UTNIF Blog: Revisiting the Rowland-Ulrich Debate

Sean Tiffee—a Ph.D. candidate in Rhetoric and Language Studies and an Assistant Debate Coach at the University of Texas—has written an interesting post on the UTNIF blog about the role of argumentation in debate.

I made the decision to make my blog post about argumentation for two seemingly contradictory reasons. First, debate evolves at a pace that is simply staggering. The ninth grade debaters of today will be the ones shaping our activity in under a decade. As we all know, debate is a time intensive and life encompassing activity. While there are certainly coaches who have committed their lives to the activity, more and more seem to hit their early to mid 30s and decide they don’t want to lose every weekend for a minimal stipend, which leaves the activity in the hands of 20-somethings. A large-scale commitment of high school debaters to focus on argumentation today means that high school and college debate looks a whole lot different in less than 10 years. Second, as fast as our activity can change, we attempt to innovate among calcified thought. Some of these debates have already been had, they say, and there’s no point in going over them again. I disagree. While some of these debates have been had, it can be a good idea to revisit them with fresh eyes and the benefit of hindsight. In particular, I’d like to revisit a portion of a debate that took place in the Fall 1984 edition of The Journal of the American Forensic Association between Robert Rowland and Walter Ulrich. I know this is old school, but hear me out. Further, in the interest of full disclosure, I intend to cherry pick from these articles in an effort to initiate discussion and encourage you to seek out and read these relatively short articles yourself.

While I do not have the JAFA Rowland and Ulrich articles in my collection, I can share a few related articles that might be of interest to readers:

If anyone has access to the fall 1984 issue of JAFA, please let me know.

4 thoughts on “UTNIF Blog: Revisiting the Rowland-Ulrich Debate

  1. maximiliantiger

    I completely agree with Tiffee, tabula rasa has gone too far. I remember when Tabula rasa was proposed (this may be in the 1984 JAFA, I read it in Advanced Debate so I forget if that's the right source) the author explicitly warned against the "blank slate" and just wanted impartiality–basically, a situation where a judge wouldn't "reject Lacan because they disagreed with psychoanalysis personally" but would still "intervene" in reaching a conclusion.

    I find the search for tabula rasa impossible, given that judges have to assume some framework to begin (that they'll be a logical decision maker, such that if a disad outweighs the case they would vote neg) but also because intervention present in calling for cards, weighing warrants, etc. If the goal of debate is education, for the reasons laid out by Tiffee and others, pure tabula rasa isn't getting us there.

    I have access to the JAFA articles at the WKU library. I'll try to stop by there today if someone else hasn't gotten you a copy of the articles.

  2. David Mullins

    I feel like if you can't answer the hollow earth argument you should probably lose. The problem with arguments like this one against tabula rasa is that they all beg the question. If the d/a is bad and the PIC has bad solvency evidence and offense/defense is an irrational decision-making framework that sounds like a 2ar to me. It doesn't sound like something the judge should just assume in their decision. Tiffee says he wants debaters to be able to recognize bad arguments and improve on them – I think then the most logical thing to do is to let them do just that. Putting the responsibility on the debaters is pedagogically valuable because it forces them to work to control the frames and standards of the debate. I can't think of anything more important to argumentation.

    The alternative to tabula rasa is indeed worse, because the team reading the argument the judge has decided not to suspend their disbelief on has to answer arguments that exist inside the judge's head, not in the round. How does one know they are reading an intellectually dubious argument? Sure we can all agree consult is dumb (can we?) and that a-spec is dumb (can we?) but the vast majority of debate arguments (the politics d/a, the cap K, the word PIC) have supporters and detractors, people who think they make some sense and people who think they're rubbish.

    Judge philosophies already look a little too much like shopping lists – we shouldn't force debaters to guess what arguments the judge thinks are bad and predict for intervention.

    If you want good argumentation, you need a predictable point of statis, and allowing the judge to insert their own beliefs about what is "good" and "bad" argumentation and "good" and "bad" reasons makes decisions unpredictable and argumentation less good.

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