A world divided

So I mostly live in the world of the Massachusetts Forensic League, which governs most of the local tournaments in Massachusetts.  It’s an inverse of what they do over in New York, where CFLs run the local show and they get together once a year for the State League to step in; here we do CFLs once a year to qualify students to Nationals, and then the State League runs everything else.  The advantage is that we can set our own rules and our own guidelines, create our own events — a mixed blessing, given some of our events — and guide our own path.

However, the MFL is strangely split.  The league, by member numbers, is heavily weighted towards speech events, in particular interp events.  Debate happens at the fringes, when it happens at all.  Most of the MFL debate centric programs therefore are not truly part of the MFL for their local circuit, but instead are part of the wider — and therefore more expensive — Northeast debating circuit.

The Northeast circuit does a lot of things right.  Most of the major tournaments offer student housing to defray the cost of having to go hundreds of miles each weekend, which boils down the travel costs to gasoline and a hotel room for the adults in many cases. It’s a good community where folks generally speaking trust each other, and it features a stable administrative crew that spontaneously grew up around the fact that most of the tab rooms are run by the same collection of usual suspects week in and week out.

As I see it, there are two major splits between the MFL and the Northeast debating world.  The first is cost.  The standard entry fee for an MFL tournament is $5.  The standard entry fee for a Northeast debate tournament is somewhere north of $40.  In other worlds, a student can go an entire season of competing in the MFL on a single weekend’s pay in the Northeast.  That price differential serves to sever the MFL schools from the Northeast schools; the debate programs which run tournaments take in more money than MFL programs that do, and so they have money to spend on others’ fees.  MFL programs that only charge $5 simply don’t have that sort of budget.  Our students, for instance, pay their own fees.

Personally I fall with the MFL on this issue; the $5 fee is far superior in making the activity accessible, both to students who cannot afford $50/week, and to students and programs who are new to the activity.  It’s far easier to tell people to blow $25 and a Saturday on trying something out with 5 of their students, than it is to get them to pony up $200+ for the same honor.

However, there is also stuff that goes the other way.  We’ve had a remarkable amount of turnover among the MA debate coaches in the past five years, while the speech coaching has been more stable.  However, back in The Day, the debaters were somewhat more hostile towards the speech coaches, claiming that they were being abandoned and ignored — but at the same time, when speech coaches attended debate tournaments, ignoring and abandoning them.   At this point, the instinctive reaction of a lot of MFL speech coaches is to regard debaters as snooty hooligans who are just there to be nasty to people unlike them.

However, we have some of the nicest debate coaches in the country in Massachusetts.  JP is blending in with the speech side, for which I thank my lucky stars, since it means I’m not the only hybrid.  I’ve really enjoyed getting to know Sara S this year, and Jim M has always been a terrific guy.  Tim A and I ran Yale for years and though he’s less active now, he’s always good to have around.  And we have some newer coaches coming up (Anne B, Tara T, etc) who seem to really Get It.  Further, speech coaches might look at their own tournaments and programs, where there’s vast unmet demand for debate events.  We started offering Public Forum at formerly speech-only tournaments, for the standard $5, and in only its second year there are more students competing in PF at your average MFL tournament than any other event.  The majority of inquiries I get about potential new programs ask about debate, not  speech; and while some of those programs eventually convert to speech programs, it’s mostly out of the difficult logistics around debate.  The MFL needs strongly to offer more debate opportunities that are easy to get to; it’s such a simple win.

But some historical bad blood, together with unfamiliarity with the events, is causing MFL speech coaches to resist it.  A tournament that has 50 prose entries is viewed as a good thing, while 42 PF teams is viewed a huge problem.  Where there are space and room issues, tournament directors cap debate entries first, rather than instituting an overall cap.  Space is an issue, since the MFL is an awkward stage where we’re a bit too big for most schools, but also a bit too small to have two tournaments going at once.  But it’s not that much of an issue.  Ways could be found, and the current approach of just chopping debate off at the knees is not healthy for students or the League.

Ultimately, it comes down to lack of connections.  It’s easy to demonize someone you don’t know and interact with.  Debaters are teenage high school students seeking to learn much the same skills as interp kids or address kids: the art of being believed.  They’re doing it in a difficult arena — speech kids don’t have to face the possibility that everything they say will be immediately and forcefully contradicted.  I’ve tried to meld the two communities together a bit, but there’s more to be done.  I’d love to see 8-9 tournaments locally, at $5 a pop, offering both LD and PFD.  Policy may be a tougher nut to crack, but that alone would be a start.   And then perhaps debate would be seen in the MFL as an academic activity along the same lines as theirs, not just an imposition of grubby little space aliens taking away rooms from f’n Group Discussion.

The Last Harvard: Recap

So let’s sum it all up.

Apart from some of the inherent problems with various events, which are not the tournament’s own fault, discussion of the Harvard tournament inevitably settles on its flaws and faults, not on its strengths.  The strengths are the strengths of the community; the sense of seeing a large gathering of forensicators in one place at the same time.  I didn’t actually get to see even half the folks I wanted to share a meal with going into the weekend, and yet my weekend was still relatively full.

The tournament staff itself is cut off.  I can sort of blame the tournament staff for it, even though it’s not really a failure of intent; they do try to ferret out advice and feedback.  However, they’re simply not part of our community.  The directors and staff have their own tournaments every other weekend of the year.  They go to exactly one high school tournament, and that’s their own.  No amount of soliciting feedback and advice is going to make up for that, especially since coaches and people are lazy and most won’t bother to commit their thoughts and ideas to email or paper.   Even when they do, the directors are left not really knowing whose feedback and advice to follow.

The crucial advantage to the college tournaments I help run is not so much me, as the fact that many other coaches are stupid gracious enough to help me run them.  I provide continuity and the portal in; but the posse I belong to matters most.  Each of the four college tournaments has many experienced tabbers who hail from multiple states; thus at Yale you have folks who collectively run about 150 other tab rooms during the course of a school year, and thus have access to all the lessons and experience that carries.  The college hosts have a chorus of ideas, a parliament of sorts, who can help them sort out the spurious complaints from the real, the good ideas from the failed.

The Harvard staff have one over the other colleges, in that they’re grownups, who come back year after year the way I do.  So that helps, but it’s not a total solution.  Their links to the community are weak, and so they’ve failed to adapt to a lot of best practices for simple lack of seeing them in action elsewhere, and refining them week after week the way our posse does.  And at a certain point I have to stop apologizing for people who are making a quarter million dollars off the community, and still don’t provide enough food in the judges’ lounges; our PF judge almost starved on Saturday evening as a result.

So the answer is to go elsewhere.  Since there aren’t many tournaments that weekend, I may as well put one of my own there.  UPenn has been squeezed out of a clear date in October by the calendar again.  They have to compete against someone, and I’d rather compete against another college tournament than a high school hosted affair.  Of the 130 schools that attend Yale, a good 60 or so do not go to Harvard.  Lots of folks I know stay home rather than go to a tournament at all.

So we’re going throw ourselves a nice, gentle, inexpensive affair down in Philadelphia next year on President’s Day weekend.  The money goes to Perspectives, which teaches LD debate to inner city high school students, thus keeping it in the family.  I know it’s bold, but I think we can make it work; for my PF entries, at least, attending UPenn will actually be cheaper than going to Harvard, even including hotel costs.  I wish the Harvard tournament well for what it is, and indeed hope the competition, for what it’s worth, helps them improve as well.  But next year, we head southwards.

The Last Harvard: PF Final

So Monday continues.  After the Oratory final, I headed into Harvard Square to buy myself a new phone, since the old razr was clearly dead now, rendered brainless by continually confused internal software.  It being around 3 years old, I was due for a relatively cheap phone anyway, in return for selling two more years of marriage to Verizon.

So I lost my phonebook meaning I couldn’t call anyone; but they could call me.  Tim A did, reminding me that I had foolishly offered to fulfill my school’s out round judging obligation with a round on Monday; sheesh, judges who do what they’re supposed to.  Seems that between dealing with the speech side of things, and then acquiring a new phone, I’d promoted myself all the way up to judging finals.

So finals I judged, together with PJ & JP, and two other folks I didn’t know.  I was happy about it since it would give me a chance to see the current State of the Art of Public Forum.

What I got wasn’t really debate, in a way.  The topic was tough: Resolved: That, on balance, the rise of Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC) has had a positive impact on the United States.  Those four countries have about one thing in common: they’re big. Connected to that, they each have the resources and potential to become a local hegemon in their respective regions.  But no one debated that.

Mostly what was debated, and what I saw in that final, was a complicated calculation of benefit versus harm in economic and foreign policy spheres.  Since the resolution was phrased in the past tense, there was little speculation or risk analysis involved; the teams could only offer stacks of numbers that pointed to their side of the resolution.  The topic offered little unifying principle for weighing across the various domains of national interest, be it economic or military or foreign diplomacy; and it’s even more difficult to demonstrate societal harms and benefits on the international scale.  Then, once you’ve done that, try establishing that those harm/benefits are the BRIC nations’ fault, and showing that the rise of those nations, not their mere existence, is what caused those harms.

Cha, right.

So a debate resolution that’s nearly impossible to do in a doctoral dissertation was even harder to address in the terms of a 35 minute debate round.  Public forum is short and sweet, so tossing them a topic that’s so fiendishly complicated is just begging for unsatisfying argumentation.  In this topic, too, the complexity was not because the topic itself was morally complicated, but because it was just data-sifting; the moral values aren’t addressed at all in this game of my-study-is-better-than-yours.  Even more frustratingly, 9 of those precious 35 minutes are wasted in crossfires.  Crossfires are short periods of mutual cross-examination when the competitors attempt, and usually fail, to make each other look stupid without appearing to do so.  As such, I still haven’t learned anything about how to judge or decide a debate round as the result of a crossfire.  I’ve begun putting down my pen and working on my ballots during them; half attention is usually sufficient to glean anything significant.  Some kids start trying to read cards and throw evidence into them, which despite being against the spirit of the thing, is probably more productive than the intended use.

The debaters didn’t make it any easier.  Both teams approached the round by simply flinging out a mess of varied evidence about the four BRIC nations in various sectors of policy; nuclear disarmament, trade balances, and arming Iraqi insurgents and Hamas (and I’m pretty sure the debater who ran Hamas was conflating them with Hezbollah.)  Neither team offered a weighing standard or proposed a mechanism for assembling all this variegated data into a decision.  That shortfall made the round fail at a critical part of debate.  The only thing that keeps a judge from having to intervene at some level is providing a standard of some sort — a burden, the v/c framework in LD, any sort of mechanism — on how to weigh thousands of lives lost on the negative, against hundreds of billions of dollars gained on the affirmative.  That’s not necessarily an automatic negative win, given that poverty surely has killed far more people globally than bullets or even global warming (so far) have.  Without resolving that key tension — and the debaters didn’t talk about it at all — the round itself cannot truly be resolved, without intervention.   With a standard to weigh against, and even an argument about that standard, judging becomes clear.  Without a standard, it’s an ungodly mess.

And an ungodly mess it was.  My ballot was cast without confidence on the upper end of a 3-2 decision.  Ultimately I weighed the lives the negative was killing off in Iraq and by killer smog as more valuable than the money being gained on the side of the affirmative, since most of those billions have been going to buy rich people’s yachts and not poor people’s medical care and food, and in the absence of aff showing me that poverty kills.  But that’s my take admittedly; however, the debaters didn’t give me any other option besides my take.   So that’s what they’re stuck with on my RFD, until they give me anything else.

The other flaw was the arguments were ultimately uncreative.  There wasn’t much room for creativity, between the topic and the limited format of the round.  We’ve managed a few creative arguments on past topics, but given that the ground to cover in BRIC nations is so enormous, there wasn’t much room for interesting argumentation.  It was just a vast, boring study-war.  Teams were just flinging evidence at each other, and while that’s certainly a skill useful to have, it’s deeply unsatisyfing to me, especially because the round was encouraging them to take all their evidence at face value, and really, that’s a terrible precedent.  But they didn’t have time or ability to question the evidence, to explain it, to understand it on a fundamental level.  So I was left taking on faith that Expert 1 said Russia was evil, while Expert 2 said that without Brazil we’d all be dead, when I know full well that most of these Experts have agendas and motives for saying what they do far beyond facts & reality.

The constant thread I’ve been trying to teach in forensics is encouraging students to think for themselves; that their own thoughts are as valuable as those of the journalists, analysts and experts, and has an equal duty to stand up to intense scrutiny.  After all, one of the defining qualities of our age is that knowledge needed to have deep insights is available and accessible to everyone.  One of America’s consistent social ills is that far too few take an interest in public affairs.  Governing elites always take interest in how the world works, but it serves them for no one else to; their viewpoint dominates when no one else is truly thinking.  That general ignorance may give those elites short term profit, but it also gives us thought-bubbles and echo chambers, and can lead to the lemming-effect disasters such as our economic disaster.  If I can send an army of kids into adulthood having learned how to think and reason from basic data, and to be skeptical of experts, I’ll have done a mitzvah for the world.

Public Forum is alive and well in the MFL circuit, flourishing with divisions of 30-45 teams at any given tournament from 20 different schools.  There are probably upwards of 80 active PF teams in the state.  I have a feeling that much of this success is that we’ve finally introduce a consistent debate event at speech tournaments; there was a lot of unmet demand for debate among speech teams, and the logistics of the MFL gave those kids only the unsatisfying, not-quite-right-for-them outlets of Extemp, Group and Congress.  It’s a shame because the more I exist in PF, the more I wish I was still coaching LD.  For a while I gave PF a pass since it was still trying to find itself, but at this point the brevity is so unsatisfying, and the standards of the event aren’t doing much yet to make up for it.  PF was created in large part to address ills in LD, and was adopted first and strongest by the coaches who felt that LD had lost its way without possible redemption.  I’d argue their leaving made LD weaker, but the manner of the leaving also harmed PF.  The anti-LD kneejerk is still keeping PF from becoming it’s own thing, and if it’s throwing out good aspects of LD such as voting standards in the process, then it’s just reactionary nonsense.  Popular reactionary nonsense, but not much different.

There’s hope for it since.  Better topics would be a start; topics should really have a stronger moral component with more judgment calls other than quantitative analysis.  The topics have trended in a Policy direction but policy permits much more creativity due to the length of the round and concomitant breadth and vagueness of its topics.  No, in a short limited round, a short sharp question-your-values-in-the-public-sphere style topic is best. But up until April’s PF topic, which my students will not debate, we’ve gotten no good ones.   Some acceptable, but none good.  (Change: April has now been published, and of course, it’s the best topic all year.  Sigh).

But radical reform would also be nice.  Get rid of grand crossfire, at least; it’s just stupid.  Reclaim the time into more substantial rebuttals.   I’d also actually get rid of the coinflip nonsense; it makes the ballot confusing, and leads to teams sailing through tournaments never debating one side of the resolution.  Encourage cross examinations, not crossfire, to restore some civility, and sense of intellectual achievement and openness, to the debates.

And for crying out loud, call it aff and neg.

But I doubt it’ll happen.

The Last Harvard: Extemp Recap

First off; the first time around I posted these, I posted the versions with the full names listed; that wasn’t what I’d planned, since in the age of Google, that can leave a permanent stain on what should be a temporary decision.  And as I make clear below, I don’t particularly blame even students even if they pulled the trigger on unethical decisions — and have no evidence of their intent either way.  So I am really sorry about that; but I’ve removed the same with the actual ready for primetime versions.

So what does it mean that by the letter of the law, every student in the Harvard final failed, and by the spirit of the law, it’s possible that at least two did so?

What it does not mean is that these speakers, the ones who flubbed dates or even the ones who may have gone further than that, are horrible, terrible people who will never redeem themselves in the eyes of humanity, or even myself.  I believe it reflects a poor ethical choice if true, but doesn’t really reflect on the individual ethics of the students that that much.  The incentives are stacked against them, after all.  It does reflect poorly on the state of the event, and the lack of safeguards.  After all, when a few people fail a test, the fault is with the taker; when everyone fails a test, the fault is with the test.

As Jonathan put it, there are three areas of quality in an extemp speech which a student can control: the quality of their analysis, the quality of their speaking and presentation, and the quality of their evidence.  The judge, however, can only really account for the first two in the immediacy of judging the round; judges have no immediate way of telling how well sources are used, short of pulling the sources after the speech; and doing that means you’ve possibly flubbed up the smooth running of the tournament and delayed your own time to go home, so there’s a strong social pressure on judges not to check sources.  Therefore, given the limited time the speakers have to concentrate on their speech, there is a very powerful incentive to work on analytic clarity and breadth, and speaking polish, to the exclusion of accuracy and care in sourcing.

However, there has been a parallel effect in extemp, which is the advent of the 12 source speech.  A many-sourced speech sounds impressive to judges, and some judges even go so far as to count sources in a speech, whether or not they’re used effectively.  The extemp community engaged in a sourcing arms war for a while, as a result.  We’ve settled down to a generic standard that a speech should have 1-2 sources in the introduction, and 2-3 sources in each point of analysis, bringing us to a grand total of 7-11 for a Varsity level speech.  That’s what judges expect, and so that’s what the students serve up.

That means two things.  First, and most obvious; you try memorizing 11 sources, 4 of which may be from the same publication on different dates, and maybe 7-8 of which are from newspapers that are really virtually indistinguishable in your mind.  After all, does anyone really recognize whether a given news article was in the New York Times or the Washington Post on a given day? Now do it in 30 minutes, that same 30 minutes during which you have to prepare the speech in the first place, read those citations, integrate them into a coherent anaytic flow, practice it over a few times for delivery, and then calm your shaking nerves because you’re about to deliver it publicly in front of 400 people.  And do all those things in the sure knowledge that, in the vast majority of cases, no one is ever going to know whether you fudge a little bit here on analytics, or screw up a date there.

Now go further, and say you drew a question where you have maybe 10-15 total files in your tub on the topic area.  Suppose further that the exact question was specific enough that most of your sources don’t really apply to it.  You have two choices at this point; you can either just shoot yourself in the foot to begin with and only use 3-4 of the sources, and then stand out from everyone else.  Or, you can find ways to jimmy in your other sources, even though they don’t really relate.   Take the former action and you lose guaranteed; take the latter action and you only lose (assuming you speak well enough) if someone checks up on you, and that happens so rarely as to be inconsequential.

The calculus is clear.  In the absence of consistent checking, speakers will both make mistakes and put themselves into difficult situations.  This problem is a problem with the event itself, not those students.  We do not give students training on avoiding alcohol abuse by telling them they’ll fail at a competitive activity unless they’re drunk, and then toss them into a bar that doesn’t check ID.   That’s a good way to get a lot of drunk kids, not a good way to build lessons.

So what’s the solution?  First is being aware of the problem and the reality of it.  Extemp is under-coached; there aren’t a lot of coaches out there who identify as extemp coaches.  Many programs just have advisors whose interests are in other areas; folks who are perfectly good at getting students to their respective tournaments chaperoned and safely, but who do not really think much about this particular event and pay much attention to it.  A high proportion of extempers are therefore more or less on their own, and coaches and tournament directors don’t really understand the forces at play here.  So awareness is certainly essential.

However, we should take that awareness and act on it, as a community.  We should encourage more, ever stricter checking, coupled with a sharply reduced expectation as to the number and use of sources.  Give to get; require each source be letter perfect, but stop expecting more than say 5 sources in a speech to reach finals.  When we source checked Yale one year, the prep staff mistakenly told the students ahead of the semifinal round that a source check would occur.  The average number of citations per speech plummeted from 9 in the quarterfinal to 4-5 in the semifinal; the quality of the speeches did not suffer, and everyone got each source perfectly correct.  It’s not a temptation to use your 4 good sources, and bend & fudge the rest, when you know everyone else is going to only use that many, and you know that the consequences are likely to be unpleasant.

It would also help if people didn’t try so hard to write questions to trip up extempers.  If your tournament asks questions that involve the food industry or pop culture or the Indonesian minister of the interior — in other words, too bizarre, too lightweight, and too specific, in that order — you’re asking the students to commit sins.  Nobody has 8 sources about the Indonesian cabinet, and unless you want to make the event about filing and not thinking and speaking, nobody should.  High expectations on source count, coupled with such strange questions, are begging for source falsifications.  Do tournament directors really believe that talking about mainstream, headlining challenges in the US economy, the wars, peace in Israel and Palestine, and European politics are so easy that we have to start asking about ever more obscure issues?  Should people who don’t generally pay that much attention to extemp in the first place feel comfortable making that call?

So the solution is clear.  Integrity of sourcing should be paramount and expected more rigorously, as that will directly lower expectations as to the number of sources used.  Ballots should be adjusted to emphasize the use of those sources instead of the quantity thereof, and perhaps even say that a plethora of sources is not to be taken as a sign of a good speaker.  Topics should be written within a legitimate domain of inquiry; don’t go too far afield from the headlines and the major stories, to give students a chance to have enough in the files to speak about them without having to worry about wedging in another citation.

The impact of that course of action would be to make cites easier on the students, and encourage them to think more on their own, which would make the event both less daunting and difficult for them, and hopefully more satisfying.  The academic integrity of sourcing and citation would be re-emphasized at the same time.  And I think the quality of speeches would rise; as students were putting more of their thoughts into it, and spending less time finding their 10 sources in prep, the quality of their speaking skills and their thoughts would benefit as a result.  Extemp is an event that a lot of people don’t want to watch and judge; if the speeches were better, no one would be harmed by it.

I think it’s a good deal for everyone around, eh?  Now I hope people who are essentially outsiders looking in care enough to take action.