Jan 17, 2011

the next evolution of LD debate

This past Sunday, I was fortunate to be invited to the 2011 Northwest Round Robin. Eight of the region's sharpest LDers dueled in six rounds of high-octane debate. Sonia Vora (Annie Wright School) and Nick Blanchette (Mercer Island) were declared co-champions, and, from what I saw, deservedly so.

I attended not just as a judge, but as a learner, having fallen behind LD's progressive evolution in the past couple years. It was simultaneously exhausting and energizing to watch the debates, and learn from pros like VBI's Becca Traber and Wesley Craven, whose enthusiasm for the activity is infectious. I felt like the dumbest person in the room, and it was--how do I say it?--awesome.

It's got me thinking: where does the event go from here? Policy-influenced speed and argumentation have fully arrived in Washington state, and are apparently here to stay. It's time we figured out how to handle the changes so that LD doesn't discourage involvement by newcomers, including parents and community members. (It's tough enough to get judges; do we really want to limit our options to former LDers and PhDs in rhetoric or political science?) I want LD to be challenging, not forbidding.

At the very least, the Washington State Debate Tournament rules would need to be updated. Right now, not only are plan-based arguments forbidden, but, arguably, so is card-heavy argumentation, and by implication, extreme speed:
In Lincoln-Douglas Debate, only two speakers are involved: One fulfilling the affirmative case responsibilities and the other, the negative case responsibilities. Lincoln-Douglas debating encourages the development of a direct and communicative delivery style. Emphasis is placed upon the issues involved rather than strategy in developing the case. The statement of the topic is a RESOLUTION OF VALUE rather than of policy. This results in emphasizing logic, theory, and philosophy while eliminating "plan" arguments. Because of the time limits, a wealth of evidence cannot be used, but research by good background reading is necessary.
[emphasis added]

Second, we could create a stricter Novice / Open distinction as a way to ensure strong grounding in the foundations of the event. For instance, in Novice Policy debate in Washington, case areas are limited to an agreed-upon list, while counterplans and kritiks are disallowed.

In Novice LD, I'd suggest ruling out...

*Plans / Counterplans / Permutations
*Kritiks (this wouldn't preclude all critical arguments, provided they fit into a standard V/C framework)
* A priori arguments
* Straight Refutation Negs
* Cases without frameworks
* Theory shells

Abusive arguments could be handled as a "point of order" after the conclusion of the debate. (Hopefully the limitations, combined with effective judging, would limit abuse.)

These are half-baked ideas, and I'm curious what you think. LDers and fans of the event, especially among my Washington state readership, how would you go about changing the activity? Or what do you see as the future of LD debate?


Turp said...

It saddens me that policy has influenced LD to such a degree. LD is billed as a persuasive speech - you can't be persuasive if you are talking as fast as a stockyard auctioneer. As a lay judge, I constantly remind participants that persuasive skills, backed by data and facts, is the key to winning the round.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I hate theory, but at the same time am extremely annoyed when the persuasiveness of the debater is valued by a judge above the actual arguments, regardless of speed. If you want persuasiveness, make speaker points more meaningful or something, but it should have nothing to do with the decision, and neither should speed. Just my opinion, though. I guess I prefer more of a policy judging type, without the theory.

Jim Anderson said...

Turp, I agree that we're losing something when we remove pathos, which is why I'll still coach my debaters to be effective speakers--and give them techniques for countering the Spread. I see the progressive argumentation and speed matters as related, but severable.

Anonymous, speed will always weigh in the decision, even if only incidentally. A person who speaks 5 words per minute (to use an extreme example) will always start with a disadvantage covering a person who speaks 50.

One idea I have for making speed less relevant (at least in the AC and NC) would be to impose a word count limit. If 300 words is the fastest per-minute rate, then limit the AC to 1800 words. There could be a limit of 1200 words for the Neg (allowing for a 4-minute constructive, give or take). Obviously, this would change the game a little, ruling out "straight ref" cases.... but there will never be a perfect solution.

Alex L. said...

I had a rather similar experience as a comptetitor in Ohio this weekend. The reason I joined Lincoln douglas was that it allowed me to think in ways that were original and allowed me to learn how to communcate not only my own ideas but to creatively interpret and apply the ideas of others. However what I saw this weekend was highly discouraging, In 12 rounds I saw a grand total of 2 different values, and only 3 different criterions. Not only that I saw the same misrepresentation of ancient literature recycled by the camp system from when this was a policy topic in 95 in every single round. It seems that we have simplified everything to simple justice "as each their due" arguments when in reality when aristotle hiomself wrote this phrase he was discussing interpersonal establishment of a meritocracy and was in no way advocating for major governmental action, especially not in the realm of the criminal justice system. I think we as Lincoln-Douglas community have an obligation to innovate in the realm of what a value truly is and how it is represented in our cases. Simply recycling the same out of date incorrect literature only teaches us to repreat and retell data, it turns us into some sad word processor ofr the judge. i would like to see people actually adhere to the rules that you showed in this post because until the event changes officially, if it ever does, we ought to at least use the rules that are in place.

Anonymous said...

I think LD debaters need to learn to do both really flow and really lay debate. I know that I am successful with judges that barely speak English but also with experienced judges and in rounds where theory, K's, plans, spreading, etc, are all happening. I think that it is important to teach novices the base stuff first, and the idea of having novice restrictions is a good one. I never did fast, jargon-filled debate until after my first year and it's been really helpful because the state tournament in CA is one of the most lay tournaments out there, as is NFL Nationals but other invitational tournaments in the area are not. While I like flow debate, I am very afraid of LD becoming one-man policy (which it's definitely threatening to become on the national circuit).

Anonymous said...

I love tech (national circuit)debate, but knowing how to adapt is very important. Theory guards against abuse like multiple a prioris, so I like it.

Chris Coovert said...


I really appreciate your post, and could probably talk all day about this. I'd like to chat at PLU actually. Anyway, here are some initial thoughts.
In some ways, Lincoln Douglas has markedly improved from the event I did in the early 90s. Debaters have much better warrants now and actually use cards that say something. In my day, most were just claims made with an appeal to authority. I also think that good debates now can go much deeper into the underlying values and that debaters are generally much better educated about the topic. I know my kids now research considerably more even than my top LD competitors nine or ten years ago.

All that said, the trend toward more "theory" argumentation does not make me happy. As someone who also coaches and judges policy I can say that much of it is poor application of policy ideas. An even bigger problem is that in policy, there is generally a consensus that theory arguments are there to check actual abuse and should be used as such. You now see many LD students using them as their main strategy, regardless of the actions of the other debater. In effect, it's become a game of who can make the most technical arguments to impress the technical judges. This is certainly not a way to attract new students or coaches to the activity. It also is very exclusionary because there becomes an in crowd that plays the game and an out crowd that does not.
Anyway, I could go on, but I want to respond to a few other issues. I am less troubled by K's, although I think most of them could easily be fit into a traditional value/criterion framework (as could most good theory arguments). I also don't mind students who want to push the boundaries of the actual resolution. It those who don't want to debate the res at all that bug me.
Chris Coovert

Chris Coovert said...

Now, when it comes to novice protection, I think it's something we need to consider but we have to be careful. I am definitely open to banning theory shells, but it's hard to draw a bright line on what exactly constitutes theory. Banning K's makes sense. I don't think banning straight ref makes much sense. First, it's generally not very strategic anyway, and second it's been around at least since when I was debating. Although it wasn't common in Washington at the time it was in other areas.

Anyway, it's at least worth having the conversation.


Jim Anderson said...

Coov, good insights. I'll definitely be available to chat at PLU. I'm willing to work on a proposal to present at the coaches' meeting this spring, or at least willing to open up a formal dialogue. (And start a committee? Those are always fun...)

Paul Hamann said...

If speed and technical arguments are LD's future, I'll need to consider if I'm a part of LD's present. There's an ugly elitism about this direction, not to mention my own issue: I've never thought this emperor was wearing any clothes. So many arguments I hear in "elite" round are nothing anyone but the .0001% of "elite" LD judges would buy in a million years. I feel wrong if I teach kids that their primary goal is to appeal to that small an audience. That's where Policy is now, and it bugs me as an English teacher--so I grandfathered it out of my first team. Is LD next? I hope not.

Elizabeth said...

It bothers me how often you come across kids who used to do policy doing LD. Even the kids who've never done policy, if their school does, they're almost always fast talking and have carded evidence. More than once I've had an opponent ask to see my case when I was done reading it.

I totally agree with getting LD back to values and theory.

Anonymous said...

I think their is a fine line between going back to value debate and going to a debate designed for lay judges. I think reverting into something like public forum would be just as bad as changing to cx style. LD needs some technicalities to keep it from being pure persuasiveness. Arguments should still matter. Also, I thought I would point out that I was destroyed on my ballots a few months ago for being unfair, spreading, etc. I was speaking at about 225 words per minute. That should NOT be unacceptable for LD. It is not PFD.

Anonymous said...

There*... sorry. How embarrasing.

Jim Anderson said...

Paul, how do we keep LD accessible while permitting students to be creative and challenge themselves? That's what I'm trying to figure out: rules that preserve LD's essential character as it continues changing.

I'm not sure how much this is analogous to when football adopted the forward pass, which sped up the game and upset the purists, but that's what it makes me think about.

Anonymous, I've been practicing speed-reading just to determine how fast is "too fast," even for a speed-reader. 225 is a goodly clip, but ridiculously fast I find that anything above 300 words per minute is almost entirely incomprehensible. I've found that 275 is roughly where the wheels start falling off.

It would be interesting to have a rule capping the Aff at 1800 words, and the Neg at something like 1200 (based on a 4-minute constructive). A word count, as far as I can determine, is the only way to enforce a "speed limit" without being too subjective.

Anonymous said...

As someone who debates quite heavily on the national circuit, most of what you've said is quite standard. 300WPM is almost baseline and there are a lot of teams that run policy arguments such as plans, counterplans, and disads. I'll weigh in on what I think about how the activity should be, however.

First, I think theory should be kept but used as more of a check on abuse than as offense. There are a lot of really unfair strategies on the Circuit or unfair strategies that have been ran on the circuit such as multiple standards, multiple a-prioris, and plan inclusive counterplans. While theory should check back these strats theory shouldn't become an offensive option. Someone shouldn't be able to run 10 theory shells on neg and win because he defined criminal justice better than the opponent, because that's incredibly unfair.

I think the better solution is to have more in the community accept such norms such as RVIs - it really ticks me off that theory can be ran as a no-risk issue and if more judges defaulted to evaluating T as an RVI it would help to combat this issue. Plus, it would for sure decrease the side bias currently in LD.

But I think the best part about theory is that it provides a framework through which the judge's preferences can be evaluated. It's a lot preferable to a world in which judges vote down anything that is against their preferences instead of opening those preferences to be contested in round.

I guess that's really my two cents on theory. As for what constitutes good debate in the "future of LD" I think that definitely includes (especially for some debaters) talking a little slower but a lot clearer. There are some debaters who already do this really well, and there are a lot more who are just hard to listen to. It's likely that for these people they don't need the extra argument to win the round, so it's smart to talk clear but not too fast to ensure everything you want to say is heard.

I was probably rambling in that post and I don't think I responded to anyone in particular, but rest assured everyone, it is possible to talk fast and clearly, just it currently isn't being done by a lot of debaters.

Jim Anderson said...

Good thoughts, anonymous. A question: do you know of any empirics on the purported side bias in LD?

Chris Coovert said...

Jim, on the current topic, the neg side bias has been huge at the national tournaments and at least in aeffect locally.

Interestingly, at VBT last weekend, the neg won every round in quarters, sems and finals. In the early out rounds it was actually 17 neg to 16 aff wins though because of an aff blow out in quarters. Some of the earlier tournaments were even more biased for the neg.

Paul Hamann said...


The difference between this and the forward pass is that people enjoyed watching the forward pass.

I agree with your reader who indicated that some jargon is probably necessary. But if I can't have a smart lay person enjoy a single CX round without first going to camp, what the hell's the use of the event? I don't want LD to go there because then the negatives, in my mind as an English teacher, outweigh the positives.

I'm reading these arcane arguments, and I'm listening to them at State and Nat Quals, and I still believe the emperor is stark naked.

Anonymous said...

Let me establish credibility: (something that card carriers rarely do with their sources)
I debated in Ohio for 4 years, graduating n 08. Ohio is a fairly competitive circuit. A good portion of it (15% ish?) will attend camps like VBI, etc. Only a handful of schools compete on the circuit and even then it's a small number of tournaments a year.

I placed in the top 20 at nationals two years. I have coached debate in Ohio since then. I never attended a camp.

To me the quality, at least in Ohio, has dramatically decreased. It has become a strict impacts game, a strict sense of spreading. There is no weighing of values, certainly no weighing of arguments. What Alex L says about Ohio is true, the value debate is extinct and value criterions have little to no inventiveness.

The problem with this new culture that has been created is that it stifles the educational value of the activity with the upside of winning some more tournaments by creating this inaccessible culture for those that participate. Some of my cases I wrote for those national tournaments contained very little data, cards, what have you...Rather, they contained logical argumentation that I had personally developed after spending time engaging with the resolution...which is the way it should be---debaters creating their own arguments and then logically persuading the judge.

It's sad really.

Jaycie said...

Hi Jim,
I'm going to our State competition this week, and most of what the other schools do is this new "progressive" debate. My school has never been into that, and frankly, I don't like the style. Do you have any tips on how to go against that form of debate without doing what they do?

Jim Anderson said...

I wrote about countering The Spread a while ago, which might help. Also, how familiar are you with Theory?

Anonymous said...

In Oregon, evidence is frowned upon in LD. Most of what we do is just pure persuasiveness. I wouldn't have it any other way...

Matt said...

I have debated in both traditional and progressive debate tournaments to reasonable degree of success (I was 4th at NFL nationals and have cleared at Other National Tournaments) I can pretty decisively say I enjoy progressive debate more. The progression of LD is simply natural. As judges get more experienced, debaters look for new ways to win rounds. Sure, Progressive debate can be exclusive, but only if you don't want to put in the work. I spend half an hour an night now doing drills and another hour doing research/writing arguments. By doing this I can both read and flow around 400 WPM. While I did attend camp, I was also the founder and am one of two members of my schools debate team. We don't have a coach that can do LD, so I am mostly self-taught. Really, it only requires dedication. Now, lets look at more specific complaints about Progressive debate.

Some people love it some people hate it. But its not what makes the circuit exclusionary. I got very very quick just working by myself. A system that take a lot of practice doesn't equal an exclusionary system. I understand that some people round rather the oratorical style of traditional debate, but 1) It isn't as intellectually challenging 2)there will always be some tournaments that are traditional, for example NFL nationals.

Theory is oftentimes a time suck. But it also has a strategic purpose in debate in order to check back bad interpretations. I think the argument "people just run stupid theory!" is in itself not an intellectual argument. Because 1) Bad theory Loses to better debaters 2) RVIs are becoming more and more accepted by the community so Bad theory is just inviting losing to an RVI.

Matt said...

Guys. A kritik is a continental philosophical position that is in no way inherently different than your deont/Util arguments that get recycled over and over again. Is it more dense and confusing? Maybe. But is there a rule against running hard to read authors in debate? Have you guys tried reading A Critique of Pure Reason by Kant, Rawl's Theory of Justice etc. While they may not be Nietzsche, Derrida, Foucault, etc. They can still get pretty dense and dry. Also, assuming LD is fundamentally "a values debate" then we ought to be able to question the way we traditionally derive values. Don't know how to respond to a kritik? Get familiar with the Literature either by reading it or people who write about it. Does this take time? Yes. Is that a reason kritikal arguments are bad? Absolutely not.

A Priori's:
First, many of these are generally frowned upon by the progressive community and are notoriously stupid and nonsensical. For those that are not, "a priori" is simply a weighing mechanism that establishes why X argument ought to precede Y arguments. Very simple. Also, theory generally can hate out A priori's as well as many judges dislike of them.

"Policy" arguments (disads, CPs, Plans etc):
There is no reason an argument is inherently "policy." Nor is there a reason why a value debate can't focus on the value of a plan as opposed to a general statement. In fact, values debates get more nuanced and intellectual at this level. Also, for CPs, why should we do X when Y is a better option? Thats quite simply, a value statement.A disad is just a util neg. Affirming causes X bad stuff to happen. Saving lives is a moral good. BAM. We ought to do Y over X because it deals with the harms of X as well as has some additional benefit. Another common complaint that i will deal with here is the proliferation of huge amounts of evidence. First, utilitarianism/Consequentialism is an accepted moral theory regardless of the circuit. Impact claims require evidence, that's just true. Second, Evidence is needed in any debate format. Making unsubstantiated/empirically false claims is about as educational as hitting your head into a brick wall. Third, I have run cases that are 90% analytics. Sure they may not be util cases but I've run plenty of non-carded frameworks and minimally carded contentions and done very well both in traditional and progressive rounds. (My AC at nationals had two cards. It was 5 minutes of analytics and one of my progessive AC's From the nukes topic was 1800 words of analytics)
Fourth, if you don't want to lose because you don't have evidence, spend more time on research.

Progressive debate requires a very large time investment, but that doesn't make it bad. The arguments for why progression is bad are based on unwarranted and non-falsifiable claims about "the spirit of LD." Lets be clear, LD has no "spirit." If the judge is willing to vote on it and its not a violation of the structure of a round (i.e. Speech times) go for it. If its really stupid, you will lose.

Also, at nationals. All the people in the top 10 were also good progressive debaters. Nationals is not a progressive tournament. I had judges who identified as "traditional, local circuit judges" in round 13.

-Matt Z
George Washington HS

Anonymous said...

I second Matt Zavislan's opinion. As a national circuit debater, I think that the arguments we use increase education. You have to be smart and hard-working to win. If you can't do that, do speech.