Sunday, June 6, 2010

Where are you, Steve Anderson? Part Two

After a two-year hiatus from academe, I went back to school. At Texas. It was a trial by fire. At Texas, I was not in any way associated with the debate team—well, mostly. Because debate imagines itself to be a domain of rhetoric, I was surrounded with former debaters and debate coaches. Three (no, wait, four—see, it all gets ephemeral after undergrad) of my best friends at school did debate in both their undergrad and MA programs. One of these friends was an assistant coach for UT. He did not stay in debate—in fact, when we were all looking for jobs that last year (Harried! Frightened! Doubtful! Considering positions as a Wal-Mart greeter!), they (my best friends were married) made a conscious decision to avoid any debate-related post PhD jobs. It sucks your life away. It takes all of you that you are willing to give and more, and I think they were done with it.

I can honestly say that my years at Texas were the years in which I was most far removed from debate. The insular community of it, the permeability of its boundaries, the lawyers. We were too busy at Texas—too busy keeping our heads above the water and our hands inside the vehicle—to concern ourselves with debate drama and searches for Steve Anderson.

The year of my job search was a bumpy one—so was the year leading up to it. Grad school, as much as it reminded me of myself again, took my ability to lavish attention on others away. So. My marriage dissolved. Old friends were put aside. Even my family was placed at arm’s length for a while. I had always been the golden child, you see. The intelligent and charming winner—the thing is, at Texas, we all were. I stopped effortlessly achieving things, and I had to work. Like, really hard. Because of all the hard work, and the number of excellent colleagues, and the busyness of my professors, I learned some important things:

1) You have to own your scholarship (Thanks, E! and Jenn and Kevin and Jay for helping me with this one). Nobody else will notice how awesome you are just accidentally.

2) Along the same lines as #1: Demand the necessary attention from your advisor(s). (Thanks to Angie for this one.)

3) Require that your friends/colleagues work on the communal environment as hard as you do. (Here's to the New Old Boys' Network.)

4) Take a fucking break once in a while. Caps Tuesdays aren’t just for fun anymore—they’re for sanity. (Jonah, you are dear.)

5) Hobbit Day makes everything better. (Mmmm, Californians.)

6) Teaching is a craft that can be taught and learned.

While the first one was the hardest lesson for me to learn, the final one was the lesson that lead to the most change in my life. I have always been a good writer, and in all of my schooling, my writing gets better. It was (WAS!) a fluid, divine thing. Teaching, on the other hand, was not. I got some terrible reviews. I was not so good to my poor students. I thought that excellent teachers, like dear Steve Anderson, were born that way—that teaching was like a gift, an aura, a cosmic “turn.” But at Texas, I learned that I could be—I had to be—a better teacher.

As much as the world of the academy frowns on teaching (and it does, believe me), it is the corner of that world. I will not get tenure because I am a superb teacher. But I do still get emails from former students telling me how they realize now the importance of structure in a speech, or how they notice the significance of imagery in a movie, or how they miss the silly mysteries we used to chat about during the semester. And they still send me examples—of metaphors and similes, of prosopopoeia and litotes—which make me smile.

And so it goes. My long, tangential, and teeth-jarring romance with debate goes on. After the Fire and Ice of Texas, I got a job. And here, I am an Assistant Director of Debate. This last year, we traveled quite a bit. The debaters, like all the debaters I’ve known before, are fast and funny. Serious and competitive. But, now that I am in the middle of things, I am beginning to formulate some reasons why I always remained on the sidelines before. I used to think that it was timing. Or distraction. Or coincidence. Recently, however, at the US Worlds Nationals in Denver, I judged a round that bothered me (out loud) in a way that had always been sort of quietly annoying… like a nibbling at the corners of the page had finally started chewing out some words I really needed to see. Endings and Forms. Again.

The round went well, mostly. The opening table of Opposition kind of screwed the pooch, but the Second Table rocked it. Or, so I thought. The resolution was about professional jurors: This House would replace citizen jurors with professional jurors. And the two government tables did exactly what they should have done. They followed the Form exquisitely. And we, the five judges, ended up voting for a Government win. I do not think we chose incorrectly. I think the Form was followed. But I wondered then, and I wonder now: If all I do is Follow the Form, then what, exactly, am I doing? What am I teaching these people? In a debate about expertise and discipline, it nauseates me to think that we voted for the impossibility of inclusion. We, literally, performed exactly what the Second Table presented as a problem. The Whip Speaker (who speaks last) asked the room to look at itself—this room full of debaters from similar backgrounds and with similar outlooks on the world—and consider the possibility that maybe a more varied room, a more varied audience, would provide a different verdict. And we did look at ourselves. And then we voted for the Form. Goddammit.

Where are you, Steve Anderson? I miss you. And I could use a little help right now.

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