Sunday, March 02, 2008

The State of Public Forum Debate 2008

Since the guy in charge of my NFL district knows me and trusts me to work in the Tab room, babysit Congress, judge a few debate rounds, and be Extemp Prep Nazi (all in one weekend!), and since he paid for my sub, I spent this weekend up in Seattle helping shepherd the meet to its conclusion and about a score of kids to Nationals in Las Vegas (thank GOD this is a year I won't be going...I don't want to try to knock the whore trading cards out of my teenage boys' hands). In the process, I got to judge three rounds of Public Forum Debate. I saw both of the teams we'll be sending to Nationals. More to the point, I saw that the event still doesn't know what it's supposed to be about. I talked about this last year, and I thought I'd update it again.

My main concerns from last year--that PuFo continues to have an identity crisis because it only is negatively defined (e.g. "This isn't LD, I don't have to [whatever]")--remain. There was a Grand Crossfire that positively made my head explode. Four incredibly smart kids sat in front of me and yelled at each other about what a lay judge should find impressive. "I think they'd be very interested in expert evidence!" "No, I think a lay judge would care more about logic and reasoning!" I wanted to raise my hand and say "Hel-LLLOOOOO!!! I'm right here!!! I'll decide what I like, thank you very much!!!"

But this moment is instructive, I think, because it at least shows that the kids are interested in
what the judge is thinking. In LD (and, I assume, CX, which I have excised from my life), students assume that there is something that an "expert" judge is looking for, and if the judge goes against this miniscule paradigm by dropping a student's team, that judge is "unqualified" (although the kids--and a disturbing minority of coaches--usually use the word "idiot" instead).

If the NFL were to state, more publicly and prominently than it currently does, that "In Public Forum Debate, all efforts shall be made to make all judges lay judges," this kind of elitist bullshit would be literally impossible. It would make the judging as unpredictable as the populace. Students would have to resort to the most effective ways of arguing in the real world, and even then, wouldn't always wind up convincing their audiences. Schools and reputations, which are too strong an influence in determining a winner of an LD or Policy round, no longer would matter one iota. All of these are valuable lessons to teach kids, and PuFo can do that in ways that LD and Policy debate too seldom do.

As I judged these few rounds this weekend, I couldn't get a recent discussion out of my head--a discussion I had with a former debater who judged LD at a recent meet. She'd been out of the game for a while, and didn't know what Public Forum was. I told her about it, and its stated goal (well, my stated goal for it, anyway) to get kids to communicate effectively to non-debater audiences.

She thought using lay judges was a ridiculous idea. She more or less said that most everyday citizens are simply too stupid to bother communicating with, and that in any job worth a damn, smart adults only have to communicate with other smart adults.

I believe that this toxic, cruel elitism is fostered by the atmosphere of LD or CX debate, which frequently teaches this attitude in all ways except explicitly.

I got my hair cut before going to the meet on Friday. The woman cutting my hair was in her late twenties...nosering, tattoos. Our conversation led her to discover I was in town for a debate meet, and she asked what the topic was. I told her: political primaries and whether they're in line with democratic ideals. She asked me what I thought about the issue. I gave her my take on it.

As she shampooed me, she then gave a thoughtful, interesting take on the Obama/Clinton race. Her roommate is a massive Obama fan...bought the sweatshirt and a hat. But when the hairstylist looked up Clinton and Obama's views on issues important to her, they're pretty well the same. She likes Obama's style, but likes that Clinton is a woman. She went on for several minutes, concluding by telling me that she hasn't made up her mind yet.

Tell me...isn't this woman worth talking to? She is a working woman who has examined substance, examined style, and genuinely wants to make the right choice. Isnt' she worth convincing? And isn't this "only a hairstylist" exactly the kind of person that elitists like too many in the debate community dismiss as not expert enough to be worth the breath it would take to talk to her?

Keep Public Forum in the hands lay judges. Keep the debate-heads out of it.

Here's a way to do that:

At Nationals, on the form, if a judge checks that he or she can judge LD or Policy, he or she will not be allowed to judge Public Forum that year--no matter who they are. Anyone who shows up to judge any IE or Congress can expect to judge a round or two of PuFo.

Not enough PuFo judges at Nationals? There's a fix to that. Work with local TV and Radio stations, service clubs, and schools to get non-debaters in for a day to judge. With enough of them to create a critical mass, that will send the message that PuFo is about convincing our neighbors of one side of an important issue. Then, in National finals, instead of giving judging slots to coaches, give all of them to local lay judges. Coaches and districts will get the message that the event is for lay judges and will coach accordingly.

The event is only 6 years old, and it's already turning into card wars. The sooner that we emphasize and even require lay judges, the sooner Public Forum will become what it ought to be--smart kids learning to communicate backed arguments in a way that their fellow citizens find convincing.

1 comment:

Joe said...

in any job worth a damn, smart adults only have to communicate with other smart adults.

Ignoring, for the moment, the question of why a Neanderthal who thought that way would be involved with high school debate or any other educational venture (where you're sure to run into a lot of non-adults and some non-smart of all ages)...

Smile softly to yourself, secure in the knowledge that she's going to buy some mechanic a lot of bass boats.

"Smart" is domain-specific. (And easy to camouflage.)