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.

Catholic Forum

It appears I have at least one reader, since Mr Menick talks sometimes about things I have to say. That’s considerably better than talking about what I don’t have to say, the usual mode of the Internet. It appears in New York, Public Forum’s merits are still hypothetical, so to add some meat to the argument, I’ll point out that it’s very healthy and growing in Massachusetts. Our state tournament drew 24 teams from 10 schools if I remember right, the largest division. We have both debate-heavy and speech-heavy schools participating, and since we added PFD to most speech tournaments, it’s served as a way to bridge the divide between. Many of our speech tournaments have begun pulling PF judges directly from the IE pool, making it just another event. We’ve had national success too; last year’s TOC champs; this year’s Harvard, and so on. It’s been nothing but positive for our league.

But now, just as I spend a post asserting that Public Forum will save debate, the NCFL comes out with their tournament topic.

To be blunt, if you’re going to have a debate event that relies on persuasion as its highest value, then you have to give the students topics that won’t make them look like assholes. The CFL gives us: Resolved: That the US Government should increase social services for indigenous peoples in America.” So teams will travel into the heart of old Sioux country and basically argue “the darkies have had enough of a free ride, let them fend for themselves, the lazy jerks.” Good luck being persuasive with that. I’m not sure I want to know the kinds of judges who will vote for it.

You could argue against social services in general on conservative, libertarian principle, but you’d better hope your opponents somehow manage to miss such trifiling matters as the shocking poverty on most reservations, and the ruthless and aggressive destruction of indigenous ways of life which caused it. Neg can only reply “Oops! Our bad! Well, pull yourself off the ground and stop crying about it, already.”

I’m already foreseeing a lot of judges leaving a lot of rounds completely disgusted by something appalling some unwitting teenager said. That, despite the fact that the teenager in question likely didn’t believe a word of it.

We’ve had a variety of flawed topics that produced good debates in Public Forum. The February topic, “Russia has become a threat to US interests” was a true statement on its face, given that any sovereign nation outside of the US is a threat to US interests; would it have killed them to slip the word “major” in there? But for the most part, the affs took on reasonable definitions of threat, and corrected the failure of the resolution. The January topic suffered from a dearth of evidence on the negative; would it have killed them to remove the bit about a democracy? But negs found ground through smoke and mirrors anyway.

The two topics I thought were most balanced, the November one about deficit spending, and the current one about Bush’s little rebate checks, did not lead to good debates. That’s especially funny, since they share the exact same argumentation; we pretty much took the November cases and reworked the details. Nobody else did, though; I suspect nobody else really understood what the topics were about, including perhaps their authors — if they did get it, they wouldn’t have put them both in the same school year. I’m one of the very few public forum coaches who is comfortable teaching economics. It comes of a childhood wasted in extemp.

So now, after extolling the benefits of bringing persuasion and argumentation closer to each other, we’re going to spend May running away from that as hard as we can, and find a way to defend the position that poverty is solved by less money, and that near-genocide does not produce an obligation on part of the genociders towards the genocidees.