So Mr Menick is jealous of the CFL PF topic, and I’m jealous of the LD topic.  I think the solution is clear; let’s trade!  His major objection to the LD topic is the lack of a conflict; there’s nothing inherently oppositional about arts education and athletic education; and in the realm of LD that may be true.  However, there’s a little thing called a budget; I’d say that pragmatically, arts education and athletics are in constant competition for the same extra-curricular pot of money.  Neither is part of various state testing procedures, so neither is required per se; but both need resources and therefore are head to head with each other when it comes to building a school district budget.

That’s all very detailed based and pragmatic for your average LDer, but in PF it would make plenty of ground for debate.  Massachusetts in the age of Prop 2 1/2 has felt this acutely, and usually to the detriment of the arts.

Meanwhile the Native Americans question has all sorts of fascinating angles that stem to sovereignty, the responsibilities of an occupying government towards a technically subject people, how much aboriginal Americans are in fact members of our society and how much they’re something else entirely, what is owed, and to whom.  It’s also a milder and less emotional way of attacking those issues, due to the fact that most Native Americans tend to be a step outside of mainstream and therefore their affairs aren’t as hot button as say, talking about slavery reparations to African Americans, or the Palestine/Israel crisis.   LDers can get away with far more with an LD style negative than PF teams will be able to on the aboriginal question.

So the solution is clear:  trade you!  Hell, I’ll even throw my next Scrabulous game to sweeten the deal.

Catholic Forum

It appears I have at least one reader, since Mr Menick talks sometimes about things I have to say. That’s considerably better than talking about what I don’t have to say, the usual mode of the Internet. It appears in New York, Public Forum’s merits are still hypothetical, so to add some meat to the argument, I’ll point out that it’s very healthy and growing in Massachusetts. Our state tournament drew 24 teams from 10 schools if I remember right, the largest division. We have both debate-heavy and speech-heavy schools participating, and since we added PFD to most speech tournaments, it’s served as a way to bridge the divide between. Many of our speech tournaments have begun pulling PF judges directly from the IE pool, making it just another event. We’ve had national success too; last year’s TOC champs; this year’s Harvard, and so on. It’s been nothing but positive for our league.

But now, just as I spend a post asserting that Public Forum will save debate, the NCFL comes out with their tournament topic.

To be blunt, if you’re going to have a debate event that relies on persuasion as its highest value, then you have to give the students topics that won’t make them look like assholes. The CFL gives us: Resolved: That the US Government should increase social services for indigenous peoples in America.” So teams will travel into the heart of old Sioux country and basically argue “the darkies have had enough of a free ride, let them fend for themselves, the lazy jerks.” Good luck being persuasive with that. I’m not sure I want to know the kinds of judges who will vote for it.

You could argue against social services in general on conservative, libertarian principle, but you’d better hope your opponents somehow manage to miss such trifiling matters as the shocking poverty on most reservations, and the ruthless and aggressive destruction of indigenous ways of life which caused it. Neg can only reply “Oops! Our bad! Well, pull yourself off the ground and stop crying about it, already.”

I’m already foreseeing a lot of judges leaving a lot of rounds completely disgusted by something appalling some unwitting teenager said. That, despite the fact that the teenager in question likely didn’t believe a word of it.

We’ve had a variety of flawed topics that produced good debates in Public Forum. The February topic, “Russia has become a threat to US interests” was a true statement on its face, given that any sovereign nation outside of the US is a threat to US interests; would it have killed them to slip the word “major” in there? But for the most part, the affs took on reasonable definitions of threat, and corrected the failure of the resolution. The January topic suffered from a dearth of evidence on the negative; would it have killed them to remove the bit about a democracy? But negs found ground through smoke and mirrors anyway.

The two topics I thought were most balanced, the November one about deficit spending, and the current one about Bush’s little rebate checks, did not lead to good debates. That’s especially funny, since they share the exact same argumentation; we pretty much took the November cases and reworked the details. Nobody else did, though; I suspect nobody else really understood what the topics were about, including perhaps their authors — if they did get it, they wouldn’t have put them both in the same school year. I’m one of the very few public forum coaches who is comfortable teaching economics. It comes of a childhood wasted in extemp.

So now, after extolling the benefits of bringing persuasion and argumentation closer to each other, we’re going to spend May running away from that as hard as we can, and find a way to defend the position that poverty is solved by less money, and that near-genocide does not produce an obligation on part of the genociders towards the genocidees.


This weekend we held the State Debate tournament. It was a small affair, but that fit well into a small school, enough so that we could flight the Varsity LD and Public Forum divisions and zip through the day three hours ahead of the intended finish, while adding a fifth prelim round. That left the novices with 4 prelims and a final, but if they wanted to step up, they should have stepped up; it’s not like it’s hard to qualify for States in debate. Nor should it be, so long as it stays small enough to host.

We had, after much promotion and excitement, 5 Miss America pageant winners of various stripes in attendance. They were led by Amanda Liverzani, who judged mostly LD.  The others, who hadn’t seen debate before, were in Public Forum. Their presence amused the hell out of everyone, though it was accompanied by a faint sense of doubt in everyone who had seen the infamous Miss South Carolina YouTube video. I wasn’t worried, though; Amanda was obviously sharp, and came highly recommended, so I doubted she would bring rank morons to a tournament. Any remaining doubts were dispelled by their first round ballots, which were crisp and insightful explanations of their decisions.

They were also terrific sports; they wore their tiaras all day, judged the Public Forum final together, and took pictures with the finalists and teams. I really hope they come back.

That got me thinking about aspects of exclusivity in our event. Public Forum, for all its foibles, has at its core a belief that it’s necessary to keep debate honest by routinely injecting fresh blood into the judges’ pool. Oliver Wendell Holmes described the law not in terms of an overarching theory, but rather simply as the accumulated set of actions judges take. If a judge will rule x, then x is law. Debate can be framed the same way. If judges collectively vote for something, then it will win; if not, then it won’t. If you have a stable judging pool with a long apprenticeship period, as exists in LD and Policy, you eventually grow a large body of unwritten rules and conventions that simply must be followed to win a ballot. In Policy and LD, the end result has been emphasis on argumentation that is logically sound, but ultimately unpersuasive; no one is going to change their own beliefs on the strength of most LD and Policy argumentation. But judges will change their ballots, so the students pick up on that, and leave aside the much tougher task of being persuasive.

Public Forum is an attempt to narrow the gap between ballot and belief, by constantly welcoming reasonably intelligent judges who have no preconceived notions of competitive debate. These judges are ignorant of jargon and must have it explained, so jargon is limited. But more to the point, they’re much more likely to vote on what they find more persuasive than some ethereal sense of context-less flow-logic. That keeps the event honest, and it brings a unique set of values to the forensics community.

The inclusiveness of the judging pool in PF highlights the exclusivity of the judging pools in LD and Policy. LD can be judged by novice judges, and the students sometimes adapt with success. LDers will often complain when they actually have to do this, even as they do grudgingly recognize the value of the adaptation skill. However, Policy doesn’t care at all. And therefore, it’s dying. The barriers to entry for new judges — understanding the event — are the same barriers faced by new programs. Those barriers are prohibitively high in Policy: the learning curve, and most of all, the lack of an immediately apparent educational benefit, together conspire to keep policy a closed and exclusive club. Forensics programs are not immortal, and every time a Policy team dies, it dies for good. We were down to 8 teams from 3 schools at States. Should one of those three programs decide to throw in the towel, especially Lexington, the league will likely have to follow suit.

I get a sense in talking to the true believers in Policyland that they’re waltzing on the deck of the Titanic; as a culture, they’re convinced of the complete superiority of the event, so they cannot countenance adjusting to others. Many don’t even recognize the value and abilities of those who do LD or PFD, to say nothing of IEs. So nothing changes. I remain sympathetic to their difficulties in finding rounds, but cannot do much else other than sympathize, and suggest subversively they give LD a whirl, or take a weekend and do Public Forum. I’m not going to start a policy program of my own, certainly.

On top of that, the expense of debate tournaments is amazing; our MFL events still cost $5 to attend, from the smallest Novice tournament to the State tournament. Debate events, however, can run up from $40-75 an entry, easily. As far as I can tell, debate is expensive because debate is expensive, and everyone’s passing the money around in greater amounts. It’s also expensive because travel is the norm, given the difficulty of finding those policy rounds especially. That effect too keeps new schools away; new programs are consistently willing to blow $5 on a day of trying debate or speech, but raise the tag to $75 and then you’re talking money; without a pre-existing, successful debate team in place, most folks aren’t going to bite. Most new programs are going to be creamed at first, until they gain some traction; they’re not going to continue to pay their $75 to get creamed week in and week out, but $5 for a year or two and that’s worth sporadic success until you can get traction.

With spiraling gas and air travel costs, however, the logic flips. I wonder if the debate community isn’t in for a severe retraction in the coming years, with former national circuit programs unable to travel, standing isolated amidst their local neighbor schools they ignored and kept out for years, not due to hostility but the inherent nature of the events we run now. PF will continue to flourish in Massachusetts, and I bet LD would grow given the big schools’ needs to host more local tournaments. But that will be the end of Policy, once and for all. An event cannot survive in the long term, or even maybe the short term, if a smart young lady in a tiara can’t judge it or even appreciate it. Adapt or perish.

A Tale of Two States

A fast and furious weekend in forensics usually involves at least six nervous breakdowns; I’m happy to have gotten away with two.

The weekend began, in the way of many long weekends, on Thursday. I pulled myself into a bus at South Station after seeing a Hasidic man walking through the terminal carrying a bright yellow Easter basket. I spent three hours on the bus to Albany answering frantic emails about the new company’s website, and programming together a viable room master that I’ve been wanting for ages. It’s not quite ready for prime time, since it only shows the first day of a tournament, which worked OK for both New York and Massachusetts states, but won’t work for Nationals or Yale or further along.

Then I arrived in lovely Albany, caught up on the latest Catholic gossip from Catherine, and fended off the Mary Louis girls’ hopefully joking requests for a glass of wine. Kieran had done most of the gruntwork of paneling and selecting Congress judges, which was marvelous. I adjusted and tweaked and showed him a few more features. I got a good night’s sleep, listened as the New York regional directors bitched about room abuse by Policy Debaters, ran registration, and got everything running.

The New York states is a funny beast. The leadership of the organization has totally signed onto the idea of computerization; Kieran constantly thanks me, often on behalf of his wife and family, for all the time the software saves him. The tournament does seem to run faster even when things go wrong. However, the tab operation has only adapted somewhat; it reminds me of the early days of the MFL’s computer effort, when we were essentially trying to hand tab using computers. Things go easier on the computer if you do things like the computer wants you to, but it takes time to adjust folks’ comfort levels around that.

We adapted pretty easily in the MFL, but we run tournaments together all the time. The NYSFL does so once a year, and so I’m a little worried that it’s going to be like this for a while; a six tournament adjustment period takes us three months, but it takes them six years. And with all due respect to the New Yorkers of the Roman persuasion, their computer competence is somewhat….lesser than ours, collectively. I think the average age of the tab staff is cut in half whenever I walk in the room. We in MA have at this point about a dozen folks who can run a tournament OK on the computer system, while really only Charlie Sloat and some of the Brooklyn folks are adept among the NYSFL tab.

Back home after a delayed trip home on the Greyhound, I ran our own tournament. It went easily, even though it was difficult to panel, due to the small size. I terrified a kid from one school with fire and brimstone because they were going to drop a judge.

But the day was smooth; the panels were small, the school very well set up, and everything got off without a hitch. I also came up with the method of speeding the day by just starting things. We tend to not begin things until everything is perfect and ready. But you really don’t need the ballots to start the judge briefing; chances are you’ll finish them during it, and even if you don’t, they can wait just as well after the breifing. So just standing there and saying “Start!” helps a lot.

Meanwhile, back in New York, I kept getting messages from Charlie that said things like “Very Screwed!!! Please call!!!”. He somehow decided that the semifinal of DI had to happen about sixteen times, because he kept on breaking it, in more than one sense. There was a tiebreaker doing funny things, that I fixed on the fly, promptly disabling their sweepstakes, but then I fixed that too. No one has bitched yet about the results being wrong, and so it all worked out in the end.

So New York’s Rome is done, and State Speech is done. Next week all the problems belong to Rich Edwards, as we do our State Debate tournament, and the New Yorkers of the Avignon persuasion run their inaugural event.