The View from Tab

Whenever I hear “The View”, I think about that daytime show where a bunch of random women refuse to allow their own ignorance to hamper the forceful expression of their opinions.   That association is somewhat off, as the Three Geronimo Brothers have been lately been producing The View from Tab, a podcast about the LD centric portion of our universe.   It made its way into my commute-podcast rotation, I’ll admit; they think nobody is listening, and I’m nobody, so there we go.

Last week’s podcast, I have to admit, rubbed me a bit the wrong way.   Most of the podcast was spent talking about the various high school tournaments hosted at colleges in our activity, and the problems and frictions that brings.   Over the years I’ve grown a bit sensitive to blanket denunciations of college tournaments.   After all, I’ve been the guiding adviser for various college tournaments for a decade now.   I have firsthand knowledge of working with four different college hosting organizations & campuses, each very different than the others, and the administrations and setups of said campuses.   I’m willing to put out there that nobody in the activity right now knows more about the trials and tribulations of a college hosted tournament than I do.   So I’m going to cite myself as evidence, and not apologize for it.   But as a result, the discussion was a little hard not to take as a personal affront, even though I’m good friends with all three of the Mooching Mojitos.

Their discussion was inspired by the Emory tournament, which I gather had a few issues last weekend — I’ve never been to Emory, so I don’t know firsthand.   But Emory’s ills launched us into a takedown of college tournaments in general.   That really bugs me — the underlying assumption of the podcast, and of many high school coaches, is all those college tournaments are the same. That’s completely unfair.   I get annoyed enough when running Yale that I sometimes have to defend occasional Yalie decisions I disagree with; proxy-defending Harvard while I’m at it is beyond the pale.

I’ll point out that UPenn is a remarkable exception to their entire discussion; they’ve been exceptionally well managed for the last few years, their proceeds go to urban LD debate programs in Philadelphia, and they would run the tournament even if it did not turn a profit.   In a lot of ways, UPenn stands apart, and definitely above; they’re better than many high school-hosted tournaments I’ve been to.   Plus, cheesesteaks.   I’ll even admit that I’ve lost a little bit of respect for coaches this year who are sending squads to Harvard without supporting UPenn; but we’re going to have a good weekend, I think.

However, let’s go to the other end of the scale; it’s no secret that Yale is by far the most profitable tournament I direct and advise.   I’ll still put the Yale tournament experience up against Harvard’s any day on any grounds.   Yale spends good money hiring a great pool of judges in every division.   We use those judges well.   They put out plenty of food for the judges and coaches — I’ll admit the quality could be improved and certainly can’t compete with home cooking, but the Yalie parents are far flung and I don’t want to eat college student home cooking.   They orchestrate an exceedingly complex tournament that nonetheless leaves time for sleep and meals.   They make sure that high school people are in charge of every division; no division at Yale is treated like a second class citizen run by a B team tab staff.

The Yalies slip up sometimes, Lord knows, and I yell at them for it when they do.   But not every slip is driven by a Montgomery Burns (Class of ’14) moment.   For instance, Bietz and Cruz complain about colleges not having printed schematics and attribute that to cheapness — but it was actually environmental concerns that led me (Me! Not them!) to decide that posting a small number of schematics is sufficient instead of handing a copy out to every debater.   That’s also why we tried the ballot scanning project this year, to try to save some trees — we ended up paying far more in person-hours than we saved on paper by doing so, and knew we would going in.   But it was right to try.

When folks start muttering about Harvard and Stanford and Villiger in the same sentences as the Palmeric Quartet, as if there’s no difference, it leads me to conclude that the work I’ve done getting these tournaments in shape isn’t valued; after all, after nine years hacking away at Columbia, if it’s still no better than any other college tournament, then why should I do it?

The other thing to understand about college organizations is that they are not internally monolithic; the ones I run all lack staff support and permanent coaching.   Few colleges support extracurricular activities with staff support anymore — hell, some barely support curricular activities adequately.   The cast of characters therefore changes a lot.   But there are patterns.   Usually the student tournament director is a former high school debater or speechie with strong ties to the community.   Tournament directors typically care a great deal about the quality and the experience at the tournament.

However, the leadership of the teams, not the tournaments, can be a trouble spot; college team leaders are not chosen for their connection to high school forensics.   The troubled years at college tournaments often happen when team leadership overrides tournament leadership, out of ignorance and greed.   However, the college organizations whose tournaments I run know one thing and one thing well; in the long run, they’re screwed without me.   I provide tournament directors an external veto on bad practices.   The tournament directors will sometimes themselves ask me to throw a fit and threaten to quit.   That gives me leverage to overrule team treasurers.   The system hasn’t worked perfectly — sometimes bad decisions creep through without me knowing, such as this year’s inflated concessions prices at Yale — but it’s worked much better than what came before.

No tournament I’ve run this way has failed to hire a good, if not great,   pool of qualified judging; no tournament has failed to feed coaches & judges, and no tournament has failed to run on schedule.   Harvard’s judging and schedule is a horrifying crapshoot, I’ll grant — though the schedule at least has improved recently.   Emory apparently fell short too this year, though they also sound like they want to improve.   But if any of the pools at Yale, Columbia, UPenn or Princeton were insufficient after I’d taken them over, I’d love to hear about it.

The triplets of terror then turned their attention to the role the TOC and TOC bids play in encouraging college tournaments.   Honestly I’ve wondered myself that the road to the pre-eminent event in high school debate runs through (and ends at!) a series of colleges; one of these days I should figure out how many bids as a percentage are given at college tournaments versus high school hosted ones.   But I’ve always been told the TOC bid process attempts to be descriptive, not prescriptive; they give bids to tournaments at levels where the kids are worthy of them, rather than declaring a tournament an quarters bid and hoping 8 bid worthy kids end up the quarter as a result.   When Yale got promoted from semis to quarters, it was on the argument that in the previous five years, all 20 non-advancing quarter finalists except for one ended up fully qualified to the TOC anyway, so clearly the tournament was producing a quarterfinals bid-level field.   So if it’s a problem that colleges have bids, the problem is not necessarily the TOC’s sanctioning; it may simply be that critical masses of good debaters go to college tournaments, and the TOC is recognizing that.

However, I’d point out a few things over and above that factor, since the cause-and-effect nature of a TOC is bid is certainly hard to suss out.

First, the TOC and bid status has far more influence with tournament staffs than they think.   Yale, Princeton and Columbia would never be the same tournaments without their bids, because those bids are very useful in encouraging good practices.   The TOC bid level at a tournament is pretty much the only external indicator the college teams get about how they’re running their tournament.   The tournament directors at college tournaments work very hard to run a tournament worthy of their bid level, and one of the most potent statements I can make is “Quarters bid tournaments are expected to do X” or “To get a semis bid, you’ll really have to invest more in Y.”   Princeton’s demotion from a LD semis to a finals bid was the wake-up call that inspired them to clean up their act on a number of fronts; doing so has immeasurably improved their tournament.   Columbia spent tons of money on hired judges beyond what was merited by their finals bid in order to get promoted to semis.

That said, the power of suggestion with the TOC bid level is weakened the bad college tournaments which nonetheless maintain their high bid levels.   Say you’re a member of a college team’s exec board, and you don’t have experience in high school forensics.   You want to know, for example, if it’s justified to raise your registration fees this year, or if you should keep them the same.   The natural thing to do is find comparable examples.   So you go around and look at other college tournaments, and holy crap Harvard charges like four thousand dollars per kid! A vision of a world without financial worry at all blossoms in front of your eyes, and when that annoying Palmer guy says “No, that’s terrible for the community, you’ll piss people off,” well what does he know?   Harvard is an octos bid, so they have the TOC’s stamp of approval; tons of people go to the tournament too, so obviously coaches don’t care that much. Why not jack our fees to match theirs?     Why should we hire outside judges?   Why should we feed them?   Harvard doesn’t.

I have to have this argument about once every two years.   It sucks.   It especially sucks that while I encourage the colleges to do the right thing and essentially leave money on the table each year, Harvard never gets its comeuppance; the long term karmic benefit never materializes.

All the same, once every two years is only once every eight tournaments.   I’ll point out that isn’t so bad; it rather undercuts the belief that all college students are grasping thieves.

Secondly, I’d point out too that the TOC itself is an exemplar of bad college practices.   They don’t feed anyone, they don’t hire a single judge, and last year they didn’t even give out trophies.   They also charge an arm and a leg, and the at-large application fees add even more, even though I doubt that the committee that reviews those applications gets an honorarium for their work.   If you really want to discourage profiteering, maybe start by looking at college debate’s penultimate event?

Thirdly, the TOC advisory committees and the high school community are notably silent about what they want.   Cruz pointed out that the Harvard administration was genuinely surprised that the LD world hated their tournament, and didn’t know why.   I can understand that.   I certify 14 TOC bids in Lincoln Douglas, 18 in Student Congress, and a whopping 48 in Public Forum Debate each year.     I’ve been certifying TOC qualifiers now for about 6 years.   I might be responsible for more total bids than anyone else in this activity.   I’m certainly responsible for more bids than anyone who isn’t on one of the advisory committees.   Even so, I have yet to hear a single word from any TOC affiliated committee or authority about how they expect these qualifying tournaments to be run.   Not once.   I’ve gotten a few emails this year about how to submit bids, which is a vast improvement — when I first started I had to ask all around creation to even figure out how to do that.     I would love to have a set of published standards from the advisories that listed out “Here are things we expect from Quarters bid tournaments, Semis bid tournaments…” and then noted concrete actions a tournament director can take to fulfill those standards.

It would help me a great deal in knowing the latest ideas   myself — I keep abreast of what’s going on in LD, but I’m not an LD coach, and I don’t attend a lot of bid tournaments in LD besides those I run.   But even more so, I can also guarantee that it would lead to instant improvements at Yale, Columbia and Princeton.     If there’s something Yale isn’t doing, and it appeared on a list of expectations of quarters-bid tournaments that the TOC published, they’d do it and they wouldn’t argue about it.   They really do care about running a good tournament that the community enjoys.   However, they’re also not going to spend $5,000 on something if it’s an edge luxury, not a necessity to the tournament; they need to know which is which.

If the committee does that, though, they have to stand by it; they have to take away bids where the expectations are not being met.

Finally, I’ll point out one thing.   The college students do make money off these tournaments; they’re major fundraisers for their own college debate teams, apart from UPenn of course.   However, they put a lot of work into the tournaments too.   Hosting a tournament at a college is much harder than at a high school; there are layers of bureaucracy, transport issues, administrative restrictions on spending the team’s own money, and a bizarre array of last minute nightmares.     A teacher at a high school is a colleague and can navigate their lower hurdles better; a college organization are students and have little to no leverage if an associate dean of obstruction is in a bad mood and threatens to cancel the entire show three days before because Form 341-b wasn’t filed within the appropriate ten minute window and the tiddlywinks team asked for the space, too.   It’s also not as if college students get any time off their day jobs either; they have no professional days; and if there’s a midterm the Monday after the tournament they’re probably going to bomb it.

If you totaled up the person-hours, college debate teams would probably be better off just sending their members to all get jobs at McDonald’s for six weeks.   The people would be more pleasant to deal with, and the hours and pay rate are better.

Even though the experience is more difficult for college students, they offer uniquely grand tournaments.   In speech I can’t think of a single large multi-state tournament with the kind of heft that any of the college tournaments have in the entire Northeast.   If college organizations stopped doing this legwork for us, my speechies would literally have nowhere to go beyond our local tournaments and Nationals.   They’d decline, therefore, in skills and edge, never having exposed to anything beyond what’s going on locally.   In debate the situation is better, but still not quite there; only Bronx runs a full three-day event like the colleges routinely do.     Where are all these bid-worthy invitational tournaments in the region, that we should take away Yale, Columbia and Princeton’s for the sin of being at colleges and therefore being lumped in with the excesses at Harvard or Emory or wherever else?

In short, if the high school community isn’t willing to do the legwork to run these tournaments, then yes, they should have to pay the college students who are willing to do it for them.   The students I advise work very hard and deserve it.   College tournaments can offer facilities that make a tournament better.   You don’t have large lecture halls and auditoriums to have final rounds where everyone can watch elim rounds at high school tournaments.   You don’t have an open campus to explore with a host of nearby restaurants and hotels.   You don’t have access to your building for the whole weekend.   And yes, you don’t have the name.

But there’s more to Yale than just the name.   Besides, it’s just a safety school.

What that judge was smoking

So the nature of democracy is you have to make a unitary choice — yes to this one, no to that one — that cannot express your full range of preferences. Instead you have to weigh the opposing sides’ views together with the importance of those views to you — if you agree with Bush on Iraq, and Kerry on health care, the question is which matters more to you, Iraq or health care?

Judges make evaluations in the same way. A speaker speaks, and the judge must list a rank from best to worst, without ties, or award the debate to one side or the other. Hundreds if not thousands of factors can weigh into these decisions, some honorable and some not. Ultimately the judge is making a judgment of “did I believe you, or did I believe another, more?” But belief is composed of so many things. Aristotle’s ethos, pathos and logos can be divided and subdivided many times.

Here’s the thing, though; naturally kids will tend to mimic success. They look at the people lined up and getting their trophies and TOC bids, and want to be them. The first step is mimickry, then; figure out what they do, and mirror it.

Some things successful competitors do are the reasons why they succeed. Some things are the features they succeed in spite of. Often times students have a difficult time telling the difference, though. I see a bad habit of a good kid echoed in the years that follow, as everyone becomes convinced that that’s the formula for success.

I think that’s where we get things like the horrible delivery in LD and extemp. Extempers don’t talk like people do; their sentence construction is convoluted, their delivery too fast, and their thoughts made ever more unclear by it. Good extempers tend to sound impressive, but are often so unclear as to leave the judge with a slightly uncomfortable feeling that they don’t quite know what just happened.

LDers are much the same; the regime of RFDs and flows constantly leave the debaters with the sense that their impeccable logic games win them or lose them every round. However, I saw rounds at the TOC that were more or less determined by one debater having insufficient tags or clarity of structure to convey their thoughts, and quite qualified judges missing things that could have turned the round.

These things should be rookie mistakes. But they’re common at a high level. What’s worse, kids will resist attempts to coach away from them, since that’s not how its done. I’m ready to claw my eyes out the next time a child asserts to me that “The Judges” won’t like something because it doesn’t fit with their idea of the event.

Kids are naturally conservative; they won’t go against what their community defines as “legit”. They’ll blame The Judges and fear The Judges, but they really fear each other. When students vote, in Congress or in round robins, they’ll always go the safe route and vote for whoever Should win, never mind who actually did. They will routinely be shocked at the “illegitimate” results of rounds they did not witness.

So that plugs into what camps teach about structure; that anyone who doesn’t follow Our Style is somehow illegitimate, since it gives kids a club. It also gives kids an easy way out. Thinking deeply, and expressing those thoughts clearly, is very difficult. It’s also the thing that unites all the kids who do well, and separates them from all the kids who don’t. They may have a certain structure, and a certain analytic approach, but at the end of the day the ability to think and communicate those thoughts are what make the difference.

But that’s hard to do. So there are a lot of lazy kids, who want that brush with glory and prestige on the cheap. So they aim for substructure and approach, which are easy to learn and perfect. They miss the real point, which is intelligence and clarity. I don’t have much time for kids like that. Then there are other kids who have either intelligence or good fluency, and never seem to develop the other trait; they coast on one ability without making much of a dent in the other. They do better than the first group, but never as well as they could, since they’re not working on the right things.

Basics are boring, and magic forumlas are sexy though…


So the last theme was complicated enough that I stopped halfway through. Walter Lippman’s Public Opinion, a fascinating book really. It makes a sham of our democracy, for one, because it asks the fundamental question of democracy: what are we voting for when we pull the lever?

In our system, we’re wrapping a lot of different preferences into a single choice.   We vote simultaneously for a person, a party apparatus, and an ideal or set of ideals. Some people vote based purely on what they think is the personality of the leader in question; so and so is a “good honest guy”, while the other is “shifty and sleazy”, which are calculations the average voter is in no place to make.

Another voter will vote based on the competence and the positions that the candidate takes, the platform and ideals, or the ideals and the notions of the party that he takes. But usually the character issues trump these things, which leads to all kinds of non democratic outcomes. A person may believe politically in the Republican Party’s ideals, but if they were a voter in one of the many districts in 2006 where the Republican was tarnished due to scandal and corruption, they had little choice but to vote Democrat anyway. And it happens in the other direction too, though not much of late; you have to have power to have corruption, and until recently the Dems had neither.

So what does it mean for someone who is a bona fide conservative to vote for a Democrat because their local Republican stole money from casinos or came onto a Congressional page? It surely doesn’t mean they’re voting for a liberal social policy, or for an end to the war in Iraq. It means their choices on ideology, on logos, were circumvented on ethos and pathos. Aristotle comes back to bite us. So sometimes we end up with policies we don’t like, because the bastard who did speak for our ideas was too awful to vote for.

One of the benefits of parliamentary systems is they avoid a lot of this. Each individual party member is less of a figure on their own right and more of a direct representative of the party. You vote for the party, not for the person, and not even sometimes for the Prime Minister, who is chosen by the party. That means if they Labour Party in Britain decides that Tony Blair is personally a liability, they can dump him, as dump him they did. Wouldn’t the Republicans love to dump Bush right now and replace him with someone more appealing? But they can’t, because in our system we vote for the person, while in Britain they vote for the party.

The sad part is, our system was set up that way on purpose. Washington in particular was wary of parties and political associations, and thought they were inimical to good democracy; they actually thought it was better, or even possible, to vote for the character of the person and leave ideological questions aside. Of course, the electorate then was a small, wealthy connected group of men, while today it’s a huge diverse mass of different citizens. But, Washington was wrong even in his own time; parties formed and solidified maybe 10 years into the lifetime of the Constitution, and never would wither away.

So we’re left with a system that awards mandates to all kinds of undesirable things, because that’s how it works. Is that democracy? In a direct sense, of course it is; the people’s will does get expressed. But on key questions, decisions are routinely undemocratic, where the vast majority of people’s preferences do not get expressed, because there is no option to express them in the system, or because the issues at hand are outweighed by other issues. If the American people were voting on solely health policy, they would have voted for Kerry in 2004; but they voted first on Iraq and security. Why, then, does Bush’s preferences on health care policy get to win out? That’s the problem with our system, and with our democracy.

So how do imperfectly expressed preferences have anything to do with what I said yesterday? That’ll be tomorrow’s post.