Service

This year’s Yale Invitational was an exercise to answer the question, “Can Palmer run a major invitational tournament while mostly walking around in a relative fog and running at a rather low level of motivation?”  The answer, it appears, is yes.  The tournament ran fine, and the crack tab staff did their usual crack thing.  We had gloriously deep and quality judging pools, and a model for the tournament that has mostly fit and worked really well over the last decade.  The ballot scanning effort worked decently well despite a bug in the software which was my fault entirely — and the nice thing about a scanning system is when you screw up ballot sorting, you get to redo it, unlike with paper when the mistakes are eternal.  So even though I’ve been tremendously off my game — culminating in this awful cold this week that won’t go away, though it turns out it’s not swine flu — Yale went along just fine.

However, this year’s Yale was the one that has me seriously reconsidering my generosity towards allowing independent entries into the tournament.  I feel for independents, because it’s only by a very twisted and coincidental path of fate that I ever participated in forensics myself, and there’s more than a little “There but for the Grace of God go I” when I look at struggling programs that often are on the outside looking in.   Public channels in the forensics world will periodically express ineffective concern that the activity is only truly accessible in the fullness of its opportunity to a select few students, mostly white, suburban and wealthy ones.  Not even all suburban wealthy and white students have access, even.  The penetration of this form of education in the Northeast is very uneven.

But nothing seems to come of those conversations, because ultimately it points to a wider problem in society that we have very little influence or control over: education as a whole is underfunded.  It’s sad that only one high school out of ten has a debate or speech program, but it’s ultimately because high schools are kept permanently cash strapped and resource starved by a tax-averse society that tries to believe, often through the best efforts of our elected officials interested in staying our elected officials, that there’s some Magic Formula of Education out there by which we can get great schools on the cheap and not have to pay more into the common good to get more common good out.  Schools are expensive, and good schools more expensive still — but we’re democratically hiding behind these notions that evil teacher’s unions and bureaucrats and various other obstacles are what make schools perform badly, not simple lack of funding, because to believe otherwise would mean paying more taxes, and nobody seems to want to do that.

So only a few schools have programs and that won’t change until the shape of society itself changes.  What that does mean, however, is that some programs have folks who can contribute to the maintenance of the activity as a whole, and some don’t.  The latter serve as a hidden tax on the former — I run a lot of tournaments, and that’s a tax on my own students and teams.  I have finite hours, and they’re growing smaller — and so Newton South itself pays a bit to make Yale happen.  As does Scarsdale, and HenHud, and NFA, and University, and Ridge, and St Joseph’s, and Trinity…

So here’s the thing about independent entries.  They’re a pain in the ass.   They don’t read instructions, they don’t read the invite, nd they constantly are screwing things up.  I don’t mind when, say, a new coach screws things up, honestly, because I know the time I take to explain how things work to a new coach won’t be wasted — they won’t, unless they’re a blithering idiot, screw things up the next time.  Independents carry no such promise.  Easily 75% of the registration screwups and questions whose answers were in the invite this year were from independent entries — and we had less than 10 of 124 schools consist of independents.  And independent entry schools will never pay it forward.  They won’t be tab staff at Yale some year, as a new coach might.  They won’t ever do their part to make the community run.  Often they view tournaments as a transaction — I pay you money, you provide me service.  But that’s not really how tournaments work.  I’m not paid to run Yale, I run it because it’s worth doing — and the money itself goes forward to other tournaments and more debate, on the college level or the New Haven Urban Debate League.

So the more hassle and the more nonsense I have to put up with when I run tournaments means less time for my own students.  There’s a reason my debate teams never clear at Yale, though the extempers have had good success.  And the more I consider whether it’s worth it to give those 5-10 kids each year who have no team at their own school the chance to come to Yale.  It’s all good to claim that we should do everything and anything to provide students with fair opportunity, but that’s not exactly true — coach time and adminstrative time is a finite resource, and it may be best to conserve it where the payoff is small to spend it later where the impact on the community is better.

For now, I’m considering levying some ridiculous fine on anyone who asks a question whose answer is in the invite.  Good luck enforcing that one, I know.  But it’s tempting.