I originally wrote this article for the NDCA in March of 2008. A lot has changed in Lincoln-Douglas Debate since 2008. Over the next few weeks I’ll try to elaborate and evaluate on my statements from almost 4 years ago.
9 Issues Facing the Lincoln Douglas Community
Originally published for the NFL Rostrum, April 2008.
The NDCA is probably seen by most as an organization whose primary purpose is to serve coaches in the policy debate community. Unfortunately, given the initiatives spearheaded by the NDCA are more likely focused on policy debate and therefore the view that they are a policy-oriented organization is not unfounded.
Since I was elected to the board, I have seen a lot of desire by other board members to see LD membership in the NDCA grow, and for the NDCA to do more to engage the LD community – especially the coaching community.
The first initiative that was executed since I have been a board member (which began back in October or November 2007), was the creation of the NDCA-L, a listserv for coaches. One does not have to be a member of the NDCA to join the NDCA-L. This, along with many other services provided by the NDCA is free and requires no obligation on your part.
The creation of the NDCA-L will hopefully allow coaches to discuss issues in a forum that might be free of the distraction and devolving discussions that take place on a lot of web-based message boards.
Anyone who knows me probably knows that I preface a lot of what I say in a way that acknowledges that, although I may write authoritatively on a wide-variety of debate-ish subjects, I actually believe that I am no expert. I cannot write for the community and what I say should be questioned and dissected. Debate, in its nature, is an agonistic activity.
In having run a number of the projects started by Victory Briefs, like the Institute, the website, the books and the tournament, I come across a number of coaches who think there are a lot of things that need changing in the way Lincoln-Douglas is run, or the path that it is on. In this article I hope to highlight some of the issues that I have heard coaches discussing and perhaps we can have some discussion on the NDCA-L, or better yet, in person.
These issues are not in any particular order of importance and are not necessarily unique to the LD community.
1. A Lack of Discussion by Coaches
This weekend I’m sitting at the JV/Novice Championships at Woodward Academy. The tournament is primarily a policy tournament and therefore during the NDCA meetings that we are having, the majority of the coach attendees are policy coaches. What I, and other LD coaches noticed is that their coach community tends to be more willing to discuss things in person. LD coaches don’t get together and do that. We rarely make time at tournaments to sit down as a coaching community and talk about things that are bothering us, practices we may want to praise or dissuade. Instead, a lot of discussions that do take place are done through backchannel emails or instant messaging where stories are embellished and there is never a chance for clarification and dialogue. We need to make time at tournaments where we can get together and talk and try to understand each other.
2. Evidence and Research
A typical citation that is read in a debate round is simply an author’s last name. Qualifications, publication and year are rarely given, and rarely checked. I was at the NDT a couple weekends back and watched and listened to a few debate rounds. In nearly every round, evidence comparisons were being made which, in many cases, including comparing an author’s qualifications. I understand why LD has a culture of ignoring citations. To some degree the lack of proper citation is a holdover from the old days of LD when the authors quoted were obvious and known philosophers and political theorists (Rawls, Aristotle, Kant, etc).
In addition to citation, there are two more issues that we are facing when it comes to research and evidence. First, there needs to be some consensus of what it means for something to be “published.” As the Editor-and-Chief of VictoryBriefsDaily.com, I’m not sure if I’m comfortable with what is written on VBD being cited as evidence – whether that be articles or comments. Although, if we allow other credible blogs or credible commenters, then maybe “Bietz from VBD in 2008” is an inevitable citation in the future. As a community we need to discuss what passes as proper evidence.
The second big issue is how evidence is read in round in the context of strikethroughs, underlining, etc. There should be some community norm for how evidence is cut and what is available for opponents to read during a round.
As LD is becoming more complex, it is important that we create a culture of openness. Two issues:
First, I am shocked how many debaters ask observers to leave the room (or in some instances a hallway) to “protect” their positions from being heard. The community norm ought to be that once a case is read, it is no longer private. Flow-sharing and scouting happens at tournaments. The problem in the status quo is that it is done covertly and amongst friends. This leads to a lot of hurt feelings, awkward situations, the exclusion of non “in” debaters or teams, and charges of unethical behavior.
Second, more discussion online needs to be less about the rules of debate and more about what happens in debate rounds. To some degree VBD ought to take some responsibility for the lack of substantive debate-topic discussions. However, whenever there is an attempt for people to discuss arguments, people seem to guard their own positions too much.
As a judge I’m always uncomfortable when I hear one debater, a minute before the round starts or right before CX time begins say, “We’re using flex-prep, right?” As there is no way to resolve a conflict between a debater that wants to use flex-prep, and one that does not, we need to come to some consensus. I would recommend the following: a three-minute cx period must occur in a round. Time not used in CX cannot be transferred to prep-time. However, debaters can feel free to ask questions during their own prep time.
5. Topic selection
Too much pressure is put on the committee at the NFL tournament to come up with 10 good topics. The topic selection process ought to begin earlier in the year and more formalized in the submission requirements. In September the NFL should take submissions of topics and potential wording. Submissions should have to follow some format wherein the author must provide a short essay that outlines the major issues involved, the debatability, what is at stake, and a short bibliography. In December, the submission process is closed and the committee begins to choose the 10 topic areas. In April or May, the 10 areas are released as well as 3 to 5 possible wordings for each resolution for the community to vet. During this time the community can submit ideas for wording. At the NFL tournament, the committee spends its time on the wording based on the community vetting.
6. Bid fetish
As the years go on, the bid-counting and the desire to attend tournaments that have bids exclusively has become absurd. There are a couple of problems:
First, only tournaments that have TOC bids are truly able to have their tournaments be effective fundraisers.
Second, students who do not travel or do not care about the TOC are seen as second-class debaters by the national circuit.
Third, tournaments that do have bids are able scale back on providing a good experience while at the same time raise their prices because the bids are seen as so valuable.
7. Local / National circuit bifurcation
Teams that are exclusively national circuit or that are exclusively local have made the gap between the two circuits wider than ever. We talk bad about each other and tell stories that embellish the problems with the “other.” To local circuit coaches and teams, the national circuit is ruining debate. To national circuit coaches and teams, the local circuit is backwards and lame.
I certainly respect the fact that some people will make choices about how they want their team to be. The problem arises when the justification for choosing which circuit on which you debate has to be because of something wrong with the other type. I don’t like that my students have to feel uncomfortable when we debate at home, and I feel bad that more local schools don’t attend our TOC-qualifier.
8. Judge training
There should be three minimal explanations made to all judges before tournaments:
First, judges should be reminded that judges ought to leave their preconceived notions about the resolution ought to be left at the door and that their decision should be based on what is said in the round.
Second, judges should be told that flowing is a requirement. Just like we expect referees in high schools sports to have some minimal training and certification, judges in debate should try to fit their process of adjudication into a way that is at least somewhat predictable for debaters.
Third, with only some exception, judges at the varsity level should be expected to disclose their decisions. In my mind this is also related to the openness issues. It is unfair that some students know decisions and their records and some debaters do not.
9. Program retention
Debate is becoming more democratized and that is a good thing. What I mean by this is that there seems to be more debaters competing at tournaments from schools that may not have had a team ever, or at least in many years. The community failure takes place when we do not convert these “one-off” teams (a team with just 1 or 2 kids who sort-of do it on their own) into full-fledged debate programs. We need to talk to the administrations of these schools to ensure that some longer-term solution can be put into place. The number of teams that last 3 or 4 years and then die is far too high.
I hope these 9 issues can act as a catalyst for discussion about LD Debate. LD is not to a point where any of these things are necessarily emergencies. However, without some discussion, and in some instances a consensus, we could be making it more and more difficult to operate as a community.
I also hope that many of you in the LD community will consider joining the NDCA. As an organization we can do a lot of good for the activity.
If you have any comments or questions, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.