Harvard Debate Team Loses to Maximum Security Prisoners
October 7, 2015 10:06 AM   Subscribe

Harvard's debate team won the world championship in 2014 and the national championship in 2015, but lost to a team at the Eastern New York Correctional Facility, a maximum-security state prison. The debate program at Eastern is part of the Bard Prison Initiative, which teaches classes in six prisons across New York "to redefine the relationship between educational opportunity and criminal justice."

The topic was "Public schools in the United States should have the ability to deny enrollment to undocumented students." The inmates argued the affirmative, despite disagreeing with it.

Graduates of the Bard Prison Initiative have a recidivism rate less than 5 percent of other prisoners in New York.
posted by Etrigan (44 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
 
"There are few teams we are prouder of having lost a debate to than the phenomenally intelligent and articulate team we faced this weekend," they wrote. "And we are incredibly thankful to Bard and the Eastern New York Correctional Facility for the work they do and for organizing this event.""

Wow, that's great response. (and upon googling "prouder" is acceptable usage...did not know that...)
posted by Annika Cicada at 10:14 AM on October 7, 2015 [9 favorites]


"Articulate" has an unfortunate history of being a dog whistle, so it's hard for me not to read that into Harvard's statement although in my heart I don't think that was intentional.
posted by absalom at 10:38 AM on October 7, 2015 [20 favorites]


Sounds like Harvard needs to brush up on its Significance, Harms, Inherency, Topicality, and Solvency.
posted by drezdn at 10:40 AM on October 7, 2015 [5 favorites]


I'm glad that 'reform' is gaining traction again over 'punishment' in prisons, at least in this case. Many crimes are the result of bad education, bad upbringing and lack of opportunity those bring.

So it is better to attempt to adjust and prepare than to allow the time to be lost or, worse, used to raise a better criminal.

Some, of course, either can't or won't change. But the rest can be given skills, knowledge and social understanding which they can use to help themselves afterwards. In the best of worlds, we as a society could use prison to actually better these people and directly society, too. In the best of worlds, we would have a prison system where, when one came out of it with the propper recomendations, an employer would say: "Ah, great! A reformed inmate! I want him in my company, because in prison he learned skills, both relevant to this field as well as social ones above and beyond what most people have merely aqcuired along the way, because he has actually had to study and workshop them. His rap-sheet has recommendations from his instructors, telling me he actually can apply these things. Now where can I get another well trained in-mate?"

Of course, such reform is unlikely in many, but to have a few like that, to have more behave less violently and more ready for society, to have a real skill? In a better world...
posted by MacD at 10:42 AM on October 7, 2015 [4 favorites]


the phenomenally intelligent and articulate team

Articulate. Not bright and clean and nice-looking as well? Yeah, you'd have to be living under a rock not to understand the problems with that word. No wonder they lost. But that's besides the point really. It would seem that the Harvard team was beaten by hard work which is even more embarrassing for them.

“If we win, it’s going to make a lot of people question what goes on in here,” said Alex Hall, a 31-year-old from Manhattan convicted of manslaughter. “We might not be as naturally rhetorically gifted, but we work really hard.”
posted by three blind mice at 10:48 AM on October 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


"Articulate" has an unfortunate history of being a dog whistle, so it's hard for me not to read that into Harvard's statement although in my heart I don't think that was intentional.

Not only is it highly unlikely to have been an intentional slight, being articulate is directly related to debating success. Debaters call each other articulate all the time.
posted by jb at 10:50 AM on October 7, 2015 [61 favorites]


"Articulate" has an unfortunate history of being a dog whistle, so it's hard for me not to read that into Harvard's statement although in my heart I don't think that was intentional.

One of the major areas of the competition was articulateness, so I think they can be forgiven.
posted by Etrigan at 10:50 AM on October 7, 2015 [18 favorites]


Yeah, I have to vote that while "articulate" is bad in almost all contexts, I'm not sure that debate - where articulateness is one of the explicit criteria, is in fact one of those cases.
posted by mercredi at 10:59 AM on October 7, 2015 [11 favorites]


Consider the point well articulated.
posted by y2karl at 11:02 AM on October 7, 2015 [7 favorites]


A note (from his facebook) on the discussion of his teams win from the coach at the Bard Prison Initiative (a friend of mine from my own debate days who is friends with him shared it):

"Please consider sharing this status. As the coach of our Bard team at the Eastern NY Correctional Facility, I would like to thank the members of the Harvard College Debating Union who debated our students on Sep 18. It seems that the world is enjoying the fact that a team from Harvard lost a debate, and that somehow a kind of justice has been achieved. The Harvard students who participated in this debate deserve recognition, praise, and respect. These students defy the stereotyped people want to place on them. Please stop hating them for excelling at school and spending a Friday afternoon engaging prisoners in a debate. They are real young people with real feelings, and they are not who so many people sharing this story want them to be."

Straight up class.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 11:05 AM on October 7, 2015 [60 favorites]


^ eponysterical
posted by Grandysaur at 11:08 AM on October 7, 2015 [7 favorites]


My undergrad institution, a SLAC, recently had a donor contribute a significant amount to run a prison degree program. Apparently one of the big problems is getting guard buy-in. There is approval from the top, but some of the guards are apparently not thrilled about inmates getting free expensive educations that outstrip what most of the guards have. Without guard support, or at least the absence of active hostility, the program will not work. They are still trying to figure out how to deal with this, but are considering ways to have some guards participate as well, either in classes with inmates or some separate system. Then there are questions about whether the donor's money could be used for the guards, it's all very interesting. I'll probably talk to the administrator involved again next summer and I'll be curious what they ended up doing.

Also:
Articulate. Not bright and clean and nice-looking as well? Yeah, you'd have to be living under a rock not to understand the problems with that word. No wonder they lost. But that's besides the point really. It would seem that the Harvard team was beaten by hard work which is even more embarrassing for them.


That's remarkably uncharitable. The Harvard team's response was certainly reasonable, if not exemplary, and they went out of their way to say they were not embarrassed by this loss. Or at least that this loss was less embarrassing than the bulk of the others.
posted by Across the pale parabola of joy at 11:10 AM on October 7, 2015 [14 favorites]


Articulate. Not bright and clean and nice-looking as well? Yeah, you'd have to be living under a rock not to understand the problems with that word.

Or in a three bed semi apparently. Care to explain?
posted by biffa at 11:11 AM on October 7, 2015


One of the major areas of political competition is articulateness as well, but when Biden and GWB (among others) have used it to describe Obama, it has raised eyebrows at the very least. Even when people use it in good faith with no intent to damn with faint praise, even in contexts where being articulate is expected, it comes off that way. It's not like there's a shortage of other words we can use. Eloquent is still good!
posted by tonycpsu at 11:12 AM on October 7, 2015


looks like "articulate" is a liberal dogwhistle just as much as it is a conservative one! Have you people never actually debated? Inarcticulate debaters lose debates because they can't sway opinions.

But you know, fuckit, let's just jump up our own asses and call this message of congratulations tacitly racist because that's probably how we feel deep down about Harvard anyway. Because we all know how much racists love talking with and debating maximum security prisoners to start with.
posted by boo_radley at 11:18 AM on October 7, 2015 [19 favorites]


Even when people use it in good faith with no intent to damn with faint praise, even in contexts where being articulate is expected, it comes off that way.

Then perhaps the issue is the with listener, not the speaker.

But we so rarely judge ourselves as quickly, or as harshly, as we do others.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 11:21 AM on October 7, 2015 [6 favorites]


Articulate. Not bright and clean and nice-looking as well? Yeah, you'd have to be living under a rock not to understand the problems with that word.

Or in a three bed semi apparently. Care to explain?


There's a long history of sportswriters and -casters describing black athletes as "articulate" and basically never calling white athletes that. It's dog-whistley because it passively sets up an expectation that all the other black athletes are grunting animals.
posted by Etrigan at 11:27 AM on October 7, 2015


Then perhaps the issue is the with listener, not the speaker.

The historical record of it being used to demean people of color is very clear. Take it up with the people who poisoned the word by using it that way in the first place.
posted by tonycpsu at 11:32 AM on October 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


Cheers Etrigan, I think it must be a US thing.
posted by biffa at 11:37 AM on October 7, 2015 [1 favorite]




Graduates of the Bard Prison Initiative have a recidivism rate less than 5 percent of other prisoners in New York.

I've heard that Toastmasters Prison Clubs also have a very good record of low recidivism. I wonder if it's cause or effect. (i.e. do constructive activities attract the "best" prisoners, or do they turn around prisoners who were otherwise on a bad path)
posted by theorique at 11:40 AM on October 7, 2015 [7 favorites]




There is approval from the top, but some of the guards are apparently not thrilled about inmates getting free expensive educations that outstrip what most of the guards have.

Considering Prison Guard is one of the few jobs you can get with a high school diploma (i.e. free government education), this doesn't surprise me. I don't see it as unreasonable to give guards the same opportunities.
posted by The Power Nap at 11:47 AM on October 7, 2015 [4 favorites]


Boo, man, we go way back and have had a lot of good times in a lot of different contexts.... So, knowing me in these several contexts, let me suggest that "But you know, fuckit, let's just jump up our own asses and call this message of congratulations tacitly racist because that's probably how we feel deep down about Harvard anyway," is an absolutely unfair and intentionally hyperbolic and uncharitable reading of "'Articulate' has an unfortunate history of being a dog whistle, so it's hard for me not to read that into Harvard's statement although in my heart I don't think that was intentional."

One of the (many) problems with the way that racism has both co-opted and corrupted language is that even mentioning how that initial corruption poisons even innocent contexts is responded to with visceral and reactionary anger. The word "articulate" is such a poisoned well in the context of people of color - blacks specifically - it can't help but undercut even honest, appropriate, and complementary uses of the term.
posted by absalom at 11:49 AM on October 7, 2015 [10 favorites]


Though I wish we'd create more effective pathways into the higher education system instead of more effective pathways into the private for profit prison system.

Sighs. That's a whole other discussion I know.
posted by Annika Cicada at 11:51 AM on October 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


the guards can have the same (free) educational opportunities when their unions agree to deals paying them $0.18/hr like the inmates.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 11:58 AM on October 7, 2015 [3 favorites]


The Harvard debaters called their opponents "phenomenally intelligent and articulate". I think cherrypicking the last word from their rather gracious statement and bludgeoning them with it is probably the worst possible direction for this thread to take. Debates are won, inter alia, on how articulate the participants are, so it's a perfectly apt compliment in this context. But yes, a bunch of jackass commentators have used it in racist, patronizing, and derogatory ways, so I suppose you could argue (though I'd disagree) that it's now a permanently tainted word.

But the point is now well and truly made. As Exceptional_Hubris noted above, the coach of the Bard Prison Initiative team already came out with a call for people to lay off impugning the character and motives of their opponents. So maybe we can also move past the cheap, crappy, low-hanging fruit comments.
posted by informavore at 12:02 PM on October 7, 2015 [17 favorites]


absalom: "Boo, man, we go way back and have had a lot of good times in a lot of different contexts.... So, knowing me in these several contexts"

This is fine and good and I love you like knuckleheads from old times, and I think if we as a community had been able to get past that one word, taken, as you say, out of its context, I wouldn't have had such a negative reaction. This is to say, that there's no reaction from me to you directly, but towards everyone making the same tropic response regardless of prior discussion. Look at how many mefites are unable to process or comment about anything else but the problematic nature of the word "articulate". This sort of keyword-based commentary response is agonizing in my mind. People feel like they have to comment on that, instead of the underdog story, the graceful acknowledgement, nothing else. Having this thread rehash a well-worn referendum isn't interesting or useful, especially when it overshadows the actual story.

absalom: "The word "articulate" is such a poisoned well in the context of people of color - blacks specifically - it can't help but undercut even honest, appropriate, and complementary uses of the term."

I dislike strongly the idea that we should allow racists to coopt good, meaningful words, but I can't even disagree that the word "articulate" is fraught territory any more. However, if we look at an example grading rubric from a debate club, there's an entire section on "Tone of voice, clarity of expression, precision of arguments all contribute to keeping audience’s attention and persuading them of the team’s case.". That's -- in part -- about articulation. It's relevant to the context of the activity and only those who are well outside of the context could see it as a negative.
posted by boo_radley at 12:21 PM on October 7, 2015 [5 favorites]


If you are complaining about the use of "articulate" in this hyper-specific context, did you first check to see what was the racial make up of the prison debate team or did you automatically assume that the participating inmates were black?
posted by Falconetti at 12:26 PM on October 7, 2015 [16 favorites]


The word 'articulate' has, of course, been, uh, elevated by being used by the Vice-President to compliment the President*.

Joe Biden, on Barack Obama:

"I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man."

(* This was in January 2007, before either man was serving in either role.)
posted by theorique at 12:27 PM on October 7, 2015


Without guard support, or at least the absence of active hostility, the program will not work. They are still trying to figure out how to deal with this, but are considering ways to have some guards participate as well, either in classes with inmates or some separate system.

Guards don't have that much power. Guards do whatever their supervisors (the prison warden, etc.) require them to do. How can guards make a program like this fail?

In my (extensive) experience with state prisons, guards are often not much higher in socio-economic class from the people they are guarding, and a college education (especially an elite liberal arts education) will largely be out of reach for them. So I agree that an unfairness perception may exist.

But I don't understand how "guard buy in" is necessary for a program like this to work.
posted by jayder at 12:29 PM on October 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


Guards, like most low-level workers, have no formal power. However, in real terms they have a great deal of power indeed.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 12:36 PM on October 7, 2015 [19 favorites]


Articulate. Not bright and clean and nice-looking as well? Yeah, you'd have to be living under a rock not to understand the problems with that word

Don't underestimate the number of Harvard undergraduates who live under rocks.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 12:54 PM on October 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


But I don't understand how "guard buy in" is necessary for a program like this to work.

"Sorry, professor, but all of the guys in your class are in lockdown."
"All of them?"
"Yyyep."
posted by Etrigan at 12:59 PM on October 7, 2015 [5 favorites]


Does anyone know if this is parli or policy (I couldn't tell from the articles)? The framing made me think this was policy, but I don't see tubs.
posted by Tentacle of Trust at 1:08 PM on October 7, 2015


The Harvard team displayed great sportsmanship, and seeing how much the media have crowed about this loss, I begin to understand why people say things like "I went to school in Boston" instead of mentioning Harvard. It reminds me of a friend who chuckled when his dog crapped in Harvard Yard and was all pleased to leave the poop there. I should have ask him exactly which highly-privileged student he thought was going to have to clean that up, versus the likely hard-working under-privileged groundskeeper.

The Bard program seems great, and the fact that the Harvard team is willing to spend their free time debating prisoners and being gracious about losing speaks highly of all of them.
posted by ldthomps at 1:15 PM on October 7, 2015 [3 favorites]


It would sure suck if we got hung up on discussing the potential latent negative implications of using a word in a way that overshadowed the awesome achievements of the people we are defending from said implications.
posted by Phire at 1:24 PM on October 7, 2015 [17 favorites]


So for the movie version, will we get Burt Reynolds as a former pro debater pressed into being captain of the prison debate team?
posted by happyroach at 1:33 PM on October 7, 2015 [3 favorites]


Does anyone know if this is parli or policy (I couldn't tell from the articles)? The framing made me think this was policy, but I don't see tubs.

The speed with which people talking about debate stop using normal English words makes it clear why being articulate is praised.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 1:51 PM on October 7, 2015 [7 favorites]


wrt the format of the debate it is, i think, neither stricly parli (parliamentary) nor policy (or cross-examination debate as it is also known). According to their website Bard's non-prison debaters compete in Parli and MUN (Model United Nations). I know that the director of the prison debate program has background in policy/cx and the website describes the prison debates as "public-style" debates which appears to not be a term of art - a google search for the term links to Bard's site as the sixth hit.

It seems most likely to be an adapted form of Public Forum debate, though i'd love to hear more if someone has more reliable information.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 2:18 PM on October 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


The Harvard site says, "Harvard College Debate Union is Harvard's Parliamentary debating Union. We compete weekly in APDA and BP Tournaments as well as public debates." (I don't know if that helps clarify anything!)

They also have a tab (one of only seven) for "Equity," and that page says:
Harvard College Debate Union is committed to ensuring that all members have equal access to the team. We actively try to recruit and train those who have been marginalized in debate in the past, including ethnic minorities, women and gender minorities, those from high schools with less funding or households with lower socio-economic status, those who identify as BGLTQ, and those who have disabilities and chronic illnesses. We take any and all instances of discrimination seriously.

Here is a word from out Equity Officer, Vegas Longlois:
Hi y'all,

My job is to ensure that everyone has the ability to participate, free of discrimination, prejudice, or bias. I try to ensure fairness in everything from recruitment to training to decisions about which teams get to compete at application-only tournaments. In addition to stepping in to prevent or respond to situations at competitions and socials, I am also here to encourage and promote education and growth. In addition, I am the chair of the Equal Opportunity Facilitators Program for APDA and am in close collaboration with the circuit's Diversity Initiative and Women's Initiative. Always feel free to talk to me about anything. I welcome suggestions and feedback!

If you have any problem, no matter how big or small, feel free to talk to me! If you are feeling nervous or if you would like to remain anonymous, please fill out this form.
Which makes me happy.
posted by jaguar at 2:38 PM on October 7, 2015 [3 favorites]


Reminds me of Joe Pesci's role in With Honor (1994).

Monty: Why did you say that I was a loser?
Simon Wilder: Winners forget they're in a race, they just love to run. You try too hard.

Simon Wilder: Which door do I leave from?
Professor Pitkannan: At Harvard we don't end our sentences with prepositions.
Simon Wilder: Okay. Which door do I leave from, asshole?

posted by Twang at 4:56 PM on October 7, 2015 [1 favorite]




Apparently one of the big problems is getting guard buy-in

My first thought was "fuck a prison guard na'mean" but I have one in the family by marriage. The reality is that people who choose to be prison guards probably should be looking to find something else to do with their lives as quickly as possible, and that people who aspire to be a manager at McDonald's are on a better path.

So yes, give the guards an education too, because being a prison guard isn't all that much more self-actualized than ending up in jail or just jumping into the army because The Jerbs in my Tiny Town are Gern.
posted by aydeejones at 11:32 AM on October 15, 2015


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