Exploring the Literacy Practices of High School Debaters

My personal literacy development has not always been easy. In grade school I struggled with dyslexia. Additionally my family moved several times and new school districts were teaching reading and writing using different methods. These difficulties have made grade school not nearly as central to my literacy development as most students. My high school career was much more influential in creating my literacy practices. More specifically my experience as a member of my high school debate team really influenced the literacy practices I use today.

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My high school debate team placed me in a literacy community unlike most high school students experience there I was taught more sophisticated literacy skills, enhanced discourse, social confidence and empowerment of ideas. As in every field debaters have their own terminology that helps to initiate members into the community. Knowing and manipulating the terminology made competitors very successful in and out of rounds. Many of the terms are also used in other sophisticated academic environments. Thus successful use of this terminology by high school student was regarded very highly by professionals and higher education recruiters.

Common terms include: rhetoric paradigm inherency discourse workability stock issues A priori empirically status quo threshold brink counter intuitive topicality impacts A priori affirmative comparative advantage workability solvency hegemonic resolution rebuttal mutually exclusive On face value these words seem fairly common; however they are not common in an average high school student’s vocabulary. These “buzz” words were essential for the communication style expected in debate rounds but a few strategically placed words often dazzled most high school teachers.

Additionally use of these terms also leads to a highly stylized and sophisticated organization pattern for argumentation. Primarily, focused on stock issues debaters used this format to write “cases” or policy briefs. The stock issues include significance, harms, inherency, topicality, and solvency. Commonly and crudely, the debate community refers to these issues using the acronym S. H. I. T. S. In designing a case all five elements need to be present. Frequently high school debaters refer to a chair analogy. The idea being if one of the legs is missing the chair falls.

Using these five elements creates a very sophisticated argumentation style not typically used by the average person. The goal is to leave little room for doubt. The debater tells the audience how it fits into the topic area (topicality), why this policy is important (significance and harms), why now is the time to act, why the problem is not being addressed (inherency/ inherent barrier) and why your plan solves for the harms (solvency). This format used to affirm the resolution sets the affirmative team in a position to preempt most if not all negative counter positions.

On the surface this seems rather simplistic in orientation and structure. However, it is relatively underdeveloped literacy practice. This format could be used to strengthen almost any proposal, paper or argument. Unfortunately, most people seem to be unaware of this format and in the presence of this format can be rather intimidated. This feeling of intimidation will be addressed later. Equally, sophisticated in structure is the negative team’s response. Normally the argumentation is formed, though not limited to, in disadvantages.

The structure of a disadvantage is casual link, brink, threshold, and impacts. The link connects the negative disadvantage to the affirmative proposal, the brink tells the audience why the disadvantage has not occurred in the status quo, and the impacts are actual disadvantages that occur when if the affirmative proposal in accepted. The negative team hopes that these disadvantages out weigh the advantages offered by the affirmative team. A common insider joke is a debater can link any event to nuclear war. Once again this structure is fairly simplistic, however, rarely used.

Often times the discourse most people use is “if x’ happens y’ happens”. They give no consideration to the internal logic of why “x” causes “y” to happen or why “y” happening is bad. This format explains that internal logic and makes it very difficult to counter. Other negative arguments can simply point out flaws in the internal logic of the affirmative; propose counter-plans that don’t “bite” the disadvantages, or are theory based critiques (spelled kritique or kritik) that argue that the fundamental assumptions made by the affirmative are flawed.

This last argument is more frequently seen in college debate because the logic and argumentation are much more complex and difficult to master. However, many high school debaters begin to experiment with this form of argumentation and as a result are reading philosophers that senior and graduate level college students are attempting. These forms of argumentation are linear, concise, specific and if done correctly are flawless. This style is greatly differentiated by general models of argumentation used by most people.

Often times people out side of the debate circuit don’t organize their arguments and tend to just laundry list their complaints. They don’t examine internal connections in their logic so often times their logic tends to be circular. Also, they habitually are emotionally based rather than based in evidence in argumentation. As a result high school debate format is a very different form of argumentation and thus a different form of literacy. Further evidence of this is found in debaters’ ability to intimidate teachers, family, friends and novice debaters.

A good senior level debater has more than likely made a novice debater cry in frustration. A senior level debater has more than likely cried when they were a novice debater. In my home, my mother commonly told me to “Stop “debating” with her. ” A good high school debater would never say to their parent that they should be allowed to do something because “all their friends were going. ” They would site all the things they have been allowed to do with out violating the parents trust, the value of social interaction with peers, the advantages to going, etc…

Commonly debaters are friends with or in romantic relationships with other debaters because debaters would take advantage of or manipulate non-debaters. Buzz words and other little tricks can impress teachers even when substance in debater’s school work is lacking (often time because of the demands of debate or debaters feel the assignment is not challenging). Debaters are most irritated by “lay” judges or judges with no debate experience. They believe them to be inferior and not capable of fairly evaluating the debate. These situations suggest difference in literacy practices of high school debaters.

Debaters use common literacy practices reading, writing and speech but in a highly specific manner. To keep up with the enormous research burdens of preparation for in round activities, debaters are very avid and discriminating readers. Each year debaters compile research for the given topic that would rival any PHD candidate’s dissertation research. My senior year I had 4 Rubbermaid tubs of evidence about renewable energy. Reading and preparing briefs are not nearly as important as learning to be a discrimination reader.

Authors used in debate rounds have natural biases that debaters must be prepared to defend as well as able to identify in a relatively short time period. Evidence can be manipulated fairly easily to say the desired argument and quickly being able to identify miss uses of evidence, communicate why your authors are better, and spot authors biases are essential skills to the debate community. However this transfers to other literacy activities and enhances debaters’ ability to discriminate between texts, find texts, use texts, and critically analyze problems to promote valuable and meaningful writing.

Limited time constraints in debate rounds have necessitate different writing forms in rounds and in debate preparation. Each piece of evidence is not only critically read but also synthesized in one to two sentence tag lines and then organized in the formats previously mentioned. This synthesis process and organization into concise formats can make debaters writing to be very clear and despite sophisticated arguments are very easy to understand. In rounds debaters essentially transcript the speeches in what they call “flowing. ” A good flow is one of the most difficult skills to master.

You have to train yourself to listen for specific information. A debater writes a shorthand version of the tagline, name of the author and date. Then the debater writes their response next too their opponents argument and finds the appropriate evidence. In other formats this skill is very useful in note taking outside the debate round, increases debaters’ ability to recall what they hear, and multi-task. Debaters also use a number of “tricks” to intimidate people in speech. First, they talk very fast. They are taught to breath around short words in sentences like a, and, the, to, etc.

In round speech is some times impossible for outsiders to understand yet alone process into a larger argument. Quickly, debaters learn that outside the debate round, talking quickly can be very convincing and intimidating even if they really have no idea what they are talking about. Talking quickly makes it more difficult for your audience to process what you are saying and hence you can cover flaws with speed. Another trick debater’s use is name dropping. In a debate round time constraints mean debaters give short answers to their opponent’s arguments.

A common phase would be “Cross apply the Krugman solvency evidence to their sub point C. It completely shows solvency outweighs the impacts. ” To an experience person you may assume the Krugman evidence mitigates the impacts whether it does or not simply because the debater dropped a name. An inexperience debater with an incomplete flow does not know what the Krugman evidence was debate the point. Outside the debate round when evidence is not at ones fingertips, when a debater drops a name like Foucault, the average person accepts it as fact. Thus they are able to impress and intimidate most people.

Finally, these literacy practices culminate in a debate round when all these skills come together in this perfect moment of empowerment and clarity. At that moment the debater realizes the enormous potential of the skills they have learned and power they have to influence other people. Members of the National Forensic league have included people ranging of Oprah to President Clinton. I believe this sense of power is unique to debate students. Commonly the culmination of literacy practices in other educational forms is merely a grade or job well done.

The competitive nature of debate makes each debater accountable for their own success. Debaters desire to be respected and accepted in the debate community this motivates debaters to master these literacy skills. Additionally successes come with rewards in the forms of invitations to prestigious tournaments, national rankings, and scholarship offers. This personal responsibility for the acquiring of literacy skills makes the debate literacy skills more rewarding. Clearly, debaters experience that this communication style distinguishes them from the outside world.

On one level these literacy practices create a sense of power; however, on another level they can alienate debaters from others. A number of physical and psychological circumstances add to this alienation. A successful debate team travels more than any other student organization on campus. Which means while average high school students are enjoying Friday night football games, school dances and “hanging” out at the mall on the weekends, debaters are competing in this truly grueling academic endeavor. Socially, debaters are not interacting with the majority of their high school peers.

Often this results in a lack of acceptance in high school and further entrenches the debater into the debate community as a place of acceptance. Debaters have hard time interacting in the classroom because they are more aggressive and assertive in their opinions. This alienates classmates who feel they are being “talked down to. ” Teachers often find debaters to be arrogant and disruptive because the debater knows more about a topic or tries to push the class to explore a topic on a deeper level than the teacher desires. As a result debate becomes these students only outlet for creativity and practicing these literacy skills.

Social interaction at school is limited to fellow debate team members and at tournaments. If you choose to believe a more expansive definition of literacy, tournaments mean acquiring social literacy skills unlike most high students’ experience. Concretely debaters must read and interpret pairings and navigate new campuses. Less concretely these tournaments look like an academic conference or business conference. High school students are expected to learn skills like dressing in business attire, appropriate audience response, traveling savvy, dining etiquette, time management, multi-tasking and organization.

High school debate students lifestyle is more closely related too a traveling business person than a high school student. Conversation among debaters is seen more as professional or as colleagues rather than peers. They are expected to network and to share evidence and information to other teams. However, debaters are always conflicted between natural responses of their age and the expectation of the discipline. As a result debate romances are frequent and necessary for some to find intellectual equals. Debaters also can experience alienation from family.

Parents don’t understand the physical and emotional commitments their students make to debate. Nor are the able to understand the changes that literacy patterns create in communicating with their students and mental development that takes place. In truth it difficult to understand the feeling and clarity that comes to a debater when they are able to see themselves and their argumentation as part of a community, unless, you yourself have experienced it. The moment when the debater truly understands the devices I have outlined and how they all come together to create meaning is something that is indescribable.

However, once a debater has experienced this profound moment they are changed forever and their friends, family, and teachers can not comprehend the changes. Aside form the feeling of alienation created by these literacy skills. These literacy skills are not perfect. They focus on a broader sense of style and argumentation and less focus on technical and grammatical development. Largely because debate is a speech activity the culmination of these literacy skills is not in writing but in speech. As a result debaters often write as they speak.

This ignores some of the conventions of written English and despite sophisticated logic, reason and thinking of debaters writing the big ideas are lost in errors. However, these skills taught to debaters have inherent value. First debate creates an outlet where student discourse is encouraged and students are allowed to explore ideas as equals. They are not being taught or told their teachers ideas. They are allowed manipulate and experiment with academic texts in a group of other students. They can see their efforts as something more than a grade and that their opinions are part of global voice.

The result is creativity and innovation that is stifled in other academic settings because of the power relationship between teacher and students. In the debate community the debater gets to become the expert and earn respect and power from a community of other students. Second, the literacy skills in terms of reading, writing and social skills do help students get a head. The “tricks” of the trade from dressing for success to name dropping facilitate networking that world’s most successful people have used to get ahead. Teaching these skills in high school prepares students for future careers.

They learn these lessons in a microcosm of a professional environment instead of trying to decipher them later in their professional careers. Debate was the most influential discipline in developing my literacy practices and skills. It taught me how to critically analyze the world around me, how to communicate complex ideas, and how to get a head. Despite some of the drawbacks like missing my high school prom to compete at a state tournament and knock out fights I had with my mom, I have found that acquiring these skills have been well worth the sacrifices.

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