The Augsburg Podcast
Bob Groven: The Power of Constructive Debate
Bob Groven: You can have arguments that build relationships, that build friendships. You can be better friends after an argument than before an argument, or if you don't have an argument, or you refuse to have an argument. You can be a closer family if you have an argument, but you have to have the argument the right way for that to work. It has to be a constructive argument rather than a destructive argument.
Paul Pribbenow: Augsburg University educates students to be informed citizens, thoughtful stewards, critical thinkers, and responsible leaders. I'm Paul Pribbenow, the president of Augsburg University, and it's my great privilege to present the Augsburg podcast, one way you can get to know some of the faculty and staff I'm honored to work with every day.
Catherine Day: I'm Catherine Reid Day, host of the Augsburg podcast, and I'll be speaking with Bob Groven, co-chair of communication studies, film, and new media, and the director of the Minnesota Urban Debate League. We're speaking today about constructive arguments. What if my opponent could be right? Welcome, Bob.
Bob Groven: Hi. Nice to be here.
Catherine Day: That's a lot of fields that you're interested in and I'd love to help our listeners find out a little bit about how you discovered those areas of work for yourself. What was some of your early places that were important to you, early learning experiences that started to lead you down this path?
Bob Groven: Well, for me that started really, really early. I'll mark it at middle school, but if you talk to my parents, I think they'd probably say my love of arguments started pretty much when I was born. But in middle school, I started doing debate and speech for the first time competitively. And at the time I was there, the Twin Cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul, had a thriving middle school debate league. And I had this wonderful teacher named George Merit who really inspired me and hundreds of other students to do it. And then I went on and I debated in Como Park Senior High in St. Paul, and then I went and I debated in college, and then I coached for 25 years after that. So I've kind of been doing it for a long time. It's kind of been something that's been so present in my life that it's hard to think about my life without it really.
Catherine Day: When you say focus on the notion that it's urban debate league, let's just talk about what does that mean? Why is it important that urban centers focus on debate?
Bob Groven: Yeah, well, I would say that there's two reasons. So 16, 17 years ago, when I had been coaching debate for awhile, I noticed that the place where I used to debate, as I mentioned a minute ago, there used to be thriving debate leagues in the inner city schools. But by the time I had graduated college, almost all of that was gone. And it wasn't just here in the Twin Cities. That was true all across the country that debate and speech programs had been cut out of urban schools all across the country, usually for budget constraints, sometimes because of school consolidation and sometimes for worse reasons too, reasons of low expectations, stereotyping that went on.
And at around that same time I was approached by an amazing woman named Karon Garen who asked if I would help create an urban debate league here in the Twin Cities. Karon wasn’t herself a debater or coach, but she had four boys (I’d worked with all of them), and they were amazingly talented debaters. They went on to become amazingly successful debaters and she wanted all kids to have the same common opportunity that her kids had had. She actually ended up becoming our first Executive Director as a volunteer.
As we were getting the debate league off the ground, I had a conversation with a former Minnesota state legislator and I was telling him about this, the state of debate essentially, and he said, "You know, that sounds to me like that's not just an issue about debate, that sounds like an issue of social justice, that sounds like an issue of public policy." And that set me on the road to thinking about the way in which, if we are systematically giving the tools of public argument, of research, of analysis and of advocacy to people in the suburbs and in private schools, but we're not giving that same thing to the urban students, we're creating a multi-generational gap essentially, and that those skills are what teach people how to move the levers of society. That's what teaches people how to get into college. It gives you the fundamental skills you need. So I think that's where, for me, it became more than just about debate. It became really a matter of social justice and a cause that needed to be elevated to the level of public policy.
Catherine Day: I'm curious about that first person saying that that seemed like a justice gap, or that they saw it that way. Did they think about it as a civic engagement thread that, in other words, if people don't know to how to have arguments or even understand that they're valuable, then how do we in fact make decisions to vote, to run for office, to understand what someone in office even does? Is that part of it?
Bob Groven: Yeah, yeah. Well, I think there's two parts. So I think that's definitely one part. He was a political leader, so he was very concerned with civic engagement and he was very concerned with how young people were involved with democracy and whether they had the skills to be engaged in the interest for it. But I think what he was really talking about wasn't so much the civic engagement. It was about the personal empowerment of those people, their ability to speak for the needs of themselves in their own communities and their families.
And then their ability to figure out, "I want to go someplace. I have a goal in life. How do I get there? How am I going to make it to that goal? Do I have the skills necessary to go garner the money to do whatever it is I need? Or to do the interview? Or to get the job? Or to get elected?" All of those different things, they all come down to the same fundamental set of skills, which is the ability to research, analyze, construct solutions, and then the ability to convey that information to others and to advocate for what you think is important.
Catherine Day: As you've built up this program, has that been a conscious curricular focus that you address all four of those topics in getting them ready?
Bob Groven: Yes, most definitely. And it's funny because it's shifted over time. We started off with the traditional focus that debate has on research and evidence and analytic reasoning and speaking. But what we've learned actually in the assessment data is that some of the biggest results that it has are in the areas that we wouldn't have focused on, for example, reading levels. So we've now got great peer reviewed, controlled studies that show that just one year of debate increases a student's reading level by 12 to 14% on the MCA tests, or by almost two full grade levels. One year of debate advances their reading by two full grade levels.
Catherine Day: That's phenomenal.
Bob Groven: Yeah.
Catherine Day: And so is the intervention of debate focusing still at that junior high level now, and then on up? I mean as a starting place?
Bob Groven: Yep. So we started in high school and now we've moved to middle school. And actually the middle school numbers are much larger, almost double the numbers of high school. So 15 years ago, we started with one program at North High School and for debaters and bow we have 42 schools and 932 debaters. And that difference is about growing in both directions. So it's both increasing the number of high schools and it's reaching back into middle school, and then it's trying to deepen the number of students who become involved.
And part of the reason we pushed back into middle school was we realized that to accomplish a lot of the educational goals we needed, we were already past... By the time we got to the 9th grade, we were already past the point in which a lot of changes could be made. And if we really wanted to change a kid's identity so that their identity was about being smart, they valued being smart. We talk about it as flipping the cultural pyramid in the school, where normally in the culture of a school, the kid wants to be cool, and to be cool they have to not be smart. And if you have enough debaters in the school, it inverts that cultural pyramid so that now being smart becomes the thing they want to be and they seek that out and it becomes the way in which they make friends and they have social status. And once we've achieved that, that makes a huge difference to their motivations.
Catherine Day: So that notion of ... I've been very impressed too as a parent with how important is to up your game between that sixth grade year and into that middle school range of which I six and seven
Bob Groven: It's a big transition.
Catherine Day: And so that notion of this is when you're going to stretch to those new goals was really an essential change in her trajectory. So I'm really interested to hear how that becomes a strategy for a broader set of raising the bar for a number oof students. And if you're focusing on the city, what does that do in terms of our population? Who does that reach to then?
Bob Groven: So I'll start with the negative example of that. And I hate to say this, but we have had the reaction sometimes where we've gone into schools, sometimes these are schools that are Title 1 schools, very high levels of poverty, essentially. They receive ... Title 1 is a federal law where you receive extra funding because of the number of students in the program that are underneath the poverty line or within 180% of the poverty line. So we're in some schools where there are 70, 80, sometimes 93% of the students are receiving free and reduced lunch because of their family's socioeconomic status is. And we've had the reaction sometimes that. "Debate isn't for our kids. These kids can't do it. These kids, they won't ... They wouldn't be interested. "And to us that's a crisis of low expectations. That's essentially foreclosing for them before they've even had the chance to try some of the biggest options that they might have in our society.
Another way to think about it is from the positive side. We do presentations for a lot of law firms, for example. And one of the things that law firms in the Twin Cities are very concerned about is how can we diversify the workforce? How can we get more attorneys of color? How can we get more attorneys that are first generation to college? And when we look at it, a lot of the time, the problem isn't a problem of the pipeline. We're always talking about the pipeline and we're worried about discrimination in the pipeline. And that's a very important thing and we need to be worried about that.
But a lot of the time, the problem isn't the pipeline. A lot of the time the problem is the aquifer essentially, to continue that metaphor. There aren't enough students who want to do it and who have done the things they needed to do to be qualified in school to be eligible to go to college, to go to law school, to graduate from law school, to become a successful attorney. And so that's why our orientation towards middle school is a grow our own philosophy where we say we're going to have to reach all the way back to the critical years and start changing not just their habits and their skills, but changing who they think they are back in the sixth grade, or maybe even the fifth grade in some cases, so that who they become when they're thinking about going to college is fundamentally different because they've been thinking that way their entire adult life by that point.
The problem that I have with a lot of the normal college interventions that we use is there are, again, the pipeline metaphor. So they're about what stops a kid from applying to college? Is it the college fee? Is it that they don't apply ... They don't fill out the application? Or they don't know how to write a recommendation letter, or they get a recommendation written? And that's all good and that's very important work, but our point is that fundamentally, the issue comes before that. The issue comes in that are they a good enough student? Have they learned the fundamental skills that they're going to need when they get to college? Not just getting them into college, but will they be successful in college and then will they be successful after college? And that's about building a set of skills and a set of social emotional skills so that they deal with crisis different. They deal with their emotions differently. Conflict is directed into argument instead of being directed into violence or into disruption.
Catherine Day: So that leads us into this topic that you raised as a point of interest, which seems absolutely at the core of our what our culture needs so much, which is the art and skill of constructive arguments. And you are willing to wander into the political fray a bit, enough to say, are we really assessing adequately the two sides of any argument? Do we listen without knowing what side they're on, so to speak, to find any form of agreement, and how important is that to our future?
Bob Groven: I think that is the center of the future. That is what democracy requires to function. I think a lot of the time if you were to ask most Americans, "What is democracy?" They would say democracy is elections. And I would say that elections are only the coercive part of a huge process that comes up before the elections. To me, what matters isn't the election. The election is just the will of the majority. And if you think about it, the will of the majority has done terrible things throughout history.
The crucial part isn't the will of the majority expressing itself. The question is how did we get to people deciding what side they wanted to be on, who they wanted to vote for? And that's a process of being able to have information that's accurate, knowing that information, being able to interpret that information, and then being able to form it into arguments where we can test ideas with each other. And that requires not only a set of intellectual skills, it requires a set of social emotional skills. And I think that's one of the key things. For some reason, people think about argument as if it's a set thing, as if either you've got it or you don't. And my point is that argument is a skill.
It can be learned just like any other skill. But unfortunately, for the most part, we've stopped teaching that skill. We don't teach that skill in school very much and we don't teach that skill to adults very much. And so people are scared of it, so they don't want to have arguments with each other because they're afraid not only of it going badly, like everybody says what they're afraid of in the argument is they don't like the interpersonal friction, but I think there are other things they're afraid of too. Like for example, I think they're afraid of being shown to be wrong.
Catherine Day: That's the first thing that was on my ... Just as I was sitting here I thought, "Well, it's all about that exposure that we're wrong."
Bob Groven: Vulnerability.
Catherine Day: And we've made so much of our talk culture, in the media, is all about setting up right and wrong as opposed to listening, possibility, and exploration. It sounds like, when think narrowly about debate, I think of it narrowly as simple arguing, but really it's not. And especially because doesn't it require you to argue both sides?
Bob Groven: Yes.
Catherine Day: So you have to learn how to ... You don't even know which one you're going to be arguing.
Bob Groven: Yes, that's right.
Catherine Day: I was a debater in high school.
Bob Groven: Yes, that's excellent.
Catherine Day: So I remember. In fact, I can say that it was to promote the idea, should we have an Environmental Protection Agency?
Bob Groven: Yeah, got it.
Catherine Day: And that's rather relevant today because we have someone who's leaving that department. And I wouldn't be proud particularly to say that I helped promote the idea of the Environmental Protection Agency, under the current interpretation of it, let's say. But it's both sides of the argument. So anyway, so that fear of being wrong and being exposed as wrong, which I think is actually more. I mean it's the exposure part is a contributing factor anyway.
Bob Groven: Oh very definitely. But I don't think it's just the exposure. And I think it's definitely true, they don't want to be embarrassed in front of others. Certainly not in front of a crowd. But I actually think the core emotional dissonance that they feel is actually within themselves. I don't think it's being exposed to others. I think it's being exposed to themselves. That, "Here's this thing I thought was true. I've committed myself to this publicly. I've thought this for a long time, and now you're putting evidence in front of me that's making me worry that maybe I've been wrong this whole time and I've been telling people this and I've been acting based upon this."
That's a very scary thing. And depending upon what it is, it can also go right to the core of who you are, to your sense of your own identity. When I use the phrase constructive argument, to me, the centerpiece of a constructive argument is empathy. You have to be looking for what is right and true in your opponent, what is right and true in your enemy. There's almost always something that your opponent knows that you don't know. And even if you don't think that's true, at the very least, if you want to, to be Machiavellian about it, if you want to defeat them, you've got to understand what they think. You have to understand what their arguments are. And if you don't have the empathy to understand it, it'll never work.
Catherine Day: I actually just went to a movie where I was thinking about the opponent. I went to see the movie, The Favorite. The three primary characters, all of whom are women, are really looking at opponents. I mean, there is an opposition happening and so they are sussing out each other's weaknesses and strengths and vulnerabilities and playing through that. But rather than my example, I'd love to have an example of finding that empathy.
Bob Groven: So what you're talking about there in The Favorite, there's a difference between how rhetorical argument happens when it happens within an authoritarian system than when it happens in an open or a democratic system. So for example, what's going on there was referred to in Greece and Rome as the problem of [Perissia 00:17:54] or [perristatic 00:17:56] rhetoric, where the goal of the argument is only to convince the monarch. Do you see? They have to win the dictator's approval, and therefore the focus of the argument isn't on winning over the public, the demos. It's on winning over only the ruler. And as a result, the type of argument you use is completely different and often sycophantic and self-serving and not serving the public good.
Catherine Day: And May I just stopped to say, is there any relevance to our current situation between that condition and what we might be looking at as a democracy today?
Bob Groven: If the leaders become only concerned with arguments that please them rather than arguments which are in the public good, they will systematically distort the kinds of arguments that are made, and it will have a cascading effect where it moves down, not just from the advisors of the president, or the advisors of senators and congresspeople. It'll cascade down into the public discourse that we have, and people will get used to the idea that it's normal for people to make arguments only to please one's boss, one's leaders, instead of constructing arguments that are actually about what is the best thing for my city, my company, my university, my country?
Catherine Day: And to that point, it seems as though in the values we all have of what embodies an Augsburg education, it really is that what you're working to produce here ... Produce is the wrong word, but to-
Bob Groven: Create, yeah.
Catherine Day: Infuse and create are leaders who are focused on the good for the community rather than the good for themselves. Is that at the heart of this?
Bob Groven: Right. And not that the good for themselves has no role to play.
Catherine Day: Well, we all have to be cared for and do things that are good for us ourselves. That's a part of our holistic health.
Bob Groven: Absolutely. Absolutely. And democracy and free market economies depend upon the idea that most of the time when you're making a decision for what's right for me, it collectively represents the public good. But we know that that's not true all the time. We know that there are circumstances where what's good for me is bad for the majority of people. And there are different types of arguments and different types of evidence that is needed for the public good. And so at Augsburg, I think one of the things that we do very, very well is keeping the cause of the public good constantly in front of ourselves, both faculty and students, and frankly the students are doing that all the time for the faculty. They're constantly calling us out and reminding us that sometimes what's good for us as professors, who are in a very privileged position, isn't best for them, isn't best for the university, isn't best for the community.
That's one of the things I think that I'm proudest of. Not that we're always doing it the way we want to be doing it, but it's one of the things I'm proudest of about being at Augsburg actually is the way in which the public good is always at the center of what we're trying to accomplish, even if we're not always succeeding.
Catherine Day: You said there was the one form, which you described, that has its origins in the Greeks and so forth. And so let's talk about that other side.
Bob Groven: So I'll give you an example that it's a modern example this time. If people think about the climate change discussion, most of the time when people think about the climate change discussion, they believe that they are making the decision on the basis of the evidence. So if you ask somebody from the left side of the political spectrum, "Do you think that climate change exists and it's primarily caused by humans?" All the hands go up. They all say yes to that. And then I say, "Why do you think that?" And they say, "Well, because that's what all the evidence says. That's what all the research says."
And then I'll say, "Okay, so how many people in the room have ever actually read a climate change study?" And no hands will go up. And I say, "All right, so you haven't actually read the evidence. What makes you think that it's true that climate change is human created?" And they'll say, "Well, I've read about the evidence. I've heard about the evidence in the news." And I'm saying, "Okay, so then what it really is, it's a matter of which types of evidence you consider to be legitimate. And that really comes down to which types of authority do you consider to be legitimate." If I ask the same question to somebody who doesn't think that climate change is occurring or doesn't think that it's human created, they'll give almost the exact same answer.
They'll say, "Because I've been told by authority figures that I respect." Whether that's a political leader or a religious leader, they've been told it's not happening. It's a fraud. It's not as bad as what I think it is or it's not caused by humans. So here's an example of where people think that the argument that they're having is about details of scientific research, but what it's really about is a set of which authorities, which we call warrants, which kinds of authorities are you going to believe? And once you understand that that's what the argument is really about, now you can begin to move the argument forward and we can start to ask ourselves questions about, "Well, why do you believe that authority? Why don't you believe that authority? What do you know about that authority? Let's start to look at what makes a good authority, which authorities should we trust about which subjects?" And then we can have a very constructive discussion about that and we can move the discussion forward. If we don't do that, then we ended up in this binary position where we knock heads with each other, but we'll never actually be able to move the discussion forward.
Catherine Day: So is that particular discussion one that you would have in the Urban Debate League or do you have in one of your classrooms?
Bob Groven: Oh yeah. I use that exact example in my argumentation theory class. And in the Urban Debate League, we debated topic, which is a national topic for high school students. And it's always some topic of controversy. This year it was immigration, which was a very, very hot topic, very relevant in the news. Last year it was education reform, also very relevant. Not just relevant to the country, but relevant to these students' lives. They can see how immigration policy impacts their lives. And that, by the way, is another really valuable civic agency piece where the students can come to understand that what's going on in the news and what's happening in Washington DC has a direct impact on their lives so that they don't see it as just something out there and irrelevant that other people are dealing with.
Catherine Day: Do you think that motivates them into their finding their calling and how they might make a difference after they graduate?
Bob Groven: Oh, I know it does for a lot of them because that's the stories that they tell us. And after they graduate, that's the kind of work that they go on to do. And we've been around long enough now that we even have some of our alumni coming back and being able to give back. And we have a bunch of alumni that coach now. And when you ask our donors, "What is the primary reason that you're going to donate to the Urban Debate League?" Their first reason is, "I feel I need to give back. This activity gave me everything," they say. "This activity gave me my sense of who I am. It gave me my career. It often gave me my friends and I feel I need to give back. I owe this kind of debt to it as a community."
Catherine Day: You've got how many schools engaged now?
Bob Groven: 42 in the Twin Cities.
Catherine Day: In the Twin Cities?
Bob Groven: Yep.
Catherine Day: You said that goes to almost a thousand students then?
Bob Groven: 932 at our last count. Yeah, 932.
Catherine Day: How many of them end up coming to Augsburg? Have you been tracking the connection between them debating in school and ending up here?
Bob Groven: It's really hard to track it turns out because the way we're working on this right now with admissions, but the way in which they keep track of information when people apply doesn't actually have this category in it, so we don't actually know. But we know because we know who they are and then we see them show up on campus and sometimes they tell us. So we know that every year we're getting, oh, at least five students that are coming, sometimes double that. And we know that almost all of our students are going to college. We have a 99% to college rate. We have a 100% graduating from high school rate.
Catherine Day: Wow, if that isn't evidence of success. That's fantastic. So when you do a little dreaming about the change that someone could make for this program and the change that this program could make, would you describe a couple of those as you see it?
Bob Groven: I'll kind of break it into different pieces. So the Urban Debate League is one thing, and I'll come back to that in a minute, but I think the most important thing that I'm talking about relating to constructive argument is the way in which constructive argument can make each person's life better. You can live a more satisfying life. You can feel better, you can have better relationships. I feel, especially after the 2016 election, I feel as though we have hundreds of millions of people walking around with his sort of knot in their stomach in which they feel, regardless of which side of the election you are on.
Catherine Day: Yeah, it's not a one-sided deal.
Bob Groven: That's right, people feel it anyway. They have this knot a frustration and emotion that's pent up inside of them. And that frustration is the direct result of feeling either that, "I haven't been able to successfully express myself, the things I think are true and right. I need to be able to express those in a cogent, powerful way." Or they are that, "All these other people believe all these other things that I think are so terribly wrong, and I don't understand why." I would say after the 2016 election, that was one of the primary things that people asked me. They said, "Why would anybody believe X? Why would anybody vote for Y?" And so then we would have this discussion in which we would, using empathy, try to reach out, put ourselves in our opponent's perspective, understand what values they bring, what authority sources they believe in, what arguments they therefore are making, why they're making those arguments.
And you could just see it on people's faces. They would relax, that knot would come unbound. They would feel so much better. Now, nothing had changed. They hadn't convinced anybody, they hadn't been convinced themselves, but they understood. The empathy had given them access to a level of understanding about other people which made the world seem a little more sensible, a little more rational to them. The other problem, of course, is that people feel suppressed if they have these ideas, but they don't know how to marshal the evidence to prove their point, or they don't know how to marshal the language to prove their point. And if you can teach somebody how to be able to articulate their evidence and how to support their point of view, again, you can just see they feel liberated. You can see it on their face and their body the way they suddenly become energized by that. So I'd say that's the big thing. That's the most important thing and that undergirds everything else.
But it plays out, it easily spills over into how does our political discourse get constructed? And then from an Urban Debate League perspective, there's an additional level because we're dealing with students there who not all of them, but most of them are marginalized in one way or the other. Socioeconomically or ethnically or racially. There are many forces in society that are trying to push them away from the centers of power. And by giving them the skills that debate gives them, they're able to push their way back to the center of power. And by doing that, they're able to name their own power and claim that power and then be able to use it to actually accomplish the goals that seem important to them. Not the goals that somebody else is telling them they ought to be pursuing. And I mean, that's true liberation. That's true empowerment.
Catherine Day: Do you talk at all about the forms of power with them?
Bob Groven: Oh, extensively. So in high school debate, especially. In middle school, that doesn't come up as much. Although, it's funny, even in middle school sometimes you'll see ... Watching middle schoolers' debates is just hilarious because some of them are as young as 11 years old. But you'll see an 11 or a 12 year old student sitting there and they'll be like playing with their shoe laces while they're talking about constitutional law. And it's just so cute.
Catherine Day: Do they even have shoelaces anymore? I'm sorry.
Bob Groven: Yeah, mostly Velcro. But no, actually there's a bunch of shoes where it's fashionable again.
Catherine Day: Oh, okay. It's fashionable. Good.
Bob Groven: But they'll say things where they'll recognize that you have to listen to me. And so when we do focus groups or we do interviews with them and we say, "What do you like about debate?" One of the first things that most middle schoolers will actually say is, "It's a space where adults, teachers, powerful people have to listen to me. They stop talking, the adults stop talking and I get to talk, and I get to talk to other students, and that makes me feel powerful." I mean, and so even though they don't have the sophistication to articulate in a theoretical way, they understand what it feels like. They're living it. On the high school level, it's way more sophisticated and I've ... There are many, many arguments we have about what is the role of power in society. And in fact, critical theory has become a huge tool that's used in debate in which they use critical theory to deconstruct how power functions in virtually every way you can imagine, from how does the legal system deal with people from different race and ethnic groups to how does patriarchy play itself out? How does a American power play itself out worldwide? How does socioeconomic power, poverty play itself out in subtle forms of power across society?
So yes, it's a huge part of it. And I think that's part of why debate resonates for a lot of these kids, because things are happening to them. They see the way power is functioning, but they can't articulate it. They don't have the vocabulary for it. They don't have a theory that helps them to explain it. And they read this and over and over again, you see kids have this aha moments where they're saying, "That's why that happened. That's why I feel that way. That's why my family is that way. That's why I couldn't get X job." Or whatever it was that they were looking for.
Catherine Day: So it helps teach them that there are systems at work and that it's not all about an individual?
Bob Groven: That's right.
Catherine Day: And that fundamentally seems like a very valuable lesson that you're just infusing into them. That the systems, while difficult to change, do have to change one way or another. I mean I was listening to someone, they were talking about the heat in Arizona. And they said, "Well, you know, they couldn't move the airplanes because of the heat and at some point things are going to melt." And all of which are systems. And if a force greater than that forces that change, then we have to systematically adapt back. And that's a relationship of power.
Bob Groven: Oh, it's completely a relationship with power. One of the most popular critical theorists that's used in debate is a French philosopher named Michel Foucault, who one of his ... I mean he says many important things, but one of the things he says is that the most powerful systemic constraints are invisible and they're not invisible by accident. They're invisible because they've been constructed to be invisible, because they know that they're able to wield the power and insulate themselves from attack and criticism by rendering themselves invisible.
And so, one of the first steps that the debaters learn is how to deconstruct that invisibility, how to render visible what was invisible. Because once it's visible, now I can name it, now I can describe it. And it's not always going to be bad. Sometimes those structures of power, Foucault talks about many of those structures of power are very important. They're necessary for society to function. But unless we know what they are, we can't make choices about them. We can't decide whether I think that's good or bad, whether I want that to continue or not.
Catherine Day: You know what made me think, I'm very interested in forms of power, so I think about it a lot. And one of my favorite expressions of it was listening to Parker Palmer, the philosopher and teacher. But he in a lecture I heard probably 20 years ago at St Kate's, he said, "Do you want to use your power as a ladder? Do you want to use your power as a bridge? Do you want to ... How do you want to use your power?" And that is a major factor in thinking about how to ... As I think about what you're doing with your students, you're teaching them that they have a choice in how they do that.
Bob Groven: That's exactly it. I'll just add one more thing there that I think that what you're pointing to there, and what a lot of Parker Palmer's writing helped us to do, that critical theory is not always so good at and I think this is a problem we see my students and our debaters wrestle with quite a bit, is what is then the role of the individual in these systems of power? So if we recognize systemic problems of power, what's the individual supposed to do with that? And a lot of the time, the mistake that's made is to think that the individual has no role, to essentially re-victimize, to put the individual back in a position of being powerless again.
And I think that one of the things that learning how to have constructive arguments does is it recognizes the power of that individual as it fits within vast systems of power that you didn't create, but you are certainly subject to. And so what can you do about that? Well, having the ability to argue about it in a positive, constructive way is one of the most powerful things that any individual can know how to do.
Catherine Day: In several of these podcasts, we've heard the term agency.
Bob Groven: Yep. That's a big one for Augsburg.
Catherine Day: And what you're really expressing ... It's a big one for Augsburg, and you've certainly done a wonderful job of helping remind us of the power of individual agency. So I thank you, Bob for your conversation today.
Bob Groven: It's my pleasure.
Catherine Day: We've been speaking with Bob Groven, co-chair of communication studies, film and new media, and the director of the Minnesota Urban Debate League. I'm Catherine Day, and this is the Augsburg podcast.
Paul Pribbenow: Thanks for listening to the Augsburg podcast. I'm President Paul Pribbenow. For more information, please visit Augsburg.edu.