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.