Lincoln Douglas Debate

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					       ◆ Lincoln Douglas Debate
        The Commodification of LD
                                                                                                                     Recommendations
        By Jason Baldwin


               In the past three to five years, Lin-    tionally successful students attended this        tive enough (by itself or as a means of ad-
        coln-Douglas-related business has grown         workshop, and from what I can see, its in-        vertising the rest of the product line).
        spectacularly. Part I of this essay sketches    fluence on LD has been overwhelmingly                    The website is the public face for
        how this happened. Part II offers several       for the good.                                     multi-faceted LD business concerns, and
        reasons to think the commercialization of              A few years ago, business began to         like other kinds of commercial websites, LD
        LD is not an unmixed blessing. And Part III     make its presence felt in LD as never be-         business websites work hard to be more
        suggests ways that concerned readers can        fore. Someone noticed two things: First,          than just (blatant) advertising. They host
        limit the influence of money on high school     the supply of reasonably successful stu-          discussion boards, publish “news” stories
        debate.                                         dents who wanted to teach at summer work-         and interviews with debate “celebrities,”
               By way of disclosure, I have been        shops vastly exceeded the demand for              and post tournament results and (of
        employed by the University of Kentucky’s        teachers at existing workshops. Second,           course) pictures.
        LD workshop every summer since 1996, and        the internet offered unprecedented oppor-                Websites are not the only marketing
        by several other workshops in the years         tunities to advertise cheaply, directly, and,     front. Rostrum ads are still common, as are
        before then. To the extent that I have made     shall we say, flexibly. These two facts sug-      tournament appearances by staff (some-
        money selling a service—and an expensive        gested a business model: Hire lots of rea-        times in company t-shirts or even [in at least
        one—to high school students, some people        sonably successful ex-debaters to form a          one case] animal costumes). And busi-
        may conclude that I am part of the prob-        workshop. Since they’re students, they            nesses trying to break into the marketplace
        lems I discuss below. That judgment, if         work cheap. Since they’re students, they          of ideas still need at least one young Turk
        correct, might be a reason for me to stop       have strong rapport with the customer base        to patrol online student discussion boards
        teaching at summer workshops, but it            (their friends). Since they’re students, they     (such as the popular forum.lddebate.org)
        would not dissuade me from anything I say       can track (and, for that matter, change) the      planting pro-company messages and at-
        here about the dangers of commodifying          winds of LD fashion. Since they’re stu-           tacking the competition.
        LD.                                             dents, they judge (or will soon be judging)              No doubt new companies and prod-
                                                        many important debate rounds. And since           ucts and marketing techniques will emerge.
                          I. History                    they’re students, they can get by with say-       Many LD students have now become regu-
               Turning low- or no-cost activities       ing almost anything when they talk to their       lar LD consumers, but there is a lot of money
        into more expensive activities is part of the   friends (the customers).                          yet to be made.
        American way, and people have been try-                Viewed strictly as a business propo-
        ing to do it to high school LD since its in-    sition, the model was a stroke of genius.                          II. Problems
        ception in the early 1980’s. Evidence, cases,   And it has succeeded on a massive scale.                 I see four sorts of problems with the
        textbooks, and summer workshops have            But the summer workshop was only the              commercialization of LD. Let me be clear
        been advertised in the Rostrum since well       anchor for a range of suddenly popular            that I am not condemning the profit motive
        before I started reading the magazine in        products including evidence, argument             as such, nor am I suggesting that every-
        about 1990. Until fairly recently, most of      briefs, and, most recently, weekend work-         one who is now making money off of high
        these products had little impact on the over-   shops on current NFL topics (some com-            school LD is implicated in each of the fol-
        all shape of LD. Some students bought           plete with pre-fab evidence and case out-         lowing problems. I am simply pointing to
        their evidence through the mail, for example,   lines). I am not aware of any of the sort of      problems with the growing commercial cul-
        but these people did not often reach elimi-     outfits I have described selling actual cases     ture in LD.
        nation rounds. The only LD “product” to         yet, but I know of at least two who sell                 The most serious and general prob-
        exert anything like a national influence was    DVDs of demonstration debates using               lem with business in debate is not unique
        the University of Iowa’s summer workshop,       staff-produced cases for each new NFL             to debate; it is possible in any educational
        which earned a reputation for excellent ad-     resolution. There is now at least one tour-       domain and, really, in almost any human
        ministration, trustworthy teachers, and an      nament operated by an LD business, and            practice. The problem is that the end pur-
        academically sound curriculum. Many na-         more are sure to appear if this proves lucra-     sued by a business (profit) may threaten



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011-014 Baldwin article.p65        1                                                             9/7/2005, 8:42 AM
       ◆ Lincoln Douglas Debate
        the ends properly pursued by the practice          ucts or services being sold to LDers; these               From what I can tell, character con-
        in which the business operates. Education          examples relate in one way or another to           siderations do not meaningfully inform the
        aims to instill some combination of skills,        the skills and knowledge that LD students          hiring decisions of current for-profit work-
        knowledge, and virtues in students. There          should acquire. There can be no serious            shops. These workshops want to attract
        is always a risk that for-profit education         question that commercialization has fed the        as many students as possible. Ex-debaters
        schemes will compromise the proper goals           cancerous growth of jargon, speed, debate          are both cheap labor and an excellent source
        and standards of a discipline in order to be       theory, and so-called postmodern so-called         of publicity. Workshop students want to
        more popular with consumers and hence              philosophy in LD.                                  learn to do whatever last year’s winning
        more profitable. Although profit and excel-               But I want to focus here on                 debaters did; they don’t stop to quibble
        lence can pull against each other in any           commercialization’s less noticed threat to         over maturity or virtue. So private work-
        domain, the danger is especially acute in          the virtues that debate training should in-        shops are now hiring as many successful
        education because the potential consum-            culcate. Any well functioning person who           ex-debaters as possible, including some
        ers are, by the nature of the situation, not       spends much time around debaters knows             who would have been deliberately not
        equipped to distinguish wheat from chaff.          that the most successful debaters are not          hired in earlier years. That’s not to say that
        A defining feature of studenthood is not           always the best people. Successful debat-          any workshop hires only vicious people or
        knowing what one needs to know. Most               ers can be arrogant, combative, and cruel.         unworthy role models. I know several ad-
        students know what they want, but few              This is one reason that good (i.e., success-       mirable, trustworthy people who teach at
        students know what they need. Wants can            ful) debaters do not always make good              for-profit workshops, and there are doubt-
        compete with needs, but businesses appeal          teachers or coaches. Debate teachers are           less other such people whom I do not know.
        only to wants.                                     supposed to model virtues (humility, pa-           But I also know of people with records of
               High school debate is supposed to           tience, and kindness, for example) that some       very public poor behavior who have been
        be a form of education instilling some bits        talented debaters never seem to acquire.           hired and actively promoted by for-profit
        of knowledge (basic moral philosophy, cur-                It used to be that the largest summer       workshops. These workshops are not hir-
        rent events) but mostly certain skills (re-        LD workshops (which were non-profit pro-           ing on the basis of poor character, but nor
        search, logic, rhetoric) and virtues (humil-       grams of colleges and universities) selec-         are they hiring on the basis of good char-
        ity, open-mindedness, graciousness) in its         tively hired ex-debaters as staff members          acter. They are not hiring on the basis of
        participants. Some people have said that           partly on the basis of personal character. I       character at all. They are indifferent to char-
        debate is merely a game pursued for the            don’t mean that this practice was universal        acter, because character does not improve
        amusement of its players; here I will only         or perfectly realized or even articulate; nor      their bottom line.
        remark that few of the people who actually         do I mean that character was the main hir-                And, I am sorry to say, it seems to me
        pay for debate teams and tournaments               ing criterion. But I believe that character        that many non-profit workshops have, in
        would continue to pay for them if they be-         did function at least as a constraint in the       turn, lowered their own hiring standards in
        lieved that.                                       minds of the administrators hiring staff for       order to remain competitive (and solvent).
               Two years ago (in the January 2003          such programs. I can recall several promi-         More than one LD workshop administrator
        Rostrum) I argued that the poor quality of         nent debaters in the past decade who               has told me in so many words that their
        much current LD is due to a failure on the         would almost surely have been hired by             institutions are loosening their old stan-
        part of those who control the game (coaches        national workshops had they not been               dards in order to stay afloat.
        and judges) to key student incentives (bal-        known to have insulted other students or                  The first problem with the growth of
        lots, speaker points, and ultimately tro-          disrespected their coaches. In the hiring          debate-related commerce, then, is that the
        phies) to the larger educational ends of           decisions I helped to make, my colleagues          profit motive may compromise educational
        debate. Instead, LD has been allowed to            and I frequently asked questions like: Does        standards. The discounting of character
        take on a life of its own with internally evolv-   this person have the maturity and self-con-        in workshop hiring decisions is one seri-
        ing standards of success that are at best          trol to enforce rules and maintain appropri-       ous example of such compromise.
        unrelated to, and at worst opposed to, more        ate boundaries with students? Would we                    A second problem with the pursuit
        generally accepted standards of intellec-          be proud to present this person to parents         of profit in debate is that it encourages stu-
        tual and rhetorical excellence. In this cli-       as a teacher of their children? Is this the        dents to substitute purchased products for
        mate, the profit motive can be especially          kind of human being we would want our              educationally valuable work. This prob-
        destructive by giving students what they           students to become? Asking such ques-              lem is as old as mail-order evidence and
        want (tips for trophies now) rather than           tions is no special virtue; it should be stan-     cases, but it has grown recently as the use
        what they need (skills for life later).            dard procedure for anyone responsible to           of such materials has become accepted
               And, in general, this is just what has      hire teachers, especially teachers who work        among debaters at all levels. I am confi-
        happened. Most of the obvious examples             as closely with, and exert as much influ-          dent that I learned more in high school from
        have to do with the content of the prod-           ence on, their students as debate teachers         the time I spent preparing for debate rounds
                                                           do.


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011-014 Baldwin article.p65          2                                                               9/7/2005, 8:42 AM
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        than I did from the actual debate rounds         high school debaters to celebrity status.          it is important to understand that a rela-
        themselves. Navigating a library, unpack-        Most students I’ve taught have been too            tionship need not actually produce unethi-
        ing dense academic prose, writing clear ar-      fixated on tournament success even with-           cal conduct in order to constitute an inap-
        guments, and anticipating the dialectic of       out the prospect of debate stardom. The            propriate conflict. The conflict is created
        objections and replies are among the im-         celebrity system encourages all students           by the circumstances, not by the immedi-
        portant skills LD students can acquire           to focus on the wrong values, holding out          ate actions of the parties involved. So even
        through their tournament preparation. But        trophies and reputation as the highest             if no debate business employee has ever
        these skills come only at a high cost of time    goods debate can offer. Moreover, many             judged unfairly due to his business affilia-
        and effort. Debate businesses offer evi-         successful debaters already have bloated           tion, that affiliation still creates a conflict
        dence, cases (or case outlines), and argu-       egos that can only be aggravated by fawn-          that should be recognized and remedied.
        ment briefs at a much lower cost. And the        ing publicity from company websites. Like-         For the same reason, not even ideally fair-
        successful names attached to these prod-         wise, promoting undergraduate judges and           minded coaches are permitted to judge their
        ucts lead—I would say mislead—many stu-          assistants as trend-setting heroes attracts        own students against the students of other
        dents to think the products are better than      the wrong sort of alumni back to debate.           coaches.
        what the students could produce for them-               The fourth problem I see with LD                    In fairness to the businesses I am
        selves. Businesses thrive on substituting        businesses is that they create conflicts of        criticizing, I must note that this last con-
        ease for effort. In some instances, this is      interest. The same ex-debaters who do              cern about conflicts of interest is as much
        all (or nearly all) to the good. But in an       most of the grunt work at these outfits also       a problem with tournament administration
        educational context where effort is the only     judge frequently at tournaments. They end          as it is with money in LD. There are many
        means to learning, this economic division        up judging students they have been paid            potential conflicts of interest in debate
        of labor is another way the profit motive        to teach in the summer and students using          judging situations, many of them unrelated
        threatens the purposes of the activity.          arguments and evidence they (the judges)           to business ties. It is tournament directors
               My third concern about the commer-        were paid to produce. And because for-             who need to be more vigilant in monitoring
        cialization of LD is its promotion of an un-     profit workshops tend to hire armies of high       and blocking potential conflicts of interest.
        healthy celebrity culture. This occurs for       school seniors early in the debate season          The growth of debate businesses is simply
        at least two reasons. First, debate prod-        for the next summer, these future employ-          the occasion for serious and widespread
        ucts and services will sell more if the people   ees are now routinely being judged by their        conflicts of interest that must be acknowl-
        who sell them and the people who use them        future employers and colleagues. In any            edged.
        are viewed as debate stars. Second, de-          other domain, these financial ties would be
        bate students (like many people) are highly      recognized as obvious conflicts of inter-                          III. Remedies
        susceptible to the flattery of being treated     est.                                                      Supposing that you share my con-
        like stars themselves, even if they are not             On the one hand, some of these con-         cerns about the effects of the profit motive
        highly accomplished. So debate businesses        flicts are not unique to employees of for-         on high school debate, what can you do?
        aggressively promote their staffs, their suc-    profit businesses. Staff members of estab-         The obvious remedy is, don’t feed the
        cess stories, and even (to some extent) their    lished non-profit institutes also often judge      beast. One of the glories of a market
        ordinary customers. Their websites may           students who have attended their work-             economy is the freedom not to buy. If you
        circulate campy gossip and “insider only”        shops, and that, too, is a conflict of inter-      do not like the influence of mail-order evi-
        jokes about staff and favored students.          est that should end. On the other hand, I          dence, “demonstration” DVD’s, or for-profit
        “Exclusive interviews” with popular stu-         believe that these conflicts have sometimes        workshops, do not patronize them.
        dents appear as celebrity infotainment. Pic-     been exploited by debate businesses. There                If you are a student accustomed to
        tures of regionally successful debaters with     has, for example, been a subtext in some           buying your ideas from other people, you
        “live reports” on their performances pop         advertising to the effect that “Our staff does     can substitute your own work for the prod-
        up on tournament weekends. One recent            a lot of judging at important tournaments,         ucts sold to you by college students. You
        web banner ad for a for-profit workshop          so if you want to know what wins, it would         will learn more, not just about the current
        played overtly to celebrity appeal by show-      be a good idea to attend this workshop.” I         debate topic, but also about how to research
        ing a hand reaching out as if to cover an        have talked to more than one student who           and write. In addition to your local librar-
        intrusive camera with a headline reading,        felt unfairly targeted (or ignored) due to         ies, there are probably many people in your
        “Fight the paparazzi.”                           such connections between her judge and             community, perhaps even in your circle of
               I don’t mean to suggest that these        her opponent. I am sure some such reports          acquaintances, who would freely provide
        kinds of tactics are unusual in our culture      are the result of exaggeration and                 insights on debate topics as or more valu-
        or especially sinister when practiced by         misperception. But having known some of            able than those you can purchase from a
        debate businesses. But I do believe it’s         the judges in question, I doubt that all are.      brief company.
        unhealthy for everyone involved to elevate              When assessing conflicts of interest,              Doing your own work is not only



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011-014 Baldwin article.p65         3                                                              9/7/2005, 8:42 AM
       ◆ Lincoln Douglas Debate
        more educationally profitable, it is also                                             they learned from actively doing instead of                                policies to block conflicts of interest. People
        massively more satisfying. If you have ever                                           passively consuming. Of course, hands-                                     who produce or sell topic-specific LD prod-
        grown a tomato or built a bookcase or baked                                           on debate preparation makes more work for                                  ucts should not judge LD rounds at all.
        a cake or changed a tire, you know how                                                coaches, too: You will have to teach your                                  People who have taught (or will teach) at a
        empowering it feels to be able to do for                                              students the skills they need in order to do                               given summer workshop should not judge
        yourself what other people must pay to                                                what LD businesses would otherwise do                                      students who have attended (or who have
        have done. Similarly, you will enter debate                                           for them. The NFL has a number of free                                     been hired to teach at) that workshop. Rich
        rounds with a sense of confidence when                                                resources for coaches, including a grow-                                   Edwards, creator of the popular “Tabroom
        you have mastered the topic literature and                                            ing internet archive of Rostrum articles on                                on the PC” tabluation software, has told
        written cases for yourself. You will know                                             various events. Money that would have                                      me that it would be easy to revise his pro-
        your arguments inside and out because                                                 gone for topic-specific briefs can instead                                 gram to block such conflicts if tournaments
        they are really yours. You will have a greater                                        be spent on building a team library of clas-                               requested such a revision. Coaches should
        sense of responsibility for both your suc-                                            sic and contemporary books that will allow                                 firmly request that tournament directors
        cesses and your failures because you will                                             students to research topics for themselves                                 implement these or similar policies to en-
        know that they are rooted in work you have                                            (more on this in a future article).                                        sure fair and impartial judges for their stu-
        done rather than paid someone else to do                                                     If your students attend summer work-                                dents. That these changes might appear
        for you. Like an athlete, you will know that                                          shops, make informed recommendations to                                    daunting for some tournaments shows just
        whether you win or lose, you are getting                                              their parents. You will, after all, have to live                           how rampant conflicts of interest are in
        stronger and sharper because you are ex-                                              during the school year with whatever be-                                   debate judging today.
        ercising. If you are fortunate enough to                                              liefs and attitudes those workshops instill.                                      I recognize that students and
        have a coach and teammates who work with                                              Find workshops with staff members you                                      coaches may have a variety of reasons for
        you on LD, you will also experience the sat-                                          trust to serve as academic and personal                                    purchasing debate products, some of them
        isfaction of working with people you like                                             role models. Compare costs and ask what                                    legitimate. I also recognize that some of
        and respect to produce something greater                                              motives drive various institutes. Non-                                     the people employed by debate companies
        than any one of you could have produced                                               profit workshops are often official programs                               are honorable and constructive educators.
        alone.                                                                                of universities; for-profit workshops often                                But the growing influence of money in LD
               If you are a coach, do not purchase                                            just rent space from universities. Coaches                                 and the shift away from skillful self-reliance
        topic-specific debate products for your stu-                                          opposed to the expensive residential work-                                 toward passive consumption and entertain-
        dents, and discourage them from purchas-                                              shop system might collaborate with local                                   ment are causes for concern.
        ing them privately. Create research and                                               colleagues to produce low- or no-cost com-                                 (Jason Baldwin (jbaldwin@nd.edu) stud-
        casing assignments that will force students                                           muter workshops for their students.                                        ies and teaches Philosophy at the Univer-
        to do their own work. They may grumble                                                       Finally, anyone who hosts an LD tour-                               sity of Notre Dame. Many of his articles
        now, but they will thank you later for what                                           nament should adopt stringent disclosure                                   on LD have appeared in the Rostrum.)



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011-014 Baldwin article.p65                              4                                                                                                     9/7/2005, 8:42 AM