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.