A theory of theory

A is the interpretation.

Most theory is terrible, and never should be run.  Theory as a strategy is harmful to debate.

B, the violation, is self-evident.

C is the ground.

Judges are routinely voting for things they hate, because the debaters present them little choice.   Theory is everyone’s villain: nobody refers to a theory heavy debate as a classic. We speak of rounds “devolving” to theory battles, designating them for a lower plane of evolution. It leads to unhappy judges, lowered speaker points, and unsatisfying rounds – all assertions that need little warrant.

Theory doesn’t win. Sure, it wins rounds – a lot of them. But it doesn’t tend to win tournaments.   Debaters who resort to theory a lot are the under performers – the debaters who never seem to reach the level of success their skill would suggest for them. The big championships tend to be won by the debaters who engage in it least.   Theory can win when both debaters do it, as the judge wishes to be elsewhere while signing the ballot. Theory can win when the debater using it is much better versed in it than their opponent – a round which the theory debater would have won anyway.   It can also win in the cheap shot round – throwing a trick out there, a snake hidden in the weeds, to snatch a victory from a better debater. The last approach is seductive to sophomores, struggling in their first varsity rounds. It also only works for sophomores – once a debater does it enough, they cease to catch anyone unawares, as their opponents grow alert to the threat.

Theory doesn’t help LD. The more theory has grown in the last four years, the more LD participation numbers have dropped. Theory is not useful beyond debate. What little it does teach – logic, extemping arguments – substantive discussion teaches better. Theory could easily drive students away – it’s boring. It’s a skill that will give them nothing past LD.   We’re left with the debaters who would have stuck around anyway – debaters who are glad to win theory because they’re in it to win, and don’t especially care about how they get there.   Debaters run it as a time sink, which crowds out actual substantive debate by definition.

Theory encourages more abusive affirmatives in the first place. If every debate is just going to devolve to theory anyway, there’s little penalty to breaking realistic norms with intent. Why not run an abusive, shifting and non-topical plan, when you’re going to have to win a theory debate anyway? May as well start off with a lead on substance.   This year, I hear a lot of angst at the rise of critical race theory arguments or other non-topical cases based on identity, which some LDers have imported from policy. I wonder how an LD debater who runs mutually exclusive theory interpretations can possibly object to abandoning topical debate in favor of identity arguments, when what it’s really replacing is theory games involving invented rules.

Theory blocks access to LD.   It’s totally opaque in most cases, as ground arguments speed on by incomprehensibly; I rarely even bother trying to flow it, given I can’t understand and don’t pretend to care. The local debater or debater trying out LD for the first time is just blown out of the round, and then figures they should look at PF or mock trial. There’s nothing wrong with PF or mock trial, but there’s something wrong when someone who really loves philosophy and would be happiest in LD settles for them because they can’t make headway against theory.

Theory is the preserve of those who can afford camp. Research about topical literature is available to all. Research about identity and performance is likewise available to all.   Camp makes arguing these things easier, but it’s not necessary.   Theory, however, can be learned nowhere else.   It rose in part so camps could justify their cost – it’s the only way, short of rigging the topic votes, that a camp can provide arguments guaranteed to be useful in the coming school year.   But their utility comes at a cost; since there’s no external way to learn about theory or practice it, beyond the bounds of a large coaching staff or affording camp, it becomes a gateway issue, a hurdle to those who have neither. It’s hard to teach oneself substantive debate and philosophy, but the internet and the library do afford the chance. It’s impossible to teach oneself theory, since it’s all about technique, and most of that technique is about freezing your opponent out of rounds in the first place.

Theory prevents the formation of actual norms in the community. If we had the occasional theory everyone asserts is necessary – some viable limits on the topic, and the approaches that affirmatives and negatives take with it – then the argument would hold. But in a world where debaters are constantly inventing rules mid-round and accusing their opponents of violating them – when the violation comes ahead of the interpretation – it’s impossible to settle on actual norms. It’s further impossible when the educators are removed from the question. Judges are admonished not to intervene, which means we’re unable to use the debate round as a platform to help establish those norms and get past most of the frivolous theory out there.   Theory can never reach an actual answer in the round; if we did, the debaters who rely on it would just move the goalposts.

Theory has no impact debate. Education and fairness are rarely sketched out arguments, but instead are watchwords, talismans invoked but not explained. Rarely are LD theory impacts actually tailored to the violation; instead they are rote incantations with little value beyond their ritualistic necessity.

Theory is impossible to judge, and to train judges in.   Without a reference to the rest of the world, there’s no way a judge can gauge theory arguments on anything other than crosshatched tallies of argument quantity. I can tell you whether an economic argument or a moral one has internal sense; I cannot do the same of theory arguments. Debaters complain about random outcomes to theory debates, and then those same debaters become judges and understand – now only too late to run something else as a debater.

D, of course, is the impacts.

Theory hurts fairness, freezing the debater without money or resources even further by pinning debates on esoteric nonsense that give automatic wins to those who invoke it. It makes preparation infinite, as you can never prepare for the invented rules of your opponent. It excludes people without the time or the inclination to learn material that never will be useful again.

Theory hurts education. It displaces topical debate, a lot of it. It displaces substantive non-topical debate, too. It lets negatives who haven’t prepared enough get away with using it as a filler. It prevents both sides from having to think about responding to novel arguments, to engage in the crucial skill of applying evidence and reasoning in a way they hadn’t thought of to answer a new position.   It encourages frivolous affs who know full well nothing will be extended.   And it reduces the numbers of debaters, and even programs in LD in the first place.

The last impact is a personal one. If theory keeps being a dominant part of LD, then LD will cease being a dominant presence in my life. Among the many major impacts is a minor one – it’s boring me to tears. I’ll coach something else, if at all, and even recommend that Lexington stop doing it. It’s a waste, of time, effort and money, to play in this self-referential sandbox. I’m not sure why I do it even now. If it lasts much longer, I won’t, and I’ll steer others away it as well.   It doesn’t help matters that next year’s policy topic is one I am really interested in and have technical expertise in.   This minor impact becomes major because I’m not alone in feeling that way.

E is the alternative. OK, so this just became a K.   You’re going to have to cope.

Without some theory, we go back to the land of eighty three NIBS, of floating advocacy, of made up evidence, or whatever else got us started down the path.  But the status quo means the solution has become worse than the illness. So we require means to keep the limits without the excess.

So I propose we add one rule to theory that can sweep aside many others: every interpretation should be warranted with a card.   Before a debater may run theory in a round, they should first justify the interpretation and standard on real grounds in public writing, or have a coach do the same.

That solves many of the harms above. It allows for rules to be fleshed out in an open arena, devoid of the competitive pressures, time limits and necessity to vote a round entails. It could be two competing theory interpretations are both wrong – a judge still must vote for one of them, but in an open forum, the audience may easily reject both.   Therefore, bad rules or norms can be winnowed out. A good proposed norm will stand the scrutiny of many voices, while a harmful or spurious rule will quickly grow a list of arguments against it.

It allows for adult participation in the argument. Adults have no voice in the course of a debate, which is proper – but adults should have a voice in the formation of norms, which itself is the curriculum of debate in a real way.   If theory must be cited, then a coach can generate those citations, or argue against them as easily as a debater.

Publication is no bar to anyone; there’s essentially infinite space on the debate web, and few of the sites aren’t looking for content. Getting a coherent theory article published should be possible for anyone. And once online, they become a resource to those who can’t afford the tuition and travel of camp; a debater can self-educate on theory, and prepare for a circuit tournament from a local league. Theory cards would have to carry the same citations as any other, and the ground and impact level debate would be already developed within those cards.

About the only harm is that it would limit what you could do in a round when something truly bizarre and objectionable emerges. In that case, you might lose a round – a somewhat less serious harm than debate practices eating at the very fabric of the event.   Or, you’d have to think about the arguments raised and the parallels to evidence and theory already established – which would, incidentally, be a critical educational goal of debate in the first place.   Independent thinking isn’t so bad, once you get used to it.

Answering innumeracy with data

He still doesn’t understand my point about increased mutuality, but I’ll write that up when it’s not  12:30 AM on a Tuesday.

For now:

  • Percentage of 1-off judges at Lexington:   8.46%
  • Percentage of 1-offs at Columbia:  8.33%

Man, really blew mutuality to shreds with those 9 tiers at Lex, didn’t we?

At Columbia, 12.5% of the VLD pool did not pref; at Lexington it was only 9%, thus making the job harder at Lexington to boot.   As we say in the business, “No Link.”

 

Potshot #2

Menick is reaching a flawed conclusion, in my opinion, not because his reasoning is unsound — try not to faint of shock — but because his underlying assumptions are.

Assumption #1: My pref sheet is based on paradigms.

Hah, as if.  The nether regions of the pref sheet are sometimes based on a reading, or the mere existence, of a paradigm.  The meat of the pref sheet, however, is based on first hand experience with judges.  We keep a written log of our RFDs in our team Dropbox; I read those regularly to adjust our pref sheets, because that’s actual data, and not just random assertions and opinions like the paradigm represents.   I’ve never read the paradigms of our top judges; I rely instead on being in the room when they say “I vote on theory” and ignore their assertion that they never will.

As such I find judges, the ones I prefer anyway, rather predictable.  When my debaters lose a round, they get an L; when they win one, they get a W, and we can talk about how to make the former turn into the latter.   99 times out of 100 I can figure out why they lost a given judge and most of those times, it’s because they ignored something I told them to do beforehand.  The other 1 time, the pref sheet probably changes.  My pref sheet isn’t about converting Ls into Ws; it’s about winning when we do win the debate, and being able to coach beforehand.

Remember, señor Menick, that the folks you’re hearing from are those coming into tab suggesting that you find them a better panel, as if you hadn’t already thought to try.  It takes someone rather unfamiliar with the way things work to imagine that tab rooms put out horrendous panels and withhold good ones until asked.  In short, you’re hearing only from people who don’t know what they’re doing, and drawing general conclusions from that data.  Talk about your flimsy evidence.

Assumption #2: Good pref sheets can win all the rounds!!!

A good chunk of rounds are yours no matter the panel; a good chunk of rounds likewise are impossible to win.  If you’re a senior with ten bids against a sophomore with ten cards, you’re going to win unless you do something tragic, even in front of a 1-5 judge.  The pref sheet isn’t about that; it’s about helping you in the marginal debates.  Which debates are marginal depends on what your level is; a younger team should have different prefs than an older.

Assumption #3: The W/L is the only concern of the pref sheet

This assumption is the most important of the set.  The number I hang on a judge isn’t entirely about the likelihood they’ll vote for us.  It’s just as much informed by the type of debate that judge would like to hear.  If you don’t like debating theory, then you de-pref the theoriest of the theory judges, even if one or two of them is likely to vote for you anyway.  The aim here is not to win rounds you would have lost otherwise, but to have debates you find enjoyable and are prepared for.

NStar was a mighty LARPer, and was most at home with DAs and CPs and such.  If some framework-happy sophomore in her first varsity tournament came along, and hit him round 2 in front of a 1-2 judge in her favor, a judge who positively loves philosophical framework debate, she’d still be toast.   But she could argue the kind of debate she wanted, and he could not, despite being better at it.  So even with the W, a harm is caused.  It’s sometimes an unavoidable harm, but it’s one the pref system is designed to minimize; and it’s one that blunt, imprecise tiers minimize less well.

Note that it is not a harm that NStar had to debate framework; it’s simply relatively unfair that one debater got to steer the debate into her own home turf and the other didn’t.  A better outcome is a judge who likes yet a third style of debate, and so both debaters have to adapt equally.  That is, after all, the idea behind mutuality, and an argument for the maximal mutuality possible.

At a wider level, too, I’ll pref differently for younger debaters.  Some judges are not as good for us stylistically, but they’re great educators and can give excellent feedback.  I won’t stake a junior or senior’s last bid round on being able to adapt to them in front of their favoritest debaters; but I might take the chance to get a good post-round for a student who is going to lose those rounds anyway.

Assumption #4: Team’s opinions don’t matter

Take away everything else, denounce it as the foul lies of a dirty Papist or what have you; and you’re still left with a final thought: the perception of fairness sometimes matters as much as the reality.  If a rating is entirely about unfounded imprecise opinions — which I would assert might be true for some people’s pref sheets but isn’t of mine — those opinions still matter.  A kid walking into a debate where she feels she has no shot to win because of the judge, likely will not, even if she actually had a decent shot after all.

There are a lot of reasons to de-prefer a judge; there’s the judge who might actually like your style a great deal but freaks out out, or the college freshman judge who you have a crush on and can’t string two words together in front of.  There are a host of considerations that go into a pref sheet, and some of the are opaque to the tabber; if we’re going to have the tool at all, it may as well be as good as you can make it.

RFD

Finally, to steal a page from debate; there is no offense in the round for less precise categories.  I’ve given a half dozen or so positive reasons for more precision; thus far all I’ve heard in reply is doubt whether the precision achieves a real effect.  But without any affirmative reason to prefer blunter categories, who cares?  Why is a tournament better for having 4 categories instead of 8 or 12 or 16?  All I’ve heard argued is defense: doubt that the 8 category tournament is better than the 4 category one.  There’s no argument on my flow of anything being harmed by having smaller, more numerous categories.  Sure, an 8 tier system will have more 1-2 matchups, but if it makes you feel better, all those 1-2 matchups would be 1-1s in a 4 tier system; and there’ll be fewer of them on the pairing than there would be hiding underneath those 1-1s.  Better for the debaters and the judges both; though perhaps worse for perfectionists tabbers.  Speaking as a perfectionist tabber, surely my sensibilities are an unimportant factor here.

In absence of offense for the larger category pref sheet then, I’m sticking to, and advocating for, more of ’em.

I’ll have my tiers and eat them too

Menick contends that fewer tiers are fine, thanks.  I’m definitely in the more-is-better school with categories.  Fewer categories needlessly throws away information that could be used by tab to make more mutual pairings, is why.

I think the point of difference is that he  defines a “mutual” matchup as a matchup where the two judges are in the same category, and anything else as imperfect.  But the real picture is murkier than that; simply making the categories larger and thereby forcing me to rate more judges in a category does not magically make all those judges equally preferred to my debaters.

Suppose one tournament has 4 categories and another 8; and the first delivers 100% mutual matchups, and the second has a number of one-offs on the pairing.  The second tournament will have delivered the more mutual judging.  The 4-category tournament will have many more matchups that are just as non-mutual as those 8 category one-offs.  They will only nominally be mutual to the eye of the tabber. There will be more of them, too, as the tab system no longer knows which matchups would have been 1-2s in a 8 category system, and so it can do nothing to minimize them.

When you place a 1-2 judge in an 8 category tournament, you know what you’re doing and you know there’s no better choice.  If that same tournament used 4 tiers, then you might place that same judge into the same debate, despite there being a more mutual option which is concealed by the broader, less precise categories.  The pairing looks prettier, but at the expense of the missing data which might make it fairer.  Choosing tier sizes should not be about satisfying the OCD of tab staff.

Pairing mutual matchups is becoming an automatic process, and there’s little reason to deprive this process of additional data.  The point of expanding to more categories while necessarily growing more permissive of one-off matchups is not to increase the numbers of those matchups, but to minimize the number of hidden ones.  So from a tabbing perspective there is little defense in my mind to using blunter, less precise categories.

It may be there’s a limit past which coaches are unable to make distinctions in the judging pool.  That limit is higher than 9, for me: I certainly could have filled out a pref sheet at Lex with clear distinctions between tiers; all my 1s would have been preferred to the 2s, all 2s over the 3s, etc.  The distinctions would have carried real information well down my sheet, and if I were going to the tournament, I’d want the tab staff to have that information in pairing my judging.

College debate has operated for some years under the premise that the limit of reasonable distinctions does not exist, and rates judging ordinally at most tournaments.  I think the high school community largely hasn’t followed suit only because our software wouldn’t permit it, not for any inherent reason.  At worst, finer distinctions do no harm; if you really don’t have any point of difference between 6s and 7s on your sheet, then just randomly assign them between the two ratings.  Given that I am a coach who makes those distinctions, I don’t see why I should sacrifice them because another coach does not.

So in short, I’m a computer programmer, and a data person, and I don’t see much value in sacrificing more data for less.

LD explained to Policy

I wrote the below as a missive to a working group of college debate coaches who are exploring alternatives to their standard resolution style.  In the past, policy resolutions have taken the form of “The US Federal Government should < do X >”.  One theory of how to resolve the ongoing dispute between traditional and critical/performance squads is reworking resolutions; agent-less resolutions such as we use in LD are one proposal.  Since we have direct experience with those, I wrote the below to give some words of insight of how resolutions and debates play out in LD.  I’m posting it here because it may be a somewhat useful survey of the current state of LD debate.

How LD agentless resolutions work in practice;
or,
How we learned to stop worrying and love the bomb.

In LD, the agent can be ambiguous because the topics are based around questions of value and morality, not of the benefits and harms of actions.  The topics are therefore descriptive, not prescriptive: they do not mandate an action by the agent even when one is present, but instead describe the moral status of an action or value.  You see the word “ought”, with its moral connotations, more than “should”.  We get “is just” or “is morally permissible” a lot too.

There is no inherency; the aff need not change the status quo, as the resolution is an assertion of moral status.  The affirmative merely has to prove that a topical interpretation of the affirmative side is moral or just or whatever – that interp can exist, and be debatable, entirely in the status quo world.  Therefore, we have no standing negative presumption in LD; the aff has no burden to change the world.  The status quo, in a sense, is defined by who wins the debate.

That does not mean that plans do not exist in LD; they’re simply not necessary.  Most LD rounds do not feature plans or concrete advocacies, though many do.  A plan in LD functions as a concrete example of an affirmative advocacy; an aff can assert that if a government enacted a given plan, and can prove that plan would be 1) topical, 2) moral, and 3) plausible (solvent), then the resolution can be said to be true.  But a parametric aff is just as likely to say that “They’re doing X in Denmark and it works fine and is moral” as a ‘plan’ which exists in the status quo.

The concept of fiat in LD is much the same; I can assert the government does X and Y in order to see what the outcomes are like, and judge the debate on the results.  But fiat can be descriptive: “this thing Montana does?  It’s awesome.  We should all try it.”

Framework

Typical LD debates can usually be decided in one of two ways, as long as it’s a post-fiat debate anyway.  First is a utilitarian debate where the impacts are weighed against each other by risk & magnitude: the kind of stuff that you guys know fine.  We refer to this as the “util debate” or less formally “the LARP”, aka, LD debaters conducting “live-action roleplay” of policy debates.

The second is what we call framework heavy debates, which is not what you call framework.  Our framework is the value/criterion, or standards: the lens through which the judge weighs impacts.  We don’t assume a body count is the only way to go; deontological standards that speak to the value of the lives lead, not simply the number of lives saved, are common in LD.  I refer to it as “Deontology: Because some things are worth dying for.”

As an example, in one debate I judged at the TOC, the affirmative conceded the framework should be equality; whichever side produce the most equal outcome wins.  The affirmative world was more desirable in a number of ways in a utilitarian sense; more people had better lives etc.  In the negative world, everyone had the same rights as the *worst-off* people in the affirmative world.  From a utilitarian perspective, the aff world is a no-brainer; everyone is at least as well off as they are in the neg, but some are even better off.  But given the conceded standard is equality, not overall utility, the negative easily won the debate.  The more that aff read impacts that uniquely benefitted one class of people (in this case, juveniles appearing in the criminal justice system), the more offense the neg gained given the standard.

The underpinnings for a lot of frameworks come from philosophical literature, both traditional and modern; in particular the Kantian principle that for a right to be a right, it must be universal, weighs heavily in a lot of framework debates.  The framework debate is typically conducted through analytic reasoning; we don’t especially care about the authors and their qualifications.  Typically LD judges will want carded warrants for empiric claims, which rest on technical matters requiring expertise, but look primarily to the analytic logic of framework claims. Students will often simply write framework justifications themselves.

Frameworks are often justified with competing stories about how either rights in a society are derived or agreed upon by different voices (Habermas, contractualism, social contract theory), or how one framework is a necessary precondition to the other, and thus supercedes it.

Deontology can outweigh strict utilitarian calculus in a number of ways; the main one reduces to saying that life in a strictly utilitarian world is at some level not worth living, as many may be enslaved to benefit a few. Another is that the utilitarian world cannot guarantee a stable and just society, since the calculus of strict utilitiarianism can change quickly (and is impossible to calculate in reality), so by ignoring rights you create further risk and harm to humanity down the road anyway.  Rule consequentialism attempts to address this by putting the utilitarianism one level up, saying you adopt moral rules based on the outcome those *rules* have on society; so if a society that bans slavery is more just & happy for more people, you adopt that rule and ignore the corner instances where slavery may nominally benefit many and only hurt a few.  It has answers and criticisms based on individual consent, and round and round we go…

Many debates are conducted exclusively on the framework level; the debaters will concede each others’ terminal impacts and instead solely pin the debate on which standard prevails in the round.  It is also accepted that terminal defense is well possible; we have little ‘there’s always a risk of X’ type stuff in our world.  The link level of the debate is therefore more contested as doing so is a more viable strategy than in your world; that reduces the presence of ridiculous impacts of the form “If the immigration bill does not pass WE ARE ALL DOOMED.  DOOMED!” outside of LARP debates, which is y’alls fault anyway.

Pedagogical impacts: the good the bad & the ugly

The good:

LD does a much better job than policy of teaching debaters to see and understand the whole round, not just each flow as a separate organism.  A holistic understanding of the round is critical to framework centric debate, as often times a single logical observation can devastate an opponent’s strategy and lead to a victory.  At its best, this can lead to a very elegant and precise style of debating that encourages sharp reasoning. LDers who run mutually contradictory arguments pay a steep penalty for it and learn quickly not to; we don’t wring our hands much about being merciless to conditionality.

That effect is aided by the shorter length of our rounds; an LD debate is 13 minutes of total speech time and 3 minutes cross ex from each debater. Decision times are therefore much shorter too; judges, too, are often able to keep the whole rounds in our heads, and we read few cards: if the logic isn’t on my flow it’s not on the round.  It is very rare that reading a card changes my mind about a decision; I read only to verify not clarify.

We pay for this benefit by exposing ourselves to the dreaded a-priori spike, where squirrely debaters will sprinkle a dozen ten-word observations into their cases, read them at half the speed of light, and if their opponent drops one of them, that spike will explode into half the 1AR and all the offense.  There’s unease at this approach; it feels like cheating, but it’s hard to draw a line between it and legitimate smart observational debate, and is hard to control without blatant intervention.

Because of that focus on seeing the whole debate, hypotesting (we call it truth testing) is alive and well in LD debate.  There are more comparative  worlds (aka, offense/defense) judges than truth testers, but not hugely so. I’ve judged many debates on a truth testing basis because the debaters argued successfully that I should.  The logic of hypotesting fits moral questions better.  We’re far more likely to debate whole-resolution as well; our resolutions are shorter and more precise anyway, so parametrics aren’t always necessary.

Or stock negative is not a DA – those exist, but aren’t universal – but a general NC, which has its own framework and contentions and impacts, and is in every way simply a shorter (for strategic reasons) version of what an affirmative for the converse of the resolution would look like.  LD resolutions can nearly always been inverted (and sometimes are for competitive balance) and still be perfectly debatable with the same prep.

The bad:

LDers do not produce nearly as much research as policy debaters.  Our files are smaller and more general; our backfiles tend to consist solely of frameworks and theory arguments.  When our debates touch on something policy kids debate a lot, we gleefully will raid your backfiles, and not feel bad about it either.  Our stock material tends to be denser, and more likely to come from books and long articles; our kids are correspondingly worse at finding quick sources that reflect the real world and current news.

Last minute updates aren’t a thing; the date of evidence carries little authority when weighing a moral question; we don’t even tag the year of most cards in our debates.  If something was immoral during the golden age of Athens, it may still be immoral today, whether or not the Senate passed the immigration bill last week.  That may be a good or a bad thing depending on your point of view.

The ugly:

The odd LDer will come along, read y’all’s wiki, and start running politics or 50 states or international relations DAs, but they tend to do a really bad job of cutting them, even by the awful standard of these arguments.  “My evidence is from 2001!”  “Well, good for you?” Thankfully said LDers do not tend to win many debates that way, and back off from it after a bit.

LD is currently in the midst of a festival of really bad theory debates. You are blessed in that you have no idea just how bad I mean when I say “bad”.  Theory is run as a strategy.  Rules are being made up left and right, and everyone’s suddenly a cheater.  Some kids roll with files full of mutually exclusive interpretations and little else.  However, this is a recent trend in LD, and I think (hope!) it’s going to be backlashed away. It probably has more to do with high schoolers being dumb than it does with the nature of LD topics.

Competitive balance

One major impact of that is that LD debate tends to reward a different type of program.  Policy is like MLB baseball; it rewards resources and systems. The stable of 30 people in a war room cutting last minute updates to the politics debate makes a difference.  Specific case-negs to every last aff likewise matters.  Therefore, the same handful of programs that have figured out how to assemble, run, and pay for such operations play at a high level year after year in traditional policy debate; I’m looking at the list of past TOC and NDT winners and seeing a ton of repeats.  Sometimes Tampa Bay pokes through; but usually it’s the Yankees or the Red Sox.

LD is more like the NBA: it tends to reward individual talent, not systems. Plenty of LDers can and do succeed without large operations behind them.  A superstar can trump all; last year both non-advancing TOC semifinalists came from a program that did not exist 3 years ago.  Sure, Greenhill won, but they hadn’t in many years; the list of historical winners is much more diverse in LD than policy.  The only school to ever win back to back TOCs was the same student winning twice.  Kids can compete at a high level with just themselves and maybe a college student coach to help them out.

An effective coach can hope to qualify kids every year, but would not dream of putting together a run of champions year after year the way GBN and Westminster or Northwestern and Georgetown aim to do.  A successful LD program operates by exposing kids to debate, enabling them to travel and compete, and giving them advice and teaching along the way; we can only hope some of those kids thus exposed really get it and go on a run.

Our tournament experiences tend to be more civilized as a result; it’s not necessary to stay up until 2AM cutting updates – though we sometimes do so to cut answers and new strategies if the stuff we rolled into a tournament with crashes and burns.

You might think that LD’s propensity to reward talent instead of resource intensive card operations, its openness to single-debater programs, and the centrality of critical & philosophical literature to our debating all would lead to far greater diversity and perspectives in our world.  You would, to our great shame, be wrong.  LD is largely a rich white boy’s game.  Gender imbalance is about as severe in LD as in policy, and poor treatment of young women has been a recurring issue in the last few years.

Curiously, the gender imbalance used to be not nearly so bad; when LD was conversational speed and more philosophical, often eschewing evidence altogether, in the late 90s, LD in the Northeast at least was dominated by young women.  Nobody knows where the causation lies there.

We have infinitesimally few African-American or Hispanic debaters.  There are few to no serious efforts to remedy that.  A rather uncomfortable incident happened a few years back when an exception was made by the TOC to allow a debater into the field without a bid.  Some of the mitigating circumstances he claimed to justify his inclusion were arguable, but all the same I believed him deserving to compete, and he cleared at the tournament.  But his mere presence in the field and the controversy around it painted a huge target on his back, and lead to an ugly backlash in the community, carried out in person and online.  This wasn’t ever resolved so much as outlasted, and there has not been a prominent Black debater at the TOC since, two years later.

It is well possible to run critical positions with a heavy reliance on the literature of race and identity issues without violating topicality or the norms of LD.  A great number of our topics focus on protecting minority rights, the criminal justice system, and equality issues which lead very naturally to a discourse on racism.  Last year’s most succesful debater spent the entire Jan/Feb topic (which is used at the TOC) talking about racism.

In sum

It’s well possible these lessons/features won’t translate into college policy if it adopts agentless resolutions.  Our shorter format helps in this style of debate: A moral debate is dense, but tends not to be that sprawling; if a moral question cannot be expressed and debated well in 13 minutes each, I’m not sure it can be debated any better in 35.  Our times are flawed at the moment in a way that favors neg debaters, but that’s more allocation than amount.

In college debate, longer times may actually cause rounds to run off the rails; I’m not sure that a policy-format debate with non-agent moral topics wouldn’t be vulnernable even more to the hidden-implication spike type arguments, more tricks and games, and more muddy and insoluable questions. We get plenty of the latter, and it’s hard enough to work through 32 minutes worth of it.

One challenge is that the definition of intervention in a world without an evidence focus can be cloudy.  Some judges, typically younger ones, will swallow just about anything wholesale that either debater asserts.  So, rounds can be won or lost on something that’s totally incoherent and just asserted.  If you say “I don’t understand that and can’t vote on it” some think that’s intervention, though I think it’s “judging.”

But I love the pedagogical results of LD and always have.  It teaches sharp logic and encourages students to question the fundamentals of the world around them.  It keeps asking why.  And it changes, a lot, which mean as a coach I get to keep learning, too.  There have been at least four radical shifts in style and material since I saw my first LD debate in 1994, and the next one will probably happen soon.  Not for us, seventeen hundred condo debates.  For a while we mimicked your world, but for now we’re pulling away from that; but perhaps we’ll go back to it, or do something entirely different.