Debate Authors: Where are they now?

It's been quite a while since I've seen Mr. Steven Calabresi's name in print.

And it turns out he's still writing over-claimed impact cards. Although this time the disad will only be around for another week instead of "until the end of time"

Terrible Arguments, now with data

One of my favorite terrible arguments is the whining about "side bias." It used to be that this argument was constrained to the topicality flow, but I've heard it rear its ugly head more often on Counterplans and other theory debates as of late.

It usually goes something like this:

"Aff wins more rounds than the neg, so you should give us conditional counterplans. Whaaaaaaaah"

Besides the really whiny tone, the funny thing about this argument is that it is presented on both sides of the topic, with absolutely no data.

Come on people. It's the 21st century here. Quit making statistical claims without statistics.

In an attempt to lay half of these arguments to rest, I knocked up a little python script that counts rounds in results packets and determines affirmative win percentage. As an arbitrary data set, we'll use "the tournaments lucy has been to so far this year." Here's the output of my analysis (rearranged chronologically):

============ valley.txt ===============
Affirmative Wins 108
Negative Wins 126
Aff win percentage 0.461538461538

============ bj.txt ===============
Affirmative Wins 25
Negative Wins 17
Aff win percentage 0.595238095238

============ u-of-m.txt ===============
Affirmative Wins 52
Negative Wins 57
Aff win percentage 0.477064220183

============ hopkins.txt ===============
Affirmative Wins 38
Negative Wins 42
Aff win percentage 0.475

============ sibley.txt ===============
Affirmative Wins 28
Negative Wins 44
Aff win percentage 0.388888888889

============== TOTAL ==================
Affirmative Wins 251
Negative Wins 286
Aff win percentage 0.467411545624

I included only varsity policy divisions, since if a side bias exists in JV or Novice I'm sure I'd care even less. This is far from scientific, since we've got a mix of "national" and "local" tournaments and one of the tournaments was challenge format, but its a start. Looks like we've got a slight "bias" towards the negative so far on the Energy topic. So if you make the "side bias" argument on the aff it's a bad argument, and if you make the "side bias" argument on the neg it's bad argument that's factually inaccurate.

So there.

Defending debate

So I normally try to keep my "curse like a sailor" tendencies to a minimum up here. I'm not sure anyone actually reads this thing anyway, but it is nominally a blog about a activity undertaken by high schoolers, so I try to show some restraint.

However, to introduce today's topic I have no other choice but to employ a relative vulgarity:

Mark Oppenheimer is a Douchebag.

In case you are in too much a hurry to read Mr. Oppenheimer's op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, this seems to be the endpoint of the notoriety gained by the Shannahan/Towson mooning incident. This, combined with the fact that presidential debates have happened recently, has given Mr Oppenheimer a good reason to trash on my activity for a few pages. Frankly his insults reek of being poorly researched and unashamedly inflammatory, so in a perfect world I'd prefer to ignore them.

But I'm a debater. Micheal Jordan shoots baskets. Charles Manson kills people. I talk. We all have a talent.

Like many games, competitive debate has its share of complications, jargon, strategic maneuvers, and community norms. But unlike, say chess or football, the average Wall Street Journal reader is unfamiliar with the intricacies (or really even the basics) of our game. To an honest journalist, this presents a responsibility to faithfully describe some of these rules so that readers might better understand her point. But to Mr. Oppenheimer, the lack of experience in his readership allows him an opportunity to build up vacuous straw men to knock down. Here's his first:

As the Chronicle of Higher Education and others have reported, some college debaters now practice "postmodern debate," in which they argue theoretical questions about the process of debate rather than the topic at hand.

Note that nobody in debate calls anything "postmodern debate," save for maybe a debate that actually occurs over the subject of postmodernism. "Postmodern debate" is a construction of the Chronicle of Higher Education author, which is something that Mr. Oppenheimer should know and should point out, given that he himself makes the appeal to authority by claiming that he used to coach debate at Yale. But being a weasel and a douchebag, Oppenheimer decides to give postmodern debate the meaning of "things I don't like," which is apparently arguments that don't involve "the topic at hand."

My astute readers will note that this definition includes Topicality, the question of whether or not an affirmative's plan fits under the resolution. This is one of the "Stock Issues", or basic tenets of competitive policy debate. It's one of the 4 things I teach my freshman novice debaters in their first lecture. If Oppenheimer's problem is with progressivism in debate, he sure has quite a few years of history to undo.

But we all know that Oppenheimer's problem isn't with T. It's with performance, maybe. Or kritiks. Wait, what is his problem with debate again? Oh yeah:

Predictably, debate traditionalists (like me) are upset about this postmodern turn. A commentator on the National Review academic blog said that the trend toward postmodern debate "shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with the increasing politicization of college campuses these days."

Oh, there it is. Listen, Mark. You want to trash on "ivory tower academics" or whatever, you do it on your own time. But equating competitive debate with whatever boogeyman you see lurking in college campuses is just silly. Sure, over the last few years debaters have sought out arguments from the extreme left. But we've also sought out plenty of arguments from the extreme right (if for no other reason than to answer those on the exreme left). To take the most obvious example, in my last year of competition you could root through my tubs and find Krauthammer, Kagan, Khalilzad, Murray, and plenty of articles from your own National Review in addition to advocates of nonviolence and, yes, "postmodernism." I teach students to argue the power of the market, the importance of democracy promotion, the benefits of American primacy, and the list goes on.

But the fact that I have apparently sold out to the left isn't Oppenheimer's only problem with debate:

Rather than try to win points with wit, allusion or elegant turns of phrase, debaters began loading down their speeches with multiple arguments; the expectation arose that one had to meet all of an opponent's arguments and that to "drop" an argument meant losing the debate. Thus debaters began skipping pleasantries, speaking fast and using ugly shorthand ("D.A." for disadvantage, for example).

Interestingly enough, Oppenheimer hints at the real reason that debaters decide to speak fast. Part of what makes debate different from other forms of communication is the expectation that my arguments be answered by my interlocutor. This focus on the content of argument, on logic, and on actually answering one's opponent is the basic foundation of debate. I could go on about how fast debate teaches strategy, attention to detail, and critical thinking skills, but apparently Mr. Oppenheimer is the final authority on the subject of the skills debate teaches (or doesn't teach).

Policy debate is no longer training young men and women for participation in civic discourse.

I know lawyers, activists, politicians, teachers, judges, and other outstanding members of society who might take issue with that. And then they would call you a douchebag.

But I digress. Mr. Oppenheimer wasn't done describing the reason that speed came into policy debate.

When debate was about majestic oratory, the naturally charming golden boys, or those polished by prep schools, had a distinct advantage; but when debate rounds could be won with technicalities and sheer quantity of argumentation, then industry could carry the day.

Frankly, this is offensive. The notion that us classless cretins would have the nerve to attempt to join the discourse of the elite is just appalling to Oppenheimer. How dare we invade an activity that purports to be about debate and argument and actually make it value debate and argument? Clearly it would be much better if we had an activity that was kinda about argument, but really about rewarding who spoke the prettiest and provided the most witty affectations and had their tie the straightest. Mark, we've only got one activity for argument. Just one little sandbox in the world where skills in logic and "industry" (apparently doing research to prepare for a debate is a lowly pursuit) are actually valued. You've got plenty of games that value Oratory. Please leave the debating to the debaters.


That was going to be my dramatic ending, but I've got one more loose end to tie up, involving the origin of this sudden interest in competitive debate. Shannahan mooned another coach and he got fired. If we condemned every game that occasionally inspired the worst out of its participants, I think all we'd have left is pinochle.

Alright, this is it

I've been involved in debate for going on 8 years now, and those that know me know that I've been complaining about my pen for about as long. Name a pen. I've tried it and hated it.

G2s are OK, but they start to leak over your hands if you spin 'em. Also, I've never actually been able to get all the ink out of a G2 tube before it gums up, which is just maddening.

Using a Uni-Ball is a quick train to ink-all-over-your-handsville.

Ball Points are right out because they get lost in the photocopier, and they tend to make my hands hurt on account of the greater pressure required.

Expensive pens are expensive, and they usually are really heavy too.

I've even tried taking drastic measures to hack together a pen that meets my needs, but it turns out that the $6 refill for the $200 pen dries out if it's not in a capped pen. Shoot.

But no more. I'm here to announce that my long search is over.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the one pen to rule them all:

-It manages to write smoothly without getting ink all over my hands
-Ink is good to the last drop.
-Not too heavy, not too light
-Handles being photocopied
-Retractable, so no cap to lose
-Stainless steel body, which is not as prone to damage and looks pretty classy.
-A pack comes with two pens and two refills, and can be had for a reasonable price at just about anywhere.
-No third-grader cushy grip.

I can't tell you how happy this makes me. The life of a debater or coach is filled with little victories and little annoyances. Judges lounge out of food? irritating. Somebody lost the T file? Irritating. Got through one more card in 1AC? victory. Keep a neat flow or write a good ballot? victory.

These little things all add up, and it's nice to have one less thing to "deal with" over the weekend.

Disorganized thoughts from the weekend

Big ol' shout out to the U for letting us host the round robin there. And while I'm at it...

Minnesota Policy Debate is awesome
This probably deserves a little background. While I was moving through high school, there were more than a few public and private declarations that MN policy debate would die in the near future. There were many causes for alarm, some systemic, some temporary. It's nice to come back after a nice hiatus and see a very strong Round Robin field. It's even nicer to see that not only was the "old guard" well represented in the RR and the main tournament, but no less than 5 round robin programs either did not exist or were in various stages of "starting up" during my senior year in high school.

I wish I had some data to say that this has corresponded with a vertical and horizontal growth in MN policy debate, but I don't think that there is even a coordinated attempt to collect that data. And there is probably a big caveat to this "good news" to note that there is still a worrying trend towards concentration in the metro area at the expense of outstate debate circuits. But good news is scare around this topic, and I'll take it where I can get it.

My other observation is more substantive:

Affirmatives are all answering Cap Bad wrong:
The way I see it, there's three things you can say to generate offense against cap bad:
1. We reform capitalism, reform good
2. We break down capitalism (crash the economy, cause the revolution, etc)
3. Cap is good.

In the debates I've seen, 1 and 2 are the most popular, sometimes in combination. The wording of the resolution makes it rather hard for topical cases to cleanly claim 2. Incentives are pretty darn capitalist, after all. And 1 is just a suicide march against a strong 2NC. It's the most predictable debate there is on capitalism. It's got mountains of literature written for it. And you run into some complex structural biases in the debate process that can best be described as "Any risk of a link..."

So that leaves us with cap good. What's so bad about cap good? It's not like there's a lack of strong cards on this point. Sure, the neg is going to be prepared with a lot of cards, but at least the 2NC won't start with "group the 2ac 1-6, and I am going to read my perm block."

I'd also like to bring up a pretty great point that doobs made while we were chatting about this over the weekend. Most affs on this topic are 8-minute answers to the "capitalism is unsustainable" argument. New tech, alternative energy, solving warming, all of these are answers to the most powerful argument the neg has in this debate. You've gone this far, why not dig in and win it?

The things you take for granted

overheard at Ro'mont practice last night

Lucy: "No Matt, you only have to read the underlined parts"