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.
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I am Lincoln, retired debate coach . This site's purpose is to post my ramblings about policy debate.