Menick strikes again

I disagree with everything Menick says in his last post.  Since his last post was agreeing with what I say, we have a neat Godelian moment there, eh?

 But at any rate, Jim’s right, the community really doesn’t talk a whole lot for a bunch of talkers.  I’ve always wondered why that is.  Perhaps because it’s a competive activity, and some folks prefer to hold their cards close to their chest.  Perhaps because some of the problems we face aren’t endemic, but derive from individuals, and no one likes to call out individuals in public.   Perhaps because as educational funding has been whittled away and never seems to bounce back, our community has been cut down to the people who only do it because we love it, and who squeeze it into odd moments of our lives, like Jim and I do.  If people like Jim and I could dedicate the normal 40+ hours a week to this game, we’d probably have more leisure to do it right.  As it is, we do well simply to do it.  People gotta eat.

I’ve long faulted the NFL and the NCFL a bit for not fostering more intercommunication between coaches.   Morseso the NFL, since the NCFL national tournament is not exactly chock full of spare time, while the NFL proceeds at an expensive leisurely pace.  The NFL tournament is also the annual convention of the coaches, and it’d be nice if we could, you know, do something with that.

There are plenty of issues in forensics, but for the most part we’re a leaderless, voiceless community.  We each do our thing in our local community, but there’s little wider effort.  I wonder if that’s a chicken and egg problem; if we had leadership, we’d have more resources?  It’s hard to say; it’s not like education as a whole lacks for voice and leadership, and we’re sinking as part of that ship, albeit slowly.  

The internet provides a good platform for these discussions and I hope we can spark more of them.  It’d be even more good if others would contribute; it’d be nice to point to someone as the “sane” coach writer, to contrast with myself and Menick.  Maybe coaches are also not writers, or are technophobes, problems Jim and I do not share.   But as he points out, if the community doesn’t introspect at all, then it’s simply begun to die out.h

Tik (pronounced teek) is dead meat

There, I’ve threatened Menick’s cat, as per custom and tradition.  Of course, Menick may also not realize that I’m of French descent, and therefore will eat just about anything.  Here, kitty kitty.  Come sleep in the nice, warm oven!

Menick dismisses the problem of cheating as an implementation issue, but I do believe it goes a bit further than he thinks.  Understand that cheating is already rampant in Extemp.  To wit, there is no community expectation that sources be properly and accurately memorized.  If a student cites the NY Times and they meant the Boston Globe, no one really cares.  However, by the rules, this act is cheating.  Once Lexis came along and made information ubiquitous, a number-of-sources arms war began.  Students then discovered they can too many sources to memorize, and no one cares that they’re breaking the rules.  Those sources make the speakers sound more impressive, authoritative and persuasive, and they win trophies.  So now everyone does it.  Beware unintended consequences.

One of the troubles Extemp faces, as distinct from debate, is that the community is much smaller and not entirely in charge of itself.  Extemp has more in common in its soul with debate, especially policy, but structurally it finds itself lumped in with speech.  Each debate event has an active, engaged group of coaches who think in terms of a unified, and distinct, community.  At tournaments, debate events often finds themselves run as distinct divisions with their own administrations.  Not so, extemp.  As a consequence, we’re often starved of attention and resources; most tournaments are content to put one or two people in prep to call out the names and codes, and that’s it.  Not much enforcement happens, as a result.  I dedicate resources at my tournaments to running source checks, but few others do.  And I doubt they would, given even the imperative on checking on computer files.

So in theory you could have better enforcement of prep rooms to counterbalance computer usage; in practice nothing will be done.  It is impractical to rearrange prep rooms such that the screens are visible to the staff, as Menick suggests; what are we going to do, unbolt the chairs from our lecture halls?  But simple additional vigilance wouldn’t be enough, at any rate: tubs are single-purpose, and computers multi-purpose.  That muddies the water inherently.  If I find pre-written material in a tub, the matter is clear cut and simple: the student is disqualified.  If I find material that looks an awful lot like an extemp speech on a hard drive, there’s still a cloud of doubt that it’s not a paper for a current-events class or a practice speech from last week that wasn’t consulted.  Throw in a combative, defensive coach, and you’ll have a very gray area that few tournament directors will feel they can act in.  A teaching moment would be lost, but more to the point, the students will move into that grey area just as they’ve abandoned proper sourcing.

I’d also point out, speaking of physical resources, that few extemp prep rooms can supply power to 60-100 laptops, never mind the several hundred at Nationals.  The amperage adds up quickly.   Local tournaments would have no trouble providing enough power, but then what do the students do when they arrive at large tournaments?  We’d blow circuits in LC if we tried to replace every tub at Yale with a laptop.  The Bulldog Police would not be pleased.

So then Menick says:

And I don’t buy that even if extempers were to consult less than ethical coaches, it would help all that much. I message you that my topic is G-20’s impact on the world economy, say. (As if, as I’ve mentioned above, I weren’t already prepared for that.)  What is the God of All Extemp Coaches going to message me back? I mean, yes, I’m being dense here. I just don’t get it. And if it’s truly an issue, the problem is not that we’re being modern in the extemp prep room, but that we’ve got some real stinkers who don’t belong in the educational system. Some method other than banning computers would seem to be necessary to toss them out.

OK.  First, now that I’ve thought about it more.  While coachean interference remains a danger of computer and internet usage, it probably can be handled.  It isn’t a primary reason for my objection to computers.  However, for the record anyway, I can explain what I would do, if I shed ethics aside and could simply prep my students in the prep room.

I would produce far better basic outlines for speeches than they could, and in seconds where they take minutes.  Limited prep makes time invaluable, and the difference between me being about to show them the right way to answer or approach a question in 30 seconds when they’d take 5 minutes is significant.  I would draw on my much longer experience — I’ve been coaching this event since these children were born — on pointing them in the best possible paths. Extemp requires a wide breadth of knowledge, and I have a huge head start on these kids; an extemper can go a long way simply by not being actively wrong, sometimes.  One of my students (cue bragging) more or less won the entire season in Extemp last year, including nationals.  She finished first in twice as many tournaments as she didn’t, and had a truly remarkable run.  She could, admittedly, probably out-talk me by a good margin, but if I were to compete with her directly on analysis and breadth of information, I’d absolutely crush her.  I had another student in 2004 (Hi, JJB!) who had a similarly dominant year; he was much weaker presentation-wise, but analytically quite a bit stronger.  And I could have crushed him too.  (Now that he’s through college, if only a third-rate safety school, and has done more living, I doubt I could anymore.)  So even if I only saw my students’ questions and had but 30 seconds to talk to them, there’s no doubt in my mind that 1) they’d win a lot more trophies and 2) they’d miss out on learning one of the essential skills of extemp.

I’ll take a moment to point something out that I’m sure Admiral Menick, like most non-extemp coaches, probably doesn’t know.  Good extempers usually hate prepping on the internet.  For good reason, too; when my kids don’t have their tubs around and prep right off a computer, they tend to speak far below their ability.  Internet research takes longer, and doesn’t lead to better sourcing; they’re looking from the same well of information, but they’re having to sort it out and weed the relevant from the non-relevant during prep time, not in advance as when using our tubs.   Some folks would argue, with good first-order reason, that this point just means allowing computers would have no effect; no one would bother using the internet to prep, since it would hurt them competitively.  However, beware unintended consequences; remember that extemp is not a self contained community like debate.  Non-extemp centric coaches may cut out the tubs, saving themselves expense and hassle, to the detriment of their student speakers.  Tubs are hard to maintain, and students who are from new or non top-flight programs will de-prioritize the hassle of keeping them up, thinking they have little chance of winning, a prophecy that would fulfill itself.  And the kids themselves are lazy, and will do as little as they can get away with.  The best approaches don’t necessarily win out when other agendas are at play.

So then we get to the heart of the matter. He says:

I wonder. If I already know my stuff, I’d be damned good doing some quick research to bring up the best supporting material. Then I’d present an even better speech. If I don’t know my stuff, I could still be damned good at doing quick research, and it would be a simulacrum of a good speech. And, apparently, the judges are not always going to be able to tell the difference? That’s too bad, but I don’t want to hamstring the better person to limit the abilities of the lesser person.

Sadly, the judges can rarely tell the difference, or don’t choose to vote that way, anyhow.  Remember, we’re dealing in speech land; we don’t have a trained corps of extemp judges who are very familiar with the activity that we see in all the important rounds at big tournaments like debaters do.  Debaters bitch about their judging, but extempers would take your C judges over what they usually get any day.  And it’s very common, given the breadth of topic areas covered by extemp, for the judge at the back of the room to be at an informational disadvantage.  As a result, lying crap gets through all the time.

Another wider problem of extemp is that students don’t actually speak all that persuasively and accessibly, because the judges don’t trust their instincts to call BS when they listen to a baffling piece of crap that nonetheless was delivered with authority.  The major goal of too many extempers is not to be persuasive and entertaining and informative, but to appear to be so.  I’ll ask extempers why they always sound like constipated news announcers; none can answer me, but they keep on talking that way.  I’ll ask also why they use large words that cause them to stumble, when a shorter word would be easier to understand and to say; none can answer me, but they keep on doing it.  Big words and an uptight voice get read as “serious” by judges, even as the words are a complicated jumble.  Extempers don’t explain, they show off.  And too often the judge chalks up their confusion to their own (sometimes ample) ignorance and not the students’ inability to communicate effectively.  Given a low baseline of actual comprehension, tricks and games proliferate.  Judges use shortcuts, such as counting sources.  Students use shortcuts too, such as stringing together sources without much framework or explanation of their thought process, if any.  And as long as they win, they don’t see the need to change.  As long as that style wins consistently, they in fact resist change.  Then no one wants to judge extemp, and I can’t blame them.  So if internet prep leads to an more unsatisfying, shallow, string-of-sources style, even if it is less appealing and less educative then regular prep, there’s no guarantee the better style will win out.  I’d have thought Menick would agree with that, given how active he is for pushing for rules in LD; rules are meant to constrain the lesser impulses of the competition, which if left to its own devices may not produce something that meets the goals of the activity.

These are teenagers.  Teenagers want to win, but really want to be respected by the herd.  The last thing a teenager wants to do is something no one else is doing.  They also tend to want concrete formulas; they believe the world can be clear and unambiguous, and in all events they just want to know “If I do X, Y and Z, I’ll win!” when it’s never that clear cut.  Most will protest vigorously anything unexpected, such as a judge with a different opinion or a new set of tournament rules, as monstrously unfair.  They filled X, Y, and Z, so why didn’t they win?  In other words, they want clarity where there is none — persuasive speaking is a truly ambiguous art.  They’re also lazy, and usually have a bio test to procrastinate study for.  Right now the magic formula for extemp involves jamming in lots of sources, memory be damned, and not worrying too much about clear thought and explaining to people who know less than you.  Computer and internet prep would just bolster that negative trend.

If students could be always trusted to pursue their own long term benefit, we’d have no need of curriculum in our schools at all.  But we do.  Extemp is very hard, and it’s never going to reach a pinnacle of perfection among teenagers.  It can only point the way to learning a critical skill, and the fewer blind alleys it presents, the better.  Direct computer and internet sourcing is a blind alley; the best speakers don’t do it, and students who do are worse off for it in the long run.  A ban on the practice closes off that path.

Computers have a place in extemp already; in prepping the tubs, we use the Internet heavily, and then filter it down, and select the most appropriate sources for inclusion.  The limitation of tub size is instructive here too, as students must think about what they will bring ahead of time.  Tub preparation will always keep up with the times — wherever information of record is to be found in a given era, the extempers will find it.  So what I’m saying is, the benefits and skills of internet research is a non-unique advantage here.  While the explosion of sources in speeches due to Lexis and the internet has led to both less persuasive speaking and cheating through lack of memorized sources, these challenges too can be dealt with through stricter source checking.  Computer skills are being taught, in spades.  Extemp is modern already, within its existing limitations.  Internet and computers in the prep room would make us no more modern, and teach no skills that are not already being taught, while opening up a huge Pandora’s box.

Remember too that the burden of proof here is on the affirmative.  This discussion is a Policy round, after all.   Extemp teaches a certain skill set in a certain way, and despite the current problem with sourcing, it does so in an invaluable manner.   Past extempers, myself included, routinely credit the activity with developing essential skills and ways of thinking.  Doing extemp makes one a better thinker, and a better citizen.  In short, we’ve got a good thing going.  And what is the harm of tubs, exactly?  We’ve been making and hauling them around for a good long time now; it’s not going to kill us to continue.   Internet and computer prep represents a radical change to a good status quo, which has the chance of sharply increasing the worst parts of that status quo.  That’s not anything I’m signing up for tomorrow.  I’d like first to deal with the current sourcing nightmare, and then test this idea out, in fits and starts, not rush headlong in.  There’s too great a chance that the whole house of cards would tumble down.

Short version: stick to your own event, you bilious codger.


So Menick says it’s a no-brainer to allow computers in Extemp prep, and supports it with largely two arguments: one, cheating would not be rendered any easier than it pragmatically is, and two, manipulation of internet-based resources is a more valuable skill these days, so reality demands it.

I’ve gone on, perhaps at too great a length, about my objection to computers in Extemp Prep before, but Menick inspires me to add a couple more.  He’s an inspiring guy that way.  He says it’s silly to worry that students will bring in unauthorized material, particularly pre-written speeches, because that horse is already out of the barn: he asserts that it’s quite simple to include pre-written speeches and notes in an Extemp tub.

Spoken like a guy who’s never run a prep room.  Extemp tubs are single purpose devices, and thus no grey areas exist — if there’s anything illegal in a tub, the game is up.  So it becomes easy to just blanket-ban all student-written material, and be on the watch for the same.  I’ve checked tubs before, found illegal material, and booted students from tournaments for it.  I suppose a student could try really hard to make a pre-written speech look exactly like a Lexus printout, but you know, word gets around, and certain students and certain teams get checked more vigorously than others.  As a result, including pre-prepared speeches in tubs is simply not done all that much, especially when compared to other source-based abuses.

However, a laptop is not a single purpose device.  The laptop will contain the students’ extemp files, their Biology homework, their pathetic attempts at love letters to that one Girl Extemper, all in one vast concatenation.  One could ban the presence of any files besides Extemp files, and therefore eliminate the practical benefit of allowing laptops in the first place.  Or one must accept that there’s going to be a lot of student written material, easily accessible, in the prep room. Further, the student can access that far more easily on the sly, reaching into the bowels of the hard drive, and then click it away very rapidly when the prep monitors walk around; much more so than stuffing paper back into the tub.

The second brand of cheating is even more direct: once you involve the internet, you uncontrollably involve the coach.  The Gods of Extemp aren’t Google; they’re the coaches who can outline a better speech in 2 minutes than students can in 2 hours.  I’ve been coaching this event for 14 years now, and I can do it better than my students — that’s why they’re students.  The point of the activity is not how well I can extemp, but to discover how well they can, and to make them better at it.  But, plainly speaking, a lot of coaches are driven more by the need to win.  I don’t see that giving them such easy, and unprovable, way to talk to students during prep won’t turn into temptation and contamination.

Lastly, the curricular impact of this extends far beyond the cheating.   Jim says “Why shouldn’t we develop great extempers whose success is predicated on their ability to manipulate internet resources, a life skill, versus their ability to manipulate tub resources, an irrelevant skill in a computerized universe?”   First, most of the sources in a tub nowadays come from the internet already, so it’s not like internet research skills aren’t being taught.   But more critically, he misses the point.   The point of extemp is to develop students whose success is predicated on their ability to manipulate their own brain and knowledge.  An extemper who relies on their sources and evidence, no matter the derivation, is already failing.  Evidence tubs should be hard to use, because the goal is to wean students off of them, and make them into clear, independent thinkers.  Your brain is the fastest database you own, and developing and expanding it is the best investment we can make.

A computer offers the most nefarious shortcut imaginable: the search function.  Have you ever used Spotlight on a Mac?  It indexes the contents of all your files, and is remarkably easy to use.  So take an extemp question, dump the key terms into Spotlight, and there’s your pre-written extemp speech; the thoughts and the words of all the thinkers in your database, strung together topically.  Copy them down — no need to understand them! — and you’re ready to go.  Search functions thus remove the necessity to walk into an extemp round with prior knowledge of a breadth of subject areas, and thus remove the purpose of the activity altogether.

Knowing the stuff would be easier still, but it’s not enough easier that the bulk of students will need to develop that internal database to succeed.  In short, more kids than currently would get away with bullshit.  And enough already do; internet sourcing has proliferated the use of sources at the expense of both academic integrity and the student’s ability to think.  Sure, the Great Extempers will need to know that stuff — but why should we even allow moderate success to come to those who don’t know anything at all about the world, but sure know how to run a database search?

I’d much rather just keep hauling tubs.

If I owe you an email…

It may be on the way already.  The last two weekends were the capstones of my six-week long sprint of doom, with each tournament being progressively more difficult and taxing on yours truly.  I let a lot of thing fall into the “I’ll deal with it after April 4th category.”  Then JV came up for a fancy dinner & visit Sunday, and that left me tired and nonfunctional on Monday.  So I took an internet break, and a forensics break, for a couple of days.  If you don’t like it, then by all means, dock the pay I get for forensics related activities.

I came back to an inbox full of progressively more panicked emails from folks trying to register for NCFL nationals; it appears that I’d typed a > when I wanted a <, and therefore people with too many judges were being warned, not folks with too few as should have been.  Who brings too many judges to a tournament, anyway?

But at any rate, I had intended to write a recap of the MA State Debate tournament tonight, together with getting around to posting the results of the same, and then MA State Speech tomorrow, and then perhaps after that talk about how Menick is predictably utterly wrong when it comes to computer usage in Extemp, but then my friend Greg from high school texted me and offered me a ticket to the Red Sox game tonight.

So screw you guys, I’m going to Fenway.