Sunday, March 04, 2007

The State of Debate

I spent yesterday judging at NFL Quals. While I was there, I chatted with three coaches in the area where I'll be moving. Long story short...I'm now about 80% sure that I'll be coaching again next year. Rather than waking up at 4:30 to get on the bus to go for about an hour and a half to some damn place south of town, I'll be able to wake up at 7:00 and say to my students: "Meet me at this nearby school." I'll either hire a fellow teacher or my wife as co-coach and promise to give it a shot for at least a little while.

Once I get OUT, they pull me back IN!!!

Anyway. As I was judging at one NFL district, Jim was judging and coaching down the road at another. And in this post, Jim had something bad to say about Public Forum Debate. Quoth Jim: "Public Forum debate is morally and intellectually bankrupt. Also, it hurts."

I commented that, while I feel his pain, that I could have written that after any bad LD round, and after any bad Policy round (which means any Policy round, but that's another post for another time). Jim asked what I take to be an honest question:

"I wouldn't be so bummed if I'd ever seen a good PuFo round. What's it like?"

I started to answer, but when it turned into a treatise on the state of debate in the National Forensic League, well, I decided it was too long for a comment. I'll post it here instead.

(Full disclosure: I don't think Policy Debate is worth the gunpowder it would take to blow it to hell. I grandfathered it out at my high school...but again, another post, another time. I like LD a lot, but have some problems with it that will become clear's too jargony to be enjoyed by a greater audience, it currently is set up to favor rich kids and rich schools, and the arguments don't feel to me like they'll convince anyone other than an LD judge.)

First, let's look at Public Forum history.

Public Forum Debate was invented in the fall of 2002 in response to what many took as the negative direction that LD and Policy debate were taking. In the original Rostrum article, the author made the mistake of ragging on the two pre-existing forms of debate and each individual event. It wasn't the best way to get on coaches' good sides, but his main point about debate was legitimate, I think.

He questioned the value of debate if a smart non-debater couldn't walk into a round and make an intelligent decision about the winner.

The NFL, therefore, made two major changes to differentiate Public Forum debate from LD and Policy. First, and most importantly, at first, it required that all judges be lay-judges.

I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED this rule. Here's why.

Let me come up with a name for a smart Let's call her "Mom." (I'm assuming your mom, like mine, is smart, and that, like mine, she didn't debate.)

The skill of convincing someone's mom is going to be far more valuable in life than the skill of convincing a lifer college debater. Mom isn't going to be interested in the latest dance-step being taught at debate camp. Mom doesn't care about Foucault. Mom just wants you to show her, with concrete evidence, that your side is right.

The second difference was that they change topics every month, rather than annually, like Policy, or bimonthly, like LD.

I also like this rule.

LD and Policy advantage the rich. A lot of this is because of simple issues of educational inequity, which regular readers know I've railed on about at length often (click on the "Educational Equity" link below to see). Rich schools can afford buses and coaches. I wholeheartedly admire what the Urban Debate Institute is doing, and I like the difference they're making...but I don't think it makes up the full difference that camps give. I don't think it's inaccurate to say that the winners at the big meets tend to be the ones who have spent thousands of dollars to go to debate camps and to fly to competitions across the country. The middle- or lower-class kid who can't afford camp and only competes locally, even if he/she has a dedicated coach and an incredible work ethic, almost never wins at the highest level of Policy, and has the deck stacked against him/her pretty severely in LD.

Public Forum, however, has an equal playing field. With lay judges and frequent changes in topics, kids merely need to hit the newspaper or do a ProQuest search, and bingo, everybody's got evidence.

So, to answer Jim's question of "what's a good Public Forum round like": It's four kids using tangible evidence to convince your mom of the importance of an issue. I remember an especially good one at Nat Quals last year, on whether big-box retailers are good for a community. Kids were dealing with fairly high-falutin' economic stuff, but were doing it for an audience who, like my mom, didn't give a crap about fiat, "biting the harms," or Foucault. I LOVED it. It's not the only good Public Forum round I've seen, but it sticks out right now.

To put it simply, they were doing what our actual political candidates should do (and don't) in their debates.

But, alas (and here's where I agree with you, Jim), good rounds like that have become the exception.

Here's why.

First, the NFL made the mistake of defining Public Forum in terms of what it is NOT rather than what it IS. I've actually heard a kid say in a round "This isn't LD. I don't need evidence." Um, yes you do. As a smart voter, Mom demands it.

Therefore, Public Forum has never really had its own identity. Kids (and, alas, too many coaches) therefore have decided that it is the moronic stepchild of the other, "real" debates, and put their JV on it. The JV follows their coaches' lead and blow it off, and we get what Jim saw...morally and intellectually bankrupt crap.

Secondly, the NFL found that it could not enforce the "lay-judges only" rule, simply because non-debaters don't go to debate tournaments.

The lay-judge rule was magnificent. It expands debaters' worldview beyond the too-incestuous small-pond of the same damn college debaters they see every week. When I ran my Public Forum tournament, the first year, I recruited judges from a local retirement community. Kids were waiting in the commons when they saw the octogenarians enter, shake the hands of my student guides, and walk into the judges' lounge. Suddenly, I saw almost every team adjusting their messages for their audience. As an English teacher, this warmed my heart. In the course of competition, these kids were learning how to suit their arguments and writing for an audience of non-debaters.

Lay judges provided a positive definition of Public Forum Debate, rather than the definition of "well, it's not Policy, and it's not LD."

That definition: Public Forum is an effort to convince a non-debater about an important issue.

When it's defined that way, PuFo is more than just the stupid stepchild of debate. It requires students to compete to effectively communicate with the people they'll have to communicate with for the rest of their lives.

But now, that's gone.

So, how can we make Public Forum reach its full potential?

I have some suggestions.

#1: RUN IT WITH IEs. The IE judge who says "Gosh, I'm too intimidated to judge a debate round, I'm not qualified?" That's Mom. That's our Public Forum judge! Double flight the sucker so that it lasts an hour, and we're set. We've recovered what makes the event special.

#2: BAN ACTIVE COLLEGE DEBATERS FROM JUDGING IT. The issues I have with CX and LD are that, due to the incestuous judging community, the inmates wind up running the asylum. The giant feedback loop is enhanced from camps, and ultimately, a student can succeed without learning what forms of communciation are effective with NON-debaters. It's not that I don't value college debaters...I appreciate their time and effort for forensics. But now that Public Forum has been defined as "an effort to communicate with a non-debater audience," well, this isn't for them. It will also prevent there ever being an effective "Public Forum Camp." The inmates can't run the asylum.

#3: Dare I suggest it? BAN NOTE TAKING DURING THE ROUND BY THE JUDGE. That's flowing. The judge merely sits back, times, and listens. This means that the debaters have to be CRYSTAL CLEAR in both organization and delivery. It also means they'll be superior speakers to LD-ers and policy debaters (of course, orangutans are superior speakers to policy debaters in action).

Anyhow, this has developed into a very long treatise. But hey--I guess this kind of passion means I need to get back into the game.

This is a work in progress. I welcome anybody's comments on this.

UPDATE: Jim responds, and he's in a better mood.


Alison said...

Um... what's LD?

I've never gone to a school that had a debate program, and spent the first 2+ paragraphs of this post thinking that NFL referred to the National Football League (and being mightily confused as a result).


Anonymous said...

Ban flowing?
Are you crazy?
A judge cannot follow a long debate round without some note taking. You are taking an already flawed debate event and turning into some kind competing oratory mongrel.

circuit Ld and policy promote critical thinking skills....