structure, substructure, restructure

I’ve always been fascinated how structure, of all things, becomes the rallying cry for divisions in extemp . I guess I’ve caused one of them, by pushing and shoving new approaches and ideas along. However, I didn’t really do that and commit to layering so much because I wanted to create a new extemp orthodoxy, but because orthodoxies in general are silly, and the current one was especially so.

Unified analysis is this notion that you should take a question, answer it in a vague way, and then give three independent answers to the question. That way, if one of your answers fails to convince, the other two still stand. You’ll notice that it’s anything but unified, but that’s a digression. It was also The Way to do extemp not too long ago.

I find it dissatisfying for a lot of reasons. The actual answers given tend to be weak and vague, things like “The United States should deal with human rights abuses in China by taking decisive action” or “Hillary Clinton can be elected president by appealing to key groups.” That doesn’t make much sense to me; the central notion of argument is a thesis, and with such a vague, wishy-washy thesis, the answers always seemed to fall short of what they could be. There’s no hope of evaluating whether you’ve answered the question completely or correctly this way; you’ve given me three reasons why you’re right but without weighing them against reasons why you might be wrong, I’m left fundamentally dissatisfied. And unimpressed.

So. Where’d this come from?

I tend to believe part of the structure wars come from camps. Camps are hard in extemp; you don’t get to deliver the student a finished product at the end. In interp they wind up with pieces, in debate they have cases and cards; in extemp there’s not much you can leave them with besides skills. And skills are much harder to teach in two weeks than producing a cutting. So camps, needing to show something to be viable, have had to come up with a Product, and I believe that UA is driven by this. UA is a good way to make a bad, or mediocre speaker appear to be better. They aren’t actually analyzing the question better, but they’re a lot clearer, and clarity helps a great deal. So it helps the kids reach another step, and that helps the camps.

The nefarious part comes when camps teach their doctrine as holy gospel and the only truth and reality. That, of course, is bull, though it does help the camps along; if a given camp is the only purveyor of the One True Way, then surely you need to attend it. So it enforces rigidity and bad dynamics in extemp. Students tend to fear breaking out and trying something different, since they’ve been told in no uncertain terms that faulty substructure in extemp will lead to the downfall of our civilization. Or at least that judges will tune them out and fail to consider whether they’re, you know, smart or correct or such. It doesn’t happen because of vile conspiracy, just aimlessness that finds a formula that works, I think.

What’s funny about it all is that judges could care less. The purpose of structure is clarity; if you have clarity without distinct structure, all will be well. If you have structure, but your thoughts are unclear, UA will not save you. But students care a great deal, since if there’s anything that a high school student wants it’s to be part of a club. And if there’s anything a high schooler fears, it’s to be singular in a way that opens you to criticism from the circle of peers they admire. For extemp dorks, that’s other extemp dorks; they know the quarterback isn’t going to like them, but they’ll be damned if they lose face before the other prep room denizens.

So we teach them how to analyze at my camp, sure, and we do teach a specific structure. But we’re careful not to make it gospel, and we’re careful to listen to other styles. I suppose that means we don’t sell the snake oil well. That’s fine by me.