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Thu, Aug. 14th, 2008, 11:22 pm

So today on Metafilter I came across this kind of funny, but also sort of heartbreaking, clip of a debate coach showing a rival debate coach his butt.

This got me reading various forum posts and watching videos of debate rounds, piecing together the threads of a rather bizarre bit of growing pains that CEDA debate is apparently going through.

As I learned, a team from Towson University spent all of last year running an argument that policy debate itself is inherently white supremacist. The actual assigned topic was the Middle East conflict, but the Towson team created their argument around a procedural objection which they would make during their opening speech. They advocated a "revolutionary aesthetic" that worked in direct opposition to the white-dominated aesthetic of policy debate. Their own speeches began with hip-hop recordings and, though just as fast as standard policy debate, spent much less time citing sources and more time rhyming.

Apparently, this is not the first time a debate team has made points about the type of discourse in debate by radically diverging from it. In fact, Fort Hays (whose coach's ass you just saw) has been one of several schools espousing a more performance-oriented type of debate in the past few years. Fort Hays' case was also about attacking the debate framework--specifically, the fact that people win.

In the inevitable meeting between Fort Hays and Towson (who, apparently, were friends off the court), Fort Hays struck a judge who had given them very poor scores previously. Unfortunately, that judge was a black woman, giving Towson the extra ammo to personalize their case and completely throw Fort Hays off guard. Fort Hays couldn't give the obvious answer (when given the option, it's great to get rid of judges who don't like you) because that would contradict their anti-competitive argument, essentially backing them into a corner in which no question is answerable. Being a slam poet, the conundrum struck a familiar chord with me.

I'm curious about this new performative style. Debater-peeps, where did this start? How common is it? Will it become more common after this year? One thing that occurs to me--watching both of these teams work--is how behind they are in the spoken word lexicon. I felt a little like I was watching a poetry slam in 1995. I'd love to see a debate round that looks like a 2007 poetry slam.

Towson won in the final round, and I have to wonder if even to Towson it felt like more of an inevitability than a real victory. When your whole argument is that you can't even address the questions of the debate because debate is broken, no one can touch you, at least within the context of a debate round. The other team, from Kansas University, tried valiantly to present their own argument for "fixing" debate, but their lack of sincerity was far too obvious, the perfect foil for Towson's anger. In any game that requires one team to address racism in half an hour, that team will lose.

I know a lot of current and former debaters read this, so I really am curious about any insight you guys have. I've learned more about this stuff in two hours than I ever knew before.

Fri, Aug. 22nd, 2008 04:31 pm (UTC)
monger: Incoherence (it's Nesson

I always had a lot of love/hateness with debate, which is why it still kills me when some debate tournament results from the Only College Tournament I Ever Tried show up as I am Googled. Kills me.

But I started debate in high school, as nearly everyone from our area does, as a policy debater. In the first year or so,

Fri, Aug. 22nd, 2008 05:48 pm (UTC)
monger: Take two

(fingers pushed buttons, whoops)
In the first year or so, the debates are on a learning kinda level and are relatively simple as far as policy goes. One team lays out a case, the other team pulls out a bunch of evidence they've prepped about why the affirmative's plan won't work in our world, or why it won't get the results they're suggesting, and it's all pretty straightforward.

Then came the round when I was a high-school freshman when Beth and I had to run our first Topicality. In novice policy debate, there are "topic limits," five areas of plans and thought within which the novice policy debates are allowed to take place (so as not to overcomplicate the learning process). The resolution that year was something about the US "substantially changing" foreign policy toward China, and the topic limits involved things like intellectual property piracy, China's relations with Taiwan, blah blah. I forget most of them.

In this round, the other team ran something that was pretty clearly outside the purview of any of the five subjects we'd been required to research, and we had to run that topicality, a meta-argument that kind of confused us. We had a vague outline of what it looked like, ran the argument completely incorrectly, but won the round on it anyway. It felt pretty dirty at the time, I remember, but was completely the right thing to do in the round. The way it flowed out, then, was that you had the affirmative's case all laid out, the normal negative arguments that we'd run in any kind of round, and then a completely extra portion for the topicality. It'd be something like playing Scrabble against someone and then running a separate list next to the real board that tallied your objections to your opponent's plays. "Pluralizing my awesome word was a pretty cheap play." "When you draw the tiles, tradition says you have to draw one at a time." "The placement of that triple-word-score box has always been a detriment to the noble game of Scrabble." At least that's how the policy meta-stuff always felt to me.

So when my debate partner Beth realized that she was totally doing most of the research work and I was totally not helping much and sliding by on being smooth in rounds, she decided debate wasn't for her. I switched to Lincoln-Douglas, 'cause you only need one person there. And LD to me was much more about the actual game of Scrabble rather than just the list to the side. I learned a lot about philosophers and their arguments and spent much less time trying to be squirrely in a round. I wanted speaking style and accessibility to matter. I wanted to imagine myself discussing Big Topics in a way that could persuade my grandfather or a town square full of intelligent observers.

Since then, from what I've gathered, policy's gotten crazier and crazier in terms of meta-argumentation. It makes sense to me that at a college level, the meta-debate would start to turn personal against different teams and their views on the point of debate in the first place. In LD, we talked about the purposes and means of what we were doing, but it seemed to me that we mostly kept it out of the rounds. My understanding is that this is starting to change, too, but I'm not really sure in what ways. Here's a 2007 debate that goes at a little faster pace than back in the day when I was doing it, but it gives you the general idea.

Right after I was out of high school, the National Forensic League initiated yet another kind of debate, Public Forum (a.k.a "Ted Turner") debate. The ostensible point of this was to develop a kind of debate that could be judged by "the common man," by a parent or random townie that wasn't up on all of the ins and outs of the more advanced policy rounds. The speech style slowed way down (thank god), the resolution changed every month to keep the arguments on a more surface level, and kids had to research a brand-new idea more often. Here's kind of a summary.

Fri, Aug. 22nd, 2008 05:49 pm (UTC)
monger: Yet more

The subtext to the development of a new form then was that policy debate had become something that was to some degree incomprehensible to an outside observer, and that LD was perhaps on its way to the same state. Public Forum's been pretty controversial, or at least it was while I was hearing of the inception, for being a symptom of our culture's incapacity to delve deep into a topic. Policy debaters kind of looked at it as the USA-Today version of their Economist-style debate.

I have a lot of friends who were policy debaters, including people like James, who was really genuinely at the top of the national game in high school. Shep was right up there, too. They have a completely different view of what policy is and what it should be, I'm sure. I could never let go of the idea that debate should be something that can be understood by any given smart person. They were/are much more okay with it being clearly a game with its own special rules and strategies.

I guess it's not surprising (looking back) that I was much more into the performance of the event than into figuring out intricate strategy. I completely grok what you're saying about the performance level being behind the times generally. That was always something that was on my mind, even then.