The Last Harvard: PF Final

So Monday continues.  After the Oratory final, I headed into Harvard Square to buy myself a new phone, since the old razr was clearly dead now, rendered brainless by continually confused internal software.  It being around 3 years old, I was due for a relatively cheap phone anyway, in return for selling two more years of marriage to Verizon.

So I lost my phonebook meaning I couldn’t call anyone; but they could call me.  Tim A did, reminding me that I had foolishly offered to fulfill my school’s out round judging obligation with a round on Monday; sheesh, judges who do what they’re supposed to.  Seems that between dealing with the speech side of things, and then acquiring a new phone, I’d promoted myself all the way up to judging finals.

So finals I judged, together with PJ & JP, and two other folks I didn’t know.  I was happy about it since it would give me a chance to see the current State of the Art of Public Forum.

What I got wasn’t really debate, in a way.  The topic was tough: Resolved: That, on balance, the rise of Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC) has had a positive impact on the United States.  Those four countries have about one thing in common: they’re big. Connected to that, they each have the resources and potential to become a local hegemon in their respective regions.  But no one debated that.

Mostly what was debated, and what I saw in that final, was a complicated calculation of benefit versus harm in economic and foreign policy spheres.  Since the resolution was phrased in the past tense, there was little speculation or risk analysis involved; the teams could only offer stacks of numbers that pointed to their side of the resolution.  The topic offered little unifying principle for weighing across the various domains of national interest, be it economic or military or foreign diplomacy; and it’s even more difficult to demonstrate societal harms and benefits on the international scale.  Then, once you’ve done that, try establishing that those harm/benefits are the BRIC nations’ fault, and showing that the rise of those nations, not their mere existence, is what caused those harms.

Cha, right.

So a debate resolution that’s nearly impossible to do in a doctoral dissertation was even harder to address in the terms of a 35 minute debate round.  Public forum is short and sweet, so tossing them a topic that’s so fiendishly complicated is just begging for unsatisfying argumentation.  In this topic, too, the complexity was not because the topic itself was morally complicated, but because it was just data-sifting; the moral values aren’t addressed at all in this game of my-study-is-better-than-yours.  Even more frustratingly, 9 of those precious 35 minutes are wasted in crossfires.  Crossfires are short periods of mutual cross-examination when the competitors attempt, and usually fail, to make each other look stupid without appearing to do so.  As such, I still haven’t learned anything about how to judge or decide a debate round as the result of a crossfire.  I’ve begun putting down my pen and working on my ballots during them; half attention is usually sufficient to glean anything significant.  Some kids start trying to read cards and throw evidence into them, which despite being against the spirit of the thing, is probably more productive than the intended use.

The debaters didn’t make it any easier.  Both teams approached the round by simply flinging out a mess of varied evidence about the four BRIC nations in various sectors of policy; nuclear disarmament, trade balances, and arming Iraqi insurgents and Hamas (and I’m pretty sure the debater who ran Hamas was conflating them with Hezbollah.)  Neither team offered a weighing standard or proposed a mechanism for assembling all this variegated data into a decision.  That shortfall made the round fail at a critical part of debate.  The only thing that keeps a judge from having to intervene at some level is providing a standard of some sort — a burden, the v/c framework in LD, any sort of mechanism — on how to weigh thousands of lives lost on the negative, against hundreds of billions of dollars gained on the affirmative.  That’s not necessarily an automatic negative win, given that poverty surely has killed far more people globally than bullets or even global warming (so far) have.  Without resolving that key tension — and the debaters didn’t talk about it at all — the round itself cannot truly be resolved, without intervention.   With a standard to weigh against, and even an argument about that standard, judging becomes clear.  Without a standard, it’s an ungodly mess.

And an ungodly mess it was.  My ballot was cast without confidence on the upper end of a 3-2 decision.  Ultimately I weighed the lives the negative was killing off in Iraq and by killer smog as more valuable than the money being gained on the side of the affirmative, since most of those billions have been going to buy rich people’s yachts and not poor people’s medical care and food, and in the absence of aff showing me that poverty kills.  But that’s my take admittedly; however, the debaters didn’t give me any other option besides my take.   So that’s what they’re stuck with on my RFD, until they give me anything else.

The other flaw was the arguments were ultimately uncreative.  There wasn’t much room for creativity, between the topic and the limited format of the round.  We’ve managed a few creative arguments on past topics, but given that the ground to cover in BRIC nations is so enormous, there wasn’t much room for interesting argumentation.  It was just a vast, boring study-war.  Teams were just flinging evidence at each other, and while that’s certainly a skill useful to have, it’s deeply unsatisyfing to me, especially because the round was encouraging them to take all their evidence at face value, and really, that’s a terrible precedent.  But they didn’t have time or ability to question the evidence, to explain it, to understand it on a fundamental level.  So I was left taking on faith that Expert 1 said Russia was evil, while Expert 2 said that without Brazil we’d all be dead, when I know full well that most of these Experts have agendas and motives for saying what they do far beyond facts & reality.

The constant thread I’ve been trying to teach in forensics is encouraging students to think for themselves; that their own thoughts are as valuable as those of the journalists, analysts and experts, and has an equal duty to stand up to intense scrutiny.  After all, one of the defining qualities of our age is that knowledge needed to have deep insights is available and accessible to everyone.  One of America’s consistent social ills is that far too few take an interest in public affairs.  Governing elites always take interest in how the world works, but it serves them for no one else to; their viewpoint dominates when no one else is truly thinking.  That general ignorance may give those elites short term profit, but it also gives us thought-bubbles and echo chambers, and can lead to the lemming-effect disasters such as our economic disaster.  If I can send an army of kids into adulthood having learned how to think and reason from basic data, and to be skeptical of experts, I’ll have done a mitzvah for the world.

Public Forum is alive and well in the MFL circuit, flourishing with divisions of 30-45 teams at any given tournament from 20 different schools.  There are probably upwards of 80 active PF teams in the state.  I have a feeling that much of this success is that we’ve finally introduce a consistent debate event at speech tournaments; there was a lot of unmet demand for debate among speech teams, and the logistics of the MFL gave those kids only the unsatisfying, not-quite-right-for-them outlets of Extemp, Group and Congress.  It’s a shame because the more I exist in PF, the more I wish I was still coaching LD.  For a while I gave PF a pass since it was still trying to find itself, but at this point the brevity is so unsatisfying, and the standards of the event aren’t doing much yet to make up for it.  PF was created in large part to address ills in LD, and was adopted first and strongest by the coaches who felt that LD had lost its way without possible redemption.  I’d argue their leaving made LD weaker, but the manner of the leaving also harmed PF.  The anti-LD kneejerk is still keeping PF from becoming it’s own thing, and if it’s throwing out good aspects of LD such as voting standards in the process, then it’s just reactionary nonsense.  Popular reactionary nonsense, but not much different.

There’s hope for it since.  Better topics would be a start; topics should really have a stronger moral component with more judgment calls other than quantitative analysis.  The topics have trended in a Policy direction but policy permits much more creativity due to the length of the round and concomitant breadth and vagueness of its topics.  No, in a short limited round, a short sharp question-your-values-in-the-public-sphere style topic is best. But up until April’s PF topic, which my students will not debate, we’ve gotten no good ones.   Some acceptable, but none good.  (Change: April has now been published, and of course, it’s the best topic all year.  Sigh).

But radical reform would also be nice.  Get rid of grand crossfire, at least; it’s just stupid.  Reclaim the time into more substantial rebuttals.   I’d also actually get rid of the coinflip nonsense; it makes the ballot confusing, and leads to teams sailing through tournaments never debating one side of the resolution.  Encourage cross examinations, not crossfire, to restore some civility, and sense of intellectual achievement and openness, to the debates.

And for crying out loud, call it aff and neg.

But I doubt it’ll happen.