The Last Harvard: Extempers 3 & 4

All right, so apparently Food was the semis and Energy was the quarter finals topic, as A HALF DOZEN ANAL RETENTIVE EXTEMPERS felt the need to share with me last evening.  Mea culpa!

Carrying on with the increasingly disappointing source check, however:

Speaker 3

Q.  Is drug legalization in the US a viable strategy for reducing drug-related violence in Latin America?

Answer: Nope!


Missed the first citation in the intro; speaker rushed by it.  However, the claim was that legalization, by making drugs readily available, would lower the demand?  Did I hear this right?  NB seems the rest of the speech says the opposite, so I bet I did hear it right, or it was one of those cases when debaters arguing aff conclude by saying “I urge a neg ballot…I MEAN AFF!”

1st subpoint: Legalization would increase cartel revenue, leading to more violence.

1.  NYT 2.2.09    Revenue providing for weapons for cartels come from US consumers.


The article does not provide evidence for the claim that most of the drug cartel money comes from US consumers.  Now, this claim is true, and honestly doesn’t really need a citation to back it up; it’s common knowledge.  So this fudging of a source might really be about racking up more totals in source counts, not really fabrication.  Still, that’s shady if that’s what’s going on here.

Reuters 2.10.09 use this money to buy weapons.

OK, I had a hard time tracking this down exactly.  There was a 2.10.09 Reuters article that didn’t mention guns.  There’s a 2.26.09 article that talks extensively about this problem, but also came out after the tournament.  However, finally I did track down:

So I’ll give a pass on this one; the claim again is not a hard one to support.

This doesn’t mention, however, the fact that this point is broken and doesn’t help the case; the assumption that illegal cartels would benefit from legalization is a stretch.

Point 2: Would harm US/Mexico relations

Council on Foreign Relations 11.20.08: Attempts to limit drug violence between US and Mexico means closing off the border.


OK, it’s possible that I got the claim down wrong; honestly this speaker wasn’t very clear; I think probably due to nerves, which I totally understand and sympathize with.  It’s a common problem among finalists, and one of the reasons why semis are often better rounds than finals.  However, the article does not support the claim that the border is closing tighter because of the drug war; it simply mentions the not-very-revelatory fact that drug operations are cross-border in nature.

Economist 1.22.08  US government doesn’t give Mexico much respect; policy change would confirm that.

This one is old.  Also, it was under the Bush administration, which changes everything.  He may have gotten the date wrong; in fact I hope the speaker did because I can’t find it.  I did find this:

It was June 19th, 2008, which is much more in range than Jan 22nd, which puts it far into the realm of “honest slip”, especially since citing the earlier date hurts the case; it’s not like the speaker was trying to conceal the age of the source.

However, that kind of citation is exactly the sort of loose, citing conclusions that I find ineffective.  “The US respects Mexico” is not a fact, it is a thesis, and if you’re going to present that in a speech, even from a respected publication, it cannot be as a fait accompli.  The Economist has been wrong in its conclusions before, as has every other major publication; and it’ll be wrong again.  You can cite a fact, and I’ll trust that the paper has fact checked it as much as is reasonable (not always safe, but we have to draw the line somewhere.)  But an argument or a position doesn’t work like that; no matter who said it, it has to be defended, and proven, not simply cited.

However, that criticism is more in the realm of “what I’d write on my ballot, were I judging.”  It’s style points, not rule violations.

May/June Foreign Affairs Kauffman  — Legalization would be disaster; can’t control cartels or terrorist groups without int’l controls and cooperation

OK now my sympathy has flown out the window.  There is no article in Foreign Affairs in all of 2008 about drug legalization.  There is an article in May/June Foreign Affairs by a guy named Hoffman, whose thesis is that Al Qaeda remains a threat to US security; Hoffman doesn’t even talk about international cooperation being a way to combat terror groups.  He doesn’t talk about drugs, Mexico, Latin America, or anything related.

I can’t prove a negative.  I can’t say that the speaker didn’t have an article in some other journal that had a similar name that did talk about this issue in the way that he says.  But, given how specific the citation was — how many other journals publish on a bimonthly basis? — I strongly suspect the speaker didn’t.

And you know, I’ve been giving speakers a pass for muddling the date and the publication a little, but that makes me wonder — why have them give dates and titles at all, if they’re all going to flub it up?  The root problem here isn’t that it’s impossible to memorize 7 sources perfectly, it’s that we shouldn’t be expecting 7 sources in the first place.

Point 3.  Would increase cross border violence between USA and Latin America

WaPo 1.4.09  Drug culture in the US is hidden but no less violent elsewhere.  Doesn’t depend on ready availability but effects on the human psyche.  Violent drug culture would increase and has nothing to do with illegality

I was not able to find this article despite searching through a lot of results in the Washington Post for both January and February.  I find this a little disturbing, since these claims are central to the argument; this citation should have been clear above all others.  Without this citation, which should be very easy to find, a lot of his logic falls directly apart.  If the speaker didn’t have this cite on source check, it would be a clear DQ.

NYT 2.2.09 Loosening drug policy would mean more people crossing borders and thus under no one’s control.

Same article as listed above.  This statement is not supported by the article either; it refers to things like “borders” and such but does not support this claim directly.


This speaker didn’t seem to actually understand the question, and I feel that might have contributed to a lot of the questionable use of sources in this speech; so the lapses may not be ethical in nature, but simply the combination of nerves and an unfortunate draw. In some cases I can pass that by, but honestly, if the Foreign Affairs article cited was the Hoffman article I found, that would be no defense against my wrath if I were the tournament director presented with this evidence.

He also didn’t answer the question.  As a result, I feel that the speaker may have done a lot of bending his sources to fit a flawed view of the question itself; which is still a severe ethical lapse, but one borne from ignorance, not shenanigans.  Or maybe ignorance with a side of shenanigans.

However, the bottom line is, unless the speaker produced some true miracles from the files, this speech would not have survived a source check.

NB: The note about Michael applies here too; I coached Matt very briefly at that same UTNIF a few years ago, and have chatted with him a few times since, and have a general impression of “good kid, likable guy.”

Speaker 4

Q.  Should the US Government restore suspended trade benefits to Bolivia?

Answer: Nope.


1.25.09 NYT  Bolivia approved a new constitution with 60% vote.  Strips rights from some of the population, very big and complex


Yep that’s fine.  Though the bit about stripping rights is implicit, not explicit.

1. Bolivia has failed to guarantee basic economic rights

2.4.09 CSM Bolivia has world’s largest reserves of lithium.  They’re not being accessed by int’l community b/c Evo says no.  Bolivia tried to harvest it themselves with big investment but held up by bureaucracy.


This is a textbook example of a good cite.  The speaker cited the exact facts and built original conclusions off of them.

1.22.09 Economist Bolivia limiting land holdings to 12,400 acres.  the large landholdings are efficient and experienced.  bad for the nation since limiting them means less food.


So far, perfect.  This article makes exactly those claims.

2.  Bolivia is not making political progress

1.22.09    Economist (again) indigenous communities in the north vote by community not by individual.  Gov’t looks the other way.  boosts Evo’s numbers.

Article (repeat):

Yes, the article listed above also supports this statement.

12.8.08 CSM    Bolivia is divided.  North indigenous at odds with capitalistic industrialized south.

Oh man, we were on such a roll; I can’t find this article.  I think it’s probably a cite flub, or a recording flub on my part, since this division is well known and well documented; in fact a different CSM article refers to it:

3.  Bolivia is failing USA on the war on drugs

3.08 Council on Foreign Relations.  60k acres of coca in Bolivia to become exports of cocaine in the US.  Bolivia makes eradication voluntary.  The growers are Evo’s support base, so he won’t move against them.

I wasn’t able to find this report either.  However, the facts are abundantly confirmed by the Internet at large, though most of them are a little old.  So there’s a chance here that’s the speaker’s postdating a source to make it seem more recent, but new reports on foreign affairs often have to rely on older data, since new data on many countries is sometimes untrustworthy or nonexistent.

For example, most of the facts are listed here in a Reuters article:

12.8.08 Washington Post Bolivia evicted drug agents of the US.

I noted in my margins that I screwed up the date on this one; so I wasn’t able to find the article exactly; at any rate the expulsion of the DEA by Morales is well documented; the only Post article I could find was this one, but it’s fair enough, and the speaker may have had a better one:


I wasn’t hugely impressed by this speech at the time.  The speaker didn’t explain the instrument by which trade policy is the best mechanism, or even a good mechanism, to right the wrongs that listed above, and that holding back open trade would convince Morales to toe the line instead of just retrenching further.  The speech didn’t talk about trade much at all.

However, the citations were nearly perfect.  It flubbed very few dates, and it’s perfectly possible that the mistakes are mine in transcriptions, not the speaker’s own.  None of the claims were based around loose conclusions or thoughts; every one of them described facts or events that he then used for his own analysis.  Pass, with flying colors.

The Last Harvard: The Extemp Final, Speakers 1 & 2.

So because I’m contrary, and because I know there are many more shenanigans in the art of extemp citations than people suspect or would like to believe, I decided to take extensive notes on the sources used in the Harvard extemp final, and the claims based therein.  I’ve now attempted to check up on those claims, and see if the sources were indeed used in a responsible manner.

To enter extemp at Harvard is already a bit of a bold move; the questions, while not routinely awful like some tournaments are notorious for, are usually just a little…off.  The choices made in the questions leave one scratching one’s head, not out of sheer incompetence, but rather just the wondering “how did they decide THAT?” Harvard had a pop culture round for years that everyone dreaded, though Sherry thankfully killed that one off after I send a begging email to that effect.  One year they had an entire round on NASA, which was a thrill for a program that doesn’t even have a NASA file.  And they’re famous for the seventy-word question; apparently the question writer is oblivious about the fact that the students ought memorize the question verbatim.

This year, thankfully, they avoided all the above pitfalls.  The wrinkle for the tournaments were somewhat lesser.  First, the final round was the first round dedicated to foreign affairs; it was a DXer’s tournament, with topic areas in the prelims being The GOP, The Obama Administration, Domestic Concerns, and Domestic Econ (I think…).  The wonky round of the year was the quarterfinal, whose topic area was Food.  Yes, Food. Energy was the semis, which is usually an OK area to ask a few questions in, but a whole round on energy is bound to screw some people up, and lo, it did indeed.  The final, somewhat jarringly, was all about Latin America.   If you’re going to have only one foreign topic area, to dedicate it to Latin America seems doubly strange.  Ah well.  There were no blind people hunting with lasers, however, so I won’t complain.

So here we go, the speakers.  I’m going to do only the first two today since the results were long, involved and … disturbing for the second speaker, so I need a break.  Many thanks to Josh Bone, who did the Lexis searches mentioned below to confirm the absence of some of these articles.

Speaker 1

Q.  Can Hugo survive another year of cheap oil?

Answer: Yep!


– NYtimes today:  Hugo spending $70 billion in social spending on assumption of price $90/bbl.  yesterday ppl voted for unlimited terms. yay 4 chavez.


The article indeed talks about the victory of Chavez.  It doesn’t mention the $90/bbl dependency, or the $70 billion in social spending, but both figures are correct in other sources.  Either the speaker mis-cited that part, or I didn’t hear it clearly.

– Sept/Oct Foreign Affairs:  Chavez building massive spheres of influence in LA


Yep, it says that.

1st point: H.C. has control over the democratic institutions

– Book cite : Transition and Consolidation of Democracy:  free media indep institutions -> lib dem.

OK, I was able to find a book called Transitions and Consolidation of Democracy in Africa.  I wish I’d written down the author’s name too, not just the title.  However, the claim that free media institutions are necessary for a liberal democracy is hardly a controversial one; it’s probably one of those things even Chomsky and Dershowitz agree on.

– Transparency International Jan 2009: Chavez controls all media outlets

Haven’t been able to find a TI report on Latin America in Jan 2009. I have a feeling this was a mis-cite on the date, or maybe an article written in January that references an earlier report, since once again this is hardly a difficult claim to defend; I’ve found it supported in other sources.

However, I would say one thing about this style of citation; it cites a conclusion of the report, rather than the evidence and thinking that went into that conclusion.  I tend to look down on that kind of citation; it’s better to pull out the facts and explain the conclusions, than just state the conclusions as a given.

2nd point:    The poor love H.C.

– Economist Jan 11 -> many of the social programs haven’t worked, but the people ultimately appreciate it.  Story of normal voter Desiree Pereira who’d never vote against Hugo.

Hmm.  Well there was this article in the Feb 5th Economist:

This seems to cover the bit about social programs that people like even though they’re not working out.  So it’s a possible date flub.  The articles from the Economist in January were a much worse fit than this one.

However, one can Google Desiree Pereira and find a often-picked up newswire story about a middle-class Desiree Pereira in Caracas talking very clearly about how it’s time to elect somebody other than Hugo:

This I’d chalk up to not reading the sources carefully, since this story was both mis-attributed to the Economist, and the opposite of what was intended.  Bad speaker!  No biscuit.  It wasn’t essential to the points being made, but I’d definitely look at this askance.

– Pew research this Jan -> 70% of Venezuelans generally support Hugo

I haven’t found a January Pew report about Venezuela; and it probably wouldn’t be hard to find if there was one.  So this is at best a date flub up.  However, I did find this one, dated 2/11:

And here I’m into “I’d be questioning this one very intently” territory, unfortunately; the claims from the article do not in any way support the contention that 70% of Venezuelans still like Chavez.   The only number that comes close is that 68% of the bottom half of income earners think that Chavez’s influence over the country has been positive.  The brunt of the article suggests that Chavez’s support among the poor is more like 60%.

3rd point:  Opposition is too fractured

– Today’s NYTimes again – mayor of caracas is critical of chavez, but ppl of caracas voted to remove chavez term limits.

Yes, this supported by the article.

–  Maria Cardona of opposition — clean elections admitted, indisputable result.  yesterday.

The name cited was actually Maria Corina Machado, who said in that NY times article:

“‘This was a victory imposed by the abuse of state power.  This should not be seen as a defeat but as a national challenge,’ she said, citing elections next year for the National Assembly. Nevertheless, she did not significantly dispute the results.”

I’d call that one bending the spirit of the source, no doubt, but ah well.

Ironically Maria Corina Machado then later said the voting process was riddled with failures, but that was after the tournament:

I will note that neither of these sources actually support the contention of the point, which is that the opposition is fractured and therefore ineffective; they only speak towards the inefficacy itself.

Comments:  Sourcing was a little shady here and there, though for the most part fine.  However, if the speaker did not in fact have sources to back up the popularity point and the other shady areas, I expect a panel of coaches would vote to DQ the speaker, but it wouldn’t be unanimous and wouldn’t pass; but it’s dangerous ground all the same.  In subject terms, the speaker didn’t directly address the price of oil, and whether all this wonderful social spending that supports Chavez’ popularity can withstand it; or whether social spending declining will remove those props on the poor’s support.  The speech was presented well & clearly.  But without that link in the middle of the question, the speech missed the point.

This article would have helped a lot actually:

Speaker 2

Q. Is it time to lift the travel ban to Cuba?


– IHT 1.28.09  Castro released a letter complimenting Obama -> Lincoln/etc


So it was actually 1.23.09, but close enough.

– Majority of Cubans open for dialog with the USA

This isn’t in the article.  Did I miss another citation?  Possibly.  Probably in fact; I was just getting warmed up.

EDIT:  The article is here:

Yes this works, though I’ll point out that it’s just a blanket assertion on the part of the article’s author.  So I’d question the author’s integrity, but not the speaker’s for using it.  Polling in a repressive dictatorship being impossible, that’s the best that anyone can do; speaker 6 ran up against the exact same problem, in fact.

1st point:  Isolating Cuba has done no good, and prevents change

-LA times 1.3.09    50 years after revolution, Cuba has an opportunity for change.


Date wrong again, but only by a day. Easy mistake  it was 1/2/09.

However, there’s a style problem here, on two levels.  First, the speaker cites that Cuba has an “opportunity for change” as if that’s a citable fact.  How?  By what mechanism can this opportunity present itself  What exactly is this opportunity for change?  I’d want something a little more specific than that, since it’s not really a cite.  However, in the sourcing arena, the article doesn’t really talk about an opportunity for change; the article is purely descriptive, saying that there are hopes for the embargo to end, but at the same time, affection for Fidel and a commitment by Raul to keep the revolution going another 50 years.  Hopes imply people want a change; opportunity implies evidence that change is possible; two different things.  This would not trip her up in a source check, but as a judge I’d question it.

– CSM 1.2.09 Embargo has already done the US no good.  harmed us policy towards Cuba rather than helping


Again, the speaker cites a broad conclusion, not just a statement of fact.  However, here the problems are much deeper than above.  Nowhere does this article talk about the embargo’s effect on the US, or about US policy towards Cuba.  It merely mentions the embargo towards the end; but the article is entirely about Fidel’s sickness and the pallor it casts over Cuba, together with talking a little about how hurricanes and the collapse of the Soviet Union harmed the Cuban economy.

If I were source checking this speech as a tournament official, I’d be thinking of a DQ at this point.

– 12.31.08 Council of Foreign Relations:  exports/imports still active between US and Cuba despite ban


Yes, the article says that.  Nailed it.

2nd point: Lifting embargo bolsters Cuban economy, helps people

– WP 1.13.09 Economic inequality is still major issue w/in Cuba

There were no Washington Post articles on 1.13 about Cuba.  There’s one on 1.11.09 about the 50th anniversary that nowhere talks about economic inequality.  In addition, according to Super Lexis, there hasn’t been a Washington Post article with the words “Cuba” and “inequality” since last July.

A full media search on the fullest version of Lexis available revealed only an Economist article on 1.3.09 that said “Inequalities have risen,” after a list of other problems, which is not the claim:

And…the claim is arguably false.  Unfortunately, the CIA World Factbook doesn’t calculate the Gini coefficient of Cuba.  A Gini coefficient, which is expressed on a scale of 0 to 1, is the measure of income inequality; a 0 means everyone is perfectly equal, while a 1 means 1 person in a society controls all the wealth and everyone else has no wealth at all.

Under the Batista regime 1958, Cuba’s Gini coefficient was a very high .59. Within four years that had plunged to .22 and remained among the lowest in the world until the collapse of the Soviet regime.  That collapse raised the coefficient to a high of .41 in the late 90s, but since then it has fallen to .30, according to the Global Peace Initiative.  The US’s current Gini coefficient, by comparison, is .45; Cuba’s .30 is actually the most equal in the Western Hemisphere, next to Canada’s .32.

EDIT: So basically, this is a gray murky area.  The speaker admitted to me in later email that this citation’s weakness was due to ignorance of these facts, which is totally fair, and points to what I’m saying about the pressures of citation arms wars.  I still don’t like trying to turn a throwaway sentence into an entire conclusion — it’s dangerous, since this conclusion was wrong, and it strikes me as something that is possibly intellectually dishonest, on the “thought” level.  But I also am starting to feel it’s not dishonest on the “citation” level, but is instead a result of the pressure to include a whole lot of sources causing the speaker to scan articles quickly, and not stop and think about the truth of what’s in them.  That, as the concluding post says, is far beyond the speaker.

– Economist 12.20.08 Castro’s lifting of tourism restrictions brought 2.4 million and growth in Havana tourism.

There are no Economist articles from December that talk about tourism in Cuba.  The 2.4 million figure is a long standing one from years past, and is in no way recent:

There has been no article in a major paper, very broadly defined, in the past three months that references the 2.4 million figure.  There’s this article, from Feb 2009, that talks about the issue:

But it was published after the tournament.

Nowhere is there mention of Castro lifting a restriction that allowed this tourism growth.  The claim is not too inaccurate and I’d accept it, but I’m rapidly losing any benefit of the doubt with this speaker; that loss leads me to at least suspect this may have been a deliberate mis-cite to conceal either the old date or the poor reputation of the source.

EDIT:  There was a source, in fact the same IHT article as before that I didn’t find the first time.

I don’t like this source, since it contains a lot of assertions without any tell of where these facts are coming from; it’s actually possible the article drew from those older figures above.   However, that’s the article’s problem, not the speaker’s.  I’d like to see better citations, and that’s a critique of the skill of the speech; the ethics are fine.

3rd point: Increasing American influence decreases opponents’ influence

– Christian Science Monitor 1.8.09   Major problems between US and Cuba; US faces competition from Venezuela.  Venez gives Cuba tons of oil and help in refineries. Venezuela dislikes us.

This article supports the claim that Cuba gets oil from Venezuela, hardly controversial.  The major thrust of the article, however, is that Venezuelan influence is waning on its own with lowering oil prices.  This point is fair enough, though;

– WashTimes 1.8.09 Russia is also a threat to US in Cuba; increasing influence locks out the US.

First, the Washington Times is an extremely disreputable source run by right wing followers of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon from South Korea, who are attempting to unify world Christianity under the new Messiah, who just happens to conveniently be the Reverend Moon.  So I’m not a huge fan of this off the bat.  But the speaker told me it was the Washington Times, and didn’t try to pass it off as the Post or something.  So citation-wise, this is OK.

Second, I can’t find an article that really supports this claim. I can find something on 2.6.09:

That article is an opinion piece, not a news piece.  Secondly, it’s about Russia’s rising influence primarily.  Lastly, its sole mention of Cuba is the single line “Naval forays to America’s antagonists: Russian ship visits to Cuba and Venezuela, to the exclusion of all others.”

EDIT:  Here’s an article

Sheesh. Lexis failed me big time on this one.

Comments: I have to say, I didn’t like this speech very much.  I’ve seen the speaker do much better.  During the speech I noticed that it mostly cited conclusions and broad conditions, not facts.  The speaker’s own thoughts and conclusions weren’t coming through; the speech wove this tapestry of other people’s thoughts in ways I couldn’t follow easily.  The links and impacts were not at all clear.  I would not have rated this speech highly in the round.

Even more so, given the source citation evidence above, I have to say that I would without hesitation disqualify the speaker if I were a tournament director.  It gives a strong impression of flinging up enough material to make the speech seem smart, without demonstrating (the known fact) that the speaker *is* smart.  The speech fails to play to the speaker’s strengths.

EDITS:  The edits (sources provided by the speaker to me in email) cleared up the possible ethics problems with this speech to my complete satisfaction.  I do think some of the sourcing was shallow and hurt the analysis of the speech, however, and that that is a possible red flag; at the very least it seriously hurts the ethos of the speech.  The claims are broad enough that it’s really hard to find the sources that correspond to them.  That’s a problem for the ballot, however, not the tournament director.  Upgrade this one to a “strong pass”.

The Last Harvard: Oratory Final

So I said I’d post about the extemp final, but that’s been taking work and source-checks and the like, so it’s slow going.  Also, I’m sick; I have this cold thing happening, which knocked me into bed all day yesterday.  Today, not much better.  It’s a strange cold; the congestion and coughing are present but not awful; the sore throat was minor and short-lived; however that sick feeling of sleepy, woozy delirium has just as soundly debilitated me.

Instead, check out the NCFL Extemp Topic Areas , which I can honestly say I’m thrilled about.  These are not the topic areas I suggested, but the council definitely took the spirit of what I had to say to heart, if not the letter.  I don’t know if this was done because of, or despite, my intolerable nagging, but at any rate, it’s an excellent step in the right direction and I’m very very happy.

So the extemp final notes require research and checking; the oratory final round notes, however, merely requires ranting and pontificating; and as Menick proves daily , that requires much less brainpower.

I walked into the Oratory final a few minutes after having been asked to judge it, saying “OK, here we go.”  The first thing to note about the oratory final is they put it in a room which was twice the size of the extemp final room, but it contained only about 2/3rds as many people.  I’m unsure if this diminished crowd size because it was competing against interp finals happening over in Sanders Theater, or if  the event itself simply doesn’t draw as much anymore.  It has been about 4 years since I’ve even seen an Oratory final at Harvard, so trends may have passed me by.

This round was also my chance to try writing Speech RFDs for the first time.  I’ve had this idea for exactly a year, after Policy Mike gave it to me, but this was a good venue to try it out, as I haven’t actually judged a speech round in the intervening time.  The idea is that most judges in speech use the ballot for coaching advice, whether or not they’re qualified to offer it.  Instead, an RFD encourages you to think and write as a judge should, and explain why you gave the rank you gave.  So, at the bottom of each ballot, I wrote out my reasoning. “You were 2nd because the 1st place person did this part better, and your blah wasn’t as developed…..”  “You were 6th because everyone else did this thing better….”  etc etc.  I feel this approach is much more direct, maybe even harsh — but helpful in the extreme, as it prioritizes the feedback and tells the kids what mattered most to your ranking.  Debaters get this kind of direct feedback all the time; speechies can handle it.  And, I have to say, writing the RFDs came very easily, and helped clarify for me why I’d ranked the round the way I had; having to write out your reasoning may well improve the experience, and quality, of the judging itself.

As for the round, we had the usual pop-philosophy smorgasbord.  The first thing that always annoys the hell out of me in Oratory is the vapidity of most of the topics; and the second is how the conventions of oratory mean the kids claim that their stated topic problem is wholly universal.  The orator does not claim that a majority of people feel a certain way, or that even a too-large minority engage in a particular harmful behavior.  No, “we all” are part of the problem.  “We” don’t seize every moment, “we” care too much what others think of us.  It’s a gimmick to draw the speaker closer to the audience, but given that the speakers are 17 year old nitwit extroverts and I’m a quiet solitary type who’s nearly twice their age, it usually serves to make many of their statements into lies.

To wit: the first speaker told me I splash too much personal information up on the internet; the second told me that I hold in my emotions too much and don’t express my feelings, the third complained about something I can’t even recall.  The fourth said I obsess too much about leaving a legacy, the fifth claimed that violent video games desensitize us to violence. The sixth speaker managed to avoid the trap for the most part and instead talked about how our society is hesitant to talk maturely about sex, so bravo to her.  By far the worst was the 2nd speaker’s emotion-hiding thesis; at one point she asked rhetorically “when is the last time you talked about emotional issues with your best friend?”  To which I mentally replied “Uh, last Thursday?”  I doubt that was the answer she wanted to inspire.  It killed the speech for me.

So a typical oratory will fling a preponderance of claims around, which are meant to relate to the audience, to inspire us, and hit at our emotions — but without benefit of substance, facts and research.  After very little time, I just stop caring.  I’m not alone, unfortunately; we’ve had a hard time getting kids to compete in oratory on our team, since they don’t want to sit through all the dreck that the event attracts.  It’s a shame, really; the event has infinite potential — write anything you want about anything you want!  The kids are limited by nothing but their own imagination.  And yet, all we get are these boring set pieces about problems that at best fail to look at all beyond the typical upper-class teenager’s life.

Teenagers want to think they’re highly individualistic, but they’re really very conservative and herd-like.  The trends in new progressive LD debate happened because college students inspired them; high schoolers just followed the judges, not wanting to break with the general flow.  Extempers will resist trying out techniques they agree are rational and logical because they’re afraid of what other extempers will say about them.  Usually they’ll say “I don’t think The Judges will go for it” but they actually are thinking about their peers; there is hardly a uniform group of Judges out there who think very strongly about their expectations in extemp to the point that they’d vote down kids for doing logical things that were nonetheless outside the Conventions of the Event.  Most judges don’t know enough, or care enough, about the event.

Therefore, I bet orators are afraid to put too much seriousness and research into a speech, simply because no one else does it, and if there’s anything a teenager doesn’t want to be, it’s the only person doing something.  If you’re the only person doing something, you’re a failure in the adolescent worldview; after all, if a practice was a good idea, others would be doing it too, right?  The herd instinct is why, in extemp, so many kids mimic the bad habits of good competitors.  They don’t think first about the relative value of the habits; they simply see a rock star displaying the habit and getting applause, and aim to mimic it.  So thus, in Oratory, we get round upon round of bland, boring speeches that nobody cares about and nobody wants to watch.  And there I was, ranking the best of them.  Writing an oratory on a serious social issue talking in terms of social forces would be so far beyond the pale, the average 17 year old wouldn’t know where to begin.  Anyone who did so would have easily gained my 1 in any round.  Oratory as an event is in a holding pattern, waiting for the first bold soul to actually make that leap; until then, I’ll continue to avoid it.

As for the round, they all spoke very well, and were very smooth.  Some of them were a little too forced, and others spoke more naturally and sincerely, but in general, I was left to rate them purely on where I felt they landed on the seriousness scale.  I took points off for the rhetorical assumption that “we all do this bad thing” and gave credit for risks, since that correlated exactly with how interested in the speeches I found myself, and how much I believed the speaker.  Strangely enough, even though I didn’t think this standard would be a universal one, my ballot ended up calling the final round results.   My ranks & the results:

6th place:  Girl talking about holding in our emotions.  Delivery was the most forced, and the topic both the most hand wavy and unresearched, and the most not true to my experience; there are a heck of a lot of people out there who won’t shut up about their emotions if you give them a chance to start.

5th place:  The girl from Desert Vista, AZ.  I remember she too was a little forced in her delivery.  I also have suddenly no idea what she talked about.  Zero.  I remember it being one of those interpersonal topics without much wider social impact, but it wasn’t untrue the way 6th place was, so that’s what got her 6th.  But, man, what an indictment; I have no clue what her topic was.

4th place:  Take it Personally.  This speaker talked about internet privacy.  You know, there was real potential here to talk about the widespread nature of a problem I’m well familiar with in my daily work and life, but really it just ended up being an anecdote fest about morons writing stupid things on the internet, like “we all” do.  I generally follow the rule that I’d never post anything on the internet I wouldn’t want my grandmother to read.  This standard does give me a lot of leeway, given that my grandmother is chews nails & spits out tacks, and can swear well enough to make a Marine blush.  However, that’s the rule, and I stick by it.  I gave her 4th because her topic and speech at least stabbed in the direction of something with more lasting impact than 6th or 5th place did.

3rd place: Boy talking about leaving a legacy. This speech actually intrigued me a lot, since what the kid was really talking about was not so much leaving a legacy and stressing out about it, but actually the fear of death.  Talk about your primal emotions.  I gave him 3rd because it was deeper than anything else in the round by far, as such, but I didn’t credit him too much because he didn’t address it directly — in fact, I think he was probably afraid to take that much of a risk.  So I wanted to like this speech a lot, but ended up not liking it as much.  If he had taken the topic on squarely, he’d probably have gotten my 1.

2nd place: Sensitizing.  Boy, from Loyola Blakefield, talking about video games and entertainment violence and its effects on real life violence.  I have to say, as someone who’s read into this topic a fair amount, I simply don’t buy that there’s a psychological link between playing grisly video games or watching violent movies and being more able to perpetrate such acts oneself; the worst thing violent media images does in my opinion is give ideas on how to execute violent acts to already-disturbed individuals.  However, I didn’t mark him 2nd because I disagreed with his thesis; he was 2nd because he had a thesis that went beyond the trials and tribulations of a high schooler, and talked about a social problem as a whole.  He took 2nd to the champion in my book because he didn’t really prove his case; he relied on too many anecdotes, not enough proof and research; but at least he did tackle something Real.

1st place:  Sex talk.  A bold choice for a topic, right off the bat.  She talked about how repression of honest, mature sexual communication — not media sex images, but actual adult-style talk — leads directly to social ills of unwanted pregnancies, bad hangups about sex among adults, and broken families.  Heady stuff indeed; she linked to the problem, talked about something that mattered, and most of all managed to get through an entire speech about sex without any resort to sophomoric humor.  I do think she fell a bit flat in talking about the causes; if she’d been really bold she would have mentioned that the root cause is clearly religion’s influence in the public sphere.  However, she still had the most serious topic — and most serious approach to it.  She was my clear 1.

Now what’s funny about it, is she just barely made it through at every stage of the game; she went a mediocre 3 3 1 3 in prelims, and then  2 4 1 in octos,  3 1 4 in quarters,  6 2 1  in semis.  In finals she was 5 3 1 1 2.  So at every stage people saw this content and the strong stand she took on a controversy, and said “No thanks”.  Hrmph.    I hate people sometimes.

Tomorrow, you’ll have either my completed post on Extemp finals, or my pontification on the PFD final.

The Last Harvard: Monday

Monday at Harvard is a bit of an edgy letdown; when your success conspires against itself.  If I don’t show up on Monday, that means no semifinalists in speech, and no doubles or beyond in debate, which counts as a mildly crappy tournament.  If you do have team members in these rounds, then you have to show up on Monday.  Which is crappy since I’ve by now spend enough damn time cold & tired around campus, and I have to work on Tuesday, and my bed is just oh so comfortable and only a few scant miles away.

They changed up the scheduling this year, moving the interp finals into the capacious Sanders Theater, and in theory making it possible to see most of the finals, with a staggered schedule.  Extemp was finally, after too many freakin years, moved out of the cramped confines of Science Center E to the twice-as-large (and still full!) Science Center D.  In return for this largesse, however, it was first thing in the morning.  I was suspicious about this before, but given that Alex T was wound up tighter and more nervous than ever I’ve seen him — including before last year’s Harvard final, when I think he was just happy to have made it — I can’t say as I’m too upset having gotten it over with early.

After having heard of some questionable uses of evidence out of the quarterfinals, I decided to take extensive notes as to the sources used in the finals, and the claims derived from those sources.  This issue has been a pet one of mine for some time now, and Jonathan C shares it; I’ve seen a lot of extempers pull some bad stunts, and never get called on it.  Furthermore, a number of coaches don’t seem to believe it’s a problem, either because they think it’s not being done (which is naive but not immoral), or because they think it’s not a big deal when it is done, which is anti-educative and appalling.

But rules are rules and I aim to raise the profile, so I took notes and am going to splash the results for the world, or the two people who read this blog, to see.

After the Extemp final, I got roped into judging the Oratory final by Steve M.  Shows what happens when you hang around the ballot table too much.  Apparently they needed me and one other judge to have five in the final; a final of that caliber really ought to have five judges, so I consented.  But again I wonder where the Harvard hires are, where the pre-planning is — why weren’t there 10 judges there of whom 5 clean ones could be selected?  However, judging the round gave me the opportunity to write Speech RFD Ballots for the first time, and I’ll post about that and the round itself later, as well.

Finally at this point I was able to escape the Science Center and buy myself a new phone to replace the RAZR which had got locked into the Suicide-a-Minute cycle the afternoon before.  The Verizon folks in Harvard Square tried valiantly to pull the contacts off the old one before it’s minute of life elapsed, but to no avail.  So now I was flying blind; people could call me and I’d have no idea who, and I had no way of calling my kids.  Woot.  (If you’ve tried to call me since, I did have a backup listing on my computer as of six months ago.  I’ve gotten to people with last names beginning with R.  If you’re reading this and suspect I put your number in my phone more recently than six months ago, please send me a text message with your name).

Then I grabbed lunch and during that Tim A called me and reminded me I’d skirted my judging obligation in doubles to see the extemp final, and could I make up for it by judging the final.  I of course agreed; the PF final will take up yet another blog post on its own.  I found myself as impromptu chair, suddenly in the spotlight after the round as I counted the ballots, handed trophies to my right and then larger ones to my left, clapped, and then dashed out to the speech final awards ceremony, just in time to see the beginning.

So busy day, but not a hugely tiring one, really.  Apart from going to the square once, I didn’t have to walk very far, and then everything ends around 5:00 PM or so and unlike the poor shlubs who get on buses and ride home to Jersey or Maryland, I  can skip home in about fifteen minutes.  That means I tend to linger a little, being in no rush; and that got me invited to see Jenny C and the U School kids the first time all weekend.  Ironically instead of talking to Jenny much I ended up mostly talking to their debaters and extempers, largely in an attempt to sway two of their recalcitrant speakers to joining us for the fun in EXL this summer.  Then, a birthday cake for an LDer, a fond farewell, a quick ride home, and some sleep.

Tomorrow: the Extemp final.

The Last Harvard: Sunday

Sunday at the Harvard tournament is probably the best day of the weekend.  Most of my initial social obligations are met, so I feel no trouble finding a quiet corner of campus and hiding.  After all, being an alum and former staffer has its privileges; knowing the non-tournament areas of campus well is an unqualified benefit.

The tournament day, in speech at least, also has that carnival atmosphere of a large tournament where students are breaking — or not breaking — to the next level nearly every ten minutes.  The typical screaming and carrying on accompanies each break posting.  In the past few years, the tournament began posting each break on their website, which has had the twin effect of making the actual posting less of an exciting hullabaloo, but also made life much more convenient; I can sit in my lounge with my still-working wireless connection, and know what’s going on all across campus with my students; I even know where they are.

So I spent the morning in MD, touched based with extempers and debaters, and then went for a lovely late lunch with Joe V at La Casa de Pedro, a Venezuelan place that is close enough to still be in reach of a suddenly sick kid, but far enough that no other forensics people were there, an important consideration since lunch with Joe V means a healthy round of character assassination.  Don’t worry, it was mostly about Menick.

Then we returned and I wandered to the Science Center, where my phone promptly died.  Now, given that our protocol was “call or text me when you arrive or leave” — despite the extempers believing this did not apply to them — this was decidedly unfortunate.   I tried to get the damn thing to work and instead stole some time on Mike V’s phone to establish whereabouts and whatnot with the kids.

Chrissy made it to DI Octos, the 2nd break round, thus making the trip worthwhile for her.  The extempers got a little massacred; three of them didn’t clear prelims at all, which was more than a little surprising, but it’s a randomly judged tournament so you can’t expect much out of it.  One PF team made the first break on a 4-2 record, while the other two missed clearing on 3-3s.  And the last extemper made finals again, which is a great thing for him; last year he took 5th.

That also meant I had to wake up on Monday since the extemp final was scheduled to launch at 9:00 AM, which meant 8:30 draw, which meant at least an 8:00 AM arrival.  I set my alarm grudgingly for 7:00 AM, but seeing as I did get home by 9:00 and cooked my own dinner, I can’t really say as it was terrible day.

Except for the dead phone, and not even I can blame Harvard for that.

However, Monday awaits us.