Lawrence Zhou was the 2014 NSDA National Champion. He now works as an assistant coach for The Harker School and is the Director of Publishing and Lincoln-Douglas Debate at the Victory Briefs Institute.
The Opinions Expressed In This Post Are Those of the Author And Not Necessarily Those Of Victory Briefs.
I penned an article like this at Nationals in 2018 and in 2020 and many thoughts I have had since 2018 remain like my complaints about the lack of power matching and the relatively low judging quality. I will reiterate some of those thoughts below with some updates but I will also try and add a few original contributions to this discourse about the NSDA National Tournament.
Before I jump into my specific thoughts about the tournament itself, I offer a brief observation about the value of even penning this article. I noted in my 2018 essay that writing these posts served “both a cathartic act for me, but also a sincere attempt to open-up conversations about how to improve this tournament for the competitors and coaches.” The former is still true (I have many unsolicited thoughts about this tournament to this day); the latter no longer serves as a satisfactory justification. Netizens tend to live in filter bubbles of one sort or another. They tend to coalesce around communities and norms that share their values and prior beliefs. Debaters are no different; we tend to congregate and associate with those that come from the same districts or those that see debate through a similar ideological lens. People involved in the “national circuit” are often (rightly) criticized for committing a sort of “debate flight” from more local and traditional circuits, dragging away precious and limited debate resources from a local district and investing them in a comparatively well-funded national circuit. People involved in more local and traditional circuits often view “national circuit” programs as detrimental to some of the communication aspects of debate and mostly comprised of elite and wealthy private schools. There is sometimes a perception that those in the “national circuit” look down upon traditional leagues with a sense of snobbery. Truthfully, I don’t think these are invalid criticisms.
Similarly, I think many in the “national circuit” view traditional debate as boring and lacking robust incentives to encourage deep learning. There is some sense that once you’ve learned the basics of more traditional-style Lincoln-Douglas debate, that everything else is mostly just the same, with nothing new or exciting to keep the debates interesting. It is commonplace for debaters with more “national circuit” experience to roll into a traditional tournament thinking themselves superior and achieving reasonable success with little preparation because of their background in more technical forms of debate. Truthfully, I can see where some of these debaters are coming from (although the sort of snobbery and elitism among “national circuit” debaters is obviously wrong and there needs to be some conversation about reducing such perceptions and expressions within the community), as I’ve personally found that I sometimes get bored of debating in more traditional circuits (I once did public forum at a local tournament because I simply got so tired of debating in Lincoln-Douglas).
Yet the issue is less the underlying differences between the various styles of debate or even the diverging paradigmatic assumptions underlying each view of debate. Rather, the issue, to me, is the increasing divide between such communities, where the differences between styles of debate are accentuated more than the commonalities. Both styles, while distinct in form, are premised on the value of research, communication, and critical thinking. These are all values that proponents of each style of debate are likely to agree unifies an otherwise strange collection of people who devote their free time and weekends to clashing over philosophy, politics, and current events. Personally, I view both styles of debate as valuable; one training students in a hyper-insular game that inculcates a variety of skills that can be valuable outside of mere public speaking, the other training students in forms of rhetoric that can be easily exported to the real world. And while both styles pursue different ends, they are all connected by their interest in training students to be better citizens and activists.
Thus, while I suspect that this article will never find its way to a critical mass of traditional enclaves of debate (and, even if it did, I suspect many would refuse to read this essay on the grounds of it disseminating “national circuit” propaganda), I still think there is some value in writing such posts. It only takes a few coaches with the right connections to push for some change—or at least a conversation—and while it’s unlikely this particular post will really convince anyone of anything, offering the olive branch cannot hurt.
The following are my own opinions about the 2021 NSDA National Tournament and while some will almost certainly only find support amongst community members who already ideologically align with me on a myriad of issues, I hope that this article can at least raise a few questions about best practices and Lincoln-Douglas debate as a whole.
As always, this post will open with the typical salvo of felicitations for those that performed well at this year’s tournament. Congratulations to Katie Jack of George Washington HS in CO for winning NSDA Nationals and to Catherine Liu of Washington HS in SD for placing second and also placing as the 13th speaker.
Congratulations to everyone that broke! I believe there were 113 breaks (but I can’t count, so this could be incorrect) out of a field of 368 debaters, the largest ever Lincoln-Douglas debate pool. And like last year, the state of Ohio had an incredible showing, with multiple debaters in the top 14. Additionally, congratulations to Cobin Szymanski from Saint Michael-Albertville High School for winning NSDA student of the year.
As best as I can tell, this is the first time that four non-dudes were in semifinals of NSDA Nationals! This continues on a trend from last year where both finalists were also non-dudes! While equity in debate still has a long way to go (several papers, including academic ones, confirm that there is a statistically significant gender gap, the general academic literature suggests that a gender credibility gap still exists especially in public speaking activities where masuline voices are preferred, and popular media has even written about #MeToo in debate), this suggests some remarkable progress when just a decade or two ago, having parity in gender representation in even the top 14 was difficult to come by. It was pretty cool judging multiple elimination rounds where I judged zero dudes! While this does align with general progress in terms of moving towards real equity, I wonder if online debate plays some part in this. The fact that the winning public forum team was also two non-dudes lends further credence to this hypothesis. Does the online debate format moderate gender differences in some form or fashion? I’d be curious to see studies on online debate and gender representation.
Finally, congratulations to my former high school Linda Shipley for winning the Ralph E. Carey Award for Distinguished Career Service, an award given to the chair whose career in district leadership exemplifies the role! Given that she is formally retiring from high school speech and debate coaching this year, it made me very happy to see her earn a prestigious award and coach a student to the top eight of Lincoln-Douglas (one of countless students she has coached into late elimination rounds at NSDA Nationals)! Without Shipley, I would have never won NSDA Nationals, never stayed in debate for years, and never become the person that I am.
2. Farewell to seniors
A serious omission from last year’s post concerned graduating debaters. The deprivation of a true high school graduation experience has been well-documented and the deprivation of a proper send off for graduating seniors in debate, particularly those who have been involved with this activity for a majority of their high school journey, is no less tragic in its own right. There is something special about attending one’s final NSDA National Tournament in a distant city. Maybe it’s fact that occurs following graduation, the fact that it represents the culmination of years of work, or maybe the fact that it might be the first sense of freedom away from watchful parental supervision, a prelude to college—regardless of the specific reason, there is a feeling difficult to encapsulate in writing about the experience of attending one’s last NSDA Nationals in-person, a feeling that will be unjustly denied to so many graduating seniors who had to endure over a year of e-debate.
Former NSDA National Champion Ishan Bhatt expressed something similar in a recent Facebook post in the High School LD Debate group when he wrote “Be kind to the seniors. I know zoom debate is soul crushing … I think we should have a conversation to know what we’re doing beforehand to celebrate a kickass group of debaters who have managed to keep this community running despite the challenges of this year.” I couldn’t agree more. There is something that each of us can do to attempt to remedy the situation. We should celebrate all graduating seniors regardless of their trophy count. Be thankful for the legacy they’ve left behind, whether they were a fearless team captain that led a large squad to victory or someone who never took debate that seriously but found a small community within debate. Celebrate the accomplishments of those who endured this season, express gratitude for those that prevented squads from going under, and sympathize for those who never got their final farewell from debate.
To graduating seniors reading this post (If you are, what are doing? You should definitely go out and enjoy your summer before college! If you’re vaccinated, of course!), I suspect you’re only reading this because you have immense appreciation for this activity. Debate can oftentimes seem unfulfilling. It can feel like hard work goes unrewarded, that success is fleeting, and that the time you put into this activity doesn’t match one-to-one with what you got out of it. Yet, if you still find value in this activity, if you still love debate, consider sticking around. Debate works because those who leave give back, even just a little. Debate only survives because of generous alumni who return and give their time, energy, and money to help programs, judge tournaments, and mentor others. I know that I can never easily repay those college students who returned weekend after weekend to little pay and even less glory who judged me, offered me advice, and gave the debate community a desperately needed sense of continuity and community.
And even if your competitive record never seemed impressive, even if you never championed a tournament, even if you never qualified to NSDA Nationals, you should still consider it. Some of the best coaches and mentors are those that themselves lacked the best records on paper. (In fact, a case could be made that a desire to see students do better than you ever did is an unmatched motivator.) You don’t need trophies to coach. All you need is a willingness to learn and grow yourself, a dedication to helping students improve to the best of their ability, and a love for this activity.
3. Bad topics are bad 🙁
The same heading as last year; the same problem. Jacob Nails, Chris Theis, and I have reflected on this topic and while we think that the overall slate of topics this year has generally improved (in particular, I found the March/April topic concerning universal childcare to be an excellent one to research), there often arises a problem with poor topics at the NSDA National Tournament.
This complaint might deserve its own section, but we also discussed how the lack of ranked choice voting (now in popular discussion because of the NYC mayoral race) when voting for topics within slots makes vote splitting more likely. While this topic won with 39% of the coach vote and 39% of the student vote, that masks the fact that the two other potential topics (one concerning sin taxes and the other about wealth taxes) were so similar thematically that they likely split the vote between them, and, without some good way to coordinate on which tax topic was best, it was likely the case that the majority of the debate community preferred a tax topic but ended up with this topic instead. While ranked choice voting cannot fully eliminate the spoiler effect, it can do a decent job at mitigating it and preventing the outcome where the majority of the debate community received a topic they did not prefer.
Returning to problems with this topic specifically, I’ve lamented about many of these concerns in my topic analysis essay from the Victory Briefs. In that essay, I mostly made predictions I hoped would not come to fruition and while some did not, many I made did come to be. Judging rounds on the LD topic only confirmed my prior suspicions. Here is a brief summary of some of the concerns I raised in my topic analysis and how they played out in actuality.
First, the topic was absurdly aff-biased. Very few people thought that the resolution was false. Negatives that succeeded on this topic did so by exploiting technical concessions by the affirmative, warping arguments that shouldn’t have pertained to the truth or falsity of the resolution into voting issues, and taking advantage of poorly constructed affirmative cases. Nothing about the substance of the negative’s arguments gave good reason to think the resolution was false. This, I think, reflects a common problem with taking topics that seem balanced because there are huge swaths of the public that disagree with something and thinking that translates into equitable ground given the academic nature of the topic. To me, this topic was on par with expecting students to debate about the existence of climate change. While there is much public disagreement about the existence or severity of climate change, the scientific consensus strongly implies that there is no real debate to be had about whether climate change exists or not.
This was not my own view. One post in the r/lincolndouglas subreddit was titled “Is anyone else really struggling with neg for NSDA nats????” and the post said “I feel like there’s so little ground that’s not a fallacy or outweighed by the Aff, and I’m losing my mind rewriting my cases. I don’t even want help or anything; I’m just wondering if anyone else relates :/” I definitely relate. Despite the fact that I voted negative in multiple rounds throughout the tournament (I think I voted negative in two out of the three rounds I judged, including two rounds with the eventual finalists), those were mostly due to technical concessions or very obvious skill imbalances. In any debate where the debaters had approximate parity in skill or there were no mistakes, the affirmative tended to win.
Second, the topic did not facilitate real values debate. I had originally argued that this topic was promoting the wrong debate. While there is substantial literature about the proper application of first principles—e.g. what precisely constitutes a public health emergency, what criteria should be employed to determine which particular civil liberties could be limited, what guardrails should be in place to prevent the degradation of democratic values, what checks and balances should be erected to prevent abuse, or what procedures should be established to ensure that such limitations are temporary and reversible—that was simply not the topic. The topic is something of a “first principle” whose truth was not substantially affected by any of the prudential questions that often served as the core ground on the topic. It could both be the case that public health emergencies justify limiting civil liberties and that there are strong prudential reasons not to enact such restrictions like concerns about declining trust in medical institutions or concerns about democratic backsliding much in the same way that it could be the case that territorial incursions justify actions in self-defense and that there are strong prudential reasons not to respond like concerns about the fiscal cost of doing so or concerns of unnecessarily escalating the conflict. That such were predictable consequences of any given policy action does not seem to have much bearing on the truth of the resolution. Yet because the negative’s principled arguments were mostly extreme versions of libertarianism that few serious philosophers even consider plausible ethical theories, the negative was forced to rely on making prudential arguments in the hope that, with enough smoke and mirrors, they could twist them into arguments denying the truth of the resolution. Such debates were a pain to adjudicate because it almost seemed like the debaters were debating two distinct resolutions.
It’s not clear to me if this topic was worse than the previous topic about the intergenerational accumulation of wealth, but it’s also not clear if it was better. Many of the same problems I’ve previously grumbled about remain. Just like how debates on intergenerational wealth devolved into debates about death taxes, debates on this topic devolved into debates about the value of mandatory versus voluntary public health measures which, while obviously a relevant concern in the literature, is not the core debate that this topic was supposed to be about. In fact, I correctly predicted that much of the final round would primarily revolve around the efficacy of either coercive or voluntary public health measures. While an interesting debate, it is just not what I think the topic was attempting to get at.
4. Online traditional debate is… not great
Last year, I argued that “Online traditional debate isn’t great but it isn’t terrible either.” On last year’s “Next Off” episode about COVID-19, we also discussed some of the benefits that online debate might bring about including increased participation and more opportunities to attend tournaments nationally. Yet some analysis done by Peter Zhang suggests that, at least for the “national circuit,” not all is rosy. While “more line wolves and smaller teams are competing” and “smaller states have also ramped up participation,” it’s also the case that there “are fewer debaters” that “compete more frequently.” I suspect that for many teams, it’s because “Teams could’ve had a tough time recruiting new debaters. Debaters themselves might have had other priorities in their lives. And, competitors who enjoyed the social aspects of debate may have felt that tournaments were no longer worth it.”
I suspect, without much empirical backing, that such factors are also at play in traditional circuits. More importantly, I suspect that online debate hasn’t just decreased recruitment and retention, but it’s also decreased the lively atmosphere that keeps debate spirited and alive. For teams that are lucky enough to safely congregate with their teammates on campus, they almost certainly benefit from a morale boost. Something about not being around others to experience the highs and lows of debate tournaments alters the experience. I even had a brief conversation with a competitor prior to a round where the debater expressed some sense of loss for not being able to attend NSDA Nationals in-person. During that conversation, I reflected on some of the elements of NSDA Nationals in-person that stood out to me. I can recall the feeling when you enter the crowded common area, realizing that some of the brightest and best students in the country are mingling in the crowd, the feeling of being so small as you and your squad attempt to search for a power outlet or open seating area, and the near overwhelming sensation of your senses being overwhelmed by all the noise and commotion. Not all of it was pleasant (have you been around so many high schoolers who seemed to either have drowned themselves in cheap body spray or found a new love of water conservation in the form of eschewing showers) but it was quintessentially NSDA Nationals. As the “largest academic competition in the world,” there is simply nothing quite like it. The community of people at NSDA Nationals makes the tournament a unique experience, one that is difficult to replicate. As Serena Mao noted in a recent opinion piece for Vbriefly, “As cliché as it is, arguably the most valuable part of competitive debate is the people we meet along the way. Online, casual interactions must involve intentional texts and calls, meaning small talk with both previous strangers and acquaintances is rare. In person, hundreds of competitors are closely packed onto campus, meaning friends unintentionally bump into each other often (which is how most conversations start). The social aspect of tournaments isn’t just entertaining—whether it’s celebrating over recent wins or ranting about losses, bonding over the emotional rollercoaster of debate is an integral part of the in person experience.”
Perhaps this is simply me projecting my general fatigue with online debate and online education, but it felt as if many debaters this year were just less interested and invested in debate. Do you all feel the same way?
5. There is a judging crisis
I am a staunch defender of lay and parent judging. Anyone who has talked with me at camp can attest to this. I frequently defend the value of lay and parent judging because (A) there is immense skill to be derived from learning how to persuade the general public, and (B) this community could not survive without the labor, contributions, and sacrifices of volunteers and parents who fill judging pools that would otherwise go unfilled. Now, perhaps this is a symptom of a deeper problem, i.e. the lack of retention in debate, and perhaps that problem of retention is a serious one that threatens the long-term sustainability of this activity and deserves its own separate conversation about how to remedy the problem (actually paying judges something approximating a living wage would be a good first start).
But, for now, the conversation needs to revolve around identifying the need for higher quality judging. We can provisionally bracket aside questions about judge retention, pay, and treatment for another time, for such discussions will likely stall quickly absent consensus on the deeper nature of the problem. Instead, I want to focus on making a brief case for higher quality judging specifically at NSDA Nationals.
I think that debate at higher level competitions like NSDA Nationals needs to reward deep research that can be translated to a wider audience. Right now, it feels as if the incentives of debaters is less to do lots of research in public health ethics, philosophy, or current events and instead to focus on making simple arguments that work in front of a wide range of audiences and to polish their presentation. The amount of framework debates that occurred at this tournament that could be summarized as “life is a prerequisite to rights” and “rights are important to make life meaningful” is a bit too high for my taste. While I think that a myriad of factors can explain the decline in philosophical debate at the upper echelons of competition at this tournament (not least of which is that the topic itself was poorly constructed), I take the quality of judging to be at least one major contributor. I think that the lack of more experienced judges in rounds at NSDA Nationals deflates the value of doing deep and real academic research, especially into more abstract values questions like the one that the resolution is posing. If such research is not rewarded, then little incentive exists to do such research. Instead, the rounds I judged and the livestreams I watched indicated that what was being rewarded was a few salient and emotionally charged examples on both sides, slinging studies about the efficacy of particular public health interventions like mask mandates or mandatory vaccinations, and listing examples of countries that were either affirmative or negative examples about the efficacy or inefficacy of their COVID-19 responses. I have sympathy for such arguments and strategies (especially in light of such a poorly worded debate topic), but I can also lament the fact that Lincoln-Douglas debate at NSDA Nationals often does not reward the type of debate that Lincoln-Douglas was created to promote.
Independently, it is a generally accepted fact that judges without some debate experience will tend to make decisions that correspond less with the actual arguments made in the round and often correspond with less obvious and predictable factors like random presentation quirks. The fact that the NSDA goes out of its way to put experienced coaches in late elimination rounds demonstrates this. If this is well recognized, then it seems odd that the tournament allows those without prior debate experience to adjudicate rounds that are representing the top debaters in the nation. It seems to devalue some of the work that debaters do. When debaters who do a lot of work and then lose because some judge couldn’t understand some norm of Lincoln-Douglas debate or because they simply incorrectly interpreted an argument, that does some disservice to debaters. Again, it is an important skill in life to recognize that you can’t persuade everyone and debaters need to learn how to persuade those without significant debate experience in the real world, and that’s why I think that local tournaments are so valuable for everyone. However, when we’re talking about the NSDA National Tournament, a tournament that sends so many seniors off into the real world as their last tournament, a tournament that represents the best of the best, we should ask better for our students.
There is not an obvious solution to this. Perhaps the tournament itself should be more judicious in seeking hired judges. Perhaps the tournament should lower the judging age from two years out to just one year out. Perhaps schools should be required to bring someone that has actually judged debate in the past. But none are easy to implement, all involve money, and there’s simply a limited supply of qualified judges who have better things to do than to spend a week judging debate. Nonetheless, recognizing a problem exists is the first step to potentially fixing it.
6. Judge paradigms are still bad
In both last year’s musings and our recent “Next Off” episode, I ranted about the failings of the judge paradigms, writing that “It’s good that the NSDA forces judges to fill in paradigms but these paradigms are pretty much worthless. I’d almost rather we not have them. When I was competing, my coach told me that the paradigms were ‘drink coasters.’” My complaints remain.
For example, there is simply no good metric for speed. The paradigm asks “What is your preferred rate of delivery?” It then gives you a scale of “1 = Slow conversational style; 9 = Rapid conversation speed.” I have no clue what any of that means. My 9 is not my mom’s 9. My 5 is not my former coach’s 5. This is simply meaningless.
It also asks “How do you decide the winner of the round?” It gives you a few options including voting for who persuaded the judge more of their position, of who won the key arguments in the round, and who won the most arguments. These are meaningless answers and the last answer should not even be considered to be a defensible view of decision-making in debate.
Another question asks “How necessary do you feel the use of evidence (both analytical and empirical) is in the round?” It gives you a scale of “1 = Not necessary; 9 = Always necessary.” What is a 5 on this scale? How does this even begin to capture judges’ preference for evidence? Generally, more traditional judges are inclined to say something like “I prefer logic over empirics” or something to that effect. This question doesn’t even help clarify that.
Because of the way the questions are worded, I often give what appear to be contradictory answers to issues. For example, one question is about what final rebuttals should include (line-by-line analysis, voting issues, or both) and the following question is about whether voting issues are necessary and not necessary. Because I think that an ideal traditional LD speech should give both line-by-line analysis and voting issues in the final rebuttal but I also do not think that voting issues are absolutely necessary, it appears I have given superficially contradictory answers to these questions. Another example concerns the criterion. One question is “How important is the criterion in making your decision?” I answered “It may be a factor depending on its use in the round” because I think that oftentimes, criterions don’t say anything and their truth or falsity has little bearing on the evaluation of other concerns in the round. However, the following question is “Do you feel that a value and criterion are required elements of a case?” Objectively, the answer is no because clearly a debater could win without one. But I choose to answer “Yes” because I feel that every good traditional debate case should have a criterion. Yet these two answers appear in tension when they are not in tension at all.
I could continue. Other than the first three questions which simply ask about background experience and judging history, I have taken some issue with the wording of the questions at one point or another. Of course, there is never going to be a perfect paradigm that neatly satisfies the preferences of all, or even a majority, of debaters and coaches. Because of the regionalization of debate and the different stylistic norms that govern each state and district, it will inevitably be the case that the paradigm will be written in a way that cannot make everyone happy. Yet, in my view, this paradigm is so useless that virtually every reasonable person would take some issue with it. Both “national circuit” and traditional coaches I’ve talked to have expressed dissatisfaction with the way the paradigm is constructed.
And it’s not just that the paradigm is useless. It’s that the paradigm is also likely to be a source of misinformation. It is possible that the paradigm leads debaters astray. For example, what if a debater usually prefers not to spend so much time on the value criterion debate because they prefer debating the contention, but the paradigm says that the value criterion is “necessary.” Maybe the debater adapts poorly and spends too much time on the criterion debate at the expense of other concerns and loses a round. Sure, some might hand wave it away as a problem with poor debating or just a reality of debating in imperfect information environments. But I tend to think that when we shape the incentives of debaters by providing them with information that would obviously alter the way they debate and then impress upon debaters the importance of adapting to diverse judges and the debaters lose because of that adaptation, something has gone awry.
I believe that two obvious remedies exist. First, there should be a requirement that judges fill out a full paradigm on Tabroom.com. Tabroom already contains space for judges to lay out their thoughts about debate in greater detail. The NSDA paradigm contains only a little space for judges to elucidate on their debate views, hardly enough to give debaters a reasonable idea of how their judge views debate (I often just use this space to provide a link to my full Tabroom.com paradigm and I wish that the NSDA paradigm would just auto-link to this paradigm on the NSDA paradigm itself, although it does pull up the full paradigm when you click on a judge’s name in the pairings). Many tournaments, both local and “national circuit” in nature, already mandate judge paradigms. Forcing judges to provide a more complete view of how they view debate can provide valuable information for debaters and their coaches.
Second, some diverse and representative collection of well-respected coaches needs to discuss potential changes to this paradigm, soliciting input from the community. Identifying items that need to be updated, reworded, or even removed would be important in creating a paradigm that actually communicates useful and accurate information about the judges to the debaters. It is unlikely that any future paradigm produced will satisfy everyone, but it could at least make more people less annoyed.
I have also previously suggested that “having judges watch a sample round and providing a decision and feedback about that round that is then viewable by the students would give students a concrete way [to] see how exactly their judge makes a decision in round. This could be part of judge training and the round itself could be available for students to watch as well.” While I still think this is a good solution, given the above point about the judging crisis, it’s not all that clear that this would be a palatable solution to a great number of judges who do not wish to invest more time than they have to.
Ultimately, almost any reform would be better than what we have now. While I currently suggest to debaters to ignore the paradigms, it would be better if the paradigms just provided useful information in the first place.
7. Why does round zero exist?
No long rant here, just a simple question: Why does round zero exist? (If you’re not familiar, round zero was a round scheduled in the tournament to simulate a real round and check for technical issues and to familiarize judges and competitors with tournament procedures, but the round results did not affect anything.) If a debater doesn’t know how to use a computer or how Zoom works by the time they’ve qualified to NSDA Nationals after a whole year of online debate, I think that’s their problem. If a judge has never once judged an online tournament, should they really be the ones adjudicating what could be the final tournament of someone’s high school career? Besides, each round built in excessive amounts of tech check time to catch issues as they arose. And it’s not like the NSDA took round zero seriously either. The results didn’t matter and tab staff literally came into the room and suggested we just do a very truncated version of the round. If that’s the case, why schedule a whole round for this? Why not just a simple 5 minute tech check?
8. Please stop barring oral feedback
The official justification given in the Online 2021 National Tournament Procedures for why they barred oral feedback is that “To keep rounds on time and ensure students and judges finish each day at a reasonable hour, judges should not disclose or explain their decisions.” I recently published a relatively lengthy post on Vbriefly about why I find such justifications particularly weak, especially in the context of online debate, but I find this particular defense even less persuasive given the logistics of the tournament.
First, the tournament could have simply truncated round zero into a 5 minute tech check and recovered hours of the tournament to be used for oral feedback.
Second, the tournament strongly encouraged rounds to start early. Competitors (including flight 2 competitors) and judges were required to be in their rooms 30 minutes before the start of flight 1 and tab staff frequently would enter our rooms and encourage us to start well before the posted start time. That is easily half an hour of recovered time per round that could’ve been used more productively.
Third, judges submit fast (perhaps too fast). I would often submit ballots in under 45 minutes from the posted start time and still be among the last judges to submit (such that tab staff occasionally drifted into my room, encouraging me to submit my ballots). If there was any real risk in going off schedule, it’s that the tournament was going too fast and judges were not typing up adequate feedback on their ballots, not that the tournament was going too slow.
All of this is to say that whatever the tournament’s reason for barring oral feedback, scheduling concerns were not it. They could have easily allowed it and still run ahead of schedule. Clearly, other reasons were at play here, but the tournament was simply unwilling to offer up their real reason for prohibiting such feedback. I’d at least prefer an honest reason.
Here’s why feedback is so valuable. For many seniors, they will literally never care about their ballots. They will receive them after the tournament is over and they are done with debate. They will never benefit from those ballots. At the very least, judges could offer a little feedback to those debaters and that might actually be valuable in what could very well be their last round ever.
For other competitors, it’s the end of the season. They won’t debate again for months (unless they attend camp). What good is feedback about a topic they won’t debate again or feedback about debate techne that can’t get implemented until the following season? As a judge, I feel disincentivized to write back detailed feedback on ballots about how to approach arguments or positions on this topic because that feedback will carry a fraction of its usefulness upon the conclusion of this tournament. As a judge, I feel a bit of frustration because I want to tell debaters a few comments that could really help them improve on this topic (or just avoid common mistakes like mispronouncing a name) and I can’t. As a competitor, I would not have succeeded at NSDA Nationals were it not for a few judges that offered exceptionally insightful feedback. I can never forget when Chetan Hertzig, head coach at Harrison High School, gave me just a few pieces of advice that carried me to victory after judging me in an elimination round. I even had a competitor ask for some feedback this year in prelims, proving that even many students want this type of advice, and I had to tell them that I could not for fear of attracting the ire of the tournament. I’ve written a much lengthier diatribe on this issue in my PROD article, so if you want to hear more rants, feel free to read that piece.
None of this is to suggest that judges should disclose decisions in prelims. Obviously, I think both the lack of power-matching and disclosure in prelims is subpar (and I’ve written more about it in the 2020 edition of this series and in my PROD article), but I’ve decided to drop my crusade against it because maybe there’s something to tradition and maybe there are more important things to campaign for. But even without disclosure, I still think some form of feedback, even just allowing a few simple comments for each debater, would be far superior to the current strategy of having debaters stumble through prelims, never knowing which arguments work and which arguments don’t.
The fact that they allow some disclosure and feedback in elims (although they typically end the livestream prior to the beginning of judge feedback) proves that the tournament cannot possibly have an absolute principled objection against it, so what is it?