The Last Harvard: Oratory Final

So I said I’d post about the extemp final, but that’s been taking work and source-checks and the like, so it’s slow going.  Also, I’m sick; I have this cold thing happening, which knocked me into bed all day yesterday.  Today, not much better.  It’s a strange cold; the congestion and coughing are present but not awful; the sore throat was minor and short-lived; however that sick feeling of sleepy, woozy delirium has just as soundly debilitated me.

Instead, check out the NCFL Extemp Topic Areas , which I can honestly say I’m thrilled about.  These are not the topic areas I suggested, but the council definitely took the spirit of what I had to say to heart, if not the letter.  I don’t know if this was done because of, or despite, my intolerable nagging, but at any rate, it’s an excellent step in the right direction and I’m very very happy.

So the extemp final notes require research and checking; the oratory final round notes, however, merely requires ranting and pontificating; and as Menick proves daily , that requires much less brainpower.

I walked into the Oratory final a few minutes after having been asked to judge it, saying “OK, here we go.”  The first thing to note about the oratory final is they put it in a room which was twice the size of the extemp final room, but it contained only about 2/3rds as many people.  I’m unsure if this diminished crowd size because it was competing against interp finals happening over in Sanders Theater, or if  the event itself simply doesn’t draw as much anymore.  It has been about 4 years since I’ve even seen an Oratory final at Harvard, so trends may have passed me by.

This round was also my chance to try writing Speech RFDs for the first time.  I’ve had this idea for exactly a year, after Policy Mike gave it to me, but this was a good venue to try it out, as I haven’t actually judged a speech round in the intervening time.  The idea is that most judges in speech use the ballot for coaching advice, whether or not they’re qualified to offer it.  Instead, an RFD encourages you to think and write as a judge should, and explain why you gave the rank you gave.  So, at the bottom of each ballot, I wrote out my reasoning. “You were 2nd because the 1st place person did this part better, and your blah wasn’t as developed…..”  “You were 6th because everyone else did this thing better….”  etc etc.  I feel this approach is much more direct, maybe even harsh — but helpful in the extreme, as it prioritizes the feedback and tells the kids what mattered most to your ranking.  Debaters get this kind of direct feedback all the time; speechies can handle it.  And, I have to say, writing the RFDs came very easily, and helped clarify for me why I’d ranked the round the way I had; having to write out your reasoning may well improve the experience, and quality, of the judging itself.

As for the round, we had the usual pop-philosophy smorgasbord.  The first thing that always annoys the hell out of me in Oratory is the vapidity of most of the topics; and the second is how the conventions of oratory mean the kids claim that their stated topic problem is wholly universal.  The orator does not claim that a majority of people feel a certain way, or that even a too-large minority engage in a particular harmful behavior.  No, “we all” are part of the problem.  “We” don’t seize every moment, “we” care too much what others think of us.  It’s a gimmick to draw the speaker closer to the audience, but given that the speakers are 17 year old nitwit extroverts and I’m a quiet solitary type who’s nearly twice their age, it usually serves to make many of their statements into lies.

To wit: the first speaker told me I splash too much personal information up on the internet; the second told me that I hold in my emotions too much and don’t express my feelings, the third complained about something I can’t even recall.  The fourth said I obsess too much about leaving a legacy, the fifth claimed that violent video games desensitize us to violence. The sixth speaker managed to avoid the trap for the most part and instead talked about how our society is hesitant to talk maturely about sex, so bravo to her.  By far the worst was the 2nd speaker’s emotion-hiding thesis; at one point she asked rhetorically “when is the last time you talked about emotional issues with your best friend?”  To which I mentally replied “Uh, last Thursday?”  I doubt that was the answer she wanted to inspire.  It killed the speech for me.

So a typical oratory will fling a preponderance of claims around, which are meant to relate to the audience, to inspire us, and hit at our emotions — but without benefit of substance, facts and research.  After very little time, I just stop caring.  I’m not alone, unfortunately; we’ve had a hard time getting kids to compete in oratory on our team, since they don’t want to sit through all the dreck that the event attracts.  It’s a shame, really; the event has infinite potential — write anything you want about anything you want!  The kids are limited by nothing but their own imagination.  And yet, all we get are these boring set pieces about problems that at best fail to look at all beyond the typical upper-class teenager’s life.

Teenagers want to think they’re highly individualistic, but they’re really very conservative and herd-like.  The trends in new progressive LD debate happened because college students inspired them; high schoolers just followed the judges, not wanting to break with the general flow.  Extempers will resist trying out techniques they agree are rational and logical because they’re afraid of what other extempers will say about them.  Usually they’ll say “I don’t think The Judges will go for it” but they actually are thinking about their peers; there is hardly a uniform group of Judges out there who think very strongly about their expectations in extemp to the point that they’d vote down kids for doing logical things that were nonetheless outside the Conventions of the Event.  Most judges don’t know enough, or care enough, about the event.

Therefore, I bet orators are afraid to put too much seriousness and research into a speech, simply because no one else does it, and if there’s anything a teenager doesn’t want to be, it’s the only person doing something.  If you’re the only person doing something, you’re a failure in the adolescent worldview; after all, if a practice was a good idea, others would be doing it too, right?  The herd instinct is why, in extemp, so many kids mimic the bad habits of good competitors.  They don’t think first about the relative value of the habits; they simply see a rock star displaying the habit and getting applause, and aim to mimic it.  So thus, in Oratory, we get round upon round of bland, boring speeches that nobody cares about and nobody wants to watch.  And there I was, ranking the best of them.  Writing an oratory on a serious social issue talking in terms of social forces would be so far beyond the pale, the average 17 year old wouldn’t know where to begin.  Anyone who did so would have easily gained my 1 in any round.  Oratory as an event is in a holding pattern, waiting for the first bold soul to actually make that leap; until then, I’ll continue to avoid it.

As for the round, they all spoke very well, and were very smooth.  Some of them were a little too forced, and others spoke more naturally and sincerely, but in general, I was left to rate them purely on where I felt they landed on the seriousness scale.  I took points off for the rhetorical assumption that “we all do this bad thing” and gave credit for risks, since that correlated exactly with how interested in the speeches I found myself, and how much I believed the speaker.  Strangely enough, even though I didn’t think this standard would be a universal one, my ballot ended up calling the final round results.   My ranks & the results:

6th place:  Girl talking about holding in our emotions.  Delivery was the most forced, and the topic both the most hand wavy and unresearched, and the most not true to my experience; there are a heck of a lot of people out there who won’t shut up about their emotions if you give them a chance to start.

5th place:  The girl from Desert Vista, AZ.  I remember she too was a little forced in her delivery.  I also have suddenly no idea what she talked about.  Zero.  I remember it being one of those interpersonal topics without much wider social impact, but it wasn’t untrue the way 6th place was, so that’s what got her 6th.  But, man, what an indictment; I have no clue what her topic was.

4th place:  Take it Personally.  This speaker talked about internet privacy.  You know, there was real potential here to talk about the widespread nature of a problem I’m well familiar with in my daily work and life, but really it just ended up being an anecdote fest about morons writing stupid things on the internet, like “we all” do.  I generally follow the rule that I’d never post anything on the internet I wouldn’t want my grandmother to read.  This standard does give me a lot of leeway, given that my grandmother is chews nails & spits out tacks, and can swear well enough to make a Marine blush.  However, that’s the rule, and I stick by it.  I gave her 4th because her topic and speech at least stabbed in the direction of something with more lasting impact than 6th or 5th place did.

3rd place: Boy talking about leaving a legacy. This speech actually intrigued me a lot, since what the kid was really talking about was not so much leaving a legacy and stressing out about it, but actually the fear of death.  Talk about your primal emotions.  I gave him 3rd because it was deeper than anything else in the round by far, as such, but I didn’t credit him too much because he didn’t address it directly — in fact, I think he was probably afraid to take that much of a risk.  So I wanted to like this speech a lot, but ended up not liking it as much.  If he had taken the topic on squarely, he’d probably have gotten my 1.

2nd place: Sensitizing.  Boy, from Loyola Blakefield, talking about video games and entertainment violence and its effects on real life violence.  I have to say, as someone who’s read into this topic a fair amount, I simply don’t buy that there’s a psychological link between playing grisly video games or watching violent movies and being more able to perpetrate such acts oneself; the worst thing violent media images does in my opinion is give ideas on how to execute violent acts to already-disturbed individuals.  However, I didn’t mark him 2nd because I disagreed with his thesis; he was 2nd because he had a thesis that went beyond the trials and tribulations of a high schooler, and talked about a social problem as a whole.  He took 2nd to the champion in my book because he didn’t really prove his case; he relied on too many anecdotes, not enough proof and research; but at least he did tackle something Real.

1st place:  Sex talk.  A bold choice for a topic, right off the bat.  She talked about how repression of honest, mature sexual communication — not media sex images, but actual adult-style talk — leads directly to social ills of unwanted pregnancies, bad hangups about sex among adults, and broken families.  Heady stuff indeed; she linked to the problem, talked about something that mattered, and most of all managed to get through an entire speech about sex without any resort to sophomoric humor.  I do think she fell a bit flat in talking about the causes; if she’d been really bold she would have mentioned that the root cause is clearly religion’s influence in the public sphere.  However, she still had the most serious topic — and most serious approach to it.  She was my clear 1.

Now what’s funny about it, is she just barely made it through at every stage of the game; she went a mediocre 3 3 1 3 in prelims, and then  2 4 1 in octos,  3 1 4 in quarters,  6 2 1  in semis.  In finals she was 5 3 1 1 2.  So at every stage people saw this content and the strong stand she took on a controversy, and said “No thanks”.  Hrmph.    I hate people sometimes.

Tomorrow, you’ll have either my completed post on Extemp finals, or my pontification on the PFD final.