The Six Truths Judges Will Never Admit

The Six Truths Judges Will Never Admit
By: Sasha Arijanto and Cory Wynn

Ask any debater, coach, or parent and they’ll say debate should be a fair, objective, quality activity where debaters are evaluated by their performances in round. Yes, ideally this activity would run off educated and objective judges, but it is a mistake to believe that distracted college freshmen and rigid 10th grade teachers are completely apt blank slates. To help you in your realistic-adapting endeavor here’s a list of tips to demystify yourself of the myths debaters want to believe about their judges, in other words, the six truths that judges will never admit.

1. They can’t actually take your speed

Most judges probably flow about as well as you do.  If that doesn’t give you pause, then you probably actually flow better than most of your judges. Speed is relative to experience, region, and content and even a positive answer to the question “Can you handle speed?” confirms only that a judge will not admit a deficiency.  And when you factor in the facts that you’re only flowing about half of the time because you know what you’re going to argue, you’re much more familiar with the arguments on the topic, and that no matter how clear you think you are you are clearer to yourself than you ever will be to a third party, some of your arguments are going to get lost between their inception in your brain and the recapitulation in the after-round RFD.

It’s a step in the right direction to ask if a judge will yell “clear,” but judges have egos too. Whether they’re an older judge who may have not debated so quickly or a second-year out with a less than stellar career finish, most judges are embarrassed to yell “clear” to eager and precocious young debaters.  And if they actually do, you should probably be embarrassed by how unclear you’re being. By the time a judge has yelled clear they have already missed something.

2. They haven’t been judging in a while

Never underestimate the power of familiarity with a topic. Knowing the topic’s literature, history, active authors, and common arguments will give you a huge advantage over your opponent, but the “curse of knowledge” translates to disadvantage if you leave your judge scratching her head. A confused listener is never a convinced one.

Before you start slinging acronyms, author names, buzz words and abbreviated argument labels, be sure a judge is familiar with them or take the time to actually explain an argument before assuming a judge knows what you’re talking about. Other than the risky move of straight asking how familiar they are with a topic, consider what their team has been running if they are a coach, look up what tournaments and how many they have already judged on the topic, and ask other debaters whom they have judged how familiar they seemed in the RFD and what arguments were ran in the rounds. Because without the proper background knowledge, ICC, TRC, and HIPC are just random letters.

3. They have an idea of who they’re voting for before the end of the round

While most judges are not consciously using reputation (“rep”) to make win/loss decisions, it takes a serious smack down to have a judge give a win to a sophomore newcomer over a senior who broke at the TOC last year. Don’t give your judge any excuse to not vote for you, so in-round and out-of-round dominance is essential.

4. They have their own opinions

We wish judges could check their political leanings at the door, but there’s a reason why on most topics the general debate crowd finds more truth in one side. That preference doesn’t necessarily translate into decisions, but with lay judges and TOC-tier “tab” stars, keeping a pulse on the pre-conceptions the judge brings to the round can pay off. Play to the beliefs a judge holds and you have already begun to exploit the truth that lies in the topic.

5. Their paradigms are outdated and obtuse.

Walking into a round without having read a judge’s readily available paradigm makes you careless. Believing that paradigm 100% accurately reflects the judge’s decision making process makes you foolish. A judge’s wiki he made the moment he was out at the TOC does not carry over 2, 6, 8 years into his judging career. Most paradigmatic details are from particular situations and don’t even represent a general judging attitude but a one-off event they may have felt particularly emotional about.  These scarring moments probably happened toward the beginning of their judging experience or even a bitter round they lost as a debater.

Clarify important paradigmatic points before the round and try to give scenarios that would help suss out how they actually apply their written paradigm when they judge a round. And if you aren’t sure, reference the paradigm during a round to hold them to their points.

6. They aren’t in the right mind

If you think tournaments are fun as a debater, your mind will be blown when you realize how fun they are as a judge.  No, not because judging debaters is especially enthralling, but because tournaments represent a break from our daily lives of studying and taking tests and give us an opportunity to see friends we don’t get to see more than a few times a year.  Unfortunately the symptoms of such enjoyable weekends include exhaustion from staying up with friends and working late with their debaters and nerves or discontent about how their debaters will do the next day. Even events in the day or round can distract judges and keep them off their A game.

I (Sasha) once had a judge who left the room during prep to answer a call, as judges often do to tend to business, get water, or check on their debaters. When he returned we continued the round as normal and when I lost, I commenced the routine after-round questioning, only for the judge to admit that during his exit he had received emotionally disturbing news and hadn’t paid attention for the rest of the round.

Clearly you cannot control for this sort of situation, but your keen perception of a judge’s attention can help you know when your words are sticking or simply flying over head.

Now, obviously, not every point is a steadfast rule that applies to every judge, so tips you can get from other debaters and your own judgment (no pun intended) are your best allies. Make sure to approach every round with a skeptical mind, focusing on closing doors and keeping the round simple. Judges are doing their best to follow along and adjudicate, but remember, judges are humans, too!

And as another bonus, one extra truth.

7. There are bad policy judges too

This one’s a little bit of a stickler. Familiar with that moment when upon reading a schem some kid goes around asking people about whatever John Doe they have judging her bubble round and as soon as they hear “policy judge” or “he did policy in high school” or “he has a background in policy” and the kid stops asking as if that policy association is an end-all be-all marker of judge competence? There are bad policy judges, just like there are bad LD judges.