Where am I?

I fell into the world of forensics and debate through the narrowest of chances.  My hometown has never heard of forensics, nor have any adjoining towns, nor have any towns that adjoin them.  Debate and forensics is not a high priority for the curriculum in Massachusetts; and so, with some exceptions, only a few wealthy high schools have programs.  My hometown is one of the poorest in the state, and my family was typical of it; working class in a town where working class jobs don’t pay well, or often.

However, I slid through the cracks, upwards.  I was the token scholarship kid, first in middle school, and then thereon to prep school, and then to the Ivy League.   My prep school, lacking the traditional Saturday classes, is the only one in New England that competes in forensics and debate as we know it.  So I had an opening into our world.  Even still, I attended no invitational tournaments, and camp was entirely out of the question.  There’s only a rough sort of equality when you’re among the casual rich; scholarships to private school will cover the tuition, but the full incidental costs — which nobody there thinks much about — were too crushing for my family to bear; scholarship types thus get, at best, a partial experience.

In the end I had a good run.  I did debate in the non-rigorous prep school league for a couple years, and then extemp in my senior year.  I qualified for NCFL and NFL, though I didn’t break at either.  I did all right at NFL in supplementals.  That’s my claim to fame as a competitor.

So I took a look at lddebate.org last night, after Cruz’s characteristically unsubtle pleading that some discussion be conducted there.  What I found (which has nothing to do with Cruz’s un-subtlety, an endearing trait) is rather disturbing.  One debater suggested that LD move to two topics year; a bunch of people registered agreement for reasons that can be charitably described as serving narrow interests at the pinnacle of debate.   Ernie, bless him, called them on it, but got hurt feelings and confusion in reply.  One of the troubles of being an elite, and being surrounded with your peers, is that you don’t notice the effects of it; a fish cannot see the water.

Debate perfection, which many strive for, is exclusionary by nature.  Debate perfection, increasing the quality of the rounds, is behind the drive for case disclosure, different topics, longer terms for each topic, and so on.  If your aim in running debates is to produce masterful, elegant, well researched and well thought out debate rounds, then you’re going to be an exclusive activity.  You’ll exclude first students who aren’t hard enough workers, or whose talents are in different areas.  Debate is hard, and that’s fair enough; you do have to have some interest and talent in it.

But the harder you make it, the more likely you’ll also exclude kids who can’t be excellent debaters because of what they are, not who they are.  Students who can’t afford camp.  Students who have to work a job to support themselves or their families, and don’t have time to cut cards all day.  Students who won’t travel and see the circuit.

Debate, as a competitive activity, tends to consume all available space and time.  Students who engage in the preparation arms war do so because of their dedication to the activity, which is good; but they do so as the result of the luxury of time, a commodity they don’t appreciate.  Poorer students, even if they find themselves in a school with an active and well funded debate team, have more demands on their time.  Wealthy students tend to have busy lives that are aimed at enriching them and their college chances; poorer students have busy lives aimed at survival.  They have to work.  They have to watch younger siblings.  They clean their own houses and do their own laundry.  Cook their own meals.  Save for college.  And they do it without a car, without a computer (in my day) and without much help.

I had only a few of those demands, but even still, at prep school, I had to keep my grades up, to continue to justify the “diversity” I was supposed to bring to the school for their money.  I felt I had to work harder and achieve more to go to the same colleges as my peers.  I couldn’t sacrifice grades to debate, like a lot of debaters do.  I worked during school, at the snack bar — just for spending money, luckily for me.  But there sure weren’t any rich kids working the snack bar just for spending money alongside me.  Summertime was for mowing the lawn, wandering through woods, swimming and watching reruns on TV, not traveling through France and attending high powered academic camps.

OK, maybe I had better summers than most, come to think of it.  But the rest remains.

Making debate better means making debate harder.  If the amount of time and research required to simply be competitive is more than anyone with those kinds of life pressures can put in, then a lot of people who might benefit from debate are classed out from the start.  A poorer kid might be natively intelligent, might have a decent amount of general knowledge, and may be able to come up with great persuasive arguments in little time, perhaps better than anyone else.  An LD with case lists, fewer topics, exhaustive literature searches, and large prep-outs doesn’t have room for that kid to succeed.

It doesn’t have room, in other words, for Chris Palmer.  Not me, individually; I don’t  speak off the cuff all that well.  I mean the next Chris Palmer; the kid who’s now 14 in Fitchburg or a place like it, who might just get a shot to compete because he goes to school in a place not much like Fitchburg.  The one who stays in Fitchburg already has no entry.  If time and money required spiral upwards, the private school Chris Palmer isn’t going to be able to play, either.

Perhaps limits are in order.  My high school’s athletic conference restricted practice time; you can’t run practices for your team outside of that sport’s season; you can’t practice more than a certain number of hours in a day.  Students who want to go pro someday — there were a few — must do so outside of the leagues.   These rules undoubtedly reduce the quality of the game play.  However, they push students into other sports, and keep players from dedicating their whole lives to a sport.  They allow more casual players access to the educational opportunity provided by being on a sports team, by preventing them from being crushed.  The purpose of a school sports program isn’t — or shouldn’t be — to produce the next crop of players for MLB or the NFL, it’s to educate.  Limits on season time and practice time enforced that goal.

If  school sports programs can put limits on their programs to achieve educational goals, why not debate?  In debate the case for accessibility over perfection is even more clear cut; no one is going to get a $20 million contract to go debate professionally, even if they develop the perfect 1AR.  Debate develops a lot of generally helpful skills, but is not an end in itself; it’s not clear to me that you learn much more by winning the TOC than by simply being decent.  So why narrow the appeal of debate in pursuit of perfection, by ratcheting up the evidence arms war?  Shouldn’t we be attempting to limit the scale, controlling even the best participants with healthy limits?

But again, we’re an aristocracy.  In sports, adults are in charge, and — most of the time — govern their activity to preserve students’ health, and the educational value of their programs.  In debate, we don’t have grown-ups in charge.   The distinction between a coach and a competitor is more fuzzy in debate than in sports: coaches don’t run for soccer players, but they do think and write for debaters.  That skews incentives.  A lot of the adults think like competitors.

Beyond that, we don’t, arguably, have anyone in charge. It’s also hard to legislate limits on the sort of academic activity that happens alone, at home, which is debate’s hallmark.  The community’s power to limit behavior that even a large majority finds abhorrent, such as evidence falsification, has proven woefully inadequate.  As long as judges will vote for something — judges who are not much past competing themselves, mostly — it’s all fair game.  Our aristocracy is loose and lawless; no formal governance exists, just the power of pull and influence.  Thus Poland once was doomed.  We’re not well set up to act collectively for the students’ good, especially over the better students’ short term desires and selfish objections.

But at the very least, we can try to avoid making it worse.  Right now, we have various proposals, put forward by those at the pinnacle of the activity, which would make that pinnacle just a little steeper and harder to climb.  If they succeed, LD will lose programs, and students who could learn a lot from the activity will be shut out.  Eventually, this event will be narrowed down to a solid core of those willing to learn all kinds of skills that are not useful outside of the narrow confines of rarefied debate — when do you think you’re going to have to spread after graduation? — simply to pay the price of admission to the confines of circuit debate.

And they’ll leave behind the Chris Palmers.

PF is not the answer.  PF’s other flaws make it a dubious event at best.  The rules and format of PF were consciously dumbed down.  Accessibility didn’t have to mean shortening an event to pointlessness, and including shouting matches, but we’re stuck with it now.   But even if PF were perfect for what it is, educational equality is not served by telling people on the outs “Here you go, we made a special playground for People Like You to play in; just please don’t bother us in the big kids’ area too much.”  PF gets treated by LD tournaments the way LDers complain they get treated by Policy tournaments: poorly, without respect or dignity.  It’s classic segregation.  Plus, PF will likely go in the same direction.  As long as our governance structure is the way it is, the foxes rule the henhouse and any debate event will become a speed and evidence arms war, no matter its starting point.

We also have the kritik, and oh how I love the K sometimes.  It does introduce the kind of batshit insane creativity I enjoy, and does give the little guy a way around a massive evidence dump.  Hell, I’m the guy who put together a K in PF last year — PF rules ban Ks, but also unwisely define the K as something that is not quite the K, a crack through which our cases slipped.  But running the K over and over doesn’t sustain one much.  You learn a body of critical literature that is of limited life utility compared to the direct literature on an LD topic.  Furthermore, there’s only so far a K focused program could go in LD, given that the K is viewed, correctly, as not really being what debate is about.  Once you start talking about natural limits to how far a program could go, defined by resources and time and not by talent and intelligence; well, you’ve hit the elitism barrier again.

Everyone believes in equality, until achieving equality starts negatively affecting one’s own life.   When you talk about racial equality, who doesn’t go along with it and nod?  But when you talk about taxing white communities heavily enough to bring educational services in black communities up to parity — well, hold on there Marx, let’s not be extreme here.  How else could racism and vast gaps in equality of opportunity exist in a country so apparently dedicated to ending both?

Ultimately I find innovations that aim to improve the quality of debate to be uncompelling.  Today’s debates are not more deep, rich and interesting than those of ten years ago, despite a decade of such innovation.  They’re simply faster; they have more evidence, but they’re not smarter.  The limiting factor behind debate quality is not structure, it’s the competence of  bright 18 year olds.  Structure can limit accessibility, but in a debate, quality boils down to the debater.

Furthermore, high school isn’t about elegance, and perfection; not in football, not in debate.  I’d argue that once you’ve gotten really good at something in high school, it’s time to quit.  The purpose of school is to improve students, not given them a forum for showing off; educational programs are perfectly planned when you master the skills taught just as you graduate.  If you get there early, that’s great; but realize you’re wasting your time if you keep at it — unless you’re doing so to help others learn faster than they would without you around.   Schools aiming for demonstrated perfection aren’t doing their jobs very well.

Little wonder then that circuit debate gets little traction with school systems.  Its value is not accessible, not just to administrators, but a lot of other forensics kids and coaches too.   Educators aren’t interested in seeing one kid who can whip up a sublime counterplan; they judge an activity by what it offers the bulk of their students.  Modern circuit LD, sadly, offers very little.  And I feel like most of the changes under discussion would make it even less relevant to the many students who live within boundaries of time and money.

An LD topic lasting six months gives an advantage to those who have access to deep research: journals and resources not readily available to the general public, such as Lexis and JStor, and specialized avenues for knowledge, like the dad who knows an economics professor at MIT.   It helps to have a coach or two who can use an adult mind to come up with twists and angles on the topic most high schoolers wouldn’t see right away.  A diversity of cases will win out in a long haul debate; the kid who can’t generate them will lose.  A debate topic that lasts only one round, on the other extreme, wouldn’t make for debates with as much deep understanding, perhaps — but it would help students with a breadth of general knowledge, which can be garnered freely by using Google, paying attention and reading a lot.  There’s not much that money can do to give you that advantage.  And that’s why I was an extemper, not a debater; that’s extemp in a nutshell, a ground where Chris Palmers thrive.

I don’t think LD topics should cycle round by round. But I do think that movement towards longer topic periods would exclude folks. The Jan/Feb topic already lasts half the year, to the detriment of locals and the betterment of the TOC. I tend to believe that case lists would do the same, but the jury is still out; but I do fear that the decision on them will be made without really considering the damage to equality that case lists do. If case lists do indeed increase the research burden, and raise the barrier to entry for LD, I don’t think that’ll be weighed on whether to use them. We don’t have a mature decision making body that would be the gatekeeper on it.

I’ve been on the edge of getting back into LD, but this dynamic makes me flinch.  Why give up time and energy to benefit a community that would exclude the high school me?  Why should I volunteer and run good bid tournaments for an event that won’t accept my cousins or nephews and nieces when they’re in high school?  If there’s no room in this world for the next Chris Palmer, why does this Chris Palmer do so much work for it?

And is Ernie asking himself that same question?  Is anyone else from the same background?

Someday, they may all answer “No, it’s not worth it anymore.”

And LD will be poorer and thinner still.

Living for it

So I spilled over a little in frustration the other day.  I stand by that; I for one don’t believe that the Internet is Different and a little spilled-over truth and honestly is a bad thing.  Some flinch from it instinctively but I don’t see demons behind every byte online.  Well, demons any different than the real life ones.   But tonight is a good night for wandering around verbally.  Wander, I shall.

Part 1. Vacation.

But I was thinking a little bit as to why I might be in a bad mood forensics wise; I’m ever the (over-) analyst that way.  Certainly part of it is my own strong need for a vacation from both the day job and the coaching gig at the same time; I tend to swap time off from one into time on the other.  This project would, by necessity, involve me leaving the area code of the Bellevue Sapphire (My home on the hill, here), for as idyllic as the Saph truly is — I’m sitting right now on the deck, overlooking a few other hills, and moon and stars on the horizon — it’s also the nerve center of all the various Things I Do.  I have a headquarters up on the third floor that’s clearly a work room — a chair surrounded on three sides by desks, one I made myself for the Computer with Two Heads, one table for Various and Sundry facing the windows with the same view as the deck, and one a roll top antique my grandmother gave me.  There are bookcases full of programming books and speech memorabilia.  There’s a plaque or two from the unexpected juggernaut we had at last year’s NFLs.  The two coaching awards I was given this year, I’ll sheepishly admit, are still down in the living room, on the fireplace mantle.  Everyone has a little showoff in them, and as Menick said, of all the things he’s had in forensics, that’s the one he’s particularly proud of.

So a week off at home, presumably to rest, would inevitably see me upstairs doing something or other on the Computer with Two Heads.  Such as coding a way to sneeze out an exact report on housing with the margins two tenths of an inch wider to accommodate some Bronx Science kid with eighty four letters in his last name, who may or may not be going to the HenHud tournament, but well, we’d better be sure.  So I have to leave the area.  Leaving the state would be better still.  And the country — well, gosh howdy.  I’ve still never been to Europe, though I’m more of a country boy than a city vacationer.

Part 2.  Obsession ain’t just a cologne.

However, that brief jaunt through my immediate geography aside, there’s another division of the speech & debate world.  It’d be easy to say it divides between the tolerable and the intolerable, but that’s not true; there are plenty of people on the “other side” from me that I know, like, and respect.  However, there are certain attitudes towards this activity that I find harmful, not just to my own happiness and contentedness in this project of forensics education, but also to the activity as a whole.  Few folks share them all, but the fallout has converged on me more than usual of late.

Some people just live for this.  We had, as mentioned above, a hell of a tournament last year in Vegas.  Three national champs, never been done, yada yada.  I can’t say as I prepared any differently for this one than the others I’ve sent kids to.  We’re certainly not a giant factory program that aims all our year’s efforts and strategy behind winning big at the NFL tournament.  Our Storyteller, in one case, spectacularly failed to make friends when she chatted up the other finalists by telling the tale of how she and the extemp coach — yours truly — tossed together her piece on Wednesday at the last minute.  “When did you guys toss yours together?”  Uncomfortable silence.  Turns out everyone else had been practicing theirs for months.  Man, some people take this stuff seriously.

She then beat them.  Bitterness ensued.

To hear some people talk about it, winning three national championships in one sitting should have launched me into a new plane of awareness.  The NFL makes a very big deal of its champions and coaches, and I had my picture taken a few dozen times.  But we mostly cracked up during the whole thing.  Then we had dinner, got a drink, slept for a long time thereafter.  I stayed in Vegas for a few days, got sick on the last day though.  And life afterward has been much the same as life before.

But some — many? — can think nothing more of just getting that next trophy, the next award and round of applause — sometimes a single clap.  I can’t stand that ambition; it distorts everything.  At the two tournaments we decide to call Nationals it leads to a sparkling tension in the air which certainly doesn’t help make for better decisions or better management or judging.  Tension never does. When I tell folks to calm down and just work through it, I’ll sometimes get shocked stares and “But it’s NATIONALS!”  As if that somehow devalues calm rational decision making and the rules of polite interaction among adults.

I don’t get that attitude.  I understand it intellectually, but I don’t get it.  It always takes me by surprise.  It seems self-evident that folks in this activity shouldn’t have so little independent seat for their egos that they get into actual screaming matches with other coaches or volunteers for the sake of winning something.  Folks definitely shouldn’t have so little that they’re willing to cheat to do the same.  And yet, I see it, all the time.

Interlude I: Group Discussion

People commit all sorts of distortions, because they live for this.  Some coaches advocate for “easier” events so their teams can get sweepstakes awards without having to work at the “hard” events.  That particular phenomenon explains much in the MFL; people elsewhere often wonder why we have such bizarre events that sound stupid.  They are stupid.  That’s the point.  If they weren’t stupid, good, dedicated kids would do them, and the students who don’t want to put much effort in wouldn’t get trophies.  It especially upsets me when this issue gets wrapped into a class struggle — poor kids need dumb events!  My humble roots certainly didn’t stop me from learning Extemp, and the Urban Debate Leagues have committed wholesale to Policy Debate.  But the real reasons always do need a cloak, and that serves well enough.

Interlude II: Source Material

Coaches will cheat on source material to find a small edge,  despite the fact that interp uses such a small sliver of the legal material out there — but much of that material is skipped, because it’s too hard.  For years there have been Rules about Extemp which are nowhere listed and do nothing to make speeches clearer, smarter and more entertaining — but they’re easy to teach, and kids do a bit better when they follow them, so taught they are.   At the same time, extempers cheat all the time, by the letter of the rules, and not many folks do anything about it for fear of “stirring things up.”  Evidence standards in PF are a laughable mess, and that’s made all the worse by folks thinking that an avalanche of evidence without much actual realistic analysis is the way to go in PF.  Hey, it wins rounds, right?  We did — bravo, MFL — pass a rule mandating that you have, and you share, evidence in debate rounds.  We shouldn’t have needed to.

Interlude III: Circuit debate

Sometimes winning means restricting the field to include only yourself.  Circuit debate springs to mind.  I found myself meditating on speed while I was at the TOC.  In the two rounds I judged, the four students definitely slowed down — or rated me highly because they don’t generally speed in any rounds, I don’t know which.  They were enjoyable debates.  I’ll admit my RFD for the second one was incoherent at best — but then, so was the round.  What I wasn’t able to articulate at the time was that the neg debater had argued that upholding democracy is essential, and subjecting oneself to a court system with appointed judges was anti-democratic; but he was never able to explain why this was a unique harm — democracies have appointed judges too, notably ours — and that punched a big ol’ hole in his case.  Aff could have made it much easier by pointing that out more stridently; I had a tough time deciding whether Aff’s defense of this point was enough to warrant me voting on the round, but then I had a hard time finding anything else to vote on, so I held my nose and affirmed.  I say this now because I want to point out to debaters that far more decisions than they think are arrived at in such a manner — “you confused me, you didn’t emphasize the right things for me to break your way, and I had to vote for SOMEONE, so sheesh, here we go.”  My only difference is that I’m honest about it.  Some judges, indeed, live for this too; I’m sure the negative I voted against will strike the hell out of me if ever I grace a judging pool he’s subjected to again.  My honestly saying “I’m unable to explain this well right now, I’m sorry, but I do strongly believe Aff won” isn’t a good way to maintain a judge rep, and some people live for that, too.

I was, however, perfectly fine following along in the much more brisk rounds where I was only watching, not judging, and thus no one bothered to adapt to me.  However, as I said in my paradigm, the quality of the argumentation and the density of ink on my flows has not changed much in ten years of judging LD, despite the speedup in the same.  Roughly the same number of arguments were made in both the slower rounds I judged, and the faster rounds I watched.  In the round 7 I watched, one debater was a terrible speaker, clearly struggling to keep her thoughts and her arguments organized, despite maintaining a very fast clip; it was absolutely clear to me that the speed was working against her, even though she ended up winning that round.  So I started thinking; why speed then?  Why invest such time and effort into developing a difficult skill, which has no value whatsoever outside of this specific form of debate, and which doesn’t seem to really help much in winning rounds?

I think speed is “in” because it has no value whatsoever outside debate.  Speed to circuit debate is like Latin to the Catholic Church; it serves to keep all but the truly devoted out of the priesthood.  If you’re not willing to pay the price of learning this otherwise useless skill, then you’re not worthy of admission to the Holy of Holies, or the TOC, depending on your terminology. So speed effectively limits the TOC to the people obsessed with the TOC.  That creates a closed-off ecosystem, which opens more chances for those on the inside of it.  If there are fewer programs at the TOC, the ones that do come can win it more often.

The educational value of speed is suspect; you’ll never need to talk that way again.  The competitive value is also suspect; I’m not sure it’s actually helping anyone win rounds, though I’m much less certain of that.  But even if it were winning ballots, is that enough to justify it?  To a lot of people, the consideration ends at “it wins ballots.”  Some people live for this.

Back to it: Conservatism

Folks want to win things.  They’ve grown comfortable with a certain level of success.  As a result, many folks don’t want to upset the existing order much.  Making a radical change might also change their winning formulas, and force folks to be creative and adapt — and they may not be able to keep up.  Coaches like this instinctively don’t want to create the new and destroy the old.  They’re scared they’ll end up at the bottom of the pile in a new order.

We combined DI and HI into DP at the MFL going into next year, which I think resolves one of the sillier distinctions in forensics.  Drama can be funny; humor can be serious; there’s no actual line to be drawn between them.  The DI/HI split encouraged bad practices and lazy approaches to interp: slapstick in the one, death, disease and rape in the other.  Pushing them together opens up the vast middle ground between them, together with a lot of fresh new material; few authors write literature that is exclusively funny or only serious.  Most of those that do aren’t very good writers.  Most traditional interp material is crap.  So the more I think about this change, the more I like it.

Predictably, the student protests began immediately.  The arguments on the obligatory protest Facebook group boil down to “we’ve always had this split” and “all the other states and the NFL have divided HI and DI for a reason.”  Alas, they have yet to specify what that reason is.  I think the real pain point here is competitive.  I hear a lot of “judges might be confused” which is code for “I’m confused as to how to win the judges’ ballots.”  Old formulas are gone; kids know how to win an HI, and know how to win a DI, and now they have to learn how to win a DP.  Gosh, learning.  What a pain in the ass.  More directly, that’s also six fewer trophies we’ll be handing out.  Now there’s a real problem, though no one will say it out loud.  So they argue without giving reasons.  Even though so many people live for the winning, everyone knows no one’s allowed to admit it.

What’s strangest about the Facebook group is that most of the names I recognize are recent graduates or graduating seniors, or students who compete in non interp events.  There’s not a lot of people on there who are actually affected by this change.

Why the traveling tabulating circus is different

I talked briefly in the last post about how the Northeast circuit seems to be pushing ahead better, faster and further than most others.  I think it’s because we have a fairly good quorum of people who don’t live for this.  For the most part, we don’t notice when we, or others, win.  Some of us are more competitive than others, but it’s not a huge deal, and it doesn’t influence how we decide how to run tournaments, even unspoken.  Most of us are not coaches as our primary job, even those of us who are teachers.  We have a critical mass of a bunch of people who are willing to run tournaments and change our approach without having to avoid 800 lb gorillas in the room.

There’s none of that “Well, so and so wants to win, and this shady practice is one of the ways he does so, so we can’t end it or he’ll throw a fit.”  It’s the only arena where I don’t get poorly articulated push back to new ideas.  Everywhere else, I’ll expect a certain amount of “Well, I just don’t like it” which nearly always either boils down to “that’s not the way we’ve done it before!” — which is no reason at all —  or “My particular formula for acquiring hardware is incompatible with this educational change.”

Here’s $30.  Go buy yourself a trophy.

So I’ve resolved on something.  I’m not going to ignore it and let politeness cover up the “Well I want to win!” instinct.  I’m calling it out when I see it.  I have to hear a rationale for keeping things, or changing things, that goes beyond the gut, or I’m calling it what it is: a blatant hardware grab.  Surely one of the reasons the MFL continues to require 16 events is the 96 trophies that implies.  I’m told again and again that kids won’t come back to the activity if they don’t win something.  I don’t buy it.  Even in the extravagant MFL, we’re only handing out hardware to 1/3 of the students present.  I think the coaches like winning a lot, and like it when there’s more to win.  There are debate leagues that survive and prosper quite well while handing out very few awards.  But, some people live for this, and it’s not yet the novices.  It’s usually the coaches, or the kids who’ve already been in the activity a long time; note the composition of the Facebook group.

I don’t live for this.  And I’m not going to pretend I approve of those who do any longer.

Tik (pronounced teek) is dead meat

There, I’ve threatened Menick’s cat, as per custom and tradition.  Of course, Menick may also not realize that I’m of French descent, and therefore will eat just about anything.  Here, kitty kitty.  Come sleep in the nice, warm oven!

Menick dismisses the problem of cheating as an implementation issue, but I do believe it goes a bit further than he thinks.  Understand that cheating is already rampant in Extemp.  To wit, there is no community expectation that sources be properly and accurately memorized.  If a student cites the NY Times and they meant the Boston Globe, no one really cares.  However, by the rules, this act is cheating.  Once Lexis came along and made information ubiquitous, a number-of-sources arms war began.  Students then discovered they can too many sources to memorize, and no one cares that they’re breaking the rules.  Those sources make the speakers sound more impressive, authoritative and persuasive, and they win trophies.  So now everyone does it.  Beware unintended consequences.

One of the troubles Extemp faces, as distinct from debate, is that the community is much smaller and not entirely in charge of itself.  Extemp has more in common in its soul with debate, especially policy, but structurally it finds itself lumped in with speech.  Each debate event has an active, engaged group of coaches who think in terms of a unified, and distinct, community.  At tournaments, debate events often finds themselves run as distinct divisions with their own administrations.  Not so, extemp.  As a consequence, we’re often starved of attention and resources; most tournaments are content to put one or two people in prep to call out the names and codes, and that’s it.  Not much enforcement happens, as a result.  I dedicate resources at my tournaments to running source checks, but few others do.  And I doubt they would, given even the imperative on checking on computer files.

So in theory you could have better enforcement of prep rooms to counterbalance computer usage; in practice nothing will be done.  It is impractical to rearrange prep rooms such that the screens are visible to the staff, as Menick suggests; what are we going to do, unbolt the chairs from our lecture halls?  But simple additional vigilance wouldn’t be enough, at any rate: tubs are single-purpose, and computers multi-purpose.  That muddies the water inherently.  If I find pre-written material in a tub, the matter is clear cut and simple: the student is disqualified.  If I find material that looks an awful lot like an extemp speech on a hard drive, there’s still a cloud of doubt that it’s not a paper for a current-events class or a practice speech from last week that wasn’t consulted.  Throw in a combative, defensive coach, and you’ll have a very gray area that few tournament directors will feel they can act in.  A teaching moment would be lost, but more to the point, the students will move into that grey area just as they’ve abandoned proper sourcing.

I’d also point out, speaking of physical resources, that few extemp prep rooms can supply power to 60-100 laptops, never mind the several hundred at Nationals.  The amperage adds up quickly.   Local tournaments would have no trouble providing enough power, but then what do the students do when they arrive at large tournaments?  We’d blow circuits in LC if we tried to replace every tub at Yale with a laptop.  The Bulldog Police would not be pleased.

So then Menick says:

And I don’t buy that even if extempers were to consult less than ethical coaches, it would help all that much. I message you that my topic is G-20’s impact on the world economy, say. (As if, as I’ve mentioned above, I weren’t already prepared for that.)  What is the God of All Extemp Coaches going to message me back? I mean, yes, I’m being dense here. I just don’t get it. And if it’s truly an issue, the problem is not that we’re being modern in the extemp prep room, but that we’ve got some real stinkers who don’t belong in the educational system. Some method other than banning computers would seem to be necessary to toss them out.

OK.  First, now that I’ve thought about it more.  While coachean interference remains a danger of computer and internet usage, it probably can be handled.  It isn’t a primary reason for my objection to computers.  However, for the record anyway, I can explain what I would do, if I shed ethics aside and could simply prep my students in the prep room.

I would produce far better basic outlines for speeches than they could, and in seconds where they take minutes.  Limited prep makes time invaluable, and the difference between me being about to show them the right way to answer or approach a question in 30 seconds when they’d take 5 minutes is significant.  I would draw on my much longer experience — I’ve been coaching this event since these children were born — on pointing them in the best possible paths. Extemp requires a wide breadth of knowledge, and I have a huge head start on these kids; an extemper can go a long way simply by not being actively wrong, sometimes.  One of my students (cue bragging) more or less won the entire season in Extemp last year, including nationals.  She finished first in twice as many tournaments as she didn’t, and had a truly remarkable run.  She could, admittedly, probably out-talk me by a good margin, but if I were to compete with her directly on analysis and breadth of information, I’d absolutely crush her.  I had another student in 2004 (Hi, JJB!) who had a similarly dominant year; he was much weaker presentation-wise, but analytically quite a bit stronger.  And I could have crushed him too.  (Now that he’s through college, if only a third-rate safety school, and has done more living, I doubt I could anymore.)  So even if I only saw my students’ questions and had but 30 seconds to talk to them, there’s no doubt in my mind that 1) they’d win a lot more trophies and 2) they’d miss out on learning one of the essential skills of extemp.

I’ll take a moment to point something out that I’m sure Admiral Menick, like most non-extemp coaches, probably doesn’t know.  Good extempers usually hate prepping on the internet.  For good reason, too; when my kids don’t have their tubs around and prep right off a computer, they tend to speak far below their ability.  Internet research takes longer, and doesn’t lead to better sourcing; they’re looking from the same well of information, but they’re having to sort it out and weed the relevant from the non-relevant during prep time, not in advance as when using our tubs.   Some folks would argue, with good first-order reason, that this point just means allowing computers would have no effect; no one would bother using the internet to prep, since it would hurt them competitively.  However, beware unintended consequences; remember that extemp is not a self contained community like debate.  Non-extemp centric coaches may cut out the tubs, saving themselves expense and hassle, to the detriment of their student speakers.  Tubs are hard to maintain, and students who are from new or non top-flight programs will de-prioritize the hassle of keeping them up, thinking they have little chance of winning, a prophecy that would fulfill itself.  And the kids themselves are lazy, and will do as little as they can get away with.  The best approaches don’t necessarily win out when other agendas are at play.

So then we get to the heart of the matter. He says:

I wonder. If I already know my stuff, I’d be damned good doing some quick research to bring up the best supporting material. Then I’d present an even better speech. If I don’t know my stuff, I could still be damned good at doing quick research, and it would be a simulacrum of a good speech. And, apparently, the judges are not always going to be able to tell the difference? That’s too bad, but I don’t want to hamstring the better person to limit the abilities of the lesser person.

Sadly, the judges can rarely tell the difference, or don’t choose to vote that way, anyhow.  Remember, we’re dealing in speech land; we don’t have a trained corps of extemp judges who are very familiar with the activity that we see in all the important rounds at big tournaments like debaters do.  Debaters bitch about their judging, but extempers would take your C judges over what they usually get any day.  And it’s very common, given the breadth of topic areas covered by extemp, for the judge at the back of the room to be at an informational disadvantage.  As a result, lying crap gets through all the time.

Another wider problem of extemp is that students don’t actually speak all that persuasively and accessibly, because the judges don’t trust their instincts to call BS when they listen to a baffling piece of crap that nonetheless was delivered with authority.  The major goal of too many extempers is not to be persuasive and entertaining and informative, but to appear to be so.  I’ll ask extempers why they always sound like constipated news announcers; none can answer me, but they keep on talking that way.  I’ll ask also why they use large words that cause them to stumble, when a shorter word would be easier to understand and to say; none can answer me, but they keep on doing it.  Big words and an uptight voice get read as “serious” by judges, even as the words are a complicated jumble.  Extempers don’t explain, they show off.  And too often the judge chalks up their confusion to their own (sometimes ample) ignorance and not the students’ inability to communicate effectively.  Given a low baseline of actual comprehension, tricks and games proliferate.  Judges use shortcuts, such as counting sources.  Students use shortcuts too, such as stringing together sources without much framework or explanation of their thought process, if any.  And as long as they win, they don’t see the need to change.  As long as that style wins consistently, they in fact resist change.  Then no one wants to judge extemp, and I can’t blame them.  So if internet prep leads to an more unsatisfying, shallow, string-of-sources style, even if it is less appealing and less educative then regular prep, there’s no guarantee the better style will win out.  I’d have thought Menick would agree with that, given how active he is for pushing for rules in LD; rules are meant to constrain the lesser impulses of the competition, which if left to its own devices may not produce something that meets the goals of the activity.

These are teenagers.  Teenagers want to win, but really want to be respected by the herd.  The last thing a teenager wants to do is something no one else is doing.  They also tend to want concrete formulas; they believe the world can be clear and unambiguous, and in all events they just want to know “If I do X, Y and Z, I’ll win!” when it’s never that clear cut.  Most will protest vigorously anything unexpected, such as a judge with a different opinion or a new set of tournament rules, as monstrously unfair.  They filled X, Y, and Z, so why didn’t they win?  In other words, they want clarity where there is none — persuasive speaking is a truly ambiguous art.  They’re also lazy, and usually have a bio test to procrastinate study for.  Right now the magic formula for extemp involves jamming in lots of sources, memory be damned, and not worrying too much about clear thought and explaining to people who know less than you.  Computer and internet prep would just bolster that negative trend.

If students could be always trusted to pursue their own long term benefit, we’d have no need of curriculum in our schools at all.  But we do.  Extemp is very hard, and it’s never going to reach a pinnacle of perfection among teenagers.  It can only point the way to learning a critical skill, and the fewer blind alleys it presents, the better.  Direct computer and internet sourcing is a blind alley; the best speakers don’t do it, and students who do are worse off for it in the long run.  A ban on the practice closes off that path.

Computers have a place in extemp already; in prepping the tubs, we use the Internet heavily, and then filter it down, and select the most appropriate sources for inclusion.  The limitation of tub size is instructive here too, as students must think about what they will bring ahead of time.  Tub preparation will always keep up with the times — wherever information of record is to be found in a given era, the extempers will find it.  So what I’m saying is, the benefits and skills of internet research is a non-unique advantage here.  While the explosion of sources in speeches due to Lexis and the internet has led to both less persuasive speaking and cheating through lack of memorized sources, these challenges too can be dealt with through stricter source checking.  Computer skills are being taught, in spades.  Extemp is modern already, within its existing limitations.  Internet and computers in the prep room would make us no more modern, and teach no skills that are not already being taught, while opening up a huge Pandora’s box.

Remember too that the burden of proof here is on the affirmative.  This discussion is a Policy round, after all.   Extemp teaches a certain skill set in a certain way, and despite the current problem with sourcing, it does so in an invaluable manner.   Past extempers, myself included, routinely credit the activity with developing essential skills and ways of thinking.  Doing extemp makes one a better thinker, and a better citizen.  In short, we’ve got a good thing going.  And what is the harm of tubs, exactly?  We’ve been making and hauling them around for a good long time now; it’s not going to kill us to continue.   Internet and computer prep represents a radical change to a good status quo, which has the chance of sharply increasing the worst parts of that status quo.  That’s not anything I’m signing up for tomorrow.  I’d like first to deal with the current sourcing nightmare, and then test this idea out, in fits and starts, not rush headlong in.  There’s too great a chance that the whole house of cards would tumble down.

Short version: stick to your own event, you bilious codger.

Tubs

So Menick says it’s a no-brainer to allow computers in Extemp prep, and supports it with largely two arguments: one, cheating would not be rendered any easier than it pragmatically is, and two, manipulation of internet-based resources is a more valuable skill these days, so reality demands it.

I’ve gone on, perhaps at too great a length, about my objection to computers in Extemp Prep before, but Menick inspires me to add a couple more.  He’s an inspiring guy that way.  He says it’s silly to worry that students will bring in unauthorized material, particularly pre-written speeches, because that horse is already out of the barn: he asserts that it’s quite simple to include pre-written speeches and notes in an Extemp tub.

Spoken like a guy who’s never run a prep room.  Extemp tubs are single purpose devices, and thus no grey areas exist — if there’s anything illegal in a tub, the game is up.  So it becomes easy to just blanket-ban all student-written material, and be on the watch for the same.  I’ve checked tubs before, found illegal material, and booted students from tournaments for it.  I suppose a student could try really hard to make a pre-written speech look exactly like a Lexus printout, but you know, word gets around, and certain students and certain teams get checked more vigorously than others.  As a result, including pre-prepared speeches in tubs is simply not done all that much, especially when compared to other source-based abuses.

However, a laptop is not a single purpose device.  The laptop will contain the students’ extemp files, their Biology homework, their pathetic attempts at love letters to that one Girl Extemper, all in one vast concatenation.  One could ban the presence of any files besides Extemp files, and therefore eliminate the practical benefit of allowing laptops in the first place.  Or one must accept that there’s going to be a lot of student written material, easily accessible, in the prep room. Further, the student can access that far more easily on the sly, reaching into the bowels of the hard drive, and then click it away very rapidly when the prep monitors walk around; much more so than stuffing paper back into the tub.

The second brand of cheating is even more direct: once you involve the internet, you uncontrollably involve the coach.  The Gods of Extemp aren’t Google; they’re the coaches who can outline a better speech in 2 minutes than students can in 2 hours.  I’ve been coaching this event for 14 years now, and I can do it better than my students — that’s why they’re students.  The point of the activity is not how well I can extemp, but to discover how well they can, and to make them better at it.  But, plainly speaking, a lot of coaches are driven more by the need to win.  I don’t see that giving them such easy, and unprovable, way to talk to students during prep won’t turn into temptation and contamination.

Lastly, the curricular impact of this extends far beyond the cheating.   Jim says “Why shouldn’t we develop great extempers whose success is predicated on their ability to manipulate internet resources, a life skill, versus their ability to manipulate tub resources, an irrelevant skill in a computerized universe?”   First, most of the sources in a tub nowadays come from the internet already, so it’s not like internet research skills aren’t being taught.   But more critically, he misses the point.   The point of extemp is to develop students whose success is predicated on their ability to manipulate their own brain and knowledge.  An extemper who relies on their sources and evidence, no matter the derivation, is already failing.  Evidence tubs should be hard to use, because the goal is to wean students off of them, and make them into clear, independent thinkers.  Your brain is the fastest database you own, and developing and expanding it is the best investment we can make.

A computer offers the most nefarious shortcut imaginable: the search function.  Have you ever used Spotlight on a Mac?  It indexes the contents of all your files, and is remarkably easy to use.  So take an extemp question, dump the key terms into Spotlight, and there’s your pre-written extemp speech; the thoughts and the words of all the thinkers in your database, strung together topically.  Copy them down — no need to understand them! — and you’re ready to go.  Search functions thus remove the necessity to walk into an extemp round with prior knowledge of a breadth of subject areas, and thus remove the purpose of the activity altogether.

Knowing the stuff would be easier still, but it’s not enough easier that the bulk of students will need to develop that internal database to succeed.  In short, more kids than currently would get away with bullshit.  And enough already do; internet sourcing has proliferated the use of sources at the expense of both academic integrity and the student’s ability to think.  Sure, the Great Extempers will need to know that stuff — but why should we even allow moderate success to come to those who don’t know anything at all about the world, but sure know how to run a database search?

I’d much rather just keep hauling tubs.

The Last Harvard: Extemp Recap

First off; the first time around I posted these, I posted the versions with the full names listed; that wasn’t what I’d planned, since in the age of Google, that can leave a permanent stain on what should be a temporary decision.  And as I make clear below, I don’t particularly blame even students even if they pulled the trigger on unethical decisions — and have no evidence of their intent either way.  So I am really sorry about that; but I’ve removed the same with the actual ready for primetime versions.

So what does it mean that by the letter of the law, every student in the Harvard final failed, and by the spirit of the law, it’s possible that at least two did so?

What it does not mean is that these speakers, the ones who flubbed dates or even the ones who may have gone further than that, are horrible, terrible people who will never redeem themselves in the eyes of humanity, or even myself.  I believe it reflects a poor ethical choice if true, but doesn’t really reflect on the individual ethics of the students that that much.  The incentives are stacked against them, after all.  It does reflect poorly on the state of the event, and the lack of safeguards.  After all, when a few people fail a test, the fault is with the taker; when everyone fails a test, the fault is with the test.

As Jonathan put it, there are three areas of quality in an extemp speech which a student can control: the quality of their analysis, the quality of their speaking and presentation, and the quality of their evidence.  The judge, however, can only really account for the first two in the immediacy of judging the round; judges have no immediate way of telling how well sources are used, short of pulling the sources after the speech; and doing that means you’ve possibly flubbed up the smooth running of the tournament and delayed your own time to go home, so there’s a strong social pressure on judges not to check sources.  Therefore, given the limited time the speakers have to concentrate on their speech, there is a very powerful incentive to work on analytic clarity and breadth, and speaking polish, to the exclusion of accuracy and care in sourcing.

However, there has been a parallel effect in extemp, which is the advent of the 12 source speech.  A many-sourced speech sounds impressive to judges, and some judges even go so far as to count sources in a speech, whether or not they’re used effectively.  The extemp community engaged in a sourcing arms war for a while, as a result.  We’ve settled down to a generic standard that a speech should have 1-2 sources in the introduction, and 2-3 sources in each point of analysis, bringing us to a grand total of 7-11 for a Varsity level speech.  That’s what judges expect, and so that’s what the students serve up.

That means two things.  First, and most obvious; you try memorizing 11 sources, 4 of which may be from the same publication on different dates, and maybe 7-8 of which are from newspapers that are really virtually indistinguishable in your mind.  After all, does anyone really recognize whether a given news article was in the New York Times or the Washington Post on a given day? Now do it in 30 minutes, that same 30 minutes during which you have to prepare the speech in the first place, read those citations, integrate them into a coherent anaytic flow, practice it over a few times for delivery, and then calm your shaking nerves because you’re about to deliver it publicly in front of 400 people.  And do all those things in the sure knowledge that, in the vast majority of cases, no one is ever going to know whether you fudge a little bit here on analytics, or screw up a date there.

Now go further, and say you drew a question where you have maybe 10-15 total files in your tub on the topic area.  Suppose further that the exact question was specific enough that most of your sources don’t really apply to it.  You have two choices at this point; you can either just shoot yourself in the foot to begin with and only use 3-4 of the sources, and then stand out from everyone else.  Or, you can find ways to jimmy in your other sources, even though they don’t really relate.   Take the former action and you lose guaranteed; take the latter action and you only lose (assuming you speak well enough) if someone checks up on you, and that happens so rarely as to be inconsequential.

The calculus is clear.  In the absence of consistent checking, speakers will both make mistakes and put themselves into difficult situations.  This problem is a problem with the event itself, not those students.  We do not give students training on avoiding alcohol abuse by telling them they’ll fail at a competitive activity unless they’re drunk, and then toss them into a bar that doesn’t check ID.   That’s a good way to get a lot of drunk kids, not a good way to build lessons.

So what’s the solution?  First is being aware of the problem and the reality of it.  Extemp is under-coached; there aren’t a lot of coaches out there who identify as extemp coaches.  Many programs just have advisors whose interests are in other areas; folks who are perfectly good at getting students to their respective tournaments chaperoned and safely, but who do not really think much about this particular event and pay much attention to it.  A high proportion of extempers are therefore more or less on their own, and coaches and tournament directors don’t really understand the forces at play here.  So awareness is certainly essential.

However, we should take that awareness and act on it, as a community.  We should encourage more, ever stricter checking, coupled with a sharply reduced expectation as to the number and use of sources.  Give to get; require each source be letter perfect, but stop expecting more than say 5 sources in a speech to reach finals.  When we source checked Yale one year, the prep staff mistakenly told the students ahead of the semifinal round that a source check would occur.  The average number of citations per speech plummeted from 9 in the quarterfinal to 4-5 in the semifinal; the quality of the speeches did not suffer, and everyone got each source perfectly correct.  It’s not a temptation to use your 4 good sources, and bend & fudge the rest, when you know everyone else is going to only use that many, and you know that the consequences are likely to be unpleasant.

It would also help if people didn’t try so hard to write questions to trip up extempers.  If your tournament asks questions that involve the food industry or pop culture or the Indonesian minister of the interior — in other words, too bizarre, too lightweight, and too specific, in that order — you’re asking the students to commit sins.  Nobody has 8 sources about the Indonesian cabinet, and unless you want to make the event about filing and not thinking and speaking, nobody should.  High expectations on source count, coupled with such strange questions, are begging for source falsifications.  Do tournament directors really believe that talking about mainstream, headlining challenges in the US economy, the wars, peace in Israel and Palestine, and European politics are so easy that we have to start asking about ever more obscure issues?  Should people who don’t generally pay that much attention to extemp in the first place feel comfortable making that call?

So the solution is clear.  Integrity of sourcing should be paramount and expected more rigorously, as that will directly lower expectations as to the number of sources used.  Ballots should be adjusted to emphasize the use of those sources instead of the quantity thereof, and perhaps even say that a plethora of sources is not to be taken as a sign of a good speaker.  Topics should be written within a legitimate domain of inquiry; don’t go too far afield from the headlines and the major stories, to give students a chance to have enough in the files to speak about them without having to worry about wedging in another citation.

The impact of that course of action would be to make cites easier on the students, and encourage them to think more on their own, which would make the event both less daunting and difficult for them, and hopefully more satisfying.  The academic integrity of sourcing and citation would be re-emphasized at the same time.  And I think the quality of speeches would rise; as students were putting more of their thoughts into it, and spending less time finding their 10 sources in prep, the quality of their speaking skills and their thoughts would benefit as a result.  Extemp is an event that a lot of people don’t want to watch and judge; if the speeches were better, no one would be harmed by it.

I think it’s a good deal for everyone around, eh?  Now I hope people who are essentially outsiders looking in care enough to take action.