Menick urged me to blog quickly; by my standards, six days later is pretty quick, unfortunately.   I’ve been swamped at the $dayjob, which has thrown together a conference for the two days before I depart for Albany and NCFL Nats.   Wondrous timing, but it’s coming together.     And I just now in my post-Mother’s Day-feast induced lethargy worked through much of the backlog related to running NCFLs.   So now, this issue.

The question is how to foster online communication among coaches who may or may not be terribly inclined to communicate online.   But that question touches a lot of other things.   One of the core flaws of forensics, I’ve long felt — one that isn’t immediately apparent, but causes many other apparent problems — is that we lack generalized effort.   There are rather few people who are paid to coach and manage forensics teams as a gig.   There are plenty of people who are not paid at all despite being actively involved.   And there are surpassingly few who are paid to manage and look out for forensics as a whole, or even any given league within it, instead of one individual team.   There’s not enough overhead, in a word.

Overhead is important; there are so many projects that must take place in overhead, not around an individual team or cabal,   but without resources to drive these projects along, substantial change and reform cannot happen.   We’ve managed quite a bit in the Northeast through the efforts of just a few folks who care enough about this activity to administer tournaments for the sake of having it done properly.   We’ve also embarked on a few interesting changes and experiments, such as normalizing the college tournaments along recognizable guidelines, and launching the use of the Modest Novice LD resolution.   It has only taken is a small knot of coaches who have critical mass in the region, and who spend enough downtime together talking about the Way Things Are and the Way they Should Be.

We’re used to providing a little overhead to our activity in this cabal, so we do it naturally.   But our own time is limited, and there are a quite a lot of coaches who don’t, or can’t, contribute much in this manner.   So the first requirement for an online platform must be a real lack of friction.   If it requires a lot of time and effort to post or contribute, folks won’t.   There’s only so many hours even I can give each week to the Wider World of Forensics, and if I have to choose between contributing to a nascent forum or programming a new feature into tabroom that’ll get me to Ibiza a half hour earlier at the Yale tournament, you can guess which I’ll put my time towards.

The second requirement that every forum so far has lacked is importance.   I think this is the one that keeps most people away.   Coaches know full well they can post all they want to an online forum and it won’t affect any real change.   One of the Achilles heels of too many forensics leagues, in fact, is the sense that real change can only happen if it comes from An Insider, whether or not the reality is so. If that belief is widespread, people don’t bother speaking up, and the perception reinforces itself because nothing changes.   It takes some determined effort to re-establish transparency under those conditions.

So, for a forum to succeed and bring us together nationally, change has to result.   It can’t just be an online stitch and bitch; that’ll turn too many people off.   It has to be a place that a responsible coach must pay attention to, or be out of the loop.   You get that by having a critical mass of tournament directors, league officials, and others with a high profile actively invited, engaged and plugged into the process.     So someone has to go out and recruit these folks, directing their attention to the forum when their bailiwick is being discussed, and prod them into active engagement with the community.   And then close the loop, and let the community know when it has been heard.

The third requirement is activity, right from the start.   A forum online can only work if it captures a sense of discussion and byplay, not just single shots in the dark.   Menick and I post into the ether usually, but when we argue with each other, then folks really notice.   You need that back-and-forth to draw interest.   The conversation needs to eventually turn into action, but the debate itself is inherently entertaining — and so, essential.   So someone needs to be the editor and the prompt, to talk when no one else is talking.   That would draw interest from more folks, and engage them when they do stop by.

The fourth requirement is that the forum must be adult.   There are plenty of places in the online community for students to participate and contend with coaches, but the inevitable effect is that the students overwhelm the discussion with their concerns and most coaches turn away.   For this project to be unique, it needs to be free of that effect; there are things I won’t suggest or say if I know students are kicking around en masse.   As part of the adulthood requirement, the forum needs to be totally non anonymous.   For some reason, when you combine normal people with the Internet and anonymity, some substantial percentage of them turn into frothing asshats.   Frothing, ungrammatical asshats.   The coaching community is small enough and personal enough that simply stripping people of the veil of anonymity should be enough to keep an online arena civil and respectful.   Or at least civil and respectful unless someone really meant it.   Having an adult tone is crucial to keeping the discussion meaningful and effective. So that means having someone sift the entries for frothing unproductive nonsense, and act as a guardian at the gate: this person must approve new posting accounts rapidly enough that new members can join easily, but verify them as adults who have a presence in the forensics community, and who are using their real names.     Which in turn makes it all the harder to gather critical mass needed in Point 3.

Notice something?   Each of these requirements ends in “someone has to.”   The trouble here isn’t technical, and casting around for the perfect bulletin board software isn’t going to solve it; though choosing the wrong web forum software could certainly kill the idea.   This project can’t be done without the thing we most lack; overhead.   An editor.   Someone passionate enough to making it work that s/he’ll tend the garden constantly, every day.   The thing that made Victory Briefs Daily take off wasn’t their software platform — I kind of hate the new look & shuffling-story interface, it hasn’t grown on me at all — but the fact that Cruz was there every day making things happen.   That’s what you need to have an effective coacherly forum: a champion who dedicates their focus to it, and makes it happen.   At least for a year or two until it takes off on its own momentum.

And no, that person is not me.   I’ve taken off a few hats this year, for fear my head would collapse beneath them.   I no longer run my local FL, and my overhead time is divided between making software to make forensics better, and making the college tournaments better with more direct intervention.   Find a champion and this can work.   I hope someone does volunteer.

Fighting with Menick

So I spent last weekend at the TOC, as a judge/scout/driver/EMT for Scarsdale.   My qualifying team, perhaps wisely, didn’t want to attend, but I’m a sucker for punishment that way.   We had a fun time all around, and there were stories of course.   Scarsdale did well; no one finished worse than 3-4, two made elims, and one of those was in the quarter.   I can claim precious little credit for that, though I can claim a larger share of credit than I should have for getting everyone to the airport; a non-life-threatening but nonetheless serious Medical Event, the one thing coaches dread more than anything else, sent our Monday travel plans, our focus on the tournament, and JV’s nerves into a tailspin dive.   Every one of those things survived in the end, and I made it onto my plane with a good ten minutes to spare.

One of the funnier things that happened at TOC is that people encouraged me to get into more fights with Menick.   That’s going to be hard, for one thing, since we do tend to agree on a lot of stuff.   But I think we can try.   However, it’s interesting; going back and forth about extemp apparently was deeply engaging to various PF and Policy coaches too.

Bietz is now NDCA president and he used a note in the yellow flyer the NDCA was posting around the tournament to encourage more online discussion by coaches.   He rightly points out that the students have taken to online discussion quite readily, but that coaches have lagged far behind.   That lends a certain immature, fanboyish air to most online forums dedicated to forensics, to the point that serious discussion simply will not take place on most of them.   Every now and then coaches do have to talk things over without student input, after all — there are times when decisions need to be taken that will be sharply unpopular with students.   Students, after all, are ephemeral — they’re rightly made much of when they’re in the world of debate, but soon enough most of them are gone from it, while the coaches have to remain behind with the consequences.   So it’s strange that students do most of the interacting in permanent online forums, and coaches very little.

Bietz’s solution is to call for coaches to simply start contributing articles for their newly revamped debatecoaches.org.   That’s a fine idea in its own right — it would be nice to see some online venue for coaches attain some critical mass. But I wonder if it’s not doomed and destined to become just an online version of the Rostrum.   I wrote a Rostrum article once.   Ironically, it was about computer usage in extemp.   I got a fair number of emails, and then the issue died.   Certainly no one in NFL officialdom appeared to notice.   But then when Menick and I went back and forth a couple times on the selfsame issue, the issue get all kinds of attention and feedback.   Though still none from officialdom, but what can you do.

So the point is, we don’t need static articles and little sallies in the dark.   The real value of online communication is dialog and discussion.   It’d be all the better if folks who actually ran things participated, too.   Meaningful communication, as forensics types should know instinctively, are not one-way.

The challenge is one of platform.   Message boards have a high amount of friction, which young people overcome but busier older folks rarely do.   Blogs are nice, if people start them, but someone who only wants to chip in on one conversation won’t do that.   That’s the trouble, getting a critical mass of meaningful conversation that can affect change.

The second hurdle, of course, is how diffuse and fractured we are.   Tomorrow on that one — and on that point Menick and I do disagree.   He urges the NFL on us as rule-setters of the Forensic Universe.   But it’s all too clear that they’re nothing of the sort.

Menick strikes again

I disagree with everything Menick says in his  last post.  Since his last post was agreeing with what I say, we have a neat Godelian moment there, eh?

 But at any rate, Jim’s right, the community really doesn’t talk a whole lot for a bunch of talkers.  I’ve always wondered why that is.  Perhaps because it’s a competive activity, and some folks prefer to hold their cards close to their chest.  Perhaps because some of the problems we face aren’t endemic, but derive from individuals, and no one likes to call out individuals in public.   Perhaps because as educational funding has been whittled away and never seems to bounce back, our community has been cut down to the people who only do it because we love it, and who squeeze it into odd moments of our lives, like Jim and I do.  If people like Jim and I could dedicate the normal 40+ hours a week to this game, we’d probably have more leisure to do it right.  As it is, we do well simply to do it.  People gotta eat.

I’ve long faulted the NFL and the NCFL a bit for not fostering more intercommunication between coaches.   Morseso the NFL, since the NCFL national tournament is not exactly chock full of spare time, while the NFL proceeds at an expensive leisurely pace.  The NFL tournament is also the annual convention of the coaches, and it’d be nice if we could, you know, do something with that.

There are plenty of issues in forensics, but for the most part we’re a leaderless, voiceless community.  We each do our thing in our local community, but there’s little wider effort.  I wonder if that’s a chicken and egg problem; if we had leadership, we’d have more resources?  It’s hard to say; it’s not like education as a whole lacks for voice and leadership, and we’re sinking as part of that ship, albeit slowly.  

The internet provides a good platform for these discussions and I hope we can spark more of them.  It’d be even more good if others would contribute; it’d be nice to point to someone as the “sane” coach writer, to contrast with myself and Menick.  Maybe coaches are also not writers, or are technophobes, problems Jim and I do not share.   But as he points out, if the community doesn’t introspect at all, then it’s simply begun to die out.h


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.

A world divided

So I mostly live in the world of the Massachusetts Forensic League, which governs most of the local tournaments in Massachusetts.   It’s an inverse of what they do over in New York, where CFLs run the local show and they get together once a year for the State League to step in; here we do CFLs once a year to qualify students to Nationals, and then the State League runs everything else.   The advantage is that we can set our own rules and our own guidelines, create our own events — a mixed blessing, given some of our events — and guide our own path.

However, the MFL is strangely split.   The league, by member numbers, is heavily weighted towards speech events, in particular interp events.   Debate happens at the fringes, when it happens at all.   Most of the MFL debate centric programs therefore are not truly part of the MFL for their local circuit, but instead are part of the wider — and therefore more expensive — Northeast debating circuit.

The Northeast circuit does a lot of things right.   Most of the major tournaments offer student housing to defray the cost of having to go hundreds of miles each weekend, which boils down the travel costs to gasoline and a hotel room for the adults in many cases. It’s a good community where folks generally speaking trust each other, and it features a stable administrative crew that spontaneously grew up around the fact that most of the tab rooms are run by the same collection of usual suspects week in and week out.

As I see it, there are two major splits between the MFL and the Northeast debating world.   The first is cost.   The standard entry fee for an MFL tournament is $5.   The standard entry fee for a Northeast debate tournament is somewhere north of $40.   In other worlds, a student can go an entire season of competing in the MFL on a single weekend’s pay in the Northeast.   That price differential serves to sever the MFL schools from the Northeast schools; the debate programs which run tournaments take in more money than MFL programs that do, and so they have money to spend on others’ fees.   MFL programs that only charge $5 simply don’t have that sort of budget.   Our students, for instance, pay their own fees.

Personally I fall with the MFL on this issue; the $5 fee is far superior in making the activity accessible, both to students who cannot afford $50/week, and to students and programs who are new to the activity.   It’s far easier to tell people to blow $25 and a Saturday on trying something out with 5 of their students, than it is to get them to pony up $200+ for the same honor.

However, there is also stuff that goes the other way.   We’ve had a remarkable amount of turnover among the MA debate coaches in the past five years, while the speech coaching has been more stable.   However, back in The Day, the debaters were somewhat more hostile towards the speech coaches, claiming that they were being abandoned and ignored — but at the same time, when speech coaches attended debate tournaments, ignoring and abandoning them.   At this point, the instinctive reaction of a lot of MFL speech coaches is to regard debaters as snooty hooligans who are just there to be nasty to people unlike them.

However, we have some of the nicest debate coaches in the country in Massachusetts.   JP is blending in with the speech side, for which I thank my lucky stars, since it means I’m not the only hybrid.   I’ve really enjoyed getting to know Sara S this year, and Jim M has always been a terrific guy.   Tim A and I ran Yale for years and though he’s less active now, he’s always good to have around.   And we have some newer coaches coming up (Anne B, Tara T, etc) who seem to really Get It.   Further, speech coaches might look at their own tournaments and programs, where there’s vast unmet demand for debate events.   We started offering Public Forum at formerly speech-only tournaments, for the standard $5, and in only its second year there are more students competing in PF at your average MFL tournament than any other event.   The majority of inquiries I get about potential new programs ask about debate, not   speech; and while some of those programs eventually convert to speech programs, it’s mostly out of the difficult logistics around debate.   The MFL needs strongly to offer more debate opportunities that are easy to get to; it’s such a simple win.

But some historical bad blood, together with unfamiliarity with the events, is causing MFL speech coaches to resist it.   A tournament that has 50 prose entries is viewed as a good thing, while 42 PF teams is viewed a huge problem.   Where there are space and room issues, tournament directors cap debate entries first, rather than instituting an overall cap.   Space is an issue, since the MFL is an awkward stage where we’re a bit too big for most schools, but also a bit too small to have two tournaments going at once.   But it’s not that much of an issue.   Ways could be found, and the current approach of just chopping debate off at the knees is not healthy for students or the League.

Ultimately, it comes down to lack of connections.   It’s easy to demonize someone you don’t know and interact with.   Debaters are teenage high school students seeking to learn much the same skills as interp kids or address kids: the art of being believed.   They’re doing it in a difficult arena — speech kids don’t have to face the possibility that everything they say will be immediately and forcefully contradicted.   I’ve tried to meld the two communities together a bit, but there’s more to be done.   I’d love to see 8-9 tournaments locally, at $5 a pop, offering both LD and PFD.   Policy may be a tougher nut to crack, but that alone would be a start.   And then perhaps debate would be seen in the MFL as an academic activity along the same lines as theirs, not just an imposition of grubby little space aliens taking away rooms from f’n Group Discussion.