(originally published at LinkedIn on April 30, 2020)
As has been the case for my colleagues around the world, I have had to move my classes online in the middle of the term. For us here in Florida, public schools never came back from Spring Break. Sadly, interscholastic sports also stopped so my first season as a high school tennis coach was stopped short (but that is an issue for another day).
However, for myself and my students, this sudden change has been no big deal. I have been getting them ready all along.
Since I had been teaching online (and taking a few courses for personal enrichment) at a few colleges and universities, this was nothing new to me. In my face-to-face classes, I also built in online media, virtual group activities, and class discussion boards. Being able to shift mundane things like passing out documents and returning grades into the online environment, reclaimed precious minutes of class periods for deeper discussions and additional small group and individual work.
Coming out of semi-retirement to accept this post at a local high school did not change my approach. I used technology as much as I could. Since I was teaching both American Literature and International Studies (being dual certified is literally a two-edged sword), I needed as much organization and structure as I could get so I could use the five minutes between periods to switch my brain from Jack London to Brexit.
To make my office hours more efficient, I had students use our in-class laptops (or their ubiquitous smartphones) to look up information, draft papers, make slides for speeches, and submit work straight into our online gradebook. This made it much easier and quicker for me to receive work and assign scores and gave students an open-book view of their own progress. We had a good thing going.
Then the world went into lockdown. So what? Business as usual continued, with a few modifications. Be like water …
For my part, teaching remotely was no shock. In fact, I had my global studies students following the Coronavirus story since January. I had hinted to them and predicted to campus staff that going online was on the horizon. Having trained hundreds of college and university faculty how to teach online, and done a lot of it myself, I needed to go into that other mode. Here are some things I learned over the years that I immediately implemented:
1. Maintain my schedule. Up at 0600. Make some tea and toast. Check the news. Be in my study by 0800. It is far too tempting to let things pile up, think of getting back to it later, and all the other procrastination excuses I have heard since 2000. Plus, by keeping a regular work and sleep schedule, I don’t get tired. (Between you and me, online teachers tend to work MORE hours because they can, always checking the email one more time …).
2. Establish a daily routine. Just because I don’t have seven periods anymore doesn’t mean that I can’t invent them. I use this to rotate my work.
First, check my school email. Any directives from the school district or campus admin will be here. This is also where I can respond directly to students and parents who have questions. Go get fresh coffee, relax my eyes from the screen, stretch my legs.
Second, check the online, self-paced (commercial off the shelf) English course that my students are using to finish up the term. I am more like tech support in this role. There is a separate email function in here and I will have to individually reset or bypass assignments. I can also run weekly reports for progress through the course. I even answer content questions because some of my students want to hear me explain it. Reheat my coffee and maybe grab a chocolate covered doughnut to keep my blood sugar up.
Third, check the learning management system. This is where my social studies class is doing weekly activities. They have a discussion board each week where they build a wiki library of research articles. I check for progress and spot check their sources. A grilled ham and cheese sandwich will be enough for lunch. Plenty of time to watch a sitcom off the DVR.
Fourth, check the online gradebook. The social studies students upload their major papers directly via a link. I manually enter the homework and quizzes. If I see a blue link, I know it’s a paper I need to read. So, I read it. A Diet Dr Pepper and a couple of Advil might be my afternoon snack.
Now I can do “my work.” I like to write my own starter content for each week, so I must find videos, make graphics, and compose pithy text with prominently placed glossary words. Also, I work on setting up reports I need to do and curating materials.
Finally, I make a return sweep through steps 1-4, checking for any new messages that have come across. Look at that! It’s 3:30.
3. Have a life. With no spouse or kids here, I make do with digging out a flower bed, refilling the bird feeders, clearing some brush from the fence, or some other non-screen activity. It’s nice to get outside, feel some sun, wave and holler at the neighbors, be a person rather than a hostage.
I am amazed at how many combinations of meals I can make with what is already in the freezer and pantry. The lessons I learned from my mother’s Depression era imprinting still serve me well. I already had plenty of toilet paper on a shelf in the laundry room well before the panic set in.
After dinner is eaten and the dishes loaded into that wonderful machine, I can catch up on the books I meant to read or the movies I meant to watch. I am even watching some World Series reruns while waiting for baseball’s return.
(originally pubished at LinkedIn on March 20, 2018)
When I first worked in distance learning in the mid-1990s, we mailed out textbooks and workbooks to students who took proctored exams over green screen terminals. I even took some of the courses myself because I feel strongly that administrators must be intimate with both ends of the instructional transaction.
However, in the last three decades, little has changed from this sender-receiver model which Aristotle himself would recognize. The technology is more robust, and the media are more diverse, but the system is still designed around pushing content and receiving validation of learning. It has been a self-limiting model, like a governor on a go-kart engine. It simulates a racetrack but cannot fully replicate it any more than an online course fully replicates the vibrancy of a university campus.
And there is the fundamental flaw.
By trying to make online courses into simulacra of on-campus courses, mimicry was the goal, not creativity. For good or ill, as experienced educators who attained our degrees in brick-and-mortar settings, the gold standard was represented by that which we had passed through. Over the years, in papers and at conferences, I have tried to blow up that idea. For the grey heads who approved our budgets and strategic plans, we had to show how our distance learning design and delivery could most closely hew to the curriculum espoused by our regulators and our accreditors. Otherness was rejected. We had to build college analogs in a digital age. The fact that the Carnegie unit gets its name from a man who ran steel mills in a previous century might be an indicator of thinking trapped in a gilded age.
Distance Learning in 2020
Without a trigger event, distance learning will not seem very different in only 22 months. Absent a Space Race, Manhattan Project, or Cold War, there will just be incremental progress along this same trajectory. Unless…
… we recognize that our student-customers have changed. Consider that online education was considered something strange within our professional lifetimes. It had a “less than” stigma as if it was something scandalous that someone had attended a non-traditional institution with short-residencies or independent study.
As a fan of the annual Beloit College Mindset lists, the incoming freshman in 2020 will have always had an Internet. Going to college online is no more unusual that shopping for a car, mortgage, or spouse online. It is NOT being online that seems weird. The first colleges to recognize, embrace, and celebrate this revolution will be the new mainstream. Those slow to market will be left behind as surely as the once-beloved Sears Christmas Catalog.
How can we address the Digital Natives within such a short turnaround as two years? Consider that this timeframe only allows for one full budget cycle, one college catalog cycle, one election cycle. It will require us to do the best we can with what we already have.
Step One: Collect
There should be a ruthless inventory of all digital content across the campus. A single photograph could be considered a Learning Object that can be repurposed in multiple ways. Let’s consider this example:
I shot this photo in the late 1970s while working as a reporter for the Panama City News-Herald. Could it be a banner for the home page of a criminal justice online course? Could it be a prompt for a creative writing course? Could it be raw material for a digital media class to colorize? Could it be an artifact in a Florida history course? “Yes” to all.
A university of any length and breadth probably already has lots of “stuff,” much of it already converted into digital files. All of the text, audio, video, and graphic content must be captured and curated. Just finding it all and negotiating digital reproduction rights with the various originators would not be finished by 2020 but it would begin the truer understanding of the assets already in hand.
Step Two: Retool
Among the hard-won knowledge I have amassed across my career is that the real cost of building a three-credit online course comes to about $250,000. The various sunk costs of instructional designer salaries, software, and hardware are seldom counted. Instead, we only look at new costs like faculty stipends and original media produced or purchased. If I was doing tax accounting on this like a business, I would depreciate that course using the Double Declining Balance method because in three years, it will need to be fully refreshed, even it if gets updates every term. Things get old sooner these days.
Part of the reason for this is the concept that each course is a stand-alone unit, hoarding its own material into a single package. It belongs to a faculty member who is the author, a discipline which is its guild, and a department chair overseeing the fiefdom. In this “Game of (Endowed) Thrones,” there is a strong incentive for protectionism and a disincentive for collaboration. The general disregard for digital creation by junior faculty in tenure and promotion evaluation is also at cross purposes with the university of the future but that is a matter for another audience.
At that cost level and with the thickness of a college catalog, rebuilding the university’s offerings into a “digital first” mode is clearly cost-prohibitive. However, that priority can be set for each iteration of a course refresh, each updating of a lesson, even each refilling of a faculty line.
Another principle I try to follow is that even administrators should teach. So, along my career path, I have designed and taught a lot of courses in a lot of subjects. Even in a course that had no online component, I was better served if I conceived everything as if it was going to be online. If I would have drawn on the board in a live class, can I do that in a drawing window in GoToMeeting? If I would have given a pop quiz in class, can I do that with a product like Nearpod?
This mindset lets me use my digital content in a live setting, post it to a course website, or even use it as an alternate delivery if I must miss a class meeting due to illness or emergency. Once it is built, it can be used and reused. However, there is an even greater efficiency to be attained.
In a communication theory course that I really enjoy teaching, there is a unit about Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Now, I am not a classically trained scholar, but I get by. I think my lecture on the subject is pretty strong and I have used it to good effect in class and at conferences. However, if in Step One we identified our university’s foremost expert from the Philosophy Department and captured her lecture in the campus-wide digital repository, why can’t I just click on hers rather than waste my time gilding the lily? If all of our stuff belongs to all of us, we can have less duplication and more innovation.
It may be that the university already has some early adopters of this kind of thinking who are doing interdisciplinary research and team-teaching. The old vertical silo model worked in the agrarian age, less so in the industrial age, and is an impediment to the digital age.
By accomplishing these two steps, online learning in 2020 will set stage for what is yet to come to higher education but is already in the commercial marketplace.
Distance Learning in 2030
It’s just learning. Anywhere. Anytime.
When I was at FSU, managing the student and faculty support for all online degrees university-wide, I frequently argued that we were a utility, not an accessory. The more that Blackboard (our LMS of choice) was used campus-wide for administrative functions and student organizations, it would be harder to turn off. It would be a vital part of the campus infrastructure like water, power, and parking, not an appendix that hung there vulnerable to elective budget cuts. Ubiquity was the answer. Imagine not having wi-fi. Perspiring yet?
Our incoming freshman in 2030 might look at this essay and wonder about terms used like “semester” or “credit hour” or even “department.” Beloit College will describe them as “never used cable TV.”
If I don’t have to be home on Tuesday night to watch NCIS, why do I have to go to English every Wednesday night? If Netflix was a university, what would it look like? The new season of Western Civ would drop on February 15th and I could hunker down with enough pizza and caffeine to watch every episode over the weekend. I could have my study group on my phone and access the review quizzes after each episode or do yoga while it plays. If necessary, I can pause, rewind, or access the “special features” menu.
Who cares how much seat-time it took to plow through the material? Some students will need a lot of time, some won’t. Some might do better with the audio version of the course rather than the video. Courses ought not to dictate format because that dictates which student learning styles can succeed. As architect Louis Sullivan famously extolled, form follows function. The subject matter shapes the course and the faculty member should follow the natural shapes. If you recall doing responsive in-class readings of Shakespeare (and how truly painful it was), you know how forcing a three-dimensional form like drama into a two-dimensional platform is an epic fail.
“Others who viewed Western Civilization I also watched …”
Imagine how artificial intelligence can guide students into pre-requisites, co-requisites, electives, and course sequences. Just like achievement levels in video games, this technology can also track progress toward majors, minors, and embedded certificates. This does not replace advisors but instead supports them, automatically doing the flowsheets (quantitative) freeing them to actually counsel with students (qualitative) about goals and desires.
It will be a less prescriptive world. The student/customer will want control and access. The idea of taking what everyone else is taking, at the same time and in the same place will be anathema. If we have successfully inventoried all of our objects, built new ones in a modular fashion, and set up to deliver them as needed, we will have moved into more than a la carte education. I think of it as bespoke education, treating each student as an individual. Who wants to shop “off the rack” anyway?
If the idea is to perpetuate a factory model, raw material (students) come in, go through a process (courses) and get stamped (degrees) on the way out, then nothing needs to change. You can produce a lot of black Model T Fords that way. However, might that stifle us from ever developing the aerocars from The Jetsons?
The University Campus in 2030
There is an implied question here about what happens to the brick and mortar model. Not only will it still exist but it will be rejuvenated. The student who possesses strong technical skills, a flexible mind, a clear sense of purpose, and comfort with ambiguity will thrive in the online world previously described. Everyone is not like that.
The campus is still “home” for the faculty and the students who need or want structure. They will still be coming from brick and mortar high schools and community colleges. They will still be coming from literally regimented military careers. They will still be coming from 9-5/M-F workplaces. Until the rest of society goes through a similar digital transformation, universities will still need their physical plants. Socialization is still going to be a role for the university, perhaps more so as instruction becomes more individualized.
However, digital liberation will make the campus spaces much more productive. Moving rote delivery and recitation of content into a techno-organic space will free student time and faculty expertise into more collaboration and experimentation. There will also need to be many more discussion spaces, large and small. Learn what you need to know online and then come use it at our university to change the world.
Imagine being six years old and uprooted from the only place you’ve ever lived and taken north into a completely alien culture with people you don’t understand who speak with a different accent. Then, imagine being shuttled around from place to place as your father chases work. Imagine changing schools 13 times in the next 11 years, carrying a pejorative nickname with you everywhere you go. Finally, you turn 18 and are legally able to have some say over your destiny …
I lived that.
Of course, my experience was based on being uprooted from the Republic of Texas and taken north to Ohio at the behest of the United States Air Force and ping-ponged about as Dad got new assignments. Not every new school community readily welcomed us “military brats.” However, since my father was only a young Airman when we were in Texas, he had to rent our off-base housing in San Antonio (a one-bedroom cottage out back) from the nice Mexican gentleman who owned the nearby gas station. Sometimes he would loan Dad five bucks until payday and, once Dad got another stripe, we got to move up to the front cottage! Mr. Lyro became a lifelong family friend and member of our Christmas card list.
While our status was certainly legal, I feel a personal empathy and cultural appreciation for those at the center of our current controversy. Long solo car trips have afforded me plenty of time to work on this in my mind. Much as I previously sorted out the whole same-sex marriage issue in a prior column, I offer the following theses to move the “DACA” issue forward.
Back in the 1990s, when I was sometimes required to draft sections of Florida Statutes and the enacting Florida Administrative Code, I tried to follow some overarching principles. Bills should have a single issue, not be bundled into some omnibus that hides the question in a forest, so that it can be considered on its own merits. I also felt strongly that a “statement of legislative intent” should be included so as to not open the thing up to reinterpretation by later readers. It means what it says it means.
Thus, just as President Obama said many times that he did not have the authority to create the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (although he then did), and just as President Trump exercised that same lack of executive authority to create an artificial expiration date, they were both right and wrong. What they were right about is that this is an issue squarely in the responsibility of Congress which should draft and pass a clean (no dangling amendments or non-germane tradeoffs) piece of legislation.
In addition to its Constitutional role to manage citizenship and immigration, the Federal government has a compelling interest to count noses via the Census every decade. I actually worked on the 2010 Census to develop ways to increase responses in Volusia County. At that time, we encountered concerns about locating and counting non-citizens since they would still be consumers of government services and therefore variables in the calculations of public budgets. Even back to the administration of Caesar Augustus (see Luke 2:1), this is a key function of public administration. Any solution must require some sort of accounting or the horribly overworked cliche’ can gets propelled soccer-style further down the pavement.
So, here are the key provisions of what I would find an acceptable plan that both respects the rule of law and also provides a pragmatic way to acknowledge the however many actual humans are here in this shadow state.
This shall only be applied to those persons who entered the United States illegally before the age of 18 and further only applies to such time after they attained the age of 18. If someone was brought here before their age of legal responsibility, you can’t hold them accountable. It is parallel thinking to juvenile records being sealed by a court or needing some aggravating circumstance to charge a minor as an adult. All things being equal, treat children as children. However, …
Once such persons reached the age of 18, they were able to make their own binding legal decisions. I could see some sort of exception if any affected persons could make a case that they did not know they were here illegally but the clock would at least start running from whatever point they became aware of their status. There is also a concept at play of “putative knowledge,” meaning a person “knew or should have known,” i.e. ignorance if the law is no excuse. This creates a window of responsibility for these “dreamers” after which they should have done something about it.
When the argument is made that such persons are contributors to American society as workers, students, even military servicemembers, there had to have been some sort of administrative violation if the person had no valid Social Security Card, state ID, work permit, student visa, or other enabling government document. Let’s stipulate that those are administrative violations, not criminal charges. In the absence of outright forgery, paperwork issues can be sorted out. It would be like having an expired driver license on steroids but doable.
It is necessary to provide a date certain by which any affected persons must bring their paperwork into compliance. Back in the 1990s, all Florida healthcare workers had to take a mandated HIV/AIDS awareness course by 31 December or they could not work on 1 January. I actually had to teach such a course before going out for New Year’s Eve because there were still a few workers at our hospital who had not gotten it done all year! No deadline, no compliance.
Affected persons would need to “turn themselves in” and register and apply for normalization. Critical information would be providing the date at which they entered the United States and the date they turned 18. If such person does not have documents from the home country (and likely don’t), then a one-time sworn affidavit could suffice. After all, family Bibles are accepted as birth and marriage records in many jurisdictions.
Fingerprints are collected and run just as they were multiple times during my career for various license, permits, jobs, and security clearances. (And I was born here!). The government has a compelling interest to know that there is no outstanding criminal record on an applicant, the previously mentioned administrative violations notwithstanding.
Based on the number and degree of paperwork violations, an administrative fine could be calculated and levied. Depending on the number of years of noncompliance, this could be a large sum. Realistically, people who have been operating in the underground don’t have a fully-funded IRA that they can borrow against to pay these fines. So, how could anyone ever settle their account with the government?
The applicant signs an agreement to have any future Federal income tax refunds applied against their outstanding balance of fines. Such charge-offs already take place on other Federal matters and there are other linked obligations such as non-registration with Selective Service making persons ineligible for Federal student financial aid programs. (Did you know that the Social Security Administration already can withhold benefits to persons with outstanding warrants?) This would be another parallel with existing ways of handling Federal issues so it should be seen as not creating some new legal standard for the DACA folks.
With all of this in place, the applicant would gain legal resident status and would be able to renew that status if there are no new criminal violations. In short, step up and get your paperwork straight, behave right, and you get to stay.
Once a person’s financial obligations are satisfied (enough potential tax refunds are set off against outstanding administrative fines … or just settled as there should be no penalty for an early payoff), that person could make formal application to become a naturalized citizen.
In keeping with my ethical requirement of single-issue legislation, this intentionally does not address the visa lottery, chain migration, or the dadgum “wall.” Each of those deserve its own proposal, debate, and up-or-down vote, again on its own merits of argument. However, this would provide a one-time opportunity to clarify this grey area, count and document all eligible affected persons, and then sunset the program. Too many laws stay on the books beyond their intended use (or have you never read all that funny stuff on the Internet about states where you can’t chew gum in church or bring livestock into a bar?)
Do you have a customer loyalty card? Are you collecting points at Best Buy or Regal Cinema? Did you know that’s why Trump beat Hillary? It’s your fault.
The whole art of political polling hinges on being able to get people to give up information. That was a lot easier when most people had landline phones. I was fortunate, early in my career, to interview George Gallup, Jr., of the eponymous polling and public opinion organization. In that interview, he correctly predicted the coming of a non-Italian Pope. He was one Pontiff early, as the short-lived JPI came in before JPII, but that was demonstrative of how powerful old school research could be.
If it can do that, why couldn’t it foresee Trump taking out Hillary?
First, people are just harder to reach. I was one of the Luddites who clung to his landlines phones longer than most. To be fair, they were very cool phones, one built like the Starship Enterprise and the other like the Batmobile.
Now, with my only phone in my pocket (or sometimes intentionally left in the car if I don’t wish to be bothered), it is much harder for telemarketers to find me. Plus, I have two different call screening apps. I operate under the old Hollywood agent dictum, “Don’t call me; I’ll call you.”
Second, the old rules of sampling based on demography no longer obtain. In constructing survey samples, we are trained to have representative proportions of the group under study. If you could actually survey everyone, that would be called a “population,” not a sample. Even the US Census Bureau can’t get everybody; I worked with them and I know that to be true.
So, in this world of guesstimating, pollsters try to get the same percentage of Republicans, Democrats, Hispanics, Millenials, or other clumps of the population. If a county being surveyed is 34% GOP, then you want your GOP sample to be 34%.
As we slice and dice according to identity politics, trying to find that 0.7% sample to represent bisexual left-handed Asians becomes kind of difficult. Here is where it falls apart and traditional political operators get left in the dust. Sterotyping.
Who says that all bisexual left-handed Asians vote monolithically? Isn’t that a kind of discrimination via oversimplification? By that same logic, we would assume that all union members vote Democrat, all Catholics vote pro-life, and so on. That is the kind of thinking that leads to the faulty assumption that “the Black vote” is a thing that can be delivered like your favorite order in your Dominos app.
Which brings us to Cambridge Analytica.
This firm, hired by Trump’s organization, did the big data behaviour (note how that was spelt) analysis undergirding his campaign. So how does that relate to my Dominos app?
That huge data warehouse of consumer info you willingly provide for those points and coupons paints a picture not of who you are but what you are likely to do. The first time that Amazon.com said to you “People who bought this book also bought …” you saw this in action.
What the data miners across the pond were able to do was predict with a high degree of confidence (in both statistical and political terms) what people were likely to do on Election Day. By tracking actual activities (belonging to organizations, obtaining an education, driving a domestic truck, owning more than one dog, etc.), Cambridge and its ilk can project other things a person is likely to do. If I used to own a boat, shop at Bass Pro Shops every other month, and live within 10 miles of the ocean, and have an income above $##,###, there is a calculable likelihood that I would be interested in a fishing vacation package.
Likewise, other behaviors can be thrown into a statistical blender and come out with a smoothie capable of predicting the likelihood of voters in given locations and of given types choosing one unsavory candidate over another.
So, you and your free popcorn every ten movies are why Trump won. Sleep on that.
I received an award from the NFL when I was in high school.
It was not from the No Fun League … I mean, National Football League … but from the governing body of competitive debate, the National Forensics League. Now known as the National Speech and Debate Association, I earned its Degree of Merit through tournament points.
Now we think of forensics in the realm of CSI and Abby Sciuto on NCIS, but it has a much older origin. Its Latin root refers to being “in the forum,” hence the concept of presenting facts in public to prove a point.
Even prior to the Romans, the Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote his three books on rhetoric, from which I still teach salient points. In the time of the classical Greeks, the Golden Age before lawyers were invented, the people represented themselves in matters of public dispute. However, since being a good speaker was essential, citizens would turn to instructors called Sophists. Now you know why the term “sophistry” is used by politicians who want to denigrate an opponent who has more style than substance. Aristotle’s writings were a response to the Sophists so that people could read for themselves and learn the three tenets; the speaker, the audience, and the speech itself, without having to hire a coach.
So, from this classical evolution, we have tools with which to watch tonight’s main event: Trump vs. Hillary, Round One. Just like Ali vs. Frazier, this will play out as a trilogy with an undercard bout between two nondescript middle-aged white guys. Even though this will not be fought under NFL rules (football or forensics), we can use them as a guideline to keep score at home tonight.
Back in my day, when we only had three TV channels, our National Forensic League’s debate topic came directly from the post-Watergate era in which we were living. The topic was presented as “Resolved, that the method of electing the President and Vice-President should be changed.” Ironically, that topic is still germane. Two-person teams would then line up on the Affirmative side, supporting the resolution, or the Negative side, arguing for the status quo. Given our present polarized politics of paralysis, we can see these strategies are still in play.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump responds to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s closing remarks during the first Republican presidential debate at the Quicken Loans Arena Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Trump and Hillary will instead have a variety of resolutions put to them by the moderator Lester Holt. (More about his role to come…) In competitive terms, with topics known only to the moderator, this could be called extemporaneous speech, another format in which I have competed and won, but the two campaigns should already have a good idea of questions that should arise. There is really no excuse for not being prepared for the “Top Ten” issues for each candidate. Therefore, fumbling a question should not happen.
When I have worked in political campaigns, I actually trained my charges in how to give the answer they want to give, regardless of the question. I teach the same techniques to my journalism students at Full Sail University, so they can see when a skilled person is dodging a tough question during an interview or news conference. Watch for this tonight:
If asked a narrow, pointed question about a specific concept or incident, the defensive person can change it to a broader, big-picture concept that is more comfortable or at least a place to retreat. To wit, if asked about the current Charlotte case, I would train my client to say:
“While any loss of life is regrettable, we must also understand that freedom of expression is one of our most sacred rights, enshrined in the very First Amendment. It is my hope that people of good will can also use their freedom of speech to resolve matters in the highest spirit of our national traditions.”
You can hear the fife and drum in the background and get a warm patriotic feeling, but was anything actually said about the specific case? Of course not.
In proper debate competition, there is true equal time given to the opposing parties, unlike the GOP blatherfests during the primaries when “time of possession” was measured with a stopwatch, just like a coach breaking down tape from a football game. Structured under the rules, there is a speech, a rebuttal of equal length, alternating between affirmative and positive. In many tournaments, there is also a brief cross-examination period between speeches in which opponents can question each other’s facts brought into evidence.
The made-for-TV events have actually devolved from true debates. There are two that we hold up as the great examples, Lincoln-Douglas in 1858, and Kennedy-Nixon in 1960. Let’s break down the tape and see if we can pick up anything for tonight.
First, to clear up the historical context, Lincoln and Douglas were candidates for the U.S. Senate from Illinois. Additionally, since this was before the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913, Senators were still selected by state legislators and not directly in public elections. However, both candidates were determined to make their cases in a series of seven public presentations, thereby influencing voters to elect legislators that would pick one man over the other. Second, there was no moderator. The two principals just had at each other, but with 19th Century good manners, each man let the other finish before taking the lectern to rebut.
Thus, there are actually few parallels between the contest tonight and that historic one. The series of debates will be less than half as many, they will not directly argue against each other, and I have low expectations for good manners. Tonight, Emily Post will be no more in evidence than Robert’s Rules of Order.
The battle between Kennedy and Nixon, as the first such televised event, was a watershed moment for several reasons, some well-known and one in particular not so much. Radio listeners thought Nixon won the debate but television viewers felt Kennedy won, in yet another example of TV messing something up. As the sitting Vice-President, Nixon had a wealth of knowledge about the current administration and radio listeners felt he won the debate on content. As the nominee of the party out of power, JFK could be on offense, raising criticisms and appeared to viewers as having more initiative.
The big difference, as we now know, is that Kennedy was younger, more handsome (but beside Nixon, who wouldn’t be?), and had actually worked on his tan during debate prep. Nixon, who refused TV makeup, looked weaker and perspired visibly. Nixon was coming off of a hospitalization and I can both empathize and sympathize (there is a difference). I was a week out of back and neck surgery and had to give an orientation speech to new PhD candidates. By the end of my 45-minute talk, including Q&A, I was soaked from head to toe and had to go straight home to bed to finish my convalescence. I was not on national TV competing for the position of “The Most Powerful Man in the World” so I can only imagine the grit required of Nixon to go on stage that night.
Democrat Sen. John Kennedy, left and Republican Richard Nixon, right, as they debated campaign issues at a Chicago television studio on Sept. 26, 1960. Moderator Howard K. Smith is at desk in center. (AP Photo)
Here is the dirty little secret (acquired through my own published research) from that night which is still in play tonight. JFK had begun receiving his classified briefings, just as Trump and Clinton are now. Kennedy, therefore, knew about a little CIA operation that was cooking on the back burner that would be aimed at newly-Communist Cuba. Of course, Nixon was also aware of it. During the debate, Kennedy “scored” by criticizing the Eisenhower-Nixon administration about not being more active against Fidel Castro. If I had been Nixon, I would have been tempted to say, “Oh yeah? I’ve got a secret exile guerrilla outfit getting trained right to go invade Cuba. So, I got your active right here!” Nixon, however, had to hold his tongue and take it. Of course, once JFK was elected and inherited that operation, it became known as the Bay of Pigs debacle. Sometimes karma can bite you squarely in the buttocks.
I will be watching for a moment in which Trump, not highly regarded for his impulse control skills, will pull something out of his head from his classified briefings and say “Oh yeah? What about (Insert national secret here)?”
Finally, in competitive debate, there is an actual judge scoring the event. Each team also keeps a flowchart of every argument and piece of evidence brought up by the opposition. In essence, we were outlining opponents’ speeches while they were giving them. Then, we would go point-by-point from our flowchart to dismantle whatever they said, and so on back and forth.
If the opposing team failed to refute something we said, we actually would speak directly to the judge and say something like, “As the negative team did not refute the third clause in our rebuttal, flow that through for the affirmative.” Anything they couldn’t answer, we suggested was out point by default. Sometimes, you could actually see the judges make a long line on their score sheet with a highlighter, literally pulling points for us into the final tally. Lester Holt, an anchorman of good reputation, will not be in the role of judge and hopefully will not endeavor to be an arbiter like Candy Crowley in 2012.
In closing arguments, we would summarize all of our uncontested points, in case any had been missed. My then-partner, now the good Herr Doktor Colonel (ret) Paul Hough, handled our eloquence chores with a masterful opening speech and an equally fine closing speech that he actually composed while the debate was going on so it would fit whatever had come up. I did the dirty work in the two middle speeches, down in the trenches, arguing from the seat of my pants and drawing from my eidetic memory. We were a great team, he with his pre-military bearing and commanding voice, and me with my scrambling intensity. (Note: It would be interesting to have at least one of the debates be a team event, with the Presidential and Vice-Presidential nominees arguing as a ticket.)
This will be opposite both Monday Night Football and WWE and is expected to pull perhaps 100 million viewers. As such, I should handicap this contest, being the degenerate sports gambler that I am (as well as placing third in last Saturday’s FSU charity blackjack tournament over at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Tampa).
This iron man match will go the distance for the full 90 minutes, but Trump will win via style over substance on a medium he has mastered. He may also put Hillary in the Figure-Four Leglock. Hey, he is in the WWE Hall of Fame for a reason. The only thing that would surprise me if Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson rushes the stage and whacks somebody with a steel folding chair.