The View from Tab

Whenever I hear “The View”, I think about that daytime show where a bunch of random women refuse to allow their own ignorance to hamper the forceful expression of their opinions.  That association is somewhat off, as the Three Geronimo Brothers have been lately been producing The View from Tab, a podcast about the LD centric portion of our universe.  It made its way into my commute-podcast rotation, I’ll admit; they think nobody is listening, and I’m nobody, so there we go.

Last week’s podcast, I have to admit, rubbed me a bit the wrong way.  Most of the podcast was spent talking about the various high school tournaments hosted at colleges in our activity, and the problems and frictions that brings.  Over the years I’ve grown a bit sensitive to blanket denunciations of college tournaments.  After all, I’ve been the guiding adviser for various college tournaments for a decade now.  I have firsthand knowledge of working with four different college hosting organizations & campuses, each very different than the others, and the administrations and setups of said campuses.  I’m willing to put out there that nobody in the activity right now knows more about the trials and tribulations of a college hosted tournament than I do.  So I’m going to cite myself as evidence, and not apologize for it.  But as a result, the discussion was a little hard not to take as a personal affront, even though I’m good friends with all three of the Mooching Mojitos.

Their discussion was inspired by the Emory tournament, which I gather had a few issues last weekend — I’ve never been to Emory, so I don’t know firsthand.  But Emory’s ills launched us into a takedown of college tournaments in general.  That really bugs me — the underlying assumption of the podcast, and of many high school coaches, is all those college tournaments are the same. That’s completely unfair.  I get annoyed enough when running Yale that I sometimes have to defend occasional Yalie decisions I disagree with; proxy-defending Harvard while I’m at it is beyond the pale.

I’ll point out that UPenn is a remarkable exception to their entire discussion; they’ve been exceptionally well managed for the last few years, their proceeds go to urban LD debate programs in Philadelphia, and they would run the tournament even if it did not turn a profit.  In a lot of ways, UPenn stands apart, and definitely above; they’re better than many high school-hosted tournaments I’ve been to.  Plus, cheesesteaks.  I’ll even admit that I’ve lost a little bit of respect for coaches this year who are sending squads to Harvard without supporting UPenn; but we’re going to have a good weekend, I think.

However, let’s go to the other end of the scale; it’s no secret that Yale is by far the most profitable tournament I direct and advise.  I’ll still put the Yale tournament experience up against Harvard’s any day on any grounds.  Yale spends good money hiring a great pool of judges in every division.  We use those judges well.  They put out plenty of food for the judges and coaches — I’ll admit the quality could be improved and certainly can’t compete with home cooking, but the Yalie parents are far flung and I don’t want to eat college student home cooking.  They orchestrate an exceedingly complex tournament that nonetheless leaves time for sleep and meals.  They make sure that high school people are in charge of every division; no division at Yale is treated like a second class citizen run by a B team tab staff.

The Yalies slip up sometimes, Lord knows, and I yell at them for it when they do.  But not every slip is driven by a Montgomery Burns (Class of ’14) moment.  For instance, Bietz and Cruz complain about colleges not having printed schematics and attribute that to cheapness — but it was actually environmental concerns that led me (Me! Not them!) to decide that posting a small number of schematics is sufficient instead of handing a copy out to every debater.  That’s also why we tried the ballot scanning project this year, to try to save some trees — we ended up paying far more in person-hours than we saved on paper by doing so, and knew we would going in.  But it was right to try.

When folks start muttering about Harvard and Stanford and Villiger in the same sentences as the Palmeric Quartet, as if there’s no difference, it leads me to conclude that the work I’ve done getting these tournaments in shape isn’t valued; after all, after nine years hacking away at Columbia, if it’s still no better than any other college tournament, then why should I do it?

The other thing to understand about college organizations is that they are not internally monolithic; the ones I run all lack staff support and permanent coaching.  Few colleges support extracurricular activities with staff support anymore — hell, some barely support curricular activities adequately.  The cast of characters therefore changes a lot.  But there are patterns.  Usually the student tournament director is a former high school debater or speechie with strong ties to the community.  Tournament directors typically care a great deal about the quality and the experience at the tournament.

However, the leadership of the teams, not the tournaments, can be a trouble spot; college team leaders are not chosen for their connection to high school forensics.  The troubled years at college tournaments often happen when team leadership overrides tournament leadership, out of ignorance and greed.  However, the college organizations whose tournaments I run know one thing and one thing well; in the long run, they’re screwed without me.  I provide tournament directors an external veto on bad practices.  The tournament directors will sometimes themselves ask me to throw a fit and threaten to quit.  That gives me leverage to overrule team treasurers.  The system hasn’t worked perfectly — sometimes bad decisions creep through without me knowing, such as this year’s inflated concessions prices at Yale — but it’s worked much better than what came before.

No tournament I’ve run this way has failed to hire a good, if not great,  pool of qualified judging; no tournament has failed to feed coaches & judges, and no tournament has failed to run on schedule.  Harvard’s judging and schedule is a horrifying crapshoot, I’ll grant — though the schedule at least has improved recently.  Emory apparently fell short too this year, though they also sound like they want to improve.  But if any of the pools at Yale, Columbia, UPenn or Princeton were insufficient after I’d taken them over, I’d love to hear about it.

The triplets of terror then turned their attention to the role the TOC and TOC bids play in encouraging college tournaments.  Honestly I’ve wondered myself that the road to the pre-eminent event in high school debate runs through (and ends at!) a series of colleges; one of these days I should figure out how many bids as a percentage are given at college tournaments versus high school hosted ones.  But I’ve always been told the TOC bid process attempts to be descriptive, not prescriptive; they give bids to tournaments at levels where the kids are worthy of them, rather than declaring a tournament an quarters bid and hoping 8 bid worthy kids end up the quarter as a result.  When Yale got promoted from semis to quarters, it was on the argument that in the previous five years, all 20 non-advancing quarter finalists except for one ended up fully qualified to the TOC anyway, so clearly the tournament was producing a quarterfinals bid-level field.  So if it’s a problem that colleges have bids, the problem is not necessarily the TOC’s sanctioning; it may simply be that critical masses of good debaters go to college tournaments, and the TOC is recognizing that.

However, I’d point out a few things over and above that factor, since the cause-and-effect nature of a TOC is bid is certainly hard to suss out.

First, the TOC and bid status has far more influence with tournament staffs than they think.  Yale, Princeton and Columbia would never be the same tournaments without their bids, because those bids are very useful in encouraging good practices.  The TOC bid level at a tournament is pretty much the only external indicator the college teams get about how they’re running their tournament.   The tournament directors at college tournaments work very hard to run a tournament worthy of their bid level, and one of the most potent statements I can make is “Quarters bid tournaments are expected to do X” or “To get a semis bid, you’ll really have to invest more in Y.”  Princeton’s demotion from a LD semis to a finals bid was the wake-up call that inspired them to clean up their act on a number of fronts; doing so has immeasurably improved their tournament.  Columbia spent tons of money on hired judges beyond what was merited by their finals bid in order to get promoted to semis.

That said, the power of suggestion with the TOC bid level is weakened the bad college tournaments which nonetheless maintain their high bid levels.  Say you’re a member of a college team’s exec board, and you don’t have experience in high school forensics.  You want to know, for example, if it’s justified to raise your registration fees this year, or if you should keep them the same.  The natural thing to do is find comparable examples.  So you go around and look at other college tournaments, and holy crap Harvard charges like four thousand dollars per kid! A vision of a world without financial worry at all blossoms in front of your eyes, and when that annoying Palmer guy says “No, that’s terrible for the community, you’ll piss people off,” well what does he know?  Harvard is an octos bid, so they have the TOC’s stamp of approval; tons of people go to the tournament too, so obviously coaches don’t care that much. Why not jack our fees to match theirs?   Why should we hire outside judges?  Why should we feed them?  Harvard doesn’t.

I have to have this argument about once every two years.  It sucks.  It especially sucks that while I encourage the colleges to do the right thing and essentially leave money on the table each year, Harvard never gets its comeuppance; the long term karmic benefit never materializes.

All the same, once every two years is only once every eight tournaments.  I’ll point out that isn’t so bad; it rather undercuts the belief that all college students are grasping thieves.

Secondly, I’d point out too that the TOC itself is an exemplar of bad college practices.  They don’t feed anyone, they don’t hire a single judge, and last year they didn’t even give out trophies.  They also charge an arm and a leg, and the at-large application fees add even more, even though I doubt that the committee that reviews those applications gets an honorarium for their work.  If you really want to discourage profiteering, maybe start by looking at college debate’s penultimate event?

Thirdly, the TOC advisory committees and the high school community are notably silent about what they want.  Cruz pointed out that the Harvard administration was genuinely surprised that the LD world hated their tournament, and didn’t know why.  I can understand that.  I certify 14 TOC bids in Lincoln Douglas, 18 in Student Congress, and a whopping 48 in Public Forum Debate each year.   I’ve been certifying TOC qualifiers now for about 6 years.  I might be responsible for more total bids than anyone else in this activity.  I’m certainly responsible for more bids than anyone who isn’t on one of the advisory committees.  Even so, I have yet to hear a single word from any TOC affiliated committee or authority about how they expect these qualifying tournaments to be run.  Not once.  I’ve gotten a few emails this year about how to submit bids, which is a vast improvement — when I first started I had to ask all around creation to even figure out how to do that.   I would love to have a set of published standards from the advisories that listed out “Here are things we expect from Quarters bid tournaments, Semis bid tournaments…” and then noted concrete actions a tournament director can take to fulfill those standards.

It would help me a great deal in knowing the latest ideas  myself — I keep abreast of what’s going on in LD, but I’m not an LD coach, and I don’t attend a lot of bid tournaments in LD besides those I run.  But even more so, I can also guarantee that it would lead to instant improvements at Yale, Columbia and Princeton.   If there’s something Yale isn’t doing, and it appeared on a list of expectations of quarters-bid tournaments that the TOC published, they’d do it and they wouldn’t argue about it.   They really do care about running a good tournament that the community enjoys.  However, they’re also not going to spend $5,000 on something if it’s an edge luxury, not a necessity to the tournament; they need to know which is which.

If the committee does that, though, they have to stand by it; they have to take away bids where the expectations are not being met.

Finally, I’ll point out one thing.  The college students do make money off these tournaments; they’re major fundraisers for their own college debate teams, apart from UPenn of course.  However, they put a lot of work into the tournaments too.  Hosting a tournament at a college is much harder than at a high school; there are layers of bureaucracy, transport issues, administrative restrictions on spending the team’s own money, and a bizarre array of last minute nightmares.   A teacher at a high school is a colleague and can navigate their lower hurdles better; a college organization are students and have little to no leverage if an associate dean of obstruction is in a bad mood and threatens to cancel the entire show three days before because Form 341-b wasn’t filed within the appropriate ten minute window and the tiddlywinks team asked for the space, too.  It’s also not as if college students get any time off their day jobs either; they have no professional days; and if there’s a midterm the Monday after the tournament they’re probably going to bomb it.

If you totaled up the person-hours, college debate teams would probably be better off just sending their members to all get jobs at McDonald’s for six weeks.  The people would be more pleasant to deal with, and the hours and pay rate are better.

Even though the experience is more difficult for college students, they offer uniquely grand tournaments.  In speech I can’t think of a single large multi-state tournament with the kind of heft that any of the college tournaments have in the entire Northeast.  If college organizations stopped doing this legwork for us, my speechies would literally have nowhere to go beyond our local tournaments and Nationals.  They’d decline, therefore, in skills and edge, never having exposed to anything beyond what’s going on locally.  In debate the situation is better, but still not quite there; only Bronx runs a full three-day event like the colleges routinely do.   Where are all these bid-worthy invitational tournaments in the region, that we should take away Yale, Columbia and Princeton’s for the sin of being at colleges and therefore being lumped in with the excesses at Harvard or Emory or wherever else?

In short, if the high school community isn’t willing to do the legwork to run these tournaments, then yes, they should have to pay the college students who are willing to do it for them.  The students I advise work very hard and deserve it.   College tournaments can offer facilities that make a tournament better.  You don’t have large lecture halls and auditoriums to have final rounds where everyone can watch elim rounds at high school tournaments.  You don’t have an open campus to explore with a host of nearby restaurants and hotels.  You don’t have access to your building for the whole weekend.  And yes, you don’t have the name.

But there’s more to Yale than just the name.  Besides, it’s just a safety school.

Sanctions don’t work

So the LD resolution is about the oughtness of economic sanctions, which dovetails nicely with the discussion about what to do about miscreant programs.  In LD I’m sure there are all kinds of theory negatives running around, but in the real world, the major disputes with sanctions are that they are ineffective in correcting negative behavior, and they fall hardest on the people who have the least power to change that behavior.

In tournaments, sanctions are similar.  A regime of penalty fines works fine for usual problems, to gently discourage usual antisocial behavior that ignorant teenagers often commit — “Oh, you mean I can’t go to the tournament AND attend my Irish stepdancing lessons on Saturday?!”  Penalty fines work best if the students themselves end up paying them, in my opinion; the pain is felt where the flakiness originates.  However, for the under-chaperoned teams, it’s often some other parent who pays the fine, or someone yells at you for daring to call them on their non-compliance of the rules and expectations of the tournament.  At best, also, managing fines and collecting payment costs just as much tournament overhead as the original offense does.  You have to levy it, invoice it, track the person down, talk them into the necessity of paying it, and then give them a receipt.  Often, especially at tournaments where there are a lot of shenanigans being pulled, you simply don’t have the time to go punish them; you’re too busy fixing the tournament from their damages.  You can either keep the tournament ship afloat, or you can let everything sink while you go chase down fines and miscreants.

But the fine regime also doesn’t catch the edge cases of behavior that is both so bizarre and so unacceptable that it really throws tournaments and tab rooms for a real loop.  There are gentle forms of this; the folks who don’t read the tournament invite, and proceed to ask just about every question whose answer is in the invitation over the course of the three weeks before the tournament.  Those, typically, are the independent entries or parents registering.   Then there are the people who waft through the debate community heedless of anything the tournament director tries to mandate, but feeling they have an ironclad right to attend any tournament regardless of how they interact with the community.

Those are the Problem Children, and they are the same week after week.  Ryan M suggests public shame as a method of enforcement.  It would be satisfying but I don’t think it’d work; these folks don’t necessarily care that much about public shame, given that they piss off every tournament director week after week anyway.  I don’t think it’s any way illegal or immoral to call people out who, on the face of facts, are committing public harms in a public arena; just as I don’t think anyone giving an extemp speech in front of hundreds of people carries an expectation of privacy.  But I don’t think it’d be effective.

So that’s why I’m thinking about graver efforts, actual revolving tournament bans for people.  It would be certainly effective, in that the people wouldn’t be there to cause problems in the first place.   It would correct the behavior since it strikes at the immediate self interest of the students on the team, who are often themselves complicit in the various shenanigans programs pull — especially when programs show up without adult supervision.  And it wouldn’t require all the monitoring and checking in advance for “the latest way school X is going to try to get out of having judges” the week registration ends.

But maybe I’m too tired for that :)