VBI Family: Interview with Tara Norris

Tara Norris is a second year law student at Harvard Law School. She graduated from UCLA in 2011 with a B.A. in political science and government, and has interned at the ACLU as well as working as a Legal Assistant at the Lanier Law Firm. She has previously coached at the Harvard Westlake School in California. In high school, she debated for four years at Rancho Bernardo High School in San Diego. She taught at VBI during the summers of 2008, 2009, and 2010.

On top of LD, you also did NPDA parli debate at UCLA. How did your parli experience compare to your LD experience, and which event did you enjoy more? 

There are definitely differences between LD and Parli, and I don’t think that I could pick one over the other. I was involved in LD for a longer period of time, and I loved coaching, so I just have a different relationship with it than I have with Parli. But aside from the superficial differences – it’s unprepared (depending on the tournament, you get 20-30 minutes to prepare a case after the next round’s topic is released), you have a partner, arguments tend to be structured like policy arguments, etc. – there are also some cultural differences between the LD and Parli communities.

Parli judges tend to be a little less afraid of intervention and a little more willing to step in and say “that just doesn’t make sense.” That’s probably both a result of the unprepared nature of the event and of it being a college event. This isn’t to say that Parli judges don’t flow or intervene all of the time, but there is a little bit more critical interaction between the judge and the debaters. There is also a lot more – I don’t know how to say it –paradigmatic diversity in the standard judging pool (that is, among judges who debaters know and respect). There are judges who are perfectly willing to emphasize their preference for slower rounds or their distaste for certain arguments. Ultimately, I think that the judges are, on average, more invested in the community and activity itself as compared to the activity as a way for individual students to compete. So I think things like, I don’t know, skep and presumption triggers (are those still A Thing in LD?) probably won’t get as far. But I’m sure there are other people in the Parli community who would totally disagree with that statement. My perspective might be due to the fact that my partner and I tended toward very traditional plan/counterplan/disadvantage debate.

You’re a student at Harvard law school! It’s said that a lot of Lincoln-Douglas debaters end up being lawyers- why do you think that is, and how do you think debate has influenced your interest in law?

Debate is so, so useful in law school. I thought that it wouldn’t be because lawyers are usually such terrible judges for people on the circuit. But so much of studying law is about thinking analytically, so learning about warrants, case construction, argument generation, and so on directly contributes to being able to “do” law well. Plus, even if you’re not the kind of lawyer that gets up in front of judges or juries, you still have to be able to communicate. Debate forced me to learn how to articulate my argument in a way that another person would understand, which is important for speaking, writing a brief, or being in a meeting with other people. Getting used to speaking aloud in front of people is hugely important, too. Law school itself has a very performative aspect – you know, in class, you’re called on and you’re asked to make an argument or give your opinion on a particular issue in front of the class. It’s the Socratic method. And, for some people, that is very, very nerve-wracking. It’s just this huge deal to be speaking out loud. I don’t think I did a better job of it than other people, but I think I was less worried about it because I was used to the sound of my own voice. It also helps to know what tone to use to make arguments seem authoritative and reasonable – you know, 2AR voice or crystallization voice.

Quick real-life example for how debate helped me in law: I worked in a law office after I graduated from college, and pretty much the first assignment I had was being handed a stack of answers to questions and a stack of “answers.” I was told, “Figure out which questions aren’t actually answered by the “answer” and write down why.” So, my first day doing legal work was spent repeatedly explaining why opposing counsel was being non-responsive.

You worked at the ACLU for three months months this past summer. Tell us about your experiences there! Is it something you would like to be involved in in the future?

The ACLU was great! I worked at their national office in New York, which is divided into topic-specific projects rather than focusing on a single geographic region, and I worked for the Women’s Rights Project because of my interest in gender issues. I mostly did research and wrote, which is what I like to do. It was especially fun to be there in the summer, because that’s when a lot of the important Supreme Court decisions come down. I was there when the Supreme Court decided United States v. Windsor, the Defense of Marriage Act case, which the ACLU worked on. That was hugely exciting. My project had been involved with several important decisions, as well, like the breast cancer gene patenting case (Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics) and a First Amendment case about federal grants (Agency for International Development v. Alliance for Open Society International).

What are your plans after graduation? Where would you ideally like to work? 

Haha…when I figure that out, I’ll be very, very happy. For now, I’m content to enjoy my remaining time in school without worrying about what comes next. Law school is actually really fun, so I’m in no hurry for it to end.

If you could give one piece of advice to a young debater, what would it be?

Read a lot. Try to understand the arguments that people are making, not just well enough to be able to figure out which block to read, but to talk about them in cross x without reading the card. This makes you a much better debater, because good rounds frequently don’t come down to the scripted stuff. They come down to explaining the way that all that scripted stuff interacts with other scripted stuff. And judges are afraid (or, at least, when I judge, I’m afraid) of intervention, so the more you can explain what the argument means and how it functions, the less they have to fear that they are doing too much mental work for the debaters. This understanding will serve you far beyond your debate rounds. Debate is such a great opportunity to become reasonably well versed in something about which you would normally know absolutely nothing. Maybe in college, if you take some random classes that aren’t related to your major, you will learn some stuff from that one class and you’ll contribute to dinner party conversation with a charming anecdote about the history of paleontology. But debate is a good way to stockpile knowledge like that. (For example, my college debate partner and I had a go-to counterplan about light water reactors. Now, I’m not a nuclear scientist, so my understanding of the stuff we were talking about was not sophisticated. But I have a very basic grasp of different kinds of nuclear power plants and the waste that they produce because of that counterplan, and I probably would not have taken the time to learn it for any other reason.)

That’s not to say that you usually have a good idea of what something actually is from being exposed to it as a debate argument – far from it, actually. I remember reading about the way government agencies do cost-benefit analysis and being like “huh, so, I guess the general catch-all standard has a meaning that is a little bit more specific than “good stuff good/bad stuff bad”?” That was a bit of a shock. But, at least I had a frame of reference for the term. The same goes for, say, reading the news and knowing who President Karzai is because of that Afghanistan DA that someone read against you your novice year. Everyone has and always will have gaps – even huge, obvious, glaring ones – in their general knowledge (see, for example, every one of my QuizUp matches). Paying attention in debate is one way to fill some of those gaps.

Oh, and also, learn to flow well. It’s beneficial as a competitor because it is literally impossible to give a good rebuttal with a bad flow (by “good rebuttal” I mean one that is responsive as well as strategic and substantively reasonable and all of that).  On the “future life skills” side, it is incredibly useful to know how to organize arguments and map connections between them. If you flow on paper, the people who sit next to you in class will also marvel at your tiny handwriting, so it’s a good conversation starter.

What is your favorite memory from VBI? 

Ah, it’s hard to pick one! VBI creates such a fun, supportive community. I love seeing people who I knew as novices grow and become great debaters and people (and, since I’m old, some of them are coaching other students now). I remember one year, my lab entered a prank war with another lab, and they attacked us with water guns. Which was maybe not a situation in which I come out on top, but it was memorable!

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