The Last Harvard: Saturday

The Saturday of Harvard is spent mostly standing, or walking.   The far flung nature, and size, of the tournament mean that it takes forever to get anything done, even if you don’t have anything to do.   For me, heading over to Congress tab to help Jason W with his laptops’ network connections took 2 hours.   I can’t explain why, but it always does.   Lunch takes forever to acquire and eat.   Going to check in with the debaters takes forever.   Finding the DI student apparently too so forever that I never managed to pull it off on Saturday.   I even ended up walking a half mile between dinner, dessert, and my car that night.

Standing up, means the ballot line.   The ballot line at Harvard is always quite daunting.   It’s long and horrid.   This year, being in the Science Center and not the horribly overcrowded CR&LS cafeteria, made the line seem less daunting, but there is something lacking in the Harvard ballot table.   Namely, people.   Columbia runs a ballot table with two people, Yale with three, Penn with one.   Harvard, which is approximately 3 times the size of Yale, runs with two.   The line, therefore, wraps around the building.

Furthermore, the same person runs the ballot table each year, which is admirable on her part; but she’s an alum of the team, which means she’s never seen another ballot table run at any other tournament.   We’ve discovered through the years in forming our traveling Northeast tab room that it works far better to have a floating set of people who run multiple tournaments a year in various mutual combinations; lessons learned are learned across the circuit; innovations that work become institutions.   If instead your tournament is outside that community of ideas, and you have your own people doing a critical job only once a year, sooner or later, your tournament ossifies.   Expectations probably tolerated such a slow ballot table 15 years ago, but they no longer do.

Last year, one of our judges was fined for missing around even though she came and stood in line far before the proclaimed deadline to do so.   Sarah D, the coordinator for the NCFL National tournament, was told she didn’t understand how to run a tournament of that size and scale when she had legitimate questions.   The ballot person has, therefore, a reputation for being short & rude; I can’t say as I blame her a lot, since she’s doing an impossible job, but I do blame the tournament, since the job shouldn’t be impossible.   They should have more staff; drawn from people more clued into to forensics world, especially people more knowledgeable about the judges.

They should also have a cattle call of real hired judges with actual forensics experience, not just random Parli kids, hanging out nearby.   These could, incidentally, be used to pre-pair the final round judge pools, so you don’t have Steve M. running around finding volunteers at the last moment like this year.   They never, as far as I’ve seen, have done so.   The debate tables are worse; a friend of mine who won the friggin’ tournament a few years ago was told she wasn’t qualified to judge early outrounds in her event.   That’s a good way to burn bridges.

That persistent lack of attention to detail, and connection with the clueful, points to another, more major criticism of the Harvard tournament.   Their links with the active high school community are minimal at best, and mostly exist because someone from the high school community approached them, not the other way around.   They are very solicitous; I emailed Sherri H. last year begging and pleading for the death of the pop culture round in Extemp and it was done.   (I did ask to write the extemp questions, which this year were sub par but not totally bad, but that was ignored…more on that tomorrow) But in general Harvard’s tournament is a separate beast and a separate institution; they could encourage many more links with the high school world and dampen a lot of criticism, but they don’t.

I’ve learned over the years it’s not enough to call for volunteers and call for feedback, however, and then say “pfeh!” if no one steps forward.   People are more likely to be involved if they’re approached specifically; sometimes folks assume you don’t mean them when you call for input or help; but it’s a honor to be asked specifically.   There are natural links with the high school community that Harvard has never pursued; they’ve never reached out to the Massachusetts Forensic League for input, advice, or even just acknowledgment; partly as a result, only about 1/4 of the active MFL programs even bother attending the largest tournament in our state.   The high school community isn’t going to do that outreach work ourselves, even if we’re asked for input generally.   After all, the Harvard tournament is fundamentally an interloper in our community.   It’s not the community’s job to accommodate to this giant fundraiser for a debate team in a different age bracket and different league altogether.

That lack of outreach on their part actually has a serious impact on the other four Ivy tournaments.   Coaches are made trigger happy to complain about high fees and bad practices at colleges, even as I’ve eliminated most of those bad practices and kept fees in line for nearly a decade now at Yale and Columbia.   UPenn is a newer project, and Princeton newer still, but both of them put together marvelously honest tournaments this past year, hiring judges and staffing their tournaments with a healthy mix of local people and forensics coaches.   The Ivy Circuit, as I’ve started calling it in my head, is really doing good things, and all four sets of hosts understand that this fundamentally about providing a good experience for high school kids, and that the long term benefit of that far outweighs short term profiteering.

However, coaches don’t give us much benefit of the doubt, and I feel that we’re often catching flak for Harvard; if Harvard weren’t there lumped in with the other four, setting the baseline, then people would be far less likely to whip out the profiteering complaint when there was actually a good rationale behind the targets of their discontent.   Yale hired judge fees are particularly high, but the tournament administration is so manpower-intensive that few YDA members can be spared to judge the tournament, making judge hires more expensive since they must be brought in from the outside.   We could do as Harvard does, and hire forensics-know-nothings off the local campus, but I have a higher standard than that, so we don’t.   I explain this in the invite, and yet, people complain to me every year about the cost.   Columbia has to pay a fortune for rooms, and their prices are lower still.

In other words, The four Ivy circuit tournaments are not perfect, but they’re trying, and I do think each one of them has far outstripped what Harvard achieves, given their individual resources.   When people nationally say they dislike college tournaments, they’re usually talking about Harvard or Emory; I dislike being painted with the same brush.

And even more so, knowing what things cost and how to run a college tournament, I go back to my $770 that I paid myself, and wonder where the rest goes.   If I were running Yale on a quarter million, I’d offer $75 honoraria to final round judges, and have people apply for them, selecting only the best.   I’d sure as hell not have Harvard Parli kids judging TOC bid rounds in LD over former tournament champions.   That kind of money could pay for a lot of things, and solve a lot of problems that I view as basic, child’s play.   If I can pre-panel 5 judge panels for Yale finals on Friday before the tournament even begins, then Harvard has no excuse for leaving blank slots on their Sunday night postings.

So, thus far, $770 is looking like it’s not worth the money.   If I’m paying that much, I’m not expecting perfection, as I’ve said before.   But I am expecting a serious effort to be the best, and thus far I’ve seen no serious effort to improve any of these factors, after a decade of attending the tournament.   Harumph.

Tomorrow, Sunday’s report.