The Case for Orally Disclosing Decisions by Lawrence Zhou

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Victory Briefs.

Lawrence Zhou was the 2014 NSDA National Champion in LD. He now attends the University of Oklahoma where he is an assistant coach at the Harker School and the Director of Publishing at Victory Briefs.

Edit: Thanks to Eva Lamberson for their thoughts and comments. 

Introduction

I imagine that the vast majority of the people who initially read this article are those that will likely already agree with the conclusion that I am about to defend. However, I still believe there is value in writing an article defending a ubiquitous practice in national circuit debate. First, I want people who already agree with the practice of orally disclosing decisions to have something to refer back to when defending this practice to those that may not necessarily agree. Second, I want to directly speak to those who oppose this practice and attempt to have a meaningful dialogue with coaches and tournament directors at local tournaments who prohibit oral disclosure. To that end, this article will primarily be addressed to a skeptical reader. I genuinely want to lay out a case for something I see as a good pedagogical practice and attempt to seriously engage with the criticisms that those who oppose this might levy at it. I hope that, in the spirit of open-mindedness that debate fosters, those who disagree with me will also seriously consider my points and be willing to discuss this in a reasoned manner.

The last time I made a post about a traditional tournament, it received substantial criticism in comment threads which were primarily directed at my “privilege” and “national circuit bias”. These are not without merit. It is very difficult to separate my position as someone involved in national circuit debate with my opinions about how traditional debate could potentially be improved. I want to first lay out a little bit of background to help explain where I’m coming from. I debated for a small high school in Oklahoma called Bartlesville High School. I didn’t travel competitively as a debater with the notable exception of the NSDA National Tournament, I didn’t have private coaches, didn’t qualify to the TOC, didn’t come from a place of “debate privilege”, debated in a state that primarily uses paper ballots, etc. I still have a lot of respect for traditional debate, with the NSDA National Tournament being the only tournament I have not missed in the last 8 years. The thoughts I am about to present are ones that are somewhat clouded by my current position as a coach for a larger school and being employed by a debate camp. But they are also thoughts that I think have merit and shouldn’t be immediately dismissed just because of who I am and where I come from, especially since the origin of my beliefs here came from my time in high school.

This article will aim to defend post-round oral disclosure, primarily in the context of Lincoln-Douglas debate but these arguments also apply to Public Forum as well. I will begin by clarifying what post-round oral disclosure is, laying out a case for why I believe tournaments should adopt this practice, attempt to substantively engage common objections to this practice, and conclude with a brief call to action on the part of the readers.

What is post-round oral disclosure?

Post-round oral disclosure is when judges will tell the debaters immediately following the conclusion of a debate round at least who won the debate and a brief rationale for their decision. Judges may also, at their own discretion, also provide a few constructive comments to each debater, and, if time permits, answer one or two questions from each debater about how each debater could improve in the future. Post-round oral disclosure, henceforth referred to as PROD, is currently not the norm in many debate circuits around the nation. The current model is one where debaters do not find out until some later time who won the round and do not receive constructive feedback from the judge until after the tournament, typically in the form of a hand-written ballot. I call this post-tournament disclosure. I hope that local tournaments around the country will begin to institute PROD in all varsity and open divisions of Lincoln-Douglas debate. To clarify, I do not think that there should be PROD in junior varsity or novice divisions, and I will address why I believe this to be the case below. I also think there should be a mandatory time limit on the length of oral decisions to be no longer than 5-10 minutes. There are many valid criticisms of this practice but I will first outline my reasoning in defense of PROD and then attempt to address this.

The Case for Post Round Oral Disclosure

I believe there at least three strong pedagogical reasons to support PROD. I will point out what I perceive to be shortcomings in the current model of post-tournament disclosure and explain how I think PROD will help overcome these shortcomings. I will also attempt to alleviate some concerns skeptics might have with each of these particular points within the argument itself.

Immediate Feedback

The current model of post-tournament disclosure only reveals information about how to improve after the tournament has concluded. I believe this is detrimental to the education and growth of debaters for at least two reasons. First, it denies debaters the opportunity to improve during the course of the tournament. Say debaters are making an argument that many judges do not find persuasive (which happens quite frequently). It seems odd to me to think that it is educational experience to allow debaters to not learn from their mistakes over the course of the tournament and not be given the opportunity to improve or correct their mistakes. Second, the details of any particular round will become fuzzy after the tournament ends and the various rounds blur together. Trying to piece any given piece of advice from a judge with a particular in-round practice is quite the puzzle and leads to advice being substantially less effective at helping debaters improve. PROD helps correct this. They now hear feedback immediately following the round. This allows them to understand mistakes they have made early on and gives the opportunity to implement changes to their debating to allow them to improve as the tournament continues. Each and every round is a valuable opportunity to learn something and some of the best learning comes from debating at a tournament. Using each round as an opportunity to improve substantially improves the educational benefit of a tournament. Debating each preliminary round while making the exact same mistake costs debaters that many rounds to improve. This also allows debaters to more clearly understand feedback because the round will have just occurred and the details will still be fresh in their mind. Waiting until after a tournament makes feedback more unclear. This is especially important for tournaments at the end of the season, end of the topic, or important tournaments like one’s state or regional tournament since the feedback given at the end of a tournament becomes much less useful.

A skeptic may think I am conflating the role of a debate round. A debate round merely assesses who did the better debating and we shouldn’t think of judges as being primarily interested in educating the debaters. I think this view cannot be squared with the reason why debate is valuable. Debate rounds are useful because they help improve kids. No one can really believe in the value of debate and think that debate rounds at tournaments are not one of the most important parts of the educational experience. Each round is an opportunity for improvement and growth. If we didn’t think that, then why have ballots with sections for judge comments? I think that debate rounds are incredibly important for helping students learn and PROD helps encourage that.

Direct Interaction

The current model of of post-tournament disclosure makes it difficult to determine what the judge means when they write on the ballot. There are many reasons for this: sometimes the handwriting is impossible to read, sometimes tournaments photocopy paper ballots that make them unreadable, time-pressured judges might make a mistake when writing down their comments, or sometimes judges write incomplete or difficult to understand thoughts. None of these are necessarily the fault of the judge, but they do ultimately impair the ability of debaters to learn from their debate rounds. I know that as a debater I was frustrated with paper ballots that contained very little actionable advice because of one of the reasons presented above. This strongly hindered my ability to learn from my debate rounds, see what I needed to improve on, and see what I was doing well that I needed to continue doing. The current model of handwritten ballots results in ballots that aren’t listened to or even seriously considered because of gaps in communication that result when judges cannot accurately translate their thoughts into short handwritten snippets on a ballot. PROD helps address this shortcoming by fostering direct interaction between the debaters and the judge. Judges are now able to quickly explain their decision and then provide actionable feedback in a way that overcomes the confusion of handwritten ballots. This direct interaction, particularly the ability of debaters to ask questions after the round, would clarify confusions and ambiguous thoughts. It would make sure that advice isn’t lost in translation and that confusing parts can be explained. Some of the best advice I ever received in Oklahoma would come from finding the judge after the round and asking them some thoughts about how they thought about a particular argument or how they thought I could improve. I think having a system where this is the norm and not reliant on being friends with a judge is one that would help make post-round feedback more clear and helpful.

Better Judging

Currently, there are too many judges that don’t pay attention in rounds and simply write statements like “aff wins a contention”, “neg was more persuasive”, or “good debate, I vote aff” on their ballots. This, in my mind, is not particularly beneficial or educational for debaters. PROD helps increase judging quality because judges have to immediately disclose their decisions instead of hiding the lack of a complete reason for decision on the ballot. This incentivizes judges to pay attention during rounds and make justifiable decisions to the debaters. This is especially true because debaters now have the opportunity to ask a question or two after the decision is announced which forces judges to consider the implications of their decisions. This also will, in turn, improve the quality of debating. Immediate feedback may also protect the activity’s and judge’s legitimacy, as without an immediate and justifiable reason for decision, debaters can blame a loss on a judge’s personal biases or judge’s lack of knowledge about debate instead of the debater’s failure to persuade the judge.

This is perhaps one of the more contentious reasons in support of PROD and I can see many people seeing this as a strong downside to this practice. There are at least two major concerns with this point.

First, what about parent judges? After all, it seems at least a little strange to require parents who don’t have a particularly strong grasp of this activity to render oral decisions to debaters. This is a valid concern, but one I think isn’t unique to PROD. If we don’t trust parents to render oral decisions, then why should we trust them to write down comments on paper ballots? Why should we allow them to judge at all? I believe there is a strong value in having parents judge rounds. They make sure debaters stay grounded in the real world and work on their persuasion skills. If we trust parents to make decisions at all, we should trust them to give some oral feedback. I would also wager that most parents are worse at writing down feedback as opposed to giving them aloud. I know that my parents would have difficulty writing down an evaluation of any of the presidential debates, but I know that immediately following the debates, they had verbal comments for both candidates. Parents, or non-debate affiliated judges, actually have a lot of experience in giving their opinions about debates orally but less writing them down. It seems much more consistent with the real world to have parents give their immediate feedback in a way that feels natural to them as opposed to making them write down complicated thoughts on a paper ballot.

Second, doesn’t this deter judges from giving feedback if they feel like they don’t know what is going on? Perhaps, but once again, not unique to PROD. Judges will sometimes feel weird judging debates they don’t feel like they can follow. I don’t think is a strong reason to reject the practice. If they feel comfortable writing very little on the ballot, they should feel comfortable saying very little aloud. There’s only a chance that at least this practice will encourage judges to think about their decisions more.

Objections

Of course, one may believe the reasons I have set forth in defense of PROD but still oppose the practice for a variety of reasons. I hope to alleviate those concerns.

Objection One: Disclosure takes too much time, delaying the tournament.

This argument has merit, and is probably the strongest objection PROD faces, but an increased turnover time between rounds is, at best, a speculative consequence. The inherent end that debate strives for is to impart a unique form of education, where students are taught to advocate for contrasting positions. While logistics are an obvious side-constraint on any tournament practice, it seems like rejecting PROD (or at least not doing a ‘trial run’ of post-round disclosure at a tournament this year in order to attempt to verify these concerns) for reasons that have not been empirically verified is unjustified when it does not run the risk of undermining the purpose of debate. Maximizing the quality of the educational experience, even if it creates a (small) logistical hurdle for tournaments, should drive tournament officials to make other parts of the tournament more efficient, in order to avoid compromising on the quality of education that the activity provides..

Upon further investigation, the ‘time delay’ objection does not hold up to much scrutiny. Proponents of the ‘time delay’ objection cite CX/policy debate as an empirical example of increased turnover time between rounds. While I can’t speak to all tournaments across the country, I can attempt to draw on some examples from the local Oklahoma district I live in. At West Oklahoma debate tournaments, it was actually Public Forum debate that tended to lag behind the rest of the other debate events and cause tournament delays, a debate event without PROD. West Oklahoma also does policy debate at local tournaments. These rounds are magnitudes of order more complex than the average Lincoln-Douglas debate round for a litany of reasons: double the speech time, double the participants, and complex (and perhaps absurd) arguments that require more time to unpack. It also has norms such as flashing documents and PROD that add turnover time. Yet, these rounds also do not substantially turnover time. One could also look to larger invitational tournaments around in the country in Lincoln-Douglas debate. These tournaments all have PROD and these tournaments don’t seem to suffer from extreme turnover time.

Finally, PROD trades off with time spent writing up a ballot. In Oklahoma, it seems like a common occurrence that one judge in the pool will delay every round by writing out a detailed ballot. Delivering an RFD orally takes much less time than transcribing complex thoughts onto paper in a legible fashion. In fact, it seems like PROD could potentially speed up time. Judges frequently turn in long, detailed written ballots that delay tournaments because they want to impart a lot of advice to debaters. With PROD, judges can give more advice in less time which could actually speed up tournaments.

Objection Two: Debaters don’t listen to RFDs after being told who won and who lost.

This is also a reasonable concern and one that my former high school debate coach thought was a very serious objection to this practice. It’s not without merit. Anyone who has worked with high school debaters know they have a listening and an ego problem. Why give feedback to them orally if they’re just not going to listen after the decision is announced?

Well I believe there are two reasons that this objection is not as serious as it might first appear.

First, this is not a phenomenon unique to PROD or even exacerbated by this practice. In the current model, debaters are just going to see ballots after the tournament and just look at if they won or not. If they won, they might not read the ballot because they think they already did so well. If they lost, they might be too angry to read the advice. There is just nothing in the current model that that requires debaters to learn from ballots or even anything that incentivizes them to pay attention the ballot at all. However, PROD forces debaters to sit there and listen. They can’t escape the comments. They may tune out, but they are forced to listen to the judge to some degree so it seems like PROD still increases education. Maybe paper ballots do encourage debaters to listen more because coaches can require debaters to talk about their ballots. But coaches can also require debaters to submit the notes they take over a RFD.

Second, this seems almost entirely a problem with debaters, not PROD. If debaters choose not to listen to advice, then they will miss out on the benefits of PROD. Nothing about PROD encourages debaters to tune out, but I imagine most debaters will at least listen to the decisions because they can’t leave and are interested in how to improve so they can win more rounds.

Objection Three: Judges don’t write on ballots if we utilize PROD which means coaches can’t receive proper feedback.

Also a serious concern. Debaters are notorious for filtering all comments through their own biases and so when their coach asks about the judge’s comments, the debater is likely not to accurately describe to the coach what the judge’s comments actually were. This is important and requires careful attention to make sure this problem is adequately addressed.

First, I want to point out that this isn’t unique to PROD. Because written ballots are already terrible, parents frequently leave ballots empty, and some tournaments are bad about returning ballots, it is already going to be the case that coaches will not receive much useful information from paper ballots. I can say that when I was doing a little work for local schools, paper ballots provided very little useful information to me as a coach. I wasn’t in the round, I don’t know the judge, and I can very rarely decipher the actual meaning of the ballot anyways. The current model isn’t very useful to coaches as it stands. However, at least some explanation of a decision is required in PROD and debaters will be able to write down some notes about the decision and tell them to their coach, so I believe it probably still is net better for education in this model.

Second, there is no reason why there is a strong trade-off because judges can obviously write ballots and give oral feedback. In fact, many judges around the country give both oral and written feedback. Granted, the written feedback will be shorter and less developed. But think of the ballot as a set of bullet points which are then elaborated upon by the oral comments given. This still allows coaches to see the general idea of the comments without the confusion.

Third, debaters should obviously be taking notes during the decision either on paper or on their laptop which they can send to their coaches. We expect varsity debaters to help novices, organize preparation, be responsible at tournaments, etc. I think it is reasonable to expect them to also take notices about the round in a responsible manner.

Objection Four: Debaters will argue with the judge.

The threat of debaters arguing with judges is an important one to address, because it has an obvious remedy. When new dimensions are added to debate rounds (such as PROD), new etiquette must be established. There is no reason why ‘do not argue with the judge’ should not be one of the ‘rules of debate’ that coaches teach in their novice debate classes. We were taught to shake our opponent’s hand, thank the judge at the end of the round (but not shake their hand!), and to maintain a polite attitude towards our opponents. I think it reasonable to expect debaters to not argue with the judge. Besides, any self-respecting judge, particularly an adult, will quickly shut down this behavior or just leave the room. The mere possibility of bad conduct on the part of students shouldn’t be a reason to exclude a practice. We expect students to cite their evidence in an academically honest manner even when we don’t check on them, I think we can also expect debaters to know how to be respectful. If they aren’t respectful, then their coaches can reprimand them. The potential for abuse shouldn’t shut down a valuable tool for many other debaters.

Proponents of the ‘arguing students’ objection will claim that judges may be deterred to vote for rude debaters in the future, making the debate round unfair. This argument shows that there is a clear incentive for debaters not to argue with judges, and for coaches to teach debaters not to argue with judges. If debaters are punished for arguing with judges, good competitors will not argue with judges, and the issue will resolve itself. Additionally, debaters will argue with judges anyways. They might find them at later tournaments and ask them about decisions in a hostile manner, so PROD doesn’t seem to increase the likelihood of arguing with judges to any significant degree.

Objection Five: PROD is not good for novices.

As I mentioned above, I agree with this. Oral disclosure should not exist in novice divisions. Novices should not be expected to take notes during a decision or understand what is being said. This is not a reason to prohibit PROD in varsity/open divisions. For states that lack distinct varsity and novice pools, I imagine this might pose a potential problem to its implementation, but if the norm is already to expect novices to debate those with many more years of debate experience, I imagine that implementing PROD in those combined divisions would still be a good idea.

Objection Six: Knowing one’s (losing) record discourages debaters from trying their best.

Thanks to Eva for explicitly acknowledging this objection. I have heard this objection before from at least one or two coaches. I doubt this is, by itself, a knockdown objection to the practice, but certainly another reason to have some skepticism about it. I think there are at least two responses that can be made to this.

First, it seems that debaters knowing their record is actually somewhat non-unique. The current model privileges debaters who know their judges, have more judges in the pool, more social connections, etc. because they get feedback from the judges but others don’t, including round results. Debaters with coaches in the tab room tend to have more access to information than others, for example, they will often know their preliminary round records before other debaters or have judges that they know give them additional feedback after the round that other debaters don’t receive. This is a very common practice at local tournaments, and seems unfair. While my high school worked in the tabroom and refused, out of principle, to tell us preliminary round records before they were released, there would always be at least a few debaters in the pool that did know their records thanks to connections they had. The PROD model would allow all debaters to receive access to their round records and in-depth commentary and round feedback in an equal manner that the current model does not allow. So I actually believe there is a problem with information asymmetry now and that PROD can correct that. I imagine this is particularly important for schools that lack such strong connections to information sources at tournaments.

Second, I just don’t think PROD will exacerbate this problem anymore than the current system. Let’s say my above point is incorrect and that no student has any access to information beyond what the tournament tells them. I still think this problem of students being disincentivized in later rounds exists now regardless of whether or not we acknowledge it. Any semi-competent debater usually has some decent idea of how well they’re doing at a tournament, especially at the margins, which is where this objection is directed. It’s usually not that difficult to guess if you’re 0-3 going into the last round. If that’s the case, these students are already going to get discouraged and not debate their best. I also just don’t see any significant number of debaters who just give up at tournaments where PROD is the norm. Debaters going into their last rounds with losing records are usually still incentivized to win, to not lose that badly, or to have a fun or educational experience in round. While some debaters in the PROD model do not try their hardest when they know they’re losing, my guess is that those are the same debaters who wouldn’t try their best in a world of not disclosing decisions. Finally, even if we believed this objection to be totally true and found it a good reason to not disclose decisions, I still think the practice of at least giving oral feedback and comments would still be beneficial.

Call to Action

I think that PROD is definitely a good norm. It fosters increased accountability of judges and improves the educational experience of debaters. I think that tournaments across the country should adopt this norm and I think there are a few ways to make this more likely to happen.

First, individual judges should orally disclose in rounds. This benefits the individual students in the round and sets a precedent for PROD. The more judges that utilize PROD encourages others to adopt PROD as well. Some tournaments may forbid this. I have personally deviated from this rule many times because I believe it is valuable. Even if I don’t disclose who won, I will give comments. I also make sure to keep comments to a reasonable length in time and also write comments on the ballots. Make sure that you are being respectful while promoting this norm. You don’t want people to hate you for doing what you think is right.

Second, individual debaters should begin asking, very politely, for judges to orally disclose after rounds. It will encourage judges to think more about PROD and hopefully would make the transition to PROD smoother. It’s important to not force PROD upon anyone, because that would be disrespectful and cause backlash, hampering the long-term adoption of PROD. But there is nothing wrong with asking “do you have feedback for us on how we could improve?” A judge can, of course, say no, and the debater should respect their wishes, but asking can’t hurt.

Finally, you can petition coaches and tournament administrators to move towards encouraging oral disclosure in round. The more pressure that exists, the more likely this will be adopted.

People didn’t start using Tabroom as a tournament tool until very recently, but slowly, it is becoming a more popular site to host tournaments, mostly because a few schools started using it and began encouraging others to do so as well. PROD is, in my mind, just like Tabroom: a good thing for debate that faces resistance from the more traditional enclaves of debate. I certainly understand the concerns for adopting PROD, but I think that the adoption of PROD would be a net good for debate.

  • Josh You

    Speaking for myself, at least for tournaments with online balloting I always write a detailed RFD on the ballot to use as notes for my oral RFD and to help me answer any questions by the debaters. If I did not give oral feedback, my written RFD would probably be less detailed as a result.