Lawrence Zhou is the Director of Lincoln-Douglas Debate at the Victory Briefs Institute and the 2014 NSDA National Champion in Lincoln-Douglas debate. The views and opinions expressed here are solely that of the author’s.
I recently penned a blog post in the Wyoming Debate Roundup (an excellent resource for those debating policy in the Mountain region) about the lack of oral disclosure at the Wyoming State Tournament. Independently, the Wyoming Debate Roundup staff have also written an article about the case for oral disclosure and feedback and I’ve personally written a much longer version of that case here on Vbriefly. I thought that very few people would read these articles. I assumed that those who agreed with me would have no reason to waste their time reading an article in favor of a practice that they find self-evidently good; I assumed that those who disagreed with me would have no reason to waste their time reading an article against a practice that they find self-evidently bad. In fact, I personally find the fact that the article even got any traction on any online forum to be a win for me. My longer Vbriefly article even found some supporters and detractors in both the r/lincolndouglas and r/OhioDebate subreddits.
Little could I have known that a recent public post in the National Debate Coaches Association Debate Group could have spawned a comment war over 250 comments long over the merits and drawbacks of oral disclosure. As far as I know, this is one of the only times where supporters of both practices actually engaged each other’s arguments in a common forum. Both of the previous reddit comment threads I linked above contained a lot of people basically saying that their side was obviously right and the other side was just ignorant for not realizing the benefits or harms of oral disclosure. This type of choir preaching is not only annoying to watch, but it’s also largely ineffective at persuading skeptical or hostile audiences. I found this new debate to be far more productive even if both sides still engaged in some of the “moral high ground” type rhetoric and kept on employing the type of “I don’t understand how anyone could think x” type rhetoric that I think reflects a lack of immigation and empathy necessary for productive debate.
However, these types of comment threads rarely change anyone’s mind. There’s a lot of posturing and public performances that occur on social media and this comment thread was still shaped by those incentives. Each side trotted out their best arguments and expected that once their reasoning was laid bare in a simple comment, the other side would immediately see the errors of their ways and switch sides. I tend to think those types of comments are more for people that already agree with their position than for skeptical or hostile audiences. That’s just not how changing minds works.
Instead of debating this in short comments on social media, I hope to lay out a more comprehensive defense of what I previously termed post-round oral disclosure, henceforth referred to as PROD. To do so, I hope to offer some clarification about the terrain of this debate before jumping into arguments in favor of PROD and defending PROD against some common criticisms.
For those reading this article, if you agree with my position, great! We have established common ground (although you and I may diverge in some areas in terms of justifications for PROD).
However, this article is primarily aimed at a skeptical audience, perhaps even a hostile one. For certain debate communities, the practice of PROD is as obviously good as sunshine and rainbows, and for others, the practice of PROD is as obviously evil as hurricanes and earthquakes. Each side is highly motivated to defend their own practices with whatever arguments they can muster, engaging in what Julia Galef describes as a “soldier” mindset, one interested in defending our beliefs against evidence and argument. As someone who has had my foot in both camps at one point or another in my life, I do not hold that disclosure is only good or only bad. In high school, I used to strongly believe that PROD would engender unnecessary hostility and would run counter to my views on what the purpose of a tournament was supposed to be. In early college, I used to strongly believe in the pedagogical benefits of PROD as being all but an unalloyed good.
Nowadays, it is not obvious to me that PROD is only good or only bad. It is a practice with benefits and drawbacks. Tradeoffs have to be made. I, perhaps more than most people with involvement in collegiate policy debate, appreciate the obvious downsides that can arise with PROD. I also recognize the different debate circuits that employ different practices for practical reasons (there is a reason why many tournaments in smaller cities in China do not employ PROD because many of the judges simply are not confident enough in their spoken English to render a decision but why elite college debate tournaments held at Ivy League universities tend to heavily encourage PROD). I am sympathetic to many of the claims about the downsides of PROD and even am a critic of it in many respects. In particular, I find that the practice of post-rounding judges, especially by coaches who did not observe the round who argue with the judge under the facade of “accountability,” to be especially troubling and in need of change. However, I still believe that PROD has enough value to justify its more widespread adoption by more tournaments.
I do not think that my article here will truly change anyone’s mind. It often takes many attempts to convince someone to change their mind in the real world. I doubt my article alone will persuade any skeptical reader that their position is wrong. However, I hope that, in the spirit of disagreement and debate, we can at least try and see each other’s side more clearly. I hope to give the opposing view the best defense I can give and to acknowledge what I think are very real concerns with oral disclosure. I also hope to foster more open minded debate on both sides about this practice. I aim to provide my best, good faith attempt to defend what I sincerely believe to be a good debate practice and hope to not dismiss criticisms of PROD as ignorant or uninformed. Some of the coaches I respect the most, particularly those from smaller debate circuits with less resources and funding, also sincerely believe that PROD is harmful for both students and judges. I want to have a real debate about this and I hope that the reader is also interested in having a good faith debate about this practice as well.
I argue that we should flip the standard burden of proof. Rather than requiring the defender of PROD to prove that PROD is universally good with no downsides, I argue that the opponent of PROD must prove why judges who want to offer oral feedback should be actively barred from doing so. This middle ground approach helps balance between competing interests, including offering a pathway for judges and competitors who find PROD harmful to avoid the worst effects of PROD while allowing judges who want to disclose the opportunity to do so. I only argue that this middle ground approach should be adopted at more local and traditional tournaments and I argue there should be a number of safeguards in place to prevent abuse of PROD from manifesting. Obviously, I believe that the more extreme form of PROD, where oral disclosure and feedback is the expectation among judges, should continue to exist at tournaments in the national circuit.
The rest of the article is organized as follows: I open with a brief sketch of the terrain of this debate, including by more concretely defining various proposals for disclosure and feedback, establishing what I take to be reasonable burdens for the debate, and sketching out potential underlying paradigmatic divergences that may be affecting arguments for and against PROD. I then will attempt to resuscitate some common arguments for PROD by defending them against criticisms of those points before concluding by addressing some common critiques of PROD.
I admit this article is perhaps unnecessarily wordy. However, I believe such a length is justified. I want to show to a skeptical audience that I take concerns about PROD very seriously. I want to take the time not just to posture about why I believe PROD is good to an audience that already agrees with me but also to demonstrate that I want to have a real conversation and debate about this subject. And this is one of the few things about circuit debate that I actually think could improve more traditional tournaments, so I feel strongly about it. As a frequent critic of many circuit debate practices, I tend to think there are good reasons to quarantine some of the worst aspects of circuit debate away from traditional circuits. However, I do not think that all circuit debate practices are harmful and that some could, in fact, be good for everyone.
Sketch of the Terrain
In this section, I seek to provide a rough sketch of the terrain of this debate. I do not attempt to provide any normative judgment in this section, only to lay out the grounds of this debate. I hope that this can provide reasonable common ground for disagreement in the subsequent sections.
Disclosure versus Feedback
I start by teasing apart a distinction which many of you are likely already aware of. I define “disclosure” as the “act of revealing to the participants the winner and loser of the debate” and I define “feedback” as the “act of providing justification for the reason for decision, elucidating upon themes or arguments presented in the debate round, providing advice for the participants, and/or answering questions from the participants.” These are rough definitions, not meant for any academic discussion, but merely to signal that while disclosure and feedback are often used interchangeably (and I will use them interchangeably throughout this article) but need not overlap. It is possible to have disclosure without feedback, i.e. announcing the winner of a round but not providing additional information beyond that, and possible to have feedback without disclosure, i.e. providing some commentary or advice to the debaters without revealing who won or lost.
There are different degrees of disclosure. In preliminary rounds, judges can disclose speaker points (although I personally don’t think they should) and whether the round was a high- or low-point win. In elimination rounds, judges can disclose whether the decision was unanimous or split, the degree of a split decision, and who were the dissenting judges.
There are also different degrees of feedback. Judges can choose whether to answer questions, can choose to justify their RFD, can choose the amount of feedback, and are generally free to provide whatever and however much commentary they want. Feedback can be as short as 10 seconds and can even last hours (although such is heavily frowned upon in most contexts).
In my view, any combination of these practices is better than the status quo. I would accept a system with only disclosure but no feedback, only feedback but no disclosure, or both disclosure and feedback. I personally find the feedback to be more salient than disclosure itself, but I tend to think that both matter.
For the sake of this article, I will defend PROD as encompassing both disclosure and feedback. However, as I have written about previously in the Wyoming Debate Roundup, I would be comfortable defending a more limited version of either proposal and so I am not wedded to defending that PROD must entail disclosure, although I will defend the value of disclosure in my proposal.
For the purposes of establishing common ground, the proposal I will tentatively defend as desirable for many local or traditional tournaments is as follows:
- Prohibiting the disclosure of decisions or feedback for novice and junior varsity level debate
- Mandatory oral disclosure of the decision in varsity level debate, i.e. who won or lost the debate
- Optional oral feedback in varsity level debate with the optional nature of the feedback component stressed on the Tabroom.com ballot page
- Clear expectations among judges and competitors that competitors can refuse oral disclosure or feedback at any time and can leave the room during the feedback
- A requirement to submit the ballot to Tabroom.com or other tabulation software within a certain predetermined time after the start of the round, e.g. a requirement to submit the ballot 50 minutes or one hour after the start of each flight or round
- A requirement to have a typed RFD in the ballot to Tabroom.com at the time of submission and with encouragement to add additional feedback into the ballot for each debater before the conclusion of the tournament
- Strong encouragement on the Tabroom.com ballot page to write a minimum amount of feedback for each debater
- A time limit on oral feedback, e.g. 10-15 minutes, after the submission of each ballot OR a time limit on oral feedback set to expire after a certain time after the round of the round, e.g. 55 minutes or 65 minutes after the start of each flight or round
- A feedback mechanism, e.g. a tab staff member, for reporting judges that violate basic codes of conduct, e.g. judges who harass students or use racial epithets in their feedback
I am not attached to any particular time limit here. If tournaments are required to be condensed for practical purposes, then even a ballot submission requirement at the 45 minute mark (idealistic for a 40 minute debate round, assuming all time is used and none wasted) with a hard cap for oral feedback at the 55 minute mark would be preferable to the status quo. However, for the purposes of this article, I will implicitly defend longer time limits for decision time and oral feedback as I think that a modest increase in the scheduled time for each debate round is a worthy tradeoff in the context of PROD.
I admit this proposal is modest. For supporters of PROD, it may seem that I have already relinquished too much. However, I believe that more PROD is generally better than less PROD and I also believe that my proposal is more sensitive to the unique constraints that many local or traditional tournaments face while also capturing many of the benefits of PROD.
Now that my advocacy and proposal are more clear, I think it is also important to establish burdens for each side here. I often think that the burdens for each side are somewhat misconstrued. In particular, I often think that supporters of PROD look at its ubiquitous nature in national circuit style tournaments and think that the presumption must be that PROD is good without considering the drastically different compositions of each judge pool. However, I often think that the opposition to PROD comes from programs and coaches who have run many tournaments without PROD and have seen limited, but nonetheless real, downsides to tournaments that have adopted PROD.
In other words, I believe each side suffers from something of a status quo bias, using their own personal experience with their debate leagues and tournaments to inform their views on PROD and using those experiences to extrapolate out to how tournaments across the country should be run. As I write elsewhere in this article, I think such extreme views on either side are unlikely to be correct.
I believe that the burden lies somewhere in the middle. Commenters who argue that PROD is a categorical good are probably missing something about the nature of local and traditional tournaments that prevents PROD from being a universal good for either competitors or judges. Commenters who argue that PROD is a categorical bad are probably missing something about tournaments with PROD who do see at least some educational benefits from the practice. Arguments about the universal goodness or badness of PROD, therefore, seem unpersuasive on either side.
As I mentioned in the introduction, I think that the burden of proof is not necessarily on proponents of PROD to defend it as a universally good practice. Rather, I think that the burden of proof is on opponents to demonstrate why it is good to formally forbid judges who wish to offer oral feedback. Recall my proposal does not mandate oral feedback. For judges and competitors who do not wish to hear disclosure or feedback, they may certainly refrain from either offering or hearing it and for coaches that find PROD to be an unsafe practice, they may instruct their students to refuse oral disclosure or feedback (which does happen on the national circuit). This burden seems most consistent with a core tenet of debate: allowing students to choose what is best for them (within constraints). I also believe that, as with any debate, that it is not enough to establish either a single benefit or drawback to PROD. Those benefits and drawbacks must be compared in context. Neither side should be claiming that PROD is only good or only bad; reasonable debate must acknowledge that tradeoffs will occur and debate about whether those tradeoffs are worth it.
A Rough Sketch of Paradigmatic Differences
As with judgment about any practice, the two relevant considerations when considering the merit of adopting a new policy or practice are values and facts. As someone who has been in both a pro- and anti-PROD camp at one point or another, I tend to think that I have some idea of some of the values that both camps hold (although I do not claim to fully understand both camps).
I seek not to cast normative judgment in this section; I merely seek to offer a neutral sketch of the underlying value assumptions between the two camps. In later sections, I will offer some normative reasons to think that certain paradigmatic views are preferable.
In a previous Wyoming Debate Roundup post, I theorize that the value divergences can be explained as the standard view and the circuit view. I hold that the standard view can be best summarized as product oriented whereas the circuit view can be best summarized as process oriented.
The standard view is roughly that the purpose of tournaments is primarily used to produce a product, e.g. a result or championship, which results in a series of secondary benefits. In this view, tournaments are opportunities to reward those that have done good pre-tournament preparation and then the time following the tournament is used to improve upon what happened at the tournament, but the tournament itself is primarily competitive, not educational, in nature. Educational benefits of a tournament are derivative goods, found as a byproduct of the tournament, but the telos of a tournament is primarily to serve as a competitive forum to reward debaters.
I hold that the circuit view is roughly that “the tournament is both an opportunity to reward hard work but is itself also a learning process. I call this the “process and product” view of tournaments – the tournament is itself a process of learning and that can result in a product like a tournament win.”
Anecdotally, this unrefined and rough sketch of these paradigmatic differences—which, I admit, does not fully encapsulate the differences between both camps—generally coheres with my experiences as a traditional high school Lincoln-Douglas debater and a college policy debater. As a competitor in high school, tournaments were treated as opportunities to practice, meet with debaters across the state, and earn trophies, but primarily as competitive enterprises. There was little emphasis on using the entire tournament as an educational experience. It was not a norm to do rebuttal redoes in between rounds, common practice to do additional research in between competition days, nor an expectation to prepare against specific teams. It was only after tournaments were over and our photocopied handwritten ballots were available to us that we used the tournament as an opportunity to learn. In college, we were encouraged to treat the tournament very competitively but also to use each round as an opportunity to learn from judge feedback, an opportunity to update our files, and an opportunity to self-reflect on each debate round.
While PROD does seem like the most obvious example of the different value preferences between traditional and circuit tournaments, I think a few other practices could help illustrate these diverging views. For example, many traditional tournaments release pairings and expect debaters to immediately check-in to their rooms whereas many circuit tournaments release pairings and give debaters some amount of pre-round preparation time. I think the difference in practice here is that in the traditional view, there is little reason to prepare students for the specific debate round as the tournament is primarily geared towards rewarding those who did pre-tournament preparation while the circuit view holds that the tournament is itself a process of learning more about debate and the topic. Another example is that many traditional tournaments discourage disclosure of cases before a round while disclosure is the norm in many circuit tournaments. I think the difference here is, again, that the traditional view holds that debaters should have been prepared to debate any case prior to the tournament while the circuit view holds that debaters should use the tournament itself to improve.
I seek not to cast normative judgment about the value of either practice here; I merely use these two as examples of the differences between the two views. I also admit that none of the examples fully captures all of the relevant variables, e.g. circuit tournaments tend to include a lot of esoteric arguments that make it difficult for even a large team to adequately prepare against them all prior to a competition, inflating the need for pre-round coaching and disclosure. However, I think these examples do provide a way of capturing some of the core distinctions between traditional and circuit views of tournaments. I think that offering this unrefined and very tentative sketch of the paradigmatic differences between the two camps could provide a starting point for a framework for subsequent debates.
A Defense of PROD
In this section, I aim to defend two arguments in favor of PROD and defend these arguments against common critiques of these positions. I begin by outlining several arguments in favor of PROD that I do not find persuasive.
First, I do not like arguments that imply civil disobedience in regards to disclosure is justifiable. On purely pragmatic grounds, I suspect that disclosing even when the tournament rules explicitly forbids it is more likely to generate backlash from opponents of PROD and also forecloses an opportunity to develop goodwill within circuits that could be potentially open to changing their rules regarding PROD. On more principled grounds, I think judges should be expected to abide by tournament rules. As a judge in more traditional circuits, I would avoid disclosing decisions and would only offer oral feedback if permitted by the tournament (although I did more flagrantly violate these norms when I was younger). While I obviously think that PROD is good, I think we should be more interested in abiding by the rules of the tournament invitation. I am less convinced that this type of flagrant denunciation of the norm is all so bad so I can at least see some reason in favor of it, but I tend to think that we should generally refrain from imposing our conception of what good debate is against the wishes of a tournament or community.
Second, I dislike arguments that suggest that college policy is the norm that all debate circuits should aspire to be like. On pragmatic grounds, such arguments are unlikely to curry favor among debate circuits that dislike the norms of college policy. On principled grounds, not only are there very reasonable criticisms of the way that college policy operates (one merely needs to look at declining participation numbers to understand that this is not a controversial view), but there are even better reasons to think that even if college policy was the pinnacle of debate, it would make little sense to flatten all of debate into some modified form of college policy. I have previously complained to many coaches about what I perceive to be a worrisome trend in public forum debate turning into a worse form of policy. I also think that such an attempt to universalize debate around college policy ignores the different values and goals of different debate events. While I think that policy debate is an incredible vehicle for teaching deep research and strategic thinking, I think that its high barrier to entry and esoteric nature prevents it from being a debate event that translates well into teaching public speaking skills or rhetoric. Similarly, while I think that public forum debate is an excellent vehicle for teaching students about how to think of a wide variety of common debate topics, I think that its low barrier to entry and somewhat unsettled debate norms prevent it from really teaching students about deep research or technical debate skills. I think that both types of debate are good, but they are good because their aims are geared towards distinct skills and values. I think appealing to the goodness of college policy debate is a particularly weak argument in favor of PROD.
Third, I find arguments that denigrate tournaments without PROD as low quality are wildly off base. My argument in favor of PROD is merely that it would raise the quality of tournaments, not that there is something inherently wrong with not having PROD, that tournaments without PROD are somehow unworthy of being considered “real” tournaments, or that tournaments without PROD are actively harming students. The mere fact that so many coaches across the country think there is reasonable debate about PROD should introduce some epistemic skepticism about the benefits or drawbacks of PROD. I also think that I still received many excellent skills and feedback from tournaments without PROD when I was competing in high school and while I am convinced that my high school experience could have been improved by more widespread adoption of PROD, I am not convinced that my high school experience was bad. Finally, I think such arguments too flippantly handwave away serious constraints facing more local and traditional tournaments such as a less well compensated judge pool.
Fourth, arguments that suggest that this lowers the prestige of a tournament, ensuring that it will never be taken seriously in the “national circuit” seem remarkably unpersuasive to me. Not only do many leagues not know what the national circuit is (I barely knew of its existence my first two years of debate), many leagues perceive national circuit style debate to be corrupting debate. I think those concerns are mostly overblown, but they are real concerns nonetheless. This is an appeal to a value that is unlikely to find common ground among skeptical audiences, so I find this to be a weak argument.
Now, I move on to defend what I take to be the strongest argument in favor of PROD and to provide a tentative defense of some other secondary benefits to PROD.
I believe the immediate feedback that PROD provides to be one of the strongest arguments in favor of PROD. The general consensus in the academic literature is that immediate feedback has many valuable advantages. Studies have shown that immediate feedback improves medical students’ understanding of medical concepts, corrects inaccurate conceptions early on, is preferred by students, and improves test preparation. Meta-analyses done in the context of computer-based environments have found that immediate feedback is more effective at promoting learning. Many education websites tout the benefits of instant feedback for effective learning. Of course, that doesn’t mean immediate feedback is the only effective way to learn. There is actually a decent swath of academic literature that suggests delayed feedback is often superior to immediate feedback. Lynch cites several studies to suggest that delayed feedback can pair well with spaced retrieval teaching practices and can reduce cognitive load. I am certainly in agreement that immediate feedback shouldn’t be the only teaching strategy here and that we should be open to employing a diversity of effective teaching practices with students and debaters. However, I think there are some strong reasons to think that immediate feedback is especially valuable in the context of a debate tournament.
First, I’ve previously argued that “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 [an] 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.” Judging more local rounds this year in states like Wyoming and Oklahoma has only further convinced me of this line of reasoning. Many times, I have judged a public forum team or a Lincoln-Douglas debater who I think is doing many things well but is making a mistake that will hurt them over the remaining rounds of the tournament. For example, I judged a local debater this past season who repeatedly mispronounced the name of a very famous author on a topic. I noted this on the ballot and in the comments, but given that the debater would not see my comments until after the tournament had concluded, they were going to continue making the same mistake over the remaining rounds. Comments about case construction on the NCFLs or NSDAs topic will be useless because debaters won’t see those comments until after the tournament—and topic—is over. I struggle to see good reason to think that a debater should get punished for that mistake over multiple rounds when a simple oral comment from a judge could easily correct that early on. This is not an isolated example. In many rounds that I either observe or judge, I often think that there are multiple mistakes made by each team that could get easily corrected by a simple comment that could drastically improve a debater’s performance in subsequent rounds. These mistakes range from something as simple as mispronouncing a name to something deeper like incorrectly labelling arguments, making arguments from academically disreputable sources, or engaging in conduct that is rude or unbecoming. These are all things that can easily change from a simple comment from a judge. I see little reason to think that there is something wrong with attempting to correct these mistakes in the middle of a tournament as opposed to waiting until the end. What education is preserved by forcing a debater to commit the same mistakes repeatedly, especially if they are only attending a few tournaments on a topic or it is the last tournament on a topic?
Second, I’ve also argued that “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.” Anecdotally, I have found this to be true. Even when I saved my flows from a round, I often forgot details about the round and would forget precisely what the judge comments were referencing on a ballot. This compounds over multiple rounds at the same tournament, where debaters could even falsely recall details about certain rounds. As a coach, discussing rounds with students even the following day usually produces suboptimal conversations where students have forgotten many details about the round. Providing immediate feedback helps correct this.
Third, there is an asymmetry between practice rounds and tournament rounds that suggests that immediate feedback is generally preferable. When schools or programs host practice rounds and either other students or the coach is tasked with giving feedback, generally, that feedback is provided upon conclusion of the round, not in written form days after the practice round. The mere fact that many would find it somewhat strange to delay feedback until days after the conclusion provides some reason to think that there is some value in immediate feedback. I think part of this stems from the fact that once debaters are thinking in a certain way—especially immediately following a round where debaters are very prone to replay parts of the round in their head and reflect on their performance—it becomes much easier to link feedback to things that still fresh and salient in the debater’s mind.
A skeptic might inquire why the purpose of a tournament is to provide iterative improvement over each round. Perhaps they think that feedback after the tournament is sufficient. This relates to some of the paradigmatic disagreements I sketched above. I will provide some reasons below to think that a process oriented view of education is correct, but even assuming that such a view is incorrect, I think this reply likely doesn’t totally nullify this argument. For one thing, many coaches in traditional circuits across the country tell debaters to learn from each round, a practice inconsistent with a view rooted in the standard or product view. For another, it is impossible to think that a debate round wouldn’t provide opportunity for iterative improvement over the course of a tournament. Many debaters have exited rounds knowing that they lost or could have improved in one way or another and use that round to improve for subsequent rounds in the tournament by talking with their coaches or teammates about it, giving rebuttal redoes, or finding additional blocks and evidence to patch missing holes in the round. This is common practice and encouraged by coaches and debaters across the country, although not uniformly. Is there reason to think that learning from each debate round in this manner is acceptable but the practice of having judges offer their thoughts is somehow not? Further, a lot of this stuff happens informally regardless, especially with judges who are frequent critics within a given circuit. Anecdotally, I often appreciated having judges that I personally knew either from when they were debaters themselves or because they had judged me multiple times. I appreciated those judges because I was able to solicit informal feedback from them after rounds were over. Even when those judges wouldn’t tell me if they had voted for me or not, they would still oftentimes offer feedback that I found very valuable, especially in rounds where I was trying out new arguments or when it was the first tournament on a topic. That ability to get immediate feedback was very valuable to me and gave me the opportunity to make modifications between rounds and improve my debating. However, I was lucky. I managed to make many of these informal connections because of the fact I attended so many tournaments. Many other debaters weren’t so lucky and were disadvantaged by the lack of feedback they received. Nationally, I suspect such practices are also commonplace, even in regions where formal rules forbid such interactions to occur as there is no real easy way to forbid and sanction such informal interactions.
I also think that many arguments against PROD presume some sort of asymmetry between the advice of judges and coaches. There is some good reason to think this asymmetry is warranted—many judges, especially in more traditional and local leagues, simply do not have much formal background in speech and debate. Many districts also contain a plurality of coaches who have little formal forensics education, being history or English teachers who have selflessly volunteered to assist the debate team, often with very little extra pay. For these leagues, the asymmetry is not only obvious but salient, with some judges simply out of their depth and generally worried about providing quality feedback to teams.
However, I don’t take this asymmetry to be sufficient grounding of a rule against PROD. Recall, the opponent of PROD should show why barring those who want to give oral feedback is good. While some judges may in fact be relatively unqualified to deliver advice (a questionable claim in its own right given that almost every reasonably educated judge with a high school diploma will have something to offer students), some judges are, in fact, quite qualified in delivering advice. Other coaches, former successful competitors, current competitors in collegiate forensics, etc. are all the types of adjudicators who can offer valuable and insightful feedback. It is, in my opinion, an act of intellectual hubris to discount the type of feedback these judges could offer to students. Some of the best advice I’ve ever received as a debater came from judges who offered unsolicited feedback (which is not to say that my coach was bad, but rather that there was always something else that someone else could say differently in a way that might make more sense to me). Some of the best things I learned about debate from watching rounds online wasn’t from watching the debaters, but from watching the judges give eloquent, well thought out decisions. Some of the most I’ve ever learned from debate as a coach was observing the decisions rendered by other judges, where I gained new perspective on an argument, thought about an issue from a different angle, or learned about a subject matter I was previously ignorant about. That, to me, is one of the greatest things about debate—it’s an epistemic community built around iterative improvement and learning through engagement. As a coach, I have often learned more from random, late night conversations with other coaches than I have from reading a few articles of the New York Times in the same time slot. Hearing advice directly from a judge—as opposed to waiting a few days for a written form of that advice—is a qualitatively different experience (as us debaters should recognize since we have all decided to be a part of an oral communication activity, not competitive essay writing).
Many commenters have suggested that filtering written feedback from a ballot through a coach’s perspective to protect their students is good. I will address this concern below directly, but I think my proposal limits out the worst excesses of “bad feedback” because it forbids the practice in novice and junior varsity divisions, the divisions where students are still ostensibly learning about debate and where some filtering of feedback could be useful. However, in varsity, I think that such a requirement to filter feedback is much less important and I will lay out some reasons why in a moment.
Next, I defend this argument against a few common responses.
“Non-disclosure =/= no feedback”
One commenter writes “Non-disclosure =/= no feedback. All of the pro-disclosure arguments I’m seeing are predicated on the idea that debaters need feedback to grow – so write it on the ballot.”
There are a few reasons why I do not believe that the written feedback on a ballot is sufficient.
First, many ballots are blank. Putting aside concerns about the readability of handwritten ballots (a very real concern although declining because of the increased use of online tabulation software), there is a worrying amount of ballots that are submitted online that are blank. Some tournaments actively encourage submitting blank ballots in order to ensure that the tournament runs on time and then suggest that judges go back and fill out feedback and give advice after the conclusion of the tournament. Not only do many judges forget to go back in and fill out the ballots, but many judges will have already forgotten what happened in the round in great detail, leaving them unable to provide meaningful and useful feedback to competitors in these ballots. Anecdotally, many of the ballots my teams receive in local Wyoming tournaments are blank and many coaches at the NCFL Nationals Tournament (the tournament that kicked off this comment thread) also noted that many of the ballots they received for their debaters were also blank. If, in theory, tournament rules could ensure that judges never submit blank ballots in a world with no PROD, then, in theory, tournament rules could ensure that judges never submit blank ballots in a world with PROD.
Second, written feedback is often incomplete or difficult to decipher. As a competitor, many of my ballots I received were full of comments like “aff could speak better” or “neg criterion could be improved” without further clarification or details. These were not useful to me at all and provided very little concrete advice or feedback. As a judge, I often have difficulty writing down all of my thoughts and I usually write about 800-1000 words per ballot in local debates, far more than the average number of comments on a ballot in most traditional circuits. There are sometimes just concepts that take a lot of time to explain and write down but that I have basically memorized in my head that I could easily explain to someone in an RFD. As a former tournament director of ESL tournaments in China, I often found judges just writing filler in order to make it seem like their ballots contained real feedback or comments. As a current coach, many of the Tabroom ballots I receive for my students in local debates contain only a brief summary of some arguments without real feedback or details. Without disclosing identifying information from some of the ballots I’ve looked at just this year from local debates across the nation, I can confidently say that many of the ballots simply contained almost no real actionable advice that I could share with my debaters to help them improve. Not only were many of the ballots blank (as I mentioned above), but the ones that did contain comments were usually unhelpful like “Good case” or “Strong speaker” with few references to any argument or detail from the exact debate round. Even if oral feedback from these judges did not end up being particularly detailed, it would almost certainly be more useful than such banal comments like “Both teams were really good.” Even if the judge provided some comment like “I didn’t like this argument very much” without really explaining why or how to improve, it would at least be information we could incorporate for future rounds, a noticeable improvement over non-disclosure.
Third, the lack of opportunity to ask for clarification is incredibly important. I’ve previously argued that, “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.” In a world in which what the judge and debater thinks will inevitably diverge, the opportunity to ask for clarification from the judge is quite valuable. For example, some judges might write a comment such as “Debater could improve their presentation,” a comment which the judge might think conveys a lot of information, e.g. about speaking rate, pitch, inflection, pacing, etc., but is also a comment where the debater has difficulty deciphering precisely what the judge intends to convey. The opportunity to ask follow-up or clarification questions is invaluable.
For similar reasons why watching a series of lecture videos online is not the same as taking a class in-person, and why large lecture classes are not the same as smaller lab settings, I think that the opportunity for direct interaction between a judge and a competitor provides access to a whole new set of information that simply isn’t available in other mediums. While in my undergraduate studies, I rarely used office hours with professors to get clarification or insight or even just another perspective on an issue, a mistake I regret to this day. While pursuing my MA, I have found that attending office hours even on issues I already feel well-informed on has noticeably increased my appreciation and understanding on subject matters in no small part due to the opportunity to ask questions of the professor.
Similarly, I think that depriving debaters the opportunity to ask follow-up or clarification questions is a strong impediment to rapid growth. Anecdotally, I know that some of the tournaments where I improved the most were the tournaments that either formally or informally offered PROD, e.g. attending the Grapevine tournament my senior year where I received a lot of insightful comments from the experienced judges or the local tournaments where judges would find me after the round was over and give a few comments about how I could have improved in the round. Receiving those comments while the round was still fresh in my mind and when I had the opportunity to ask about concepts or subject matters I wasn’t particularly familiar with really helped me improve as a debater. As a judge, I love it when debaters, particularly less experienced ones, ask follow-up questions because it really shows they are interested in learning and improving. I have seen debaters who have come into a tournament without a strong understanding of a concept but have left the tournament with a much stronger understanding of it because of one or two excellent judges who took the time to explain something to them. I have coached debaters who have said that their tournament experience was extremely memorable and valuable to them because of a judge who took an issue or concept that they had previously learned about but explained in a new way that just clicked with those particular debaters. The anecdotal examples I have seen are innumerable and conversations with debaters from across the country have revealed countless stories of a similar nature.
Fourth, a brief survey of tournaments with experienced judging pools, e.g. judges with extensive debate experience or coaches, reveals that many of them have PROD in some form or another. Of course, this does seem to imply that tournaments without such a reservoir of experienced judges might have good reason to forbid the practice, but I take this to be evidence that many experienced judges, particularly those with experience in more national circuit debate, do prefer PROD as a practice which gives some reason against barring those experienced judges from delivering oral decisions. If tournaments that tend to attract more debaters nationally and carry more prestige adopt this practice, it gives some support to the value of the practice and also tends to deflate the more theoretical concerns with PROD. In other words, I think opponents of PROD would either need to demonstrate that empirically, tournaments with PROD produce worse outcomes, or that there is some unique reason why barring judges with experience from giving oral decisions is justified.
Fifth, I think there is a unique type of feedback that is often lost without direct and immediate feedback: the ability to better understand how a judge actually thinks. Debaters are often quite poor at thinking like a judge or understanding the judging process. I often encourage debaters I coach to watch debate rounds not as a debater, but as a judge. I ask them to write decisions, to evaluate arguments fairly and neutrally, and to think about how to resolve clashes, particularly when neither debater does enough weighing. Debaters learn more about how to adapt to certain judges and think in ways that benefit their debating. The process of receiving immediate feedback from judges makes the line of thought that a judge undergoes more salient. It allows debaters to receive a less scripted (and often more detailed) form of feedback that gives more insight into judge psychology. Because so many ballots contain missing details or lack clarification, it makes it difficult for debaters to really understand why a judge voted the way they did and I think this particular form of feedback has immense benefits.
Finally, as Neil Postman excellently demonstrates in his seminal book Amusing Ourselves to Death, the medium shapes the content of communication. This is similar to Marshall McLuhan’s observation that “the medium is the message.” Writing, as a medium, encourages different ways of writing than spoken language. I know that the way that I explain comments to debaters when writing them down on a ballot is different from the way that I might explain them orally immediately following a round. For example, when speaking to a debater, the importance of making advice actionable, clear, and easily digestible is far more salient to me than when writing comments on a ballot. I’ve noticed that my comments on my ballots tend to be a bit more abstract and lack reference to specific examples of something praiseworthy or in need of improvement that occurred during the round. And because I know that debaters will often ask questions about my decision, I tend to think more about my comments and how I might answer potential questions. For example, I might say to a debater, “I think you could have answered the value criterion a little differently” and then be forced to think of potential responses to that value criterion as suggestions for a debater. That makes the advice far more valuable because it gives practical, actionable advice that they could take into subsequent rounds. Now, perhaps your ballots do not suffer from similar issues, but there is, almost always, going to be some noticeable difference between the written comments on a ballot and the spoken comments delivered following a round and those differences could be important. At the very least, having the context of oral feedback makes what is written on the ballot more salient.
Preventing Coaches from Receiving Feedback
The same commenter also writes, “They also, often, need the feedback interpreted, contextualized, and reinforced. I can’t do that if the only word on the ballot is ‘oral.’”
Let’s start with areas of agreement. The word “oral” on a ballot is wildly insufficient. It should be the case that at any non-national circuit tournament, such a ballot should be considered blank. I love that many local tournaments have started including strongly worded suggestions. Therefore, I think it’s important that my proposal contains a minimum requirement for submitting ballots. However, I also have reason to think that doesn’t really rise to the threshold of barring PROD.
Not only do I think that there isn’t a particularly strong reason why such a strong tradeoff between written and oral feedback must exist, but many of the concerns I raised in the above section, e.g. blank ballots, advice lacking context, and the loss of certain types of feedback that is best facilitated by oral feedback over written feedback suggests that coaches may not be receiving valuable feedback from ballots now. This is made all the more obvious because many coaches cannot observe most of the rounds of their students, so it is often the case that coaches aren’t receiving contextualized feedback from ballots now. As I’ve previously argued, “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.”
Additionally, I’ve previously written that “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.” This line of rebuttal has been criticized, with skeptics correctly noting that students are prone to filter comments through their personal biases and not particularly consistent about note taking, depriving the coach of valuable information. However, for reasons mentioned above, it is not obvious to me that ballots are superior in conveying useful information. I also do not think the scope of the problem is so large that it warrants barring PROD, only requiring written information.
Finally, it is very easy for debaters to record decisions of the judge and have their coach listen to the feedback later.
Coach Labor Concerns
One commenter argued, “It feel like a pretty magical world where coaches get to both fulfill their judging commitment (including giving an RFD) and arrive to hear the RFD of their debaters debates (all of them)…and then be ready to be the empathetic, engaged listeners to their debaters (while also dealing with tournament logistics)…and then correct a stack of English essays while scarfing down a cold lunch…This is the real world for most debate coaches, who are not lucky enough to be coaching at an elite program…And this is (partially) why our activity, apart from at the top-level programs and tournaments, is suffering from a lack of long-term coaches (and quality judges)…Disclosure, plus extended discussion, plus written ballot, plus long tournament days, plus terrible compensation, plus real humans having to perform these roles, should at least be considered as part of this discussion…which is an overly wordy way of saying that, at least at the high school level, written ballots should take priority over an oral critique (beyond, perhaps, disclosure and a basic explanation of the reasoning, with no Q&A), when those options are in conflict, which, as I wrote above, they often functionally are. Unless, of course, we think that most public school affiliated coaches have little to contribute to their debaters development and/or imagine they all must be saints and martyrs to be allowed to hold the job. In that case, we’ll just have to agree to disagree.”
I certainly sympathize with concerns of underpaid and overworked coaches of public school programs. I fully admit that many of my coaching gigs have been quite privileged, working for schools that have fairly robust and well-funded debate programs, so I lack the kind of direct experience with the challenges of working in public schools that could easily sway my opinion. However, I have also worked to spread public forum debate in China and oftentimes, I was the only resource for students to learn about debate from either at a tournament or when I would go to schools and do debate workshops. The parts they usually learned the most from was asking questions, not listening to my boring, prepared presentation. I tend to think that judges, especially experienced ones, could help reduce this labor concern by offering valuable advice to students that coaches may not have the time to.
Further, it’s not clear that this concern is sufficient to undermine my thesis. Not only is it the case that many teams don’t look like this (there are smaller and larger teams, teams will zero to many coaches, and students with virtually no debate infrastructure), but so long as the guardrails I’ve laid out remain in place, it wouldn’t add significantly to a coach’s responsibilities. And I don’t see a strong reason why a coach must be at every student’s RFD, perhaps just attending one or two student’s RFD after a debate, an opportunity that wouldn’t be available without PROD.
Students Don’t Listen
One commenter suggested “in my 30 years of coaching and judging, it’s been my experience that when you win you usually aren’t listening for criticism…and when you lose, you aren’t listening because you are mad.”
I take this to be a reasonable concern, but I have previously offered a few rebuttals against this, suggesting that students may not be incentivized to read or learn from ballots regardless. In a world without PROD, 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.” However, a world of PROD might be slightly superior at capturing the attention of debaters because if debaters are already in the room, they might be compelled to listen to the judge and whatever comments the judge has to offer. Perhaps one point of mitigation is that coaches can use ballots as teaching opportunities for their students, forcing students to internalize the lessons from the round. I have to imagine that the overlap between students who refuse to pay attention to a judge’s comments and students who generally don’t pay attention to coach feedback is pretty high. Regardless, recorded RFDs or written comments as a requirement from coaches could easily offset this concern.
Additionally, “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.” And my proposal does bar disclosure and feedback in novice and junior varsity divisions, deflating the relevative scope of this concern as it would likely be less experienced debaters most prone to simply ignoring advice from judges.
Finally, the broader impact of this doesn’t jive well with general trends across tournaments with and without PROD. If you survey students who attend tournaments with and without PROD, many students prefer tournaments with PROD. The local debaters that I have helped coach tend to experience the most rapid growth at tournaments with PROD (although I admit that hired judge quality could be a strong intervening variable). The debaters I worked with in China saw the most growth after conversing with judges following rounds. I personally saw the most growth from tournaments with PROD. Sure, some students will likely tune out, but unless those students constitute a significant plurality of students, it seems unclear to me that these concerns outweigh.
Some commenters suggested that much of the feedback is unhelpful, or perhaps, worse, counterproductive as it might originate from a former debater who mostly feels the need to listen to their own voice and thoughts, as one commenter argued that, “as their coach I don’t want a random judge undermining what we’ve worked on in class and in practice. The judge is there to adjudicate the round. Not to coach the students.” This, I think, gets at the deeper disagreement that illustrates the opposing stances. I think there is some sympathy to this view. There are some coaches who simply give advice that runs directly contrary to the values and lessons of another coach. Certainly, I have listened to decisions from judges and told my students afterwards to ignore most of the feedback they received. However, such worries are usually overblown. I might tell a student to ignore advice maybe a couple times a year which, when you consider that I interact with dozens of debaters over the course of a year, each of whom might have hundreds of debate rounds each season, amounts to under one percent of decisions. Of course, this usually occurs in national circuit tournaments that tend to hire more experienced judges. Yet, even pricing that in, I am still unconvinced by this line of argument.
First, my proposal does not mandate PROD. Judges who are unsure of themselves or simply do not wish to offer feedback simply do not have to.
Second, I think almost everyone has something to offer. I have previously argued that, “a lot of parents have a lot of good feedback that is drawn from their life experience. Doctors and nurses with knowledge about health care, lawyers with knowledge of the law, public school teachers with knowledge of state budgets, and business people with a knowledge of the economy- all of these people contain incredibly useful feedback that might not be easy to find at first (and certainly impossible to glean from a hastily written ballot), but all possible to find out from a verbal decision. So I would be relatively slow to say that some decisions ‘aren’t that valuable’ given how much knowledge you can find out if you listen just a little bit more.” I often welcome feedback from lay judges because they tend to be more reflective of the audiences that I would have to learn how to persuade in the real world.
Third, while the motivation to shield or filter comments through a coach might be done in good faith, I worry such a justification can be used to shield comments in a way that not only minimizes some of the bad comments but also some of the good comments. The thing that I like most about debate is that few of us think exactly alike. I often find myself at odds with people I have immense intellectual respect for. I often think that I know very little compared to other coaches in this activity. I use my time in debate to learn not only from those above me in terms of experience or age, but also from those younger or less experienced than I. We may not agree on much, but I can appreciate the thought and effort they’ve put into their positions and their arguments. I often judge debaters who were far better than I ever was and I learn something from them when I judge them. As a competitor in high school, I often got judges with less debate experience than I and still was able to learn so much from them. But, more importantly, I often got judges that simply saw debate and the world differently than I did and I learned more from them than the judges who agreed with me. I think there is a not unjustifiable tendency among coaches who want to teach their students in line with their values and understanding of debate. This, while noble, I think can have unintended consequences of preventing students from learning about debate from people who see debate differently than their teammates or even their coach. One of the things I love about coaching students throughout a tournament is when the students come back from a round having just received an excellent RFD from a well-respected judge and they talk about how they finally understood an argument. I could view this as a failure of my own coaching (after all, wasn’t it my job to teach my students about that argument?, but I tend to think that’s the beauty of debate—that you can learn from literally anyone. While this sort of filtering has the benefit of preventing some of the worst comments from ever making it to a debater, I also think the net that is cast can often drag down some very helpful comments as well.
I most often see this line of argumentation when referencing more “progressive” judges that have entered a judging pool, e.g. college policy debaters judging a local tournament. I have already explained above why I find a lot of the tactics of outsiders to flatten debate into a single universal style to be less than desirable. I do wish that “outsiders” would stop coming in and telling debaters and coaches that their tournaments were “less-than” or inferior. They are simply different debate styles, each with their advantages and disadvantages. That being said, I think the problem cuts both ways. For the same reason that I don’t think the circuit should be so flippant to dismiss more traditional styles of debating, I don’t think that more local or traditional debate circuits should be so flippant to dismiss more progressive styles of debate, or at least, to dismiss some of the ideas and concepts encouraged by more progressive styles of debate. Maybe spreading is antithetical to some of the values of traditional debate (I personally think that spreading is, in fact, not a particularly valuable skill to learn for most people and does tradeoff with teaching more persuasive forms of speaking), but that doesn’t mean that some policy debater with a lot of experience in faster styles of debate doesn’t have something to offer on a subject matter they may have researched a lot about for school or their own debate topics. I recall reflexively dismissing so many comments from “policy judges” when competing during my early years of high school only to realize in retrospect that those judges often knew what they were talking about and had something valuable to offer. That does not mean I think that the policy judges were right about everything—often, they were just incorrect about which arguments were going to be the strongest on a topic or simply unaware of stylistic norms of different debate events—but they usually had one or two pieces of advice that were incredibly valuable that would have been lost to me if I simply reflexively dismissed them out of hand. Thus, while some unhelpful comments will get filtered out by banning PROD, many good comments will also be filtered out, and I tend to think that the consequence of losing those good comments hurts more.
The most egregious example of this line of argument was when a commenter wrote “What I never wanted was for them to be held hostage by an egotistical judge that generally was one (1) year out that thought they knew everything about debate theory.” Another commenter also wrote, “I’ve seen a lot of “pro disclosure” arguments from former debaters who can’t give up their glory days. Those are the last people I want giving my kids advice!” This line of argument is so strange because it presumes that judges a year out don’t have anything to offer. Granted, I often think that the worst judges are the first year outs because they think too much like debaters and not enough like judges. Yet, that does not make their advice worthless nor does it suggest that they may not have useful insights that could be incorporated by debaters. If former debaters were successful, then perhaps some of their advice might be useful. Truthfully, much of the advice that resonated with me came from judges fresh out of the activity, more in tune with developments in the region and the contemporary slate of arguments that tends to do well. That isn’t to say that coaches didn’t offer good advice, but, like judges, coaches span a range of quality and some of the worst advice I received was from older coaches who spent a lot of their ballot complaining about the “decline of the activity” or how things were different “back in their day,” neither of which really helped me improve as a debater. And it seems to heavily devalue the contributions of college debaters, without whom, this activity would struggle to survive. Without former and current debaters in college returning to judge, tournaments would likely implode from a lack of judging. The alternative would be to seek only volunteers with minimal debate experience as the bulk of the judging pool, a practice that could only hurt the long-term sustainability of this activity. While the practice of adapting to a wide variety of audiences is obviously important (and I have been a strong proponent of traditional debate for years now), very few things in debate are more frustrating than receiving only ballots from parents or volunteers with little understanding of debate. It demotivates students because it makes them feel like all the work they have done learning the technical skills of debate and researching interesting elements of a topic is for naught. Debate works because people come back to judge. Devaluing these judges as somehow categorically worse seems antithetical to the ideals of inclusion and growth that defines the debate community.
Fourth, there is value in hearing comments that contradict your views on debate. No one agrees on much, especially in debate. But that’s part of what makes debate so useful. There is often less groupthink in debate. People are constantly challenging each other, questioning assumptions about debate, and pushing back on elements of each other’s worldview. I think hearing unhelpful comments is helpful for two reasons. First, it forces you to justify your own assumptions about debate or an argument you’re making. If someone contradicts established advice, then that should be considered an avenue for increasing confidence in your own worldview. Second, they could be right. How do you know that something is wrong or bad advice? Other than basic principles by which (most) reasonable people would accede to, e.g. arguments should have warrants, almost everything else sees immense disagreement. Is anyone really that epistemically confident that they are correct? How do you know you’re right? Is it because you underwent a rigorous process of falsification and rigorous testing of your ideas? What if you were wrong? What if that judge said something that contained even a small bit of the truth? I think all of these questions strongly suggest that hearing opinions that may seem to contradict established consensus is generally preferable than trying to shield yourself from them. This seems especially true for debaters who may have limited coaching resources and the best avenue for them to improve might just be to hear the opinions of a wide diversity of judges.
Ultimately, it seems like throwing out the baby with the bathwater to toss out all PROD because some PROD may be unhelpful. Rather, training students, especially varsity debaters, to be better able to discern good and bad advice seems a reasonable counter to this concern.
In this section, I introduce a few secondary benefits of PROD. I do not take any of these to be individually sufficient to justify PROD, but taken together could offer additional reasons in favor of the practice.
Some commenters in this NDCA thread suggested that a benefit of PROD is that it helps prevent misentered ballots and lowers the need for ballot auditing. There seems to be some truth in this. At the Oklahoma State Tournament, since disclosure was forbidden in prelims, it usually took a few hours following the conclusion of the final preliminary round to announce breaks because coaches had to meticulously go through each (paper) ballot to ensure that all the information was correct and that the decision written in the RFD lined up with the decision written at the top of the ballot (it was often the case that the written RFD would suggest that the affirmative or negative had won but the circled winner at the top of the ballot would not match). I have even been the subject of these types of mistakes. My junior year at my local NFL (it didn’t become the NSDA until my senior year) District Tournament, I lost a relatively early round in the tournament on a 2-1 decision. Only a few years ago, I ran into one of the judges who had voted against me and he admitted that he had mistakenly selected the wrong winner on his ballot. That made sense to me because when I had read the ballot following the conclusion of the tournament, it really felt like his written RFD was actually a decision for me. Thankfully, that one mistake didn’t cost me the tournament and I still managed to qualify to NFL Nationals that year, but it easily could’ve happened another time, ruining my chance to qualify to the National Tournament. I would be willing to guess that many teams have had this experience at some point or another, even if they didn’t know about it. Thankfully, ballot auditing is a bit easier now in the age of e-balloting, but even that doesn’t fully ameliorate the problem. I think PROD could help reduce the number of mistaken or false ballots entered because there is now a way to compare the written decision and the oral decision.
I think there could be some spillover benefits to judge accountability. In previous posts, I suggested that this type of judge accountability was a primary argument in favor of PROD, but given that I am only proposing a more moderate version of PROD where PROD is not required, these benefits are likely to be far more limited. However, I still think that this could produce enough of a positive change that it is worth discussing. I’ve previously written that, “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.” Again, these benefits are going to be quite limited because judges do not have to answer questions from debaters or provide oral feedback and so it may fail to adequately incentivize the right judges, but I still think that the more that the general debate environment encourages PROD, the more that judges will be generally incentivized to pay more attention.
This benefit has been criticized on a few grounds. As a general response, my proposal does not require judges to deliver oral feedback, mitigating many of the uncomfortability concerns that may arise. However, there are a few more responses I can offer. As I’ve written before:
“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.”
There may be a few arguments that I am missing, but given the already unnecessary length of this post, I may tackle them in a follow up post or in comments sections.
In this section, I survey many of the common themes and arguments that arise in the comment thread of the discussion I mentioned above. While I think many criticisms have merit and do warrant serious challenges to the practice of PROD, I ultimately think that the risks are overstated and that many commenters, while correctly identifying drawbacks to PROD, are perhaps drawing too strong of a conclusion in banning PROD as opposed to seeking alternative remedies for the concerns raised here. I attempt to give each criticism a good faith reading before providing some reasons for skepticism. I divide up the criticisms into three buckets: impacts to tournaments, students, and judges.
Impacts to Tournaments
Perhaps the most common objection I see against PROD is the concerns of logistical nightmares arising should the practice become commonplace. One commenter writes “It’s usually a matter of keeping the tournament on schedule. That’s my understanding at least.” This becomes especially salient for tournaments with strong limitations on scheduling, such as leagues that prevent tournaments from running on Sundays, tournaments that rely on school infrastructure which generally isn’t available until after school is dismissed on Friday afternoon, or tournaments with a limited number of available judges. And I do not think this is an unreasonable concern. Many national circuit tournaments have become notorious for consistently running behind schedule, held up by a few zealous judges who refuse to stop rendering feedback to a team. Collegiate policy tournaments provide even more reason for hesitation, with some RFDs taking over an hour to explain and even longer to reach.
However, I think this concern is ultimately overblown and that several components of my proposal could avoid this concern from spiraling out of control.
First, while there are tournaments with PROD that do run over time, there are also many tournaments without PROD that also fail to adhere to the published schedule. I have attended traditional tournaments in multiple states and no state was immune from this problem. As a judge at tournaments across the country (and even across the world), I have seen many tournaments in many formats (e.g. public forum and British Parliamentary debate) both with and without PROD veer off schedule. I tend to think that a myriad of other factors affect schedule adherence. These include whether the tournament is proactive about messaging or alerting judges and competitors about the schedule, the experience level of the judging pool, the willingness of coaches to force their students to adhere to the schedule, the reasonableness of the schedule itself, the experience of the Tabroom staff, the layout of the school or tournament location, the number of volunteers to help direct participants and judges, whether the tournament uses online balloting or tabulation software, and many other factors. While PROD could reasonably be one such factor that increases the propensity for tournaments to run off schedule, it seems unlikely that it is one such unique and overwhelming factor and I haven’t seen any evidence beyond anecdotal recounts that it is such a massive contributor to tournaments running behind schedule. I recount in my original Vbriefly article that when comparing policy versus public forum debate in Oklahoma, it was actually public forum debate, an event without PROD, that tended to run behind schedule, in part due to the larger competition pools, compared to policy debate, an event with PROD. I see little widespread empirical evidence of tournaments with PROD consistently running over time more than tournaments without PROD.
Second, I think many aspects of my proposal, particularly the time limits on submitting a ballot and how long feedback may run, can be adjusted up or down to better fit with the scheduling needs of tournaments. My proposal also mandates that tournaments require ballot submission prior to disclosing. So long as tournament officials are zealous about enforcing such time limits, it will prevent the worst excesses of tournament delays from manifesting. And judges without any interest in offering feedback can simply elect not to provide any, saving them time as well. Consequently, there is little, in theory, that makes PROD a unique contributor to scheduling delays.
Third, it seems a reasonable tradeoff to build in a few extra minutes for PROD. If any of the earlier benefits I cite to PROD hold any weight, then it seems a worthy tradeoff. As I argued in my previous article, “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.” We all recognize that logistics are important but cannot trump any and all concerns. Tournaments could be a single round long and run incredibly efficiently but very few of us would recommend that as a way to capture the educational benefits of debate. Tournaments could neglect to schedule meal time, yet most of us recognize that failing to do so at the expense of student wellbeing is an unworthy tradeoff, even if it would accelerate a tournament by an hour. I think it is incredibly difficult to square the view of debate as an educational endeavor for students with a general desire to finish tournaments as quickly as possible. If the only thing that mattered was quickly concluding a tournament, why bother having a tournament in the first place?
Of course, I am not a tournament director nor a coach employed by a public school. I do not face the standard constraints that a tournament director, typically underpaid and poorly compensated for the task of running a tournament while attempting to balance a healthy work-life balance. Yet, given that most tournaments are already full day endeavors, PROD is unlikely to do much other than perhaps by lengthening a tournament an hour or two, so the actual sacrifice required is perhaps not as burdensome as initially thought.
Fourth, it is not obvious to me that PROD does take so much time. Writing ballots, for instance, also takes a lot of time, and, for most people, writing usually takes longer than simply saying something aloud. Many tournaments have become delayed because judges are simply taking too long to write all their comments on a ballot. In a world in which that type of behavior is somewhat frowned upon, it could actually speed up decisions where judges write only a few comments on their ballots (about the same that they would write anyways) and deliver some comments in the oral feedback section, thus increasing the total number of comments that a debater could receive from a single decision. This is, of course, more speculative, but I see no reason why it must necessarily be the case that PROD will only delay tournaments.
Fifth, in a world of online balloting and tabulation, we have recovered a decent bit of scheduling time previously reserved for tabulation and ballot running. I think this mitigates some of the impact of scheduling delays. I think this concern was perhaps more serious back when I competed in high school and all ballots were paper and tabulation was manually done, but it is not that clear to me that this concern is so serious in today’s debate environment. Whatever time savings accrued from the transition to online tabulation should immediately be returned to students in the form of more valuable tournament time.
Finally, even if PROD resulted in, let’s say, another hour or two for a tournament, that would only shift expectations, not undermine them. Parents, volunteers, and other hired judges usually assume that tournaments will last the full day (depending on the league and tournament) and adding an extra hour so that the tournament runs from 7-5 instead of 7-4 or 8-6 instead of 8-5 is unlikely to seriously upset tournaments and the volunteers. Parents, for instance, have no idea of what tournament schedules are like until they are trained by the tournament. If most parents don’t know that tournaments used to run from 7-4 and are told that tournaments run from 7-5 now, that is unlikely to result in any volunteer backlash or decreased participation from volunteer and hired judges.
While some judges “love listening to their own voice,” this is somewhat non-unique because some judges simply love plastering their ballot with comments which also delays tournaments. If we expect judges to abide by ballot submission times, we can also expect judges to abide by disclosure times. And if not, then it’s not obvious to me how PROD is a unique contributor to this problem. Additionally, it’s also not obvious to me that, when the feedback does not delay the tournament, that it is a good idea to discourage those longer feedback sessions. For example, I have sat in and listened to a judge give a long discussion about the debate round for the final round of the night and learned a lot from their comments. The ballot was already submitted, so the tournament wasn’t delayed, but the feedback that I and the team I coached received was invaluable. Finally, my proposal makes it explicitly clear to students that they may leave whenever during the RFD, thus helping to reduce the impact of the rare judges who love to rant without end. This is made more efficacious with escape hatches like when pairings for the next round are released, which provides an easy opportunity for students to leave.
Thus, while scheduling concerns should be important to any tournament director, the scope of the impact is limited enough that I think the skeptic would have to demonstrate a pretty significant and consistent trend of PROD delaying tournaments before it could rise to the threshold of justifying banning PROD.
Impacts to Students
One common concern relates to student safety. One commenter argues that “Because while I trust most judges to use that time constructively, I don’t trust all of them and a bad judge given five minutes to tear a student apart can do a lot of damage.” They continue “I’d rather not give racist/sexist/etc. judges an avenue to insult a student in the guise of disclosing their decision.” Another commenter made a similar argument when they wrote “The number of times judges have verbally abused my students during “disclosure” (especially male judges of my female and trans students) … without repercussions or accountability because it’s “her word against his.” Note: Once was too many. I wish it were less than once a season. It got to the point one year that I required my students to record the disclosure on their phones.” This concern is real. It also seems obvious that oral disclosure does provide more avenues for judges to accost or otherwise threaten the safety of students.
However, it is important to note that the most determined to harass students will do so one way or the other. In-person tournaments provided ample opportunity for judges to harass competitors in-person. Online tournaments have given judges the ability to inappropriately contact competitors. None of this is to excuse these judges; rather, it is to recognize that the remedy to these problems is not to bar a practice that arguably has strong educational benefits. If judges are expected to follow a “no disclosure” rule, it seems about as reasonable to expect them to follow a “no harassment” rule, for if judges fail to abide by the latter, it seems less likely they would also abide by the former.
I disagree with the more flippant comments provided by some defenders of PROD to simply remove all racists from the pool because in some local circuits, that would easily result in half of the judging pool being barred from judging, especially in more conservative states. However, I think the general logic of that argument still stands—if tournaments are willing to trust a judge to be alone with one or two debaters in a classroom, they should be similarly willing to trust a judge to speak to those debaters. And those guilty of seriously compromising the safety of students should indeed be removed from the pool and barred from judging at future tournaments. If judges cannot be trusted to refrain from making abusive comments towards debaters, it is not clear they should be trusted to be in the physical presence of debaters alone in the first place. I struggle to see why tournaments should be allowing people who are apparently threats to the safety of students to be around students and only finding them particularly dangerous whenever they open their mouths. Perhaps only limiting comments to written ballots prevents these problems from manifesting, but in the age of electronic balloting, many students have direct access to their ballots and comments without a coach screening them first, which means that judges can still send inappropriate and offensive comments directly to students.
Additionally, it is, again, not obvious to me that the conclusion is that we should bar PROD. Teachers, while trained and vetted, are also prone to engaging in unsafe behavior with students. The solution is not to bar teachers from interacting with students, for doing so would obviously undercut a valuable educational resource for students; it’s to establish guardrails for behavior, procedures for reporting, and mechanisms for removing unsafe people from the vicinity of students. While one commenter responds that we should take sweeping approaches to student safety, analogizing it to weapons on a plane saying, “We don’t know which person getting on a plane with a weapon might be dangerous, so we ban all from carrying.” This analogy seems intuitively compelling but I think is disanalogous for a few reasons. First, the environment is quite limited. We don’t ban people carrying weapons in many places, including in public settings. Second, the risk is distinct. There’s not a particularly strong reason to carry guns on planes, but there could be upsides to PROD.
This is not to say that student safety concerns aren’t real. Many coaches have provided anecdotal examples of disparaging comments on ballots and uncomfortable interactions between judges and students. Debate has, among many other problems, obvious problems of sexism, discrimination, and harrassment. It’d obviously be safer if no student ever had to even interact with another unvetted adult, but that is simply not how to deal with the issue. Establishing procedures for reporting, reprimanding, and removing dangerous judges, just as we might do with coaches or teachers, seems a more apt solution to me.
One commenter argues that they “don’t know that all high school students are prepared to hear a decision, especially after a close round. I know we’re raising future grown ups, but they’re still emotional, pubescent creatures.” I think this is a reasonable concern. Another variation of this concern is about how losing rounds discourages debaters from trying their best in subsequent rounds. However, I think this concern can be mitigated and is somewhat not unique to PROD.
First, very few other high school competitive extracurricular activities are so protective of high school students. In most sports, students not only know the result of the competition immediately after the round, but they are also very much aware of the score during the game, including in sports that aren’t entirely points-based like gymnastics. In something like Ethics Bowl, judges not only disclose decisions after the round but also directly cross-examine the participants during the round. In Quiz Bowl and Science Bowl, students see results as the competition progresses. In middle school MathCounts, competitors in the final round see point scores immediately after they answer. In fact, I actually cannot think of very many competitive activities in either middle or high school that insulate students from results immediately following a round of competition (other than speech events). The only events that delay the announcement of results tend to be ones that are not directly competitive in nature, e.g. essay writing contests or journalism competitions. It seems like there would need to be a particularly strong justification for the asymmetry between virtually all other competitive high school events and debate in order to make this concern sufficiently strong enough to bar PROD. While there are some distinctions that can be drawn between debate and other activities, it is not clear which distinctions are non-arbitrary distinctions that really provide a meaningful reason to bar disclosure.
Second, my proposal allows students to simply request not to listen to the feedback and leave the room at any time during disclosure. It also forbids disclosure in novice and junior varsity divisions. Many tournaments also now mandate things like cultural competence training, and given that many judges themselves have debated, have students in debate, or are parents, it shouldn’t be that difficult to train the judges to be more sensitive to how students might react to hearing decisions. It just does not seem obvious to me that because some students might negatively react to hearing decisions about their round that we should therefore bar the practice writ large.
Third, there is a flip side to this issue, which is the unnecessary stress and anxiety that comes with being ignorant of one’s results. I remarked in a previous article from the Wyoming Debate Roundup that “The stress that the competitors have about the results is simply not worth it.” In particular, the uncertainty of not knowing one’s results can result in stress, also negatively impacting a student’s mental health. I have witnessed many teammates and students in a nervous wreck wondering about their prelim results, uncertain about whether or not they won the debate round. It doesn’t seem obvious that the benefits of protecting students from exposure to discouraging results, only some of whom will adversely react to such information, is necessarily weightier than the benefits of reducing uncertainty amongst most students who want to know the results from their debates.
Fourth, this could be a valuable learning opportunity for many students who will have to inevitably learn how to take criticism and respond to it. In high school, students will face dejection across a wide variety of circumstances—rejections from colleges, poor grades in a course, social rejection, etc. It seems like teaching students how to take criticism would be a valuable skill to impart, even if not every judge is going to be well-trained enough to learn how to deal with more emotional children.
Fifth, I think information asymmetries render some of these concerns inevitable. I wrote in a previous article that “some teams will basically have an advantage of knowing their record because of informal connections to judges, even if those connections are one or two places removed. Teams with connections to judges were able to exploit those connections to obtain information about their competitive record in the middle of the tournament. That results in the worst of both worlds – some teams will know their records and other teams won’t, but that information will disadvantage smaller teams or teams without extensive connections in the debate community, so it is subject to many of the same harms associated with knowing one’s record (whatever those harms may be) but those will be unequally distributed.” I have also suggested that “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.” Students often know when they are losing, so it seems like one way to tackle this issue is to reduce the uncertainty associated with not knowing records and to use rounds as a valuable opportunity to help correct the mistakes of debaters.
Finally, it is not clear to me that this idea of “giving up” speaks more about the practice of PROD as opposed to a problem in student morale. It is incumbent on coaches and educators to teach students that they do not need to take every debate round as if it’s the most important round of the tournament, to teach students that there is something to be learned from each round even if you cannot break, and that there is something to be gained from losing in humility.
A discussion in the context of Urban Debate Leagues shows that many UDL program directors are hesitant in introducing disclosure for less privileged students. One commenter noted, “as the Program Director of a UDL, I don’t bar it, but I recognize how discouraging it can be to hear you lost your first debate and not necessarily be equipped to process why and then you take those feelings, not necessarily the education, into that next round.” Other commenters also expressed sympathy for this line of reasoning. I too find this to be a very reasonable argument. However, my proposal would ensure some safeguards to prevent this from frequently occuring. By only encouraging but not mandating feedback, allowing students to decline to hear feedback or disclosure, and barring PROD in novice and junior varsity divisions, my proposal is in line with suggestions given by other UDL directors who caution against forcing PROD.
Another commenter argues against disclosure on the grounds of inequity, writing, “Some judges give excellent critiques that aid the teams they critique for the rest of the tournament. Those students who receive less than constructive critiques are then at a disadvantage at the tournament. Disclosure adds to inequity.”
Truthfully, I have never seen this claim before and I find this among the least persuasive arguments for banning PROD.
One commenter suggests that, at best, it “sounds like a reason to only hire experienced judges, not a reason to prevent all of them from giving feedback.” I agree that this inequity criticism is particularly susceptible to this line of rebuttal but I disagree that, in practice, this is a good reply because many tournaments, especially those conducted in states or leagues without a particularly robust debate infrastructure, simply lack either the funds or the available qualified judges to fill an entire judging pool in this manner. I think, practically speaking, this probably is not the strongest response to this line of criticism.
So, I think one does need to bite the bullet here. It is very clear to me that, yes, some judges will provide better feedback than others. However, the part that is unclear is why that would justify prohibiting disclosure. One commenter replied “So because some judges are bad teachers nobody should get any teaching? This… does not make sense.” This seems like the correct reply. It is difficult to understand how the truth of the inequity criticism could imply that disclosure therefore ought to be prohibited.
Take this line of reasoning to other fields or competitive activities. Should we bar some students from getting tutors because some will receive higher quality tutoring and even more will never receive any private tutoring? Should we prevent schools from instituting advanced math courses because other students or schools may not have such opportunities against them? Should we prevent Math Olympiad students from private schools from competing because many schools cannot afford similar high-quality coaching? Even in the context of debate itself, this line of criticism seems to imply some odd conclusions. Should some programs not be allowed to hire good coaches because many other programs have either no coach or a worse coach?
Consider that many schools do not have debate programs, many schools have underfunded debate programs, many schools with programs exist in debate deserts or at least in areas with relatively weak debate infrastructure and competition, and many schools have programs that are primarily run by well-meaning teachers with little to no competitive debate experience. Merely attending a school with a well-funded program with a full-time coach in a region of the country with an active and vibrant debate league puts one pretty far ahead of a substantial portion of the country. Do any of those conditions provide sufficient reason to, for example, bar students with such resources from attending tournaments? I would think not.
It seems deeply counterintuitive to me to think that the solution is to lower the quality of education that students receive as opposed to making every reasonable effort to raise the quality of that education for as many students as possible. Rarely would I consider that the solution to these sorts of inequities involves levelling down debate.
In response, a commenter suggests that “all students are getting teaching – that’s what I do as their teacher. Not all judges are teachers – and I mean they don’t all teach (not talking certification). But all of these kids have a teacher.” This is taken to be a pushback against the claim of barring teaching from debate rounds. However, I find this to be an unsatisfying defense for three reasons. First, it’s not obvious that “all students are getting teaching.” Some students compete without programs, some compete with underfunded and overstretched programs, some compete in programs without a coach, and some compete in regions with few opportunities to compete. This strongly suggests that for these students especially, there is an imperative to ensure they maximize their opportunities to learn and grow at these competitive tournaments. Second, there seems to be a distinction without a difference when it comes to the teaching done by coaches and judges. While they are aesthetically distinct and do have different commitments to teaching, in the context of a debate round, it’s unclear why that distinction matters so much as to bar disclosure. If it is merely because some judges are low-quality, then so are many coaches. If it is merely because the judge doesn’t have a stake in the success of a student unlike a coach, then I question why that matters and if that’s even such a bad thing. Third, it doesn’t really seem to justify the strong conclusion of barring disclosure. Remember, what we’re interested in is not forcing as many people to disclose as possible, but rather striking down a rule that forbids judges, including coaches and experienced judges, from offering valuable feedback to students. Even if all students are getting teaching (they are not), why should that mean that they can’t learn more? Or even just view the same issue from a different perspective?
One commenter also suggests that this may worsen the problem of inequity, writing “say you’re a student who has little to no coaching. Sometimes the only comments or critiques you get are then judges. How does taking that opportunity away from students decrease inequity?” This seems like a decent response to me, although it’s very unclear that this link turn would be sufficient to outweigh the link (I merely think it serves to pushback against the scope of this inequity claim). I would imagine that many students, especially those with coaches that heavily limit and regulate the debate style of their students, would greatly benefit from these types of comments and feedback. Anecdotally, I have received many comments from debaters in local districts I have judged thanking me for taking the time to explain issues in the round and for providing concrete comments for improvement that they might have otherwise never gotten. Many have even said that the fact that the feedback occurred immediately after the round meant that the advice was more salient and sticky than it would have been had it been written out on a paper ballot that the students might not see for a few days after the tournament’s conclusion. I think that providing more opportunities, not less, for students to gain new perspectives on debate, tends to improve the quality of debate, even if such gains are not totally evenly distributed.
It is also unclear what empirical evidence exists to substantiate such claims of wild inequity. Tournaments across the country have transitioned towards more oral feedback and disclosure. Is there any evidence that the quality of judges one receives in prelims translates into any statistically significant increase in elimination round win percentages? While I believe that PROD has some incredible benefits for the educational experience of debaters at tournaments, I am not convinced that PROD confers advantages so strong that it overcomes that myriad of other factors at play during a tournament resulting in unjustifiable elimination round runs. And truthfully, if PROD could transform someone’s debate career like that, that sounds mostly like a strong reason to ensure as many students could experience the benefits of PROD as soon as possible rather than a reason to deny it to as many as possible.
Finally, there is also a slight tension with this argument and other criticisms of PROD. Some criticisms of PROD occur along educational quality lines, e.g. concerns about aggravating students or concerns about providing subpar feedback. This line of criticism admits that while some feedback may be less than helpful, there are many circumstances where such feedback could provide such an unfair competitive advantage to students that it would create disturbing inequities. I do not think it is easy to hold all such views simultaneously.
Ultimately, the inequity objection is interesting and in an activity already plagued by inequity, we should be vigilant about incorporating practices that systematically benefit some over others, but it’s not clear that all this would wildly add to inequity, that this sort of inequity is all so worrisome, and that this inequity justifies barring a practice which, by the premise of the objection, has immense benefits to students.
Impacts to Judges
One common concern is that allowing students to “post-round” judges, or debate the judge’s decision, often in a hostile manner, creates a sense of discomfort among judges. This is another objection that I briefly tackled in my earlier post, but my views around this have shifted somewhat in the last few years. One commenter argues that “I never allowed disclosure. I did not want the round “debated again” by the judge and students.” I recognize that this is a serious concern. I previously (naively) wrongly thought that “PROD doesn’t seem to increase the likelihood of arguing with judges to any significant degree,” a line that I fully admit to being very incorrect. Circuits without PROD obviously have less post-rounding; circuits with PROD obviously have more post-rounding. And I privately lament the rise in post-rounding at national circuit tournaments. I find the culture of suspicion and hostility that excessive post-rounding has introduced to be less than desirable. While I am generally fine with being post-rounded, that is because I have judged thousands of rounds and generally don’t really care what other people think about me. The same cannot be said of many other judges who find that the stress of getting post-rounded is simply not worth it (and who can blame them?).
However, even as one of the most ardent critics of the rise in post-rounding in the national circuit, I still do not believe that the concern of post-rounding is sufficient to justify banning PROD.
First, this is why my proposal does not require judges to offer feedback and allows judges who are uncomfortable with being post-rounded to simply decline to offer feedback. While this obviously undercuts the value of PROD, I think this appropriately balances between the two concerns. Parent, lay, or inexperienced judges who do not wish to offer feedback out of a fear of being post-rounded can simply decline to offer such feedback.
Second, I have previously argued that “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 … 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.” Of course, such guardrails are loose and sometimes fail. Sometimes students do argue with judges. I admit that this is a real risk. However, there is a real risk of bad student conduct in a number of other venues in a tournament—students can (and have) angrily shout in debates, accost judges or coaches in the common areas, or fight with other debaters. None of these examples suggest that drastic measures to clamp down on otherwise reasonable behavior is the solution to deal with these outlier events.
Third, the flip side of this is similar—if volunteers are told about PROD (as they are told about virtually every other tournament procedure, including the practice of attempting to neutrally evaluate arguments), then that can also mentally equip them either to repel questions from the students or to shut down attempts by students to postround. Admittedly, some judges may not want to deal with this. Again, they can simply leave.
Fourth, I question how much anxiety this does introduce among judges. Many judges are likely better at speaking than they are writing. Interviews with people by the media suggest that people find it easier to articulate their thoughts through spoken word than by survey response.
Fifth, I question how often this occurs in more local and traditional circuits. Almost every example I’ve seen of post-rounding occurs on the national circuit (and, even then, I rarely see this kind of post-rounding, perhaps only 10 times a season), and even when disclosure is allowed in local tournaments or places like NSDA Nationals, I’ve rarely seen debaters post-round. I received some oral feedback my senior year at NSDA Nationals and all I said was “thank you for judging and the feedback” and left. I haven’t heard of a critical mass of debaters or judges talking about getting post-rounded (but if you have, please let me know!).
Despite the length of this piece, I am almost certainly missing a few arguments on both sides. I did my best to try and hit at the main themes presented in the comment thread while adding a few contributions of my own. I recognize that this is just one of many perspectives on disclosure and I will likely have pro-PROD people disagree with me on some issues. I think that’s great! Debate works because of disagreement, iterative testing, and a willingness to learn and improve! I welcome feedback from either side of the camp. As someone who has been in both camps, I think I have an appreciation for both sides but I could still easily be missing something. My relatively privileged opinion in debate has almost certainly colored my perspective in ways that mask hidden biases I might have on these issues.
Ultimately, I do not think that PROD is without downsides. I also think the lack of real empirical data on the subject makes debate about this less productive than it could be. But I think that we can still have productive conservation about this issue. Even if you totally disagree with me, I hope that you can at least see where I’m coming from and engage some of the arguments I’ve presented here.