Teaching Weakness: The Indulgent Logic of Mutual Judge Preferences by Stephen Babb

Mutual judge preferences (MJP) have rapidly become an oddly unquestioned convention on the LD national circuit. From the perspectives of current debaters, this is more than  understandable. As long as the rules are what they are, what a deal!
The more difficult question falls upon educators in the activity: coaches, tournament directors, committee members, judges and the like. Should MJP be as irreproachable as it appears? Should it remain the dominant norm at “circuit” tournaments?

The best possible world probably wouldn’t reject MJP altogether, but nor would it accept the policy as a widespread and prevailing norm.

It should go without saying that MJP has had unconscionable consequences for communication skills. Some will dismiss this cost in some presumptuous belief than many students will never really need to master public speaking. Even when conceding the importance of communication skills, others will maintain that the advantages of rapid critical thinking and intricate strategy are net beneficial. The problem with using this logic in defense of MJP is that developing these skills alongside a wide range of communicative skills needn’t be a choice. In a world without MJP, the pursuit of the two skill sets isn’t mutually exclusive (in short, perm—do both!).

For those clinging to the belief that communication is more important for some students than others, the question remains: who should be making this choice for a student with many decades to come (and potentially many careers)? Why should coaches, in particular, be in a position to discourage debate styles that could very well be exponentially more valuable to a student than soon-forgotten trophies and bragging rights? Unless a coach is concerned exclusively with his or her own personal scorecard, he or she should insist that a team commit itself to mastering a wide range of deliveries, styles and techniques. (To be sure, there are competitive reasons to do so even in a world with MJP, but that’s another discussion altogether.)

To be clear, the skills at stake go far beyond “persuasion” (especially in the myopic sense typically associated with the term)—this is fundamentally a question of caring about one’s audience and doing that which is minimally necessary to convey arguments to that audience. That isn’t asking for a lot. If slowing down, enunciating, shifting one’s lexicon, or modifying an argumentative strategy is too much to ask of a given debater (or coach), there’s a compelling case to be made that this is simply the wrong activity for said participant.

Beyond any pedagogical disservice, this indulgent disposition encourages students to turn inward and care about all the wrong things. If a student’s ultimate aim is to simply “be correct” and receive some acknowledgement, why debate? The MJP culture’s message is backwards, yet simple: Keep doing what you’re doing, and if it doesn’t work, that’s someone else’s fault.

Of course, we’d all love to believe this, but we do so at great peril. How many university courses allow you to only take classes from professors you find amenable to your learning style? How many careers afford you something along the lines of a “mutual boss preference”? Fortunately, the vast majority of debaters are smart enough to know that the bubble to which they currently belong hardly resembles any other community. That doesn’t change the fact that discouraging various forms of adaptation short-changes students of a valuable opportunity to practice and perfect coping skills. Some surely don’t need the additional help. Others most certainly do.

Even if one denies the communicative virtues of debate, spurning adaptation also diminishes the argumentative and analytical skills we should wish to inculcate in our students. Teams use MJP to shield themselves from any rigorous expectations for strategic coherence and sound argumentation. It is no longer a mechanism designed to match similar paradigmatic opinion so much as it is an immunization against opinion itself. MJP has become a sweeping preference for critical passivity, an implicit suggestion that the judge who judges best also judges the least.

The paradigmatic tensions dividing our community increasingly fall along argumentative lines. Whereas the historic contrast between “old school” and “progressive” debate spoke to stylistic preferences, tolerance for jargon and other methodological considerations, today’s most pressing antagonisms reflect deep fissures in our beliefs about arguments themselves. Indeed, there appears to be little shared understanding as to the constitutive elements of arguments in the first place, much less how we make those arguments.

Only the most nihilistic “educator” can accept this as a desirable state of affairs. Students are free and clear to read card fragments, poorly explained claims and otherwise dubious positions with every confidence that their preferred critics will consistently abdicate their pedagogical responsibilities. A tolerance for gamesmanship has translated into a zealous commitment to nonsense.

On the one hand, this had produced an exclusionary and incestuous community that calculates a judge’s “legitimacy” on account of his or her willingness to accept a “wink, wink” anything goes approach. Even a first-order commitment to academic integrity can earn judges a reputation for antiquated stubbornness or—worse yet—”intervention.” For an ostensibly progressive academic niche keen on including different opinions, in practice we marginalize and trivialize even the most modest educational demands. MJP has facilitated this exclusion and provided a guise of legitimacy to teams who would rationalize all manner of shenanigans by dismissing alternative paradigms. The more inclusive alternative requires that tournaments simply ask debaters to do what they will have to do for the rest of their lives: engage opposing points of view.

This abdication of solidarity doubles as a mockery of argumentative learning itself. Even as we teach debaters to avoid clash by any means necessary (spikes, ludicrous interpretations, tiny plans, generic off-case argumentation, etc.), we’ve also encouraged them to avoid judges who disagree. It’s comically absurd that an activity called “debate” should so readily accommodate homogeneity at every turn.

There are also any number of concrete harms. Students can spend four years in the activity without ever stepping outside their wheelhouses. Debaters get away with running the same kinds of positions, winning via the same kinds of tricks and reading the same field of literature without so much as experimenting with alternative options. By any pedagogical metric, this is a disservice of epic proportions.

It sometimes feels as though this opinion is an anomaly, a lost cause in a world with its mind already made up.

I’m not so sure.

With the pressures placed upon coaches by their students and one another alike, speaking out about these things isn’t always easy. Nobody wants to be—for lack of a better term—the party pooper. But, for those charged with building a community that is both inclusive and educational, there are things that matter more than popularity.