The Frozen North

This weekend, I traveled to Maine, specifically Maranacook Community School, a little west of Augusta.   At Cat Nats last year, John B from Maine told me they’d talked about computerizing their tournaments this year for the first time on, and being the sucker nice guy that I am, I volunteered to come up and step them through an early tournament.     What we found in the MFL as we started using the program is that there’s more to computer tab than simply using a computer; you have to re-examine a lot of assumptions to find the best approach.   It took us a couple years in the MFL to nail it down; the Maine folk could therefore draw on our experience and learn things the easy way.

Now let me start by saying that I just love Maine.   I associate it with entirely good things.   We went there just about every summer when I was a kid, after Martha’s Vineyard grew too expensive for the likes of us.   We often stayed to just the southern tip — Old Orchard, York, etc — but I also greatly like the Real Maine, the part north of Portland.   It has several small cities very like the one I grew up in, without the overwhelming shadow of a Boston to domainate them.   It has a marvelous share of nature, and dark skies full of stars, and enough ocean to go around ten times over.   I’m truly a country boy at heart, and Maine satisifies all.   If a few million dollars were to fall from the heavens and land in my checking account, there’s little doubt I’d try to spend as much time in Maine as possible.   To whatever extent my family’s genetic memory survives in me, places like Maine resonate with “home”, the original homes of Nova Scotia, Quebec, New Brunswick, that go back several hundred years to a dimly remembered past in Normandy, Anjou and Lorraine.   I also have a odd like of being a guest at tournaments.   I’ve always had a good time as the guest of the NYSFL at their state tournament, and my trips to the Sunvitational and Ridge were quite nice, too.   Being an outsider makes the tournament experience somehow less stressful and more pure.   I merely have to advise, not decide; help, not be responsible.   I can also do what I do well without worrying about interpersonal rivalries and politics, which I generally find distasteful and which reduce my desire to be involved in forensics as a whole a great deal.   As a stranger, I am touched by no politics.   It’s a role I relish.

In Maine, they appear to have very few politics to go around.   It’s possible that after I leave, the long knives will come out, but they were to my eyes a truly warm and friendly group of people.   They made me feel right at home, from the kind hospitality of the tournament director to the absolute fun time we had in the tab room.   And the tournament director’s husband very subtly quizzed me as to my favorite scotches, pretending an interest, in order to go out and get me a fine bottle in thanks.   They sure know how to treat a guy.

As forensics go, they clearly get it.   They’d been doing their tournaments for a long time in their way, just as we’d done ours in our way for a long time when we computerized.   But they took suggestions left and right, saw the value immediately, implemented most of them on the spot, and by the end of the afternoon I had the feeling that their tournaments will be zooming right along in a matter of weeks.   Brave new world indeed.

There were some differences.   They had a judge’s lounge with a mighty food spread; it was possibly the best meal I’ve ever had at a tournament outside of a restaurant, despite it being merely ordinary by their own standards.   But as with most forensics, the language, the feel of the day, everything was pretty much the same world, just a different place.

Maine has fewer kids at their tournaments than Massachusetts does, though not fewer schools really, it’s just those schools are smaller. A huge percentage of the kids were double entered.   As a result their capacity for overhead is less — but they do run finals, just with only one judge.

By the time finals rolled around, things were well in hand in tab, so I offered to judge the extemp final, which was only four kids.   Now there are a number of stereotypes that would suggest themselves at this moment; only four backwoods hicks from some part of the country that no one has heard of forensically.     Well, far from it.   The kids didn’t speak a clear structure, that’s for sure, so much of what came through was a little muddled and confused.   But they also were clearly four bright kids, and pretty good speakers too.   There were no Painful Novice Moments, that’s for sure.   I think any of them would have a chance to be nationally competitive if they focused their analysis and cleaned up their style.   I could probably coach them into it in months.   They’d get slaughtered in a Massachusetts tournament as they are now, but only with a little fixing, they could certainly hold their own.

So what are you saying, Palmer, that the Maine coaches are the dumb and clueless hicks?   No, anything but; it was a great, intelligent, and dedicated group of coaches sitting in that tab room.   But the round did demonstrate to me the value of regional travel.   Maine schools don’t get the chance to travel out of region very often, through challenges of distance and budgets, though I suspect I may be able to coax them southwards a little more if I try and help a little.   But for now, it’s pretty much locals and Nationals — at the end, when kids can’t apply lessons learned — and that’s it.   That means they’re limited to the approaches and ideas that they come up with.   In Massachusetts, it’s different. Half of us go to Yale, and see the ideas that 20 different states have come up with, early in the season when we can make use of them.   We bring them back to the other half of us, and the standard in general is raised.   We have good coaches too, but we’re far richer for the access to the national community we enjoy.   In extemp, that makes us able to get our kids into finals on a regular basis; a knowledge dissemination trick, not a talent gap.

That smacks of injustice to me, that they have basically no chance at nationals and wherever because of where they were born, not because of anything they’re doing wrong.   I should never had access to a great number of things because of where I was born, after all, and only through chance and coincidence, combined with others’ generosity, did I find my way into them.   So I feel sometimes that I owe something.   I can risk hubris in saying that I’m pretty good at coaching extemp, using a lot of my own ideas, but a lot of others’ too.     I feel it would take very little teaching and explanation to bring these kids, and probably their coaches, up to speed.

I feel the doom of a new project coming on.   Maybe I’ll resist.   But I’d actually like an excuse to go up there again.


This year’s Yale Invitational was an exercise to answer the question, “Can Palmer run a major invitational tournament while mostly walking around in a relative fog and running at a rather low level of motivation?”   The answer, it appears, is yes.   The tournament ran fine, and the crack tab staff did their usual crack thing.   We had gloriously deep and quality judging pools, and a model for the tournament that has mostly fit and worked really well over the last decade.   The ballot scanning effort worked decently well despite a bug in the software which was my fault entirely — and the nice thing about a scanning system is when you screw up ballot sorting, you get to redo it, unlike with paper when the mistakes are eternal.   So even though I’ve been tremendously off my game — culminating in this awful cold this week that won’t go away, though it turns out it’s not swine flu — Yale went along just fine.

However, this year’s Yale was the one that has me seriously reconsidering my generosity towards allowing independent entries into the tournament.   I feel for independents, because it’s only by a very twisted and coincidental path of fate that I ever participated in forensics myself, and there’s more than a little “There but for the Grace of God go I” when I look at struggling programs that often are on the outside looking in.     Public channels in the forensics world will periodically express ineffective concern that the activity is only truly accessible in the fullness of its opportunity to a select few students, mostly white, suburban and wealthy ones.   Not even all suburban wealthy and white students have access, even.   The penetration of this form of education in the Northeast is very uneven.

But nothing seems to come of those conversations, because ultimately it points to a wider problem in society that we have very little influence or control over: education as a whole is underfunded.   It’s sad that only one high school out of ten has a debate or speech program, but it’s ultimately because high schools are kept permanently cash strapped and resource starved by a tax-averse society that tries to believe, often through the best efforts of our elected officials interested in staying our elected officials, that there’s some Magic Formula of Education out there by which we can get great schools on the cheap and not have to pay more into the common good to get more common good out.   Schools are expensive, and good schools more expensive still — but we’re democratically hiding behind these notions that evil teacher’s unions and bureaucrats and various other obstacles are what make schools perform badly, not simple lack of funding, because to believe otherwise would mean paying more taxes, and nobody seems to want to do that.

So only a few schools have programs and that won’t change until the shape of society itself changes.   What that does mean, however, is that some programs have folks who can contribute to the maintenance of the activity as a whole, and some don’t.   The latter serve as a hidden tax on the former — I run a lot of tournaments, and that’s a tax on my own students and teams.   I have finite hours, and they’re growing smaller — and so Newton South itself pays a bit to make Yale happen.   As does Scarsdale, and HenHud, and NFA, and University, and Ridge, and St Joseph’s, and Trinity…

So here’s the thing about independent entries.   They’re a pain in the ass.     They don’t read instructions, they don’t read the invite, nd they constantly are screwing things up.   I don’t mind when, say, a new coach screws things up, honestly, because I know the time I take to explain how things work to a new coach won’t be wasted — they won’t, unless they’re a blithering idiot, screw things up the next time.   Independents carry no such promise.   Easily 75% of the registration screwups and questions whose answers were in the invite this year were from independent entries — and we had less than 10 of 124 schools consist of independents.   And independent entry schools will never pay it forward.   They won’t be tab staff at Yale some year, as a new coach might.   They won’t ever do their part to make the community run.   Often they view tournaments as a transaction — I pay you money, you provide me service.   But that’s not really how tournaments work.   I’m not paid to run Yale, I run it because it’s worth doing — and the money itself goes forward to other tournaments and more debate, on the college level or the New Haven Urban Debate League.

So the more hassle and the more nonsense I have to put up with when I run tournaments means less time for my own students.   There’s a reason my debate teams never clear at Yale, though the extempers have had good success.   And the more I consider whether it’s worth it to give those 5-10 kids each year who have no team at their own school the chance to come to Yale.   It’s all good to claim that we should do everything and anything to provide students with fair opportunity, but that’s not exactly true — coach time and adminstrative time is a finite resource, and it may be best to conserve it where the payoff is small to spend it later where the impact on the community is better.

For now, I’m considering levying some ridiculous fine on anyone who asks a question whose answer is in the invite.   Good luck enforcing that one, I know.   But it’s tempting.

College Debates

I’ve come to realize that most of my job in running college-hosted forensics tournaments is the judicious granting or withdrawal of permission for the hosts to engage in mindless panic attacks.