The Last Harvard: Extemp Recap

First off; the first time around I posted these, I posted the versions with the full names listed; that wasn’t what I’d planned, since in the age of Google, that can leave a permanent stain on what should be a temporary decision.  And as I make clear below, I don’t particularly blame even students even if they pulled the trigger on unethical decisions — and have no evidence of their intent either way.  So I am really sorry about that; but I’ve removed the same with the actual ready for primetime versions.

So what does it mean that by the letter of the law, every student in the Harvard final failed, and by the spirit of the law, it’s possible that at least two did so?

What it does not mean is that these speakers, the ones who flubbed dates or even the ones who may have gone further than that, are horrible, terrible people who will never redeem themselves in the eyes of humanity, or even myself.  I believe it reflects a poor ethical choice if true, but doesn’t really reflect on the individual ethics of the students that that much.  The incentives are stacked against them, after all.  It does reflect poorly on the state of the event, and the lack of safeguards.  After all, when a few people fail a test, the fault is with the taker; when everyone fails a test, the fault is with the test.

As Jonathan put it, there are three areas of quality in an extemp speech which a student can control: the quality of their analysis, the quality of their speaking and presentation, and the quality of their evidence.  The judge, however, can only really account for the first two in the immediacy of judging the round; judges have no immediate way of telling how well sources are used, short of pulling the sources after the speech; and doing that means you’ve possibly flubbed up the smooth running of the tournament and delayed your own time to go home, so there’s a strong social pressure on judges not to check sources.  Therefore, given the limited time the speakers have to concentrate on their speech, there is a very powerful incentive to work on analytic clarity and breadth, and speaking polish, to the exclusion of accuracy and care in sourcing.

However, there has been a parallel effect in extemp, which is the advent of the 12 source speech.  A many-sourced speech sounds impressive to judges, and some judges even go so far as to count sources in a speech, whether or not they’re used effectively.  The extemp community engaged in a sourcing arms war for a while, as a result.  We’ve settled down to a generic standard that a speech should have 1-2 sources in the introduction, and 2-3 sources in each point of analysis, bringing us to a grand total of 7-11 for a Varsity level speech.  That’s what judges expect, and so that’s what the students serve up.

That means two things.  First, and most obvious; you try memorizing 11 sources, 4 of which may be from the same publication on different dates, and maybe 7-8 of which are from newspapers that are really virtually indistinguishable in your mind.  After all, does anyone really recognize whether a given news article was in the New York Times or the Washington Post on a given day? Now do it in 30 minutes, that same 30 minutes during which you have to prepare the speech in the first place, read those citations, integrate them into a coherent anaytic flow, practice it over a few times for delivery, and then calm your shaking nerves because you’re about to deliver it publicly in front of 400 people.  And do all those things in the sure knowledge that, in the vast majority of cases, no one is ever going to know whether you fudge a little bit here on analytics, or screw up a date there.

Now go further, and say you drew a question where you have maybe 10-15 total files in your tub on the topic area.  Suppose further that the exact question was specific enough that most of your sources don’t really apply to it.  You have two choices at this point; you can either just shoot yourself in the foot to begin with and only use 3-4 of the sources, and then stand out from everyone else.  Or, you can find ways to jimmy in your other sources, even though they don’t really relate.   Take the former action and you lose guaranteed; take the latter action and you only lose (assuming you speak well enough) if someone checks up on you, and that happens so rarely as to be inconsequential.

The calculus is clear.  In the absence of consistent checking, speakers will both make mistakes and put themselves into difficult situations.  This problem is a problem with the event itself, not those students.  We do not give students training on avoiding alcohol abuse by telling them they’ll fail at a competitive activity unless they’re drunk, and then toss them into a bar that doesn’t check ID.   That’s a good way to get a lot of drunk kids, not a good way to build lessons.

So what’s the solution?  First is being aware of the problem and the reality of it.  Extemp is under-coached; there aren’t a lot of coaches out there who identify as extemp coaches.  Many programs just have advisors whose interests are in other areas; folks who are perfectly good at getting students to their respective tournaments chaperoned and safely, but who do not really think much about this particular event and pay much attention to it.  A high proportion of extempers are therefore more or less on their own, and coaches and tournament directors don’t really understand the forces at play here.  So awareness is certainly essential.

However, we should take that awareness and act on it, as a community.  We should encourage more, ever stricter checking, coupled with a sharply reduced expectation as to the number and use of sources.  Give to get; require each source be letter perfect, but stop expecting more than say 5 sources in a speech to reach finals.  When we source checked Yale one year, the prep staff mistakenly told the students ahead of the semifinal round that a source check would occur.  The average number of citations per speech plummeted from 9 in the quarterfinal to 4-5 in the semifinal; the quality of the speeches did not suffer, and everyone got each source perfectly correct.  It’s not a temptation to use your 4 good sources, and bend & fudge the rest, when you know everyone else is going to only use that many, and you know that the consequences are likely to be unpleasant.

It would also help if people didn’t try so hard to write questions to trip up extempers.  If your tournament asks questions that involve the food industry or pop culture or the Indonesian minister of the interior — in other words, too bizarre, too lightweight, and too specific, in that order — you’re asking the students to commit sins.  Nobody has 8 sources about the Indonesian cabinet, and unless you want to make the event about filing and not thinking and speaking, nobody should.  High expectations on source count, coupled with such strange questions, are begging for source falsifications.  Do tournament directors really believe that talking about mainstream, headlining challenges in the US economy, the wars, peace in Israel and Palestine, and European politics are so easy that we have to start asking about ever more obscure issues?  Should people who don’t generally pay that much attention to extemp in the first place feel comfortable making that call?

So the solution is clear.  Integrity of sourcing should be paramount and expected more rigorously, as that will directly lower expectations as to the number of sources used.  Ballots should be adjusted to emphasize the use of those sources instead of the quantity thereof, and perhaps even say that a plethora of sources is not to be taken as a sign of a good speaker.  Topics should be written within a legitimate domain of inquiry; don’t go too far afield from the headlines and the major stories, to give students a chance to have enough in the files to speak about them without having to worry about wedging in another citation.

The impact of that course of action would be to make cites easier on the students, and encourage them to think more on their own, which would make the event both less daunting and difficult for them, and hopefully more satisfying.  The academic integrity of sourcing and citation would be re-emphasized at the same time.  And I think the quality of speeches would rise; as students were putting more of their thoughts into it, and spending less time finding their 10 sources in prep, the quality of their speaking skills and their thoughts would benefit as a result.  Extemp is an event that a lot of people don’t want to watch and judge; if the speeches were better, no one would be harmed by it.

I think it’s a good deal for everyone around, eh?  Now I hope people who are essentially outsiders looking in care enough to take action.