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Contributing Authors: Andrea Chow, Sue Foley, Brian Manuel, Nate Odenkirk, Nina Potischman, and Jack Wareham
Origins of Theory
1. Where did theory begin?
Brian: Theory “debates” have been happening for over 100 years, starting out in the pages of peer-reviewed academic journals. The Quarterly Journal of Public Speaking (1915–Present) is one of the first publications to feature academic discourse on practices, norms, and behavior in debate. A 1916 article, “Is debating primarily a game?” by William Hawley Davis, serves as the foundation of these theoretical discussions. Davis weighs the value of debate as a purely academic endeavor versus debate as a sport. His early take is not too far from contemporary theory “debates” on the question of “why we do debate.” These types of discussions continued in the Journal of the American Forensic Association (1964–1989), Southern Speech Communication Journal (1971–1988), Southern Communication Journal (1988–Present), Argumentation and Advocacy (1989–Present), and the Debater’s Research Guide (1979–2007). In the age of the internet, many of these discussions have moved online, and modern-day resources are referenced later in this article.
Academic theory discussions were introduced into debate rounds in the early 1980s, about the same time that hypo-testing and counter-warrants turned into counter-plans; yet it wasn’t until the late 80s and early 90s that these academic and in-round debates began heating up. In the Debater’s Research Guide (DRG), there was a proliferation of debate thought centering on the questions of actors (1) (2), competition, conditionality, and fiat. This was the beginning of theory debating as we know it today!
2. What is the purpose of theory?
Brian: The original purpose of theory was to check back against unfair, or “abusive,” arguments or practices in debate. Theory isn’t intended to determine if a rule was broken; rather, it’s an ever-evolving understanding of how debate should function.
In Policy Debate, theory initially centered on a counterplan being read conditionally, using an agent other than the USFG, or fiating utopia—different from the evidence, card-clipping, or cross-reading focus we see today, all of which are governed by a distinct set of rules.
Beyond Policy Debate, theory that originates in other formats is typically used to police in-round actions and/or demand specific actions be taken. The community has essentially traded in discussion of norms and best practices for theory arguments that see ballots cast in favor of (or opposition to) these norms.
Instead, theory should remain a tool to take the activity to new heights. It should push competitors to creatively develop, deploy, and execute their arguments in new, innovative ways. In sum, theory should serve as motivation to become better debaters—not discourage any particular strategy or approach to debate.
Structure and Overview
Nina and Nate: When we say “theory,” we refer to the ABCD violation format, as employed in Lincoln-Douglas and Policy debates. For the purpose of efficiency, “theory” will refer to the argument in this hyper-technical form. Additionally, for your review, please see the Appendix for an example of a fully formatted theory shell. Also, please refer to the National Speech & Debate Association’s High School Event Rules Manual (pp. 29-33) regarding Evidence Rules. As we wrote in our previous article:
What is the justification for the use of hypertechnical argument violations and standards in Public Forum debate? Doesn’t the format of PF better lend to these ideas being disputed in fully fleshed out and intuitive overviews, rather than relying on technicalities from other activities? For example, if evidence is miscut, why not simply read an overview explaining that said practice is unethical, is against the rules of debate, and should result in a loss? The NSDA is quite clear on what constitutes an evidence violation and the procedures for resolving them. Why are esoteric LD and Policy shells required to point out the clearest instantiations of abuse? The capacity to make clear, intuitive, persuasive logical arguments seems to resolve a lot of concerns about existing abuses in PF.Odenkirk, N., & Potischman, N. (2020). The dangers of theory in Public Forum debate. Vbriefly. https://www.vbriefly.com/2021/01/11/the-dangers-of-theory-in-public-forum-debate-by-nina-potischman-and-nate-odenkirk/.
Our argument is that if someone reads a “theoretical” violation, it should be done in a manner that is understandable and accessible to a student without any background in theory. If the “citizen judge” would be confused by a theory argument, it should not be read, because to do so would shift away from the purpose of PF debate.
3. Is theory necessary in Public Forum debate?
Nina: I don’t think so. In LD and Policy, fleshed out theory shells are more necessary to deal with practices like hyper-narrow plans, multiple conditional counterplans, PICs, NIBS, a prioris, etc. Plans and counterplans, however, are explicitly against the rules of Public Forum and debaters can lose for reading these arguments.
The only severely unfair argument I see in Public Forum debate is evidence ethics. Here, it’s worth emphasizing our argument. Claims about evidence ethics are incredibly easy to adapt to the format we defend; debaters should simply explain why a piece of evidence is so egregious to warrant their opponent losing the round. ABCD format, competing interps vs. reasonability, text vs. spirit, etc. are not necessary to prove that miscutting cards is bad.
Theory is also not the only recourse against evidence ethics violations. Most tournaments adopt the standard NSDA procedures for resolving these disputes – the round can be stopped, and if a person is found to have miscut evidence, they lose. This procedure should become common practice – academic integrity is paramount to critical argumentation. If evidence of ethics violations are so severe (which I have reason to believe they are), it would be better to petition tournaments and the NSDA for more stringent rules. People would just need to cite tournament/PF rules and the violation. This practice is more universally effective than to have judges with varying understandings and levels of comfort evaluating theory.
4. What should a Public Forum debate look like?
Nate: Asking whether theory belongs in Public Forum necessarily forces us to consider the more holistic question of what a healthy PF activity looks like. As someone who competed in PF for all four years of high school (and coached for just as long), I have had ample opportunity to wrestle with this.
PF is big – and getting bigger. It is orders of magnitude larger than Policy or LD, despite being the youngest (It should also be noted that it is expanding globally to Canada and China). PF’s newness means it is a blank slate, with comparatively few esoteric conventions and jargon unique to the activity. This lowers the bar for entry and success. It is for that reason, I believe, that PF is as prosperous as it is today. We must do everything we can as coaches to keep PF accessible by rejecting elements of “progressive debate” that are slowly creeping into the activity.
Theory is a great example. As Nina and I mentioned in an earlier article, theory emerged through decades of intentional trial and error in a negotiation within the Policy community (see Brian’s comments). On one hand, I concede that this experimentation could hold legitimate educational value. Without tight constraints, debaters are (in notion) free to try original and creative arguments, like theory. Yet such practices insulate the activity from newcomers and encourage a smaller, hyper-technical and overcoached community. It is in this environment where conventions like spreading—a practice that literally cannot be understood by 99% of the population—inevitably proliferates. An activity that allows any and all arguments will thus paradoxically alienate more and more perspective would-be novice debaters over time.
In my mind, there has yet to be a debate activity that has successfully resisted this feedback loop in the long run. Policy and LD are far down the rabbit hole, and PF is on the precipice. Keeping PF as a “big tent” activity means not just eschewing progressive argumentation, but also embracing what many consider to be PF’s shortcomings. Lay judges, possibly the most notorious source of frustration within the PF community, have in fact been the bulwark against the descent into hyper-technical debates. Lay judges cause consternation by voting off of seemingly immaterial moments in the round, like an offhand comment in one of the crossfires. Long overlooked by coaches and debaters alike, crossfire offers debaters a chance to craft a smart, strategic, and accessible cross examination of their opponent. I recently judged a bid round at a major national tournament where a lay judge voted on the cross ex. Instead of reforming the activity, I say embrace the fact that these judges will always exist, and spend more time practicing crossfire. Appealing to a disinterested and potentially uninformed judge is a legitimate skill that should be honed and rewarded. Contrariwise, the overemphasis on technical ability, where the round is only decided based on the flow, necessarily casts aside less tangible but equally important virtues like persuasion and narrative building altogether.
I do not claim to be an oracle of PF debate; it’s not my way or the highway. There are many coaches I have worked alongside with and respect who likely disagree with my analysis, and that’s okay. I simply posit that a more lay-friendly approach is crucial to keeping PF the largest event. Insofar as size of the competitor pool dictates how many resources and attention an activity gets, keeping PF comprehensible for the uninitiated is imperative to its survival.
Andrea: I envision Public Forum debate as a haven for students without the resources, desire, or ability to participate in circuit-styles of debate. As a coach for middle schoolers and early high schoolers, I spend a significant amount of time exploring the surface-level issues such as framework, substance and impacts with my students – and additional subjects like blocks or weighing. As we know all too well when working with kids, sometimes, this takes a while for them to grasp. With the limited time we have together, my co-coach and I are typically scrambling to fit individualized work, drills, and a practice round into a two-hour weekly session. Debate strategy and conceptual lectures are reserved for summer camps – a privilege for the students with time and money. Fortunately, though, Public Forum debate topics change every month.
This event was designed to be accessible to students of all backgrounds, as opposed to the kind of debater I remember thinking I had to be (one who dropped all extracurriculars and responsibilities to devote 100% of my time to debate). That’s what, ultimately, drove me out of circuit debate. Between my coach moving away for law school and my attempts at balancing debate with school, with sports, and with my job; prepping out every single theory shell I could hit at a tournament was an impossible feat. I like to imagine that my students are in similar positions. It’s not that they’re not capable of understanding theory. On the contrary, they’re incredibly smart, hardworking, and talented. They dazzle and impress both their teachers and parents alike with their understanding of civics, politics and history. The interdisciplinary nature of PF enhances their academic experience. I can easily imagine a world where theory and its esoteric norms cause parents and school administrators to question the educational value of debate. And, why shouldn’t they? If I focus my effort, energy, and time on teaching RVIs and TVAs – just so my students can hold their own at a tournament – I would have just coached LD.
I don’t think that advanced, technical debate is a direct trade-off with theory. I just think that if theory becomes a normal go-to position in PF, our community will lose a lot of brilliant, hard-working students who would otherwise be passionate and dedicated to it. That’s not a price that I’m willing to pay.
5. What are your concerns about judging theory in Public Forum debates?
Nina: My biggest concern about judging theory in PF is as follows: imagine you’re judging two teams – one, from a large school (Team A) who is reading theory. The other, from a small school (Team B), who has no idea what theory is. Team A reads a theory shell with a voter section that looks something like this:
D: Fairness is a voter since every debate needs a winner. Education is a voter since that’s why schools fund debate.
Drop the debater to – a. Set a positive norm, b. Deter future abuse, c. rectify time lost on theory
Use competing interps since reasonability is completely arbitrary.
No RVIs – you don’t win for being fair.
Let’s say Team A reads a theory interpretation that Team B sent them cards formatted in size 10 font, which is too small, and thus they should lose. Team B stands up and explains that this argument is absurd because obviously Team A can still engage with their position, and thus this argument is silly and the judge should disregard it. Team A stands up and explains: team B conceded “Use competing interps since reasonability is completely arbitrary.” That means Team B loses because they didn’t read a counter-interpretation, and didn’t prove that using font size 10 is actively better than using font size 12. Team B only read defense on the initial interpretation, which presumes reasonability, and thus they should lose.
My concern is that a lot of judges will vote for Team A. Did Team B actually concede that they needed offense on theory to win? Well, kind of. They conceded the argument “use competing interps since reasonability is completely arbitrary.” But I just don’t think that this is actually an argument – it was not articulated in a manner that their opponent could be expected to understand. Secondly, it relies on judges applying outside technical knowledge of debate. The debater did not articulate an argument. Instead, they referenced an argument they knew the judge was familiar with, and the judge made the argument for them.
This, in my opinion, is a particularly devastating form of judge intervention. It allows debaters to win rounds on arguments they don’t understand. It gives no opportunity for debaters without prior knowledge to engage. While this is absolutely a problem in LD and Policy, it is exacerbated in Public Forum; shortened speech times lead to truncated arguments. Also, the spirit of PF does not require its debaters to have any technical knowledge as these arguments necessitate. Debaters should be expected to explain theoretical arguments in a way that anyone without a theory background can understand. Arguments not articulated in this manner should be voted down.
6. Do you believe the skillset of Public Forum debaters limits their ability to use theory?
Nina: No. And, we sincerely apologize that our arguments were perceived in this way – that is not our goal nor our intention. We don’t think PF debaters are incapable of becoming good theory debaters or theory judges. We do, however, believe that theory debates in PF would be worse for the activity.
Making arguments more accessible does not make them worse or less intelligent. It is problematic to conflate intelligence with knowledge of esoteric debate concepts. Rather, it requires a specific kind of intelligence and skill in communication to articulate complex concepts in a way that is easy to understand. A professor who gives lectures that are incomprehensible to their students is not a good professor. Students who have not heard of theory before are not less intelligent than those who have.
Due to the time constraints in each of the debate formats, the students’ varying backgrounds, the judge diversity, and the purpose of Public Forum, I do not believe there is a way to adjudicate hyper-technical theory debates that is fair to students. If debaters cannot explain their arguments in a way that is accessible to people without background knowledge, they should not read the argument at all.
7. What are some online resources to better understand theory?
Nina: I gave an intro lecture here, and gave a more advanced lecture series with Jack that you can watch here, here, and here. DebateDrills does some great intros to theory, and this article by Jackson Lallas is helpful background. You can access UK’s Debate Theory vault here. If you would like to watch theory debates, Jack’s theory rounds are great – this is a round with topicality, the now (in)famous formal clothing round. If you want to see how disgusting theory rounds can get, you can watch this round where I read one absurd theory shell, and this round where I read (I think) three. This list is by no means exhaustive – these are just rounds that stick out in my mind from high school. I’ve also included a couple of theory shell examples in the addendum to this article.
8. If these online resources exist, what is stopping someone from simply teaching themselves theory? Why isn’t theory accessible?
Jack: Theory debates are not accessible because of how quickly they become highly technical, arcane, and unintuitive. In order to be able to win a theory debate on either side, one needs to have deep understanding of a host of issues: how to phrase an interpretation of a debate rule, how to explicate a violation of this interpretation, how to succinctly argue for the benefits of this interpretation, and why the judge should vote against the violating team. Each of these questions then folds out into a series of more specific questions: when determining the nature of a theory violation, do we use the exact text of the rule or the spirit of the rule? How do you weigh impacts if a practice is unfair, but highly educational? Should the judge vote against the unfair team, or just get rid of the argument in question? How should we even evaluate the theory debate paradigmatically – should we vote for the best possible rule, or the one that seems reasonable given the circumstances?
The unfortunate truth about theory is that it is simply impossible to effectively self-teach. It would be like training yourself to become a lawyer without having a law professor. Excelling at the theory debate requires years of debate camp and effective coaching from the already-initiated. These are luxuries many cannot afford.
Certainly, students with access to quality debate camps and coaching are already at an advantage in every respect of debate. However, I have seen many rounds where disadvantaged students demolished their privileged opponents simply by understanding the topic better. Theory, however, all but ensures that the most privileged students will always have a leg up. Even the most intuitive, persuasive, and auto-didactic of debaters will have an extremely difficult time beating a theory argument unless they have been trained in the nuances of theory debate.
In short, it is expensive to debate theory.
Susan: On some level, it doesn’t matter if any individual competitor or coach could or could not teach themselves theory: if new coaches are alienated by it, they may well configure their teams such that those possibilities for debate don’t exist (if the team exists at all).
Imagine the plight of a new coach: having taken a weekend away from family or loved ones, they organize a field trip with all of its headache-inducing logistics, deal with all the administrative rigmarole, teach the kids the topic and the format conventions as described by NSDA or their state association — and then watch in horror as their hard-working students are voted down because they didn’t know how to respond to “gotcha” theory about font size… Or shoe theory?
Even if they could convince their team to persevere through their understandable sense of injustice and “learn theory,” they might just decide to find something else to do with their collective time and energy – and hope that their admin didn’t find out what they had gotten their students into. Also note: theory norms are constantly evolving – usually in late elim rounds at a few, select (and expensive) tournaments. If your team doesn’t have the resources to attend those select tournaments (or you don’t have time to scour reddit threads and/or watch online – often illegally recorded – rounds), you’re at a serious and structural competitive disadvantage.
In short, the conversation about theory in PF often tilts toward what appeals to the successful, resourced, and vocal veterans rather than on what would intuitively create a sustainable format, capable of attracting and retaining new membership. I would argue that the reason PF took off so strongly was precisely because it didn’t have theory and was thus accessible to new coaches and competitors — and also to LD and policy refugees who might otherwise have quit debate. The proliferation of theory jeopardizes that accessibility.
Ask yourself: do you know any circuit PF coaches who didn’t debate themselves? I don’t have hard numbers, but anecdotally – besides myself – I knew just one, and she quit this year. In an activity that is necessarily both capital- and time- intensive, we should be lowering bars for entry, not raising them. The lived realities of new coaches, struggling to get often poorly-resourced programs off the ground, are too often ignored in this conversation. The appeals to equity are unpersuasive as there will always be a trade-off between the types of inequities that theory solves vs. those that it creates.
Thus, the very theory that is intended to level the playing field and check back against abuse can also, ironically and indisputably, functionally exclude. Given that there are other formats in which to engage this type of argumentation and inquiry, there should also be a space for other argumentation preferences so that our community can reach a wider audience.
Nina: It’s certainly not impossible that someone very dedicated to learning theory could use available online resources to learn it on their own. However, I believe that someone doing so would be at a significant disadvantage to someone with significant coaching resources, and access to camps. I want to emphasize that our argument is not that Public Forum debaters are incapable of getting good at theory. Instead, it is important to ask – who will be advantaged if this knowledge becomes necessary to excel in Public Forum?
First, the online resources only begin to scratch the surface in terms of learning to engage in hyper-technical theory debate. There is a big difference between understanding the structure of an interp and a counterinterp and being able to win a theory debate against an opponent who may have gone to camp, received a backfile from their school’s LD or policy team, or worked on drills with a private coach.
I have spent a significant amount of work learning how to master theory and how to teach it to others. I read a ton of it as a debater. I have consistently taught Top Lab at VBI where I spearheaded most of our work on theory. I also taught it to novices at my high school as well as to students in LD who I’ve privately coached for the past 3.5 years.
I want to emphasize that in both my own work and in my work with students, the intro to theory lecture takes about an hour. Learning about theory’s structure, however, is less than 1% of the total work required to be ‘good’ at theory debate. Over 99% is drills – both giving speeches, and the practice of writing theory. Conceptually, theory may not take a significant amount of time to grasp. But it is one thing to know the difference between competing interps and reasonability; it is another to know how to strategically manipulate these paradigmatic issues (things like text of the interp vs. spirit of the interp, potential vs. actual abuse, in round abuse vs. norms setting, semantics vs. pragmatics, fairness vs. education vs. strength of link weighing) to win a debate with five shells.
Mastering this knowledge requires dozens and dozens of hours. I spent 30-60 minutes every night the summer before my junior year practicing theory. I was incredibly privileged to attend camp, and work nightly with an instructor who would drill theory with me for hours. I was coached privately by an alumni from my school. I had novice directors with technical backgrounds. I had a team. I had a job, but not one that was time intensive. Without these resources, I would not have become a good theory debater. Without these resources, there’s also a good chance I would have quit Lincoln-Douglas (and very likely debate) altogether.
I want proponents of theory in Public Forum debate to carefully consider – who stands to benefit from the proliferation of theory in PF? In my opinion, it’s camp directors, private coaches with theory backgrounds who want an edge in hiring, coaches of schools with large debate budgets that can hire LD/PF coaches, and students that can afford these resources. The more esoteric debate becomes, the more value there is in hiring people with esoteric knowledge.
9. Why throw the baby out with the bathwater? Can’t we limit the types of theory arguments being run, like disclosure and evidence ethics, without devolving to the hyper-technical theory debate that exists in other formats?
Jack: I’m somewhat sympathetic to this claim, since theory debate appears to be a tool of justice in a community that can often seem unfair. However, the practice of enforcing debate rules in-round through competitive argumentation leads inescapably to the perversion of fairness. This is because competitive incentives are antithetical to the fair resolution of dilemmas. Debaters want to win, very, very badly, and while theory debate has the potential to be a tool to enforce positive norms, it ultimately allows students to abuse it for cheap wins. As Nina notes below (see the emergence of “debaters may not be in the same room as their partner” theory violations in online PF debates), the assumption that good theory will naturally win out over bad theory is based on a naive understanding of the debate community, of which only one thing can be said for certain – many people will do simply whatever it takes to win, no matter the educational cost.
This is why LD debate is filled with pedagogically bankrupt theory arguments. To find examples, I didn’t have to look any further than my own high school theory file. Here’s a particularly egregious one: “Debaters may not label their defensive arguments as turns.” It’s an absolutely ridiculous theory shell. Of course, if an argument is defensive and not offensive, a debater should simply note that it is not really a turn. However, theory incentivizes students to take issues that can be resolved through normal argumentation and make it into a theory shell.
A whole section of my theory file had “meta-theory,” that is, rules about how theory can be read! It contained shells like: “Debaters must word their interpretations positively-saying what I must do rather than what I cannot do,” and, “All theory interpretations must have an interpretation advocate, defined as an author who has publicly defended the shell in writing.”
My theory file (which had a whopping fifty-thousand words – nearly five times the size of my undergraduate thesis) is filled with this endless stupidity. Take it from me, a seasoned ‘theory debater,’ this is not a practice you will look back on and be glad you took part in.
Nina: Debate trends are driven by what wins. If people win tournaments on theory, that creates a strong incentive for others to read theory. As more judges espouse their willingness to vote on theory, more people will read it. Theory is a short argument, not reliant on the topic, that ends the round. The incentive to read it is high.
I’ve already judged PF rounds where debaters ran shells like “debaters may not be in the same room as their partner” which seems frivolous for a variety of reasons – namely, it is dangerous to police what students do outside of arguments made in round. What about students whose home environments are not conducive to competing online? What about students without access to wifi? Students should not have to reveal their living situations to their opponents to win a round. Once “health” becomes a voter in round, it opens the door to lots of incredibly frivolous shells – like shoe theory (debaters may not wear shoes) read in Lincoln-Douglas.
Finally, I am concerned that advocates of theory in PF presume debate is simply a marketplace of ideas in which the best practices will triumph. This presumption ignores the power dynamics inherent in these debates; debaters without theory backgrounds will lose, not because they are wrong, but because they simply don’t have the training to engage in these debates. If bad arguments simply went away, theory in LD would not look the way it does now. There is no check against the proliferation of bad theory. Theory is a pandora’s box. I urge PF to think very, very carefully before opening it.
10. But, you liked theory debate!
Nina: I liked theory back when I debated (though I don’t anymore). But most importantly, not everyone wants to debate theory. Not everyone should want to debate theory. People who do not want to debate theory have a right to stay in debate. Advocating for theory in PF for theory’s sake does not make sense when you can do this in other formats. If you are a die-hard theory debater, I really encourage you to do LD – not only will it be better for your peers, it will be a space better suited for you to pursue your interests.
11. Isn’t this censorship?
Nate: An emphatic, unconditional, and loud “NO!” This is not a straw counterpoint to raise, either. When setting the goalposts of an intellectual activity, there will be those who rightly warn of artificially demarcating what kind of speech is okay, and what is not.
Nina: Writing articles to provide people with more information about these practices in other formats is absolutely not censorship. Students can feel free to use this information as they please, as can judges. We are not going to stop anyone from running theory, or from voting on theory.
Judge biases are inevitable. We hope to provide discussion that helps judges interrogate these biases, and think carefully about their preferences. We believe there’s currently not enough dialogue about changing norms in Public Forum – our objective is more discourse, not less.
Plus, if someone really wants to become a theory debater, we are not censoring them. There are other activities where these arguments would be welcome.
People who believe that theory in full technical format, replicating LD/Policy style theory must answer the following questions:
- What theory arguments does PF actually need?
- Who stands to benefit from the proliferation of theory in PF?
- (schools with large budgets that can hire LD/policy coaches, big schools with LD/Policy teams)
- Who will most likely be hurt by the proliferation of theory in PF?
- Should all PF judges be expected to learn the norms of theory? Including, parents?
- What will stop debaters who begin by reading disclosure theory or paraphrasing theory from reading arguments like font-size theory, or shoes theory?
Andrea Chow competed in Lincoln-Douglas and Parliamentary debate and Speech for La Reina High School. She earned five career bids to the Tournament of Champions in Oratory where her senior year she reached quarterfinals at the national tournament. That same year, she also reached quarterfinals in LD at the National Speech & Debate Association’s national tournament. Andrea was a four time state qualifier to the California High School State Association Tournament. She has coached Public Forum and LD for La Reina, the Brentwood School, Santa Clara University, and the Lumos and Triumph Debate Camps. She also assists the operations of Speech & Debate Stories. Andrea is a freshman at Yale University studying Ethnicity, Race and Migration.
Sue Foley has coached at Campbell Hall High School and Middle School in Los Angeles for the past nine years. Her teams have reached outrounds at the California State Tournament, National Speech & Debate Association, and/or Tournament of Champions in Public Forum, Lincoln-Douglas, Parliamentary, Congress, Extemporaneous Speaking, Oral Interpretation and Impromptu. Additionally, she has coached two captains of the USA Debate team.
Brian Manuel is the Director of Debate at Edgemont Jr.-Sr. High School in New York and Director of Policy Debate at Stanford University. He also serves as an executive board member of the National Debate Coaches Association, consultant for the National Speech & Debate Association, and recent inductee of the Barkley Forum Gold Key Society.
Under his leadership, Edgemont’s debate program has flourished, winning five state championships, numerous TOC bids, and countless speaker awards, as well as presenting to the House Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill. His students championed the 2015 Georgetown Day School Invitational, 2018 Mamaroneck Round Robin, and 2020 New York City Invitational in Policy Debate; 2018 Harrison Round Robin, 2019 Newark Round Robin, and 2020 Scarsdale Invitational in Lincoln-Douglas Debate; and 2016 Lakeland Round Robin, 2016 Westchester Classic, 2018 University of Michigan High School Tournament, and 2019 Lakeland Round Robin in Public Forum Debate. Brian has enjoyed equal success at Stanford, where he coached its first team in two decades—and fourth team ever—to qualify for the National Debate Tournament, finishing in the top 30.
Over the course of Brian’s 20-year coaching career, his students have advanced to elimination rounds at every major national tournament, including NSDA, NDCA, NCFL, NDT, and CEDA Nationals. He also coached the champions of the 2003 New York City Invitational, 2008 Barkley Forum, and 2012 Golden Desert Tournament in Policy Debate, along with the 2007 NCFL finalists, 2012 NSDA finalists, as well as the 2013 and 2019 Phyllis Flory Barton top speaker.
During the summer, Brian is the Academic Director at the Stanford National Forensic Institute. He previously taught workshops at the University of Kentucky, University of Michigan, Georgetown University, Institute for Speech & Debate (ISD), and Millennial Speech & Debate.
Nate Odenkirk competed in Public Forum debate for Oakwood School. With his partner, Ella Fanger, he earned 13 career bids to the Tournament of Champions. They championed at Stanford University’s Invitational, Millard North’s Milo Cup, and the Jack Howe Invitational. His senior year, Nate reached quarterfinals at the TOC national tournament. Currently, he is an assistant coach for Oakwood School. Nate is expected to graduate this June with a B.A. in Political Science from DePaul University.
Nina Potischman competed in Lincoln-Douglas debate for Hunter College, earning 11 bids to the Tournament Champions throughout her career. Her senior year, she reached the final round of LD at the TOC national tournament and placed second. Also at that competition, she was both the Top Seed and Top Speaker. Nina was the champion of Yale University’s Invitational, West Des Moines Valley’s Mid-America Cup (twice) & Round Robin, Harrison High School’s Round Robin, Lexington High School’s Invitational, University of Pennsylvania’s Round Robin, and Harvard University’s Invitational. She taught LD’s Top Lab for The Victory Briefs Institute (VBI) in 2017, 2018, and 2020. Nina has also worked for Debate Drills and as a private coach for students around the country. Currently, she is an assistant coach at the Oakwood School and is a co-founder of Speech & Debate Stories. Nina is expected to graduate in fall 2021 with a B.A. in English from Pomona College.
Jack Wareham competed in Lincoln-Douglas debate at Oakwood School. Throughout their career, they qualified to the Tournament of Champions three times, receiving a total of 15 bids. Their junior year, they reached the quarterfinals at the TOC national tournament and received its Top Speaker Award. They have championed the David Damus Hollywood Invitational, the Harvard Round Robin, the Battle for Los Angeles, Loyola, the Valley Round Robin, the Valley Mid-America Cup, the Bronx Round Robin, the New York City Invitational, the Debate LA Challenge, and Harvard University’s Invitational. Jack also taught Top Lab in LD for the Victory Briefs Institute in 2017 and 2018 and was an assistant coach at the Oakwood School. While coaching, Jack specialized in teaching theory debate to novices and experts alike. Jack is currently a fourth-year undergraduate in the Rhetoric Department at the University of California, Berkeley, where they work as a research assistant.
Here, I’m referring to arguments traditionally read as theory in LD. I categorize arguments relating to equity/discrimination as kritikal – for example, arguments about misgendering. These arguments certainly belong in PF. I do not intend (or think it is useful) to make an exhaustive list of these arguments.
Here is an example of a (silly) fully formatted theory shell. I’m intentionally including one that is too long to fit into a Public Forum speech.
A. Interpretation: debaters may not read extinction impacts.
B. Ciolation: they read an extinction impact
1. Judge intervention. Individuals are cognitively biased towards high magnitude impacts.
Yudkowsky 06 Eliezer (Machine Intelligence Research Institute) “Cognitive biases potentially affecting judgment of global risks” Machine Intelligence Research Institute http://intelligence.org/files/CognitiveBiases.pdf
In the above task, the exact probabilities for each event could in principle have been calculated by the students. However, rather than go to the effort of a numerical calculation, it would seem that (at least 65% of) the students made an intuitive guess, based on which sequence seemed most “representative” of the die. Calling this “the representativeness heuristic” does not imply that students deliberately decided that they would estimate probability by estimating similarity. Rather, the representativeness heuristic is what produces the intuitive sense that sequence (2) “seems more likely” than sequence (1). In other words the “representativeness heuristic” is a built-in feature of the brain [is] for producing rapid probability judgments rather than a consciously adopted procedure. We are not aware of substituting judgment of representativeness for judgment of probability. The conjunction fallacy similarly applies to futurological forecasts. Two independent sets of professional analysts at the Second International Congress on Forecasting were asked to rate, respectively, the probability of “A complete suspension of diplomatic relations between the USA and the Soviet Union, sometime in 1983” or “A Russian invasion of Poland, and a complete suspension of diplomatic relations between the USA and the Soviet Union, sometime in 1983.” The second set of analysts responded with significantly higher probabilities (Tversky and Kahneman 1983). In Johnson et al. (1993), MBA students at Wharton were scheduled to travel to Bangkok as part of their degree program. Several groups of students were asked how much they were willing to pay for terrorism insurance. One group of subjects was asked how much they were willing to pay for terrorism insurance covering the flight from Thailand to the US. A second group of subjects was asked how much they were willing to pay for terrorism insurance covering the round-trip flight. A third group was asked how much they were willing to pay for terrorism insurance that covered the complete trip to Thailand. These three groups responded with average willingness to pay of $17.19, $13.90, and $7.44 respectively. According to probability theory, adding additional detail onto a story must render[s] the story less probable. It is less probable that Linda is a feminist bank teller than that she is a bank teller, since all feminist bank tellers are necessarily bank tellers. Yet human psychology seems to follow the rule that adding an additional detail can make the story more plausible. People might pay more for international diplomacy intended to prevent nanotechnological warfare by China, than for an engineering project to defend against nanotechnological attack from any source. The second threat scenario is less vivid and alarming, but the defense is more useful because it is more vague. More valuable still would be strategies which make humanity harder to extinguish without being specific to nanotechnologic threats—such as colonizing space, or see Yudkowsky (2008) on AI. Security expert Bruce Schneier observed (both before and after the 2005 hurricane in New Orleans) that the U.S. government was guarding specific domestic targets against “movie-plot scenarios” of terrorism, at the cost of taking away resources from emergency-response capabilities that could respond to any disaster (Schneier 2005). Overly detailed reassurances can also create false perceptions of safety: “X is not an existential risk and you don’t need to worry about it, because A, B, C, D, and E”; where the failure of any one of propositions A, B, C, D, or E potentially extinguishes the human species. “We don’t need to worry about nanotechnologic war, because a UN commission will initially develop the technology and prevent its proliferation until such time as an active shield is developed, capable of defending against all accidental and malicious outbreaks that contemporary nanotechnology is capable of producing, and this condition will persist indefinitely.” Vivid, specific scenarios can inflate our probability estimates of security, as well as misdirecting defensive investments into needlessly narrow or implausibly detailed risk scenarios. More generally, people tend to overestimate conjunctive probabilities and underestimate disjunctive probabilities (Tversky and Kahneman 1974). That is, people tend to overestimate the probability that, e.g., seven events of 90% probability will all occur. Conversely, people tend to underestimate the probability that at least one of seven events of 10% probability will occur. Someone judging whether to, e.g., incorporate a new startup, must evaluate the probability that many individual events will all go right (there will be sufficient funding, competent employees, customers will want the product) while also considering the likelihood that at least one critical failure will occur (the bank refuses a loan, the biggest project fails, the lead scientist dies). This may help explain why only 44% of entrepreneurial ventures2 survive after 4 years (Knaup 2005).
Cognitive biases encourage people to give credence to extinction impacts arbitrarily, that includes judges, kills fairness since you cannot tell who did the better debating if your brain won’t let you decide.
2. Critical thinking. Hyperbolic focus on existential risk diminishes our ability to discuss impacts and learn about actually relevant issues.
Odekirk 10 Scott (Debate coach) “Impact Hyperbole: A Dilemma of Contemporary Debate Practice” August 6th 2010 http://puttingthekindebate.wordpress.com/author/toniputtingthekindebate/ deb(k)ate
It seems as though debate is stuck in a loop of nuclear wars and no value to life. We have a difficult time of conceiving of a terminal impact that doesn’t end in some ultimate destruction. Without terminal impacts such as nuclear war or the root of all claims, we have a tough time comparing and weighing impacts. Our arguments for spill over connect even the most improbable of scenarios. Take for example our Africa war arguments. Given that Africa, as a continent, largely lack nuclear capabilities the chances of a conflict escalating in this area of the world are slim at best, but still debate returns to evidence written by The Rabid Tiger Project. In fact if you google “http://www.rabidtigers.com/rtn/newsletterv2n9.html”, you will find the great majority of the hits are debate links. This particular scenario is largely a debate creation and the scholarly world around it seems to have largely dismissed this single article as lacking credibility. Even in a debate context, this particular evidence is difficult to take seriously with a big debate on the line. Beyond the most terrible of impact evidence though, a world of equally terrifying scenario’s exist. According to the debate community, we face nuclear war because of any of the following: economic collapse in any number of countries across the globe, a lack of US leadership, use of US hard power (pre-emption, imperialist expansion, etc), India-Pakistan conflict, Middle East escalation, Iran nuclearization, capitalism, the lack of capitalism, patriarchy, racism, nuclear terrorism, US response to a terrorist attack, Taiwan independence, Chinese collapse, Russian aggression, Russian collapse, or accidental launch of nuclear weapons. That’s a short list and I am certain it doesn’t contain all the ways a nuclear war could break out as described in debate scenarios. If one listened closely to the debate community, a sense of inevitable doom would most certainly replace any belief in a long life. As much as it would seem I am poking fun at the policy debate community, kritik debaters caught in the same loop. External impacts to our criticisms are often extinction claims. A great number of K’s end in root of all claims or no value to life claims. In a very similar pattern, our kritiky impacts reflect the same sense of terminal destruction we find in the policy community we often subject to kritik. Possibly living under the sword of Damocles has had more impact on our psyche than Americans give it credit. Possibly living in the information age has resulted in the ability to read any old nut as great impact evidence without the effective critical thinking skills to discern who or what qualifies as credible. Possibly debate as a community lacks a language by which to communicate the dangers of racism, sexism, homophobia, economic justice, poor foreign relations, or terrorism. Is this tumble into impact hyperbole a problem? Well, it definitely does not reflect the sort of care a scholar takes in his/her work. It lacks the humility of limited claims backed only with probable warrants. Although there are some scenarios which could escalate into extinction or which do explain important pre-conditions for violence or meaningful living, these scenarios are much more limited than the debate community gives credence. In theory, the repetition of these hyperboles naturalize them or, at least, make them appear natural/normal. Our community convinces itself the impacts we discuss are credible threats. We are a population believing in an exaggerated reality – a hyper real if you will. Before we give ourselves the credit of knowing that our impacts are exaggerated, let us consider those of us who move on to work in think tanks or write law reviews who assess the threats of nuclear wars to the United States. In fact, this honor, think tank writer, is given out at the NDT every year. Perhaps a better question is, what is the value of our current impact debate? We don’t really help avoid nuclear wars or prevent violence by making every possible interaction into a discussion of the potential for either. If all of these scenarios result in gruesome ending for life on Earth, then the issues become very muddled. The result may be a sort of nihilism which in its conclusion is more Darwinian than Nietzsche. If we decide there is a impact hyperbole problem, what then is the alternative? Of course, the literature is our guide to a sensible form of impact debate, but we wouldn’t be in this predicament without literature. No debater asserts these impacts; they read cards. Cards = Truth Currency. A solution is a better internal link debate. How do the scenarios unfold? To examine the internals means examining all the many different ways the world would intervene in order to prevent the terminal impact from occurring. Debate judges can only work with what debaters give them, but we too must be willing to tell a team their impacts are overblown when this argument is part of the debate. Giving a debate ballot to the team who finds a 1% risk of extinction is a silly judging paradigm at best. At worst, it reflects a lack of critical thinking on the part of a debate critic. I am most definitely not saying critics should intervene and make impact arguments that are not in the debate, but giving more weight to impact defense is an important start to reign in our impact hyperbole.
Key to education since learning how to solve problems in the real world is the only long lasting benefit of the activity.
D: Voters. Fairness is a voter- debate’s a competitive activity so you can’t assess the better debater if the round’s skewed. Education is a voter- it’s why schools fund debate and iy provides portable skills for the real world.
Drop the debater: 1. Substance is skewed, I invested time and altered 1N strategy to check abuse which shouldn’t have occurred in the first place- you can’t assess the better debater on substance. 2. Deterrence- a loss discourages them for engaging in future unfair practices.
Competing interps since 1. Reasonability causes a race to the bottom where we read increasingly unfair practices that minimally fit the brightline- we should set the best norms. 2. Collapses- you use offense-defense to determine reasonability being good which concedes the authority of competing interps- saying reasonability is reasonable is circular.
No RVIs: 1. Illogical- being fair doesn’t mean you should win- otherwise both debaters would win without theory, which would be irresolvable- comes first since every debate needs a winner. 2. Topical clash- once theory is initiated we never go back to substance because its unnecessary so no one engages in the topic. 3. Norm setting- RVIs force me to defend a norm that I might realize is bad in the middle of the debate, if I win then an incorrect norm is set. 4. Chilling effect- debaters will be scared to read theory for fear of losing to a prepped out counter interp, proliferating abuse.