Debating Resources for the World since 1994

Argument in Motion: Music and Art Transforming Debate

Maxwell Schnurer

Marist College

Lowell Thomas 223

Department of Communication

Poughkeepsie, NY 12601

845-575-3000 x2075

Two hundred thousand dollars seemed like so much money. After paying student loans, credit cards and buying some enjoyable toys I was convinced that no amount of money would ever REALLY satisfy me. I had known people who got salaries that I could only dream of, yet they still seemed dissatisfied.

I had found the two hundred grand in a dumpster in Ann Arbor. I’m a firm believer in dumpster diving. The problem most people have with dumpster diving is that they always assume that they are going to find some incredible treasure and when they don’t they start taking home things that are useless. I try to put two hours a week into traveling through other people’s trash and I almost never bring home things that I wouldn’t otherwise buy.

Ann Arbor sucked for dumpster diving until one day I found a ratty old duffel bag that had two hundred thousand dollars in it. I carefully picked it up and calmly walked back to my apartment. I bought every area paper and found no mention of the money. No robberies, no lost financial transfers -- nothing like that. I didn’t tell anyone about the money and quietly finished my tour of duty at debate camp.

I brought the money back to my new house in Fishkill New York. My wife Elena and I talked long into the night talking about the money. She shared with me the fear that no matter how much money one made that one would always want more. We decided to make a place for other people -- something that would be political and artistic. Both of us felt that creating something beautiful was the best use of our money.

So we decided to do it. We wanted a space for all the things we loved. Politics, music, art, debate, and good food. With only a vague idea of what we wanted, we started driving around the back roads of upstate New York looking for a place. South of New Paltz we found a barn that had been converted into a guest house. The owners lived in New York City and were willing to rent the place to us. They even through in our first guest, a golden cat named Geeba.

We filled the fridge with cheap soda and ordered pounds of organic tea & coffee. We got some cases of vegan cookies and good chips. I wanted people to feel comfortable, so we shopped for the most comfortable used furniture we could find. We outfitted the entire place with tables, chairs and couches all set up to make the place comfortable.

I wanted paints, paper, markers, linoleum, carving tools, screenprinting equipment, musical equipment, computers, and lots of people. Two dozen drums (several home-made) some beat up acoustic guitars and a bag filled with kazoos, penny whistles and mouth harps. I got rolls of paper and a closet filled with carving tools and canvasses. Elena bought and set up a television and VCR. We also bought two videocameras and a drawer full of blank tapes.

After a week of hard work, we had set up our dream space. The attic was filled with art supplies and was extremely well lit. The ground floor had a kitchen with a gigantic meeting table. The main room had couches and a coffee nook. The basement was furnished and had a public address system set up for performers.

All that was missing were people to take advantage of the space. I wanted a place where meetings happened and people learned. I contacted Anarchists, greens, animal rights folks, feminists, gays and lesbians, anti prison workers, radical environmentalists and a half a dozen other radical organizations. I explained that the intention of the space was to be a community-oriented place where meetings could happen. I talked to local youth organizations and offered up the space for people to come and be creative. I talked to almost everyone I could find and offered up the place for politics and creativity.

The place was successful.

People loved the space. Disaffected youth wrote poetry in black notebooks on the steps while chain-smoking. Angry women carved anti-totem poles out of scrap lumber and found some level of peace. We began to be graced by the presence of a local Zen Buddhist who we later discovered was the leader of a monastery famed for their organic vegetarian cooking. Soon Zen Buddhists were chopping vegetables next to local punk rockers while preparing for the Sunday afternoon Food Not Bombs.

I was still coaching debate at Marist and slowly finding my two lives terribly divergent. The place was my dream space . . . where I would love to sit down and talk with someone or learn how to play a song or give a spontaneous lecture on Foucault and freedom from the Department of Motor Vehicles. Yet almost every weekend I was driving my debate team to tournaments. My Marist students could tell that my heart was slowly sliding toward the place.

They started sitting around the place. They would do their debate work and have practice debates at the space. The debates started to draw a crowd. At first it was just a novelty, but soon people were really excited to talk about Africa. High school kids were anxious to argue about demining in Ethiopia and Eritira. The feminists had a public forum discussion that drew more than a hundred kids about female genital circumcision.

The debaters left their tubs at the place and like everything else that happened there, people assumed they were communal. Sometimes the debaters would arrive to practice and would have to wait while someone was reading their file on Rwanda. People treated the debate research like a treasure. People would read page after page about Africa . . . ignoring the arcane language that labeled the arguments.

The debaters brought more than their evidence. They also brought a framework for people to work around --Africa. Africa took over the space and in our minds it became a topic of continual discussion . The communal boom box was filled with Afro-centric sounds. The local Hip Hop band was writing and performing a ten-week series of shows about the horn of Africa. Mixing the knowledge about Africa with graceful rhymes and powerful beats. A group of high school students began a group cooking project where we learned how to make African food.

To young men who went to SUNY- New Paltz convinced me to buy a loom for the space. They had studied weaving in high school and were anxious to contribute to the creative norm of the space. When a graduate student from Nigeria showed up who knew African-weaving techniques we all were amazed and lots of people, including myself spent the evenings that would previously have been given to television struggling to weave our own fabrics. .

It got strange, the debaters were cooking African food with the Zen Buddhists (who by this time were providing almost daily organic vegetables to the kitchen and running weekly meditation sessions) and the gutter punks were meeting me for lunch and learning about debate.

A local high school student who was accelerated through high school asked me to take him to a debate tournament. He was attending Ulster County Community College and I figured that if I paid some dues I could take him. So I agreed.

The next logical question came up when two young women who had spent an incredible amount of time learning about Africa wanted to go to a debate tournament. They had read and researched, practiced and debated more than almost anyone in the place. I knew that they would be fantastic debaters, but they were homeless and certainly not college debaters.

I felt torn. I knew that the standards for college students were vital to prevent the game of debate from being destroyed by people who had graduated or students who wanted to debate and never wanted to go to school. But I didn’t think that the spirit of exclusion was intended to exclude my debaters (who in my mind now included homeless people, senior citizens and two Buddhist monks.)

I presented my case at the next eastern ceda business meeting. It was one of my Marist students, a young heavy metal fan who came to the space to play music and paint, who gave me the idea to call the space a college. We had been having almost a dozen classes taught through the space. Local professors, experts, artisans had all offered free classes to an excited group of students. We taught kite-making, Nietzsche, programming computers, and ballroom dancing. This student and I wondered aloud why this space couldn’t be called a college when we did more learning and teaching here than at any of the colleges either of us had ever attended.

I petitioned that the space was a college - admittedly one without certification or any of the trappings of a college and that we should be allowed to pay CEDA dues and participate. To my surpass there was overwhelming support for the idea. We were going to be allowed to debate

So we started to prepare for our first debate tournament as diversity university. We cut cards to the sounds of the dub reggae band who had formed out of two Hare Krsna devotees and some local college students. We did our practice debates in the basement while the class on wild mushroom identification went on upstairs. We cut cards while Earth First! held civil disobedience training in the back yard.

Our practices were WILD! I had slightly more than a dozen folks who wanted to put their egos on the line by bringing what we had at diversity university to a debate tournament. But while I brought the traditional debate method they were constantly challenging me. Their backgrounds were astounding. A sixty year old professor of Anthropology, a high school cheerleader, a clerk at the local health food store, a sculptor and someone known only as Joe the Punk.

They wanted to know why they needed to know the jargon of debate. I argued that it would help them communicate with their opponents & that they acted as a kind of shortcut that let them communicate a lot of information without using a lot of words. My traditional method of teaching debate was awkward. After we got past the order of the speeches they wanted to know why debate was structured the way it is. They argued that the jargon of debate was exclusionary and unnecessary, they wanted to know why policy making was the model for our debates.

So I took the ideas to heart. I sat down one night and thought long and hard about what you really need to debate. Our focus changed. We started to talk about Africa. Our preparation for debates became discussions laden with history. We would talk about the legacy of colonialism and the debaters came to understand the difficulty in implementing policy in Africa.

My mentality of my job as a coach changed. I realized that all of these people could debate long before they showed up on my debate team. Several of them were fantastic spontaneous debaters who had incredible minds that seemed perfectly suited to a debate. I stopped teaching debate the way I had always taught it and started working with the group. If they wanted to argue something was non-unique they would simply explain the idea that something else would cause it. If they wanted to debate a disadvantage, they would explain it in its entirety, often not reading evidence, but referring to knowledge they had in their heads. Links became stories, and impacts became narratives to be avoided.

We were organic, a whole, a collective group of people. Slowly my fears that "my" team would be embarrassed when they showed up disappeared as I saw practice speeches that made me cry and I watched rebuttals that made me want to get up and cheer. Diversity University was a process, not a particular space. And that process made for some incredible debates.

Students were integrating every piece of knowledge that they had crossed. In the middle of a debate about Sudan and famine, one of the negative debaters ran upstairs and got a cookbook filled with Sudanese recipes. The negative team used the cookbook and some cards about the humanitarian aid industry to successfully argue that Sudan’s famine was a fiction that we needed to make westerners feel superior to Africans. While the cards helped the argument, I found myself most persuaded during the cross-examination when negative team forced the affirmative to talk about a number of incredible recipes from Sudan.

The debaters started to talk about the use of images of Africans suffering. A student who had studied some law wanted to be able to introduce exhibits of information into a debate like a courtroom trial. That made a lot of sense to me -- debaters often create a picture with their words in a debate. I wanted them to be able to introduce actual pictures . . . and songs, and poems, and physical artifacts.

This was the turning point where the entire collective became active to help the debate team. They started bringing in artifacts that they thought we could use in our debates. Debate had inspired the groups of activists, artists and students who traveled through the space and now they were paying back that inspiration. Musicians were bringing traditional African music and new examples of Kenyan pop. Painters and sculptors gave lectures on the political implications of Rwandan art.

Other debates had brought art into debate rounds as "special" situations. People introduced pictures or music to help support traditional authoritative evidence. This was a more fully integrated process. Our arguments were actually unfolding around the new pieces of evidence that we were getting. Simply the process of getting ready for these debates meant opening up our minds to what we knew and how we came to know it.

Other changes were happening. Debate coaching wasn’t simply my territory any more. Anyone could and everyone was contributing to the debate team. My sense of authority and responsibility were being replaced with a sense of community. Previous feelings of frustration that I had felt with the debate format were being replaced with a sense of gratification. My teams would be attending a debate tournament and were not going to compromise their beliefs or ideology in an effort to win. Rather the practice that had gotten us to this point were fundamental.

The question was no longer would we be ready for the debate tournament, but would the debate community be ready for us? What would happen when a nineteen year old college student who is amped up to debate their growth disadvantage competes against someone old enough to be their grandfather who wants to talk about African Poetry and the legacy of colonialism? I saw that this was a logical leap and one that made perfect sense. This was the outcome of my use of critical methods reflecting on my own life. This new debate team and new focus on alternative kinds of evidence made perfect sense to me at this point. But would it be too much of a leap for other members of the debate community?

Despite my trepidation that we would upset members of the community, many of whom were close friends of mine, I wondered if this wasn’t our duty to disrupt. Patterns of thinking remain remarkably stable absent a challenge. And that challenge has to be weighted by some interest in order to get people not to dismiss you. Would competition and the personal friendship with me be enough to get people to listen to our arguments? I believed that most judges would open up their minds to new pathways of proof, but would they see it as a gimmick or as the start of a revolution?

Did we want a revolution? There is something reassuring about debate in its current format. Once you have figured out the basics and laid a foundation of debate knowledge then you can glide on that knowledge. Debaters can easily transfer arguments from one topic to the next. Strategies become calcified and normalized as they succeed because they are popular and become popular because they succeed. Judges know what to look for in winning debate teams (and losing debate teams) and debaters know the basic expectations. Would our arguments and presentation disrupt things so far that people wouldn’t respond? And would the strategic desire (winning) become consumed by debaters and coaches who would quickly be sketching art pieces before debate rounds?

These questions and a dozen more rolled around my head as we came up on the last night before our first debate tournament. I felt prepared and ready to debate almost anything. More than that I felt comfortable and centered -- something I had never felt in my history with debate. I felt confident in this debate team to do what no other debate team had ever done.

After stretching and meditating we talked about some possible negative strategies. Some did some mini-practice debates while others fine-tuned their evidence. Amid the electricity, I gathered the debaters and we talked about what we had already achieved and where we were going. This is what I said at the end of that conversation.

"I am very proud of each and every one of you. You have chosen to travel this path of critical thinking. One that many would shirk away from because what we ask is too much for many of us. We challenge the foundations of the way that we learn. Learning here has been cooperative, non-hierarchical and more exciting than anything else I have ever done. We have let our own natural impulses of knowledge bubble together to create a rushing stream. Our vision will sound a clarion call for traditional debate. Explore who you are, where you are, and don’t delay."



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