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Thoughts on the Doha Argumentation Conference

January 18, 2013
Published in Doha Conference, NFL, Qatar

2012-01-17 02.28.28-1In January, I had the privilege of attending the “Fourth International Conference on Argumentation, Rhetoric, Debate, and Empowerment” at Convention Center in Doha, Qatar as a representative of the NFL to discuss the work that I was doing with the NFL in China.  It featured presentations by a number of leading academics and practitioners in the study of argumentation and debate, but also in a number of related fields (education, science, art, religion, and government (people working in government)).

In this post, I want to briefly share a number of thoughts based on my experience at the convention.  You can click to see photo highlights of the convention and the awards gala.

(1) “Debate” at the conference. Coming from the US, almost all of my experience in debate was from competitive contest debating where students learn how to debate in classes or after school training sessions and then subsequently engage in competitive debates on the weekend. Many of the presentations at the conference, however, were not focused on such contest debating but rather on how debate could be used to enhance the academic experiences of students in the regular classroom, primarily in university course environments. Although most of the presenters focused on the use of debate and thinking in particular subject areas, Chris Medina’s, “Debate Across the Curriculum at Wiley College,” covered using debate in all academic areas.

(2) Types of presentations.  I think it is possible and useful to categorize the presentations at the conference based on a number of subjects and themes

(a) Critical thinking. As someone who has recently been intrigued by the growing interest in modern “Western” educational methods (as opposed to more “rote” learning methods that seem popular in both Asia and the Middle East (and still in some classrooms in the US)), I thought that the number of panels and papers that focused on developing “critical thinking” skills in youth was quite interesting. The development of critical thinking skills has been a strong justification for supporting debate for many years, so I find this particularly intriguing. I also saw applications of critical thinking skills in new areas, including art, literature, and the study of Islamic texts. It was also applied in traditional contexts such as civic engagement and the teaching of history and economics.

Critical thinking was very much a dominant them of the conference titled. “Critical Thinking and Pedagogy” was one of the divisions, with the other two being “Argumentation” and “Debate.”  In total, there were five panels that focused on critical thinking, including one in Arabic. Nineteen of the individual presentations addressed the subject. Farse Ahmed Mohammed from the Supreme Council of Education, Qatar, led a panel on “Integrating Critical Thinking Skills in the Teaching of Arabic.

(b) Developing stand-alone debate programming. There were a number of presentations on programs that have been developed to provide debate opportunities for others.  These presentations did not focus on using debate in the classroom, but rather focused providing fun and competitive debate opportunities for students as stand-alone programming. Arlan Navarez from Venezuela discussed a debate program that he is developing in Venezuela to empower people who have been left out of Venezuela’s oil boom. My presentation on the development of debate in China also fits into this category.  There were other presentations about the development of general programming materials to support the development of debate and speaking skills. John Meany and his son John Meany discussed a program that they developed with Kate Schuster to expand access to parliamentary debate in Middle Schools. This program is popular in the United States and around the world. Sabry Ahmed and Almahaad Adeeni from Qatar talked about a program to develop speaking and oration skills for elementary preparatory and secondary education school students in Qatar.

(c) Developing debate and argumentation in the classroom.  There were a number of interesting presentations about developing students’ abilities to debate and argue about topics in the classroom.  This is primarily what I was referring to in my first note.

(d) Presidential communication and debates. There were a few presentations on the role of Presidential communication and debate in modern (developing) democracies. Gordon Mitchell from the University of Pittsburgh delivered a very interested presentation on the development of new technology that is being used to monitor instant audience reaction to US presidential debates. Irina Antonova from Russia discussed a rhetorical model of Presidential communication. Emad Abdul-Latif from Cairo university discussed the first round of presidential debates in, “Debating with Fists: How Presidential Debates Turn into Personal Debates.”

(e) Argumentation theory. There was also a large focus on the scholarly development of argumentation theory. David Williams from Florida Atlantic University, one of the conference organizers, talked about motive structures as a psychological basis for argument evaluation. Frans vsn Eemeren from the University of Amsterdam discussed identifying patterns of argumentative discourse in his keynote presentation.

(f) Culture differences and communication. There were a number of presentations related to potential cultural differences in communication, including Kenneth Chase’s focused, “Timely Argumentation and Cultural Difference.” A few scholars presented on the differences in communication styles between US college debaters and Qatari college debaters.  Others presented on using debate to teach a second language and bilingual debates. As debate continues to expand around the world and more and more opportunities for international competition present themselves, interest in this topic will continue to grow.

(g) Civic Engagement. Allan Louden and Ron von Burg presented on a civic engagement and social networking project developed at Wake Forest. Ken Harvey from Western Washington University discussed how classroom debate can be used to stimulate critical thinking and activate civic engagement.

(h) Electronic debating. There was only one presentation on this, tying skills developed in electronic debate participation to critical thinking, but I was happy to see it given my previous interest and work on electronic debating.  Although there was only one presentation on debating online, there were a number of presentations on taking advantage of online learning networks to advance critical thinking in education and educational collaboration.

(i)Educational theory.  There were a couple presentations that worked to ground modern practice related to the new emphasis on critical thinking and debate in educational theory. Julie Antilla from the University of California, Santa Barbara, gave a very interesting presentation that explained how debate operated to fulfill learning development opportunities that are expected of students in the US Common Core learning standards. She walked the audience through a review of some of the major standards and showed video clips of students engaged in actual debate competitions where the students demonstrated activity that was evidence of learning expected by the standard.

Maha Cherif from Qatar University delivered a presentation on research she was doing relating to how willing teachers were to engage in contemporary practices that supported the development of active, critically engaged students.

(j) Dialogue and debate as a solution to conflict. This will be developed in more detail later in the next point.

Of course, there were some presentations that did not fit neatly into these categories, and there were some that overlapped, but I think that these were the major, common themes of the presentation.

(3) — Debate as a solution to conflict. In the US, people often give lip service, and sometimes a bit of scholarly attention, to the idea that debate and dialogue is an alternative to conflict. It is common, for example, at the beginning of major debate and argumentation textbooks, to find statements that debate is an effective alternative to conflict and violence.

This theme was taken to a whole new level at the convention. In her opening address, Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, talked about the importance of debate and dialogue in reducing conflict throughout the world.

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In a follow-up question for a panel discussion title, “Engaging Youth in Constructive Dialogue to Promote Peace, Understanding, and Mutual Respect,” she asked how many people practiced debate and dialogue in their own homes to avoid conflict.

The powerful keynote address by Dr. Maja Nenadovic focused on her direct experience in war and actions she had taken to develop debating societies in Eastern Europe as a way to avoid conflict. Arlan Navarez’s program on using debate to build understanding also fits into this category.  Manuele De Conti for the University of Pradua (Italy) talked about how debate can be used to enhance conflict management skills and build cooperation. Hassan Boudikhif discussed political debates and the values of dialogue and democracy.

On the whole, debate as a solution to conflict probably emerged as the dominant theme of the conference, with people talking about the Sheikh’s question throughout the conference.

(4) Support for debate in Qatar. The support that exists for debate in Qatar is as strong as I have seen it anywhere.

The Qatar Foundation is currently supporting the programming of Qatar Debate (QD) to spread debate not only in Qatar but throughout the Middle East. According to the conference program, Qatar Debate was “established in 2007 with the aim of developing, supporting, and raising the standard of open discussion and debate among students in Qatar and across the Middle East.”  QD trains the Qatar Team for the World Schools Debating Championship (WSDC). In April of 2012, it organized and hosted the International Schools Arab debating championship that had the participation of twenty Arab states and Malaysia.  QD provides training in English and Arabic and has trained over 10,000 students in debate at the high school and university levels in Qatar, in the Middle East, and beyond. It recently published, in Arabic, The Complete Guide to the Art of Debating and the Dictionary of Debate Terms. These publications are freely distributed.

As mentioned, her Highness gave the opening address and talked about the role of debate in facilitating dialogue and avoiding conflict.

The conference was covered on the front page of leading papers in the region, including the Gulf Times.

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(5) A future focus on (improving) contest debating. As I mentioned at the outset, there were only a few presentations that focused on contest debating, particularly how practitioners could improve contest debating. I think it would be useful to expand on this theme in the future conferences.

(6) Including Asia. The United States, Europe, and the Middle East were well-represented. I could only identify two participants from Asia, however (one from Malaysia and one from Japan). It would be nice to encourage a greater representation from this region in the future.  There was also only one participant from South America.

(7) New friends. This conference presented many opportunities to develop new friendships with people all over the world. I am very fortunate that I was able to spend time meeting and talking with Alaa Alasady from Iraq, Hussain Al Orabai from Quwait, Alan Navarez from Venezuela, and Eric Barnes and Kenneth Chase from the US. I also made new friends at Qatar Debate, including Abdur Rehman and Abed Naji K. Al-Sameai.

(8) Old friends.  I also enjoyed spending time with many old friends that I often do not get to spend a lot of time with in the US. I spent a lot of time with Aaron Timmons from the Greenhill School in Texas during my time in Qatar. He presented on the development of professional debate coaching.

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Alan Louden presented on the Ben Franklin Transatlantic Fellows program that he developed. We were able to spend a lot of time catching up and talking about the upcoming class at Wake Forest that that I will be co-teaching that is designed to train US coaches heading to China to teach and coach in the China debate program.

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As mentioned above, Gordon Mitchell presented on a new technology used to monitor audience reactions to moments in Presidential debates as those debates progress. As always, Gordon was exploring cutting edge ideas.

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Taylor and Allison Hahn, graduate students at the University of Pittsburgh, presented many papers on a variety of topics, including imagining competitive academic debate as a “translation station” for student-driven research.  They are the authors of a recent textbook on policy debate.

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I was also able to visit with Todd Fine.

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It was also nice to see Alfred (“Tuna”) Snider from the University of Vermont. Tuna was one of the conference organizers. And it was nice to meet Steve Woods and Bojana Skrt in person.

Fortunately, all of the panel presentations were recorded and will be available in both Arabic and English. A full conference proceedings volume will also be published.

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