A world divided

So I mostly live in the world of the Massachusetts Forensic League, which governs most of the local tournaments in Massachusetts.  It’s an inverse of what they do over in New York, where CFLs run the local show and they get together once a year for the State League to step in; here we do CFLs once a year to qualify students to Nationals, and then the State League runs everything else.  The advantage is that we can set our own rules and our own guidelines, create our own events — a mixed blessing, given some of our events — and guide our own path.

However, the MFL is strangely split.  The league, by member numbers, is heavily weighted towards speech events, in particular interp events.  Debate happens at the fringes, when it happens at all.  Most of the MFL debate centric programs therefore are not truly part of the MFL for their local circuit, but instead are part of the wider — and therefore more expensive — Northeast debating circuit.

The Northeast circuit does a lot of things right.  Most of the major tournaments offer student housing to defray the cost of having to go hundreds of miles each weekend, which boils down the travel costs to gasoline and a hotel room for the adults in many cases. It’s a good community where folks generally speaking trust each other, and it features a stable administrative crew that spontaneously grew up around the fact that most of the tab rooms are run by the same collection of usual suspects week in and week out.

As I see it, there are two major splits between the MFL and the Northeast debating world.  The first is cost.  The standard entry fee for an MFL tournament is $5.  The standard entry fee for a Northeast debate tournament is somewhere north of $40.  In other worlds, a student can go an entire season of competing in the MFL on a single weekend’s pay in the Northeast.  That price differential serves to sever the MFL schools from the Northeast schools; the debate programs which run tournaments take in more money than MFL programs that do, and so they have money to spend on others’ fees.  MFL programs that only charge $5 simply don’t have that sort of budget.  Our students, for instance, pay their own fees.

Personally I fall with the MFL on this issue; the $5 fee is far superior in making the activity accessible, both to students who cannot afford $50/week, and to students and programs who are new to the activity.  It’s far easier to tell people to blow $25 and a Saturday on trying something out with 5 of their students, than it is to get them to pony up $200+ for the same honor.

However, there is also stuff that goes the other way.  We’ve had a remarkable amount of turnover among the MA debate coaches in the past five years, while the speech coaching has been more stable.  However, back in The Day, the debaters were somewhat more hostile towards the speech coaches, claiming that they were being abandoned and ignored — but at the same time, when speech coaches attended debate tournaments, ignoring and abandoning them.   At this point, the instinctive reaction of a lot of MFL speech coaches is to regard debaters as snooty hooligans who are just there to be nasty to people unlike them.

However, we have some of the nicest debate coaches in the country in Massachusetts.  JP is blending in with the speech side, for which I thank my lucky stars, since it means I’m not the only hybrid.  I’ve really enjoyed getting to know Sara S this year, and Jim M has always been a terrific guy.  Tim A and I ran Yale for years and though he’s less active now, he’s always good to have around.  And we have some newer coaches coming up (Anne B, Tara T, etc) who seem to really Get It.  Further, speech coaches might look at their own tournaments and programs, where there’s vast unmet demand for debate events.  We started offering Public Forum at formerly speech-only tournaments, for the standard $5, and in only its second year there are more students competing in PF at your average MFL tournament than any other event.  The majority of inquiries I get about potential new programs ask about debate, not  speech; and while some of those programs eventually convert to speech programs, it’s mostly out of the difficult logistics around debate.  The MFL needs strongly to offer more debate opportunities that are easy to get to; it’s such a simple win.

But some historical bad blood, together with unfamiliarity with the events, is causing MFL speech coaches to resist it.  A tournament that has 50 prose entries is viewed as a good thing, while 42 PF teams is viewed a huge problem.  Where there are space and room issues, tournament directors cap debate entries first, rather than instituting an overall cap.  Space is an issue, since the MFL is an awkward stage where we’re a bit too big for most schools, but also a bit too small to have two tournaments going at once.  But it’s not that much of an issue.  Ways could be found, and the current approach of just chopping debate off at the knees is not healthy for students or the League.

Ultimately, it comes down to lack of connections.  It’s easy to demonize someone you don’t know and interact with.  Debaters are teenage high school students seeking to learn much the same skills as interp kids or address kids: the art of being believed.  They’re doing it in a difficult arena — speech kids don’t have to face the possibility that everything they say will be immediately and forcefully contradicted.  I’ve tried to meld the two communities together a bit, but there’s more to be done.  I’d love to see 8-9 tournaments locally, at $5 a pop, offering both LD and PFD.  Policy may be a tougher nut to crack, but that alone would be a start.   And then perhaps debate would be seen in the MFL as an academic activity along the same lines as theirs, not just an imposition of grubby little space aliens taking away rooms from f’n Group Discussion.