Its debatable…Speak Up!

January 25, 2008

Competition or Education – A response to

Filed under: Debate,Forensics - General,Instructional Ideas,NFA LD,Pedagogy — bk2nocal @ 12:24 pm

An interesting and challenging question was posed over at on the Teleology of Debate.  I have struggled with this in my own coaching, not only in debate but also in IEs.  After all, everything we do in forensics is highly formulaic and not necessarily what works best in the “real world”.  But, I think we need to ask ourselves not whether EVERY skill that students learn in forensics transfers well to the post-forensics world, but whether those skills help or hinder their ability to function effectively in the post-forensics world.  Speaking fast or speaking “robotically” (as I’ve heard outsiders use to describe some IE presenters) is something we need to explain to our students as a tool for THIS activity.  A tool, that like any other tool, is inappropriate for other jobs.  To use a bad analogy, if I were teaching students construction, I would not tell my students to NEVER use a hammer, but I certainly would tell them that using a hammer to try to screw in a screw would not be effective. 
I think what we often lose sight of in forensics is that what we do is contextual – a lot like what students do in other areas of their lives.  But, if we try to make this an activity where EVERYTHING transfers EXACTLY in to the post-forensics world, than I think we lose sight of some of the UNIQUE learning that takes place in this activity.  We become another speech or debate “class” instead of a place where students can truly test their ability to adapt to different expectations and audiences as well as perform to the highest standards for professionals  who have a unique ability to listen, understand and evaluate arguments.  The lay-audience is limiting in ways that the forensics audience is not.  I think that is a GREAT benefit to students in that it allows them to step outside traditional expectations and explore new methods of delivery or new types of arguments.
The biggest problem I have with forensics competition is when judges/coaches are unwilling or unable to look past their own biases when educating students.  Although we all coach students to perform in a way that we think is best, we sometimes get so caught up in it that we deny students the ability to test their own ideas about performing.  Whether it is letting students talk fast (or slow) in debate or letting students do speeches on topics that are not considered “competitive” according to unwritten rules of platform speaking or letting students use non-traditional sources in extemporaneous speaking or running critiques in debate, strictly denying a student these opportunities (to fail maybe) seems overlimiting to me.  I don’t think we need to vote for these students or give them positive reinforcement, but we do need to use these as opportunities to educate them.  I will obviously tell my students when I think a speech topic will not be received well by judges or when a disad lacks the traditional impacts most judges are looking for or when a form of presentation is going to be competitively disadvantageous.  But, I also think its important that I allow them to learn for themselves and take risks in this activity.  After all, I think that is one of the most important things forensics provides to students – a “safe” place to test out ideas and presentational styles and arguments.  Its rare in this world of “you’re either with us or against us” that students can feel safe doing that.  It is important that they realize these “risks” will often result in “failure” competitively, but it may also result in learning a new lesson about argument or presentation.  I think this is where education can take the front seat and competition the backseat. 

On the flipside, I think that if a student is really competitive, then giving them the best TOOLS possible to win is something for which a coach is responsible.  I think that the lines are not so easily blurred between evidentiary or contextual fabrication and strategic use of evidence.  In the same way that when taking a class a student can strive for an A and put a very high value on achieving that, but still realize that cheating on a test is not a legitimate way of reaching that goal, we can teach our students that although winning is important, it can not be sought after in illegitimate ways.  But, I think we can also delineate speaking fast as being different from fabricating evidence, or running arguments that are strategically valuable but morally questionable (e.g. malthus) is different from taking arguments out of the context of the author’s usage.  I believe that is part of what we do as coaches.  We teach our students how to win without sacrificing standards of academic integrity. 
Through all this, I think its important that we as coaches are constantly stepping back and doing exactly what the post at challenges us to do.  THINK ABOUT IT!  Consider where we are coming from philosophically and teleologically and pedagogically and whether what we are doing as coaches is really demonstrating those beliefs and values.  And if not, what can we do to change our coaching to be more in line with who we are as people and educators. 

Thanks for a great, inspirational, thought-provoking blog entry over at!


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