Fixing Debate

I don't know if this happens in other parts of the debate world, but around here in Minnesota we tend to have quite a few conversations about how to improve the debate community. I occasionally snipe at this or that and add my two cents, but frankly I don't really have anything productive to add, so I stay out of it. I still follow the conversation(s) closely, though, because I care about this activity and I really want to see it succeed, so I'm interested in how people think we ought to make it succeed.

This ongoing conversation is really starting to irritate me.

I usually try to refrain from describing real-world things in terms of debate lingo, because it's cutesy and shallow and irritating, but I can't think of a better way to put this, so here's my analysis of the "save debate" flow.

There are only two possible impacts here. More Debate or Better Debate. I don't think that anyone is currently advocating that we change our rules/norms in order to make debate a better, more educational game, so let's focus on More Debate. More Debate either means "vertical" growth (existing schools grow their programs) or "horizontal" growth (attracting more schools to the activity). There's a bit of a balancing act between vertical and horizontal growth, but both are good and we want to encourage both.

Let me take a brief digression here to address the question of debate formats. Right now we have 4 debate formats in Minnesota that I would describe as "varying degrees of good." I have my preferences, but I honestly think that they are all good, and at the very least much better than no debate. I also think that the growth of 3 of those 4 are mutually beneficial, IE that growth in one does not need to come at the expense of the others. They serve different needs, and having all of them available is a good way to give students/coaches choices that meet their needs. I say 3 of the 4 because frankly Classic and Public Forum cater to the same niche.

So anyway, I think that we, as a community, should focus on growing all of the various forms of debate available to us. So how do we do that? What's the link? I don't think what I'm about to say is a controversial statement, but it's an important point that I think gets lost in the chaos of these discussions.

The only link is more coaches

That's it. There will always be kids to cajole into joining, schools to have debates in, and administrators to convince into coughing up funding. The only limit is the number of coaches. Give me 100 reasonably smart, motivated individuals who want to coach and I'll give you 100 debate teams (or 50 debate teams, or 33 debate teams, whatever). Especially with the institutional support of orgs like the MDTA and NDCA, the only thing between "debate as it is" and "debate as it should be" are "Boots on the ground," so to speak.

Here is where the current debates over how to change/save/modify debate have irritated me. Nobody tells me how it'll attract more coaches. Without trying to indict anyone in particular, here's how a lot of these arguments start: someone makes a public declaration of the following.

"Minnesota debate currently does X. X is inconvenient for me. We should change X to Y"

Sometimes they add on a claim-without-warrant that Y would be more convenient for everyone, and sometimes there's an implicit threat of "I will quit coaching if we don't do Y."

This is seriously weak sauce. We don't accept this type of arguments from our students, do we? If you wanna win this debate, you gotta win the link. Tell me how your great idea will give us more coaches. Give me data. Give me warrants.

The argument has been made about "inertia." That we are all so set in our self-destructive ways that we won't make necessary change even if a good idea comes around. There's probably some weight to this argument, but I think that the onus is still on the reformer to tell me how his reform will improve debate. Here's my personal argument to inertia.

Convince me that a change in my behavior will increase the number of coaches, and I'll change. You want me to take Greenhill off the calendar? fine. You want me to stay within the borders of the North Star State? great. You want me to share every card I cut with everyone in Minnesota? fantastic. There's probably some degree of dynamic tension between "more debate" and "better debate," but I think we are far from the breaking point. Make the argument and I'm there, inertia be damned.

There's probably a fair criticism of me in all this, blathering on my blog and shooting people down without advancing any propositions of my own. I've got a few half-baked ideas that aren't quite ready yet and a room full of novices, so you probably won't hear anything productive from me anytime soon. But hey, I'm a new debate coach to Minnesota, I'm one of the good guys ;)

Ballots 2.0

Following the example of nick groenke's excellent ballot website at
I'm venturing into the arena of high-tech ballots. Between DropBox (an idiot-easy way to publish files) and TiddlyWiki (an idiot-easy way to make a website) I think I'm pretty much set. The best part is, if this works right I should be able to edit offline and have my ballots auto-magically sent over the tubes when I get a connection. 

Right now there's a sample ballot on there and an explanation of how I set it up. 


This is an idea that's been slowly developing in my head for a while now, and I'm not sure if it's "fully baked" yet, but I think it's worth taking it out and poking a toothpick in it, so to speak.

Anyway, I'm beginning to see more of what I do as a debate coach and judge as a matter of triage. To become a better debater, or in my case to coach people to become better debaters, you've got a lot of different things you can do, and it's pretty tough to choose which one to do at any given moment. Should I run a practice round? Should I cut more cards? Should I practice reading? Should I go to the small tournament or spend the weekend getting ready for the big tournament?

Imagine that you are in a field hospital surrounded by patients with various injuries. You've got severe head traumas, you've got scrapes and bruises, you've got everything in between. Time is of the esscence. Who do you treat first? Triage is the act of classifying patients according to their injuries and prioritizing people you can help the most.

I'm not a doctor, but according to Wikipedia, here are the categories used to classify patients:

Those who are beyond help: These are the patients who, sadly, cannot be helped. Their injuries are too severe. Basically all we can do for them is give them some pain medication and a comfortable bed. In debate these are the mistakes that, for lack of a better term, I will classify as "major f*** ups." You dropped an RVI in the block, you lost your flow before the 2NR, you set your timer for 8:00 and dropped a disad in the 1AR. No point in dwelling on these. You've gotta learn your lesson (don't drop RVIs, flow on colored paper, both partners should be timing) and move on. Any time you spend here is wasted time that you could be treating the patients who can still be saved.

The injured who need immediate attention: Here we have patients whose injuries are urgent, but treatable. If we get to them soon enough they can be saved. For a given team this might be lack of 2AC blocks, lack of basic topic knowledge, understanding the necessity of offense, etc. Obviously this level will be different team to team and division to division. Some of the less urgent issues become important when making the jump from JV to Varsity, for instnace.

The injured whose treatment can be delayed: These patients need to be treated, but they are not facing imminent death/dismemberment. This might be revising your 2NC Counterplan overview, learning a new kritik, working on that annoying verbal tick you get during your rebuttals. Classifying between this and the "immediate attention" category is (in my experience) the hardest part of being a debate coach. During this week's practice you want to do the things that will help your team win on Saturday, and it's no simple task knowing what patient to treat, especially if you have a large group of debaters to think about.

Those with minor injuries, who need help less urgently: These are the patients who you can send home for now, or have them wait around for a while until they get treated. If a novice's only answer to a "hege bad" disad is to read the Khalilzad card, you could inform her that Khalilzad is getting pretty old now and there are better hege good impact cards out there, but a more responsible move as a judge/coach is to set that aside for now, because the fact that she only has one 2AC answer on a disad is much more severe.

We've got lots of constraints on the amount of coaching we can do: our time, our money, our kids' time, energy, and ability to focus. I think that the best debate coaches have done so much triage that it comes naturally. They usually find themselves working on the things that will best help their students succeed. Coincidentally, I think that this is the primary utility of debate camp. By removing some of those constraints and allowing kids/coaches to focus on debate, you finally have a chance to work on those wounds that are not severe, but still ought be treated.

More Defending Debate

Dallas Perkins hits back at the Journal piece discussed here previously.

Mark Oppenheimer ("For Argument's Sake," Taste, Oct. 17) reports on a single academic debate round and leaps to a series of totally unwarranted conclusions about the state of intercollegiate debate in America.

Mr. Oppenheimer's fears are greatly exaggerated. It is a good thing -- not a bad thing -- that today's collegiate debaters are prepared to discuss everything from the nuts and bolts of U.S. farm policy (the current topic) to the philosophy of Heidegger.

Mr. Oppenheimer's primary complaint is that the debaters speak very quickly, even accusing Laurence Tribe of "ruining" debate in this regard, on his way to winning the national collegiate championship for Harvard in 1961. But Mr. Tribe, with his world-renowned body of scholarship and three dozen oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court, shows the power of debate to enhance exactly what Mr. Oppenheimer seeks: "participation in civic discourse." If Mr. Tribe is Mr. Oppenheimer's poster child for the impact of debate on seeking style and eloquence, then we rest our case.

Competitive debate rewards rhetoric and humor as well as analysis and research. It continues to be one of the most educationally valuable activities around. And it provides a proven method for high-schoolers everywhere, even in failing schools, to develop the skills necessary to become successful college students and professionals.

We are surprised that Mr. Oppenehimer apparently has so little faith in the marketplace of ideas that he is unwilling to tolerate the kind of free-wheeling, unencumbered, and enthusiastic discourse that competitive debate has always embraced.

Dallas Perkins
Coach of Debate
Harvard College

Well put, although I would have thrown the word "douchebag" in there for good measure.