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.