Sunday, December 20, 2009

Days 2 & 3 at WDI Sponsored Iraq Debate Academy

Group photo on day 3

Hello from Duhok, Iraq.

With any debate program that is primarily for new debaters and people debating for the first time, there is some attrition. People discover that they will actually have to give speeches and that they will have to debate each other on a variety of subjects, some of them about which they hold strong opinions. I am not sure why they think they will not have to speak at a debate workshop, but there are always a few that are surprised. This is one of the reasons why I think day two of any such program is very important. Because I want to see what will happen.

We had about 84 students attend the first day, and almost the same number came the second day. Some did fade away, but as many came for the first time on day two as vanished. This was very encouraging. It tells me that we are doing a good job of introducing them to debate in a friendly and non-0threatening way, but it also speaks about their courage and determination. We did have one team who said they were very interested in debating, but not interested in sitting through instruction sessions in how to debate. This seemed strange to me, but they were very firm in this, and walked out when we tried to get them to go to a session on basic proposition strategy. They demanded to be scheduled for the debate the morning of day three, and they were, but they did not appear and I replaced them with another team that was there and anxious to debate. I knew from the beginning that their claims sounded hollow, and that is how it worked out. My organizational partners were sad to see them go because they were members of a key ethnic minority and one of the missions here is to bring the different parts of Iraq together.

Day two began with the formation of teams. People gathered and mixed, and then they had formed four-person teams they came to me with the list of names and I gave them a tem number. As soon as I had a decent amount of teams I began assigning them to sides and rooms. They had all prepared the day before on the motion; This House believes that university education should not be free. We phrased it this way because currently in Iraq it is free. I hate having “not” on the motion but I wanted the proposition team to oppose the Iraqi status quo. We had spent time the first day brainstorming and preparing major arguments for this motion. The bus from the hotel where students not from the area was a bit late, but still we had all debates assigned by the scheduled start time. Many of you know that I really want things to run on time (and with Bojana in the group she demands it) and that some say that in this culture people are just not on time. At lunch we had this conversation with the students, and they got better. Teams that arrived after we had a full slate of debates (the workshop was designed for about 50 students, so 80+ puts a strain on things) were assigned to be judges for the existing debates. I think that the teams who were really anxious and ready to debate who showed up too late to get a debating slot learned a lesson from this. As I often say, those who show up run the world.

The first debates were a mixed bag. Some went well and people spoke for their full time, some others did not speak for their full time, and a few had people terrified to speak but we encouraged them and got them to speak and make at least some arguments, telling them that they will get better as the workshop goes on. The arguments that they used were fairly creative and I was encouraged on that account. The debate was followed by a long critique by the faculty. I want to say here that everyone on the faculty is doing a great job. They are patient, they are considerate and they are effective. We all feel like we need to learn from them as well as teach, and especially the Americans do not want to be too dominating because of the USA-Iraq past. They are, in my mind, a “band of heroes,” people who bought their own plane tickets to come here out of a devotion to debating and faith in the young people of Iraq. Jonathan Borack of NYC Debate, Megan Harlow of Bard College, Jason Jarvis of Georgia State University, Bojana Skrt of ZIP Slovenia, Matt Stannard of the University of Wyoming are all great. I am proud to be among them. The students did not really know about this, so during the lunch announcements I explained to the students that we were volunteers who were not being paid and had covered our own travel. We are volunteers just like they are.

I had made several appeals for funding to former debaters who I know have the wherewithal to spare some funds, and while they were all encouraging none of them came up with any money. I am sure it was my fault for not trying hard enough and not making the right sort of appeal, but it would have been nice to have a couple of more trainers so that everyone could debate every time. We had some awesome people who were willing to come, but they simply did not have the $2000+ to spare that it takes to get here. It is hard to ask people for an event that has never happened before, especially in such a conflict prone region, so maybe we will do better if and when we try again. All of that, of course will depend on the will and determination of the local organizers. It must, first and foremost, be their program and we should just assist.

We have lunch in the Duhok University College of Law cafeteria, a spacious room that unfortunately has lots of echoes. The food is plentiful, healthy and tasty. On days one and two we had chicken prepared indifferent ways, along with vegetables and the characteristic flatbread of the region, always served hot. It is served on a plate, not buffet style. The lunch is a great time because you can see everyone swapping and comparing stories and experiences. As faculty, we just try to swap evaluations of different students and their problems so that we can track them and adapt to them more effectively.

After lunch on day two we had brainstorming on the motion for the next morning, This House would support inter-cultural marriage. This is a very hot topic here, especially in such an ethnically diverse region as Iraq. The students had many interesting ideas, and I dare say that the faculty learned a lot from them about the cultural situation. Many students, for example, believed that there are no people who do not believe in god or a god concept, and of course there are a few of us as trainers who share that belief. We also learned that some families might actually kill their children (especially daughters) before allowing them to inter-marry. Others spoke of the power of love and the need for intercultural understanding. It was a very good session, and many of the trainers were absolutely ecstatic about their sessions.

We had found some extra classrooms and invited students to stay after hours for additional instruction if they wished. Many had night classes to go to and others had transportation arrangements they had to meet, but about 12 people remained. The faculty staged a mixed student-faculty debate on the motion; This House believes that Barack Obama should not have received the Peace Prize. It was apparently a very entertaining debate and everyone seemed to love the experience.

In the evening I was fairly tired after a day of organizing, forming debates, begging for extra classrooms, etc. It was a difficult day for me because I did not really do much teaching, but mainly organizing and guiding. While the other trainers got to have good experiences with students, most of mine were less than good. Some people do not want to go to their assigned room, a very few others are obviously here because they have been told to be here not because they want to be here, others decided immediately they do not like their debate partners, others have no confidence in their English (it is interesting to hear someone explain to you in perfect diction why their English is inadequate), etc. I had to cope with these issues, but then somebody has to do it and I guess that is me.

Some of the faculty went out for pizza (I don’t like pizza) and then went to a hookah bar (no alcohol) and smoked some amazing citrus tobacco out of a cold carved pineapple. They said the establishment was almost psychedelic in its d├ęcor. Megan was the only female in the place.

Thus ended day two.

Day three dawned as clearer and brighter, as we had nothing but rain since the start of the program. The trainers met in the restaurant of our hotel for breakfast. It is a very nice hotel (Hotel Jiyan) and we are thankful to the governor of Duhok province for his sponsorship. Iraqi breakfast involves soft warm bred rolls, a delicious yellow lentil soup, hard boiled eggs, olives, jams, cheeses, yogurts and a selection of fresh vegetables. The coffee is good, especially when you special order the Kurdish coffee.

A van picks us up and drives us each day to the campus of Duhok University. It is a large and rapidly growing campus. Construction seems to be the main activity all over Iraq. It seems like a good 30% of all buildings are in the process of being constructed. One day we had a small traffic jam and the other two days all was fine.

Things went smoother the third day. The debates started in a more timely fashion, people spoke for longer and had far better arguments. They really are getting the hang of it. I finally got to do some instruction and judged a debate where students poke the whole time, though two of them needed more encouragement to keep on speaking, but they did. They began to use research they had gathered, personal and historical examples, and found other ways to support their arguments, Some students are already accomplished public speakers, while others are getting better. I found my debaters to be delightful and engaging. Some of them lack confidence in their ability, and when encouraged and when others show confidence in them they find that they can, indeed, speak for their full time and making solid arguments. It was a learning moment for all of us. I learned more about Islamic family customs and practices, while they learned that the appeal to divine law is not appropriate in an intercultural context such as international debating. I told them that they must prepare to debate other nations, because the voice of young Iraq must be heard. They liked this idea, and understood that we need to find common group in logic and reasoning while remaining tolerant and considerate of cultural differences. As many of our students are Kurds, they have already experienced prejudice and intolerance so this is a lesson that they can easily relate to.

After the debate and a short break they adjourned to small groups to learn about opposition strategy. Teams receive motions, work on arguments, and then share them with the group. This sort of activity seems to work well in almost every context where we have tried it. They learn from other students about their motions as well as about their own, and the trainers can guide them in their explorations.

Lunch was, as usual, chicken, rice, vegetables and bread. It finishes with a cup of sweet tea. I got evaluations of the debate performances of teams from all of the trainers and then worked a bit on the next day’s practice debate schedule.

Muhammad Ahmad had been on Kurdish television this morning and he was excited that his supposed 20-minute spot had swelled to an hour. Of course, they will edit it down, but it is a good indication of their interest. They seemed very interested in the motions that we were debating. Muhammad was, at lunch, concerned about the certificates, especially about getting the names correct as well as making sure that only those who complete the program receive them. It is also time to start thinking of the tournament, the Mesopotamian Debating Championship, that will begin tomorrow afternoon. In an announcement before the afternoon session he talked to them about how they need to register to represent their universities and what will be expected of them. We assume that there will be some attrition but one never knows given the determination of these students. My hope is that there will be some attrition because of a shortage of judges and because it would not be possible to flight the rounds. There will be three rounds and then a final round. After Muhammad’s announcements the group gathered for a photo. It is historic. It is the beginning of the Iraq Debate experience!

As I write this day three is coming to an end, even though there will be some additional instruction today after hours. I am now taking the practice debate schedule for tomorrow to the groups for them to examine and then it will be time to go back to the hotel. Tonight Bojana and I have been invited to have dinner with the governor of Duhok and we have accepted.

More on that and other matters later.

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