The following was written by Mikaela Malsin, topic committee member:
As a Topic Committee member, I wanted to discuss what I understand to be some concerns and frustrations raised over the topic process and over this year's slate of resolutions. I strongly prefer not to use Facebook (deactivated my account in 2014, created a new one in order to run various Georgetown pages, but oppose it as a social/dialogic platform and am trying to stay off). For the record, I am speaking only own my own behalf.
1. The Topic Process. I think it is fundamentally flawed from start to finish. This is my second year on the committee, and it's been really enlightening; in prior years I would often grumble along the lines of "omg, why does the committee ruin the topic" (sincerest apologies to all prior topic committees from years I said or thought that), and now I think I have at least some insight into the problems. I don't yet have solutions, but I know there's a lot of interest in generating them and I hope to see/help produce reform proposals soon.
Problem: Most of the topic process, including the role/function of the committee, is poorly defined. I’ll include the full text of the “Topic Selection” section of the CEDA Constitution at the end of this post. If you want to contribute to the topic process (anything from writing a paper to serving on the committee) there’s not much guidance on how to do that, and definitely no guidance regarding what is expected of you or how you should go about making decisions.
One example of the problems created by limited guidance: The topic paper process lacks clear guidelines and certainly lacks consensus re: what a topic paper should look like, what should appear on the ballot, and whether the committee should or should not play a 'gatekeeping' role in that. There were 10 controversy papers on the ballot this year. Reading all 10 and making informed decisions about them is incredibly time/energy intensive, and that's just the work to be done to rank your personal preferences. Is that really a burden we want on everyone? Or are we okay if people vote without reading all the papers closely?
Problem: Resolutions created by committee, completed in a compressed timeframe, based on the work of others. I really think this is the largest issue, though also an incredibly difficult one to reform. I worked on last year's topic paper, attended the topic committee meeting as a voting member, and was still unhappy with the resolutions we produced.
We take the collective work of one group of people, in the form of a paper written to persuade the community with a necessarily limited set of evidence to support it, and try to turn that into an unspecified (minimum of 3, but what is a 'good' number? Would 3 be enough? How many is too many?) number of resolutions to present to the community to vote on. It is a messy and unwieldy process.
We want the community to get resolutions that reflect the controversy area that was selected by community ranked vote. That requires repurposing/expanding upon the work from the paper, and it also requires either mind-reading or ongoing, binding consultation with constituents from the community — which may be desired, but currently lacks a good mechanism/process and also becomes incredibly difficult once the topic meeting starts (more on this further down). As an example from a previous year, the Healthcare Coverage topic paper recommended "expand benefits" and "access" as key terms for inclusion in the resolution. These were the two [u]primary[/u] recommendations for resolutional wording; neither of those terms appeared on more than one resolution on the ballot as a result of the research done at the meeting. If people "thought they were voting for" a topic focused on healthcare benefits and access, they would be disappointed, but the truth is that it's not possible to know exactly what the community (as represented by their school's vote) "wants" in voting for a particular paper.
We also want every term that appears in the resolutions to be well-vetted and to produce a year's worth of good debates. We divide up research assignments and then try to make assessments based on what we and others have done. It's hard to make good decisions that way. We focus on a few small pieces at a time and then try to put those pieces together. People get invested in their individual projects/assignments, because they've put in work on them. People get distracted by a work e-mail, miss a few minutes of discussion, and get lost. People try to convey concerns or opinions from constituents and are imperfect messengers, or haven't been given evidence to support the arguments being passed along.
This work is primarily done in 3 days. There's a general expectation that the resolutions will be complete by the end of the weekend of the TC meeting. That's not actually a CEDA requirement, but it does make sense in that people go home, summer institutes/classes begin, etc., and committee membership is an unpaid position — the understanding is that the topic committee's work should be complete by the end of those three grueling days. So people put in some preliminary research, but the *vast majority* of the work is done during the weekend of the meeting.
This means two primary things: 1) It's not reflective of the best work that could be done, since it's such a compressed timeframe. Adrienne Brovero consistently points out that we should be putting in more effort between controversy vote and meeting time, and she's absolutely right, because three days is just not much time. 2) Input and thus influence comes from people who can and do follow along, make contributions and put in work. That is quite a bit of effort, and most people don't — even if they wanted to, the livestream might or might not be working, it's hard to follow the flow of the conversation, etc. To attend the meeting in person is expensive and exhausting. All of this happens against the backdrop of the end of the academic year, national high-school championship tournaments, the one chance most debate people have to travel or take any kind of break or visit family, etc.
Also, by the time we vote on the slate of resolutions, we are exhausted and ready to snap. Feedback on those resolutions is limited to those paying attention/following along and motivated to get in their input before Sunday afternoon.
So most people discover the 'results' of the meeting at the very end and are perplexed (again, I was always one of these people too). I think a better version of this work would involve more thorough group research/vetting at every step with community input, but it would honestly take a month.
Problem: Lack of representation. I think this is also directly related to the above. The ways in which community members communicate with TC members is scattered and ad-hoc. There’s no particular process or mechanism for soliciting feedback. There’s no real clarity on what it means to be a community representative, or how best to represent one’s constituency (and for everyone besides the grad and undergrad reps, the nature of that constituency is frankly also ambiguous). Also, most of that input/feedback comes as the meeting is ongoing, which compounds every issue with the meeting itself. If you are hearing from people and trying to communicate particular concerns, it trades off with focus on the discussion at hand; if you're dedicated to contributing to the discussion and work at hand, it's hard to be a good "representative."
If there is something people feel strongly should be included in a resolution (or all resolutions), the way to do it is to present research to the committee and make a case for it. However, it’s not necessarily clear from the outside or before the fact what issues the committee will be considering, even to the committee itself. Also, if people don’t want something included (e.g. National Space Policy) that is a harder case to make, simply by virtue of the difficulty of proving “inclusion will be bad for debate.” As always, it is harder to go neg.
2. This year's topic process/resolutions. I've heard a few particular concerns and will try to address them briefly.
A. Fidelity to the topic paper. As discussed above, I think there are fundamental problems with the process that make fidelity to the topic paper a difficult principle both to operationalize and to do perfectly. I think the resolutions produced are mostly reflective of the topic paper. They are not identical to the 5 resolutions suggested, but that's why there is a three-day meeting scheduled every year in the first place. If people would rather vote for precise/particular resolutions along with the controversy area, that is a reform that could be proposed. I'll also address what I understand to be the most controversial divergences ('national space policy,' India) below.
B. Critical teams see the resolutions as unacceptable. This one surprises me because I thought the topic area itself would tend to require, at a minimum, the kind of interaction with foreign nations that necessitates governmental action (the topic paper itself discusses the mechanism in exactly those terms). I am unclear on what might satisfy these concerns, and would have welcomed input along those lines, particularly going into the meeting.
C. 'National space policy'. This was actually some of the earliest and most comprehensive research done post-topic paper — shoutout to Patrick Waldinger working much harder than the rest of us. As a group we researched iterations of "international space cooperation" as a primary mechanism, and generally agreed that it does not meet most standards as a limiting phrase, particularly if you don't want the aff to use, e.g., private companies only (and privatization is listed as primary neg ground in the topic paper). There was disagreement and debate over 'national space policy' vs. 'space policy,' and 'national space policy' was believed to be more specific in ways that would be useful for neg ground.
D. India. I'll take the heat for this one, and I'll die on this hill. The topic paper lists India in all the suggested resolutions, but only has specific sections on China and Russia. On Day One, people researched various countries. The research produced on India demonstrated a fairly extensive degree of cooperation currently occurring between the U.S. and India, which obviously complicates neg ground. The neg cards produced did not promise much. From talking to people who work on space policy in D.C., my understanding is that *the* controversy around international cooperation in space revolves around China and Russia. This makes some sense given the very different nature of the relationship. My reasons for opposing India's inclusion in the resolution are very similar to the reasons most people didn't think we should include, e.g., Japan or the EU. If India was flagged as being the reason people voted for the paper, or if there was evidence presented (at any point in the process, by anyone) to demonstrate a viable controversy area with *unique* neg ground, I would have felt differently.
TL;DR I think if you are dissatisfied with this year's resolutions, you probably have an issue with the larger topic process, and so do I. I'm interested in identifying the best ways to fix it.
IV. TOPIC SELECTION
Section 1: The CEDA Topic Selection Committee will be responsible for choosing problem areas and writing debate topics. The CEDA Topic Selection Committee will consist of nine members: Two of the following (President, 1st Vice President, 2nd Vice President) three at- large members, one undergraduate student representative, one graduate student representative, one representative appointed by the National Debate Tournament, and one representative appointed by the American Debate Association. Open nominations for the at-large members will be solicited at the Fall business meeting. The term of office of the three at-large representatives will be three years, and to provide for overlap one will be elected each year.
Section 2: By May 1 the committee will report to the Executive Secretary no fewer than three problem areas to be voted upon by the general membership. In early July the committee will report to the Executive Secretary no fewer than three resolutions corresponding to the winning topic area.
Section 3: The Executive Secretary will distribute a formal topic selection ballot to all CEDA members in early July. The designated deadline must be no more than five days before the topic announcement date.
Section 4: Topics will be selected through a proportional voting system. Voters will be required to rank as many choices as they wish, consecutively, with one being the first rank. All first place votes will be counted. If one choice receives a majority, it wins. If not, the choice with the LEAST first place votes will be thrown out, and ballots that had the discarded choice as first will be counted using their second place votes. This process will be repeated until one choice attains a majority. If two or more of the choices to be eliminated have equal numbers of first place votes, they will be eliminated together, with second place votes for both added to the respective first place totals on the same round. If a choice is eliminated and its second choice is already eliminated, that ballot's third choice will count as a first choice, and so forth. In the event of a tie, the resolution with the highest number of initial first-place votes will win. If still tied, the resolution with the highest number of second-place votes will win, and so forth.
Section 5: The CEDA topic will be announced on the third Friday in July. When announcing election results, the Executive Secretary shall report the total number of ballots received and the vote totals for each topic wording.
Section 6: The chair of the Topic Selection Committee may be a committee member selected by a majority vote of the committee. The committee may also elect a non-voting chair from outside their membership.
Section 7: The Executive Secretary shall, upon receipt of a problem area ballot or a topic- wording ballot, provide acknowledgement of its receipt via email to the sender. The notification shall not disclose the particular vote, but is merely intended to inform the sender their ballot has been received and will be tabulated. The Executive Secretary shall inform any member of problems with their ballot at this time (e.g. improperly completed ballot). When announcing results, the Executive Secretary shall report the total number of ballots received and the break down of votes for each problem area.
Section 8: Within each four-year cycle the national topic should reflect a rotation of at least one 21 of each of the following topic categories.