On criticizing imperfect tournaments

I went down to Fair Atlanta this past weekend, glady shuttling from a Boston with -1 degrees to an Atlanta with upwards of 50.  The occasion was the Emory tournament, once a crown jewel octos bid tournament which has acquired a touch of tarnish of late.  The field and judging both have grown undeniably weaker in just the three years I’ve attended the tournament, following the same trend that has afflicted the Emory IE divisions before them.  As a consequence, this year was Emory’s first as a quarters bid tournament.

A bid level demotion can be the kiss of death.  Bid levels tend to be raised only when a tournament has already deserved its new level for a few years running; thus a promotion often doesn’t change the character of a tournament much.  Once a bid level is lowered, however, some folks will immediately choose to put their funds and their time in other places.  That’s not an unfair choice, but the consequent falling-off can mean the field quality takes an immediate hit; in some cases declining even past justifying its newly lowered status.   What was once a solid bid tournament can quickly turn into a poorly attended local.  LD at Wake Forest experienced this dissolution over the years, as did Monticello; I’m sure there are other examples out there, too.

Helping the forces of decline is the debate community’s propensity to be, for lack of a better term, really bitchy as it goes down.  There’s nothing like a bid demotion to to call the Long Knives out; all of a sudden every part of a tournament is put in the worst possible light.  Is the field size small?  Folks aren’t coming for a reason.  Field size big?  The tournament is clearly just looking to soak us for cash.  Scheduled days too long?  Inhuman!  Too short?  Not enough rounds for the value!

And so on.

It’s easy to complain about a tournament, as no tournament is perfect; a tournament must involve a complicated set of choices and tradeoffs between various competing needs.  A tournament needs good hired judging, but always on a budget.  Tournaments will want to fit in a good number of rounds; too many and everyone is the walking dead; too few and folks feel cheated.  Tournaments are limited by their available space and personnel; nobody is hiring staff or building new buildings to benefit debate, alas.

At Lex, for instance, we had to yank Round 2 for a pref-import foul up that was maddeningly nobody’s fault; that said I’m sure if folks wanted to find a way to blame us, they could have.  More fairly, they could have disagreed with our choice to pull the round and sacrifice about an hour of everyone’s sleep in return for a correct pairing.  Our hired judge pool was also smaller; Harvard wasn’t back in session, the inauguration claimed quite a few college types, and attending schools hired a lot of my intended targets before I could.  Nobody seemed to much notice or care, given that the tournament was generally on the up-and-up, and those school hired judges were there in the pool anyway; but these circumstances could have been spun by someone who wanted blood into Lex doesn’t care about hired judging.

If you want to snipe at a tournament, you don’t have to try hard.  You can just ignore the tournament directors, not ask about any hidden constraints you may not know about, and assume everything about a tournament confirms your worldview that This Sucks And They’re Out To Get Me.  Sometimes, we hit a critical mass of complaining, and the bitching becomes self-fulfilling: a tournament that everyone believes sucks will indeed come to suck, deservedly or not. Perceptual suckage will eventually turn into a dropoff in attendance. And then LD will have what it deserves, but not what it wants: another crappy tournament.

Don’t we have enough of those already?

Some of that sniping is motivated by the zero-sum nature of TOC bids; most everyone hosting a bid tournament needs to defend it, for either their ego or their fundraising.  The decline and fall of another bid tournament makes your own bid level safer, or perhaps due for a promotion.   You may notice folks who talk down tournaments are often the directors of competing ones.  That incentive is hard to dodge.  Overall as a community, however, we really shouldn’t want tournaments like Emory to tumble and fail; we should want them to improve and bounce back.  I don’t count so very many national draw tournaments that we can afford to just lose one.  It’s no accident that when Emory was demoted, another octos bid tournament was not thereby created.  Where would those bids go?

So, Emory.  They did some things right.  They purposefully shrank the field, in order to hold everything in one building, a lovely luxury.  The schedule was more reasonable: they split round 3 in half, running flight A Friday night and flight B on Saturday.  This change resulted in a later Friday, but a quite reasonable Saturday; last year I remember judging a mind-melting flight B of the double octofinals on Saturday in a sleep-deprived blear; this year I was in bed by 11 having finished said double, together with the ride back to the hotel and a meal at the hotel restaurant.  Friday wasn’t so very late and Saturday was much earlier, in sum.  It was a trade I’d happily make again.  Those two reforms together also meant the schedule ran strictly on time without any whiff of lag-pairing.

They also instituted speaker awards in LD, at long last.

There were warts in these changes.  Friday night was four debates back to back, and a very quick turnaround to the fifth; thus I didn’t eat between 4:30 and 11.  That exacerbated the impact of their college-tournament lack of hospitality; which in turn was made worse on Sunday when the local cafeteria they point us towards is closed.   The judging pool was weak; there really should be a few solid-A hires in a quarters bid tournament, especially one sitting near the country’s second largest airport.  At the least, I’d have liked to have heard why those hires weren’t in the pool, in lieu of a bunch of college policy debaters the LD community doesn’t know and cannot therefore prefer intelligently.

The major structural problem with Emory, however, is tradition.

Now I’ll confess that I do not revere tradition.  There’s probably more room for it at tournaments than I allow.  However, I’d argue tradition should be limited to areas where the central purpose of the tournament is not adversely affected.  Cruz, for example, loves, lives and breathes tradition.  But he also limits it at Bronx to a big hoopla ceremony when the school is still in classes and we can’t use the rooms anyway.  He renames a few things oddly; but nobody really cares and most folks just call them Policy Debate and Double-Octos anyway.  These touches don’t hurt the tournament as such; they add a little, or at the very worst fail to detract, depending on your point of view.

At Emory, it is not so.  Emory’s mainstay tradition is to name a few coaches each year Key Coaches, voted in by the existing Key Coaches.  The group is policy-centric, and thus so too are the new inductees each year. Emory, as a point of tradition, permits only key coaches to judge the final rounds of all events; and then has all the attending key coaches together judge the final round of policy debate right before the awards ceremony.

The consequences of the final round tradition at Emory, to an LD debater, are thus:

  1. No preferences or strike cards in the final round.  This lack affects just two debaters; but very critically so.
  2. We are treated to watching four debaters we don’t know engage in a form of debate that we don’t do for 150 very long minutes before we’re permitted to know our own final results.  It is of some small consolation that the judging panel means that it isn’t really a form of debate those four debaters do, either.  But nobody pays attention to the policy final: it’s smart phone city in there.  I skipped, and went out for dinner with my temporarily Georgian cousin.
  3. We are faced with the concomitant unsubtle implication that our debate category matters to the tournament much less than another; nobody forces them to watch our final, after all.  That’s reinforced by the quality of their hired judging.  LD used to tolerate second class citizenship; it doesn’t anymore.
  4. The policy final round schedule distorts what could be a great LD schedule.

How so on number 4?  Emory struggles with a conundrum; do round 3 on either Friday or Saturday and the day chosen ends at midnight.  Splitting the round between them worked better but wasn’t great; Friday was still a bit late, and splitting flights is a logistical hassle.  The “correct” Emory schedule would be to have 2 rounds Friday, 4 rounds on Saturday, and start doubles in the morning on Sunday.  Suddenly, all three days are easy to manage.  The tournament would run 2 1/2 hours later on Sunday as a result; which affects only two debaters and three judges, not the entire tournament.  That delay also assumes they still double-flight octos; if you run a double on Sunday more people are usually around to judge a single-flighted octo.

I know the policy final is a great vast longstanding tradition, but it doesn’t accomplish anything.  It actively hurts parts of the tournament that don’t have reason to care about policy debate, and certainly will not be made to care by being forced to watch a round that isn’t policy debate.  I’m sure when it was first done, back in the day, it was an “Oh, neat!” type of thing, because then policy folks had no judge preference system, and the event’s appeal to a wider audience was broader.  Since then, however, the nature of both policy debate and the other events have changed, and so the key-judged final has in turn shifted from “Oh neat!” to “Ah, hell, not again.”  The best way to judge a tradition, in my book, is to ask if anyone would implement it now from scratch if it weren’t already in place.  The Emory final round thing fails to meet that standard.

Uncoupling this tradition from the LD schedule would have measurable positive impacts to our tournament experience, and no negative ones.  PF and IEs would also improve if given the same consideration.  Given all that, it’s of little surprise that schools take their travel dollars and money and choose other tournaments.  Emory could be providing a much better experience, but instead chooses priorities that my universe, and the IE one, simply do not share.  So LD folks instead choose tournaments that are more sensitive to our preferences.

I say all this not because I want Emory to go down in flames.  I say it because it’s an easy, fixable problem.  I say it because we are all better off if there’s a top-flight octos bid tournament in Atlanta each year, and a tradition adjustment, shall we say, would be a free way to help get that back. I have a few angles here.  With the demotion of Emory, there are now only 5 shared-octos bid tournaments with policy debate; two (Harvard and Berkeley) happen on the same weekend, and while in LD St Mark’s and Bronx also conflict.  My program is serious about both policy and LD; but we can travel only 3 times a year to a combined octos bid tournament now.  If that separation of the spheres continues, some LD programs will start to fade away and drop off (as too will some Policy programs) as the logistics and expenses of doing both increase.

Secondly, through calculating NDCA points I have noticed that the average TOC bid tournament in LD this year shrank by about 10% from last year.  The only two exceptions so far have been Lexington and Crestian, mostly because they used to be on the same weekend but Crestian moved dates.  To hear folks talk about it, about half of the octos bid tournaments don’t deserve their bid level.  Is this because of the tournaments, or is it because LD is fading a bit, and can’t sustain them?  The answer to that question may be troubling; but the solution to the problem it presents is to help urge tournaments to improve instead of slicing and dicing them up.

We have a lot of problems in debate, and I’m not so much worried about them directly as our inability to get serious about solving any of them.  We’ve already had the annual We Hate Greenhill and Some Coaches Cheat threads over on NSDUpdate, and are now in the middle of the annual Let’s Talk About But Fail To Act Against Sexism holiday.  And so, fewer adults each year stick around LD to keep it lively; slowly our numbers dwindle, our tournaments fade.   If there’s something worth keeping about LD debate, we’d be more positive about the venues we have and helpful in working to improve them, lest we lose them for good.

NDCA Results Packet

It was pointed out to me that I never published a full NDCA results packet from the LD tournament.  Totally my bad; I thought I’d done so ages ago, and the Joy site is no longer up anyway.  So without further delay, here they are:

NDCA 2012 LD Results

The Massacre of the Novii

On July 1st of each year, I have a ritual I call the Massacre of the Novii.  Today I go through the database on Tabroom.com and change every student listed as a novice to not be a novice anymore.  I also this year went through and automatically marked any student with a grad year 2012 or before as “retired”.  So your team rosters will be considerably smaller; and *sniff* our little babies are all grown up now into the vicious argumentative hellions we’ve trained them to be.  Papa’s so proud.

I’ve been working feverishly on Tabroom.com this summer, mostly doing boring behind the scenes work to prepare to it function much more smoothly with debate events, particularly international debate events.  This work is supported by a grant from the Open Society Foundation, which is George Soros’s main philanthropic effort, and IDEA, the International Debate Education Association.   The plan is for Tabroom to become the integrated web fronted for debate tournaments worldwide, working together seamlessly with the CAT/debateresults.com system developed by Jon Bruschke of CSU Fullerton, who’s been a great hippy Californian partner in arms in this effort.   Mostly, I’m doing the web stuff, he’s doing the desktop client.

This is not a black UN helicopter taking over Tabroom; I’m still going to be in the thick of it, and the software itself, by OSF mandate, must be open sourced.   This effort on OSF/IDEA’s part is about expanding their services and therefore their own profile in debate, and also attempting to cross-pollinate good ideas from abroad and the US.  It’s not about seizing control of anything.  There are also plans afoot to integrate this tabulation and results system into a global honor society, in which debaters can be recognized for their entire careers, high school, college and coaching, worldwide.  All of which I think is very exciting, and I’m glad IDEA is stepping in to fill these needs.

The programming itself is unspeakably boring, because it mostly consists of me correcting some fundamental flawed assumptions and mistakes that I made back in the beginning of Tabroom 2.0, which was released more or less in 2004.  (Tabroom 1.0 was 2000-2003, but nobody ever used it except for me).  Tabroom 3.0 features a professional graphical design based on the new IDEA website, which is spiffier than anything I could come up with; I can design for clean, but not quite for “shiny”.

But I’m also working on some cool new features; I don’t want to over promise, but I expect that Tabroom will support texting/email of pairings, team management features where your students can sign up for tournaments directly on tabroom and only requires coaches’ approval, the ability for judges to enter their ballots and results directly online by computers and phone, more varied ways of displaying results (a carryover from debateresults.com), and a few new surprises that I’m cooking up.   It’ll support US formats, together with various global formats, such as 4 team British Parliamentary debate and more.

So that’s the future of Tabroom.com.  Launch is August 1st for registration, Sept 1st for tabbing/pairing features.  And brave new worlds shall be upon us.

Why I coach debate

There’s a great diner in Watertown, the Boston burb where I eat & sleep when I’m not coaching debate or paying homage to the ancestors back in Fitchburg.  I discovered that the ownership’s opened a new location, in Newton Center in an old train station.  The menu is mostly the same, and the food’s just as good.

I had dinner there a few Sundays ago with Wild Bill, who’s a Team Palmer alum from my second forensics stop, Newton South.  WB was one of the first debaters I’d coached in a long time, after a long run doing purely speech events.  He switched over from extemp to PF and never looked back, foreshadowing my doing the same.

He graduated just three short years ago, and headed to Delaware for college, and is about to graduate from there a year early.  He’s not quite 21; so while I had a hot toddy — it was cold out and my throat was sore — he stuck to water.  He did most of the talking, which is good, because he had some great stories to tell.

WB comes across as old, which is jarring, because he looks so young; he has that blue-eyed blonde-haired fresh look that means he’ll get carded until he’s 35.  He’s conservative in his manner, if not his politics.  He maintains a brash, over the top and loud public persona to hide a deeply private inner life.  In normal conversation, when he’s not playing the dictator, he comes across as sad; he speaks slowly, and with little affect.  Sometimes he is sad, sometimes he’s just being quiet; I figured out the difference a long time ago, through coaching him.  He got overlooked a lot, and could sometimes be hard to deal with.  But he was always worth dealing with, I thought.

Much of his story involved a somewhat typical bout of college relationship angst whose details are important to the actors and their friends, and unimportant to anyone else.  The other half of the story was the traditional Plans After College.  These were less typical.

Next year, WB is going to spend a year that he could have spent in college instead working on the Delaware Right to Marry PAC, a non profit group agitating for full marriage rights for gays and lesbians in Delaware.  WB himself founded it a few years ago, and now he’s going to take his tuition dollars for his nonexistent fourth college year and use them to make a serious go of effecting a big change within a small state.

It’s ordinary for college kids, especially former debaters, to go off and try to get involved in politics after college.  Usually they take a much safer route; finding an internship in some Washington office where their work is dull but they can suck up to the right big names and hopefully increase the size of their own.  These types run up a spiral of increasingly lofty titles, but ultimately end up doing different types of clerical work all their lives and calling it power.  Liberal or conservative, they usually just become agents for the status quo, finding more difficulties than opportunities and calling that experience.

WB’s doing it better.  He’s going to spend a whole year living on ramen fighting a thankless battle for equality in a state that may not yet be ready for it.  If it fails he’ll have gotten nearly nothing.  If it succeeds, there’s a good chance a better-connected figure will swoop in and claim much of the credit.  But if he can move the lever and be the difference, he will be.  He made it abundantly clear — through action, not words — that he’s doing this because it’s right, not just because it’s right for him.   He can, he should, and therefore he is.

He’s straight, by the way.

For graduation, I gave WB the 2nd volume of Robert Caro’s excellent biography of Lydon Johnson, Means of Ascent, whose second half is a hugely entertaining tale of how LBJ engineered a stolen election against an entrenched Texas legend.  I wrote a note in the cover, which WB apparently re-reads often; I remember taking care to tell him the 2nd half of the book was not to be treated as an instruction manual; but more to the point, to remind him that power is to be used, not simply gained.  I told him I had faith he could be a rabble rouser and a big name someday, but if he didn’t harness it to a real cause or a real purpose, it’d be hollow and dry.

Mitt Romney fails to inspire because nobody knows why he wants to be President beyond having his name in history books; Barack Obama likewise has disappointed by conserving power instead of maximizing its effect.  Power conserved is power wasted; especially if it’s conserved for so petty a goal as re-election.  WB is better than both; underlying his sadness and sometimes anger, his occasional abrasiveness, and his aggressive public demeanor is a moral compass that puts most of our high leaders to shame; he’ll tweak Important Personages wherever he can find them, but the thing that surely must annoy them most is that he’s usually right; he’s shining light on areas they’d prefer to keep dark.

I can hope I had a small part in writing this story instead of simply hearing it.  If I taught him something about moral philosophy, political theory, or general causticness that nudged him onto this path, then 16 years coaching speech & debate were worth it.  I tend to be deeply cynical about What Is, but demand a lot of people to shape What Will Be, and try to impart some of the same to everyone I teach.  The Right Thing is often clear enough; we don’t fail to do it because we don’t know what it is, but because we don’t want to; and for that, there’s little excuse.

WB wasn’t my most talented or successful student, not even in his class.  He had a better than average debate career, but not a spectacular one.  Perhaps he was saving his spectacular for later.  I’m privileged to watch and find out.

 

Brief notes

  • The Jan-Feb topic-induced emotional meltdown count, to my awareness anyway, is now at 4.
  • The NDCA email list decided to explode in a soul-searching Nature of the Organization thread the week leading up to our tournament.  Hurrah.
  • The Lexington tournament ran well, apart from the fact that I was dreadfully sick and lost my voice.
  • Bill Belichick’s pact with Satan is apparently more comprehensive than Tim Tebow’s arrangement with God.
  • UPenn approaches, and has significantly grown.  That, at least, is gratifying, in a month when there’s not much in debate to gratify.
  • And new, exciting things are in store for tabroom.com.   More on that later…