Ah yes – talking through a highly stressful, public health issue that imperils end of the year tournaments, just what this blog was created for.
Let’s hash it out.
First, I love the NDT. It is my favorite tournament of the year. I assuredly would not be a debate lifer without it. One cannot underestimate the shock the thought of not having one in person is to seniors in the activity or coaches who have been to every NDT for decades.
Second, the coronavirus situation is not going to peak between now and the NDT; it is going to escalate. This is the consensus of public health experts. This makes an in-person NDT exceedingly unlikely.
One social media reaction has been “this is panic driven” or “it is beyond comprehension or unconscionable to deprive seniors a last NDT.”
This take does not hold up to scrutiny. First, no one wants to deprive seniors of anything. Students who reach the end of their careers after putting so much work into the activity deserve the world. Second, no one wants to cancel the NDT, but their hand will mostly likely be forced by universities and/or governments. Third, many events bigger than the NDT have been cancelled already. Arguments for how important it is are not going to weigh heavily on decision-makers. Fourth, debate tournaments are not a place where people go to get healthy, but mostly the opposite. It clearly would be a disaster for a coronavirus-related controversy to befall a debate tournament.
So, the thinking about alternatives now is not about buying into panic or undervaluing seniors. Things have to be set in motion now or else there will be no time to implement them.
Another frequent take is postponement. A few issues. Postpone until when? Does anyone know when COVID-19 will peak in the US? Could be exam time, or after graduation or after people’s contracts expire or a lot of seniors have to start jobs or debate camps or eventually have to move on to next year’s academic calendar.
Could you throw together a debate tournament in two weeks if money was no object and that was the #1 priority for everyone? Maybe, although I would not feel great about it (as a guy who does the tournament hosting thing from time to time). But you couldn’t do it with an NDT, in any meaningful sense.
I say all that because debate is doing what debate does. Social media takes, endless back channels, can’t pry yourself away from the computer. I believe the above to be a fairly accurate reflection of the known information and how it interacts with hosting a tournament the magnitude of the NDT.
We can work through this; we can do it together and we can put on an event that does the most to honor seniors with the options available.
That option involves hosting the NDT online.
People’s first reaction to this has mostly been “fuck that” or “ugh.” I get it. The stages of grief. I am hoping I can help alleviate some of that angst by talking about these issues out loud.
A core part of the NDT experience is the community. Pre-tournament awards, the team pictures, the Sunday banquet recognizing every team, the larger audiences for NDT elims, etc. Duplicating all that will be impossible. But the alternative isn’t nothing; more on that later.
Another core part of the NDT is the argumentative experience. People love and care about the NDT because it’s finally time to unload the box. Breaking new arguments is so fun. Breaking new arguments in response to new arguments is even better. Showing off all your hours of intense research is the best.
We can do this online. Everyone knows the cards are at a higher premium at the NDT given how seriously judges treat it and the longer decision times. We don’t have to pretend that isn’t true. The cards will read the same in an online format. You either have shit to say against the new Aff or you don’t.
Don’t get me wrong – debating online is different than in person. I am not minimizing what changes when you can look at the person you are talking to, read their nonverbals, etc. I am also not minimizing the importance of the setting (being at a new location compared to a room at your university). But the fact that it is different and will feel different doesn’t mean the competition has no ability to determine who the best team was on that weekend.
Another common reaction is cheating. I was there at first. But when you think about it, it could be a rampant phenomenon at real tournaments. There are probably less hoops with online debating, but a determined team could be doing it right now. We don’t worry about the integrity of tournament results on the basis of gchats, google docs, or broadcasting the debate to a coach in another room who is helping.
We’ll have to see if any safeguards can be taken. But here are the outcomes in order of likelihood:
1. nobody really cheats
2. they cheat like they cheat now, but they are so good at it/it doesn’t defy our expectations of what should happen, nobody notices or cares.
3. people try to cheat, get caught and get shunned.
4. a team cheats in a way that meaningfully improves their odds of winning and doesn’t get caught.
Assuming the in-person NDT cedes to an online NDT for this year, we will need to work together on two fronts. First, we need to be increasingly vigilant on getting our technology and expertise up to par. We need to get the necessary technology (and help those that can’t afford it), we need to test it, we need to get familiar with the platforms, we need to follow the best practices.
When we transitioned from paper to paperless, the first school to do it was Whitman, coached by Aaron Hardy. He was very good at detailing what needed to be done to not make it suck and ensure equity. The first couple years every paperless team was very vigilant with procedure and making sure the judge wouldn’t get mad at them for tech failures. That attitude relaxed as more and more people transitioned. We are living in that relaxed paperless world. We will need the opposite to make an online NDT not suck.
Smart and dedicated debate coaches are working on guidance at this moment that will help outline what is required to pull this off.
The second front where we need to work together is making sure the online NDT does what is required to recognize everyone’s hard work and the many community members for which the NDT is deeply meaningful, but for different reasons.
I created a section of this website for seniors last year. I had mixed feelings about continuing it this year. I didn’t know if people liked it.
But what I think we need now is someone thinking about how to best honor and recognize seniors if we can’t all gather in-person and do what is typical at the NDT.
So, I ask that people fill out the following form if there is a senior you want to say something about:
The end product of this will not necessarily just be putting them on this site (although I probably will do that too), but something bigger and better to honor seniors. But I would like to gather folks’ sentiments.
I hope this can be a good distraction from grief if you are not quite back to returning to NDT prep.
It will be different, it won’t be the NDT people are use to, but we can work together to make it the best it can possibly be.
I am Lincoln, head coach at UK and coach with Montgomery Bell Academy. This site's purpose is to post my ramblings about policy debate.