Kritiks in Novice

Last week, I took part in the ad-hoc committee to set Minnesota's novice case limits. The primary purpose of this meeting is to create a sub-set of the coming year's policy resolution for novice debate. This limited number of cases helps to ease novices into the debate process and focus on fundamental skills like flowing, argumentation, and basic strategy.

Over the years this meeting has evolved to include discussions of limiting the negative strategies available to the novices as well. Although opinions about new limits/allowances on Novices tend to be divisive, we were able to craft a compromise guideline for counterplans in novice. In minnesota, novices can run the States counterplan from the beginning of the year and any "Branch of the USFG" counterplan starting in November. Personally, I think this is an excellent compromise between negative flexibility and affirmative predictability, but we'll see how it plays out.

Though some folks advocated the MDTA make a similar limitation on Kritiks, we did not put any limitation on Kritiks in novice. I don't usually consider "journalism" to be the purpose of this blog, but I feel like a mostly-objective discussion of the arguments for and against particular limits on Kritiks in novice could be useful to the community.

First, a little history, as I remember it. My first experience with novice debate in Minnesota came in 2001, when I was a Minnesota debate novice. At that time, the MDTA made no official policy regarding kritiks or counterplans in novice. I neither ran nor had to answer a Kritik or Counterplan all year. Over the rest of my tenure in high school I occasionally saw a novice team bust out a Counterplan at JV/Novice state, but it had to be a calculated decision based on the judge and opponent, and usually only happened in out-rounds if ever.

Over the years many discussions were had over Kritiks and Counterplans in novice. One year I remember that two of the Novice case limits actually made good counterplans to each other, and the argument was made that negatives should be able to run CPs in those rounds since the Aff had to be prepared to debate the case anyway. But I don't remember any official MDTA ruling on Counterplans and Kritiks until last year, when both were explicitly allowed after November 1st (the "home stretch" of the novice season in MN).

The arguments for regulating Kritiks became more strongly stated after this new allowance, but largely they are the same reasons that there was a norm against kritiks in novice historically. Novice debaters have to go from 0-60 on the stock issues, disads, argumentation, flowing, and so much more in the month between the first school day and the first tournament. It's a tall order even if they are are attending regular practice or debate class. If kids have to learn to read Heidegger or how to defeat every theoretical maneouver available in modern kritik debate, it turns learning to debate from "hard" to "sisyphean." Kids will just up and quit.

Even though kritik debate can be an equalizer between small/larger programs at higher levels, at the novice level the opposite might be true. K debate is much more accessible to novices with access to talented varsity debaters, coaches who have been in the activity for a while, and lots of available practice/class time. Obviously, resource inequality is much deeper than whether or not novices can run the Cap K, but if we want to keep this activity going then we need to find every opportunity posible to help small/new programs grow.

There are some equally important arguments that kritik debate, in some form or another, ought to be available to students at the novice level. Some kritiks are obviously generic and tangential to social services, but issues like racism, capitalism, gender, and the role of the state are central to the discussion of poverty in the US. There is also a negative ground issue if the aff has access to decision-rule type impacts but the neg is limited to disads. For example, If the aff runs a school de-segregation affirmative that impacts to the Barndt card tagged "vote aff to reject racism," then "vote negative to reject capitalism" is a germane, reasonable response, even at the novice level.

Even the very act of categorizing kritiks into their own special little box can be problematic. I've long argued (and it was argued at the meeting) that the distinctions we set up between "K debate" and "policy debate" are silly at best and harmful to the activity at worst. Sectioning off a set of arguments as "too hard for you" sends Novices the wrong message. We want to encourage kids to stretch their boundaries and become accustomed to many different styles of argument. Too harsh a restriction on Ks prevents both.

Which brings up another important point: what exactly is a kritik, anyway? If you wanted to restrict kritiks, how do you craft a briteline rule? Do you say "no alternatives?" Teams can still run a Nietzsche with a "do nothing" alternative. No non-utilitarian impacts? Limits out far to many legitimate, core-of-the-topic debates. No pre-fiat impacts? Try explaining the distinction to your novices (or, hell, to me!). There was a proposal to limit the content of Kritiks down to a few different "philosophical objections" which I think had some good things going for it, but if "capitalism" is on the list, with all its thousands of different critiques, is that even a limit?

This problem is amplified by the fact that any restriction that the MDTA puts in place will have to be enforced by judges, most of which would not have attended the meeting and might not know the rationale behind the rule. If the regulation is interpreted too tightly, kids might be voted down because they ran a solvency turn that was "too kritiky" or read a card from a "K author," even if it was germane and understandable. If the rule is interpreted too loosely, novices end up running whatever kritik the varsity debaters from their school carry with the same blocks. Not a great formula for a productive novice debate round.

There was some agreement in the meeting that we'd like to allow value-based arguments, but rid them of the theoretical baggage associated with "The K." Someone brought up that if we just say "No Kritiks," people will run the same arguments as solvency turns, and that is a good thing. I like this idea - make the novices think through the reasons their Capitalism argument turns case instead of letting them get an instant "voter" by labeling a flow with a K. The problems with a vague regulation are hard to ignore though - misinterpretation, chiling effects, pointless meta-debates on the MDTA forum over what constitutes a Kritik, etc.

Since I've been at the meeting, though, I've thought of another way of capturing this idea - allow the "solvency turn" but disallow the "kritik" - that might be more workable. Instead of phrasing the regulation as a "thou shalt not," we should write the negative case limits like we write the affirmative case limits - a list of allowable positions, with all other arguments assumed to be off limits. The negative limit might look something like this:

Negative teams can run:

  • Any Topicality argument

  • Any Inherency Argument

  • Any Harms Argument, including case Harms impact turns

  • Any Solvency Argument, including Solvnecy turns

  • Any Disadvantage

  • The "50 States" Counterplan, and any "Branch of the Federal Government" Counterplan after Nov. 1

So a team that wants to run anti-capitalism arguments can do so, but they have to structure it as a case turn or disad. The rules don't have to ban Kritiks or even take a position on what a "Kritik" is. Maybe we run into the same definitional issues with "disadvantage" and "solvency turn," but I'd argue that it would be much easier for the community to settle on a definition of a Disad than it would be to workably define Kritik. Maybe this would be interpreted as just "No Kritiks," with the same attendant problems as the vague regulation, but I think it comes off as much more constructive and objective.

But this isn't the regulation that is in place for 2009-10, so we'll give my proposal a year to marinate. Perhaps this is much ado about nothing. As a few folks brought up at the meeting, just because novices are allowed to run Kritiks doesn't mean that they will with any frequency. Last year we saw a couple Capitalism debates and a few Deep Eco rounds. We also saw teams run value-based arguments as solvency turns, just as my proposal would hope to create. August is an easy time for optimism, but I highly doubt that this year with bring on the K-pocalypse.

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