Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Forensics as Scholarship: Testing Zarefsky's Bold Hypothesis in a Digital Age

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Forensics as Scholarship: Testing Zarefsky's Bold Hypothesis in a Digital Age

Article excerpt


The study of argumentation underwent a stunning renaissance in the last half of the twentieth century. After World War II, one would not have given strong odds that argumentation would flourish to link communities of inquiry across the globe. Logic was attached to the formalism of deductive method. The sciences competed for status based on the purity of method and the power of technological applications. The social sciences carved up, mathematicized, and procedurally categorized human activities into social, psychological, social-psychological, and economic decision-making contexts. A general faith in positivist method had driven rhetoric into the byways of assisting straggling students with composition.

Rhetorical inquiry is now a global field. The International Society for the History of Rhetoric, the Rhetoric Society of America, together with the National Communication Association and the International Communication Association and other organizations, promote critical, historical, cultural and public studies of rhetoric. Argumentation, too, draws from the field of communication but also pulls in interdisciplinary interests ranging from philosophy to computer science (van Eemeren, et al., 1996, pp. 163-355; Zarefsky, 1995b). The Alta Conference on Argumentation for over a quarter of century has promoted critical and theoretical inquiry and has been joined on a rotating, intercontinental schedule by the International Society for the Study of Argumentation located in Amsterdam; the Ontario Society for the Study of Argumentation based in Canada; and the Tokyo Conference on Argumentation in Japan. At the heart of these movements are intellectual leaders who have made a commitment to the theory and practice of human reasoning.

One such leader is David Zarefsky, now recognized widely as a luminary in the field of communication. As a scholar and teacher, he is best known for his work in public address, criticism, and argumentation, which spans the breadth of American rhetorical history. As the expansive reach of the essays in this special issue attest, Zarefsky's contributions to disciplinary development are substantial. This essay concentrates on one of his earliest and most sustained contributions: argumentation and debate.

Debate has long preserved a place for practical reason and argumentation in American universities. In public debate events, then later at intercollegiate tournaments, students, teachers, and audience members would gather to redeem the promise of an activity with ancient roots and durable salience. In United States colleges and universities, debate societies are among the oldest programs on campus. These programs have attracted students interested in testing the force of the better argument, and they have engaged in a vibrant "participatory culture" (Jenkins, 2006) for well over a century. Scholarly analysis of the practical and theoretical challenges involved in the debating enterprise created a path for the study of argumentation that shaped the larger academic field of communication (Hochmuth & Murphy, 1954; Keith, 1997; Zarefsky, 1995b).

Although the study of argumentation has gone global, debate continues to develop in relative obscurity, its participants absorbed by practice and its transitory conclusions evaporated into the internetworked society's digital ether. Yet debate remains a rich storehouse of communicative action. Debate entails a unique form of contention that draws its rules into itself, enabling conversations that link theory to practice and prompt participants to reflect constantly about how their performances relate to evolving norms and conventions of argument.

Academic debate's evolution has followed a trajectory structured by its status as a role-playing simulation exercise in which students entertain certain useful fictions (such as the notion that they have power to dictate government policy) to drive dialectic forward. …

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