Institutions of higher learning all have mission statements and make public proclamations that espouse the value of developing critical thinking skills, creating engaged citizens, and building rigorous educational programming. Policy debate programs help universities meet these requirements like nothing else can. When done well full-service policy debate programs are more academically rigorous than any class students will take, and when combined with an extensive public debate program have the potential to engage the entire student body.
Seven years ago, JMU Debate received a fairly large budget increase. It was in my 5th year as Director of Debate and interestingly it had only a slight connection to our competitive success as a team. We had grown very rapidly and it was due in large part to my inability to say no and belief that debate should be open to everyone (if you aren’t willing to embrace the big tent model of the debate that allows people at all levels to be involved you should probably stop reading right now). We were bursting at the seams, and our budget simply did not allow for me to recruit any more debaters. We had 12 fairly committed students returning and I did not know how we could continue to recruit students in good faith that we could not afford to travel.
Honestly, this is not a problem that would have led to our budget increase. The university would have been fine at the budget level we were at with us having a half dozen successful teams at the junior varsity and open levels. The thing they really cared about were our public debate and outreach efforts. The simple truth is that for really good public debates you need to have experienced students and if more and more of our debaters were sticking around it meant that we would have no new debaters to train for public debates in the future. I made the argument that if you want to have a robust public debate program in three years we need to recruit and train those students as first year students and that work could not be done without a budget increase.
In my budget proposal I outlined all of our public debate and outreach efforts, the incredible students that we were recruiting and value that having debate students in class added to class discussions (complete with testimonials from professors from almost every college on campus). I explained that we had grown to our capacity and if the university wanted us to continue to do our good work they would have support us financially. I even threatened to dial back our efforts and only focus on competition if our budget stayed the same (I’m not sure what I would have done if they had called my bluff).
I probably need to mention at this point that our competitive success mattered as well. If we had just had a vibrant public debate program then I doubt we would have been able to recruit the same students and, more importantly, our triumphs let me make the argument that we had superior debaters who had honed their skills against the best teams in the country. And we had the tournament success and national rankings to prove it.
So, we were doing it all on a shoestring budget and the university was touting our successes as an example of what the engagement university should strive for. Only after we had done all of that work did we receive a budget that allowed us to compete at the level we were capable of (even though it was still well below the national average). Imagine if a football team had to show they could be competitive (plus do a ton of community service) in order to get their budget approved.
So, the real question is why doesn’t every university in the country have a debate team, and why don’t those who do have them support them at the level that they support less academic endeavors? There are 774 college football teams in the United States, but there are significantly fewer college debate programs. Whose fault is that? Is it the universities that fail to support college debate programs or is it the fault of the debate programs themselves? The truth is both parties are to blame.
The Failure in University Priorities
Many universities’ priorities are way out of whack. This is not to say that the university cannot focus on athletics or great facilities or top-notch graduate programs. What I am saying is that when those things are done while undergraduate education is ignored then a university has to take a long hard look at what they place a value on.
A debate budget is tiny when it comes to the general operating budget of a university. Yet debate budgets are often on the chopping block when departments or universities are looking for savings. This demonstrates that many universities are simply not willing to match their stated goals with their spending priorities. I was extremely lucky that at JMU our debate program was safe and, after pushing for a budget increase for years, well supported.
That didn’t happen by accident though. It required a sustained and consistent effort to raise the profile of the debate program and ensure that individuals throughout the university understood the importance of supporting the debate program.
The Failure of University Debate Programs
There are very few college debate programs that are truly safe from budgetary issues. You can count on two hands the debate programs that are so well supported and so well-funded that they are guaranteed to exist long into the future. Additionally, there are only a small contingent of debate programs that can exist on the basis of competitive success alone. Most debate programs need to find ways to connect with broader university goals in order to justify their existence. Here is my advice based on what worked for us at JMU.
First, connect the work your debate team does to the university mission and vision statements. This is low hanging fruit. An analysis of over 120 university mission statements from universities (thanks to Marie Eszenyi and Oliver Brass for their assistance with the coding) that have had policy debate programs in the past ten years indicate an emphasis on the following attributes that align directly with most debate programs:
· Autonomy, Choice or Democratic Problem-Solving
· Experiential Learning or Applied Research
· Critical Thinking, Debate, Advocacy or Communication
· Diversity of People or Ideas
· Responsible Civic Engagement
· Holistic Personal Development
· Academic Rigor
Every single university mission statement that was included contained at least three of these characteristics with some containing as many as nine. Interestingly, the results did not vary based on the type of institution. Community Colleges, regional public universities, small private universities and big national research universities all placed the emphasis on creating deep learning opportunities for undergraduate students.
This analysis proves that universities already value what we are doing. The fact that they don’t realize how central debate is to their mission and vision is our fault. For too long we hid out on the weekends afraid that someone would find out that we are speaking fast or talking about topics that seem to the untrained observer as unrelated to the resolution. Thanks to Youtube that cat is out of the bag. Everyone can see what we are doing and it’s time for us to embrace it. It’s time for us to say that speaking quickly increases the research burden and the academic rigor of what we do and that just as performance studies or critical race studies or any other disruptive practices exist on our campus then also exist in debate (and give students often great access than they receive on their own campuses).
As we defend debate we should do so in a way that confronts university administrators’ perceptions of debate by tying it directly to the official statements that universities make about what they value.
At the same time, we need to add to our repertoire. We can no longer just compete and hope that is enough. We need to reach out and form partnerships across campus and into our local communities. We need to do big public debates so that others on campus can no longer say “I didn’t know we had a debate team.” Finding ways to showcase our students’ ability to research and capacity to teach our communities how to engage with difficult or complex ideas is the best path to making sure that debate survives for future generations. It is hard work, but if we find ways to embrace what our universities think matter (especially when we are already doing much of it) then we might just leave something for the next generation of debaters.
- Dr. Mike Davis is the Executive Advisor to President Jonathan Alger of James Madison University. Before his he was the Director of Debate of James Madison University's debate team, and coached at the University of Georgia and the University of Rochester. He debated for Syracuse University, and is the namesake of the Michael K. Davis Award given annually by CEDA East.
Debate can take you nearly anywhere. Places you never imagined you could go.
Sometimes, places you wish you’d never found—places like media outlets dedicated to disseminating white supremacist ideologies.
For the last year, my research interests, background in debate, and generally antagonistic personality have brought me deep into the world of “bloodsport debating,” a style of unstructured, polemic debate practiced by the white supremacist far-right. By arguing amongst themselves, the right has created the aesthetic of flourishing political discourse while never straying too far from their core belief that the composition of a nation must be carefully curated and maintained.
A significant contingent of the left has rejected the political utility of debating those who hold such abhorrent views—a feeling I suspect is tied to an understanding of debate that is the most pedantic, elitist version possible. Such a case was recently made in an article by English feminist author Laurie Penny, who collapsed all forms of debate into “the way [she] was taught to do it at [her] posh school,” and “fundamentally an intellectual dick-smacking contest dressed up in institutional lingerie, and while there are plenty of women out there who can unzip their enormous brains and thwack them on the table with the best of them, the formula is catastrophically macho.” Yikes. That’s a link.
Most of us recognize that form of debate, primarily practiced by very online avatars, but it’s far from the only kind that exists. Policy debate presents us with an argumentative training ground that isn’t just about logic, but about persuasion more broadly. In a recent piece in Current Affairs, Nathan Robinson explains that “‘debate’ is not strictly a contest of logical argumentation; it is a contest of persuasion, and the strict presentation of factual arguments and conclusions is only one of the ways in which this occurs.” The most valuable aspect of policy debate is its uncertainty and ability to accommodate diverse intellectual tactics, putting everything from the audience to the argument style to the very definition of winning and losing up for re/interpretation.
Understanding debate holistically is critical for real-world advocacy. One significant reason white supremacists win the public relations war with the majority of civically-minded citizens is that they tend to the audience rather than beating someone over the head with the most correct and logical information. Any debater who has been caught with an unsympathetic judge in the back of the room knows that if your audience doesn’t have the intellectual tools or frame of mind to understand your argument, you may as well have never made it. White supremacists excel at speaking to the audience instead of the facts, tapping into the “common-sense” racism most Americans feel. Rather than allowing this to lead us to the conclusion debate is impossible, we should redouble our commitment to strategizing around the audience and truth, instead of hoping the truth will speak for itself.
Some readers may now be wondering, “Why bother?” The answer is simple. At some point, you aren’t just refusing to debate—you’re also refusing to persuade. The hesitation around this kind of engagement, Robinson argues, has tangible consequences:
“There’s something that sounds faintly dirty about encouraging people to think beyond purely rational forms of persuasion. But it’s that refusal to get one’s hands dirty with rhetoric that is the problem, not the willingness to use language rather than physical force as one’s chief political weapon. The choice is not necessarily between “trying to reason logically with the other side” and “engaging in violent struggle.” It could also be that for progressives, persuasion is usually best effected neither through violence nor formal deductive reasoning, but through effective messaging, telling people things that actually get them to support your politics. In other words, it’s not just what you say, but how you say it and who you are.”
I have been met with my fair share of suspicion and horror for engaging white supremacists in their spaces but am no less convinced of its importance. It’s not true that, as the refrain goes, “There’s just no debating white supremacy” or “We can’t debate over people’s humanity.” Those debates are already occurring, with or without us, in well-funded spaces and highly publicized platforms all over the world. Of course, any engagement must be careful to avoid amplifying or strengthening white supremacy’s public platform, but the fight for liberation and justice requires walking into deeply immoral spaces and hijacking them with better arguments and the kind of credibility that you can only build through repeated exposure and thoughtful consideration of your audience.
After all, white supremacy is not simply immoral in the abstract—it’s immoral because it’s a terrible argument whose backing falls apart with even the slightest application of scrutiny. Articulating those embarrassing gaps in white supremacy’s logic strengthens people’s convictions against it and empowers them to tackle those arguments in their daily life. Debate certainly can’t save us on its own (and we should not all run out to debate every random racist on the internet), but it is one important tool in the Big Box of Tactics because you lose 100% of the flows you drop.
When persuading people to turn away from the alt-right, I rely on four main lessons from my time in policy debate. While other forms of debate are wonderful for teaching public speaking skills or introducing someone to a civil or traditional method of argumentation, there’s nothing quite like this activity.
Lesson 1: “Framework Makes the Game Work”
Anyone who has debated in the Southeast in the last decade has heard Erik Mathis repeat this phrase, though I was far less appreciative of it as a competitor. The process of moving through a debate round teaches us that, no matter what you choose to do with your life, you will have far too little time to do it. The further you get into a career or a doctoral program, the more you have to make difficult choices about where to spend your time building depth at the exclusion of something else.
Given these temporal constraints, framework provides an argument about what information the audience should dedicate their time to evaluating. In other words, framework controls the rubric for what it means to win.
When it comes to debating white supremacists, the stakes can feel exceptionally high if “losing” means more people walk away believing in the elevated humanity of whiteness. Reworking a debate to be about something else—like the ethics of even allowing white supremacists to advocate for their position when it is not cogent enough to meet even a basic burden of proof—sets the bar higher and changes how people are approaching the question as they evaluate the arguments.
Lesson 2: Know Your Opponents Argument Better Than They Do
If there’s one thing that sets policy debate apart from every other activity, it’s the depth of research. From deep, two-sided research emerges “round vision,” or the ability to predict an opponent’s available strategic options in their last speech before the debate even begins. Those new to debate will often get caught up in the logical minutia of something that can be easily conceded in favor of ten new, late-breaking examples that can’t all be adequately examined. A deep understanding of what your opponent believes is the single best predictor of how persuasively you can preempt their positions.
For example, many on the right have begun to cite a recent academic “hoax” wherein people spent a year attempting (and mostly failing) to publish outrageous fake articles in feminist studies journals. There are a host of reasons why this hoax is not a sufficient indictment of entire academic departments, but anyone that invested in delegitimizing research that undermines power will quickly turn to hyperbolic examples about professors or graduate students that spoke too candidly about whiteness, or masculinity, or colonialism on Twitter. It’s far more powerful to indict evidence in the broader context of your opponent’s worldview—especially if you can explain their arguments and ridiculous examples before they do.
Lesson 3: Truth and Tech Matter Differently
Hillary Clinton may have won the flow in every presidential debate against Donald Trump, but a disproportionately powerful minority of people saw her as a loser. As she prattled off policy details and encouraged people to seek out live fact-checking websites, Trump accused her of starting ISIS and paraded in women who had accused her husband of sexual misconduct. The audience, with no idea how to compare those two things, defaulted to whoever and whatever they trusted before the debates began.
Knowing your opposition’s content is important, but so is knowing their form. A bombastic persuasion style must be met with something equally invested in emotional connection while also seeking the upper hand in credibility. A highly technical, civility-minded opponent requires a more controlled style that tackles precision with more accessible, but still truthful, explanations. Advocates find ourselves faced with every kind of interlocuter, and nothing teaches you to adapt your explanations to the setting quite like approaching the same topic 50 different ways with different opponents and audiences each time.
Lesson 4: Research, Test, Clash
As Wisconsin’s own Assistant Director Jordan Foley always reminds me, “You can’t beat the game in one night.” Debate is an iterative process of persuasion that can’t be reduced to even the most impressively and thoroughly researched files. Creating a persuasive message requires taking research and testing it by clashing against those who hold other perspectives. Things that seem obviously persuasive in your own head or friend group may have no resonance whatsoever with those outside of it. There’s no better way to figure out what is convincing than to try to convince people, failing, and reworking your arguments until you break through.
Clash also provides the opportunity to attack weak arguments—I truly cannot overstate the impact of the phrase “Can you point to a line in the study that says that?” in front an audience who has never seen their intellectual icons pushed to prove they are characterizing evidence fairly.
Debate will take you to places you never imagined, and to some you’ve surely been eyeing since you began your educational lives. No matter where you wind up, debate will have taught you a core set of lessons about how to persuade people, and what they can (and can’t) be persuaded of in any given context.
By the end of your career, you will have spent years training yourself in a particular style of argumentation. You will take what you've learned out of the often-cruel world of competitive debate and into a much crueler world that you will find yourself desperate to change. Along the way, persuasion will be a critical part of asking for help, building a base, and making real forward movement.
Growing into an advocate is a lifelong process of honing and sharpening and adjusting our tactics. As debaters, we have something necessary (but not sufficient) to spur change—good or bad. With those skills in mind, where will debate take you?
CV is the Director of Debate at the University of Wisconsin--Madison and a doctoral candidate in the department of Communication Arts. They study institutional use of genetic data and human taxonomies in political discourse.
The Hard Truths of Work-Life Balance in Debate
My Two Families
I grew up in a dysfunctional family characterized by mental illness, alcoholism, and abuse. I know, this is supposed to be about work-life balance in debate. Bear with me. It is.
When you grow up in that sort of environment, it doesn’t seem unusual to you. The way you’re raised is just the way you’re raised. Everything that happens seems perfectly normal — natural, even. It’s not until you start venturing out of your house and talking to other people that you begin to realize that what happens where you live isn’t what happens everywhere.
Debate was my second home. I started my high school’s debate team as a first year student, and I stayed in debate as a competitor and then a coach for 34 years. I could fill an article three times this size with everything debate taught me. It introduced me to the academic field of communication, which is now my career, and much more importantly it introduced me to my wife. Debate gave me good friends all across the country and all over the world, as well as the priceless opportunity to work with countless talented students.
For all of its many benefits, however, debate was sadly similar to my biological family. Like the vast majority of those in my profession, I accepted the normalcy of debate’s coaching culture. The neverending work that occupies your every waking hour and eats away at your personal life. The research that promises precious additional chances at victory if you cut just one more card, then another, and then another. The arguments that always seem better when you write them, the practice speeches and coaching sessions, the planning and budgeting, the advocacy on behalf of the program. And that’s not to mention the tournament travel, with its string of 20-hour days, bad food, caffeine, stress, endless driving, and judging.
While you’re inside that culture, this is all a matter of pride. Debate coaches make workaholics look like slackers because we know how important the activity is. We know how important the students are. We sacrifice for them, for the education we value so much, for the school, for our communities and our people. Most of us are never going to get the resources we need, that our students need, so we fill in the gaps because somebody has to or the kids suffer. Our students are worth the pain and the exhaustion and the long hours. They are worth everything.
That is a beautiful story. I used to tell that story all the time.
Allow me to tell you a different one.
The story of debate coaches and our hard-working, sacrificial heroism is a lot like the stories we tell inside abusive families. They sound fantastic right up until you tell them to anyone who isn’t from an abusive family. Like that time a neighbor’s dog bit my face when I was six and my dad spent half an hour trying to kill the dog instead of driving me to the hospital? Everyone in my family loved to hear that story. My dad was such a character. But when I told it to my new friends in college they all just stared and looked worried instead of laughing. And slowly it occurred to me that the story wasn’t funny or entertaining at all. My friends were right to react the way they did.
Debate coaches do amazing work, and our jobs are incredibly important. But if we’re going to be honest, we need to do some mental gymnastics, step outside the bubble of our own community for just a minute, and accept a few hard truths about what we’ve been doing, how we’ve been doing it, and the cost we’ve all been paying.
Truth: Sacrificing Ourselves Teaches Our Students Bad Lessons
When I became the Director of Debate at Georgia State University, I went to my college coach and mentor for advice. Melissa Wade told me a lot of things that day, but one of the things she said was that kids learn a lot more from our example than they do from anything we say to them. At the time I didn’t fully understand what she meant, but over the years I started to realize the deep wisdom of her words. I was sitting at a national tournament, and they were giving out a prestigious coaching award to a famous coach. His former debaters gave a string of speeches extolling his virtues as a coach, and many of them told stories of the sheer number of times the coach had forgotten to pick up his own child from daycare or school because he was doing something for the debaters. Everyone laughed and applauded.
Our debaters learn vastly more from what we do and how we act than they learn from what we say or the arguments we write for them. The deep lessons they take from us are the lessons they learn from our example regarding how to live life, how to treat people, what to prioritize, and so on. And when we deprioritize ourselves for debate, we are teaching our students to devalue themselves as well. When we ignore our families and our partners to focus on debate, we are teaching our students how they should treat their own families and partners. If we want to be good educators, if we want to teach our students good lessons, then we have to learn to model the kind of behavior we want them to value. If we want them to learn to be happy, healthy individuals, then we have to value ourselves enough to show them how to be happy and healthy.
Truth: We Value Winning Too Much
This may be the hardest truth for us to accept, but here it is: winning doesn’t help your debaters that much. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’m a big believer in competition, and winning does some really important things. Most notably, it can serve as a reward for students who work hard, and it can help students understand when they’re doing things well. Too often, however, we treat winning not as an educational tool but as the be-all and end-all of debate. Melissa Wade used to call it “the death drive to the trophy,” and I thought that was hyperbole until I started coaching teams that were regularly in the running to win tournaments. Winning is important for motivation and learning, but there’s a diminishing marginal return in terms of value to the student — yet debate culture acts as though the opposite is true. We tend to focus most of our attention and our efforts on the teams that win the most, when it’s the other teams who really need us.
We should be focusing less on winning and more on helping our students become better debaters and better people. We should be focusing on making our debate teams happy, healthy, and supportive environments where the students who come to us — often very smart but just as often very troubled and hurt — can find a safe place to grow. I was out to dinner once at a big national tournament with my group of noisy, silly, laughing students, when I looked across the restaurant and realized that a team from a much more successful school was at the same restaurant. They all sat in grim quiet at their table, no one smiling or talking to each other. The coaches looked angry and disappointed. That team won a lot more debates than we did that weekend. In fact, I think they won the tournament. But I left feeling a lot more successful.
Truth: We Are Promoting Our Own Toxicity
The sorts of expectations that have grown up around coaching — that we allow to continue to exist — promote a culture that endangers students, coaches, and the activity itself. There are intense pressures on everyone who coaches to stop doing the things that give them balance and perspective, and which allow them to make good decisions. And when we value people who set aside personal happiness and healthy partnerships in pursuit of debate success, we too often end up hiring people who derive all their pleasure from within debate. The dangers of putting deeply unsatisfied, unbalanced adults who have lost the support they need to make healthy decisions together with large populations of vulnerable young people should be obvious. We are already a community with a long history of failing to protect our students and report bad behavior by coaches.
We simply cannot make debate a hostile place to people who want to have happy families and rich lives outside the activity if we want debate to be safe, healthy, and sustainable. We need to incentivize and reward reasonable work boundaries for coaches, and we need to value life modeling as much or more than competitive success when we hire people.
Truth: Personal Sacrifice Can’t Overcome Systemic Inequality
In college I debated at Emory, a well-resourced program with a storied history. As a graduate student, I coached at Wake Forest University and the University of Georgia, two more schools with proud histories and strong resources. But my high school program was small and funded by the students, and the college program I directed for 15 years had the smallest budget in the district for most of the time I was there, and those experiences are what structures my understanding of debate. As a director, many of my students came from poor backgrounds and schools with little debate experience. I loved coaching those students, and I wouldn’t have traded them for any other debaters, but I often lamented my inability to give them what students from richer programs had. I know what it’s like to be the only coach on one side of an elimination round when the other team has six. When you care for your students, it feels like you’re always letting them down no matter how hard you work.
I now understand two things, though. The first is that it’s impossible for one coach to do the work of six, unless those six are incredibly lazy — and they never are. Better funded programs will always have the edge because they are better funded. That doesn’t mean poorer programs always lose. Being forced to be scrappy can make you really creative. But it does mean that coaches who try to balance resource inequity by destroying their own lives are living a lie. The second thing I now understand is that the most important work I did for my students didn’t involve destroying my life. It was showing up, and it was showing them that it was possible to work hard but also value themselves and their loved ones.
What Is to be Done?
I love debate, and I am immensely proud of the time I spent coaching. I want debate coaches everywhere and at all levels to succeed, I want students to have great experiences as debaters, and I want the activity to grow and flourish. For all that to happen, though, coaches in general need to start doing things differently when it comes to work-life balance. To be fair, some coaches are already doing things very differently, and I hope they spread the word. For those who are still stuck in the old mindset, however, I have a few suggestions.
First – and this will be the hardest thing for most of you — accept your own limitations and have some humility about your own importance. You are not good to anyone if you destroy your own life and become a terrible, unhappy, desperate version of yourself. You deserve happiness. And your students are shockingly capable without your constant attention. The ones who aren’t won’t benefit from that attention anyway.
Second, be intentional about drawing some boundaries around your personal life, and then enforce those boundaries. There should be days where you don’t stay late, or days when you leave early. There are weekends when you should not work on debate at all. You should announce those boundaries so your students know what to expect, and you should explain that you are taking time off to have a life, to spend time with your partner or your family or just your dog. Let them see you leave to do things for yourself and your loved ones.
Third, take seriously the idea that you need a life outside of debate. That means hobbies that aren’t debate-related, taking the time to build relationships outside the activity if you don’t already have them, and doing some non-debate work (even if it doesn’t immediate contribute to your current career).
Fourth, understand that you don’t have to be a debate coach forever. There’s this notion in debate that you’re not a real coach unless you’re a lifer, but debate coaches come in all shapes, sizes, and career durations. If you don’t want to be a coach forever, cultivate your post-debate career with the same intensity you’d give to tournament preparation. Honestly, you should do that even if you do think you’re going to be a coach forever. Things change.
Fifth, value winning less and learning and character building more. Teach your more experienced debaters to coach your less experienced ones, and make that as much of an expectation as research or argument construction. Give your time to the students who need help, not just the ones who are most likely to win, and teach everyone self-reliance. If you’re someone who makes hiring decisions, hire people whose careers demonstrate a concern for students more than a concern for tournament success. Vet applicants extensively for how they treat students and whether they might have a history of abuse or improper behavior.
Finally, if you’re one of those lucky coaches whose program is well-funded, share the wealth. Work to lower expectations for coaches in general, help out new and underfunded programs (there are many creative ways to do this that don’t involve money), and assist folks who need help advocating for more resources. Teach your own parent organization to value your work as a force for good in the community. Too often, well-funded programs help create the work-life balance problems I’m talking about. If we’re going to change things, we’re going to need some leadership from you too.
It’s easy to dismiss all this when you’re in the middle of things, when you’re going crazy prepping for the next tournament or rushing to the next practice debate. By all means, do what you need to do. One of the great things debate teaches us is to work really hard when we need to. The problem is that we’ve created a culture in which anything less than maximum effort all the time is seen as unacceptable. We owe ourselves and most especially our students a better culture than that.
Dr. Joe Bellon is a Senior Lecturer in Communication at Georgia State University. He served as the Director of Debate at GSU from 2001 to 2015, during which time he set school records for participation, national rankings, national tournament success, and number of teams qualified for the National Debate Tournament. He is the primary author of The Policy Debate Manual, which has introduced tens of thousands of novice debaters to the activity.