The Dangers of Theory in Public Forum Debate by Nina Potischman and Nate Odenkirk

Nina and Nate are Public Forum debate coaches for Oakwood Secondary School in Los Angeles. Between them, they have 13 years of experience judging and competing in circuit LD and PF.

Varsity Public Forum circa 2021 is little different from Novice Policy, or JV LD. PF teams have found success running hackneyed “theory,” in which teams try to one-up each other in an unending game of brinkmanship. For those unfamiliar, theory is an argument not about the resolution, but instead about the practices of debaters in round. For example, debaters must disclose their positions on the NSDA PF wiki. Or, an infamous example from Lincoln Douglas Debate – debaters must not wear formal clothing, or, alternatively, shoes.

In this article, we do not aim our criticism at all of theory debate. Theory against active forms of violence and discrimination is a well-needed addition to PF, notably, misgendering theory. Additionally, theory against miscutting evidence seems well-warranted, though it seems a better option to simply stop the round and report the violation, already a mainstay procedure at nearly every tournament. We do not aim to tackle the question of kritiks in PF, which if executed correctly and in good faith (big emphasis on if), offer promise to prompt important conversations and ask debaters to consider necessary questions.

Our concern, instead, is aimed at how allowing theory writ-large in PF is a pandora’s box. A necessary critical evaluation of these progressive arguments has gone by the wayside. Here, we will outline a couple of concerns about the serious consequences of reading theory PF. We hope that the PF community will take this discussion seriously as it envisions the future of the activity.

For some background, in Lincoln Douglas, theory takes on an ABCD format.[1] LD reached the current hyper-technical iteration of theory through many years of intentional negotiation of its form, such that ‘use competing interps since reasonability means judge intervention,’ is a form of shorthand that members of the activity have come to quickly understand.

Our first question – is theory, as read in LD and Policy debate, even necessary in PF? Should debaters be required, or even encouraged, to be familiar with this form? We posit: no.

The shorthand used in theory debate only works if it is, indeed, shorthand. (It is worth noting that this shorthand in LD is still very arguably bad). Grafting this shorthand into PF leads both debaters to fill in the blanks with their own personal knowledge (or lack thereof), leading to incredibly arbitrary debates with missing warrants, where personal opinions carry significantly more weight than arguments actually made in round.

Why can’t PFers just make these arguments in fully fleshed out and intuitive overviews, rather than relying on technicalities from other activities? For example, if someone miscuts evidence, why can’t you simply read an overview explaining that miscutting evidence is really quite bad, goes against the point of PF, and so your opponent should lose? Why do you need esoteric formatting to point out the clearest instantiations of abuse? The capacity to make clear, intuitive, persuasive theoretical arguments without reading LD-style theory shells seems to resolve a lot of concerns about existing abuses in PF. Below, we will flesh out some of the dangers of allowing LD-style theory. Any concerns of proliferating abuse in PF are non-uniqued by the fact that egregious practices can be intuitively pointed out; in short, the recourse to theory is wholly unnecessary, and carries significant risks, outlined below.

First, respectfully, PF judges – you all do not know how to evaluate theory. If you think you know how to evaluate theory, you are probably particularly bad at evaluating theory.[2] We don’t mean this as an insult. We think it is perfectly acceptable that you don’t, because why should you? The vast majority of circuit PF tournaments are populated with parent-judge pools, an inconvenient fact for teams that style themselves as progressive. We can say confidently: we have never in our entire time coaching, judging, or observing Public Forum heard a half-competent RFD on LD style theory from a PF judge.

Understanding theory requires having dedicated a significant amount of time to attending lectures about theory, watching theory rounds, debating theory yourself, etc. It took me (Nina) about eight months, including going to camp drilling theory for hours a day, until I understood theory. It would be years until I believed myself capable of adjudicating it.

Judges have (in general) a huge issue with humility. I (Nina) listened to an RFD in which a judge voted on theory, admitting they did not want to explain their decision first because they thought it would not make sense, as they didn’t understand progressive arguments. Judges should not vote on arguments they do not understand. It makes rounds completely arbitrary, and subject to judge biases that play significantly more into decisions than actual arguments made in round. It is absurdly unfair to expect students to debate theory in these circumstances. Especially because there are no prefs in PF (and you might even have a parent in the back!), there is no way to predict how a judge will adjudicate theory. Theory simply destroys debate rounds.

More PF judges should admit that they do not understand theory, and simply refuse to vote on it. We promise it is much better for the kids than claiming to understand something that you don’t have background on. There is nothing wrong with not understanding theory. There is something wrong with claiming you do understand it when you do not.

Second, theory can raise the barrier to entry for many, worsening exclusion problems already endemic to debate writ large. As we explained above, it takes a long time, usually all four years of high school, to become technically competent to engage in theory debates. This competence requires paying for expensive LD/Policy coaches, going to camps that might range between $4k-8k. This requirement significantly raises the barrier for entry in PF. Debaters who do not have the resources to learn esoteric and hyper-technical skills will be left to the wayside. The fact that someone cannot answer theory on the line-by-line very likely does not prove the shell was correct – only that they do not possess the resources to know what it looks like to answer theory ‘correctly.’ That is the peak of unfairness. Instead, a merit debate where anyone can engage with the topic as written provides the levelest playing field for all.

We do not posit that this is the intention of every team reading theory, but it is an unfortunate and inevitable consequence. However, there certainly are teams that read theory in bad faith in order to trip up opponents unfamiliar with the argument.

Third, it calls into question activity pluralism. People want different things out of debate, and so there are different events to suit these aims. Here, it is important to ask, why does Public Forum exist? Why should Public Forum exist?

Given that theory is hyper-technical, not necessarily relevant to real life (I, Nina, who read a ton of theory swear that topic debate is one hundred times more useful to life than theory debate), it is very understandable that some people would not want to have to engage with it. Whether theory in LD/Policy is problematic is a separate question. But when discussing theory in PF, asking if theory is good in general is the wrong question. We should ask, instead – do we want three hyper-technical events inaccessible to the common observer, or do we want two?

We believe PF is simply more valuable if it caters the needs of groups not represented in other formats. This is the largest impact to exclusion; if we turn the sole event that our parents could actually understand into discount LD, there will be a lot of debaters who no longer feel welcome in our community at all.

Exclusion is inevitable. No model of debate will suit everyone’s interests. But who should we exclude from PF: People who want to read technical arguments that they can simply read in another form? Or debaters who, forced to debate theory, might decide to leave altogether?

Fourth, theory is fully incompatible with PF’s time constraints. There is simply not enough time to execute theory correctly. A four-minute constructive does not allow for intricacies demanded to fully explain competing interpretations, while reading an in-depth position on the topic. This time-crunch leads to significant bastardizations of these arguments, making these debates meaningless.

Fifth, theory jeopardizes topic education. It is impossible to talk about topics in depth while having a theory debate given PF time constraints. Because theory can decide rounds, the incentive to uplayer rather than discuss topical issues is high, leading to a likely decline in topical discussion.

Sixth, it triggers an inevitable race to the bottom. Barring a wholesale rejection of theory in PF, debaters will be inclined to push the envelope towards less educational shells in blind pursuit of the W. Anyone doubting this devolution need only look as far as font size theory, wherein a team must be dropped for the unpardonable offense of using 11-point font in their case as opposed to 12. The floodgates will open, as they have in LD and Policy, and will steamroll any team that crafts a logical case and brings value to the activity.

At its very best, PF tests a high schooler’s ability to take relevant facts, craft an argument, and persuade the layperson. In reality, the format has trended towards card dumping and speed talking with little room left for intelligent argumentation. Debaters that run tricky cases or blippy cards (and, more importantly, the judges and coaches that encourage it) actively minimize the usefulness of the form.

We love debate. It prepared us for college better than any high school class could. It taught us the value of not procrastinating, instilling a work ethic that we continue to be thankful for. We made friends in this activity that we still have. And the trophies weren’t bad, either. But all of that was possible because LD and PF worked when we were debaters, for the most part. Public Forum must move away from theory to regain its educational value.

Nina Potischman debated LD for Hunter College High School, earning 11 TOC bids throughout her career. Her senior year, she reached finals of the TOC, where she was the top seed and top speaker. She won the Yale Invitational, the Mid-America Cup Round Robin, the Harrison Round Robin, the Lexington Invitational, the Penn Round Robin, the Harvard Invitational, and was a two-time champion of the Mid-America Cup. She was a finalist of the Big Apple Round Robin, a semifinalist of the Princeton invitational, and the top speaker of the Lexington Invitational and Harrison Round Robin. She is currently a senior at Pomona College.

Nate Odenkirk debated PF with his partner Ella Fanger for Oakwood Secondary School, earning 13 TOC bids throughout their career. They championed Stanford, Millard North, Long Beach national tournaments, reaching quarterfinals of the TOC their senior year. He is currently a senior at DePaul University.

[1] A is the interpretation – the rule debaters must abide by. B is the violation – why your opponent violated your rule. C are the standards, or reasons to prefer your rule. D are the voters, which contextualize why your impacts matter – usually these voters are just fairness or education. The voter additionally contains implications – should you drop the debater or the argument to rectify this rule violation? The voter also tells you if you should evaluate theory using reasonability or competing interpretations: competing interpretations requires your opponent to have offense on a ‘counter-interpretation,’ a competing rule that you follow that you think is preferable. Or, reasonability, which says that you just have to be fair “enough.” Then there’s the RVI debate (short for reverse voting issue), which decides if your opponent should win for proving they were not abusive.  If that sounds like a lot, it is, and our point is to demonstrate the complexity of theory’s form. You can learn more about it in a lecture Nina gave here. If this is confusing to you, that’s okay. That’s part of our point, as we’ll discuss more later.

[2] For judges reading this that think I’m wrong, I’d love to know your thoughts on all of the following: do you default to text or spirit of the interp? What’s your default threshold for reasonability? Have you debated, and won a 1ar in a circuit LD or Policy round with a qualified circuit judge? Does competing interps require an explicit counterinterp? Is terminal defense sufficient under competing interpretations? Should counterinterps and interps be read in constructives, or rebuttals (and can I expect debaters to understand my preferences going into the round)? Why are RVIs considered illegitimate in policy? What’s the difference between T and theory? Have you only ever witnessed fewer than five theory debates? Is this the first theory debate you’re adjudicating? What is metatheory? Does metatheory come before theory (why or why not)? What should you do if theory is read without voters? What is a theory voter? If you could not answer any of these questions, or answered no, I BEG YOU: be honest with yourself. It is admirable to admit your own limitations, and to simply put in your paradigm – “I will not vote on theory because I do not know how to evaluate it.” I even wrote it out for you to copy and paste.