What that judge was smoking

So the nature of democracy is you have to make a unitary choice — yes to this one, no to that one — that cannot express your full range of preferences. Instead you have to weigh the opposing sides’ views together with the importance of those views to you — if you agree with Bush on Iraq, and Kerry on health care, the question is which matters more to you, Iraq or health care?

Judges make evaluations in the same way. A speaker speaks, and the judge must list a rank from best to worst, without ties, or award the debate to one side or the other. Hundreds if not thousands of factors can weigh into these decisions, some honorable and some not. Ultimately the judge is making a judgment of “did I believe you, or did I believe another, more?” But belief is composed of so many things. Aristotle’s ethos, pathos and logos can be divided and subdivided many times.

Here’s the thing, though; naturally kids will tend to mimic success. They look at the people lined up and getting their trophies and TOC bids, and want to be them. The first step is mimickry, then; figure out what they do, and mirror it.

Some things successful competitors do are the reasons why they succeed. Some things are the features they succeed in spite of. Often times students have a difficult time telling the difference, though. I see a bad habit of a good kid echoed in the years that follow, as everyone becomes convinced that that’s the formula for success.

I think that’s where we get things like the horrible delivery in LD and extemp. Extempers don’t talk like people do; their sentence construction is convoluted, their delivery too fast, and their thoughts made ever more unclear by it. Good extempers tend to sound impressive, but are often so unclear as to leave the judge with a slightly uncomfortable feeling that they don’t quite know what just happened.

LDers are much the same; the regime of RFDs and flows constantly leave the debaters with the sense that their impeccable logic games win them or lose them every round. However, I saw rounds at the TOC that were more or less determined by one debater having insufficient tags or clarity of structure to convey their thoughts, and quite qualified judges missing things that could have turned the round.

These things should be rookie mistakes. But they’re common at a high level. What’s worse, kids will resist attempts to coach away from them, since that’s not how its done. I’m ready to claw my eyes out the next time a child asserts to me that “The Judges” won’t like something because it doesn’t fit with their idea of the event.

Kids are naturally conservative; they won’t go against what their community defines as “legit”. They’ll blame The Judges and fear The Judges, but they really fear each other. When students vote, in Congress or in round robins, they’ll always go the safe route and vote for whoever Should win, never mind who actually did. They will routinely be shocked at the “illegitimate” results of rounds they did not witness.

So that plugs into what camps teach about structure; that anyone who doesn’t follow Our Style is somehow illegitimate, since it gives kids a club. It also gives kids an easy way out. Thinking deeply, and expressing those thoughts clearly, is very difficult. It’s also the thing that unites all the kids who do well, and separates them from all the kids who don’t. They may have a certain structure, and a certain analytic approach, but at the end of the day the ability to think and communicate those thoughts are what make the difference.

But that’s hard to do. So there are a lot of lazy kids, who want that brush with glory and prestige on the cheap. So they aim for substructure and approach, which are easy to learn and perfect. They miss the real point, which is intelligence and clarity. I don’t have much time for kids like that. Then there are other kids who have either intelligence or good fluency, and never seem to develop the other trait; they coast on one ability without making much of a dent in the other. They do better than the first group, but never as well as they could, since they’re not working on the right things.

Basics are boring, and magic forumlas are sexy though…