A thing to remember

Last year was rough for the LD community; we had flying accusations, acrimony, and internet attacks which by their nature afford few defenses.  A good number of people, both debaters and coaches, were attacked online by anonymous voices for things they did not do, which is wrong.  A good number of people were attacked for things they did do, but since the targets were mostly minors or educators and the forum was the internet, that too is wrong.

I stopped writing a lot last year, largely because of these conditions.  To speak up was to align oneself, taking a side where there should be no sides.  I am averse to conflict, and get along with just about everyone in LD.  That’s not by accident; it’s someone I have chosen to be.  I don’t dismiss people who do things I dislike, or even condemn; instead I try to find out their reasons.  Plenty of bad, unethical actions can at least be understood, if not forgiven, once you know the villain’s story.   Plenty of villains, especially at a young age, can be persuaded out of it, helped by the compassion and concern of their “enemies”.

After all, life is just a collection of more or less broken individuals; the best we can do sometimes is try not to harm each other with our jagged edges.  A lot of folks failed to avoid that last year, but many of them were young people with problems of their own, stories of their own, and our debate community failed them as much as it failed their targets.

So in retrospect, it was ill judged on my part to stay out of it.  That was as active a choice as speaking out, after all.  If all the responsible voices are silent, then only irresponsible people speak.  As a result, we never really resolved anything in LD.  We simply outlasted the issues by letting the students who served as lightning rods, unfairly or otherwise, graduate and move on.  I fear we have no better handle on how to address or prevent such things in the future.  That is our shame, and should be our challenge.

Collegiate policy debate is going through a much louder and more fundamental dispute this year.  The divide between teams running arguments based primarily on critical race theory and similar literature, and those who concentrate on the more traditional government plan/disadvantage debate, has grown sharper and more acrimonious.  There’s been active talk about splitting an already small world in half.  The divide is mostly driven by coaches and adults: the debaters seem to be mostly trying to keep their heads down and win rounds.  The nature of how their preference sheets work mean that while the “right wing” and “left wing” debaters regularly confront each other in rounds, their judges and coaches do not, and so the judges and coaches both seem uniquely uncompromising and hostile throughout this past fall.  They view each other at some level as simply enemy generals.

I’m about to be thrust into the middle of it, as I travel to LA next month to tab the USC and CSU Fullerton tournaments, together a “major” tournament swing, occupying the same space an octos bid tournament does in high school.  I will mostly keep a low profile, as it’s not my world; they’re a userbase for Tabroom to me, and I have no direct stake in their dispute.  I appreciate the value of traditional policy debate, even as I laugh at some of its excesses like the politics DA and the consult counterplan.  I can appreciate the need for boundaries like topicality, but at the same time, I cannot help but be persuaded and compelled by the criticisms of the society and debate itself which the “left wing” teams level.  I too am an outsider, though I do not wear that on my skin as others must.  Instead, I have to tell people, which is sometimes an asset, and other times a burden.

Times like last year in LD, and this year in college policy, are when debate disappoints.  When an activity dedicated to discourse and communication fails to address its own issues in a productive forum, but resorts to ad hominems and vitriol, online and in whispered conversations, we have failed in our mission on face.  We contradict our own purpose.

In both instances, the coaches and powers of debate have forgotten something about the nature of tournaments.  They forget that we cannot, and do not, educate only our own teams.  I am your students’ teacher too, and you teach mine.  At tournaments I teach Lexington, but I also teach Bronx, Scarsdale, Whitman, Greenhill, Hockaday, Harvard-Westlake, PV Peninsula… as their coaches teach Lexington.

Debaters can and should compete against one another; one of the secret sauces of debate is that the competitive aspect encourages debaters to use what they learn actively, instead of just repeating it undigested, as on a standardized test.  They have to assimilate information well enough to win rounds on it, and that teaches them a wider body of material with more depth than nearly any high school class.  Debaters can challenge and contend with each other all they want, and not harm debate itself; their competitive drive is our engine.

But coaches should not.  Coaches should see themselves as responsible for the whole of debate, not just their portion of it.  We realize this when prompted, and pay lip service to it occasionally, but do not remember it enough.  Smearing a debater online is a competitive tactic, meant to make the debater less successful; it doesn’t actually address any negative behavior, real or imagined, that debater may have committed.  Attacking judges online for voting on topicality and framework, or for failing to do so, is a competitive tactic, concerned about the wins instead of the message.

In the end, when we start viewing some coaches as “them” and not all part of the grand “us”, be it because of debating style, camps, or worst of all because of race, gender or identity, then we have ceased to be coaches.  The only “us” and “them” is the line between a coach and a debater.  The debaters should play the game, play it hard and fast and to win.  However, as coaches, we lose the right to make winning supersede our responsibility to debate itself, and each others’ debaters.  A good coach is not always a successful coach; and a coach who only aims for success is a bad one.

If I could say something at the start of each tournament, I’d say: be colleagues first and antagonists second.   Say something helpful every tournament to your biggest rival, your least favorite team, and the debater whose style is most unlike your own.  If a debater is upset, ask why; if a debater wins a big round, congratulate them no matter who they defeated to do it, and no matter if you agree with the judges’ decisions.  Wish your opponent good luck before you try and defeat them.  In short: live up to this contest we have built together, and cannot have without each other.

A Theory of Justice: the Musical!

I saw A Theory of Justice: The Musical! on its last run at the Edinburgh Fringe. It’s a show bound to appeal to debaters on the title alone; though I weep for the state of modern LD that one of my stronger junior debaters asked “What’s that a reference to?” in response. LD was derailed a little from it’s usual ground a few years ago, not by the influx of policy debate styles I think, but because we had a slate of resolutions focused on individual moral choices, not state functions. When that happened, the basic prep work of a lot of debaters shifted from the concepts of justice and liberty, focused on the state, to deontology and personal morality, which is different literature altogether. Rawls and his ilk were left behind; we have LD debaters who don’t know what the social contract is. Someday, someone will “discover” it anew and present it excitedly to a bemused coaching staff as the Next Big Thing.

Until then, the Musical!. It chronicles the struggle of philosopher John Rawls to either invent the next big theory that both synthesizes and revives political philosophy, or get laid, depending on your point of view. There’s this girl, you see, a student he names Fairness, that he pursues by trying to concoct a Grand Theory of political philosophy. To do so, he travels through a Time Vortex that the physics department conveniently opened in Harvard Quad, whatever that is. He then consults with the various surprisingly musically inclined philosophers of the past.

The production values were, shall we say gently, collegiate. The vortex was a rotating gel, and the set was simply blank with two large veils hung from the back. Yes, veils. The lighting was full of holes; actors’ faces were often in the dark, overzealous use of spotlights, that sort of thing. But I’m sure the lighting hang was just a standard one common to six shows in the same venue, so there’s only so much you can do. The singing was one of those shows attempting to make up in volume what it lacked in other qualities, and the dancing looked exactly like a bunch of painfully white Oxford students trying to dance.

Rawls was a bit too hamfisted in his delivery. Sure, suspension of disbelief wasn’t exactly on the agenda anyway, but Rawls just was flat and kind of broke the veneer of believability sometimes with overdoing some lines. Nozick was written as his archnemesis, chasing Rawls through time to prevent the creation of a theory that might reconcile Americans to income redistribution and taxes. He’s marching at the orders of his dominatrix mistress, Ayn Rand. That character was more fun, by nature; he was played by an emaciated Robert Pattinson stunt double with good comic timing and great Sinister Looks™.  Nozick was fun as a classic cartoon villain: he cackled a lot but was ultimately harmless.

The rest of the cast was ensemble. The utilitarians were a barbershop quartet, a cute idea, though their song didn’t sound at all like barbershop, though maybe only Americans could tell? The best song was Rousseau, in the guise of an aggressive French ladies’ man who steals Rawls’ love interest away for a scene or two. And the show stealer, of course, was Immanuel Kant, whose entrance late in the show as the six foot tall Deontological Fairy Godmother with a baritone voice as powerful as a howitzer helps Rawls cut through the crap and reach his final a-HA! moment.

But this ain’t Rent. Technical brilliance and magnificent music would have been wasted on the idea. It was supposed to be funny and cute, and it was. The humor was all in-jokes, given in full grand elitism without any hints or clues for the civilians who may be in the audience. It dropped little hints and jokes about how terribly long and unreadable Rawls’ great book was going to be. “I know! I’ll put all the conclusions in the first three chapters!” he says at one point to Fairness, who expresses doubt about the idea. Socrates is a live marionette sitting on Plato’s lap, saying whatever he wants, in front of a crowd of philosopher students who are collectively gayer than the Bronx Science coaching staff. Towards the end, the Veil of Ignorance is revealed as a device that removes your personal selfish motivations; when Ayn Rand is pulled behind it she promptly disappears as there’s nothing else to her.

If you get these jokes, the show is fun. If you don’t, I have no idea what you’d think just happened. So it’s not for everyone, but it was hilarious enough for me.

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.

NDCA Results Packet

It was pointed out to me that I never published a full NDCA results packet from the LD tournament.  Totally my bad; I thought I’d done so ages ago, and the Joy site is no longer up anyway.  So without further delay, here they are:

NDCA 2012 LD Results

The Massacre of the Novii

On July 1st of each year, I have a ritual I call the Massacre of the Novii.  Today I go through the database on Tabroom.com and change every student listed as a novice to not be a novice anymore.  I also this year went through and automatically marked any student with a grad year 2012 or before as “retired”.  So your team rosters will be considerably smaller; and *sniff* our little babies are all grown up now into the vicious argumentative hellions we’ve trained them to be.  Papa’s so proud.

I’ve been working feverishly on Tabroom.com this summer, mostly doing boring behind the scenes work to prepare to it function much more smoothly with debate events, particularly international debate events.  This work is supported by a grant from the Open Society Foundation, which is George Soros’s main philanthropic effort, and IDEA, the International Debate Education Association.   The plan is for Tabroom to become the integrated web fronted for debate tournaments worldwide, working together seamlessly with the CAT/debateresults.com system developed by Jon Bruschke of CSU Fullerton, who’s been a great hippy Californian partner in arms in this effort.   Mostly, I’m doing the web stuff, he’s doing the desktop client.

This is not a black UN helicopter taking over Tabroom; I’m still going to be in the thick of it, and the software itself, by OSF mandate, must be open sourced.   This effort on OSF/IDEA’s part is about expanding their services and therefore their own profile in debate, and also attempting to cross-pollinate good ideas from abroad and the US.  It’s not about seizing control of anything.  There are also plans afoot to integrate this tabulation and results system into a global honor society, in which debaters can be recognized for their entire careers, high school, college and coaching, worldwide.  All of which I think is very exciting, and I’m glad IDEA is stepping in to fill these needs.

The programming itself is unspeakably boring, because it mostly consists of me correcting some fundamental flawed assumptions and mistakes that I made back in the beginning of Tabroom 2.0, which was released more or less in 2004.  (Tabroom 1.0 was 2000-2003, but nobody ever used it except for me).  Tabroom 3.0 features a professional graphical design based on the new IDEA website, which is spiffier than anything I could come up with; I can design for clean, but not quite for “shiny”.

But I’m also working on some cool new features; I don’t want to over promise, but I expect that Tabroom will support texting/email of pairings, team management features where your students can sign up for tournaments directly on tabroom and only requires coaches’ approval, the ability for judges to enter their ballots and results directly online by computers and phone, more varied ways of displaying results (a carryover from debateresults.com), and a few new surprises that I’m cooking up.   It’ll support US formats, together with various global formats, such as 4 team British Parliamentary debate and more.

So that’s the future of Tabroom.com.  Launch is August 1st for registration, Sept 1st for tabbing/pairing features.  And brave new worlds shall be upon us.