UPenn

This year I ran the UPenn Liberty Bell Classic for the third time, and the tournament has really turned the corner.   First, it’s just a nice campus, and a nice place to be in October.  The weather was stunningly perfect, and we eat very well; we have Barb G’s amazing french-toast bagels, we eat in Center City with Tony F, and during the day on Saturday they even stick a freshman into a cab at one point with orders for hundreds of Pats and Geno’s cheesesteaks for lunch.  I can’t remember which of the cheesesteak places is the racist one, but they’re both delicious.

The tournament also, after the typical rough Saturday morning start endemic to tournaments on college campuses, proceeded without a hitch.  On time, well attended, well judged.   The one part of the tournament that did get short shrift was policy, and it was all my fault; at several points I forgot which rooms we were supposed to use at which times and sent the poor tub-luggers scurrying all over creation.  And after seeing what remained of the powermatching in the 5th round, the 6th round quickly was revealed to be hopeless, if they wanted judging or opponents.  That’s the trouble with a small division, though.  Policy is slowly extracting itself from any relationship with the rest of forensics; there aren’t many tournaments left that have both the full slate of events, and an active and healthy Policy division.   That said, this year’s Yale draw was up around the 25 team mark, which while not exactly a huge deal, is also a perfectly viable tournament, especially given that those 25 teams came from about 10 different schools from various different states.

Ali H also did stupendous work with the judge wrangling.  Apparently she convinced the UPenn Law school that judging a high school debate tournament is a perfectly good way to earn pro bono service hours required to graduate.  At one level this sounds like a shenanigan to those of us who know what kind of specie and cajoling goes into finding hired judges, but on another level, it is actually a very good way to serve the community, especially given that the profits of the tournament go directly back into the high school community in the hands of Penn for Youth Debate, the on-campus wing of Perspectives, that’s working hard to bring LD Debate into the public school system of Philadelphia.

I started calling the Penn law school The Magic Judge Tree:  you just shake it and all the judges you’d ever want fall to the ground.  At one point, I looked at my TRPC instance with Public Forum loaded into it, and saw things like “Judges needed for round 3: 14.  Judges available:  32.”  They made excellent judges; several had longstanding LD and Policy experience and judged that; the rest made very sharp and very helpful Congress, Extemp, and PFD judges.   What a complete joy to tab; we had trouble with rooms that occupied a lot of my time and made the tabbing interesting, but judges simply were not an issue.  If we’d had the rooms, we could have single-flighted the entire thing; next year, we’re working on doing exactly that.  Imagine the platonic ideal of a tournament with five single-flighted rounds of debate on Saturday; we can kick the thing off at 11:00 and still end in time for a reasonable dinner.   Sleep in, get some breakfast, and then debate!  It’s almost civilized, and especially so compared to the usual bleary eyed death march that our tournaments become.

The one area that Penn suffers is their date.  We conflicted with St Marks’ this year, which isn’t a big deal, and also the MHL’s first year event and PSATs, which was a big deal.  Penn still drew a strong field of 70 or so VLDers, 57 PFD teams, and hit 80+ in both OI and DP, but the other events were rather smaller.  The trouble is this particular clear space in the northeast calendar doesn’t always exist; there are years where Manchester is earlier and Bronx is therefore back to back with Monticello with no room left for Penn.

So we need a more permanent solution and home.  I’ve been talking to them about the idea of taking on the biggest monopoly in forensics, the biggest bleariest-eyed death march, the overgrown debacle that happens at my glorious ancient alma mater every February.

OOooooOOoooooh.  David and Goliath there, eh?

Of course, they’d lose schools and interest from some of the people who go to the tournament each year.  But I think they’d also pick up a lot of interest from the large number of schools who do not enjoy and in many cases do not go to Harvard.  But more to the point, they could compliment each other well enough.  Penn’s tournament is not aiming to make money but to provide a service, and visibility for Perspectives.  Harvard’s tournament is no place for learners and novices; it’s competition in the purest sense.  So a UPenn tournament not too far away that charged a small fraction of the price that one pays for Harvard could be very valuable and viable.  The Philly local schools that attend Harvard could send their B squads, and the rest would have a tournament to go to at all.  It’s somewhat warmer, I’m sure; I live less than three miles from Harvard’s campus and yet that tournment weekend always seems unusually bitterly cold even to me.

On the other side, the Harvard tournament is not a pleasant experience in a lot of (fixable!) ways, and this is coming from someone who both gets to sleep in his own bed that weekend, and who knows the comfy hiding spots on campus so as to avoid Cambridge Ringe and Latin.  I’m sure the Penn round-robin could attract quite a number of the LDers who have fully qualled for the TOC already and see little point to subject themselves to the roundabout random-results-generator that is Harvard’s LD judging pool.  We could have educational talks and other perks that the single-flighted schedule of loveliness might permit.

Hell, if we’re feeling really generous, we could even have someone running the ballot table who won’t fine people for not picking up their ballot on time, when said people were waiting in the line that the understaffed ballot table itself was causing to move too slowly.  This actually happened to one of my judges two years ago at Harvard.  Minh scrubbed it away, which is fine if you know Minh, but if I was turned off enough in the first place that the ballot table person didn’t recognize what she was doing was wrong.  Of course, this is the same ballot table person who told Sarah that “obviously you don’t understand what it takes to put on a tournament of this scale” in the same year Boston was hosting Nationals.

There’s customer service and awareness of the forensics community for you.

It’d be ballsy, and would probably tick a few people off, but I don’t like sacred cows much and think there’s also value in challenging them.  It’s indicative that of the 40-50 or so active MFL speech programs maybe 5-6 make the effort to even go to Harvard, despite it being a huge national draw right in our backyard.  I don’t know if the Penn students are going to bite at the idea; granted, they have more to lose than I do if this flops and fails.  But I still like the idea, and if they don’t bite, I think I’m going to try to find another venue for the Harvard Alternative.

Until then, there are other battles to be fought.

New Haven

So I’m sitting here in my room at the Marriot Courtyard, preparing a tournament again.  This is the first time I’ve done so in quite some months; not since Appleton NCFL Nationals, in fact, which is the longest such stretch I get all year.   In three weeks I’ll be doing the same at the UPenn LBC, and then in early December I pull off the double header of divided loyalties, as I try to advise and correct course on the Princetonians at the same time as I run tab at the University School in Florida, which was an epic struggle between divided loyalties that I hope ends up with me doing right by everyone.  Then seven weeks until Columbia, and then a flurry of activity on my local league, then NY States, and then NCFLs all over again.

Can I get a martini please?

Viva Las Vegas

A few words about Las Vegas:

It’s a strange town.  There’s the sudden and overwhelming artificiality of The Strip, but if you go more than a quarter mile beyond it in any direction, you find yourself in the most banal and faceless suburb known to man.  It’s a rather strange contrast between the aggressively over the top, and the aggressively normal.

The tournament itself is the standard NFL fare.  It’s easy, drawn out schedule conceals the fact that the tournament is pretty poorly run.  I think it might be that they obsessively quadruple check everything, but somehow my tournament director’s mind rebels at any tournament that takes 3 hours to break from 30 students to 14.  That really shouldn’t be that difficult.  And I gather supplementals and consolations ran even more poorly; my student described EdComm quite colorfully as “a slowly moving pile of f#@%!!”; I hear the second round of Impromptu launched a good three hours late.

The awards ceremony was ridiculous on two fronts.  The first was the ridiculousness inherent in the thing; the first student to actually haul in a trophy for talking got it a good 75 minutes into the show.  We were treated to an, ahem, inspirational speech complete with movie music straight out of Dances with Wolves.  For unintentional comedy, that rivaled the infamous blessing by Sister Someone-or-other in Chicago CFLs 2006 and Ted Turner’s amazing drunken ramble at NFLs in 2002.   Both my own team and the Scarsdale contingent were doubled over.  I thought Vaughan was going to have an aneurysm.

I had proclaimed earlier in the week that Joe and I should maintain the life goal to someday get kicked out of an event for bad behavior.  We certainly did our best right then, but no one shushed us or asked us to leave.  They were probably cracking up too much.

I suppose a responsible coach might have shushed the kids up and made them struggle to compose themselves out of respect for the event and the sponsors thereof, but I actually won’t have anything to do with that.  The NFL disrespected its own event enough to let an hour and change go by patting itself on the back before recognizing actual students.  The NFL lets their sponsors and celebrities cross that magic line from supporting to dominating the actual event — I noticed, for example, that the humorous final panel didn’t have a single actual forensics coach on it.  It was mostly celebrities and sponsors.  Were I a coach of a HI finalist, I would have been ripshit.  As it was, I was still rather offended.  So as far as I was concerned, the NFL had the guy babbling up there, and so the NFL could take the consequences.

Then my team went on to clean up.  We had a semifinalist and three finalists, and the finalists each went on to win their events outright.  Apparently it’s some record to win three national championships — Storytelling, Editorial Commentary, and US Extemp — so that’s something.  It certainly meant a lot of effort shipping things home the day after the tournament.  A good problem to have, that.  And it was nice, in a way, since all four students were talented and deserving sorts who’d worked hard all year, and were smart and eager kids.  But still, it was a little surreal.

The story of the Storytelling is itself a story, which will be told later.  Charlie called me after he had heard the news — he was judging the Ed Comm final and was very offended I hadn’t told him which student was mine so he could automatically give him the worst rank.  He’d asked me to tell him results since he was wisely skipping awards, but in the hoopla and picture taking I had neglected to do so.  He found out anyway and called to issue congratulations.   He told me to play some money on #3 that weekend since the luck was apparently good.  I did, and it hit, which is a $1,050 payout.

I should listen to Charlie more often.

The kids shipped home I spent time doing Adult Things in Vegas, which translates into spending a ridiculous amount of money on food and laying by the pool and such.  Yesterday and today I’ve been feeling a little upset of the stomach, which is unfortunate, but it’s also slowed me down some.  I slept alot and now I’m waiting quietly in a Panera for my flight time.  I think I prefer the aggressively normal bits, banality and all, to the over the top bits.  I never did get the Camp gay merit badge.

The Night before Nationals

It’s the night before I depart for Vegas and the NFL Tournament. I have a sequence of horrible flights, but I can’t really complain too much since they’re a freebie from the airline. I also now am on some list of terrorists, so I can’t check in online anymore. A guy who’s never been out of North America and always travels with 5-15 adolescents, I guess, is highly suspicious; probably true, but not usually for carrying bombs. Pattern matching software is notorious for generating a huge number of false positives. Ah well, there’s a website where one can register one’s bafflement at this condition and see what happens. I bet I’ll get audited, though I’m sure the cavity search tomorrow will be gentle.

It’s raining. It’s a beautiful rain; that cold humidity in the air making one unsure if it’s hot or cold or both at once. It’s thundering, and pouring, which is something of a summer ideal for me. Watching the rain fall in a warm summer night with little lights here and there under the leaves just fills me with a sense of normalcy. You see, I grew up in the shadow of a mountain that flung thunderstorms at us with clockwork regularity. We get far fewer down here in the coastal areas, and I miss them, so whenever one does come roaring through, it quiets and comforts.

I mention this because this last night and last two weeks have had a pace of normalcy about them that’s often missing from the forensics life. Tomorrow I’m headed to Vegas, but I’m also staying longer than the tournament, and explicitly going to have a good time. The presence of the national tournament is tangential at best. It helps that I’ve come to not care about the NFL and its Nationals one way or another. They make their tournament too big a deal, spend too much time backslapping coaches publicly, and it’s a little too much about sponsors; no sense of a balance there. Most of all, they run their organization entirely on the incorrect assumption that everyone sees it as the singular apotheosis of forensics, which prevents them from seeing, or at least acknowledging and correcting, certain problems.

The NFL for me is now eminently skippable, while once upon a time I saw it as a Big Freakin’ Deal. But at this point it’s hard for me to see anything in forensics as a Big Freakin’ Deal. I’ve run tournaments, I’ve had kids win them, I’ve had them lose, and I’ve not noticed much long term difference between, outside the fact that kids sometimes learn something. I also lose respect for tournaments each time I realize that education and competition are at cross currents. It irks me when I tell the kids to do things that I know risks them defeat. I won’t compromise on that, but it saddens me when I become aware of it. And it really kills me when the kids themselves — and every kid I’ve ever coached has done this — push back and do the lesser thing to win the tournament, and get a trophy in return for their integrity. Bad trade.

The NFL does that to my kids more often than most tournaments. I hear the collective voice of NFL judges pushing back at me through the students’ mouths a lot, despite the fact that we don’t even get ballots back and so we don’t actually know why NFL judges do what they do. The tournament overall has a distorting effect, and cheapens the education I feel I can present my students. So I go there tomorrow, but I try to leave no wake, make no waves, and remain as anonymous and concealed as I can. And hope to God nobody asks me to fix their !@$#%!@ website.

Intervention

So I decided I don’t like debating economics, for the same reason I don’t like extemp speeches about science and technology. You need a master’s degree at least to talk about these issues directly in a way that can be debated.

In an ordinary comfortable LD debate, at issue are ethical issues which have voices of authority behind them, but at root there are no correct or incorrect answers once one has passed a relatively low bar of understanding the resolution at hand. Once you understand, say, that a question about security in a terrorist-threatened society is about protection versus liberty, you’re off to the races.

But what we faced this weekend in PF at the Just Another Tournament was a debate over economic issues; will Bush’s little checks and their related goodies actually dig us out of this economic hole? The trouble with this topic is that your average high school student, and average person, can argue effectively in terms of ethics and philosophy, but in the world of the economic, there are clear cut correct and incorrect answers in some fields. What do you do as a judge when a team flings a case of unmitigated falsity up there, and you know it? You can wait for the other team to tear it down, if they can, but it still leaves one unsatisfied. In extempland, I’d just write a ballot explaining the errors and move on, but that’s intervention in debate, and not fair ground.

Furthermore, what should a team do when their opponent starts flinging out (warranted!) things that are flatly untrue, based on misunderstandings of basic economic principles? Stuff becomes a push in debater terminology when really one team was absolutely correct and the other was not, and sometimes the judges know it and sometimes they don’t, depending on their own background.

Result? Lots of really awful debates. The resolution ultimately wasn’t about a question of thought and ambiguity. It’s a technical prediction. The question of whether Bush’s economic package will work does have an answer. It’s ambiguous not by nature, but by complexity; the model is too vast to know, but if we did comprehend it, we could have a clean cut binary answer. At root then, the only debates on this topic are debates as to interpretations of known facts trying to fill in unknown facts. That got messy, to say the least, especially given that the high schoolers in question somehow are not fluent in a field where PhDs still can’t make accurate predictions. Go figure.

This is not true of ethical questions that make the usual stuff of debate. We’ll never have an answer as to whether hate crimes are just or not; exploring that issue is exploring thought, not fact. That’s better ground for debate, and I hope the mysterious back room topic writers stay there in the future. There is room for economic debate of course, but it should redirect towards the social questions of economics; how much assistance should a society grant its poor? How should goods be allocated? Stick to that and we’re OK; but for now, watching high school kids trying to do the work of dissertation writers is nobody’s idea of fun.