Tuesday, June 24, 2008


So it was February of 1991, and I was in Chicago, debating at the Northwestern tournament, and something unexpected happened. We were debating a team from Boston College, Craig Cerniello and Darren Schwiebert, who, to be frank, were better than we were. Not that there was any shortage of teams about whom that could've been said. And I should mention that by "we," I mean myself and Robert Scott McWilliams, current whereabouts unknown to me. We were affirmative. It was an affirmative that Rod Phares had dreamed up over Christmas break, concerning China and ozone depletion. Those details don't matter. My confidence had taken some stout blows from recent events. I don't think that mattered much either. It was round one, and we had a mediocre judge whom I won't name, since I just called that judge mediocre and this is an open blog, but a judge who knew us and had been very good for us before. Still, we were getting pretty clearly thrashed. It wasn't bad to the point of embarrassing, but it wasn't a debate anyone should have a hard time deciding. Something happened between the second negative rebuttal (Cerniello) and the second affirmative rebuttal (me):

I suddenly understood debate.

No angel choirs, no "click" in my head, nothing overt. I wasn't sitting under a banyan tree, and I didn't come up with any eightfold path. I just, all of a sudden, understood that all these zillions of different arguments that I was trying to take care of, like chasing drops of mercury after a spill, weren't zillions of arguments after all. It was all one big argument. It was one coherent whole.

I can put that into words today, and I could've put it into words before that day. Millions of times I'd had coaches tell me that the smart debating was about understanding the relationship between all the issues. I knew that. I could say those words. Doing it, though, was much more difficult. I'd been trying for years, which probably explains why I was such an unsuccessful debater. No false modesty there: year after year, I truly stunk. But in this round, all of a sudden, it wasn't a zillion little arguments anymore: just one. It was something like those Magic Eye 3d pictures, even though I've never yet gotten one of those to work. Maybe tomorrow I suddenly will, and that'll change my life again.

I think that may have been the single lesson that made all of my ten years as a debater (first debate in 1982, last in 1992) worth it. And it knocks me for a loop that I completely left this out of the study I'm currently hammering into shape about the effects that a debate career have on the skill set of someone who goes on to be an educator.

It absolutely changes every conversation. It's especially handy in the classroom, because I can hold an entire lesson in my head as one big set of interwoven claims, held together by relationships. If a student is having trouble with one concept, it's really easy for me to step out, grab the bigger picture, and use it to explain that one trouble spot to the student. It also comes up in meetings a lot: I find that I have an easy time asking, "Is this really where our trouble is? Are we really dealing with the issue, or are we spinning our wheels?" I can do that because I've got a good protection against tunnel vision.

Another study that someone ought to do someday would investigate whether former debaters are inoculated against sound-bite political strategies. In particular, the study ought to examine the relationship between success in debate and resistance to that kind of tactic. Plenty of debaters can handle lots and lots of separate statements, just like keeping lots of balls in the air. But the debaters who take it up a notch have to understand how those statements fit, how they cohere, and I get the feeling there would be an entirely different response from that group of people to the typical political campaign messages.

And the cynical part of me can't make up its mind whether debate coaches could use that to actually promote their programs, or whether it would become vitally necessary that we hide those results, so that elected officials don't get ahold of them.

The other thing I meant to mention is, I'm still struck to this day by how sudden it was. I am not exaggerating when I trace that entire realization, a realization that stuck, a realization that turned me from a mediocre debater into a decent, and occasionally quite good, debater; a realization that's been this turbo-charge to my career, descended on me in about a three minute window. Less than that. I am absolutely sure that there was a second when I couldn't make it come together, and one second later I could.

Other places I've noted my belief that people do not learn until they are ready to learn. That process can't be hurried through any trickery or force known to humankind. People either cannot, or will not, or the entire point might be that the two are not distinct. But when it was time for me to get it, suddenly I got it. And once I understood that about my students, it made many things about teaching make sense, and seem tolerable, that previously didn't and weren't.

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