The PF Paradigm

PF is caught between two opposing forces.  The first is community-based lay judging.  This feature helps avoid the false-logic style of debating that infects policy and LD to some degree; you end up with long chains of evidence that are fine for a flowpad, but the end result is simply untrue — increasing health care coverage in the US will not lead to nuclear war between China and India.  An experienced policy judge will vote for those logical chains; it’s what the event is for.  A lay judge will not, and that’s what PF is for; the art of convincing an ordinary person.

However, that’s a decidedly messy proposition.  There are as many was of convincing people out there as there are people.  Some folks think that there’s a golden “Way of Debating” that works for all audiences, but that’s simply not true. Anyone in the business of convincing people will find out as much about their audience as they can; jury profiling, focus grouping, the works.  Being able to argue in front of many different audiences is one of the finest skills of the persuasive art.

In LD and Policy, judge adaptation is handled by means of a relatively tight community, but beyond that, a paradigm: a short statement of preferences and values that the judges supply to the community.  Some folks don’t like paradigms, thinking they enable the tendencies in debate they don’t like — like folks creating their own rules, or voting for non-traditional and sometimes completely unrealistic argumentation — but I think they’re more a reflection of the diversity of debate.  Unless all judges see everything exactly the same, which was never true — otherwise, why have panels in elim rounds? — a paradigm is an essential tool to enable effective argumentation through judge adaptation.

Currently adaptation in PF takes the form of walking into the room and saying to oneself: “She looks middle aged and female, so I’ll assume she’s a mother.”  In forensics terms, “Mother” rates somewhat below “Mouth-breathing troglodyte.”  Those who have reared teenagers may not be especially surprised that teenage debaters place parents among the stupider, less developed life forms.  But shockingly, sometimes that’s not true: debaters might end up arguing, say, economics in simplistic and moronic terms “for the Mommy judge”, without realizing that said Mommy is also the chair of the economics department at Columbia.  It happens.  In Boston, with all the colleges around here, it happens a lot.

However, with the ever-cycling judge pools in PF, paradigms as we know them are impossible.  A PF judge doesn’t know how to express his or her preferences in a way that a debater will understand.  If you ask them to write one, they’ll stare at you blankly, and rightfully so; how can someone who hasn’t seen a debate express what their preferences are?

So my notion is to introduce the PF Paradigm Questionnaire.  It’d be a simple sheet of maybe 10-12 questions of various ways a judge might like to judge, designed to both allow debaters to figure out a judge’s paradigm, and to prompt the judges to think more explicitly about how and why they’re making their decisions.  The questions can be “I prefer arguments based on    1. Sources & Evidence  .  .   .  5 mixed  .    .    .   . 10 Independent reasoning.”   It could ask about speed versus presentation, background knowledge, and so on.  It could ask if the judge prefers teams to be vicious jackals or wussy teddy bears in cross-ex.

Then the judges carries their sheets around with them during the tournament, and shows it to the two teams before each round if they want to see it.  If a judge’s beliefs should change as a result of growing experience after a few rounds — “oh, I didn’t realize how fast ‘fast’ meant!” — they can alter it, or get a new sheet between rounds.

That would allow PF to keep the carousel of community judging, to teach the fine art of convincing people who are not debate judges, without cutting debaters off from knowing next to nothing about their judges and essentially yelling into a void and hoping some of it sticks.  The tricky bits are coming up with the questions on the questionnaire in a way that’d be helpful to the debaters without steering the judges into decisions, and figuring out how best to train them.


NFL, Briefly

I was born and raised in New England, and I like the winters here.  My family originally comes from even further north, the shores of the Gulf of St Lawrence.  So there was little chance I was going to enjoy a trip to Birmingham, AL, for four days, in the middle of June.  95 degree heat & humidity is not unknown here at home, but it’s not a permanent state of life as it is down South.  Barbecue and fried foods are good once a month, not twice a day.   And knowing that the protesters outnumbered the marchers at their Pride parade was bound to introduce some tension.

However, that’s all out of the control of the folks who hosted the NFL tournament this past week.  They can’t help the climate, and to some degree the history and culture, of their home.  It’s also the one tournament of the year where I’m a total outsider; both the League itself and the local hosts don’t really know me, and so I didn’t have any inside scoops or stories.  It’s the one time all year I get to see a tournament from the outside, as most people do.  And as such, I have to say, the hospitality, setup, logistics, and everything else were all wonderfully and beautifully done.  Sometimes people like to bitch and moan as a spectator sport about things like “Ew, god, why are we in Alabama?!” but the hosting efforts here were top notch.

So bravo, coaches of Birmingham.  I’m not about to move to their hometown, but I doubt they’d like mine much either.  I’m not really an East Coast snob — if you saw my hometown, you’d understand — but I do like it here,  in one of the colder corners of the country, so I was fully expecting just sheer misery this past week, and was pleasantly surprised.And after all, the Worst Awards Ceremony in Forensics isn’t their fault.


Comments are disabled on this site.  I have two reasons:

  1. It’s my site.  Stuff on here is by me, not by you.  There are many ways to create a site that is by you and reply to anything I’ve said there.  If you want to surrender control of your site to complete strangers to post commentary, that’s your choice.  It’s not mine.
  2. Comment threads, due to their anonymity, are either moribund, or full of complete internet morons.  I value neither.

Reason 2, incidentally, is the potential big challenge to the Let’s Talk Coaching ideas.  I think limiting it to coacherly types and banning anonymity should do the trick, but I hope I’m right.  Otherwise, John Gabriel’s Theory will have proven even stronger than currently stated.

Living for it

So I spilled over a little in frustration the other day.  I stand by that; I for one don’t believe that the Internet is Different and a little spilled-over truth and honestly is a bad thing.  Some flinch from it instinctively but I don’t see demons behind every byte online.  Well, demons any different than the real life ones.   But tonight is a good night for wandering around verbally.  Wander, I shall.

Part 1. Vacation.

But I was thinking a little bit as to why I might be in a bad mood forensics wise; I’m ever the (over-) analyst that way.  Certainly part of it is my own strong need for a vacation from both the day job and the coaching gig at the same time; I tend to swap time off from one into time on the other.  This project would, by necessity, involve me leaving the area code of the Bellevue Sapphire (My home on the hill, here), for as idyllic as the Saph truly is — I’m sitting right now on the deck, overlooking a few other hills, and moon and stars on the horizon — it’s also the nerve center of all the various Things I Do.  I have a headquarters up on the third floor that’s clearly a work room — a chair surrounded on three sides by desks, one I made myself for the Computer with Two Heads, one table for Various and Sundry facing the windows with the same view as the deck, and one a roll top antique my grandmother gave me.  There are bookcases full of programming books and speech memorabilia.  There’s a plaque or two from the unexpected juggernaut we had at last year’s NFLs.  The two coaching awards I was given this year, I’ll sheepishly admit, are still down in the living room, on the fireplace mantle.  Everyone has a little showoff in them, and as Menick said, of all the things he’s had in forensics, that’s the one he’s particularly proud of.

So a week off at home, presumably to rest, would inevitably see me upstairs doing something or other on the Computer with Two Heads.  Such as coding a way to sneeze out an exact report on housing with the margins two tenths of an inch wider to accommodate some Bronx Science kid with eighty four letters in his last name, who may or may not be going to the HenHud tournament, but well, we’d better be sure.  So I have to leave the area.  Leaving the state would be better still.  And the country — well, gosh howdy.  I’ve still never been to Europe, though I’m more of a country boy than a city vacationer.

Part 2.  Obsession ain’t just a cologne.

However, that brief jaunt through my immediate geography aside, there’s another division of the speech & debate world.  It’d be easy to say it divides between the tolerable and the intolerable, but that’s not true; there are plenty of people on the “other side” from me that I know, like, and respect.  However, there are certain attitudes towards this activity that I find harmful, not just to my own happiness and contentedness in this project of forensics education, but also to the activity as a whole.  Few folks share them all, but the fallout has converged on me more than usual of late.

Some people just live for this.  We had, as mentioned above, a hell of a tournament last year in Vegas.  Three national champs, never been done, yada yada.  I can’t say as I prepared any differently for this one than the others I’ve sent kids to.  We’re certainly not a giant factory program that aims all our year’s efforts and strategy behind winning big at the NFL tournament.  Our Storyteller, in one case, spectacularly failed to make friends when she chatted up the other finalists by telling the tale of how she and the extemp coach — yours truly — tossed together her piece on Wednesday at the last minute.  “When did you guys toss yours together?”  Uncomfortable silence.  Turns out everyone else had been practicing theirs for months.  Man, some people take this stuff seriously.

She then beat them.  Bitterness ensued.

To hear some people talk about it, winning three national championships in one sitting should have launched me into a new plane of awareness.  The NFL makes a very big deal of its champions and coaches, and I had my picture taken a few dozen times.  But we mostly cracked up during the whole thing.  Then we had dinner, got a drink, slept for a long time thereafter.  I stayed in Vegas for a few days, got sick on the last day though.  And life afterward has been much the same as life before.

But some — many? — can think nothing more of just getting that next trophy, the next award and round of applause — sometimes a single clap.  I can’t stand that ambition; it distorts everything.  At the two tournaments we decide to call Nationals it leads to a sparkling tension in the air which certainly doesn’t help make for better decisions or better management or judging.  Tension never does. When I tell folks to calm down and just work through it, I’ll sometimes get shocked stares and “But it’s NATIONALS!”  As if that somehow devalues calm rational decision making and the rules of polite interaction among adults.

I don’t get that attitude.  I understand it intellectually, but I don’t get it.  It always takes me by surprise.  It seems self-evident that folks in this activity shouldn’t have so little independent seat for their egos that they get into actual screaming matches with other coaches or volunteers for the sake of winning something.  Folks definitely shouldn’t have so little that they’re willing to cheat to do the same.  And yet, I see it, all the time.

Interlude I: Group Discussion

People commit all sorts of distortions, because they live for this.  Some coaches advocate for “easier” events so their teams can get sweepstakes awards without having to work at the “hard” events.  That particular phenomenon explains much in the MFL; people elsewhere often wonder why we have such bizarre events that sound stupid.  They are stupid.  That’s the point.  If they weren’t stupid, good, dedicated kids would do them, and the students who don’t want to put much effort in wouldn’t get trophies.  It especially upsets me when this issue gets wrapped into a class struggle — poor kids need dumb events!  My humble roots certainly didn’t stop me from learning Extemp, and the Urban Debate Leagues have committed wholesale to Policy Debate.  But the real reasons always do need a cloak, and that serves well enough.

Interlude II: Source Material

Coaches will cheat on source material to find a small edge,  despite the fact that interp uses such a small sliver of the legal material out there — but much of that material is skipped, because it’s too hard.  For years there have been Rules about Extemp which are nowhere listed and do nothing to make speeches clearer, smarter and more entertaining — but they’re easy to teach, and kids do a bit better when they follow them, so taught they are.   At the same time, extempers cheat all the time, by the letter of the rules, and not many folks do anything about it for fear of “stirring things up.”  Evidence standards in PF are a laughable mess, and that’s made all the worse by folks thinking that an avalanche of evidence without much actual realistic analysis is the way to go in PF.  Hey, it wins rounds, right?  We did — bravo, MFL — pass a rule mandating that you have, and you share, evidence in debate rounds.  We shouldn’t have needed to.

Interlude III: Circuit debate

Sometimes winning means restricting the field to include only yourself.  Circuit debate springs to mind.  I found myself meditating on speed while I was at the TOC.  In the two rounds I judged, the four students definitely slowed down — or rated me highly because they don’t generally speed in any rounds, I don’t know which.  They were enjoyable debates.  I’ll admit my RFD for the second one was incoherent at best — but then, so was the round.  What I wasn’t able to articulate at the time was that the neg debater had argued that upholding democracy is essential, and subjecting oneself to a court system with appointed judges was anti-democratic; but he was never able to explain why this was a unique harm — democracies have appointed judges too, notably ours — and that punched a big ol’ hole in his case.  Aff could have made it much easier by pointing that out more stridently; I had a tough time deciding whether Aff’s defense of this point was enough to warrant me voting on the round, but then I had a hard time finding anything else to vote on, so I held my nose and affirmed.  I say this now because I want to point out to debaters that far more decisions than they think are arrived at in such a manner — “you confused me, you didn’t emphasize the right things for me to break your way, and I had to vote for SOMEONE, so sheesh, here we go.”  My only difference is that I’m honest about it.  Some judges, indeed, live for this too; I’m sure the negative I voted against will strike the hell out of me if ever I grace a judging pool he’s subjected to again.  My honestly saying “I’m unable to explain this well right now, I’m sorry, but I do strongly believe Aff won” isn’t a good way to maintain a judge rep, and some people live for that, too.

I was, however, perfectly fine following along in the much more brisk rounds where I was only watching, not judging, and thus no one bothered to adapt to me.  However, as I said in my paradigm, the quality of the argumentation and the density of ink on my flows has not changed much in ten years of judging LD, despite the speedup in the same.  Roughly the same number of arguments were made in both the slower rounds I judged, and the faster rounds I watched.  In the round 7 I watched, one debater was a terrible speaker, clearly struggling to keep her thoughts and her arguments organized, despite maintaining a very fast clip; it was absolutely clear to me that the speed was working against her, even though she ended up winning that round.  So I started thinking; why speed then?  Why invest such time and effort into developing a difficult skill, which has no value whatsoever outside of this specific form of debate, and which doesn’t seem to really help much in winning rounds?

I think speed is “in” because it has no value whatsoever outside debate.  Speed to circuit debate is like Latin to the Catholic Church; it serves to keep all but the truly devoted out of the priesthood.  If you’re not willing to pay the price of learning this otherwise useless skill, then you’re not worthy of admission to the Holy of Holies, or the TOC, depending on your terminology. So speed effectively limits the TOC to the people obsessed with the TOC.  That creates a closed-off ecosystem, which opens more chances for those on the inside of it.  If there are fewer programs at the TOC, the ones that do come can win it more often.

The educational value of speed is suspect; you’ll never need to talk that way again.  The competitive value is also suspect; I’m not sure it’s actually helping anyone win rounds, though I’m much less certain of that.  But even if it were winning ballots, is that enough to justify it?  To a lot of people, the consideration ends at “it wins ballots.”  Some people live for this.

Back to it: Conservatism

Folks want to win things.  They’ve grown comfortable with a certain level of success.  As a result, many folks don’t want to upset the existing order much.  Making a radical change might also change their winning formulas, and force folks to be creative and adapt — and they may not be able to keep up.  Coaches like this instinctively don’t want to create the new and destroy the old.  They’re scared they’ll end up at the bottom of the pile in a new order.

We combined DI and HI into DP at the MFL going into next year, which I think resolves one of the sillier distinctions in forensics.  Drama can be funny; humor can be serious; there’s no actual line to be drawn between them.  The DI/HI split encouraged bad practices and lazy approaches to interp: slapstick in the one, death, disease and rape in the other.  Pushing them together opens up the vast middle ground between them, together with a lot of fresh new material; few authors write literature that is exclusively funny or only serious.  Most of those that do aren’t very good writers.  Most traditional interp material is crap.  So the more I think about this change, the more I like it.

Predictably, the student protests began immediately.  The arguments on the obligatory protest Facebook group boil down to “we’ve always had this split” and “all the other states and the NFL have divided HI and DI for a reason.”  Alas, they have yet to specify what that reason is.  I think the real pain point here is competitive.  I hear a lot of “judges might be confused” which is code for “I’m confused as to how to win the judges’ ballots.”  Old formulas are gone; kids know how to win an HI, and know how to win a DI, and now they have to learn how to win a DP.  Gosh, learning.  What a pain in the ass.  More directly, that’s also six fewer trophies we’ll be handing out.  Now there’s a real problem, though no one will say it out loud.  So they argue without giving reasons.  Even though so many people live for the winning, everyone knows no one’s allowed to admit it.

What’s strangest about the Facebook group is that most of the names I recognize are recent graduates or graduating seniors, or students who compete in non interp events.  There’s not a lot of people on there who are actually affected by this change.

Why the traveling tabulating circus is different

I talked briefly in the last post about how the Northeast circuit seems to be pushing ahead better, faster and further than most others.  I think it’s because we have a fairly good quorum of people who don’t live for this.  For the most part, we don’t notice when we, or others, win.  Some of us are more competitive than others, but it’s not a huge deal, and it doesn’t influence how we decide how to run tournaments, even unspoken.  Most of us are not coaches as our primary job, even those of us who are teachers.  We have a critical mass of a bunch of people who are willing to run tournaments and change our approach without having to avoid 800 lb gorillas in the room.

There’s none of that “Well, so and so wants to win, and this shady practice is one of the ways he does so, so we can’t end it or he’ll throw a fit.”  It’s the only arena where I don’t get poorly articulated push back to new ideas.  Everywhere else, I’ll expect a certain amount of “Well, I just don’t like it” which nearly always either boils down to “that’s not the way we’ve done it before!” — which is no reason at all —  or “My particular formula for acquiring hardware is incompatible with this educational change.”

Here’s $30.  Go buy yourself a trophy.

So I’ve resolved on something.  I’m not going to ignore it and let politeness cover up the “Well I want to win!” instinct.  I’m calling it out when I see it.  I have to hear a rationale for keeping things, or changing things, that goes beyond the gut, or I’m calling it what it is: a blatant hardware grab.  Surely one of the reasons the MFL continues to require 16 events is the 96 trophies that implies.  I’m told again and again that kids won’t come back to the activity if they don’t win something.  I don’t buy it.  Even in the extravagant MFL, we’re only handing out hardware to 1/3 of the students present.  I think the coaches like winning a lot, and like it when there’s more to win.  There are debate leagues that survive and prosper quite well while handing out very few awards.  But, some people live for this, and it’s not yet the novices.  It’s usually the coaches, or the kids who’ve already been in the activity a long time; note the composition of the Facebook group.

I don’t live for this.  And I’m not going to pretend I approve of those who do any longer.

Why I do what I do

So I’m no longer the MFL president, hallelujah hallelujah.  After NCFLs, I was totally wiped; the week prior work — largely, me — had organized a two day workshop and symposium that required my full attention, and then immediately afterward (during, in fact) I ran off to Albany, for another five days requiring my full attention and energy, where I was seriously dragging ass by the end.  We had a raucous if orderly MFL meeting thereafter, wherein the torch was passed.

Everything since has felt like a quiet denouement; days spend quietly restoring chaos to order at work among the systems, and nights spent doing things like reading and writing out on the porch deck, where the breeze never stops.  It’s been a bit lonely, but also a bit lovely.  This little window is my chance to think and contemplate for the past year.  I’ll be headed down to NFLs again soon, and EXL is soon thereafter, and then the cycle begins again at Yale and beyond.

This spring I’ve been forced to question where my efforts are being spent.  The flat out sprint that was the week leading into Albany has brought into sharp relief the fact that I do too much.  The NFL will be my 23rd tournament this year, and only my third not manning the tab room, together with TOC and Harvard.  I’ve spent a entire month, 30 days, in tabulation rooms since Yale last September.

Most of them have been fun events with fun people, but that’s no longer enough to keep me running like this.  The damage to my professional life (yes, I have one) has been nonzero, and the damage to my personal life (no, don’t really have one of those) has been complete.  This spring and my tour of the MFL also both ended on a sour note; the folks who said so don’t know I know, but apparently I’m anti-educational and an elitist, and my leadership in the MFL has pushed the league to the edge of collapse.  Mother would be proud, that a Fitchburg boy could grow up to be an elitist.  It matters little that the venom was spread in context of an unrelated political dispute, and that the aims of that dispute were, I strongly suspect, self-serving and competitional, not educational; if you fight dirty, there are consequences.  If the dirt works, which it did, the consequences become universal.

I’m going through a period of asking myself where my limited efforts can do the most good.  On the broader Northeast circuit, the reward for effort is immediate: as JV said at dinner last week, we’re in the middle of a interesting period, where technology, openness, and mutual trust throughout the Northeast has lead to rapid and healthy change in the way we run our activity. We’re no longer content to run the same tournament year after year; we’re questioning every assumption and keeping only the truly necessary ones.  “That’s the way we’ve always done it” is never a good enough answer.  As a result, we’ve created a flexible and cohesive tournament staff where new ideas are vetted, tested, and if they succeed, made universal in the course of a few weekends.  And we don’t sacrifice much in doing so; each individual tournament has run fine, even as new things are tried in them.

That Northeast circuit involves, for me, going to six tournaments a year.   Yale, Princeton, Columbia, UPenn, and the two Lexington tournaments.  I won’t give those up.  I might chance a couple more this year; there are rumblings out of northeastern Pennsylvania to be considered, and I’d be curious to see one or more of Scarsdale, Bronx Science or Hen Hud in action.  I’ve already dropped Harvard, to much relief, and I’m sadly dropping Florida’s University School too, since they’re up against the tournament at my own school this year — Chavez will go instead.  And of course I’ll be there for Newton South’s tournament.  Despite having friends on both sides of no-man’s-land, I won’t skip the NYSFL tournament, where I’m always made to feel welcome and appreciated, and which is a lovely time of year for a drive across Massachusetts.  If JV wants me back — I had a genuine blast this year with Scarsdale, modulo the exciting logistics of the last day — or my own kids qualify & want to go, there’s the TOC.

That’s 8 guaranteed, with a few options.  This year, I did 23.

For the rest, well, I simply can’t do this without strong motivation, and these little whispering voices, or the times I’ve had vast responsibility coupled with zero authority, sap that motivation.  This world of forensics is not my career, job, or obligation; I derive no benefit aside from the psychic, and so the time has come to eliminate everything that’s become a mental net negative.  My team has suffered for my service.  I’ve also had several long term ideas and projects stall out doing all this operational stuff, anyway; some of it forensics related, some of it not.  And from home, I can debug and control most of what happens on Tabroom anyway, better from many schools in fact.

So everything else is on the table, and most of it’s going to land on the floor.