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A Debate Performance Laid Bare

A Debate Performance Laid Bare
August 14, 2008

It's a performance that gives new meaning to the word "cross-examination."

An argument between two debate coaches escalates into a war of words, each showering the other with a string of obscenities before an audience of seemingly unfazed students. Before long, one coach has mooned the other, and the video -- posted to YouTube -- continues recording the spectacle of two communication professors stomping their feet, flailing their arms and shouting at the top of their lungs.

The video, which has racked up over 11,000 views since Aug. 2, raises more questions than it answers, such as, What prompted the head of Fort Hays State University's cross-examination debate team, Bill Shanahan, to drop his pants and expose his rear to his rhetorical opponent, the University of Pittsburgh debate director Shanara Reid-Brinkley? Why did it take almost six months for the video hit the Web? And what was the dispute about, anyway?

While neither professor could be reached, it appears that the argument involved teams' ability to "strike" judges they believe have historically given them lower scores. One of the teams struck a judge who was African American and female, Fort Hays State provost Larry Gould told a local station, "and that set the thing off." While it's unclear who started the ruckus, the video begins with an off-screen Shanahan, apparently responding to facial expressions from the off-screen Reid-Brinkley, asking rhetorically, "Is this bullshit, Shanara? Is this bullshit?"

"Fort Hays State does not condone the behavior or the language in that video. What Bill did in terms of mooning the audience and the foul language is something we don’t approve of," Gould said in a separate interview with Inside Higher Ed.

The department chair and a dean are conducting an investigation into what prompted the incident, he said, which will include interviews with people seen in the almost nine minutes of posted footage. The university wants to gather all the facts before deciding on any official response, he continued, "if we do anything at all."

Another question the video raises -- whether it's staged -- appears to be moot. Shanahan himself told the previous department chair that something had happened at the tournament in March, according to Gould, but "obviously there was more to it" than what he let on at the time. "We don’t know why there was such a lengthy period in between the actual incident" and the publicity over it, he said.

A University of Pittsburgh spokesman said: “We’re aware of the situation and we’re looking into it.”

Shanahan, who in the video is barefoot, wearing shorts and a ponytail, has an apparent history of outbursts. The Hays Daily News reported that he has been arrested for battery on at least two occasions, one of which stemmed from a dispute with his eye doctor.

"Bill is a nonconformist, you can probably tell from the video," said Gould, who's known Shanahan for most of the professor's 13 years at the university. "He’s a maverick, and he’s very productive in everything he does ... and accordingly he’s very passionate about what he does." His teaching evaluations are "really very good," he said, and "most" students (but not all, he conceded) enjoy his "provocative style."

"My concern was for the students, though I obviously represented them poorly in this situation," Shanahan told another local station. "I am a passionate person and sometimes my devotion to debate and intellectual engagement gets the better of me."

Reid-Brinkley was brought on as Pittsburgh's debate director in 2007. According to the announcement, her "University of Georgia doctoral dissertation explores how debaters use innovative forms of argumentation, such as hip hop music, to challenge prevailing norms of argument practice and press for a more racially inclusive intercollegiate policy debate community."

 

 

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