How to win academic debates

You cannot get rid of your tenured colleagues even the idiots who got tenure by luck or by cheating. So you must get your points past them.

Seb pointed me to a post about meeting power. It got me to reflect on my techniques:

  1. Frame the debate along an axis that favors you. Find a way to divide your potential opponents so that some of them will be forced to take your side. Be an extremist if needed. (“What? I cannot offer my database course? Who thinks databases are unimportant here?”) After all, you cannot be fired, so you might as well express yourself and force people to take sides.
  2. Quote your friends and agree with your opponents. Especially in academia, people react more favorably to quotes than original words. You simply sound more convincing when you start out by “As Professor Smith said ealier, (…).” When an opponent makes a good point, underline it.
  3. Propose concrete solutions. Merely stating your opinion is not sufficient. You should propose specific actions, specific compromises, and move them forward. I have won more battles than I can remember by submitting a specific proposal for approval.
  4. Know the facts, know the rules. The academic setting is complex, filled with rules, statistics and even more rules. If you know the rules of your University more than your opponents, you can often win debates before they even begin. Do you know how many students took this course you are proposing to abolish? Make sure you do.

More reading: The 15 Laws of Meeting Power

Daniel Lemire, "How to win academic debates," in Daniel Lemire's blog, October 19, 2009.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

6 thoughts on “How to win academic debates”

  1. A friend of mine who studied philosophy at Oxford has such a beautiful style of debate sometimes I argue with him just to hear him put it to use. A couple of things he does, in-line with your points above:

    – Agree with your opponent, improve on his argument, and then … point out the flaw. It’s deflating when someone makes your argument for you better than you can, then punches a big hole in it.

    – Reframe the argument to fit a well known form. This is sort of like proving NP completeness – if you can frame the argument such that it inexorably resembles another argument that has a clear answer, you can win.

    Another that I like, if the point is just to win: make the opponent irrelevant to the overall argument – make it such that his opinion is cornered or unimportant, and gets ignored. This is rarely a good path in the long term, but for a quick win it can work.

  2. As a colleague of Daniel’s (and I certify that I didn’t get my tenure by cheating, while hoping it wasn’t pure luck ;-), I would like to suggest one more technique.

    5. Make sure that a couple of your colleagues will support you. Under normal conditions, you should be able to count on those who trust you or share your frame of mind, but if you suspect things are going to get really serious or important, you should ask them explicitly before the meeting.

    I speak from experience here: you can feel very uncomfortable (not to mention powerless) when you realize that nobody else supports your point, even if you’ve applied the four techniques suggested by Daniel.

  3. Though I may not fit into the demographic of being a colleague who needs tips on ‘winning academic debates,’ this is a very practical and useful article for someone, like me, who is a student. At universities there is plenty of controversy to stem debates out of, whether inside the classroom or on the forefront of change within the school. Thank you for these helpful tips!

  4. Interesting, you’ve gotten me thinking about that piece nearly 2 years after I first wrote it. Some of my opinions have changed, and I think I’ve expanded my tactical vocabulary, but clearly there is a whole lot more used in different contexts that I am unfamiliar with.

    Might do a sequel based on some thoughts triggered by the comments here someday.

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