Paradigms and Principles: Withholding Advice

This week I would like to discuss the following question:
A. Is it appropriate for a judge to withhold advice in post-round critiques so that weaknesses in a debater’s case position or strategy can later be exploited by the judge’s own students?

There are a variety of reasons for us to be uncomfortable with the fact that so much judging is done by people who are simultaneously coaching for the competitors of the students they judge. The consensus, which I think is correct, is that most judges do not purposely make decisions for competitive or political reasons, as this would be unfair and inconsistent with the educational mission of the activity. The concerns are far outweighed by the fact that coaches tend to be the best judges (although this is not always the case), because they spend substantial time thinking about and working on the activity and the topic.

We would all agree that a judge should not pick a winner or assign speaker points based on a motivation to advantage his own students. What about post-round advice? I again presume that giving purposely erroneous advice to secure a competitive advantage would be improper. But what about simply withholding certain comments, e.g. about the weaknesses of a debater’s case position or strategic choices? This question becomes particularly acute in out-rounds, where coaches are very likely to judge debaters who their students are likely to face very soon in a relatively important round.

On the one hand, debate is a competitive activity. It seems unreasonable to ask a coach to disadvantage his own students, particularly when the debater has a coach of his own who should presumptively have the primary responsibility for making him better. Moreover, it seems unfair that a particular team should be disadvantaged just because their coach was randomly selected to judge a challenging opponent. If the norm is to require coaches to give the best advice they possibly can, there is a danger that coaches will remove themselves from the judging pool (more than they already do) to avoid this disadvantage. This problem is particularly pressing where a coach judges a position for which her team has already prepared a strategy; saying “Your case is really susceptible to a counterplan saying X,” can be pretty darn close to saying “when we hit you next round we will be running a counterplan saying X.” Given that oral comments are generally considered optional anyway, isn’t it okay for a judge to leave out commentary that would compromise her team competitively?

On the other hand, students also have relatively little control over what judges they get. It seems unfair that by random chance a student should not get candid and thorough advice just because she is judged by the coach of an opponent. Moreover, it seems like withholding valid advice lets competition trump the underlying educational purpose of the activity. Why not simply refuse to give any oral or written commentary? Coaches often have difficulty finding opportunities to observe their students in actual rounds, and so we are dependent on other people giving good feedback to help our students improve. At camp we disregard the competitive ethic and spend endless hours trying to improve the quality of our competition. The community seems the better for it. But is it okay to selectively disregard this principle?

So, is it okay for judges to withhold a meaningful post-round critique to secure a competitive advantage?

  • As an assistant coach I believe that this issue can go either way, and should be left to the conscience of the individual coach. What I think matters here is consistency. If as a coach a person decides that they don’t want to give advice, they should refrain from doing so in all rounds, not just ones where their students might be negatively affected by the result, and vice versa. The practice in my area is not to give oral critiques at tournaments, and to give all comments on the ballot. Thus, the issue of out-rounds isn’t one we encounter often. But as far as comments go, I often write comments concerning weaknesses I see in arguments that weren’t brought up in round. I do this not only to help the students that i judge, but also to help my own. I want my students to face quality opponents that will challenge their arguments. The goal of this activity is to produce students capable of critical thinking. If they are never challenged they are not being forced to engage in the sort of critical thinking that competition is supposed to create.

  • Wow, this is incredibly disappointing to read. Do coaches that judge actually do stuff like this? You’re a coach before a tournament, but while rounds are going on, you’re a judge who is voting fairly, but above all, answering questions and giving advice to both debaters. That’s how we improve. For students without coaches, it’s the only chance to ever get quality advice.”I typically end up giving away lots of stuff and can’t really control myself.”

    You guys are actually serious, and this makes me angry.

    How is this even a legitimate question?

  • Rebar Niemi

    Until teams start “revenue sharing” with actual money and resources like judges, there will probably be no motivation to share “intellectual capital.” Although I will say that my enthusiasm for improving debaters and convincing them to not run bad arguments means that I typically end up giving away lots of stuff and can’t really control myself.