Respect: Part I by Chris Theis


“I’m sorry for what I have to do here.”

“Then don’t”

“Sorry you just had to listen to that.”

“Then why did you do it?”

More and more this season I find debaters apologizing to me before and after rounds. This is not entirely new. Ever since I started judging an occasional debater (usually a freshman or sophomore) would apologize for a poor performance. However, that was usually the result of a lack of confidence and/or a debater feeling down on themselves for making dumb mistakes. This year, though, debaters are apologizing for something else altogether, something that I can only characterize as the deliberate infliction of emotional and mental anguish on the judge. This is a problem, and it all comes down to a lack of respect, from both sides. Debaters do not respect the paradigm, preferences, and opinions of judges and judges do not respect debaters enough to be honest about those preferences and opinions.  In this first installment in a two part series I will talk about the first half of that respect problem.

More than ever before judges are unhappy with what is going on in rounds, all year I have listened to judges whine and complain about arguments and trends that annoy them, but that debaters continue to utilize, round after round.  This may be attributable to this years trends being particularly obnoxious, but I think that is unlikely. Does anyone remember 2007? Instead, I think the problem is that debaters have lost an understanding of what it means to adapt.

For too many debaters a judge’s paradigm has come to represent an outer limit on the arguments they are allowed to run, instead of being a guide for how to best win over the judge. Common questions like “are you ok with kritiks” or “do you vote on RVIs” are just different versions of the question “will you listen to this argument I will probably make?”  Rarely does a debater ask a question about what the judge actually wants to see, such as: “do you prefer a heavily philosophical debate or would you rather see a more empirical one?” or “when answering a contention would you prefer I signpost to each argument or group it and make responses?” In short, debaters are trying to find out if they can get the judge to accept what they already do, not how they can adapt what they do to best fit the judge.

The problem with this of course is that what judges will vote for and what judges want to vote for is not the same thing. Few judges on the circuit are willing to rule out voting on pretty much any argument, even if they have a strong preference against doing so. Despite our best attempts to be neutral and objective argument evaluation machines, the feelings of a judge towards particular arguments does influence the way they make decisions.  Not only will debaters who adapt by only knowing what a judge will vote for lose more rounds, but they also show a lack of respect for the judge as a participant in the activity. Debate is for debaters, that’s true, but judges play an important role. The activity  could not exist without the individuals who give up their weekends to judge hours of debates, eat awfully, and help students improve. At the very least debaters should respect judges enough to try to make the experience at least somewhat enjoyable. It is not just the right thing to do; it is good strategy.   The best debaters are the ones that judges enjoy watching, and whom they want to succeed. Being that debater only takes knowing your judges and shamelessly pandering to their preferences. Do that and you will win more rounds and get much higher speaks.

So for debaters looking to make judges happy and win more rounds, the solution is simple: be the debater judges want to vote for, not the debater judges begrudgingly vote for.  Read the judge’s paradigm for likes and not just dislikes, ask the judge questions about what they want to see and not what they will not vote for, use your experiences with the judge from camps and previous rounds to pick up on what they like in a debate, and finally, ACTUALLY DO THOSE THINGS!

  • Chris,I agree that adaptation is (for the most part) a lost art, but part of the problem you mention has to do with debaters' strategic calculations, and I'm not sure where in their reasoning I would tell them to think differently. Suppose Debater walks into a round thinking that argument X is much better and more strategic than argument Y. Debater reads Judge's paradigm and sees that Judge really likes Y, but is willing to vote on X. It seems reasonable for Debater to think that running X is a better idea than running Y. Even though Judge likes Y, we've all seen cases where judges vote against arguments they like — Y may be more likely to invoke a spread, the evidence may not be as great, or whatever. *tl;dr: Clearly debaters should run arguments that judges like when all other things are equal. But all other things are often unequal, and it seems reasonable for debaters to run the arguments they think are best, as long as the judge is willing to vote on them.*Why, then, is adaptation a lost art? Maybe because there aren't many debaters "with the know-how… AND the elbow grease" (Tenacious D 2001) to make all other things equal so that judge preference is the biggest variable in their strategic calculations. Debaters are expected to learn about more and more stuff to respond to arguments with very little prep time, and they go into tournaments blind, so it's harder to master all the material than it was when we debated. Just one guy's thoughts.

    • I overheard a debater just a couple of weeks ago expressing almost this very sentiment. I believe the thrust of their thinking was: "I ran this ridiculous strat in front of such and such during prelims, but they still gave me a 29 so why not?!"It's hard to argue with that logic from a competitive standpoint, and I know that when I'm in "coaching" mode, I'm far more forgiving of nonsense than when I have to judge it. It's a massive collective action problem. But, I do believe that corrective forces can emerge somewhat organically. There's a real demand for better debate, and I think anyone who made serious adaptation their trademark might encourage other debaters to follow suit. I think it's difficult for judges to make much of an impact for a few reasons:1. Mutual preferences obviously reduce the need (at least in theory) for significant adaptation in the first place.2. Strikes do the same.3. Even if I wanted to use my ballot as a legitimate reward for "the better debating," most of the decisions I end up having to make are between the lesser of some shenanigans. I appreciate gamesmanship, but a lot of what now passes for tactical norms just makes a mockery of the activity. If only Jason Baldwin could see us nowhe'd LONG for the days he once ridiculed. Those times were comparatively so tame.

  • Truth. We judges are partially to blame for the race to the bottom (as I suspect part 2 of this piece will take up). But, I would certainly hope debaters take the initiative in re-shaping the activity for the better. The community won't remember bids or trophies earned on the back of pure competitive nihilism, but history does tend to look favorably upon people who succeeded with sound strategy and good arguments. Just yesterday someone mentioned Tom Pryor to me. At first, I just felt old (Tom won the TOC my senior year). But then, I thought.. yah, people like Tom have stood out over 10 years because they probably could have been quite successful in spite of whatever insidious trend that happens to be colonizing the activity at the moment.Anyway, great read. Really hope people take this to heart.