Talking about talking

So the debate coach blogosphere (all four of us) has been atwitter about increasing the size of said blogosphere, or at least the capacity of online communication among forensics coaches in general.  Admiral Menick’s latest idea is a common RSS feed which aggregates all the various debaterly content out there into a coherent, one-stop-shopping location for all things forensics.  It’s not a bad idea, I’d certainly subscribe.

But is it enough?  I’m not sure the issue here is entirely platform, honestly.  I think at least partly there’s an community standard that people don’t talk to one another, be it online or at tournaments, about these matters.  Fix that, and the forum may build itself; fail to, and nothing you do in forum building will work.

Policyland talks a lot about itself.  They have various channels to do so, but they’ve also built their community and their activity around ideals of openness and disclosure, which encourages a lot of inter-squad talking.  Policy debaters also travel a lot, and it’s a small, possibly shrinking — some say dying — activity, which means at any given tournament, one finds a fairly substantial quorum of the whole activity.  These factors combine into a world where everyone knows everyone else — a community in a real sense, that actively discusses the issues facing it.  Word gets around.

However, policy may not be an especially good model for the rest of forensics.  Policy debate has grown remote from the rest of forensics; in many ways they least resemble the rest of us.  They’re similar to LD in that LD has a national circuit of competitors and coaches who mostly go to each others’ tournaments and the TOC, and little else; but LD also has maintained an active and vibrant local scene in many areas of the country, which Policy has failed to do.  So to the extent that the Policy community’s intercommunication succeeds because of the tight, small nature of the community, the same lessons do not apply to all of LD, and certainly would not apply to Speech and PF events as well.

So that’s the trick; to start a dialog between the Circuit Snob and the Local Yokel, and get a critical mass on board.  I tend to think real person communication should come first, and then the online resources should be an outgrowth of that.  If there’s a real-world at-tournaments component to matters, then the online part will mean more, and have more respect and substance to it.  At least, so I hope.

I suppose I should put my money, or at least my tournaments, where my mouth is on this front.  Off to email Bietz.

Overhead

Menick urged me to blog quickly; by my standards, six days later is pretty quick, unfortunately.  I’ve been swamped at the $dayjob, which has thrown together a conference for the two days before I depart for Albany and NCFL Nats.  Wondrous timing, but it’s coming together.   And I just now in my post-Mother’s Day-feast induced lethargy worked through much of the backlog related to running NCFLs.  So now, this issue.

The question is how to foster online communication among coaches who may or may not be terribly inclined to communicate online.  But that question touches a lot of other things.  One of the core flaws of forensics, I’ve long felt — one that isn’t immediately apparent, but causes many other apparent problems — is that we lack generalized effort.  There are rather few people who are paid to coach and manage forensics teams as a gig.  There are plenty of people who are not paid at all despite being actively involved.  And there are surpassingly few who are paid to manage and look out for forensics as a whole, or even any given league within it, instead of one individual team.  There’s not enough overhead, in a word.

Overhead is important; there are so many projects that must take place in overhead, not around an individual team or cabal,  but without resources to drive these projects along, substantial change and reform cannot happen.  We’ve managed quite a bit in the Northeast through the efforts of just a few folks who care enough about this activity to administer tournaments for the sake of having it done properly.  We’ve also embarked on a few interesting changes and experiments, such as normalizing the college tournaments along recognizable guidelines, and launching the use of the Modest Novice LD resolution.  It has only taken is a small knot of coaches who have critical mass in the region, and who spend enough downtime together talking about the Way Things Are and the Way they Should Be.

We’re used to providing a little overhead to our activity in this cabal, so we do it naturally.  But our own time is limited, and there are a quite a lot of coaches who don’t, or can’t, contribute much in this manner.  So the first requirement for an online platform must be a real lack of friction.  If it requires a lot of time and effort to post or contribute, folks won’t.  There’s only so many hours even I can give each week to the Wider World of Forensics, and if I have to choose between contributing to a nascent forum or programming a new feature into tabroom that’ll get me to Ibiza a half hour earlier at the Yale tournament, you can guess which I’ll put my time towards.

The second requirement that every forum so far has lacked is importance.  I think this is the one that keeps most people away.  Coaches know full well they can post all they want to an online forum and it won’t affect any real change.  One of the Achilles heels of too many forensics leagues, in fact, is the sense that real change can only happen if it comes from An Insider, whether or not the reality is so. If that belief is widespread, people don’t bother speaking up, and the perception reinforces itself because nothing changes.  It takes some determined effort to re-establish transparency under those conditions.

So, for a forum to succeed and bring us together nationally, change has to result.  It can’t just be an online stitch and bitch; that’ll turn too many people off.  It has to be a place that a responsible coach must pay attention to, or be out of the loop.  You get that by having a critical mass of tournament directors, league officials, and others with a high profile actively invited, engaged and plugged into the process.   So someone has to go out and recruit these folks, directing their attention to the forum when their bailiwick is being discussed, and prod them into active engagement with the community.  And then close the loop, and let the community know when it has been heard.

The third requirement is activity, right from the start.  A forum online can only work if it captures a sense of discussion and byplay, not just single shots in the dark.  Menick and I post into the ether usually, but when we argue with each other, then folks really notice.  You need that back-and-forth to draw interest.  The conversation needs to eventually turn into action, but the debate itself is inherently entertaining — and so, essential.  So someone needs to be the editor and the prompt, to talk when no one else is talking.  That would draw interest from more folks, and engage them when they do stop by.

The fourth requirement is that the forum must be adult.  There are plenty of places in the online community for students to participate and contend with coaches, but the inevitable effect is that the students overwhelm the discussion with their concerns and most coaches turn away.  For this project to be unique, it needs to be free of that effect; there are things I won’t suggest or say if I know students are kicking around en masse.  As part of the adulthood requirement, the forum needs to be totally non anonymous.  For some reason, when you combine normal people with the Internet and anonymity, some substantial percentage of them turn into frothing asshats.  Frothing, ungrammatical asshats.  The coaching community is small enough and personal enough that simply stripping people of the veil of anonymity should be enough to keep an online arena civil and respectful.  Or at least civil and respectful unless someone really meant it.  Having an adult tone is crucial to keeping the discussion meaningful and effective. So that means having someone sift the entries for frothing unproductive nonsense, and act as a guardian at the gate: this person must approve new posting accounts rapidly enough that new members can join easily, but verify them as adults who have a presence in the forensics community, and who are using their real names.   Which in turn makes it all the harder to gather critical mass needed in Point 3.

Notice something?  Each of these requirements ends in “someone has to.”  The trouble here isn’t technical, and casting around for the perfect bulletin board software isn’t going to solve it; though choosing the wrong web forum software could certainly kill the idea.  This project can’t be done without the thing we most lack; overhead.  An editor.  Someone passionate enough to making it work that s/he’ll tend the garden constantly, every day.  The thing that made Victory Briefs Daily take off wasn’t their software platform — I kind of hate the new look & shuffling-story interface, it hasn’t grown on me at all — but the fact that Cruz was there every day making things happen.  That’s what you need to have an effective coacherly forum: a champion who dedicates their focus to it, and makes it happen.  At least for a year or two until it takes off on its own momentum.

And no, that person is not me.  I’ve taken off a few hats this year, for fear my head would collapse beneath them.  I no longer run my local FL, and my overhead time is divided between making software to make forensics better, and making the college tournaments better with more direct intervention.  Find a champion and this can work.  I hope someone does volunteer.

Fighting with Menick

So I spent last weekend at the TOC, as a judge/scout/driver/EMT for Scarsdale.  My qualifying team, perhaps wisely, didn’t want to attend, but I’m a sucker for punishment that way.  We had a fun time all around, and there were stories of course.  Scarsdale did well; no one finished worse than 3-4, two made elims, and one of those was in the quarter.  I can claim precious little credit for that, though I can claim a larger share of credit than I should have for getting everyone to the airport; a non-life-threatening but nonetheless serious Medical Event, the one thing coaches dread more than anything else, sent our Monday travel plans, our focus on the tournament, and JV’s nerves into a tailspin dive.  Every one of those things survived in the end, and I made it onto my plane with a good ten minutes to spare.

One of the funnier things that happened at TOC is that people encouraged me to get into more fights with Menick.  That’s going to be hard, for one thing, since we do tend to agree on a lot of stuff.  But I think we can try.  However, it’s interesting; going back and forth about extemp apparently was deeply engaging to various PF and Policy coaches too.

Bietz is now NDCA president and he used a note in the yellow flyer the NDCA was posting around the tournament to encourage more online discussion by coaches.  He rightly points out that the students have taken to online discussion quite readily, but that coaches have lagged far behind.  That lends a certain immature, fanboyish air to most online forums dedicated to forensics, to the point that serious discussion simply will not take place on most of them.  Every now and then coaches do have to talk things over without student input, after all — there are times when decisions need to be taken that will be sharply unpopular with students.  Students, after all, are ephemeral — they’re rightly made much of when they’re in the world of debate, but soon enough most of them are gone from it, while the coaches have to remain behind with the consequences.  So it’s strange that students do most of the interacting in permanent online forums, and coaches very little.

Bietz’s solution is to call for coaches to simply start contributing articles for their newly revamped debatecoaches.org.  That’s a fine idea in its own right — it would be nice to see some online venue for coaches attain some critical mass. But I wonder if it’s not doomed and destined to become just an online version of the Rostrum.  I wrote a Rostrum article once.  Ironically, it was about computer usage in extemp.  I got a fair number of emails, and then the issue died.  Certainly no one in NFL officialdom appeared to notice.  But then when Menick and I went back and forth a couple times on the selfsame issue, the issue get all kinds of attention and feedback.  Though still none from officialdom, but what can you do.

So the point is, we don’t need static articles and little sallies in the dark.  The real value of online communication is dialog and discussion.  It’d be all the better if folks who actually ran things participated, too.  Meaningful communication, as forensics types should know instinctively, are not one-way.

The challenge is one of platform.  Message boards have a high amount of friction, which young people overcome but busier older folks rarely do.  Blogs are nice, if people start them, but someone who only wants to chip in on one conversation won’t do that.  That’s the trouble, getting a critical mass of meaningful conversation that can affect change.

The second hurdle, of course, is how diffuse and fractured we are.  Tomorrow on that one — and on that point Menick and I do disagree.  He urges the NFL on us as rule-setters of the Forensic Universe.  But it’s all too clear that they’re nothing of the sort.