Resolved, that debates are a terrible way to run programs

I didn’t attend the ACRL debate on information literacy. Several of those who did have had snarky things to say about it, apparently well deserved. Here’s a follow-up to an earlier post about the session at A Wandering Eyre–not to pick on Jane, but because she writes well and garnered some interesting comments. (The debate’s been debated elsewhere…)

I did go to the LITA debate on the future of search. And left after 15 minutes…

And then recalled that I’ve turned down more than one speaking invitation for a debate format, after accepting one such invitation (one of only three speeches I’ve done that I regard as failures).

I’m less hard-nosed than some. I’ll be on a panel, as long as it’s not a cry-and-response panel, and I’ve been the speaker being responded to by a panel (and don’t much care for it, not because I don’t like disagreement but because I don’t like being required to write a speech in advance and stick with what I wrote…but that requirement is almost essential for responders to work effectively).

The more I think about it, the more I think I just don’t care for debates as content programs. As carnivals/sideshows, sure; bring on the powdered wigs and gongs to cut off the speakers at the 3-minute mark. Cheer, boo, throw vegetables: Just don’t think you’re communicating meaning or changing anyone’s mind.

Actually, for me, this should come as no surprise. I was never a football player (as anyone who’s seen me could guess), but I spent four years in the NFL–the National Forensic League, that is. That’s the high school public speaking association, a good place for geeks like me to spend weekends. I “topped out” point eligibility in debate, impromptu, and extemp, which means I did a lot of debating. And what struck me as the years went on was that NFL debate is a great way to train value-neutral lawyers: That is, you’re required to be equally effective in arguing for and against a set proposition. Crucial to doing that is not believing either side. (One year, I used the same very effective anecdote on both sides of the same issue. That was the year I realized that treating debate as anything other than a stunt was demeaning my personal ethical sense.)

Maybe it’s just me, but maybe not. Disagreement can be good. Serious discussion can, rarely, change minds: I’ve changed my mind thanks to informed discussion. But debates? I think they’re artificial, tend to force extreme positions, and are valuable only as entertainment, not when there’s something serious to be said. At least that’s been my recent experience.

[Not that anyone was planning to in any case, but I guess this serves as a warning that you shouldn't invite me to participate in a debate. I'll turn you down.]

6 Responses to “Resolved, that debates are a terrible way to run programs”

  1. Jane Says:

    ..”Just don’t think you’re communicating meaning or changing anyone’s mind.”

    Exactly. When I go to a “President’s Program,” I expect some substance for Pete’s sake. One of my suggestions was that the speakers should have used at least SOME hard evidence or facts. I heard neither. If ACRL (or any other ALA division for that matter) is going to put so much effort into a large program, it should at least be a) useful or b) thought provoking.

    So I say a loud second! No more debate style programs!

  2. walt Says:

    As a high-school debater, I knew just what to do with facts: Ignore them. You respond to what you think the other speaker should have said, carefully avoiding anything convincing that they actually did say.

  3. steven bell Says:

    Ihave to disagree Walt. A debate forum – done right – can be a good time for the presenters and attendees. First, acknowledge that it’s not a real debate – then allow the debaters to have some fun with each other. Second, acknowledge that when we attempt a black/white polarization of the issues no one is going to be right – because there is likely a middle ground that makes more sense. But polarizing the issues forces us to examine the extremes of our thinking about what is right and wrong about these issues. I think that process helps all of us to better understand the issues.

    I would say the Toronto debate on the library building was a fun event that got us thinking about the issues. Maybe it wasn’t your cup of tea but I spoke with many attendees who found it one of the highlights of the conference. I modeled a program on it for our state library association in 2004 – Googlelizers vs. Resistors – and we didn’t take ourselves too seriously – but we went at each with gusto – and the SRO audience thoroughly enjoyed it. Yes, I could have done a 45 minute presentation on it or we could have had a fairly traditional panel, but I think with a touchy subject where folks have strong opinions a debate can be a good way to let folks express themselves without worrying about offending colleagues.

    As I said in my ACRLog post about the IL debate, it may have been that the idea was flawed to start with (which we said in our post about it in ACRLog months ago when it was first announced), that having faculty participate was a good idea on paper that didn’t work in real life, that the debaters were too restrained (or took it too seriously) or kept it too academic, or that the focus was on the interludes rather than what the debaters had to say to each other.

    So maybe this one fell a bit flat, but I don’t think it means we should abandon the debate format. Given the right topic, right debaters and right forum, I think it can still give folks their money’s worth.

    In fact here’s my suggestion for the next great debate: StevenB and Walt versus Jane and …(her choice) – the topic – BE IT RESOLVED THAT OLD GUYS MAKE BETTER LIBRARIANS THAN NEXTGENS!

  4. walt Says:

    Well, I didn’t attend the Toronto debate. Sounds as though it was a fun event–which is different than being an effective educational program. Maybe that’s not always true, and I certainly enjoy “fun events” (the Charleston Conference has had one or two spectacular fun events).

    I don’t necessarily believe I’m right here (you’re making a case for me being wrong, which I frequently am) but my own experience participating in and attending debates has generally been unfortunate, unless it’s viewed as more-or-less entertainment with maybe just a hint of information.

    Steven, Steven, you know better than most: I can’t be on that panel. As a loyal ALA member and non-ML[I]S holder, I don’t call myself a librarian. And, as already noted, since I’m not naturally a funny guy, I don’t do debates.

    Heck, I’m getting an interesting non-debate going. After a few commentless weeks, that’s refreshing.

  5. Dorothea Salo Says:

    I like pointless goofball humor at conferences. I just like it to be billed as such, and I prefer that it be an evening (skippable) event. Some conferences have marvelous humor traditions, and that’s great.

    I also love a speaker who uses humor well in service of a serious point. It’s an art I’m too scared to try in my own speaking, honestly.

    But I’d have walked out of this one, just as I walked out of the Google “debate” at ACRL. Exaggerating polarity and making silly pseudo-funnies over a question that needs real reflection and engagement fulfills no earthly function that I’ve ever understood.

  6. walt Says:

    Ah yes, SIG CON (do they still do that at ASIST?), and, for a few shining years, LITA’s Fuzzy Match Interest Group. (I wonder if the FMIG archives are still…well, intact may be the wrong word. Some funny stuff there, at least at the time.)

    Otherwise…well, I see what Steven B. is saying, and I believe I’m inclined to be on Dorothea’s and Jane’s side. (Geez, big surprise there…although I should note that I’ve known Steven B. a lot longer than either Dorothea or Jane, and like him. We disagree on this point.)


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