Using Podcasts To Become A Better Debater

Debaters in the current generation have access to a staggering array of information. As preparation begins for next year’s surveillance topic, one underexploited resource available to debaters is the podcast. Because domestic surveillance has been part of the national conversation for several years, there are many useful podcast episodes dedicated to topics that students will be debating next fall. This article will offer suggestions for how to use podcasts as part of a student’s debate preparation. It will also provide an introductory list of links to helpful episodes about the surveillance topic.

How To Use Podcasts To Prepare For Debates

It is assumed that readers are familiar with the concept of podcasting; in recent years, its popularity has skyrocketed. A voice-based medium grounded in the storytelling tradition, podcasts provide listeners with interesting content in an accessible format that can be consumed on-demand. Because they offer information without tethering listeners to the screen, Jonah Weiner of Rolling Stone has described podcasts as “the Internet freed from pixels.” This aspect of podcasts should be especially appealing to debaters because it provides a respite from the screen-based research that dominates debate preparation. The following are two suggestions for how podcasts should be incorporated into debate preparation.

1. Enhance Content Knowledge.

While podcasts are rarely useful as evidence, they are very useful for learning background knowledge, introducing listeners to controversies and experts, and building the foundation for future (text-based) research. Because they present information in audio form instead of as text, podcasts can help students process information differently (and more deeply) than they are accustomed to doing with written articles and books. When one’s focus is on producing evidence, the reading process shifts from deep and thoughtful reflection to targeted scanning and snap-judgments about argumentative utility. While this can be an efficient way to produce evidence, it is not an effective way to learn new material and master new content areas. Early in the preparation process for a new topic, students should focus on building the foundation for later research so that the factory-line approach to targeted evidence production is well-informed and properly calibrated.

Queuing up a few podcast episodes related to surveillance and listening to them during a commute or while working out is certainly helpful. But to really process and retain the information being shared, it is important to take useful notes. Because note-taking is “the most important step of the student academic process,” there are a lot of resources dedicated to helping students take better notes. To get the most out of a podcast’s content, students should dedicate a chunk of uninterrupted time and carefully listen and take notes on an episode. Take organized notes on the content of the discussion; be sure to include names of authors and books/articles (to facilitate future research) and do your best to map the relevant controversies (because they will shape affirmative and negative ground and guide research priorities). Be attentive not just to what is said but how it is said. One of the best ways to think about topic-relevant podcasts is as an opportunity for debaters to eavesdrop on a conversation between field experts. This gives students the chance to learn proper pronunciations, catalog and absorb jargon, generate effective cross-examination strategies using tough questions from experts, and begin to formulate the kinds of informed opinions that underlie persuasive final rebuttals. The best debaters sound like the content experts they are quoting (whether that content is ocean exploration or radical anti-capitalism). What better way to emulate content experts than to listen to their discussions?

Through this process, students will also be honing their note-taking skills — something that will be rewarded in academic classes, not just debate. As you do this, consider taking notes on paper. While opinions remain divergent, there is scientific evidence that taking notes by hand is a superior method. One good strategy is to maintain a debate notebook that houses all debate-related notes (podcasts, books and articles, lectures, research-related, etc.). If digital availability is important, consider typing and re-organizing paper notes; this provides another layer of processing that can aid memory. With a repository of notes in place, students will have access to a valuable resource throughout the season. As the topic evolves and new arguments emerge, revisiting these early notes might provide useful reminders of authors to revisit or topics to explore.

2. Practice Flowing (and Listening).

The process of note-taking — if done by hand — is an excellent training regiment for debaters aiming to improve their flowing. Even everyday in-class note-taking can be re-framed by committed debaters as flowing practice. But to maximize the value of podcast listening as flowing training, students should utilize variable playback speeds. The process of listening to faster-than-normal speaking trains the brain to process information faster and more deeply while honing the listener’s ability to focus and overcome distractions. This is an exceptional training technique for debaters because it develops the skills necessary to participate in complicated, high-speed debates without being distracted and overwhelmed.

Almost all modern podcast playback programs provide listeners with the ability to accelerate playback speeds (to one-and-a-half, two, or even three times the regular speed): iPod/iPhone (via the Podcasts app), iTunes, Android (via the XSpeedPlayer app), Stitcher, etc. This technique can also be used on YouTube videos; it has a built-in speed adjuster. The advertised rates vary between applications (what is 2x in one program might really be 1.5x, for example), but a little trial-and-error can customize the playback speed for optimal practice.

In general, students should start by amping up the speed to the next available setting. After practicing at that level for a few episodes, the speed can then be ratcheted up even more until the audio becomes incomprehensible. The upper limit of comprehensibility will vary from podcast to podcast; episodes produced in higher quality and with top-tier recording technology can be played extremely fast before they degrade in quality. As speeds are increased, voices tend to sound like chipmunks. To cut down on this effect, various programs have pitch alteration algorithms built into their speed boosters; one of the best is Overcast, an iPhone/iPod app that also offers a “Voice Boost” feature that greatly aids in comprehensibility.

By training oneself to process (and take notes on) audio content at faster-than-normal speeds, debaters will be prepared for the intellectual rigor of high-speed debates. For debaters, the ability to deeply focus is one of the most important skills to develop because it improves one’s ability to rigorously prepare for debates while balancing other life demands and because it contributes to optimal performance in high-stress contest round situations. Debaters that struggle tend not to be doing enough deep work, opting instead for shallow work that feels busy but reaps minimal rewards.

When discussing what it takes to be an excellent novelist in his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami emphasized the importance of focus and endurance:

In every interview I’m asked what’s the most important quality a novelist has to have. It’s pretty obvious: talent. No matter how much enthusiasm and effort you put into writing, if you totally lack literary talent you can forget about being a novelist. This is more of a prerequisite than a necessary quality. If you don’t have any fuel, even the best car won’t run.

The problem with talent, though, is that in most cases the person involved can’t control its amount or quality. You might find the amount isn’t enough and you want to increase it, or you might try to be frugal to make it last longer, but in neither case do things work out that easily. Talent has a mind of its own and wells up when it wants to, and once it dries up, that’s it. Of course certain poets and rock singers whose genius went out in a blaze of glory—people like Schubert and Mozart, whose dramatic early deaths turned them into legends—have a certain appeal, but for the vast majority of us this isn’t the model we follow.

If I’m asked what the next most important quality is for a novelist, that’s easy too: focus—the ability to concentrate all your limited talents on whatever’s critical at the moment. Without that you can’t accomplish anything of value, while, if you can focus effectively, you’ll be able to compensate for an erratic talent or even a shortage of it. I generally concentrate on work for three or four hours every morning. I sit at my desk and focus totally on what I’m writing. I don’t see anything else, I don’t think about anything else. Even a novelist who has a lot of talent and a mind full of great new ideas probably can’t write a thing if, for instance, he’s suffering a lot of pain from a cavity. The pain blocks concentration. That’s what I mean when I say that without focus you can’t accomplish anything.

After focus, the next most important thing for a novelist is, hands down, endurance. If you concentrate on writing three or four hours a day and feel tired after a week of this, you’re not going to be able to write a long work. What’s needed for a writer of fiction—at least one who hopes to write a novel—is the energy to focus every day for half a year, or a year, two years. You can compare it to breathing. If concentration is the process of just holding your breath, endurance is the art of slowly, quietly breathing at the same time you’re storing air in your lungs. Unless you can find a balance between both, it’ll be difficult to write novels professionally over a long time. Continuing to breathe while you hold your breath.

Fortunately, these two disciplines—focus and endurance—are different from talent, since they can be acquired and sharpened through training. You’ll naturally learn both concentration and endurance when you sit down every day at your desk and train yourself to focus on one point. This is a lot like the training of muscles I wrote of a moment ago. You have to continually transmit the object of your focus to your entire body, and make sure it thoroughly assimilates the information necessary for you to write every single day and concentrate on the work at hand. And gradually you’ll expand the limits of what you’re able to do. Almost imperceptibly you’ll make the bar rise. This involves the same process as jogging every day to strengthen your muscles and develop a runner’s physique. Add a stimulus and keep it up. And repeat. Patience is a must in this process, but I guarantee the results will come.

These same attributes—focus and endurance—are crucial to one’s success as a debater. Talent is obviously important, but it needs to be nurtured and cultivated. Becoming a faster thinker capable of more intense concentration is a goal all debaters should set for themselves and work hard to attain. Listening to and taking notes on podcasts at faster-than-normal speeds challenges students to concentrate more deeply, process information more quickly, efficiently analyze and record essential points, and stay focused for long periods of time while being bombarded with audio content — all skills that are essential to successful debating.

Podcast Episodes Relevant To The Surveillance Topic

The following list is only a small sampling of surveillance-related podcasts. Lawfare is one of the most useful recurring surveillance-themed podcasts; it publishes new episodes frequently.

Know of another surveillance-related podcast or podcast episode to recommend? Please share it in the comments.