Miscellaneous Musings – 2018 NSDA Nationals Edition

Lawrence Zhou was the 2014 NSDA National Champion. He now works as an assistant coach for The Harker School and is a Lincoln-Douglas Debate Curriculum Director at the Victory Briefs Institute.

The Opinions Expressed In This Post Are My Own And Not Necessarily Those Of Victory Briefs. 

Usually I don’t write multi-thousand-word rants about tournaments, but after a few years of attending this tournament and accumulating way too many thoughts about this tournament, I decided it was time to publicly post many of my unedited musings and rants in a public forum. This is both a cathartic act for me, but also a sincere attempt to open-up conversations about how to improve this tournament for the competitors and coaches. The way this tournament operates now sincerely bothers me beyond the typical reaction of a coach whose competitors did not advance. It has me worried for all of the competitors that attend. The following are my own opinions but my guess is that I’m not alone in some of these thoughts.

1. Congrats!

First, congratulations to Ishan Bhatt and Jackson Deconcini, the finalists, and to Ishan for being the first junior to win this tournament in quite a while. Seriously awesome debate that displayed excellent adaption skills and technical ability with debates over philosophy and empirics alike. I hope that many younger students take something away from this round, and this may have been the first NSDA finals round that I enjoyed watching in a while. This final round, I think, very strongly demonstrated the value of a strong understanding of debate knowledge in traditional debates. The debate included many complicated debates over the methodologies of studies, the different types of rights at play, as well an in-depth examination of current US policies concerning drones. Both were excellent speakers, incredibly intelligent, and represented LD debate very well. I could not be happier with this final round. Particular shoutout to Jackson from going from the weird kid in my novice lab all those years ago to finals of Nationals. Even though many deserving debaters did not do as well as they would’ve liked to, it’s hard to say that these two did not deserve to be in finals.

Also, congrats to Oklahoma! Though I no longer have particularly strong affiliation with the state or its current debaters, it’s nice to see Oklahoma succeeding at this tournament in LD again. After a year lull in putting debaters into the top 14 of Nationals, we came back stronger and put 2 people in the top 6 with one being a semifinalist and other being a sophomore. (Not as good as 2014 when Oklahoma had 3 out of the top 4, but still good ?). Congratulations to everyone who ended their career this weekend. It might not have been the you wanted but ending it at NSDA Nationals is a good place to finish it off. Finally, congratulations to all of the kids I coached. While the outcome for some of you was not exactly what you expected (and for one, beyond what you expected), I’m still proud of all of you all for your performances at this tournament.

With the sappy congratulations out of the way, let’s get into some actually serious thoughts about this tournament.

2. Yay Tabroom!

Finally! Nationals has started using Tabroom.com. It’s a little weird that NSDA Nationals, the tournament that is run by the organization that started Tabroom, was so slow to adopt the website, but honestly, it is so much easier this way and I’m glad they finally made the move. Thank you for stepping into the 21st century. However…

3. Wifi is important.

Look, I get that it’s difficult to set up an adequate Wifi infrastructure for so many people, but when the school Wifi is just so bad that kids can barely access Tabroom where all the posting information is located, that is just unacceptable for a tournament. Nationals is stressful enough as it is, forcing kids to waste valuable time trying to access subpar quality Wifi just to access Tabroom to see their room assignments is obviously silly. On top of that, the Wifi at Nationals blocked Google. GOOGLE. I know that the research requirements of Nationals is certainly less than that of the TOC given the emphasis on persuasion and speaking at this tournament. But it nonetheless seems wrong to block Google for debaters who wish to research issues in between debates.

None of this would be as much of an issue if debaters could just hotspot to get to Google and their Dropbox folders, but many of the tournament sites contained poor cell phone coverage. Students weren’t receiving tabroom texts and it was undermining the ability of coaches to communicate with their students about their location, strategy, or logistics with the rest of the team. Many common communication mediums such as Facebook, Gmail, Gchat, and text messaging were totally inaccessible either because they were blocked or inaccessible due to poor Wifi or cell phone coverage. So many issues with connectivity infrastructure made this tournament quite difficult to bear. I recognize I’m saying this as someone who was sitting at the Victory Briefs table unable to watch Netflix or play Fortnite for the vast majority of the day and perhaps I’m a little salty about that, but I’m also saying this as someone who was trying to do work with students at both the high school and middle school tournament, and the lack of Wifi was seriously impairing my ability to effectively assist my students.

Future national tournaments need to more seriously consider the Wifi infrastructure and cell phone coverage at tournament locations if they want to improve the competitor and judge experience, especially if Nationals continues to use Tabroom.

4. Judging quality must be improved.

It is truly alarming to see judges in the judging pool who have never judged debate before, who don’t know speech times, who allow new 2AR arguments, who can’t articulate coherent decisions based on the arguments presented in round, who don’t know anything about the topic being debated, who explain to kids who prepped for weeks prior to this tournament why they just voted on “who sounded better,” who have never used Tabroom before, etc. This isn’t a claim that all the judges must be circuit affiliated or something. This is a claim that judges who want to judge at the most prestigious tournament of the year should seriously consider the impact that their decision has on the debate careers of the participants who attend and should be somewhat versed in the world of debate prior to judging.

I truly understand the value of traditional debating. Ask anyone who has met me. It’s so valuable for learning how to apply arguments to the real world, for teaching persuasion, for improving critical thinking, for teaching students how to think. But at a COMPETITIVE tournament, the main tournament of the year no less, it is irresponsible and perhaps harmful to the educational value of this activity to allow judges to render arbitrary and unpredictable decisions. Sure, use parents at locals. Please, use them more! Getting parents involved at locals and teaching students the value of adaption are both important in debate. I loved it when my dad showed up and judged at tournaments. But at a tournament meant to showcase the top debaters in the country and provide some reward for all the hard-work that students have put in over the year, it is ludicrous that there are judges that cannot responsibly adjudicate a round between two students who have sacrificed a lot of time and money to be at this tournament. There is virtually no value in debating or even attempting to prepare to debate if rounds are decided by factors far beyond the control of the debaters themselves. Judges who cannot divorce their arbitrary biases about the topic from the round in front of them or who are not even remotely aware of the racial and gender biases that heavily influence their decision should not be judging at a competitive tournament of this caliber.

While teaching students the value of adapting to lay persons and dealing with arbitrary decisions in the real world is an incredibly important part of their high school career (and indeed, I think no high school debate career can be considered complete without a few tournament judged primarily by parents), this is simply not the tournament for that to happen. This is not an opinion I hold myself. The vast majority of students at this tournament had some complaint about the judging and certainly many of the more experienced coaches held this opinion as well. Perhaps one might push back and argue that it’s merely the debaters who are losing that are complaining just like many debaters complain when they lose. To some degree, that is true. Many debaters should take more personal responsibility for their losses. But to totally remove any accountability from the judge is also ludicrous. Surely there must exist at least some bad decisions and the only person that is really incentivized to point out these bad decisions is the party with some stake in the outcome of the decision. Most people don’t win off of bad decisions and complain about it, so obviously it will be the losers of those debates that complain. But also, as someone who has competed in late outrounds of this tournament, coached individuals to late outrounds of this tournament, and met other people with experience in late outrounds of this tournament, I can say that my overwhelming experience with this tournament’s judging quality is not great.

Minimally, I think that a workshop for new judges is necessary and that schools should more seriously consider the impact that their judges have when hiring or selecting judges to bring to this tournament. Judges who attend should have at least a working knowledge of debate, have judged before, know what Tabroom is, and have made a sincere effort to at least be somewhat knowledgeable about the topic at hand. No school would want their LD debater to not break at the NSDA Nationals tournament because five of the judges had never seriously judged LD before or because those judges actively intervened in the decision process. No school should bring judges that engage in those poor practices.

The amount of atrocious decisions that are present at this tournament where the judges are unable to defend their decision against even a single question by debaters is truly appalling. In my time both coaching debaters and competing at this tournament myself, the amount of rounds adjudicated by people with virtually zero competitive debate experience of any sort was too high. This needs to change for this tournament to consider itself the National tournament. No other competitive academic activity like Spelling Bee, Quiz Bowl, or Science Bowl would accept judges or referees who had little to no experience in the activity. Neither should Nationals.

5. Privilege remains.

In my mind, traditional debate ought not be exclusively a white, male-dominated activity. It should reflect core persuasive skills that many people can learn and benefit from (though I could be wrong about this). But it’s disheartening when the vast majority of debaters in late out-rounds are white and male. Which is not to discount their achievements because I’m certain many of them worked very hard to be there and succeed, but instead to acknowledge the biases that are still reflected by judges in their decision processes. It is truly unfortunate when some of the advice I have to give to the women of color I have coached that they should strive to reflect how their white male counterparts are debating instead of debating how they wish to debate. Male debaters are capable of easily talking over womxn debaters who are forced to walk an incredibly fine line between either holding their own ground and being perceived as catty or being too concessionary and appearing weak. Besides, tons of studies simply show that observers inherently trust men more it comes to environments like this. Womxn debaters have to try harder just to be on an equal playing field with male debaters. White debaters benefit from their race when debating minorities. Surveys and studies show that the general public perceives black people in particular to be less intelligent than white people. Black debaters at this tournament literally have to work so much harder just to be taken with the same seriousness as white debaters. Asian debaters must conform to the ideal of the model minority to have a foot in the door to win these debates. These are all serious issues that really challenge the idea of what it means for the judge to “vote for the better debater” given that who is considered the “better debater” is already distorted by a myriad of biases.

I will say that representation was certainly better this year than in past years. Most of the auto-qualified debaters for next year’s Nationals were people of color, and many of them were womxn of color! This is awesome and congratulations to you all for such a stellar performance at this tournament. However, success near the top does not address the a) barriers that many minorities faced in getting there, or b) the general dominance of white male debaters throughout the rest of outrounds.

Nationals cannot hope to truly represent the top debaters in the nation when its diversity still remains absolutely abysmal. In an activity that seeks to expose participants, both competitors and adjudicators, to a wide-range of ideas and learn how to parse through them, it cannot hope to ever accomplish that goal when equally qualified debaters that don’t conform to the white male norm are unable to even express their ideas and opinions in outrounds. It should bother people that only one black debater has ever made it to finals of Public Forum and that I can’t, in recent history, recall a single black Lincoln-Douglas debater in finals of NSDA Nationals. This is absolutely unacceptable and truly reflects poorly upon an organization and activity that thrives (theoretically) on diversity, both of thought and of participants.

There is, of course, no way to force minority debaters into outrounds. But minimally, a commitment to including minority judges on panels whenever possible would help mitigate some of these concerns. With the notable exception of Aaron Timmons, I don’t think I was judged by a judge of color my senior year at Nationals, and I don’t think the trend of judging has improved significantly since then. I’m certainly interested in hearing additional solutions to a serious representation problem in debate. We can and must do better.

6. Tech is undervalued.

Perhaps this reflects my bias towards more technical debate and my belief that debate should be more accurately categorized as an academic game than a purely persuasive activity, but it seems a more and more worrying trend the amount of debaters that lack the ability to meaningfully engage on the level of the line-by-line. Certainly, this is not to imply that debaters should neglect big picture weighing and crystallization or even move crystallization to a secondary priority. I personally tell all the students I work with for Nationals that “big picture wins all” and I spend a lot of time trying to convince the more circuity people to re prioritize the big picture within their Nationals strategy. But it seems like the meta of Nationals has moved more towards the big picture at the expense of line-by-line debate. The amount of rounds where debaters make an overwhelming amount of technical concessions that should cost any reasonable person the debate and still end up winning the debate is way too high. Debaters have conceded contentions, dropped smart analysis, and run out of time to answer arguments that undermine their entire case and still won. This is, in my mind, contrary to the point of teaching people how to argue. If the point of this activity were purely to be persuasive, then it should more closely represent oratory or even extemporaneous speaking (excellent events, by the way).

But in a debate, there needs to be clash, and when there ends up being a shift towards debating as if your opponent’s arguments don’t matter and as if answering arguments directly ends up being a secondary concern, I have strong doubts about this activity being seriously categorized as debate. This is at least partially motivated by my above concern of poor quality judging. If judges are repeatedly voting on strategies that aim to minimize the importance of line-by-line debating, then obviously it is only rational for debaters to respond to those incentives and engage in such practices. However, beyond the judges, it is also important for debaters, especially debaters who are successful, to attempt to reorient debate back towards the middle-ground of caring about both the line-by-line and the big picture. I think the finals debate was well executed and an excellent display of how technical debating skills can be combined persuasively with excellent speaking ability for the purpose of being a truly persuasive traditional debater. The fact that both of the finals debaters were also very successful circuit debaters in their own right demonstrates this to me.

7. Un-powered prelims are ridiculous.

Back in the days of paper ballots and paper pairings, I totally and one hundred percent understand why we used a system of six unpowered, unmatched prelims. But in the day and age of tabroom.com where you can literally pair a round in seconds, it seems absolutely LUDICROUS to me that this is a practice that continues at what is supposedly the most prestigious national tournament of the season. It is all but a mathematical certainty that people who would not have cleared in a set of powered prelims will clear at this tournament due to this format. What other tournament that claims to objectively rank the top debaters in the country (factoring in geographical distribution) could allow such egregious practices to continue to plague the tournament? Take a silly hypothetical, that a person could be what is “objectively” the 7th best person in the nation and hit the top 6 best debaters at the tournament in prelims. That seems silly. Or perhaps the inverse, that the 7th from the last debater hits the bottom 6 debaters at the tournament. That also seems silly. And even though most powered prelims are also somewhat susceptible to this criticism, this seems way more likely at a tournament without powered prelims. It’s beyond my comprehension why this tournament still utilizes such a practice given how inconsistent the breaks are at this tournament. This is a relic from an old age that cannot exist anymore given the technology to easily pair powered preliminary debates that would ensure a more accurate representation of the top debaters in the country appear in elimination rounds.

Logistics concerns, as I mentioned earlier, aren’t persuasive to me given the ever-improving nature of Tabroom. Yes, this means that all pairings can’t be released before the tournament begins, but it’s not like it would sufficiently slow the tournament as large tournaments like Harvard and Berkeley seem to run well enough, and students who qualify to Nationals should be trusted to at least know how to utilize Tabroom. Tradition seems to be the primary justification for keeping such an outdated system. Tradition, by itself, is hardly a sufficient claim to warrant retaining an antiquated system that does not accurately reflect who the top debaters in the country are. Most local circuits would rebel at a system that frequently and consistently allowed novices to appear to varsity outrounds by having novices debate only other novices in prelims and then appear in outrounds competing right next to the varsity debaters debating other varsity debaters. Though the skill differential is more extreme in this example, the general concept still applies to Nationals. If that were the tradition of any other tournament, it would not last long against reasonable criticism raised against it. Perhaps some believe that to be in outrounds, you should have to be able to defeat any given person in the pool at Nationals. This seems patently ridiculous to me. One need not be able to demonstrate they are capable of defeating competitors that will eventually end up in the top four of a tournament to prove they are worthy competitors that deserve to be in the top 60 of the tournament. Some believe that the double-elimination nature of outrounds will quickly filter out competitors who broke out of sheer luck. Not only does this concede the horribly imperfect nature of this system, and not only does this deny competitors that should be in outrounds of this tournament the opportunity to compete in outrounds as their spot has been taken by someone else, but more importantly, it’s still not likely that the double-elimination system actually filters out the worse competitors. It’s not unreasonable to assume that more than a few debaters who are in elimination rounds are in elimination rounds by defeating debaters with poor records in prelims. These debaters can frequently just debate each other during the early outrounds, knocking each other out. This is silly.

Ultimately, I am unable to find any reasonable argument for keeping a system that frequently denies qualified debaters the opportunity to advance. This is not necessarily to diminish the accomplishments of those who did advance to outrounds at NSDA Nationals, but rather a comment about how the structure of the tournament denies rewarding certain debaters the opportunity to advance.

8. Code sharing needs to happen more.

For some reason, people think they’re entitled to keep their code information a secret. But really, why? They’re entered in a public debate tournament with a chance of debating on stage in front of everyone. People will inevitably find out their codes through connections. What benefit is there to maintaining information asymmetry?

Now of course, the “info sharing argument is inevitable” isn’t persuasive if there is some good reason to conceal the information regardless. However, I can’t seriously think of a good reason why concealing such information is valuable or desirable given that there is no right to conceal your code at a public debate tournament. I can, however, think of at least two reasons why code sharing is valuable.

First, it lets younger students wishing to learn about debate to know who to watch. It’s much more difficult to track a code of someone you know is good than to simply follow a name. And some people will just know the codes of good people because they’re from the same district, or they are friends, or because of some other information source. But not everyone will know that. I just got lucky and was able to tell my former debate coach a few names of people I thought her, and her novice could watch but I was only able to do that because of code-sharing. This is a public good for everyone.

Second, it lets people know who they’re debating. Isn’t that a good thing? You can prepare more, and adjust your style as needed. What’s the downside to that?

9. Middle school debate is awesome!

Ok, this one might be a little weird for me to say. After all, in the past, I’ve expressed more than a fair share of skepticism for introducing middle school students to competitive debate. However, after coaching and adjudicating a few middle school debate rounds at the Middle School National Tournament, I’ve been convinced (for the time being) that middle school debate is great. There are a few reasons for this shift in attitude.

First, some of the middle school debaters I had the privilege of judge demonstrated more content knowledge over the LD topic of targeted killing than a large portion of the high school debaters competing at this tournament. In the hallways, I heard relatively in-depth discussions from the middle schoolers involving the killing of bin Laden and his replacement, an analysis of the differences between assassination and targeted killing, discussions of in-depth terms like decapitation, disruption, and blowback, and debates about the legality of targeted killing. These are middle schoolers! Some of the high schoolers I interacted with couldn’t tell you those things. On top of excellent content knowledge over the topic, I also observed a wider variety of argumentation than at the high school level. In just the few rounds that I observed or judged, I saw arguments about Kant, international law, due process rights, decapitation, alternatives to targeted killing that were substantially developed, actual debates about the criterion, and much much more. There was certainly a wider array of arguments deployed at the middle school tournament and I enjoyed watching it.

Second, these middle schoolers demonstrated some seriously impressive technical debating skills. They read good evidence, they made good arguments, they covered important issues in the debate, they allocated their time well, and they were excellent speakers. I would be willing to bet that some of these middle schoolers could break at the high school National Tournament if given the opportunity.

Third, a lot of these students demonstrated a serious drive to improve. They spent their time in the hallways giving redoes, talking to coaches, and reading. This is awesome! While a risk of burnout obviously exists with students this young, it really does give me hope to see such bright young minds debating. I honestly could not imagine myself debating in middle school. I could barely read back then! But these kids have seriously exceeded expectations, not just by filling speech times, but by showing a drive to improve each and every round. One particular moment that stood out was after a middle school outround where one of the debaters was debating a case centered around Kant and asked the opponent after the round to explain what Kant said to him. How many high schoolers would do that?

Without diminishing the accomplishments of those at the high school level, I can honestly say that I was perhaps more impressed with some of the middle schoolers I had the opportunity judge than some of the high schoolers I watched. These kids are awesome! Judging middle school debaters that were displaying the same level of content knowledge and technical skill as competitors in the varsity division of a local tournament was an honor.

10. Florida weather is unbearable.

How does anyone live here year around?

Bonus: Thoughts about the final round.

  • That 1AC opening quote tho… Clever, I’ve never thought about disagreeing with someone.
  • The 1AR Cleary indict – honestly smarter sounding than most of the rounds I judge.
  • The 2NR roast was honestly the best thing I’ve ever seen in finals of NSDA Nationals. I seriously considered voting negative for that line alone.
  • Ishan laughing at the 2NR roast was the second-best thing I’ve ever seen in finals.
  • Props to Ishan for holding back the burns in the 2AR.