Harvard and Yale

So last weekend was the Debacle on the Charles, aka the Harvard Invitational. Sometimes it’s enough to make me wonder what it takes to get disinvited. The tournament is massive; upwards of 3,000 students find themselves thrust into competition, which is easily the largest tournament of the year. Sadly, that doesn’t speak much to the quality; both Nationals are smaller, but to get to Nationals you must qualify. To get to Harvard, you need a check that doesn’t bounce. And boy howdy does it show.

The people who run the tournament have improved things over the past few years. They’ve eliminated the double octo round and opted instead for another speech prelim, which reduces the degree of difficulty for everyone involved. There are a number of factors that make the weekend soundly miserable that aren’t exactly under their control: I’d rather have elective root canals than spend much time in Cambridge Ringe & Latin’s cafeteria together with 2,000 forensicators. The rooms are as far flung as the ridiculous schedule, and between the two nothing runs on time.

But fundamentally that is their fault; the tournament is clearly too large to be run comfortably and effectively. They opt to keep it big and hope for the best; there’s got to be a profit motive at the root of it. Their take is simply staggering; it must be upwards of $250,000. I’m going to do the math sometime and tell for certain, but it’s truly an amazing amount of money to pull from a three day event. And this year, fees increased again.

Beyond that, there are a few things they don’t seem to quite get. The likelihood that judges will bitch at you increases with the length of the lines they must stand in. It’s difficult to get judges to come to these things, and I don’t much appreciate Harvard making that task harder by forcing them to wait 45 minutes in line while a single person checks and hands out speech ballots. With that many ballots coming through, they should have an army of folks, and separate areas for speech and debate judges to shorten things further. I also don’t think they use their judges terribly well in elim rounds; the debaters have more complaints about this usually, since they care more and know more about their judges, but I still can’t help but wonder about some of their choices in elimination rounds of speech, after having read the ballots.

Tabbing is two things. There’s the bare minimum of putting out correct schematics; that is, every room has a judge who can judge all the students in that room, the students are all allowed to compete against each other, and so on. Correct schematics are good to have, and there are many tournaments that seem incapable of even reaching that plateau; I hear tell that Stanford this year fell into that category. Harvard, minus the usual snafus multiplied by their size, is quite adept at putting out correct schematics. However, it falls asleep at the switch at putting out good schematics. Good schematics are produced when coaches from the various regions at the tournament help put judges into speech categories that they actually like and are good at judging. Good schematics create panels where different points of view are represented, but not in such a dramatic way that the kids are left with an impossible situation.

Harvard does none of these things. IEs are tabbed by two people who are the models of helpful politeness, and do a great job with what they’re given. They also have no idea who I am, and probably don’t have much idea of who any of my friends are too. That’s a shame, since forensics being the excessively small pond that it is, I’m friends with most of the forensics coaches on the eastern seaboard who come to the tournament. So they’re missing some vital links that help make tournaments great.

You can’t always trust what coaches tell you about your judges, either. At my troika of college tournaments, I try to take time to read ballots by the A and B judges whose names I don’t know.  I try to get a sense of what is meant by those A and B ratings. After all, length of judging is no qualifier: you can be a crappy judge for ten years, and you’re still crappy. Instead, I look for the comments I would want as a coach, and comments that show me that the judge is paying attention to what’s going on in the round; it’s a bonus if they can manage to not swear heavily on the ballot too.

This whole process is vital to producing good schematics over and above correct ones.  It all requires people to help.  Harvard seems awfully proud about running on a skeleton staff. It is impressive that they manage to be correct with a skeleton crew running the thing, I suppose. But it wouldn’t be so difficult to bring a few more people in, people who can make the tournament both correct and good. That’s what I’ve done over the years at Yale and Penn and Columbia. Strictly speaking, I could run most of those with half the folks we usually have; we were a bit tight this year at Columbia thanks to the pansies who went to Emory instead, but the point remains. But I don’t want to; I want to ensure that the tournaments run smoothly *and* are worth doing. That takes pairs of hands, and lots of eyes checking things, and a coach in the room from each of your major geographic regions to help evaluate judges, and a host of other things. Effort. Effort on a scale that means that more people work to make Yale great than make Harvard simply run.

I wouldn’t have it any other way. I bitch about Yale and the Yalies a lot, but right now I’m on the train back to Boston from New Haven after meeting next year’s tournament senior staff. What I saw was an enthused, committed group of people who understand what forensics is, and who understand that their tournament would have value even if it didn’t raise a dime for them. The Yale tournament should be proud of what it is, and even though people are fond of giving me credit, without the Yalies willing to dedicate themselves to the agenda I’ve urged on them, of making a tournament that people actively want to go to rather than feeling they can’t avoid, I’d have accomplished nothing at all. So this may be a rare moment, but hats off to the Yalies for remembering that, even if I have to remind them sometimes.

Snow Globe

For the last two days the weather has been somewhat like a snowglobe; we’ve had gentle falling snow that never seems to accumulate.  The snow powders the earth, and then the temperature just edges above freezing, so it melts; and then it drops another two degrees, we slip below the edge of freezing, and the earth is frosted again.

It’s magnificent.

This morning on Storrow Drive,  the world disappeared.  It was snowing thick, and the grey ground was covered with it.  A fog rose above the Charles.  The world shrank to the trees on either side of the Esplanade, the outline of Kendall Square’s across the river, and the bricks of Back Bay to my right.  And the line of cars with suicidal drivers zipping down Storrow going sixty, of course.

It was a great moment, when the world and nature intrudes on the city, and lets us know where we stand.  The weather can make the world dull brown, or it can make it shine silver in the morning, and we can only drive by and watch.


So when running a tournament, there’s an inverse relationship between the sanity of the schedule and the quality of the rooms. Without rooms, you have nothing; the finest judges and the best debaters and speechies will have nowhere to go, and nothing to do. It’s one of those practical pragmatic things that I’m sure no one in forensics, other than tournament directors, has ever truly considered.

Rooms on a college campus are different than rooms in a high school. A high school building is easy to navigate; all you really need to do is bribe the custodians and avoid the room from the really picky teacher who will accuse you of moving desks two inches to the west. You know how many rooms you have, roughly; you can plan it out months ahead of time, and you can fit your tournament to your rooms as you need.

A college campus, on the other hand, is a very hostile place for a forensics tournament. First, there are far fewer classroom spaces in each building than there are in a high school. A high school is almost wholly dedicated to classroom spaces, but a college has offices, labs, student lounges and the like in much greater number. High school students spend every minute of the day in a classroom, while college students spend more minutes out of class than in; and a college student is much more likely to end up in a single room with 200 classmates, which rarely if ever happens in high school.

Second, every college inevitably is in thrall to a terrifying bureaucracy. Every building will have its own little collection of authorities and countersignatures needed to rent out their spaces. Many of the people in charge of these rooms are kind and helpful people. However, it only takes one or two Associate Deans of Obstruction to really ruin your day, or your month for that matter. The tournament is not their highest priority; rooms shift, are taken away, and disappear with little to not notice.

It’s not that these folks don’t understand how complex it is to manage an event with a thousand people; it’s that they simply don’t care. They have classes to schedule, and some bigshot professor might decide to have an impromptu seance. The average college administrator can’t be brought to notice that their debate team is bringing about a thousand of the best prospective students they’ll ever see on campus for a weekend. Students don’t rate at a research university, so prospective students rate even less. Such are the priorities at any large college; I know it too well, having worked at one for 6 years.

That was the situation the Columbians were in this time around. The LD fields were capped like last year, and the speech fields were no larger than previous years. However, Public Forum decided to double in size for no apparent reason. A smattering of rooms have acquired smart boards and the like in the last year, and were ruled off limits to the tournament. Add the two together, and you’re in trouble.

Now, the natural response to that is to make the tournament smaller, to cap it so it fits. Indeed, college tournaments take a lot of flak for giving off the impression of trying to shove all the kids they can into questionable spaces, simply to increase their registration fee haul. For the most part, that’s an unfair accusation. I’ve run 8 Yale, 6 Columbia and 2 UPenn tournaments, and in exactly 1 instance did the hosting team consciously allow the tournament to grow past their known room capacity — over my objections — in order to make more money. In that case it wasn’t even the tournament staff, but the team’s leadership, which I might add was conspicuously absent from the actual tournament that year. And I’ve never let them forget it since, either.

In Columbia’s case, what happened was that the administration would not, or could not, tell us how many rooms we had until a week and a half before the tournament. So we played a guessing game, and came up short in one column and long in the other. Sometimes it happens the other way around, like at Yale this year where suddenly we had 40 extra rooms at the high school for LD and another 30 spare rooms on campus for Speech because LD was at the high school. And Yale ran to the minute on time as a result.

At Columbia, we had debates in hallways. No one seemed to care too much, but it wasn’t a great situation. Further, I like having a room or two in reserve; that makes odd situations easy to deal with. Sometimes you just need to shove a judge and a student into a room so the poor kid who missed their oratory round can get included on the ballot; without a breakout room, that’s impossible.

The other challenge of college rooms is that the rooms on your list aren’t always the rooms that exist. They sit in buildings that lock themselves. The Irish Stepdancing Team might decide to have a practice in one of them “since they’re always free on the weekends”, or whatever else might happen. So you have to constantly police the hallways and the buildings to make sure doors are open. And that’s all on top of the usual issues that happen at any tournament; a kid got sick in the hallway, a Policy team was caught vandalizing something, etc etc.

So ultimately running a college tournament like that is like trying to build a castle on jello. Sometimes it just falls right, and sometimes it doesn’t. I do it because it’s fun and I enjoy working with most everyone I’ve run tournaments with. That wouldn’t be true if they were all dirty profiteers. I just wish I knew better how to bribe an associate dean.