So I’m at EXL these two weeks, which is a symphony in three parts, though one played by an Eastern European radio symphony orchestra which is still being paid in Soviet era expired rubles, and unafraid to take it out on the music.

Running a camp is fraught with dangers and fears, especially one that’s small and focused and intense.  “Will we get kids who can handle what we teach?” is first and foremost a worry; we explicitly teach a unique, advanced style; but rank idiots won’t do well with it, and so if we end up with a batch of them, we’re in trouble.  There’s also the ever present chance that some unforeseen event will take out a day or two, and throw everything in disarray; normal life moves in a leisurely pace, but with only 11 instructional days, you don’t have much margin for curveballs at camp.

Then there are the wider pitfalls.  Jonathan and I started this camp largely in reaction to a lot of the other things other camps do.  We don’t teach down to kids; the stuff we teach is difficult material in a short period of time.  I’ve seen most extemp camps teach current affairs, and present things like The Africa Lecture.  We teach economics, nationalism, political parties, government structures, religions, etc.  The kids have to make the links to current affairs on their own; and they do so, for the most part.  It involves them having to think for themselves, but well, that’s the point.

We also don’t teach a cookie cutter style.  Not every question is created equal, so not every answer format is equal to every question.  It’s easy and cheap to try and get away with teaching students a single format and structure and measuring their success against the mastery of that formula.  That usually has the kids sounding better and shinier at the end of their two weeks.  However, at the end of the day, the wide variety of topics extemp teaches routinely demands a fresh approach.  I find the better students break out of these formulas on their own eventually, but it’s better to start from a fresh perspective that structure and formulas are simply tools, and you use the hammer on the nails and the screwdriver on the screws, and not vice-versa.

That raises the bar somewhat. It’s not easy to teach approach, and it’s not easy to teach thinking; you can really only teach examples of other people thinking, and hope the idea catches on.  But the kids this year are a very strong group, and they’re achieving in spades.  I’m a little upset it’s almost over already, but that too is the nature of camps.

The nature of any walk of life, however, when you do as I do, is that inevitably people have computers, and equally inevitably they call me when this happens.  It’s a dangerous skill, fluency in computers, since it is needed more than it is present.  It’s very difficult to run a camp and teach and lecture and all that; but when my little free time is being impinged to fix printers and connect to Emerson College’s military-grade security on their wireless network, it leaves me with little time for introspection and consideration of things.  That’s the danger of my field; it’s not like I can leave my skills at home and let it go; they come up everywhere and anywhere, and I’m not entirely allowed to be Just an Extemp Coach even on these two weeks, where ostensibly I’m taking vacation to do just that.

So I’m stealing a few moments this evening to recollect myself, and think, and reflect.  We had a very good 17 kids at this camp, up from 10 the year before.  They’ll have success and make us look very good, but ultimately I hope they end up making themselves look good most of all, thinking and challenging and speaking and doing exactly what our activity does best.  It won’t be easy for any of them, even though they’re uniformly terribly bright students, but the difficult is worthwhile, even when it’s often short of the goal.

And you won’t hear a canned introduction among any of them.

NFL Finals

So I was thinking a little about the experience of NFL Finals.  I saw three main finals (US Extemp, HI, and LD) and two supplemental finals (Storytelling and Editorial Commentary).  I was officially present for the Oratory final, but Oratory tends to bore me to tears, so I opened up the laptop and discreetly caught up with my email during that one.  I won’t apologize for this; until the event becomes something other than 70 minutes of pop philosophy, moral exhortations and poignant stories from a bunch of 17 year olds, I have little reason to listen if I’m not judging.

Anyhoo, the supplemental events are more or less usual final rounds that you could find at any regional tournament: they feature an appropriate but not overwhelming amount of ceremony, with a fair but not huge number of spectators, who are likely mostly drawn from the local leagues who have a student in the round.  The students performed well, together with the vague sense of disjoint oddness that comes from supplemental events — no one does these things full time, and so no one really knows what they’re doing, or even what they’re supposed to be doing.   But that’s fine, and they entertain, so we survive.

However, main event finals are an entirely different kettle of fish.  The main final hall can hold around 3,000-5,000 people typically, and it’ll go from completely packed for the interp finals, to nearly a third full for the early morning Extemp finals.  It becomes clear from the start that the NFL treats them as a Big Friggin’ Deal; they opened the day with an Elvis, they pack the judging panels with all sorts of people they want to impress and suck up to, and so on.

The effect, however, is distinctly harmful to the competition itself.  In the US extemp final, the first three kids were able to handle it decently well; Becca, who was second speaker, was there last year, so she certainly didn’t have nearly the same epic tower of nerves going; this was familiar turf.  The last three speakers, however, all looked like they were being led to their own executions, and they had to pull the trigger.  Poor kids; nothing really sets you up for the experience of NFL finals except for making NFL finals, and since I imagine that most NFL finalists are first-timers in their senior year, there’s not much opportunity to gain experience.  The last three kids basically forced their way through their final speeches, which were not very good.  I imagine that for them to qualify for the final in the first place, each of them was a far better speaker than they demonstrated in the round; I bet their semifinal speeches were a great deal better.

The main event semis all happen at roughly the same time as one another, and they’re in normal classrooms with about 50 spectators at the most.   Going from 50 spectators in a classroom to 1,000 in an auditorium in the course of one jump, and add to that the pressure of it being The National Final, and one grows surprised that more kids don’t wet themselves as soon as they set foot on stage.  In some events, like Dramatic Interp, the effect is catastrophic; these pieces are designed to be performed in small, intimate settings and lose much of their punch when flung onto the stage.    In Extemp, the kids don’t have their script and their memorized moves to cling to; they still have to make it up.   The semis I’ve watched were better rounds by far than the finals I’ve watched, for exactly that reason.

It’s a shame in a way.  The NFL is set up to be this big culminating event, and I understand their impulse to make the finals a Big Deal.  They want to reward and congratulate the students with a huge experience, and they certainly do that.  Their stage manager, too, is a wonderful guy, who very carefully guides the students through the process and tells them over and over, using different phrasing, to neither panic nor worry; he’s set up the process so the students don’t have to concentrate or remember any logistics or schedules, since they always have someone right next to them telling them what to do next.  But, the spectacle itself degrades the quality of the round; it doesn’t permit each student to give it their best shot.  I could wish the ramp up to a final wouldn’t be so suddenly vast, or that we could tone it down a little bit, so that I could have seen the best shot from the final three speakers, and not simply the best they could do when the stakes were at the absolute highest.