On criticizing imperfect tournaments

I went down to Fair Atlanta this past weekend, glady shuttling from a Boston with -1 degrees to an Atlanta with upwards of 50.  The occasion was the Emory tournament, once a crown jewel octos bid tournament which has acquired a touch of tarnish of late.  The field and judging both have grown undeniably weaker in just the three years I’ve attended the tournament, following the same trend that has afflicted the Emory IE divisions before them.  As a consequence, this year was Emory’s first as a quarters bid tournament.

A bid level demotion can be the kiss of death.  Bid levels tend to be raised only when a tournament has already deserved its new level for a few years running; thus a promotion often doesn’t change the character of a tournament much.  Once a bid level is lowered, however, some folks will immediately choose to put their funds and their time in other places.  That’s not an unfair choice, but the consequent falling-off can mean the field quality takes an immediate hit; in some cases declining even past justifying its newly lowered status.   What was once a solid bid tournament can quickly turn into a poorly attended local.  LD at Wake Forest experienced this dissolution over the years, as did Monticello; I’m sure there are other examples out there, too.

Helping the forces of decline is the debate community’s propensity to be, for lack of a better term, really bitchy as it goes down.  There’s nothing like a bid demotion to to call the Long Knives out; all of a sudden every part of a tournament is put in the worst possible light.  Is the field size small?  Folks aren’t coming for a reason.  Field size big?  The tournament is clearly just looking to soak us for cash.  Scheduled days too long?  Inhuman!  Too short?  Not enough rounds for the value!

And so on.

It’s easy to complain about a tournament, as no tournament is perfect; a tournament must involve a complicated set of choices and tradeoffs between various competing needs.  A tournament needs good hired judging, but always on a budget.  Tournaments will want to fit in a good number of rounds; too many and everyone is the walking dead; too few and folks feel cheated.  Tournaments are limited by their available space and personnel; nobody is hiring staff or building new buildings to benefit debate, alas.

At Lex, for instance, we had to yank Round 2 for a pref-import foul up that was maddeningly nobody’s fault; that said I’m sure if folks wanted to find a way to blame us, they could have.  More fairly, they could have disagreed with our choice to pull the round and sacrifice about an hour of everyone’s sleep in return for a correct pairing.  Our hired judge pool was also smaller; Harvard wasn’t back in session, the inauguration claimed quite a few college types, and attending schools hired a lot of my intended targets before I could.  Nobody seemed to much notice or care, given that the tournament was generally on the up-and-up, and those school hired judges were there in the pool anyway; but these circumstances could have been spun by someone who wanted blood into Lex doesn’t care about hired judging.

If you want to snipe at a tournament, you don’t have to try hard.  You can just ignore the tournament directors, not ask about any hidden constraints you may not know about, and assume everything about a tournament confirms your worldview that This Sucks And They’re Out To Get Me.  Sometimes, we hit a critical mass of complaining, and the bitching becomes self-fulfilling: a tournament that everyone believes sucks will indeed come to suck, deservedly or not. Perceptual suckage will eventually turn into a dropoff in attendance. And then LD will have what it deserves, but not what it wants: another crappy tournament.

Don’t we have enough of those already?

Some of that sniping is motivated by the zero-sum nature of TOC bids; most everyone hosting a bid tournament needs to defend it, for either their ego or their fundraising.  The decline and fall of another bid tournament makes your own bid level safer, or perhaps due for a promotion.   You may notice folks who talk down tournaments are often the directors of competing ones.  That incentive is hard to dodge.  Overall as a community, however, we really shouldn’t want tournaments like Emory to tumble and fail; we should want them to improve and bounce back.  I don’t count so very many national draw tournaments that we can afford to just lose one.  It’s no accident that when Emory was demoted, another octos bid tournament was not thereby created.  Where would those bids go?

So, Emory.  They did some things right.  They purposefully shrank the field, in order to hold everything in one building, a lovely luxury.  The schedule was more reasonable: they split round 3 in half, running flight A Friday night and flight B on Saturday.  This change resulted in a later Friday, but a quite reasonable Saturday; last year I remember judging a mind-melting flight B of the double octofinals on Saturday in a sleep-deprived blear; this year I was in bed by 11 having finished said double, together with the ride back to the hotel and a meal at the hotel restaurant.  Friday wasn’t so very late and Saturday was much earlier, in sum.  It was a trade I’d happily make again.  Those two reforms together also meant the schedule ran strictly on time without any whiff of lag-pairing.

They also instituted speaker awards in LD, at long last.

There were warts in these changes.  Friday night was four debates back to back, and a very quick turnaround to the fifth; thus I didn’t eat between 4:30 and 11.  That exacerbated the impact of their college-tournament lack of hospitality; which in turn was made worse on Sunday when the local cafeteria they point us towards is closed.   The judging pool was weak; there really should be a few solid-A hires in a quarters bid tournament, especially one sitting near the country’s second largest airport.  At the least, I’d have liked to have heard why those hires weren’t in the pool, in lieu of a bunch of college policy debaters the LD community doesn’t know and cannot therefore prefer intelligently.

The major structural problem with Emory, however, is tradition.

Now I’ll confess that I do not revere tradition.  There’s probably more room for it at tournaments than I allow.  However, I’d argue tradition should be limited to areas where the central purpose of the tournament is not adversely affected.  Cruz, for example, loves, lives and breathes tradition.  But he also limits it at Bronx to a big hoopla ceremony when the school is still in classes and we can’t use the rooms anyway.  He renames a few things oddly; but nobody really cares and most folks just call them Policy Debate and Double-Octos anyway.  These touches don’t hurt the tournament as such; they add a little, or at the very worst fail to detract, depending on your point of view.

At Emory, it is not so.  Emory’s mainstay tradition is to name a few coaches each year Key Coaches, voted in by the existing Key Coaches.  The group is policy-centric, and thus so too are the new inductees each year. Emory, as a point of tradition, permits only key coaches to judge the final rounds of all events; and then has all the attending key coaches together judge the final round of policy debate right before the awards ceremony.

The consequences of the final round tradition at Emory, to an LD debater, are thus:

  1. No preferences or strike cards in the final round.  This lack affects just two debaters; but very critically so.
  2. We are treated to watching four debaters we don’t know engage in a form of debate that we don’t do for 150 very long minutes before we’re permitted to know our own final results.  It is of some small consolation that the judging panel means that it isn’t really a form of debate those four debaters do, either.  But nobody pays attention to the policy final: it’s smart phone city in there.  I skipped, and went out for dinner with my temporarily Georgian cousin.
  3. We are faced with the concomitant unsubtle implication that our debate category matters to the tournament much less than another; nobody forces them to watch our final, after all.  That’s reinforced by the quality of their hired judging.  LD used to tolerate second class citizenship; it doesn’t anymore.
  4. The policy final round schedule distorts what could be a great LD schedule.

How so on number 4?  Emory struggles with a conundrum; do round 3 on either Friday or Saturday and the day chosen ends at midnight.  Splitting the round between them worked better but wasn’t great; Friday was still a bit late, and splitting flights is a logistical hassle.  The “correct” Emory schedule would be to have 2 rounds Friday, 4 rounds on Saturday, and start doubles in the morning on Sunday.  Suddenly, all three days are easy to manage.  The tournament would run 2 1/2 hours later on Sunday as a result; which affects only two debaters and three judges, not the entire tournament.  That delay also assumes they still double-flight octos; if you run a double on Sunday more people are usually around to judge a single-flighted octo.

I know the policy final is a great vast longstanding tradition, but it doesn’t accomplish anything.  It actively hurts parts of the tournament that don’t have reason to care about policy debate, and certainly will not be made to care by being forced to watch a round that isn’t policy debate.  I’m sure when it was first done, back in the day, it was an “Oh, neat!” type of thing, because then policy folks had no judge preference system, and the event’s appeal to a wider audience was broader.  Since then, however, the nature of both policy debate and the other events have changed, and so the key-judged final has in turn shifted from “Oh neat!” to “Ah, hell, not again.”  The best way to judge a tradition, in my book, is to ask if anyone would implement it now from scratch if it weren’t already in place.  The Emory final round thing fails to meet that standard.

Uncoupling this tradition from the LD schedule would have measurable positive impacts to our tournament experience, and no negative ones.  PF and IEs would also improve if given the same consideration.  Given all that, it’s of little surprise that schools take their travel dollars and money and choose other tournaments.  Emory could be providing a much better experience, but instead chooses priorities that my universe, and the IE one, simply do not share.  So LD folks instead choose tournaments that are more sensitive to our preferences.

I say all this not because I want Emory to go down in flames.  I say it because it’s an easy, fixable problem.  I say it because we are all better off if there’s a top-flight octos bid tournament in Atlanta each year, and a tradition adjustment, shall we say, would be a free way to help get that back. I have a few angles here.  With the demotion of Emory, there are now only 5 shared-octos bid tournaments with policy debate; two (Harvard and Berkeley) happen on the same weekend, and while in LD St Mark’s and Bronx also conflict.  My program is serious about both policy and LD; but we can travel only 3 times a year to a combined octos bid tournament now.  If that separation of the spheres continues, some LD programs will start to fade away and drop off (as too will some Policy programs) as the logistics and expenses of doing both increase.

Secondly, through calculating NDCA points I have noticed that the average TOC bid tournament in LD this year shrank by about 10% from last year.  The only two exceptions so far have been Lexington and Crestian, mostly because they used to be on the same weekend but Crestian moved dates.  To hear folks talk about it, about half of the octos bid tournaments don’t deserve their bid level.  Is this because of the tournaments, or is it because LD is fading a bit, and can’t sustain them?  The answer to that question may be troubling; but the solution to the problem it presents is to help urge tournaments to improve instead of slicing and dicing them up.

We have a lot of problems in debate, and I’m not so much worried about them directly as our inability to get serious about solving any of them.  We’ve already had the annual We Hate Greenhill and Some Coaches Cheat threads over on NSDUpdate, and are now in the middle of the annual Let’s Talk About But Fail To Act Against Sexism holiday.  And so, fewer adults each year stick around LD to keep it lively; slowly our numbers dwindle, our tournaments fade.   If there’s something worth keeping about LD debate, we’d be more positive about the venues we have and helpful in working to improve them, lest we lose them for good.