As the world is imploding for the millionth time in the past seven days, I feel like there is a parallel occurrence in college debate. However, unlike in the real world, where a new thing happens every hour, a lot of what burdens college debate accumulates over years, as issues emerge for which we have never figured out solutions (although there are some newer issues, too).
My four years as a debater and my first three years coaching seemed to be the high watermark of being able to talk to each other. There was a shift from CEDA forums and edebate back-and-forths to Facebook. And with the coming of Facebook (to reveal my age, when I got on Facebook, it didn’t let you like or reply, and there were no groups – people were just talking into the void) came the dynamic that hardened so many of us. The million comments. The dumpster fires. The spectacle. The pile-ons.
Say what you will about those discussions (they didn’t really work, look at where we are), but they did happen. Lots of different people said lots of different stuff at that time. I really enjoyed it. I tried to stir things up from time to time. I loved being a reply guy. I felt like I had a blank check to blast people and tell them why they are stupid. Debate people always yelling at each other really aligned with my compulsive need to check social media.
A lot of people did not like this discourse. I have grown to not like it as well. We are in a state where the stakeholders that care the most about college debate cannot speak to one another effectively.
One thing that differentiates me from others is that I never deleted Facebook and I never stopped talking about debate on Facebook. I love college debate, while not always loving its players. I do respect anyone who seems to love college debate as much as I do. It’s this feeling that keeps me coming back and makes me want to work with other people to fix what burdens the activity, despite all the baggage.
Being honest, my two reactions to hosting a tournament this past weekend were: 1. I never want to host an NDT-CEDA event again, and 2. I do not want to talk to the people who do this event anymore. Now, that feeling only lasted a couple hours, and should probably be qualified by the fact that the Patterson was my fourth event in as many weekends, which left me a bit fatigued.
I want debate people to be able to talk to one another so we can solve the problems that are damaging the activity. I am not trying to center myself in any discourse, but this is my blog so narrating my thoughts is going to take center stage. I do not have secret wisdom that would instantly make debate awesome if everyone got on the same page about it. I just have thoughts, and a willingness to say them out loud on the internet.
If you do debate long enough, I feel like an impulse invariably emerges. The impulse is to anticipate someone’s reaction or response to something you are going to say. Whether you ever get good at predicting is an open question, but at least for me, this impulse is overwhelming.
I feel like this is a thing that really hurts debate people’s ability to talk to one another, particularly considering the Facebook wars of yester year. Everything feels played out. Everyone knows everyone’s arguments and they just do not care. Although I have bought into that logic in the past in a way that has hampered my willingness to engage with people, I just cannot do it anymore. I feel compelled to try to see if college debate can become a better version of itself.
What issues am I alluding to? Let’s talk about some, in no particular order.
1. Debate is not growing
Debate is contracting. Less schools do it. The schools that do it field less teams. There is a core group of schools that can field many teams based on secure revenue sources (although who knows how secure, ultimately, in 2020). It feels like debate is contracting to the point where the varsity division will just be roughly 15 schools sending 4 to 10 teams to a tournament. These schools already make up 75% of the elim bracket. This is a disaster.
This is a very big problem to solve. Effective communication and mechanisms would allow a lot of people to contribute a little bit of time to create an effort to reverse this tide. We do not have any of that.
Policy debate is too expensive, takes too much time and is too complicated. People who are full time debate coaches are not wizards at it, we cannot expect new students or former high school debaters with no full-time coaches to jump in under these circumstances. The people with full time coaches who get to think about debate all day think the sophistication of college debate is cool. I think it is cool too. I also think it is cannibalizing itself.
Online debate should be a golden opportunity to get two kids from any school to a debate tournament. That has not come close to happening this year. I am aware of no formal initiative.
We should not be surprised it hasn’t happened. To go to a debate tournament, you mainly have to say: “I will enjoy doing this compared to what else I could do.” What do people enjoy doing at debate tournaments? They enjoy winning. Even if they aren’t winning every debate, people can enjoy debate tournaments if they feel like they had competitive debates. This is the real barrier to entry. You have to know SO much shit and have SO much evidence to feel like you are having competitive debates.
We took the very small step of creating a set of novice videos. It has been a true highlight of my year when people tell me they find them useful. The scope of the medium for debate is endless. It will be interesting to see how many videos we have within a calendar year.
Debate needs to create a set of files that do not suck that are just given to people to even the playing field. I know projects like this propped up in the past and they were nice and charitable. But it should be a community effort and there should be more files and the files should be higher quality than they have been in the past.
There are probably a million more ideas amongst us, and we should do all of them, yesterday.
2. Information Sharing
Big umbrella topic. Let’s start with debatedocs.
Is it fascism? No. It is not.
Debatedocs has two main constituencies. First, if you are a debater and don’t like having to put a million emails on a chain, the ideal version of debatedocs resolves that. Second, the main person it is good for is the coach. The coach is the one who can do the most with docs in the 2 hours of a debate. Getting a lot of docs with no effort contributes to this.
Does this heighten the sophistication/elitism problem described above? Sort of. Like most things with debate, the default settings favor big schools with more money. They bring a lot of people to tournaments, they get all the docs, they win more. However, debatedocs is also good for the small school coach, since anything that increases their bandwidth makes debate a little fairer.
The other topic is information-sharing generally. People should post full text open source of all the cards they read in a debate on the wiki in a timely fashion. I am not going to rehash disclosure good/bad. It is good. It is a crush on the merits and there is no answer to the notion that big schools reproducing the information privately is obviously bad.
One thing I will point out is that reducing the transaction costs and barriers to entry is key for the activity to grow. We cannot make it overwhelmingly difficult to figure out what information is required to be competitive if we want people to want to join and feel like it is possible to be competitive. Hence information sharing.
That last topic is related with a new subject so let’s roll that all into one.
3. Videos + Scouting
This is a blend of an old issue and a new issue. The old issue is people kicking other people out of rooms. The new issue is how easy it is to get someone on tape in online debate.
This has caused a regression in terms of how open tournaments are. We are basically back to the 1990’s.
The core concern needs to be addressed: teams feel uncomfortable participating and feel like only narrowing who can watch debates insulates them from risks. This issue is framed as one of trust. This is a textbook example of what I described at the beginning: it feels like so many words have been said, that everything is hashed out, and that some people just do not care. I do not think everything is hashed out. That is not where I am coming from. If I was insufficiently plugged in to early discourse, I apologize.
Debaters should feel comfortable participating. The chosen remedy has two issues. First, it runs counter to most universities’ open education policies and the American Forensic Associations rules which say anyone can watch anything.
Second, it is not good for the activity in the long run. It is not a dynamic that can attract and retain new people. It creates barriers to information which makes it harder for new people and small schools (the main people that would grow the activity) and creates a situation in which who you know gets you access to certain information that will help you win a tournament. This biases the activity toward the people who are paid to do this as a full-time job (including, obviously, myself).
So we need to figure out how to make debate open and teams feel comfortable at the same time. Online college debate should be a GOLDEN opportunity to advertise it. You can do so many cool things with video. Better video could greatly improve the quality of debating. These things aren’t more important than debaters feeling that they can safely and freely engage in arguments without being exposed to negative consequences for themselves or their programs. However, these considerations do reflect that striking a good balance is really important for the future of the activity, and we aren’t there yet.
4. UK Video Policy
Relatedly I wanted to share some thoughts about the Patterson and video. We wanted to say people should have to get consent to record and we said that. UK legal wanted us to record debates in case presenting video evidence would help resolve a dispute, so we did that as well.
Where we started to mess up was that we didn’t outline a formal process in which someone should engage when they want a video to be reviewed. We have our Title IX complaint process (which is all university-managed). An instance we were thinking of was if a judge wanted to litigate a clipping claim, we would give them the video to help resolve the dispute.
However, unlike at our high school tournaments, we didn’t have an ombuds or similar process. I don’t believe the tabroom has really ever had to litigate a dispute at the college tournament like we do at the high school ones, so it didn’t seem like that big of a deal pre-tournament (although maybe I am forgetting?).
A team requested a video after round 4. I made a mistake by too hastily giving them that video. It was to help them litigate what their debaters did or did not say in a debate. This genre of incident appeared to be what our video policy was designed to do. I did not consult the other team in question or make anyone engage in any formal process (we didn’t really have one outlined pre-tournament). I let my impulse of resolving problems as quickly as possible compromise looking at the situation from multiple angles. I am sorry I did not handle this situation better. Lesson learned. Will not happen again. Better process for next time.
We didn’t record videos for your re-do’s. Priten and I don’t have the time to give you a bunch of videos at this point. Sorry.
5. Sexual Assault and Debate
Here is how the discourse on this issue works from my vantage point:
1. Person subtweets something
2. Other people figure out who they are talking about
3. Nothing happens
4. Subtweeter #1 gets subtweeted because they have an association with someone who is bad.
This doesn’t seem to be getting the job done.
I have not done all I can on this front by any means. I am hoping to turn that around. Is this issue a 100% hashed out and I just ignored the panacea? I don’t know, I don’t think so. That is how debate issues feel these days though. All I can report is my recent conversations.
Does pref shunning solve? I like it, but does it let people who do bad stuff get out of judging and put that burden on someone else? It definitely doesn’t get them out of debate if that is the goal.
People like institutional mechanisms and due process. CEDA has a process? I am not sure how it works or if it has successfully worked in the past (success being that person doesn’t participate in debate anymore). Critical debate has made me internalize a skepticism of legalism, but as described above with our video policy, formal rules can be the least bad alternative.
Is the punishment paradigm the way to go about doing this? I saw someone ask that question and it dovetailed with some reading I had done on the high school CJR topic. I don’t have anything thorough or insightful to say on that front, but something I plan to look into more.
If you have things for me to do on this front, short term or long term, I am all ears. Not going to put it on other people to tell me what to do and educate me, I will do that on my own too. I just want to make real progress on this issue.
I do not know what the answer is. I am huge on 3 days is better than 4. People disagree with me. That’s fine.
I do not know what the solution to east vs west is. I don’t think what we asked the west to do was actively worse for them than if the tournament had happened in person (they would still have to wake up at the same times), but online debate could be a time where it could be better. Can you do that for the west coast while doing 11 debates in 3 days? Probably not. Is it the case that the nicer you are to the west the later you make the east stay up? Pretty much. Is that the end of world? Not really.
I know a CEDA working group existed on this and they published a doc. I don’t think that is representative of where everyone is at. 3 days was a d-rule for us.
My bigger issue is the form, rather than the content, of how people engaged this issue. Snarking on Facebook really dragged me down. People snarking that never spoke to me about the issue directly really sucked.
An aside: basic Twitter etiquette is if someone is shit talking person A, you do not go and reply to the shit talker and tag person A so they now have to see it. You do not thrust that onto them and possibly ruin their day.
Debate people LOVE doing that to me. I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want to back channel about it. I don’t want to feel obligated to absorb every debate thing said on social media or else I am a bad host or doing something poorly.
I want to talk, preferably in a setting where I don’t have to type and where it can be done directly.
7. The ADA
Do the rules ruin debate? No. Is it weird there are rules written down that aren’t enforced? Yes, that should change.
Is the ADA a hegemonic organization? Not really. The most hegemonic part of debate is the interest convergence between big schools with money. Schools that do regional debate and recruit novices and don’t recruit national circuit high school kids are not on the front lines of what is hegemonic in debate.
Why do people ADA sanction their tournaments? They give a trophy out at the end as a regular season award. They have a points sweepstakes. They have formal rules for things (we have gone over why that can be good at times) and I don’t think they are completely duplicative with CEDA sanctioning (for example, ADA defines some things that CEDA doesn’t, but I haven’t done a side by side in a minute). They also have a novice packet, which is a really good idea – see above.
The anti-K language in the rules should be changed since it isn’t enforced anyway. Only seems like it could ostracize. I will dedicate some time to that.
I have also heard murmurs attacking people who are very invested in the ADA. This is really backwards. They make shit happen. They make novice debate happen. They make tournaments happen. Tournaments would likely crash and burn without their intervention (if you think tournaments are self-executing you are delusional). Tournaments need people to manage them. If one person messes up a tournament by 20 minutes, that is 20 minutes being robbed from hundreds of other people. That adds up very quickly.
I am not seeing other people volunteer to manage the biggest tournaments college debate can muster. I am not telling you to kiss the ring if you have disagreements, but thinking some of the most selfless people in the activity are the problem given the scale of the issues with college debate is beyond my comprehension.
If you thought this password had to do with K vs Policy rather than a non-debate person saying we do real debate compared to what they witnessed in the presidential debate I have a suggestion. Unplug your electronic devices, get a dog, go on a walk. You will come back more relaxed and better suited to engage on pressing debate issues.
9. Future of Online Debate
I am not really sure where people are at on this issue. The only thing I wanted to point out is that the combination of COVID and online debate is much, much different than just online debate. Another reason people like debate tournaments (besides the winning) is a sense of community. Great argument for an in-person tournament. However, I do think online debate would be a lot different without COVID-based restrictions on teams gathering. Intra-team socializing seems like it could buoy a lot of spirit in place of inter-team socializing. Just something I thought worth saying. I am not sure the people merely waiting out online debate are going to be vindicated in the end, but it could certainly be better than what has been happening in fall of 2020 due to COVID.
10. Answers to answers
Given how I opened this discussion, it is ironic I am going to end on this note of predicting what people are going to say then answering it. I am only doing this in hopes that people say something else and we can have a conversation. If people prove me wrong, great, sorry I violated my own rule.
A. You wrote this for self-aggrandizement/clout
Wrong, faithful readers of the blog (all 7 of you) know that I have gone on the record about this before. My original purpose was clout and clicks and provoking people, but I quickly got over that. The reason I blog now is because if I don’t write down the thoughts they occupy space in my brain for too long and distract me. I post them because some people say they like reading. I also post them because you can choose not to click on the posts, no one is making you.
B. You are a powerful actor and don’t do anything about anything
First, I think that is wrong. I do work to address these issues. Second, I don’t know how powerful I am. I will agree with the notion Kentucky is a successful debate program (my job is to make it so). Does that give me the ability to fiat what others do? Not really. But that isn’t an excuse for not doing enough in the past, and I am saying I want to work harder.
C. You think you are saying this shit for the first time/you are ignoring all the solutions others have proposed/you are trying to get others to do the work for you.
If there is a 5-point plan I missed which, if adopted, would fix all of debate’s problems, please link me to it and forgive me missing it instead of saying this. If that plan doesn’t exist, you are approaching the conversation like a debate round and you should stop doing that.
I do agree people have a lot of useful ideas and they were marginalized/ignored. I am attempting to bridge the gap. Folks told me that would be a useful thing for me to do.
Thanks for reading.
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I am Lincoln, retired debate coach . This site's purpose is to post my ramblings about policy debate.