Miscellaneous Musings – NSDA Nationals 2020 Edition

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

The Opinions Expressed In This Post Are Those of the Author And Not Necessarily Those Of Victory Briefs.

I penned an article like this at Nationals 2018 and some of those thoughts remain (you can find that post here). I wasn’t present at Nationals last year (the first time I missed attending since 2010) so I’m back with some thoughts about this tournament. This was a weird tournament, not just due to its online nature, but also because I was judging policy for some reason (they must have been real desperate if they wanted me) instead of being able to judge Lincoln-Douglas. But I still have some thoughts!

Instead of reiterating the same points again from my previous post, here are some random takeaways from this tournament.

1. Congrats!

First, congratulations to the champion Jo Spurgeon and the finalist Shreyaa Nagajothi, both womxn competitors, securing the 2nd championship by a womxn in a row at NSDA Nationals! (Now if only it could be like this at TOC…) And, congratulations to David Edwards and Eric Gottlieb, repping the circuit all the way into the semifinals of NSDA Nationals.

Also, congrats to Ohio! They had 3 LDers in the top 6 this year and this was their second year in a row with a finals appearance. I believe a team from Ohio also won PF finals (and they were also a womxn team!). And, I can’t resist giving a shout out to my home state of Oklahoma who had 3 debaters still in by Round 13 and had a 15th and 13th place finish. Oklahoma also won the policy championship. Finally, congratulations to all the students I coached. While the tournament may not have gone as we hoped, I’m still incredibly proud of all of you and the work you put in before and during the tournament!

2. Bad topics are bad 🙁

I probably liked this topic more than the average debater but that isn’t saying much. This might be one of the WORST topics we’ve had for Nationals in recent years. I’ve struggled to find someone who disagrees with this view. From any kid who competed on the circuit to even the most traditional of coaches, it was hard to find someone who really liked this topic. Even last year’s topic, violent revolution, was better than this. Targeted killing was waaaay better. Why can’t we get more topics like that?

I get that we’re trying to foster traditional debate focused in on value disagreements, but this seems the wrong way to go about it. This topic was interesting as a research project but horrible as a debate topic. I learned a lot about the flavors of egalitarianism, different ways to justify democracy, and even various criticisms of democracy I had not previously been aware of. The philosophical literature on this was deep and interesting.

But none of that really translated into debate rounds.

And I really wanted my more apocalyptic predictions to not come to fruition. I certainly didn’t want to see or hear of rounds that were not good. After all, it’s NSDA Nationals- it’s supposed to represent the best and brightest of the debaters we have! However, after watching a few livestreams and talking about rounds with other judges and debaters, I couldn’t help but notice that it seemed like a decent number of rounds either contained (A) arguments that were as far from the topic as possible to try and catch people off guard or (B) not particularly nuanced or consistent defenses of democracy.

Here are 3 reasons why I thought this topic wasn’t good in practice and how we can avoid these in the future.

First, on a topic that’s supposed to incentivize more in-depth philosophical research, there’s a natural disincentive from getting too deep into the literature if a significant portion of the judging pool isn’t particularly familiar with the background literature that’s being discussed and if there isn’t a natural incentive to learn more about distinctions between various conceptions of democracy. The prediction was likely that debaters would learn about the differences between Dewey’s conception of democracy and how it might have differed from Niko Kolodny’s justification for it. That just didn’t happen. Why would any debater be bothered to dig into that literature if (A) a majority of the judges weren’t going to be able to truly follow those justifications for it and (B) those distinctions didn’t transfer to an in-round competitive advantage? What’s the value for the affirmative digging down into one cohesive view of how democracy works if the negative was never going to be able to exploit those differences in a meaningful way? If the affirmative was defending a broadly egalitarian view about how democracy ought to work, the literature provided many deep criticisms of such a view, including asking questions about what equality really meant. But the negative could never really engage in those nuances because it didn’t matter- they were always going to be defending some more rights-based argument anyways. So, there was no incentive for affirmatives to craft any particularly nuanced defense of democracy if that was never going to be contested by the negative. The negative was always going to say their generic responses to equality, the affirmative was always going to say their generic responses to property rights. There wasn’t a built-in incentive to dig in any deeper than that.

So, I think that good topics aimed at incentivizing more discussions about values and general principles need to be about subject areas where there is a natural incentive to be particularly well-read about the topic literature. Topic areas like the ins and outs of democracy are great research projects but not great debate topics.

I suppose some might disagree with me and argue that LD debate is supposed to be about general philosophical discussions that are broadly accessible to parents and a lay audience. Such a view seems plausible but I think ought not be the case at NSDA Nationals, the premier traditional debate tournament in the country, and the tournament that caps off the careers of many seniors in debate. While I agree that debaters ought to be focused on tailoring their arguments to be widely accessible at tournaments at locals, I’m less in favor of such shallow debates that don’t reward additional philosophical research at the national tournament. I tend to think that we should have topics that reward students for extra research, not penalize them for making arguments not easily understood by those without some philosophy background.

To clarify, I don’t think this is a problem with judging at NSDA Nationals per se (although I’d prefer if we had more judges with more background in philosophy). This is a problem with topics that encourage philosophical discussion in an area where most judges have almost zero background knowledge and on a topic where the nuances won’t ultimately benefit one side or another. If topics are meant to encourage deeper discussion about philosophy and values, I think they ought to be over less fringe areas where most judges won’t know a lot about the clash at hand but will at least have enough background information that debaters could get a real competitive advantage by being more well-read in the relevant philosophical literature.

Second, topics shouldn’t shoehorn in only one impact. In this case, it was all about democracy. Anything not related to democracy didn’t matter to the topic. (A) This makes for subpar debates even if debaters followed this approach. I think it’s silly to have debates artificially limited to just one impact as opposed to exploring any impact that is in the literature. (B) This just wasn’t a natural backstop on the topic as it played out. Plenty of negative debaters made arguments about how “death taxes hurt the economy.” Not only was this not a topic about death taxes, this also had almost zero relevance to democracy. And yet this was an argument that abounded and was made frequently both in preliminary as well as elimination debates. But few judges were willing to discard those arguments from the debate because some judges weren’t particularly familiar with the topic and because there were really no other good negative arguments to be made on this topic.

Third, there needs to be equal and clear division of ground. This topic was not balanced. I had assumed (falsely) near the beginning of the topic that it was because I find libertarianism to be a solid enough literature base that it can sustain even a full topic’s worth of traditional debates for the negative. Coupled with a few high burdens that the aff had to meet (namely T: antithetical), I thought this topic would be relatively balanced. However, I was ultimately proven wrong. Libertarianism is just hard to defend generally if you’re not really familiar with the literature base but it was doubly hard on this topic because it was unclear what the connection between libertarianism and democracy really was (truthfully: very little). In some respects, this topic reminded me of the immigration topic from 2016 which was basically unwinnable for most negative teams (I mean come on, libertarianism affirmed on that topic and basically the only negative ground ended up being “racism good” but with more words). We need topics that are significantly more balanced for Nationals. There are legitimate value conflicts that exist and are relatively equitably divided but this was not one of them. Coupled with weird interpretation issues about what technically counted as the intergenerational accumulation of wealth and what the burdens were on this topic, and I found that this topic made for messy debates.

Note that in my diagnosis of this problem, I’m not convinced the topic must contain an actor or be a policy action. Far from it. Some of my favorite topics aren’t governmental actors and some good topics don’t even have an action. Targeted killing is a good example of this. Predictive policing was also fine. While I’d probably prefer the topic to be an “ought” topic, I’d also be fine with a topic that wasn’t an action so long as it had good ground. I’d settle for something as simple as “Death taxes are unjust.” It’d get at most of the major themes that this topic was trying to accomplish without being subjected to many of its downsides.

3. Can we please change the judge paradigms?

It’s good that the NSDA forces judges to fill in paradigms but these paradigms are pretty much worthless. I’d almost rather we not have them. When I was competing, my coach told me that the paradigms were “drink coasters.” I’m not sure I read more than like 5 of the paradigms of the people that judged me. The problem is that these paradigms are more likely to be sources of misinformation than actual information. For example, preferred speed- they give you a 1-9 scale. What is the baseline for this? My 9 for speed is not what my former teammate’s 9 for speed is. This variation is likely to grow as different regions and different judges all have different standards for speed. Or what about a judge that says the value criterion is important or not? For me, I put that it is important but I simply mean that it is important for figuring out what arguments are relevant in the round. For others, they literally treat the value criterion as its own voting issue, i.e. that winning that your value criterion is superior constitutes a sufficient reason to affirm or negate (a nonsensical view but one nonetheless held by some substantial portion of the judging pool). These questions, rather than clarifying views about debate, are more likely to be sources of misinformation.

What are some possible changes? For one, have fewer preset questions and give the judges more space to simply write about their thoughts on debate. That tends to be more accurate in gauging real thoughts about debate. For another, I think that having judges watch a sample round and providing a decision and feedback about that round that is then viewable by the students would give students a concrete way for see how exactly their judge makes a decision in round. This could be part of judge training and the round itself could be available for students to watch as well.

Really, any reform here would be better than what we currently have. These paradigms just don’t convey much useful information and they might actually be providing misleading information to debaters. I coach my students to mostly ignore these paradigms but I’d rather it be the case that the paradigms just provide useful information in the first place.

4. Online traditional debate is… fine.

Online traditional debate isn’t great but it isn’t terrible either. I won’t spend too much time here because I’ve had many thoughts about online debate which you can find on the Victory Briefs podcast “Next Off” episodes about the online TOC and COVID. Suffice it to say, online debate loses some things, particularly in a traditional debate where the way that persuasive speaking and presentation works is pretty radically altered by the online format. I don’t think the losses are terrible and I certainly wouldn’t mind a few traditional/local tournaments during the season transitioning to an online format (either because of health concerns or for reasons of trying to promote a nationwide traditional circuit). For me, the worst part of online debates is after the decisions are announced- there’s just such an awkward silence in the online format where there usually would be applause. Awards ceremonies in particular are just so much worse in an online format. And there’s definitely a loss of community that really does define the in-person NSDA Nationals tournament. Yet, for all the prophecies of doom-and-gloom, I thought NSDA Nationals went well and I would be open to seeing more online traditional tournaments that more students across the country could attend. Locals are awesome but many students don’t get the opportunity to practice with and compete against students from different local circuits where they can learn from each other. I would love to see more online traditional tournaments as supplements to existing local tournaments (especially in states with COVID concerns).

5. Yay livestreaming!

One very real benefit to online debate is the ability to livestream certain rounds. While not a lot of rounds were livestreamed, I’ll take whatever I can get. I think livestreaming is an incredible useful educational tool for coaches and students and can provide immense benefits to teams down the road. Anecdotally, the reason I went to Nationals my sophomore year was not to compete in Congress (I fell asleep in 3 out of the 4 sessions) but to watch rounds. That year, I got to watch 3 elim rounds where the eventual national champion that year, Gabe Bronshteyn, deftly obliterated his competition. I learned so much from simply observing those rounds and I spent a decent amount of time that summer trying to dissect those rounds and figure out how to take meaningful lessons from them.

Livestreaming is, in some respects, better than watching rounds in-person because even though you lose out a little bit on the presence that people can bring in-person, more people can watch the livestreams without having to be at the tournament, and the livestreams can be recorded and watched later. The NSDA was under no obligation to stream rounds but I very much appreciate that they did. I have a feeling that some of the rounds will be valuable learning tools this upcoming season for teams all across the nation.

6. Why are we still presetting prelims?

This was mentioned in the last post, but I have to bring it up again. It remains beyond my comprehension why they do it. Seriously, it was all online this year. I already answered most of the objections in my previous post. The only one that was brought to my attention since then was the “judging pool” thing. This is ridiculous- judges were required to pool for every round for each day they were registered to judge. And we already don’t know the pairings for elims. Why is prelims different? It shouldn’t be. It’s fine if we have to wait a few extra minutes between rounds 2-3 if it means those rounds are going to be better competition for everyone. I’m totally fine with the strange 8/12 ballot system (although I’m not sure exactly how the ballot count thing and a powered prelim would work together) and the double-elimination elim rounds but the lack of power-matching is just getting more and more difficult to defend. I cannot think of literally any other tournament with 6 prelims that presets all of them.

7. More prelims, less elims.

I’m less committed to this one but I’d actually be okay if we had 8 prelims and broke less people into elims. This year, about 100 debaters broke to elims. ONE-HUNDRED. That’s so many. What’s the point? I would rather that every debater be guaranteed more rounds than a typical circuit tournament. I mean, even the Glenbrooks tournament has 7 prelim rounds. More prelims is better- it guarantees more rounds for debaters and it does a bit better of a job of ensuring that only the best of the best break. That being said, I’m not as sold on this, but I think it’s at least worth discussing.

8. Can we keep it traditional please?

I heard of more than one round where debaters were reading Ks, spreading, or engaging in practices that sound less like what you might try and do to persuade a parent and more like a parody of circuit practices. Now, oddly enough, this doesn’t really apply to circuit debaters. A lot of them actually adapted very well and didn’t do anything that sounded very circuit like. Some did, but not most. This is really aimed at those debaters who have maybe a little bit of circuit exposure and thought about using some of those techniques to gain a competitive edge of their opponents.

Just please, no.

I think traditional debate is awesome and it doesn’t need to be corrupted by certain practices. Yes, I wish traditional debaters would adopt some more circuit practices (mostly those concerning evidence ethics) but I also would like traditional debate to be mostly left alone. I strongly dislike people who spread in traditional rounds and I especially dislike it becoming an increasingly popular trend at Nationals.