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 ;)


Michael Antonucci said...

I discovered this blog recently. As an outspoken advocate of several reform proposals, it seems worthwhile to address the way that you frame this issue.

First, I take some exception to your premise:

"There will always be kids to cajole into joining, schools to have debates in, and administrators to convince into coughing up funding."

There will always Really?

I coach at Georgetown now. I coach for Lexington as well,to some extent. Both programs rely heavily on infusions of private capital. Administrators do not, in fact, provide a blank check, even within privileged institutions.

This is particularly true in the context of national travel. Traveling a medium to large squad on a fully national schedule frequently costs 70-100k. Administrators who refuse to cough up tens of thousands of dollars in the face of a looming depression might have more serious trepidations than "well, you didn't quite ask nice enough."

That said, I'm happy to argue within your framework.

Every proposal you've delineated aims to improve coach retention by minimizing labor. I personally travel a national schedule with two squads. I cut a ton of cards. I'm also on the youngish side, unmarried, childless, and, by most accounts, totally crazy.

It's absurd to ask most people to do what I do.

So how might we get more coaches? Make it easier for coaches while sacrificing as little academic intensity as possible. I'll be specific.

1. Limit national travel - preferably through central regulation, when possible.

The free market model of debate, in which teams select tournaments freely across the country according to their desires and resources, has proved itself a truly EPIC FAIL - much like the free market model of the market. Escalating travel demands do not evolve toward a common good. They evolve to price programs out of the market.

Compare the health of the Kansas circuit to, say, the circuit in the Northeast. It's not a coincidence.

They also make debate truly daunting endeavor for coaches. There's an enormous difference between driving to downtown Minneapolis and flying to Harvard for people who like to see their friends, have a family, and feel like they live in one place.

2. Open evidence. Freely available evidence stocks minimize coach labor. It's easier to start up a program without backfiles when all of the cards read are freely available online.

I think the internal link here's a little bit weaker, and tend to promote this one as a qualitative not quantitative debate improvement. Nonetheless, it obviously intersects with your concerns.

Look - at root - none of this is complicated.

Policy debate is in crisis because it costs too much money for schools and too much time for coaches. Those are linked problems.

It's much easier to recruit for something that isn't set up to punish coaches with lives outside of debate.

Ryan Ricard said...

Hey Michael, I've enjoyed reading your posts on the NDCA-l, so thanks for stopping by.

Anyway, looking back on the sentence you quoted, I realize I was trying to hard to be pithy. My point wasn't that there's a magic money tree that can give anybody a lexington-sized budget tommorrow. My point was that, given the motivation, there's always a place to find some money. Of course, for some money to be worthwhile, there needs to be local circuits to attend, which I think plays into your point.

I'm a pretty outspoken proponent of open ev, so "a me too" on that one.

I've got more thoughts on travel limitations than I have time to type right now, so I'll summarize my opinion as "I agree with the end-goal, but I'm not sure that's the right mechanism."

In fact, I think I'll make that my next post. Stay tuned, I guess?

Michael Antonucci said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Antonucci said...

"My point wasn't that there's a magic money tree that can give anybody a lexington-sized budget tommorrow."

Yes there is. :) Lexington has zero school provided budget.

The open source stuff has opened up a few healthy debates, both on and the college listserv. I don't know if you followed those, but I'm happy to provide links on request.