As we near the time to choose a college topic again this year, I humbly approach readers of the blog with an earnest plea: don’t pick the climate topic. Off the bat, I want to make clear that I’m mostly talking to coaches and older folks, not the actual debaters per se, as most of these discussions unfortunately are dominated by the former and don’t include too much inclusion of the latter’s perspective. I’m also mostly talking about policy debates as opposed to K debates. Anyways, here we go…
First and most significantly, picking the climate topic will encourage laziness in research. For those living under a rock, we just had a climate topic in 2016-2017. A whole year’s worth of debates was just had on this issue only 4 years ago. I wish I could say that people will work hard to develop new ideas and original research on this topic, but truly, anyone who says that will happen is not being honest with themselves about quality and quantity of research this past couple years. There’s an unfortunate reality when it comes to doing debate research: most people will work only as hard as you require them to, and no harder. If climate is our topic, the first move for most of the card-cutters in our community will be to go back to the 2017 Dropbox and copy+paste large quantities of args. Sure, some files will require some updates, but the important part – actually coming up with ideas for affs, DAs, and CPs, and cutting a critical mass of cards about them – is done. Coaches will throw a couple 2021 uniqueness cards into a DA file, maybe change some formatting, and voila – a whole file is done! They’ll send their teams the files, bask in the compliments about how quickly they’ve done all this preseason work, collect their check, and be entirely insulated from the adverse consequences it has on the community. Don’t believe me when I say that people will be as lazy as you allow them to be? Look at how many times Fisher 15 was read as a 1ac impact card last year in NATO 1acs! That card is AWFUL, and it was everywhere! Instead of taking 5 minutes and cutting a new 2020 US-Russia war impact card (of which there are literal thousands), people just went back to college wikis of old – because it was the easy thing to do. I don’t even really blame them – debate work is a pretty thankless task, and most coaches are not paid very well for their work. If I’m a 28-year-old card cutter, I have other things to do, and I’m getting paid either way, why WOULDN’T I just copy+paste from the old wiki/Dropbox? In fact, it’s the rational thing to do!
Here’s the problem, though – decline in quality and quantity of research is a large contributing factor to the decline in quality of debates. When coaches decide that they only have to do the bare minimum for research, it sets the same example for students under them. If you’re not willing to put in the work to develop sound original argument ideas with recent and qualified evidence, how could you possibly ask your debaters to do the same? This dynamic creates a race to the bottom (for lack of a better phrase) that has follow-on effects in the actual quality of debates as well. Given this, we need corrective action. The most effective way to encourage someone to research something new is to ensure that they don’t have the option of credibly copy-pasting old work. Let’s say we picked income inequality, anti-trust, or even labor. How many cards are there circulating about those topics in debate right now? Probably less than 100. Pick one of those topics, make the community debate about it, and card-cutters will have no choice but to do original research. If you’re an argument coach, your job should be to do this anyway. Do your job.
Secondly, the college debate community is experiencing a pretty serious patch of stagnation when it comes to actually learning about new ideas. We’ve decided that there’s a set of topics that we’re interested in and will debate ad nauseum, and that there’s other topics that appear “boring” on the surface and thus won’t be touched by a 10-foot research pole. Don’t get me wrong, climate policy is an interesting area, and there’s a lot to learn from studying it. However, it’s an area that the community already has a relatively high level of knowledge about. Even when it comes to young current debaters who never debated the climate topic, most know something about climate policy, climate change, and the various energy industry DAs. That stuff comes up on every topic. You know what literally never comes up in debates? Anti-trust law. If you polled a random sample of debaters and coaches, I would estimate that less than 50% could even give you a working definition of what “anti-trust law” means. The same is true (to slightly varying extents) when it comes to income inequality, labor, AI regulation, etc. These are all staggeringly important areas of public policy that will shape a lot of our lives in the coming decades. Why doesn’t anyone want to research them? The purpose of debate is at least ostensibly to learn a lot about different areas of public interest. We haven’t been too good at picking “different” areas as of late – hell, we just did military topic redux, even though the community recently debated that one too!
It's good to learn new things and explore new areas of research. This should be uncontroversial. Unfortunately, many powerful figures in our community seem to want us to debate the same stale topics over and over again because it makes their jobs easier. As a community, let’s have some moral courage and try something new.
I am Lincoln, retired debate coach . This site's purpose is to post my ramblings about policy debate.