The Topic is Topics
This post occurred to me around the time water resources was announced as next year’s high school topic, but I had not sat down to write it until now. There are two areas I wanted to speak to. One concerns discourse on whether a topic is good or bad as it is happening. The other concerns what is said when people get in a mood to speculate on what makes a topic good. I don’t have a treatise on these subjects, just some things that need to be said.
1. Researching CJR is Good
If you are actively involved in this topic and you are not a fan of it, I am not sure we can really relate to one another. Topics that make debaters learn about key parts of society are good. This is one of the reasons why healthcare was a good topic; if you walked away knowing what all the words around insurance mean, that is a big step up from the general public.
Is the topic very large? It sure is. A nice part of the topic has been that every time I go searching for negative arguments, I do not know what they are going to be, but I do find something. That is a fun dynamic.
Did the affirmative need to be allowed to criminalize stuff? No, but a post for another day about topicality.
The K for the negative is very good, but not a lot of teams cared to learn this flexibility and the affirmative has said nothing about it all year. Nevertheless, it is a good core debate.
Is it the world’s best topic? Not necessarily, mainly because it was too big to to allow specific preparation across the board. Specific arguments exist, there are just too many of them and little overlap. Overall, though, it was a strong domestic topic.
2. The Water Topic is Big
Like, really big. The mechanism of protection includes everything. Giant themes around climate change, oceans, agriculture (and regulating other industries), and deforestation are likely to be fair game. The States CP could do some more work than it did on CJR. If you decided to not be a flexible team and incorporate the K into your negative strategy on CJR, I would strongly advise you do it on the water topic. There will be negative arguments, but there won’t be strong generic arguments that apply across most of the topic.
3. Projecting Topics
This next part is going to be focused on college debate. The first thing we have to recognize is that the topic committee’s job, definitionally, is impossible. What people think the topic is going to be in May is not what is going to happen in the first semester. This dynamic is demonstrated by a lot of other games, mainly deckbuilding games. The limited resources of the topic committee can’t contain hundreds of people doing way more research and trying to be as strategic as possible.
Recognizing this dynamic is important because it reveals the flaw in a popular way to project topics. That approach is to say here are the big affirmative cases and here is a topic disadvantage that connects them that the negative can lean on.
I think the alliances topic makes clear the issue with this approach. Topic committee work was focused on attempting to create a limited number of affirmatives that guaranteed the negative a certain amount of ground. What happened was the affirmative ground was sub-optimal, the affirmative was not limited because they never are, and the promises of negative ground did not materialize when the affirmative began to squirrel.
Caring about this dynamic at all misunderstands how a lot of people experience the topic. A lot of debaters are not worried about writing ten policy affirmatives. A lot of teams don’t care about what generic applies when the Pacific Entrapment Aff is broken on them because that isn’t going to happen to them.
A lot of people care about how accessible the topic is to people new to the activity or those who are developing their skills. A lot of people care about what constitutes affirmation on a given topic. They do not seem to ultimately care about writing negative generics, since a lot of teams do not do that but copy from others. They do not seem to care about writing a million affirmatives, their teams read the same affirmative for 90% of their debates.
Personally, I like researching things I have not researched before. I also enjoy topics where when I go searching for something, whether I have a guess on what that something is or not, I come back with something useful. I think people may have deluded themselves on alliances, because what y’all keep coming back with are not really affirmatives in the sense that they do all of the things required by the resolution, check the boxes of defeating core Neg positions, and are supported by evidence.
Judging topics on things like:
I think prioritizing these kinds of questions may result in toning down the complexity of resolutions, particularly mechanisms. This may result in larger, but more interesting and easier to research topics. The main priority should be establishing a topic that can help sustain new participation in the activity. It should not be how a handful of schools using full time debate coaches (that do not teach or are students etc.) are going to find something to say for the NDT. Those schools (Kentucky is obviously among them) are going to find shit to say, they don’t need any catering. There are many schools and students who can have a good time with debate that will never ever care about some of the questions that so dramatically drive the topic process.
Didn’t you say large topics like CJR got unwieldy though? It is not analogous to college because the high school topic process greatly differs from college. There is a lot of room to roam between what college has been doing and what high school does to itself. The relevant lesson to take away from CJR is that the research is accessible and relevant to people’s lives and it is very simple to carve out space where you don’t have to worry about whether rogue AI should receive the death penalty or not.
Buttttttt, if your topic is big won’t the under-resourced debaters hate showing up with nothing to say? That is the squo. Topics break now. There are piles of nonsense. Sometimes, we make simple and large topics like climate. People can debate about carbon pricing if they want or they can delve deeper and there are still good debates.
Other times we give them this:
Resolved: The United States Federal Government should substantially increase statutory and/or judicial restrictions on the executive power of the President of the United States in one or more of the following areas: authority to conduct first-use nuclear strikes; congressionally delegated trade power; exit from congressional-executive agreements and Article II treaties; judicial deference to all or nearly all federal administrative agency interpretations of statutes and/or regulations; the bulk incidental collection of all or nearly all foreign intelligence information on United States persons without a warrant.
Resolved: The United States Federal Government should establish a national space policy substantially increasing its international space cooperation with the People's Republic of China and/or the Russian Federation in one or more of the following areas:
• arms control of space weapons;
• exchange and management of space situational awareness information;
• joint human spaceflight for deep space exploration;
• planetary defense;
• space traffic management;
• space-based solar power.
Resolved: The United States Federal Government should reduce its alliance commitments with Japan, the Republic of Korea, North Atlantic Treaty Organization member states, and/or the Republic of the Philippines, by at least substantially limiting the conditions under which its defense pact can be activated.
These aren’t pot shots at the topic committee. They do an impossible task with the hand they are dealt. We should be changing the inputs. The topic should focus on growing the sustainability of the activity, not worry about how the most well-resourced schools are going to inflict suffering on one another.
Well, we got trouble, my friends, right here I say, trouble right here in policy debate. Trouble with a capital "T" and that rhymes with “P” and that stands for post rounds.
Being proficient at handling post rounds is one of those things that forks the road between greatness and mediocrity. Here are some of the issues that exist now:
1. No questions are being asked. Judge delivers some feedback. Team says “that’s fair” and bounces. Baffling.
2. The questions that are asked are canned and pointless.
3. The debate was 51 vs 49, someone loses, and they proceed to tilt off.
4. Teams attempt to prove why the judge is an idiot.
Let’s talk about how to do this whole enterprise properly.
First, assemble your card doc at a blazing speed. Negative team should send at the conclusion of the 2AR. If you are not doing this you are just being worse than you need to be. It is a little tougher for the affirmative because I would default to the 1AR listening to the 2AR to make sure they don’t drop something. However, it should still be a 5 minute or less process.
Second, while the judge is deciding, you need to honestly reflect on the debate. This might require you to replace some of the word vomit you are spewing across various chat platforms with introspective quiet time. Really think about the debate. Think about it like a judge. You may have to start actually listening to your opponents’ speeches, including the 2AR, to be good at this. Revolutionary, I know.
Thinking about it like a judge starts with knowing that the bar for thinking an argument is absolutely zero is pretty high. At the same time, your bar for what is conceded is too low. So spend some time really thinking about what a negative and affirmative ballot looks like. If, over time, what you come up with and what judges say differs frequently, you have a problem. If you do not think about and evaluate debates like your judges are, you are going to have a bad time. This skill has nothing to do with questions, it only includes contemplating and possibly jotting down the highlights of an Aff and Neg ballot and seeing if you are right or wrong.
The next part happens after an RFD. Let’s assume you have lost the debate. What do you do? A good starting point is determining why your judge didn’t give the RFD for you that you envisioned during decision time. This does not involve asking “what did you think about this.” This framing generally isolates a part of the debate that was not isolated. It also presumes that a judge neglected your artful argument when in reality maybe you mumbled that argument the entire debate or you have a terrible piece of evidence to support that idea.
You can tell people are not on this level because they never ask alternative RFD questions like they have given any thought to producing an RFD for the debate. All they know is the random shit they spewed in their last speech and that the judge didn’t speak to literally all of it to their satisfaction, so they are grasping at straws.
If you actually thought about both sides and you thought you came out ahead, you need to figure out where you lost them. Usually, you didn’t say something good enough (newsflash – the bar for “good enough” slides between judges, they aren’t fucking robots). Or your evidence was poop (bulletin – this happens a lot). Or you didn’t properly appreciate an opposing argument (headline – this happens every debate).
People attempt to fast forward to the conclusion that the judge was stupid. If you think a judge is stupid, it means you are the stupid one. I hate to break it to you. You are just completely clueless, in a bubble, and don’t interact with regular people. This is because, at bottom, in a debate you are talking about real things with more than one side. People can be more persuasive/articulate than other people. It is your job to debate to the judge, not bludgeon them into something that they are not.
It is very difficult to judge a debate filled with thoughts written by other people, sentence fragments, empty assertions, incoherent mumbling, and evidence from Doug Bandow and the Epoch Times. There is no great way to enjoy that stinky Reese’s.
Even in the rare instances where a judge is in over their head there is no reason for you to care about that or let that guide how you post round. You will get infinitely better at debate assuming it is a non-possibility and interacting with judges accordingly.
Why not just strike people you think suck? First, masking. You are blaming the judge for you sucking. Second, how many people do you think judge debate every weekend? That well is not infinite. You hit diminishing returns really fast. Better to focus on cultivating a relationship across a lot of debates.
Now, there are some debates where you do agree that you lose. 3-0’s and 5-0’s happen. People have nothing to say and get stomped, etc. What do you do here? Sometimes it is very easy. You ask the judge for the ideal way to answer an argument you were really bad on. Background and useful information is exchanged. Everyone is happy. We aren’t talking about those situations in this post.
People sometimes spend a great deal of mental energy on how to give the last rebuttals when the 2 hours of the debate before that were terrible for your side. The easiest solution is generally do not put yourself in that position again.
Here is something that seldom happens in post rounds: there is a discussion of research and strategy that is more independent from the events of a given round. What I mean is, debaters seldom let judges know what their research before the tournament indicated, what their strategy was, why this strategy over another strategy, what they found hard to answer or find a card on etc.
These kinds of notions seem pretty important if you showed up to a debate and got stomped. It means we need to revisit the research drawing board. I think this conversation doesn’t happen for two reasons: 1. The given debaters didn’t do any of the research on the subject of the debate 2. Debaters are not accustomed to revealing the inner workings of their team.
In response to #1---you have to fake it. You have to have better squad meetings. You have to know what goes into a strategy even if you didn’t cut it. You have to work on establishing expertise on the relevant topic areas. You have to, have to, have to present yourself as well informed/well researched to begin turning around a debate you lost. At the very worst this will project a sense of seriousness/signal that you are an up-and-comer to your judge. Not to mention – and this is a radical notion – you could start doing more of the research.
In response to #2---the inner workings of your team are already revealed. It was an effort that resulted in losing on a 3-0. It is better to figure out where you went wrong.
Now do not get me wrong, this is not a silver bullet. Not all judges are experts in all things. They may not all be able to tell you how to turn your peens neg around. However, it is a useful way to learn about your judges, what they know a lot about and what arguments they think are good or not, even if you do not incorporate the notions broadly into your arsenal.
1. Use decision time to think like a judge and really figure out RFDs for both sides. This process hopefully reduces the intensity and helps avoid combative post rounds
2. If you lose a close debate, figure out what factors made the judge reluctant to vote for your RFD
3. Win or lose, it’s good to engage the judge and get feedback on your research and strategizing. Not how was the 1NR or 1AR. If you don’t know anything about the research or strategy, fix that. You will project that you are a serious hard worker and learn a lot about the judge.
A closing note on judges, particularly the ones who spend all the decision time writing a book on the debate. I am not going for maximal judging is bad. I am saying it kind of sucks that you write out that giant ass RFD and you cannot deviate from delivering your million of thoughts on every little part of the debate. I get if that is how you parse the debate and reach your decision. But you gotta go back and write a more concise version of wtf you are saying. Especially on panels. Especially when online debates end late at night sometimes.
Oh yes we got trouble, trouble, trouble!
With a "T"! Gotta rhyme it with "P"!
And that stands for Postrounds
I am Lincoln, retired debate coach . This site's purpose is to post my ramblings about policy debate.