Yale IV: BP, PF and Intervention

So now that I’ve talked about the rescued debacle that was the Yale IV tabbing experience this weekend, what’s up with the actual debating style?   What happened in the rooms?

Well that’s another story altogether.

Bear in mind that due to aforementioned tab hell, I only saw two rounds; an up bracket round 2 (yes, they power match their second rounds) and the final.

The format sounds very broken to American ears.  A BP round features four teams of two students all competing against each other.  The motion being debated is set tournament wide and announced fifteen minutes prior to the start of the round — teams then all run off and prep in hallways or other odd corners and then begin.   The teams are divided into quadrants on four axes — government/prop (for the motion) and opposition (against); and each of those are divided into a front half and a back half.

The front half team members will each give alternating 7:30 minute speeches for or against the motion in the front half.  Then they sit down and shut up, and the back half teams pick up from where the front half teams left off.  That’s it; 8 students, 8 speeches, no rebuttals or anything like that.  You can rise to ask a question when a debater is speaking (Points of Information, or POIs) but the debater more often than not will not entertain them — a typical debater, it seems, accepts about 2 of these each speech.

The four teams are all competing against each other for the judges’ affections.  They will be ranked in the round based on their placement on a point scale, determined by the quality of their contributions to the round, 1st through 4th.  So you’re competing against the people arguing on your side just as much as the ones on the other end.  Each position has a certain role and strategy to play; if you’re the 1st speaker on the 2nd opponent, you’re supposed to fill a different role than the 1st speaker on the government (called, of course, the Prime Minister).

So it’s roughly speaking a collection of 8 extemp speeches which interrelate and react to each other more so than most extemp rounds do.  And you can do interesting things with it sometimes; in the prelim I judged, the first opposition made a rather awful argument which the second opposition cleverly turned into a health-care politics disad.  The single-speech thing was jarring to me too, but I got used to it pretty quickly.

But at the end of the round, I had heard eight more or less interesting speeches about the topic, which contained a fair amount of clash, interesting arguments on a theoretical and pragmatic level, and most of the other things that good debates are supposed to have.  I think the quality might have more to do with the people participating,  than the format itself, but screw it, a good round is a good round.

Then came the judging.  There is a chair judge, and a panel of some number of judges as “wings”.  The chair sort of controls things but if there is more than one wing judge, the wings can vote to overrule the chair.  I winged for a very experienced former YDA debater who now coaches for them, which was a good assignment for one new to the activity.

Judging BP is dramatically different than high school debate for two key areas.  The first is that the panel reaches a decision through consensus.  The judges actively confer with each other after the round, and the chair attempts to guide the round to a consensus.  If there is no consensus, there’s a straight up vote like we do in high school land, but only after the judges have argued a little and discussed it with each other; the downside is that a persuasive judge could sway the rest of the panel, but these are debate judges so I don’t think there’s much fear of that.  And if there’s something that only one judge happened to catch, then all the judges can understand it before moving on.

It worked pretty well — better than I thought it would.

It works all the better because of the other key difference in judging BP.  Judging it is explicitly interventionist.  it’s not interventionist on the level of “I don’t agree with you and therefore you’re not getting my vote ever.”  But the convention of “you assume it’s true unless another debater says it’s false” doesn’t hold in BP.  Since the round is simply a series of single speeches, there’s no distinction between rebuttal and constructive; that more or less requires the judges be able to step in and weigh on their own knowledge, if only to fairly evaluate the very last speaker’s new material.  There was no sense that we had to wait for another debater to tell us what we knew already.   If they said something false, and I knew it to be false, they got dinged.  They were therefore trying to convince me, Chris Palmer, not my flow.   The first opp team in our round that didn’t understand how Roe v Wade works, and therefore lost — the motion was “Medicaid should pay for all currently legal abortions”.  The two teams that had the most clever arguments that were most responsive and true were the ones that competed closely for the first rank.  And they were able to mostly ignore what the first opp team had done with a light and appropriate dismissal, rather than drag half the round through it, since they were correctly confident we didn’t find it persuasive either.

High school coaches would recoil in horror, and when I heard about it I did a little myself.  In our debates, the ideal judge is the one who doesn’t inject any of him/herself into the round, and drives the flowpad and takes it wherever it leads.  Of course, nobody actually judges that way — least of all the people who most vigorously claim they do.  We all have preferences and things we resonate to the most to us, and try to express that in our paradigms.  But we don’t — and won’t — express our preferences on the level of gross factual mistakes, or gross logical mistakes.  We’ll vote on flavors but not errors.  It’s kind of weird, when you think about it.

So in the actual event when judging BP, the freedom to intervene was actually refreshing & remarkably liberating.  And what was better, since I was judging with others and we could talk before deciding, just about any factual or logic errors could be combed out and discussed.  I was genuinely torn between the two teams in the back half of my round; Rory made me realize that even though I wanted to vote for the 2nd opp for various good reasons, we really had to vote for the 2nd gov team — and he was right.  Otherwise, he and I agreed very quickly as to the ranks in our round.

I’ve been thinking lately a lot about why it is that debate events keep “going the way of Policy” in high school debate.  College parli has most of the features that people “blame” for speed and weird and/or dumb arguments in high school debate: students mostly judge each other; the oldest alumni “dino” judges are 2-3 years out; there’s zero adult coaching to speak of in APDA.  But APDA and BP has stayed relatively free of spreading, and is definitely free of dubious arguments based on long chains of barely connecting evidence that bring you from increased kitten birthrates to nuke war.   There has to be some difference between the two worlds, something that all high school events have in common which Parli does not.

I’m starting to think it’s the strict high school ban on intervention, both the “I disagree with you” kind, which should be banned, and the “I know you are wrong” kind, which I’m starting to reconsider.  In Policy, LD and PF, no intervention is the taught ideal.  A debater in a PF round once claimed to JJB that the US military cannot stop using outside contractors, since our soldiers are forbidden from being used on US soil, so without outside contractors nuclear weapons would go completely unguarded and that’s a reason to vote for them.  The other side conceded the point, incredibly enough, and tried to weigh out the ensuing nuclear disasters with soft power of all things.  I’m not sure who was more deluded there, and neither of them deserved a win truly, but the point is in that debate round, you have to swallow that ridiculous assertion as true because their numbskull opponents did.  You’d still have to swallow it if the opponents had said nothing at all, which is less defensible.  If the other debater doesn’t contest it, it’s true on your flow.

Except, of course, that it isn’t.

And it won’t persuade anyone.  Most people know instinctively, without need for any direct evidence at all, that if you try to break into a US Army nuclear facility you will not be stopped by rent-a-cops, but by some of the meanest, largest, most utterly humorless bona fide US soldiers you’ve ever seen.

There’s educational value to the logic puzzles that LD and CX rounds have become, and thus there is room for LD and CX debate.  Plenty of it.  But in high school debateland, there’s a hunger for something else, something we don’t have: an event were “kittens lead to nuke war” doesn’t win you rounds.  They tried to create it in PF, but PF is slipping inexorably in that direction already, speeding up and getting weirder.  I have a personal team rule: we run what we believe.  We don’t run things we don’t actually think are true.  It’s costing us rounds, and it’s hard on the kids — and it shouldn’t do either.

But debaters will do what judges vote for, and we tell PF judges not to intervene even if the debaters say patently ridiculous things.  If we truly want a persuasive debate event, we have to punish non-persuasive debaters in that event.  Judges who cannot intervene cannot punish non-persuasive debaters.  Persuasion is an important skill, clearly helpful but tangential to what LD and CX teach.  LD and CX are fine, but persuasiveness should be the niche that PF takes on, instead of just trying to be shorter Policy rounds.

So maybe we need to kill a sacred cow here, at least in one debate event.  Tell the judges to intervene and be honest when they’re not persuaded.  Persuasive debaters cannot assume their audience knows nothing, or what they do know is even correct, so they’re going to have to be responsible for knowing what the judges know, and what an average educated adult knows.  So they have to learn.   If you’re going to persuade, you have to deal with the audience you’re dealt, no matter how ignorant they may be.  You have to be sure to argue such that if they have incorrect factual information, they trust your information more — so no, that environmental study done by a assistant professor the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople doens’t outweigh the study done jointly between the entire Cal Tech and MIT environmental engineering departments, even if it is ten minutes more recently published.

Debaters would tell you that if you allow judges to let their knowledge guide them in deciding the round, that the very fabric of the universe would be torn, altered, and forever changed for the worse.  Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.   But I sat and watched the BP rounds, and persuasive argumentation was the norm.  The final was goofy and unpersuasive, but it was late and people were goofy so it wasn’t supposed to be on some level.  But the prelim definitely was.

Some say you can’t expect high school level students to have the background knowledge needed.  For a 15 minute prepped round, you may be right.  But you know, high schoolers do this sort of thing all the time.  Extemp does exactly this; it’s a speech which must be persuasive to a general audience, and if you’re wrong about something and the judges know it, you’re sunk; there’s no problem intervening on content and logic there.  And extemp is doing just fine.  It certainly doesn’t go nearly as fast and doesn’t involve lots of nakedly false assumptions as in debate.

Extempers pull that off in 30 minutes.  PFers have 30 days to do it.  I don’t think it’s beyond them.

So yeah, that’s what BP gave me.  It was fun to watch and I hope I can see it again sometime.  But it was also an insight into something that had been bothering me about the low quality of the arguments and persuasions even in a good high school round.

And I suppose by airing these thoughts, I’m going to get the daylights struck out of me forevermore.  Ah well.  I would abide by the rules of the event until they change, of course.  And I didn’t want to judge you anyway.