One of the things that bored me about speech was how uncreative it was. It’s very difficult to get speech kids to try new things, and go in different directions. Extemp speeches all sound basically the same; oratory too. You can walk into any round of IEs and know immediately what event is being performed. It should be difficult to tell the difference between oratory and extemp, just for listening; but it’s not. You can spot a DI a mile away. The house style rules all.
PF at local tournaments has caught the same bug; an essential conservatism behind the approach settles on the event. It’s hard to get kids to break out of the mold and run interesting new things; you always get the same response: “I don’t know if The Judges will go for that.” The Judges, a group of people who may be at their first tournament ever, nonetheless have preferences and convictions about debate that are so deep they cannot possibly be overturned by weight of reason and logic.
But we talked about that lost interest already. I had already made the decision to leave speech based on it. But it informs the second choice that I made.
Last spring, I had committed previously to tabbing at the TOC in the PF division, and traveling with Lexington to the tournament once it became clear my own debaters would not qualify. The TOC is a gentle tournament, and a lot of fun, without the sleep deprivation and bad meals that seems par for course at the IE culminating events. And it’s only the second time all year I get to see nearly everyone I know and like from the world of debate, after Yale. So even with everything else I was juggling and canceling, I went to the TOC.
It was a highlight of my year. Firstly, I remembered that I do like and get along with coaches in debate a great deal more easily than speech coaches. Lynne has always said that I truly belonged in the dark side of debaters, and she is proven right. It’s a different mindset among debaters; as I said before, debaters are introverts and people about the mind, like me; while speech people can’t think without talking at the same time. Speech people can’t imagine a world without trophies to motivate; debate people (with one glaring exception in northern New York City…) for the most part don’t care nearly as much. Speech in MFL has gone the way of everyone’s a winner â€” explain having 16 events with tons of mutual overlap otherwise â€” while debate is still fiercely selective. The real focus then is not necessarily on hauling home trophies. Discussions in the hallway are about what people are running, not nebulous conversation about how good a given competitor is.
The TOC felt much more comfortable to me. Among speech coaches, I’m a little out of place; here, I was among My People.
I also got to be the asshole who introduced the K into Public Forum debate. The NFL had been selling topics â€” or in their parlance, allowing outside groups to sponsor topic areas, which is a distinction without a difference. A rich, shadowy group that apparently doesn’t like unions much â€” gosh, who’d’ve thunk a group opposed to unions might have a lot of money to burn â€” had bought the TOC topic, along with a conveniently timed Cato Institute report on the same subject. So, I suggested the Lexwegians attack this fact in their cases directly; tell the judges to vote for public unions and against moneyed interests as an external factor in the debate. It’s a critical position, but the PF rules define kritiks as “off topic arguments” while banning them, and this criticism was about the topic itself. So it didn’t meet the definition of the K which the PF rules attempt to ban. Besides, bans on certain types of arguments in debate depend mostly on the judge enforcing that ban, which is spotty at best. The poobahs of debate don’t appreciate that fact enough when they attempt to legislate away argument styles they don’t approve of.
To my surprise, the Lexwegians ran with it, full speed. I’d have had to threaten kids raised in our local circuit with a taser to get them to run a K. I was half joking when I suggested it to the Lexwegians. But no, they ran it with relish. And was it a lot of fun. We were the talk of the tournament, though neither team cleared. Conversations stopped when the kids entered the room. We were working on something new and different â€” could a K be pulled off in the constraints of PF? I think we could have done much better had I worked with the teams earlier; we may well have cleared with a K in Public Forum debate. As it was, we came very close.
I returned energized and refreshed. I remembered judging and coaching real circuit debate, in LD. I also realized that if I gave up on forensics entirely, I’d miss socializing with the coaches of the Northeast, even if I kept with Yale, Penn and the two Lexington tournaments. Debate coaches in particular are generally non-annoying non-screwups, and net helpful, not harmful, when you need things done. So these aren’t people I want to scope out of my life.
Debaters also tend to go to fewer tournaments, of larger scope. There are less dead weight weekends, tournaments that are practice to the kids and don’t truly matter to the adults. I actually like judging debates, which is more active and engaging, even as I avoid the passivity of IE rounds. The intellectual rigor of the activity is certainly like nothing in IEs except for extemp. I’ve never been a artistic events coach, and don’t have the talent for it. In extemp, all your coaching work is general and anticipatory; in debate, coaches get to be directly involved, since they’re an active part of pre-round prep, not forbidden from the sanctum of the prep room.
Also, I was afraid to give up on tournaments altogether. The blessing of tournaments is they’re all consuming. The entire time you’re at a tournament you’re engaged by it, working on it, being part of it. Novices quickly learn that bringing homework to a tournament is utterly futile; you’ll never crack your math book. There are vast swathes of underused time in tournament schedules, but somehow the tournament fills them up with debate stuff. That’s often a minus for people’s lives. But right now I need to take a weekend every month and be fully engaged by something other than normal life. At a tournament I get 2-3 days to not think about Things. Given that’s all I do all the rest of my life these days, I’m good with that.
So I had dinner with Sara, and she asked me if I wanted to coach LD and PF at Lex. And I said yes.
So how’s it been?