Some good things did come from Harvard, and one is an idea that you’ll likely see at a Yale tournament near you in the fall. Policy Mike was staying with me for the weekend so he could judge the Harvard policy tournament, and at one point he mentioned how judging speech left him feeling very ambiguous afterwards, since he didn’t have the opportunity to explain why he ranked the round in a comparative way, the way that debate ballots demand. He suggested having a speech RFD ballot, a sheet that gets copied to all the people in the round, where the judge is asked to not just give individual feedback but comment overall on why they ranked the round the way they did.
That thought process would be valuable to know; one of the problems in speech judging is always figuring out what mattered most to the judge. I’ll get a kid’s ballot where the kid ranked fourth, perhaps, and it’ll have (hopefully!) a few comments on areas for improvement. But in the judge’s mind only one of them might have earned the student the 4, and rarely will that be thought through. We ask debate judges to make their decision, and then justify it. Speech judges are asked to justify their decision, and then make it. Small wonder, then, that a useful ballot is rare.
Few judges are qualified to be coaches; there are many coaches in our judging pool, but there are also many more parents. Speech ballots, however, are set up to make the judges into coaches; they basically ask the judge to say what worked in the performance, and what didn’t. But judges aren’t coaches; figuring out how to identify strong and weak points is the coaches’ job. A judge’s job is to adjudicate, and I think ultimately it’s much more fair to ask of them to explain their decisions of adjudication, than to ask them to provide advice and feedback in a vacuum to each student individually.
Debaters are rarely left wondering why a judge decided a round the way they did – though they are sometimes very baffled as to how. I think it might be time to ask the same of speech judges; tell me who you believed and why. Ask speech judges to think about it more than just perfunctorily and provide a justification. It’s worth a shot, at least; we’ll be trying it out at Yale, most likely, and seeing how it goes.