Sunday, May 23, 2010

Where are you, Steve Anderson? Part One

Forms and endings are problematic. Endings and forms. Unlike Frank Lloyd Wright, to whom I am not related—just btw—, I only recently realized that I have been drunk on forms since I was little, and that it has not been as pleasant as, say, white-wine-summer-beaches-after-sun drunk. My theory, as some of you may know, is that people study what puzzles them—it makes, I think, for a life of interest and intrigue. If we studied things that were already familiar to us, or clear, or close, then we would lose the thread. Not because it’s so hard to see, but because that shit is super hard to keep hold of. Like a psychotic horse running into a burning barn.

Lately, that’s what writing feels like. Writing and reading and thinking are hard. I know, to many of you, they may look like nothing at all—as Rebecca Solnit writes in her gorgeous history of walking, thinking (unlike many other sorts of vocations) looks a whole lot like doing nothing much at all. Writing and reading, of course, can be seen as productive activities—and, in the last few months, I’ve realized that writing is less pleasurable and divine than I remember it. Still, that is not the subject of this essay. This essay is about endings, forms, and the words of the debater’s world.

There was not a debate team in my high school, but
I have always been tangentially linked to debate. If there had been, I have the feeling my life would look similar to the life I lead now; I just might have gotten here a bit faster. Everything is faster in debate. I was always meant to be a professor of rhetoric, though. And if not, then who cares? I tell myself the story of inevitability and that makes it so. So, anyway, there was no debate team at my high school, but there was one at my alma mater, the University of Alabama. I discovered them, as I came to discover rhetoric, in a roundabout, social sort of way. I met the professor of my dreams (Steven K. Anderson) and through him, met several of the debaters and coaches/assistant coaches. They talked fast and earnestly. They seemed to feel the words in the way that I did (emphasis on the word “seemed.” More on that later). So they seemed to feel words—seeing them floating through the air, picking the ones that felt right in the mouth, recognizing the dangers of incorrectness as well as the hazards of absolute certainty. I loved them, wanted to be like them, the words and the debaters.

I did not join the debate team, but I work to stay near them. Helped with judging, smoked on the veranda, hung out in bars, adopted stray kitties they found. Eventually, I even took a class (with Steve) dedicated to debate. We competed in one or two competitions outside of class—where we got our asses handed to us. In class, however, we did a round robin tournament, and Steve referred to me and my teammate as the Juggernaut. We could Not be defeated.

So, there was public debate—the two top teams from the class matched in front of some local media, a few classmates, some family members, and the judges. The audience is important to this story—as it always is—pay attention to the audience. You know, I cannot remember what the topic was—but I do remember that we lost because I dropped a turn. For those of you unfamiliar with policy debate terms, just know that a “turn” involves the opposing team using your own information against you. You must address it directly, in accordance with the form of the debate, or you lose automatically. Here is an ending and a form. The public audience, untrained in the rules of debate, awarded the win to my Juggernaut. The judges, however, familiar with form (and endings), declared the opposing team victorious. I was upset, but not devastated—because I like audiences, dear reader, and I can always get them to sit beside me. It is my thing that I do. I am not, however, so comfortable with form.

The next tangential relation to debate happens in my MA program. Our grad offices were right next to the debate offices. The debate coach, Ross Smith (RIP) and the debate director, Allan Louden (yummy yummy man) were so kind and inviting. The debate team became a home for many of the displaced first year grad students. My best friend was a recovering debater—as were two of my grad school crushes. Wait, three. I am a sucker for a fast talker. I was not officially associated with the debate team, per se—but I drove the vans to and from the airport, helped judge some high school tournaments, sat up late with debaters who were always already cutting cards, went to parties, drank gin out of coffee mugs with coaches from near and far. My MA program was an exercise in endurance. The debate team, in its inimitable fashion, helped me and harmed me equally.

I tell my students to be wary of moral philosophers—because, if my theory holds true, and we study that which puzzles us, then what should we do with someone who is intrigued by the mystery of moral philosophies? I have begun to think, though, that we should be wary of gifted speakers, as well. Much like the mystery of thinking, the magic of spoken conviction—when it works—is just as scary. These debaters, lawyers and advocates in training, changed the way I saw the academic world. I had assumed that ethics and teaching go hand in hand. But that is not the case. Don’t laugh. I know it sounds ridiculous now. Still, I came to this profession with misty, romantic eyes. The debaters at my MA program (as well as in undergrad) removed those scaly covers from my eyes. With the assistance of some well-timed professorial strangenesses—and some truths-of-life-in-close-quarters-with-people-who-think-they-are-very-smart—the endings and forms of collegia in general became distasteful.

So. I quit. I worked at a bookstore. I got married. I worked at a crappy insurance cubicle farm. But... the words were calling. The form, seductive and inevitable, was creeping round the edges. I was lured back. In the next installment, you’ll hear about the non-debateness (almost) of my PhD years—and the total immersion after graduation. Endings, forms, debate—we write these rules, you see, to make it seem like we can play them well. Seeming is big. It always was.