debate competitions changing…

This LA Times article is quite interesting. Jim at Blogora asks if this new debate is a good or bad thing. I might say both, but I’m going to lean towards good.

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

In recent years, renegade rhetoricians from Cal State Fullerton and other underdog schools have clobbered debate kingpins from Harvard and UC Berkeley with a hodgepodge of unorthodox methods known as “performance debating.”

Instead of relying on scholarly research to foil opponents, the teams employ guerrilla tactics such as reading from Dr. Seuss, impersonating pirates or ballroom dancing with a chair.

“People call us the terrorists of debate,” says Fullerton student Brenda Montes.

The goal of performance debate is threefold: Knock rivals off stride, impress judges with creative forms of argument and open the heavily white-male field to new voices.

The methods have sparked an uproar. Purists say the gimmicks are wrecking a noble tradition. But supporters insist the techniques are returning the art of persuasion to its roots.


“Traditional debaters say the only evidence that matters is library research,” he said. “We say personal experience is equally important.” Bruschke points out that Aristotle ranked emotion equal to logic as a tool in seeking truth.


Performance teams “have pretty much started to ruin traditional debate and what it offers students educationally,” said Ken Sherwood, director of forensics at Los Angeles City College.

In the past, debaters had to research both sides of an issue. “It taught students there’s always another side and it forced them to understand the opposition,” Sherwood said. “If you do that, you’re better able to defend your own perspective.”

In contrast, performance squads focus on personal stories and theatrics that often have little to do with the topic, he said.

Defenders of alternative tactics say they’re simply trying to “level the playing field” against students who have been honing debate skills since high school, often at elite private campuses.

But Sherwood disputes the idea that underprivileged students need gimmickry to compete. “My program has brought more people from disadvantaged backgrounds into debate than Louisville, Fullerton and Long Beach combined,” he said.

Harvard’s Perkins said it’s true that performance debating can shortchange students on research skills, but he still admires the movement. “It has strengthened the game and made it more demanding,” Perkins said.

At a recent Malibu contest, Brett Beeler of Cal State Fullerton stopped mid-sentence in a debate and asked teammate Caitlin Gray for a document.

As she rummaged around, Beeler impatiently left the podium and whispered heatedly at her. The tiff escalated, and suddenly he slapped her.

The judge of the debate came unglued. “You need to leave right now!” he shouted at Beeler.

But the slap was an act — a way to breathe life into the otherwise dry debate topic, a court case involving domestic violence.

“I really did believe it was an incident of domestic abuse,” said the judge, Orion Steele, a professor at the University of Redlands. “It took me a good half-hour to cool down.” Then he awarded the victory to Fullerton.

Each of Fullerton’s two-person debate squads uses a strategy tailored to individual members’ backgrounds.

Puja Chopra and Parija Patel, both of Indian descent, sit down and meditate in debates to symbolize that arguing over legislation is pointless because true change must come from within.

Another duo cranks up a stereo and delivers arguments with homespun rap lyrics. When opponents complained that rap wasn’t an acceptable way to debate, Fullerton countered with a swipe at speed-talking. “The way you talk is understood by fewer than 2,000 people in America,” debater Dale Morrison said. Rap has a better chance of influencing listeners, he said.

Some schools get so swept up challenging Fullerton’s tactics that they forget to rebut the team’s arguments, Bruschke said. He estimates 10% of college squads use performance tactics.

When performance teams face each other, things can get pretty weird. Long Beach State once faced two women from Concordia College in Minnesota who stripped down to G-strings and talked about reclaiming their bodies from objectification by men.

The all-male California team couldn’t get past the distraction. “Their brains left them,” said Neesen, their coach.

Another contest pitted a Fort Hays student dancing with a chair against a Northwestern team reading the script of “Dr. Strangelove.” The topic was federal control of Native American land.

“It was a wild debate,” Shanahan said. “Strangelove” prevailed.

Part of a performance squad’s success depends on the element of surprise. “It’s classic guerrilla warfare,” Bruschke said. “Your tactics have to constantly change or you lose your advantage to superior force.”

Shanahan once judged a match in which a team used nine minutes of silence to signify that African Americans had no voice on a policy matter.

“It was powerful,” Shanahan said. But when other schools began copying the ploy, it wore thin. “After you hear it 15 or 20 times, it becomes passe,” he said. “The bar gets raised.”

Ultimately, the endless quest for novelty could doom the new form.

“It’s getting to the point where it’s hard to do something that really challenges the boundaries, because the boundaries have been all but eliminated,” Shanahan said. “It’s hard to say where things will go next.”

I lean towards calling this a “good thing” because it’s opening up the debate style that usually favors masculinist argumentation (which privileges those from middle class white upbringing and favors men over women because of socialization). While I think it might be problematic that some of these performances don’t address the issue, I think it’s great that young rhetoricians are realizing that there are different ways to communicate than through a logical 3 reasons with support style method. The fact that narrative is being used is amazing, and that bodies are being incorporated into argument is really cool. As Iris Marion Young has pointed out, our traditional beliefs in a democratic deliberative democracy privileges certain people whose education and background have helped them adopt the norms of debate. If we’re to truly open up the public sphere to be inclusive of many different voices, we have to change what we value (and what we desire) in argumentation/discourse. That’s why I read this and think it’s exciting and a “good thing.”

This entry was posted in Agonism in Display, Arguments (nature of?), Classical Rhetoric, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to debate competitions changing…

  1. Mike G. says:

    This is nothing new. When I was in high school and college, I used this same philosophy and tactic. The resolution during my senior year of high school was “Resolved: That the united states federal government should significantly limit the use of weapons of mass destruction.”

    The plans that we ran were as such:

    1) Faith-based missile defense (quoted the bible, evidence from leviticus)

    2) Anger management for world leaders

    3) Defining “Mass Destruction” as antimatter bombs only

    Needless to say, many people found the tactics frivolous.

    In college, I did Parliamentary debate, and usually interpreted the resolutions literally, and used literary references to befuddle my opponent. It worked sometimes. Mostly judges are culled from the business and political communities, so such tactics don’t work well at all.

  2. Ruben says:

    You’ll have to show me how to do pingbacks, because I cited you (this blog) in my blog.

  3. Michael says:

    I think I have pingbacks turned off. It seems like yours work fine (I checked the post that I linked to and it has a pingback). The owner of a blog controls if pingbacks show up on their posts or not (so I control if there is a note that shows up if someone links to my posts).

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