Theory in Lincoln Douglas Debate Part 1

Seems like a lot of people these days are asking me about Theory in LD. I've had students ask me for strategic guidance in either running or answering Theory arguments, new coaches and judges asking how best to teach or adjudicate this class of argument, and more experienced LD folk asking me about what Theory in LD looks like to someone from the strange land of Policy Debate. Truth be told, I've got plenty of theory-related questions myself. I've got a lot to say here (no surprise), so I'm going to have to do my best to split this up into manageable chunks.

Theory seems to be an area of pretty active experimentation and discussion "on and off the field" as they say, so I suppose it's worth making a disclaimer as well. The following represents my thoughts on the world as I see it, the world as I think other folks see it, and sometimes the world as I'd like it to be. Contents may settle during shipping, and your mileage may vary.

So, first question, what do I mean when I say "Theory Argument?"

Well, let me back up a step and tell you something that you might already know: debate is a game where the rules themselves are malleable. Unlike most other games, the 'rules' of a debate round will be different depending on what happens in the round. There are a few absolutes (who speaks when and for how long, the fact that the resolution exists), but other than that, just about everything else in a debate is a function of community norms, judge preferences, and the arguments on the flow.

As a result of this, one of the tasks we might want to undertake in our 13 minutes of speech time is to define the "rules of the game" for a particular round. Let's call that meta-debate: a debate about this debate. One particular form of meta-debate we can engage in is a Theory argument.

So what is a Theory argument? I'll offer the following definition: a Theory argument is a meta-debate in which a debater does the following:

-Proposes a "rule" for the current debate round (often called an "interpretation")
-Argues that the debater's opponent violates this rule
-Proposes a punishment for violating this rule. Most often, the proposed punishment is to vote against the opponent regardless of what happens in the rest of the debate, IE that the Theory argument should be a "voting issue."

I don't really have any justification for this definition other than my own experience traveling in debatesville, but I think that about 99.9% of the times you hear "next off is Theory," you're about to hear an argument that follows that 3-part pattern. You might not see three parts clearly delineated, but a Theory argument will always have these components in one form or another. You'll likely also hear some justification for the proposed rule, but I left that out of the definition as that would start to blur the line between what is "A Theory Argument" and what is "A Well-Made Theory Argument."

You'll notice that many different arguments could fit into this template, which is why the pre-round question "So what do you think about Theory?" is such a tricky one to answer. I've yet to come up with anything useful to say in response to that question, personally.

So, even though I'll have more to say about "dealing with theory," I hope that the definition begins to shed some light on how a debater might begin to answer theory arguments in the wild. Next time you hear a theory argument, think about: What rule is being proposed? Why am I alleged to have violated this rule? Why is this a good rule for an LD debate round? What justification is offered for the proposed punishment? Hopefully asking yourself (or your opponent, in cross-ex) these questions will begin to shed light on what your responses might be.

Programming Notes

Given that this right here is ostensibly a regularly updated journal on the subject of debate, and since the season of fall is quite nearly upon us, I figured I might address some infrequently asked questions and other miscellanea.

1. This year, my primary coaching responsibilities at Rosemount will be with the experienced Lincoln Douglas debaters. I'm making the change primarily out of organizational need and the chance to spend more of my "debate time" in at least relative proximity to my wife, but I'm also excited at the prospect of trying something new. Plus, have you seen the goddamn topic? Feel free to characterize this move as "going to the dark side" or "coming to jesus" or whatever, but either way I'll probably think you're kind of a dork.

2. Towards the end of last year I was planning on writing something more "retrospectivey" and "wrap-uppy" about the MDTA Cup, but I'm a doofus and never got around to it. I would like to continue the tradition this year, most likely without substantial changes to the rules, but with some process improvements.

3. I'll probably be posting semi-frequently again as the debate season winds up. Expect fewer articles in the style of "Long-form How To" and "Long-Winded Polemic" and more in the style of "Something Else," the details of which haven't really clarified to me yet.

4. Read This Thing. I was planning on writing an article on just this subject, but I think this turned out much better than mine would have anyway. Tip of the hat to Aracelis Biel.

5. While you are at it, Read This Thing Too. A very engaging back-and-forth between Mark Oppenheimer, author of a memoir of his days in parliametary debate (and yes, it's that Mark Oppenheimer) and Michael Horowitz, 2000 NDT Champ and professor at Penn.

6. I'm working on a debate-related thing that may be of interest. More on that in a few weeks.

Let's Make a site for Debate Q&A

So Area 51 is officially publicized now, so it's time to get a campaign for a Debate Q&A site underway.

Wait, what the heck is Area 51? Actually, there are a lot of sites here with a lot of names, let me explain.

So, start with Stack Overflow, which is a site that programmers use to ask questions and get answers. It's awesome. The moment it came out, I thought "wow, we need one'a these for debaters!"

Some time in the future, the same company launched Stack Exchange, on which you could pay money to get your own hosted Q&A site.

Eventually, they changed directions and decided to offer new sites for free as long as there was a viable community to support it. They're calling this "Stack Exchange 2.0" and set up a new site for proposals called Area 51

My proposal on Area 51 for a Debate Q&A site is Right Here.

Why do I think we need a Debate Q&A site? Well, we debaters have plenty of online places to hang out and argue (as we are wont to do), but we don't have any place to get questions answered. And we have plenty of questions! New coaches and debaters have questions! Experienced coaches and debaters have questions! High school debate people have questions about college debate! And vice versa! Lots of people have answers to these questions, but there's no place to go to get one's questions answered. We ought to change that.

Here's how:

Proposals on Area 51 go through three different phases before they become a real site:

Right now the debate proposal is in the Definition phase. We need to decide what a Q&A site about debate looks like. I've got some ideas, but I need your input!

When we get enough highly-voted examples of on- and off-topic questions, we'll move to the Commitment phase, during which we'll need people to step up and commit to making the site a success. These brave pioneers are basically saying "Yes, I will help start this site with a thriving community of experts with insightful questions and smart answers!"

With enough committed individuals, we move to the Beta phase, with a live site to fill with questions and answers. Here is where we'll work out the kinks and show the world how useful a debate Q&A site can be.

If it all works out, we'll move to a fully-fledged Stack Exchange site, which (hopefully) can turn into the place to get one's questions answered about debate.

My goal through all this is to make it just a teensy tiny little bit easier to learn debate, or to coach debate, or to start a debate team. If you think I'm on to something, please Sign up!

The Official Debate Knowledge Exchange proposal

StackExchange has opened up their official proposal site, so if you are reading this, you should head on over to my proposal and do the following:

  • Follow the proposal. Yes, you need to log in, but the site uses OpenID so you don't even need to make a new username/password to do so.

  • Submit some sample questions, good examples of what is on- and off-topic for a debate Q&A site

  • Vote on sample questions, so we can refine the "vision" for the site

I already made my pitch for why I think this would be an excellent resource for the community, but I'll add this little bit. If you are an experienced debater or coach, think of how many times you've been asked the same set of questions by a new user or coach. Wouldn't it be nice if you could send them to a helpful website instead?

My Proposal for a new Debate knowledge exchange

So I've mentioned before that I'm a computer programmer by day. One of my favorite resources for making my job easier is called Stack Overflow. It's a site where programmers can ask questions for other programmers. Go click around there for a while. You probably won't understand some of the jargon, but notice how the question-and-answer format encourages meaningful information exchange. You get great answers to newbie questions, and you get great answers to difficult questions. As users ask good questions and provide good answers, they get "reputation points" that allow them some additional privileges on the site, making the community largely self-policing. The best part is, many of these awesome answers end up at the top of Google searches, making the entire internet a better place.

I think that it'd be awesome to have a site like this for debaters. The constant influx of new debaters and coaches means that the community always has plenty of questions, and right now those answers are scattered around the internet and often buried under flamewars, off-topic discussion, and misinformation. (Ever tried reading the wikipedia page on policy debate?). If we had a place where "experts" in the community could easily exchange information, it might be just a little bit easier to learn debate or start a debate team.

And what do you know? The creators of Stack Overflow are starting a new project to open up their software to other communities who would like a knowledge exchange site. I've typed up a proposal for a debate knowledge exchange, but we'll only get the blessing of Stack Exchange if we show that there is existing community support for this idea.

So, if you think that my proposal is a decent idea, that a knowledge exchange for debaters could make the internet a better place, I might suggest you do the following:

  • Go to my Proposal and vote it up. (you'll have to sign up for an account, but it's pretty painless and you won't get spammed)

  • Even better, comment on it, add some reasons that it might work or challenges it might face

  • Tell your friends.

Clash of the Titans

Not a whole lot of time to write lately, but I stumbled on this the other day, and it deserves mention.

William F. Buckley might not be a well-known name in the debate world, but he's an incredibly important figure in conservative political thought in the United States. He founded the National Review, and did more than anyone else in his era to promote the theories of laissez faire capitalism and American primacy. If you've read cards from Khalilzad, Krauthammer, Kagan, Boot, or any Free Trade Good/Growth Good disad, you've encountered the influence of Buckley.

Equally important, but diametrically opposed, is Noam Chomsky. Longtime critic of US foreign policy, he's written dozens of books on the subject and has been cited more than any other author in discussion of US intervention abroad. He's been read directly plenty of times in debate rounds, and his influence extends through the Militarism K, Threat Construction, Statism, and Hege Bad debates pervasively. All this while holding down a "day job" as a Linguistics professor at MIT.

These two people may have had more influence over the american intellectual right and left, respectively, than any other over the past half-century. And what do you know? They met on live television in 1969 on Buckley's program Firing Line. Turns out that most of the interview is on Youtube. EDIT: Found the whole thing! And embeddable to boot.

The subject at hand is the Vietnam war, but both men touch on some essential themes of US Foreign policy debates (cost/benefits of intervention, preventing terrorism, the role of rhetoric and representation) that continue to be relevant today. This is the Hegemony debate that we've been having for decades. Really this should be required viewing for all policy debaters before next year. You might want to keep a tab to Wikipedia open while watching it, as Chomsky and Buckley both use a strong command of history and contemporary events to make their case.

MDTA Cup Results

So the results of the MDTA Cup have been posted. Huge congrats to the winners, who are well deserving. Since I'm well aware the extent of our community's data addiction, I figured I'd offer some behind-the-scenes info on the cup.

A quick caveat: my data still has some errors (mostly transposed codes like EF -> FE). The winners in each event were double-checked, but please comment if you spot any inconsistencies.

First of all, the Final Top 10 (or so) in each division:

Policy Teams
1. Wayzata - Miranda Ehrlich and Meghna Sohoni (15)
2. Sibley - Danny Bernick and Anna Koelsch (13)
3. Bloomington - Devin Long and Tom Zimmer (12)
4. Bloomington - Ali Goodrum & Gracie Kroner (11)
4. Wayzata - Krishnan Ramanujan and Dru Svoboda (11)
6. Wayzata - Luke Plutowski and Johanni Thunstrom (8)
6. Wayzata - Alex Aronovich and Carlee Nelson (8)
6. Eagan - Annie Martin and Kyra Stephenson (8)
6. Sibley - Brian LaBounty & Tome Welle (8)
6. Wayzata - Mariah Donnelly & Devon Manley (8)

Policy Scools
1. Wayzata 46
2. Edina 32
3. Bloomington 30
4. Sibley 27
5. Eagan 26

LD Debaters
1. Coon Rapids - Robyn Sellman (26)
2. Robbinsdale Cooper - Chyenne Thibodo (18)
3. Apple Valley - Jon Slater (17)
4. Lakeville South - Dylan Slinger (15)
5. St. Louis Park - Catherine Tarsney (14)
5. Lakeville North - Jayant Tripathy (14)
7. Eagan - Kunal Patel (12)
8. BSM - Bennett Kenzie (11)
8. Forest Lake - Kyle McCleary (11)
10. Eagan - Michelle Wagner (10)

LD Schools
1. Coon Rapids 35
2. Apple Valley 28
2. Eagan 28
4. Lakeville North 27
5. Robbinsdale Cooper 24
5. Lakeville South 24
5. St. Louis Park 24

Public Forum Teams
1. Eagan - Rachel Markon & Iaan Reynolds (22)
2. Eagan - Haben Ghebregergish and Weronika Janczuk (14)
3. Eagan - Anne Beck & Matthew Burian (12)
3. Eastview - Bryan Larson & Anthony Stagner (12)
5. Lakeville North - Karen Zhou & Steven Elliot (10)
6. Eastview - Sneha Somani & Michelle McGuire (8)
7. Blake - Mike Graham & Mik Kaminski (7)
8. Eagan - Miles Norman and Emily Dallager (6)
8. Anoka - Sam Hughes & Lucia Martin (6)
8. Blake - Taylor Briggs & Sarah Carthen Watson (6)

Public Forum Schools
1. Eagan 42
2. Eastview 27
3. SPA 20
4. Forest Lake 19
5. Apple Valley 18

Classic Teams
1. MPA - Greta Stacy & Eric Baudry (9)
2. Eastview - C. Chang & L. Ramroop (7)
3. Eastview - Mark Besonen & Kristine Hiedeman (5)
3. Eastview - A. Balaji & P. Kelly (5)
4. Eastview - Raghav Julakanti & Paige Kelly (4)
4. Eastview - Katie Baldwin & Caitlin Moran (4)
4. MPA - Wood & Naravane (4)
4. Rochester Century - Taylor Williams & Courtney White (4)
4. South St. Paul - J. Nelson & B. Olson (4)
4. Southwest - Maddie Jacobs & Aswar Rahman (4)

Classic Schools
1. Eastview 18
2. MPA 14
3. Stillwater 10
4. South St. Paul 7
5. Rochester Century 6

Overall Schools
1. Eagan 96
2. Apple Valley 46
2. Wayzata 46
2. Eastview 46
2. Edina 46

Yep, that's right, a 4-way tie for 2nd place in the overall school race.

I'd also like to take a look at all the Champions and how they got there.

Policy Champs - Wayzata ES (Ehrlich and Sohoni)
Participant, Blake
4th Place, Bloomington
Champion, Concordia
8th Place, Highland Park
Quarterfinalist, Hopkins
Participant, Lakeville South
Quarterfinalist, U of M

LD Champ - Coon Rapids RS (Robyn Sellman)
Champion, Andover
Double-Octafinalist, Minneapple
Champion, Blaine
Participant, Blake
Champion, Coon Rapids
Finalist, Cooper
Top 8, Forest Lake
3rd Place, Lakeville South
State Participant (Made it to Semis actually, but qualifying is what got her another cup point)
Champion, U of M

PF Champs - Eagan MR (Maarkon and Reynolds)
Quarterfinalist, Minneapple
Finalist, Blake
Champion, Coon Rapids
Champion, Lakeville South
Champion, Man West II
Champion, U of M

Classic Champs - MPA BS (Baudry and Stacy)
2nd Place, Eastview
5th Place, Forest Lake
Champion, Roseville
3rd Place, St. Francis

Some other random superlatives worth mentioning:

Melissa Diamond is the only debater to earn points with 4 different partners (Balhs, Holder, Poteryakin, Mujir)

Maddie Johnson and Caitlin Moran from Eastview both earned points in 3 different events (Classic, LD, PF)

Depending on how you count, the Wayzata policy squad had 13 different students contribute toward their school award. This is despite the fact that only 2 teams can contribute points on any given weekend. Quite a collective accomplishment.