tensions of collegiate debate

Switch-side debate.

Game versus pedagogy.

The question of switch side debate in the early 20th century connected to a larger discourse about what the purpose of debate truly was. Some theorists and coaches worked toward a form of debate that would be done without expert judges in a public forum manner, believing that technical debate would alienate the activity from real world democratic training (Davis, 1916; Woodward, 1915; Mitchell 2000). The innovations in debate instead turned toward expert judging, and competitions which functioned like collegiate athletics (Nichols, 1936; Ehringer, 1958). They were framed by a tension between debates dual identity as game and as educational activity. This competitive v. educational framing can be observed even today in the rhetoric of debaters, arguing standards of education and fairness as intrinsic values to debate, and in the strategies and methods of judges and debaters utilized in the round.

These two aspects are not entirely in contradiction, however the domination of the game over the educational purposes is one of the large issues in modern debate today that this analysis seeks to address. Debate continues to utilize this tension, debaters often weighing the merits of competitive fairness against the merits of real world education, which makes it an important issue for both a debaters considering joining the NPDA, and as a broader question for debate designers and innovators to wrestle with.

Hicks and Green (1999) suggested that game debate is not void of merit as a method of inquiry, however they did so by describing debate as a technology of citizenship, which suggests debates technical and functionalist purposes are essential to its operation as a method. Hicks and Green (1999) suggest that game debate is an exercise in role playing, and not lying in our discourse. This argument does not address how the game implicates the truth claims used in the debate, because even when arguing for a conviction one doesn’t believe in the authority of the judge and the community, as well as the constraints of winning the game, distort the communication regardless of the debaters ethical intentions. The view of debate put forward by NPDA coaches such as Rutledge (2000), sees debate primarily as an instrument of critical thinking, rather than a space of communicative action. Although debaters are not inherently driven to lying, as Rutledge’s analysis showed, debaters are still encouraged to privilege and obscure varying perspectives as a method of accruing the ballot, and these technological distortions are what this analysis is interested in.

Technique versus truth.

The community of the NPDA also operates by certain common argument structures, which are essential to competitive success. Highly technical reasoning, large scale strategic decision-making, and concise and clear narrative building are celebrated above careful persuasive delivery which relies on the artistic proofs of speaking. The tension between technique and truth is negotiated by the debaters, coaches and judges. Different judges have different opinions on how debate should be done. Debate is marked by the expectation that debaters will adapt to the audience, which is typically a highly technical expert judge but could be someone who has never seen a debate in their life. This makes the speech situation of debate a highly stressful and difficult affair to engage in, especially for debaters new to the norms of the debate community.

Expert judges, lay judges, or no judges.

This analysis is interested in how the practical process of debate is experienced by the debaters, because the majority of discourses about debate are concerned with its impact on the students. Theoretical discourses without practical concerns for implementing an alternative ultimately become void and alienated (Foss, Foss, Trapp, 1998). Debate has created a unique speech situation, asking students to negotiate a number of tensions to win over a variety of audiences as a means of competitive success.

The collapse of trichotomy resolutions on the national circuit

Debating the Topic.

It has been used for both educational and technical purposes, though as a strategy it has developed into a technical game based argument. The largest issue with this type of debate is that is is unfair on a number of grounds, from the game perspective of debate, to the team having to answer the activist position. Critics of this style of debate argue that this allows the affirmative team to have not only unlimited preparation time, but also allows them to monopolize the moral highground, or enforce a debate on a traumatic topic without the consent of the negative debaters. Disclosing the topic helps only in the sense that it allows the negative team to opt out of the round, but they still end up losing the ballot.

Advocates for the use of topics argue that topics allow for a fair debate, because everyone has the same opportunity to prepare. Some innovations such as disclosing the activist project at the beginning of preparation time have been suggested and utilized to a limited degree, but even this does not address the technical unfairness of the non-topical argument in debate. This is another example of where the game aspect of debate is in conflict with the ability for debaters to express personal politics in the round, which could be challenged and reformed by removing the win/loss paradigm of debate.

Traditional policy debate versus critical approaches

Interested in argumentation, critical theory, and resisting biopolitical organizations of power. Writing about rhetoric and society. MA in Communication They/He

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