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.

On Fairness

We’d like debate to be fair.

We’d like our tournaments to be maintained and run impartially, distantly, and to follow the covenants made with the attendees ahead of time, both those spelled out and those generally understood.   We’d like students to advance or not based on the merits of their arguments and the quality of their work, instead of their coaches’ influence, their position in the community, their identity along whatever spectrum identity can take, or those moments when random events blunder into the debate round.   We want the winners to deserve their wins, and the losers to learn from their losses.  We want debate, ultimately, to be a paragon; a paragon of education, of competition, and of intellect written larger than you can find in usual high school activities.

It’s an adolescent kind of fairness.  A typical high school with a strong debate team is a place where we can dare to dream the world is perfectible.   The unfairnesses at such places are small, irritating, and finite; students come to believe that given enough work and fighting, surely unfairness can be eliminated outright.  A good high school is built to be fair; grades are mostly given to those who earn them, and students who  work hard and do well in school are uniformly rewarded with great colleges and bright futures.  Students who don’t work or lack talent are relegated to lower tiers.  Unfairness and mistakes tend to be minor and exceptional; the general rule is a gradient of work mapping to achievement and rewards.

Where you stand is a direct reflection of who you are.

To such students, geared and groomed and pointed Ivywards from a young age, the greatest nightmare is that someone — that I — should stand lower than earned.  One way to stand lower than you earned is if someone unworthy should step in line ahead of you.  If a kid with poor grades gets into Columbia through influence & connections, or membership in a favored group, another student with better grades goes to their safety school instead.  To those aimed Ivywards, that fate is terrifying; they’ve been told if they work hard and grow smart, they’ll do well.  Education pays off.   So these kids will react violently in times when they see someone earn a prize, and yet not receive it.  The great terror is that they’ll be smart enough to get into Columbia, but end up at NYU.  And they save a special place in hell for the interlopers who cheat the system, and thus cause it.

But debaters, and high school students at schools without debate, tend to undercount their unearned blessings.  They can’t help it; everyone they know shares in those blessings. Does a fish notice the water?  The fairness of their worlds is itself uncommon, and unearned.  The rarity of debate speaks to a wider problem, the rarity of a good education, the kind of education that only money and resources can truly provide.  In America, we save that good education for a select few students, who can penetrate the barriers of property values that are raised around great high schools.   And the bare truth is, you gained entry to that high school on your parents’ achievement, not your own.

There are places where hardworking students don’t go to college.  There are schools where nobody at all goes to the Ivy League, not the best, not the worst, not the most connected.  There are high schools where more students have children themselves than go to college.  There are high schools where the best and the brightest end up in gangs and often then in jail, not because they are weak and didn’t listen well enough to the anti-drug and anti-violence programs, but because gangs offer money, protection, and support, and their schools, families and neighborhoods offer none of these things.  The boundary between school work and life is much thinner, in places where families are one illness away from disaster, where children go to school hungry and tired, where home isn’t heated in the winter or cooled in the summer, where the day to day insecurity of life makes people snatch and grab for whatever stability they can find.  There are entire school systems where students dread vacations and snow days, because school means seven hours of heat and lunch, and days off mean neither.

These students get Ds in math and English.  But that doesn’t make them lazy.  Or stupid.  Or undeserving.  The difference between them and you, my debater friends, is the legacy of accidents.  Of where they were born.  And to whom.

It is comforting for students at great high schools to tell themselves the world is fair.  If the world is fair and they sit atop it, then surely they have worked great deeds to enjoy their privileges, and should have no guilt over the benefits.  The poverty and problems that other, distant people experience are the consequences of those people’s actions, and so are deserved.  If you ask, most privileged people will of course say they don’t believe that poor people deserve what they get, and many will vote solidly for tepid Democrats who promise to parcel off small margins of wealth towards poor people somewhere.  But by and large, they live and act as if the world were fair, and they deserved to sit atop it.   And so react very strongly when an event happens which threatens the balance.

Debaters are largely such people.  And so, debate rejects petty unfairness, but pays very little attention to the grand unfairness around us.  A student without a bid is going to the TOC — shock!  Scandal!  And worst of all, another one-bid kid may have to miss the TOC to accommodate a no-bid kid.  Gasp!  Terror!  The worst thing that happened all year!

There is an unfairness here.  The fact is that the no-bid student isn’t one of the top 80 debaters in the country.  I know this, because I acknowledge a reality most in debate prefer to forget: none of the students attending the TOC is one of the top 80 debaters in the country.  They’re just the top 80 students who have the chance to debate on the circuit.  For every kid who breaks, there are a hundred kids who are more talented and have more potential, but do not have access to debate, or anything like debate.  The same three dozen schools are at the TOC year and again; but there are about 18,000 high schools in the US, with over 14 million students.  Given that ratio, do any of you imagine you’re truly among the most talented 80?  The most hardworking?  The most moral and righteous and deserving?

Or do you choose to protest the advantages someone else was given, and neglect to see your own?

Debate isn’t the exclusive province of the wealthy.  There are a handful of schools that do well, despite drawing from student populations which face daunting real life challenges.  But everyone who debates is privileged to do so, whether it be by virtue of wealth your parents earned, or luck & happenstance of living near a school or a coach that values debate enough to offer it despite the daunting challenges of affording it, or the even rarer chance of having stumbled into debate without a program at all.

That’s the unfairness of debate that matters.  The unfairness of a bid round with an unfavorable panel pales next to the unfairness of millions of students living in poverty, never seeing a whiff of a debate round or even a stable life where their hard work could be rewarded or even recognized.  In a small way, debate realizes this, because we talk a great deal of helping new programs, and of outreach.  We know it should be done.  But we never do it.  We tell ourselves we don’t have time, but if it were important to the community, we’d make time.  After all, the amount of time we spend on debate has gone up a lot; when I started in LD, nobody wrote more than two cases, one on each side.  Tournaments were shorter, and had fewer rounds.  The amount of time debaters spend on debate has gone up, but the amount of time spent on new program outreach and accessibility has stayed flat.

So next to these injustices, I find it hard to get worked up about a no-bid student joining us in Kentucky to the exclusion of one-bids who stay home.  A vast horde of students is staying home with that one-bid kid, never having heard of a bid in the first place.  Debate itself isn’t important enough on its own merits to call this a tragedy, but these students represent vast untapped potential, for their talents are tied to less productive uses, their happiness and chance for a good life are subject to whims and mercies they cannot control, and their hopes of a fair life are long ago forgotten.

So tell me, is that fair?  If we’re looking for unfairness to fight against, isn’t that far more worthy of  struggle?  Can’t we do more about that than join Facebook groups claiming we’re “one million strong for the cause of the week?”  Is it worthwhile to spend hours on a VBD thread dissecting the TOC, and then claim we don’t have time to help new programs launch?

And should I have sympathy for those who ignore grand injustice but get pissed at small ones, if injustice it was to let JA in?  Simply because the grand injustice is a harder problem doesn’t merit ignoring it.  Hard problems need more work, not less.

You shouldn’t apologize for your privilege.  You didn’t earn it, so you can neither be blamed or praised for it.  But you shouldn’t ignore it either.   And you should never let small unfairnesses eclipse your understanding of larger ones, just because the small ones are pointed in your direction, and more immediate.  Your world isn’t the whole world, and ignoring that just reinforces the role privilege plays in our community and world.  And that is a terminal impact we all should avoid.