Respect: Part II By Chris Theis


Last week I argued that debaters should have more respect for the preferences of judges. This week I will cover the other side of the equation: the responsibility of judges to be more honest and open about their preferences.

Judges clearly have preferences beyond which arguments they absolutely will, or will not vote on. To their detriment, debaters do not seem to care about what these preferences might be. However, students are not entirely to blame.  If one browses through judge paradigms it is hard not to notice how entirely unhelpful most of them really are. The vast majority of paradigms focus on marginally helpful things like a judge’s threshold for speed, while saying almost nothing about the types of arguments they want to hear. The same is true when debaters ask paradigm questions before rounds.

When it comes to the substance of arguments most judges simply repeat the refrain: “I will vote for anything as long as it is clear,” or some equivalent.  While it may be true in the abstract that these judges could imagine themselves voting for any argument, all judges have arguments, and ways of making arguments, that they are more or less likely to vote for.  That type information should be the most useful to debaters because it gives them insight into how to increase their odds of winning a ballot, not just if it is possible to win it. However, this type of useful information is the information that you are least likely to find looking through a paradigm. Why is that?

I think there are a couple of factors at work here:

First, students generally do not ask good questions so judges perception of the information demanded is skewed toward the irrelevant.

Second, judges are afraid of being seen as a “bad judge.” Honesty has been conflated with bias and “interventionism.” A judge who expresses their honest point of view about arguments is perceived to be a “bad” because their preferences may not align with the preferences of some debaters.  Quite a few coaches and judges have privately told me that they do not express how they feel about certain arguments that they feel are bad for the activity because they are worried about no  longer being preferred judges. The natural human desire to feel respected and liked is leading many judges to be as non-controversial as possible by hiding their real opinions.  All of this is is understandable, but it is also cowardly and harmful to students who take judges at their word.

The problem, of course, is that whether or not they express them openly, those preferences still exist. The only difference is that only the judge knows what those preferences are.  This lack of information introduces randomness that otherwise would not exist. As long as a debater knows what a judge likes they can adapt to it. That is fair. What is not fair is a judge giving the impression that all arguments are equal to them, when that is not, and could not be the case. A good judge is a predictable judge, not simply a judge that will tells a debater they can do whatever they want.

I have a feeling some of this might be misinterpreted, so let me be clear: I am not saying judges should intervene more. What I am saying is that all judges already do intervene, in large and small ways, in every round. Telling debaters that you will “vote for anything” may be technically true, but it is also deeply dishonest. We all have arguments that we dislike, or that annoy us more than others.  Judges owe it to debaters to disclose as much as possible how they tend to intervene by laying out the types of arguments and strategies they do and do not prefer.

Grow a spine and take a stand. It is a matter of respect.