Jan 14, 2011

how to be a better parent... judge

(A work in progress. Suggestions, questions, and criticisms are welcomed in the comments.)

As a debate coach, I spend at least half my job on email and the phone. I'm either wrangling drivers or judges--or both--ensuring that my team can get to the tournament, and when they do, that we can start and finish within spitting distance of "on time."

Like a lot of coaches, I depend on my team's parents to help judge. In December and January, former students come back from college and help out, but when Winter Quarter revs back up, they disappear back into their halcyon world. Hiring judges is sometimes a possibility, but you know how it goes: times are tough all over, and the money's tight.

Parents fill in the gap, and admirably so. But often new parents are intimidated by the activity, with its strange conventions and obscure jargon, with its conceptual and contextual complexity, and, perhaps most important, with its overwhelming nerdiness. Parents, thus, when thrown into their first debate tournament, can be just as nervous about the experience as the greenest novice debater. (Green is sometimes the literal color, sadly.)

I offer training to my judges. But what happens in a pinch, when there's little to no time for preparation? What's a rookie judge to do?

Here's my advice.

If you have time to prepare before the round:

Study the rules of the event. Read a judging guide, if available. (This is a useful resource, with rules overviews, judging guides, and more.)

Ask what the resolution is. If you have time and resources, do a little reading to familiarize yourself with the topic. (If it's an LD resolution, chances are, you'll find this blog via Google. Welcome!) Think about your personal perspective on the issue. What are your biases? Be upfront with yourself: that means you'll have to be extra-cautious about being fair to both sides.

When the round is about to begin, the debaters might ask you what your "paradigm" is. What they often mean:
  • How experienced are you? (Tell them, so they can adapt.)
  • Are you more convinced by empirical evidence (facts and statistics), logic / reasons / philosophical arguments, rhetoric / persuasive style, or a balance of the above? (That's for you to consider and decide.)
  • How comfortable are you with speed? (Tell them to slow down and make eye contact to make sure you're following them.)
  • Do you understand theoretical arguments? (Unless you know what this means, tell them to keep it straightforward.)

Give time signals (counting down). Make a "C" for 30 seconds left, then count down 5-4-3-2-1 in seconds. When tracking prep time, announce it every 30 seconds ("30 seconds used... 1 minute used...")

If you're in a "let's see if the bus driver can judge Open LD" situation:

Ask if you can watch the first flight instead of judging, which may be possible, and may save everyone a lot of grief.

If it's not, and you're pressed into emergency duty, remain calm. Read over the ballot for instructions. Check for times, including the amount of prep time.

Most important: tell the competitors you're a first-time judge, and so you'll need them to help walk you through the round, and to avoid jargon whenever possible, and to signpost. (Even if you don't know what "signpost" means, they will.)

Take notes, or "flow."  I use a two-page system, with the Aff (with rebuttals, etc.) on one sheet and the Neg case (etc.) on the other. I write down any prep time used / remaining on one of the sheets.  I don't flow Cross-Examination (or the crossfire), expecting debaters to refer to those discussions in later rebuttals.

When filling out the ballot:

Offer helpful comments about the debaters' speaking skills / style.  Be specific and constructive.  If you can't suggest an improvement, that's fine; praise what you saw / heard.

Give speaker points when it's expected.

The most important piece, from the debaters' and coach's perspective: write a reason for your decision. Be as specific as you can ("The affirmative had superior evidence about the increasing crime rate due to plea bargaining," rather than "The affirmative had better evidence.")

Fill out the ballot in a timely fashion--usually no more than 15 minutes after the end of the round. Get it back to the ballot table as soon as possible: the tournament's on-time status depends on it!

In the end, don't worry: you're one out of the 6 judges they'll see, so if you mess up, it's not the end of the world. Ultimately, if they're good enough debaters, they should be able to adapt to you, and if you give your best, they'll have no reason to complain.

In fact, they had better thank you for judging. As a coach, I certainly do!

Thanks to the anonymous commentator who prompted this post.

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