By Eric Short
I’m leaving debate. There, I said it. While ripping off the band-aid makes the process easier, as an introduction, the sting lingers in its awkwardness. All the better, then, that this is goodbye. I know you don’t believe me; I’ve left before and since returned, the proverbial prodigal son of debate. I hope you can forgive me, as I have this habit of returning to the activity I started nearly 25 years ago. But I am leaving debate, and before I embark on the journey (again), I want to muse about my time in debate, and what better place than Debate Musings! However, instead of curating this site as a museum with ramblings about policy debate (Lincolns words, not mine), I want to take seriously the possibility of muse until you are so utterly unamused with my wordplay that you curse my name to all nine Muses. In that vein, this reflection won’t correspond to success or failure, friend or foe. These are not even my favorite moments from debate. Rather, they represent my (messy and out of order) attempt to make sense of my debating musings and why I am leaving.
Four years ago, when I began coaching at Niles West, Val McIntosh, Brad Meloche and I started the Olive Garden Trio. There is no story here, this is the amuse bouche, a little food served before the meal to stimulate the appetite. Bon Appetit!
The year prior, Maddie Langr and Erica Duff (Wake DL) were mooing at tournaments. Yes, moo, like the cow. I still have no idea how or why this originated, but the moos would echo down the halls of every tournament, and soon I mooed back. I have embraced that mood ever since, even though I’m still uncertain of it’s meaning.
After my senior year of high school (a lady never reveals her age), I thought I had left debate forever. I graduated and left for college to study engineering. My last high school debate was against a team from Montgomery Bell Academy at NFL Nationals (The TOC of South Dakota debate). We got absolutely wrecked in that debate, and MBA went on to lose to Glenbrook North in the finals. “At least we lost to a great team,” I thought at the time. A few months later I opened The Rostrum (required reading for debaters in South Dakota) to an article titled “The Scars of Winning,” written by one of the GBN debaters, Dan Shalmon. “At least we didn’t have to lose to him,” I thought after I googled his name + results. A legend.
Engineering lasted for about a semester. I was homesick, not for my family, but for debate, so I left South Dakota and transferred to the University of Northern Iowa, where the website said “we welcome novice debaters.” I (wrongly) assumed my lack of national circuit experience in high school qualified me to the novice division. Cate Palczewski, my college debate coach and muse in her own right, had other plans. UNI hosted the college season opener (yes, GSU has not always been the first travel weekend), and she told me to go watch Berkeley LS to see what good college debate looked like. It took me three rounds of watching to realize the S in Berkeley LS was Dan. I watched every debate of his at that tournament, trying to figure out how to get better. Observing was the only way I ever knew Dan, as he was in the “twice won the Copeland” bracket and I was in the “barely got four wins at a major” bracket.
During my sophomore year of college, I told Cate my goal was to win a speaker award at the NDT. I never qualified. Many, many years later I did get to judge a break round at the NDT on a panel with Dan, during which I mused why teams who wanted him to judge would also want me. A legend. We voted the same way.
Ten years ago, writing arguments for Wayzata High School, I stumbled across and then became obsessed with the theories of Luce Irigaray. 1000 pages of evidence later, I had a critique that links to almost every critique. Her theories of wonder (muse?) and difference influence my debate thinking still, even if my teams do not read her in debates. Her critical inhabitation of other theories to demonstrate their internal inconsistencies has been a motivating force in how I approach writing negs to k affs.
My Slack profile currently reads “K, gay, and lay whisperer” for whatever that is worth. But I have now spent way too many hours (weeks? months?) in the depths of databases like Project Muse. I need a break. I’m leaving debate because I don’t belong here. Don’t worry, I survived my imposter syndrome years ago, crying, alone in the rental car in a parking lot in Bloomington, IN after a very stressful Monday of judging at the National Debate Tournament. This is not “I don’t belong here” but instead “I don’t belong here,” I belong somewhere else. I don’t belong here, in that debate and I have taken everything we can from each other.
For 25 years, I have been a muse bemused. See, muse (I couldn’t help the alphabetics there) isn’t just about reminiscing, though the memories are great. To muse is to become confused yet eloquent and thoughtful; to feel like an imposter and nonetheless be an inspiration; to become absorbed in though, but to still find your way home. Leaving debate is a way to correct for those internal inconsistencies that musing surmises.
The last high school debate I coached was against a team from MBA (I guess debate is more cyclical than linear). I had judged this team earlier in the tournament and mused “that is what great debate looks like!” But, isn’t great debating itself a muse? Debate motivates us to be better. Debate forces us to dream and deliberate. Debate is the mood you make it. Moo!
All these years, I had the parable wrong. In debate, I’ve squandered my mental and physical health, and the return home is to friends, to family, and to a social life. My many returns to debate symbolized not my return home, but to the extravagance at the expense of all those other relations (in every Irigarayan sense of the word). That’s not to say it has to be that way, as the Olive Garden Trio continues to teach me (thanks Brad and Val!)
Dan was right in his article; I just didn’t know how to read it in high school. Debate hard and nurture harder. Or, as Cate used to tell us before every debate, “Have fun, be smart, listen to your partner, don’t fuck up, and if you do, fuck up less than the other team.” If you do that, debate will give you something to muse about.
I am Lincoln, head coach at UK . This site's purpose is to post my ramblings about policy debate.