The other side of Columbia

I’m gradually emerging from the intensity and focus of the Columbia Invitational.

This year’s version went very well; Matty Skillz put forth a fine showing together with his agile assistants David Yin and Caitlin Halprin. They all fundamentally got it. I like it when I can run tournaments where the folks I’m helping understand the purpose and the aim of a tournament, and I don’t have to have arguments about priorities and investment in the future and showing the kids a good time versus profit. Some college teams, like Columbia, want to really put on a good time and if they make a little money on the side, then that’s terrific. Others are driven solely by profit. I have little interest in the long term in the latter sort of tournament; they’re impossible to improve over the long term.

If I’m not arguing that point with college hosts, I can spend more time refining the actual tournament. My role in these things is to remember last year’s mistakes and victories, and attempt to repeat the latter while avoiding the former. If we all agree on the ideal — showing a good time to the kids who attend — then the details are all we need worry about. When priorities conflict, I get gravely unhappy, not least because then last year’s problems aren’t fixable because the host schools do not care about them much. I also tend to start spending ridiculous amounts of money on meals and other frills.

This year’s college crop was 2 out of 3 on the attitude front, which is a good sign for the college tournament world. The odd ones out, those Yalies, I think are coming around as well. I hope they’re not just doing it out of fear that I’ll abandon them (which I would), but because they recognize the genuine value of their tournament.

Our big problem at Columbia was a lack of competent people for tabbing who didn’t need to be told how to do things. Usually we have a raucous party of folks in the tab room there, enough so that everyone gets a break. This year, Emory and Ridge intervened due to a disappearing January weekend. It may not have sucked away our oxygen for quality competitors or judges, both of which we had in spades. But it sure kicked us in the tab staff, as Vaughan and several others were off missing in Atlanta. As far as I knew, the only folks at the tournament who’d run TRPC before were myself, Jonathan (who hates it), Jim Menick, and Anthony Berryhill, whom we hated to lose as a judge. So we ran on a tight, tense shoestring tabwise. C’est la vie, a point of improvement for the next year, when we won’t conflict with anything.

If the online chatter is to be believed, the tournament has passed from a “doubtful finals” bid to a “probably could use a semis” bid in just a few short years. That said, the tournament was tightly fitted to a small campus, so who knows how much growth it can handle. But I think we’ll end up shrinking instead, in a directed way.

We could use an excuse to slice out the schools that seem unable to observe the proper tournament etiquettes of listening to announcements, making their students appear for rounds, reading the invitation, and picking up ballots. I’d love a tournament with the 80% of folks who understood that the whole onus of managing a tournament does not fall on the tab staff and tournament hosts; a smoothly run tournament is as much a function of the attendees as anything we do. I just release schedules and pairings, and hope for the best; no tournament can run around and accompany debaters and judges to each round. Releasing a pairing is a moment of trust; and invariably it’s broken. Often by repeat offenders.

However, you can do wait lists and caps all you like, but unless you go to an Emory system of applications, there’s no perfect filter. After Columbia, where dozens of people complained about having to judge after having signed up to be a judge, simply because the schedule was inconvenient to them, I’m contemplating just playing blatant favorites with the wait lists and being done with it. Playing fair with people who do not is a fool’s game. Perhaps I can make position on the waitlist track how many fees and fines you paid the previous year. That might nip things in the bud nicely.

That’s one of the luxuries of a tournament like Columbia, which was about 15% too large this year. You can tell anyone you like to piss off, so everyone has to play by the rules. Sometimes in the early stages of a tournament pissing off the wrong person might collapse the whole thing; they don’t come back, and nobody else does either. After this year, I don’t think that’s true of the Powder Blue Classic anymore; Yale crossed that threshold about four years ago. And certainly of the three huge schools that do attend, only one is a less than exemplary citizen.

There were a lot more thoughts that came out of Columbia this weekend. The combination of a tight schedule, long hours, and college tournament hosts who cared a lot about the tournament as a tournament, not a concessions opportunity, has stirred up a lot of thoughts about the process and place of tournaments. More to come.

George Mason

So we had a great time, our happy band of Screaming Jews (L’CHAIM!!!) at the George Mason tournament this weekend. The tournament ran behind and confusedly, in the way of tournaments that have outgrown their host site and a reasonable schedule. The judging was a bit…interesting, and the breaks were difficult, but our kids did OK anyway. I was exhausted by the schedule — three straight days of waking up at 6:30, going to bed at 11 or so, on top of that vaguely tired sense one always gets at tournaments, that comes of ten straight hours of uncomfortable furniture and too much ambient noise. But at the same time, we had fun, laughed a lot, won a lot. It’s a good campus for a tournament, and there were a lot of people there, and the food spreads were enough to make a Yalie weep.

We also managed to completely smash three trophies; we de-winged a pair of eagles and one smiling George Mason head is now in several pieces due to some grand klutzitude. We’re speechies, not athletes; who expects us to be coordinated? I told the kids that it’s simply a demonstration that at Newton South, it’s about the education not the trophies.

Who gives porcelain speech trophies anyway? At a travel tournament, even? Crazy.

So, we also cleaned house; everyone finaled, we won both round robins, and 1st in HI, 6th in Prose, 3rd in Extemp, and three semifinalist spots. People were looking at us like I should be in coaching nirvana. Really I was much happier that evening laughing and carousing at a stupid PF Chang’s with the kids.

And now as I recover another MFL controversy flairs up over details. Already I can tell that people care too much about the particular point afoot to have a calm rational discussion about it, and we’ll end up watering down the original intent through a series of late compromises. So far, that’s one of my flaws in leading this league; I am generally apathetic to the nuts and bolts of tournaments and rules and leagues, and so I expect others to be as well; and when someone works themselves into tears as to whether we should offer radio, I never see it coming. When we have a virtual shouting match that includes willful misunderstandings and whisper campaigns and agendas, well, it’s enough to again make me question what good, if any, I’m doing this league. Or doing myself, for that matter.

It’s one of the reasons I find myself ever more comfortable in my original home of debate, not speech; debaters don’t mess with rules and procedures nearly as much, and at least the controversies about kritiks and such are within the context of the activity. Sure, the process of handing out TOC bids is probably one of the most corrupt and backhanded imaginable, but for a local shlub like me, that’s easily ignored.

I need to find a hobby that is not full of adults obsessed with the competitive success of children. I care if my kids come out smarter, and am happy if they win. Most others in this line care if their kids win, and are happy if they come out smarter. That’s human nature, I suppose, when placed in a competition: you want foremost to win it. I have the advantage that this isn’t my job, my life, or my primary focus; external sources of ego help out a lot. But that doesn’t make it any more excusable for those wrapped up in it.

Not Traveling

Thankfully I’m not traveling this weekend. I’m not going to either Glenbrooks or Villiger; I have more than my fill of overgrown national tournaments (the former) or quaint traditional tournaments that never seem to improve (the latter).

I’m also failing to show the one last gasp and fizzle of school spirit remaining in my alma mater, as I will not be attending The Game. One weekend in New Haven a semester is enough for anyone, and the event I run there is displays far more quality and competitiveness than two football teams that haven’t mattered much or even tried that much since the Roosevelt administration. The first one.

Instead, I’m going to Little Lex, a fun little debate scrimmage, and this year I’m even bringing a team. I tend to enjoy tabbing debate tournaments more than speech tournaments these days. They’re all pretty much the same, and they’re all pretty easy; the system has settled more than speech tournaments. Part of it is that the software is more established, I think. Part of it is that debaters don’t mess around with their activity nearly as much as speechies do; the debate world settled on the basics of how we run tournaments about two decades ago, modulo some window dressing which always seems to be aimed at dealing with judges: strikes, mutual preference, and so on.

Speech tournaments have far more confusion, because of the wide array of events that keeps trying to grow, and I also think a somewhat different ethic. We run every MFL speech tournament like it’s nationals; the stakes are who wins, who gets up on stage, and the first priority is a fair even result. MFL debates, however, are sometimes run for what they are; chances to practice, debate and go home a better and more educated competitor. I think it’s important to have both; the speech kids raised a huge hue and cry when we experimented with running 4 prelims and no finals, because of all sorts of competitive reasons. The debaters have been doing this for years, and don’t blink, because at the end of the day they don’t dance around the stage hooting when they win Little Lex. They’re there to hopefully improve, and thus do better at Big Lex, Columbia, Emory and the Harvard Crapshoot, where TOC bids are at stake.

That doesn’t make Little Lex less worthy a tournament; it enhances it, in my opinion. A tournament should be about improving the activity and the experience first, and competitional aspects take a back seat. Now, some tournaments simply cannot be run that way, because no one will be pleased if we award TOC bids at Yale, for instance, in a haphazard way in order to fit in naptime.  But it’s a continuum, and I’m glad that debaters at least have a better sense of where things fall on it.

Of course, my preference for Little Lex also has something to do with sleeping in my own bed, having a 10 minute drive to the school, and being able to go out to dinner with actual adult friends who know nothing of forensics tonight. Life matters.

No, I don’t have the day off

I’m not bitching about it, though, given that I was ready to come in and put in a day’s effort anyway.  I like getting things done while no one else is around, since it actually happens when no one else is around.

This weekend was the Gracia Burkill Memorial, a nice tournament at Natick that happens once a year in memory of the coach at David Prouty, who coached herself Dick Gaudette among others.  So it goes way back, in other words.  Sarah was very pleased that the tournament is now a “real” tournament, when before it was just a small unserious afterschool affair.  The MFL doesn’t have afterschool tournaments anymore; the overhead is perhaps too great, and our weekends are all full up, so it’s not like we lack for opportunities to spend far too much time in high school cafeterias.

Sarah also foolishly volunteered to take part in efforts in judge training, which is something of a tilting at windmills task, but at least we can standardize our ineffective efforts.  Judge training is a game of trying to prevent the least common denominator.  We react to funny stories of judges screwing up elementary aspects of tournaments, such as the judge who thinks extemp time signals mean she should start signaling with 5 seconds left in the speech.   We hear the horror stories of the day, and tut tut about the unfairness of it all, and try to legislate away the story.

That’s really no way to run a league; chasing down the corner cases and random moments of appalling idiocy is really not productive, as our efforts are finite and the potential domain of stupidity vastly unlimited.  And the bulk of our judges are good, honest, thoughtful and intelligent souls who dedicate themselves to doing what’s best for the students.  So I wonder if we shouldn’t just standardize our judge training process, make sure the major bases are covered, and then inspire an attitude among the coaches and students that when a random judge does do random things, it’s part of what we roll with, not a tragic end of the world.

Kids care about trophies and the competition aspect of things far too much, and most of the coaches do too.  Most coaches think that the worst possible outcome of a tournament day is one where results are screwed up and rules are applied incorrectly and the wrong person wins.  Personally I have a hard time with that, since it’s such an unsatisfying standard; it cannot get me up in the morning at 5 AM to go to a high school, knowing full well I’m not getting home until 7 at the earliest.  I care about running fair and accurate tournaments, but it’s not the highest value for me; I’d sacrifice both those things for the educational value and overall health of the activity.  I think that attitude of mine pisses people off in the MFL sometimes.

Ah well.  Screw them all, I’m president and none of them ran.

The limiting factor

So on Saturday we had the annual Hall of Fame tournament, a lovely time when we can pat one of ourselves on the back. That’s rare enough in our activity except when done for the wrong reasons. It’s easy enough for coach recognition to spin out of hand and before you know it, you’re running the Emory tournament. However, we recognized two people who served and coached well. Joyce in particular is a singularly quiet and non self promoting individual. So I don’t feel bad for that.

What is interesting about this weekend’s tournament is that we tried a new format. Instead of the usual 3 rounds plus a final and leave by 6 that we aim for, we did 4 rounds, no final, and left by 4. It was a blessedly short day, we arrived home when the sunlight still shone, and I didn’t have that feeling of raw discomfort that comes of spending too much time in a high school.

Of course, the kids hated it. They didn’t have terribly good justifications for hating it, besides “I want finals!!!!” but hate it they did, so it’s unlikely to survive this brief experiment of two tournaments. That’s a shame. I’ve come to realize, through the context of late league discussions, that we’re really running on a tripod here. The essential goal of the activity is student’s education. But two essential ingredients, money and adult time, are sometimes overlooked.

When we have a league discussion about various issues, inevitably it turns into a contest of whose position benefits the students best. I don’t agree with that calculus; for the activity to survive the burden of fund raising cannot be crushing, nor can the time spent on the part of coaches and tournament staff (who are virtually always volunteers) cannot be overwhelming.

In the MFL, that threshold is being reached. Our tournaments are within striking distance of being as quick as we can run them; we can save probably another 45 minutes, but for the most part they’re as efficient as they can be. However, they still run very long, meaning I cannot feasibly do much else from Friday night when I go to bed early, until Saturday noontime when I wake in recovery. They’re also at the edge of viability, with a whopping 120 trophies required at minimum to even hold an event. Some would suggest we determine the educational merit first and then do whatever it takes in the realms of money and time to make the educationally optimal path happen. I don’t agree; I think if you wait to talk about reality, you’re going to shove yourself out of business rather quickly.

What’s ironic was someone suggested we raise tournament fees in order to hold events that accommodate working class students.

At any rate, I may be reaching an endpoint. I cannot continue to put this level of dedication into a single activity; my friendships out of forensics are suffering, I haven’t had a prospect of a relationship in a year, and so on: and this tale of a personal life in tatters is not terribly unusual in the world of forensics coaches. With such a significant personal tax, and without the kind of expected support of speech programs in Massachusetts that say, Texas enjoys, all this extra effort comes out of the coaches. Little surprise then, that despite interest among kids and interest among parents, willing coaches are the limiting factor of growth of the MFL.

So we’ll keep having tournaments, and we’ll have finals, and we’ll leave at 6 instead of 4. And a few more people will be unwilling to coach, unwilling to enter this activity, unwilling or unable to run for the state Board. It will remain an activity among the few obsessed, who are willing to pull out all stops if it will help an extra ten or twenty students compete and learn. I understand the impulse, but it more than anything has lead me to search for a better balance. If I can’t find a way to jigsaw personal life with league life, league life will go.