So my Yale begins next week. Not the 2008 edition, but the 2009 one. We start at the Yale Debate Team’s attendance at the APDA Harvard tournament this coming Saturday. We’ll have dinner, and start tossing around ideas about what went well, what went poorly, and where room lies for improvement. I take notes and start the process of forming the next tournament invitation and make changes to policy and tabulation that I want to, while the Yalies start securing campus rooms and hotel blocks and transit contracts.
In January, usually on the way down to the Columbia tournament, I’ll stop in at Yale. By then the YDA Board has been selected, but not the tournament staff. So I’ll talk to the sitting President of the YDA and the person on the Board who oversees their own tournaments, and we’ll kibbitz about who was effective at last year’s tournament, who might best be left off the tournament senior staff this year, and everything in between. Here, I rely on them a lot; I see these people for maybe a week’s worth of days throughout the whole year, even though it’s an intense few days we do spend together. But they also rely on me a lot; I’m the one who knows what needs to be done, and what type of person is generally good at each job. Between the two bits of info, we usually hammer out a pretty good staff.
They then match names to roles, and the games begin. We go back and forth about ten times on the new invitation, hammering out the details of things we’ve changed, and things that have changed under us. The Yale campus and administration are a golem to the process; powerful, deadly and neutral, capable of great good and great harm at once, but ultimately uncaring, and unable to be reasoned with. Things will happen with vast implications to the tournament, and we can neither control or influence them — a one weekend debate event has no implications on whether Yale decides to renovate a building or throw a competing event. We simply can strive to find out about these obstacles early, and work around them.
We’ll go through a process familiar to most tournament directors. Orders start streaming out of New Haven for trophies, ballots, food. Instructions stream out of New Haven — how to travel to the tournament, when, and how to register. There are the usual suspects who do not understand, for the twelfth year in a row, that indeed they must bring judges or pay money to not have to. There is the usual confusion about deadlines, which usually manifests strongest just after the deadline as a series of outraged emails which I do nothing about. Yada yada yada.
But Yale is unique in a number of ways. The YDA has a lot of handicaps that should mean it runs a horrible tournament. First, it’s at a college. The college teams that run high school tournaments as fundraisers suffer from being outside the high school forensics community; they don’t see their customers, as it were, every week. That means two things. Several colleges, therefore, cut corners and don’t care how pleasant the experience of their tournament weekend is, as long as you write them a check. The paltry leavings of the Harvard judging lounge, and their permanently inadequate ballot table staff, pay testimony to that. The second is that the high school coaches don’t give the college staffs much benefit of the doubt; there’s no pre-built trust that there is a good logic and good intent behind each action, so we get coaches yelling and carrying on that the college kids are just money grubbing jerks.
The second handicap is a symptom of the shocking lack of concern that the large research university has for its’ students most important undertaking. The Yale Debate Association is, as far as I can tell, the pre-eminent parlimentary debating team in the United States. They’ve had excellent success within their league, APDA, and have a large and successful team abroad, including the only Americans to make the World Debating final round this decade. It’s a signature program for the University and for the students who participate in it. They travel every weekend, often crossing international boundaries to do so. They also run three tournaments a year, the high school invitational, another for New Haven schools, and a tournament for their own league. YDA members have also founded and fostered an urban debate league in New Haven. The YDA, in short, is a huge undertaking. And yet, it has no full time coach. It has no permanent staff, no one who holds the reins year after year, and thinks long term. The students have to do that on their own.
The fact that they can pull that off even on their own right is remarkable. College student organizations are evanescent. They don’t have much time to build up much experience or institutional memory before they move on to graduation and beyond. They’re also handicapped by being smart and young. That’s often a good thing, but sometimes a bad one; Yale students have been told all their lives that they can do anything and pull anything off if they try, and the poor fools believe it. They come up with crazy ideas that have doom written all over them, and they don’t always see why it can’t be done until they try it. And find out.
But the YDA has done what is probably the hardest thing for a group of young, intelligent people to do; they admitted to themselves they can’t do it alone. There’s a lot of character to that. They brought me in a decade ago to be a permanent tab director. I remember 10 Yale tournaments, good and bad. I can say if an idea has been tried before, and I have a long term vision of the tournament’s future. When I say something is a bad idea, they usually don’t do it. When I recommend something as important, they usually make sure it happens. Their track record isn’t perfect, but mine isn’t either: at first I was wary of using off campus New Haven schools for Saturday competition; the high schools turned out to be a huge benefit.
They also do another thing right; they’re willing to invest in the future of the tournament and the pleasantness of the experience. Last year people complained that the food at the remote high schools was priced too high; so this year prices were slashed. They paid for buses and transit to a couple of outer hotels to get cheaper rates for the attending schools. They heard that the coffee for judges was insufficient last year, so this year you couldn’t turn around without bumping into a coffee urn. The trophies got upgraded. And above all, they hire a padding of extra hired judges over and beyond the hiring obligation; the LD and Speech pool had A judges with rounds off for want of rounds to judge. Each year it gets a little better, and a little smoother; I’m genuinely proud of what they do.
I don’t think the YDA truly understands the magnitude of what it achieves. It grew a national tournament out of a trainwreck in a very short time with huge odds stacked against it. It creates an educational opportunity that simply wasn’t there before, and it makes it civilized and pleasant. Yale is a good time; we have a good tournament with people from every corner of the country, all seeing each other for the first time since the previous school year, in a shining time of year in a New England September. 1,500 people came this year, and most left happy, and hopefully smarter and better for it. It’s eminently worth doing; I’m proud of my role in it, and proud of the YDA for making it possible.
The tournament remains somewhat expensive. People complain about the cost of hired judges, but the Yale students charge $250 for a hired judge, and pay out $200 for each one. The commission they get on each is entirely fair; they track down, arrange housing and transit, and deal with the flaky judges; if you don’t think that’s worth $50, then bring your own judges. Their entry fees are in line with other tournaments of their caliber, not nearly approaching the Harvard stratosphere, and they’re definitely in line with the expenses they go through. The YDA ends up with a profit, but they work very hard for that profit; I suspect they could make more just working the same hours they put into the tournament at McDonald’s. And that money goes to a good debate team, and a New Haven Urban Debate League, and so on.
In short, they want to do the right thing, and it’s my job to help them figure out what the right thing is. My job is not unique except in that I’m willing to do that; I come back year after year. I claim no special genius at tournament administration, but it’s a learned process and I’ve spent a lot of time learning. It certainly helps a lot that I can bring in Admiral Menick and JV and Kaz and Chavez and Jenny and Mike V and everyone else; but these people also all know each other, so they could do that too. Mostly what I do is be there, year after year, helping them by just being such.
They wonder why I do it, I think. I do it because it’s worthwhile to have a national tournament in easy driving distance for my team. I do it because it’s a lovely weekend and being at the center of it makes it lovelier still, even as it makes it harder and more stressful. I love the tournament and am proud of how it’s been built over the years. But also, and this may surprise them a little since I cultivate the Crusty Cynical Bastard persona a bit, I genuinely like the YDA. I cherish the chance to get to know them and hang out with them a few times a year. I like what they do, and have great respect for the fact that they’re willing to make the tournament better year after year. I even did a dreaded sake bomb this year at the staff’s behest at the terrible sushi restaurant where we do our post-tournament celebration; I’m loyal if nothing else. The irony of a Harvard grad being a honorary member of the Yale Debate Association certainly appeals, but the opportunity to be a part of this group is not one to be passed up. It’s worth the blood, sweat, and tears; it’s worth the trouble I go to, for this group of people.
This year’s was the easiest one so far, even though it was also the largest and most complex. Pam did a wonderful job corralling judges, Austin did miracles with rooms because I didn’t hear of a single problem with lockouts; Kristin put more miles on a car than is possible and made sure everyone was housed. I never lacked for a ballot or a trophy or judge food, and the trains ran exactly on time, thanks to James. Need transit? Find a right-wing Italian. And Shaina managed to make the YDA into a productive, focused force all weekend, which has never been done before; we even had a ballot table person at last. The Freshmen were made productive by attaching them to tab staff directly; Zucker, Max, Nate; the silent helper who made Policy work behind the scenes, and the girl whose face I remember but whose name I don’t who helped over in PF land. And finally the Yalies hit upon the idea of giving me a myrmidon, an extremely thoughtful and helpful guy from Minnesota named Tommy, who thinks he doesn’t do much and work hard. However, everything he does to run around and look and find and fix is something I don’t have to do; my sanity and energy levels have been much much better with him around and I’m hugely grateful to him for it. I’ve threatened to take him home and have him help me run the rest of my life several times.
So my 2009 Yale begins this coming weekend, and to a large degree it will end on the Friday night of the tournament, when registration closes. At that point I hand off tab to the tabbers, get rooms and things sorted, and spend the rest of my time making sure everyone is OK and looking for things to improve for the following year. I build my list, and bring it to our dinner afterwards with them again, two weeks after the tournament ends again.