Sunday, January 25, 2009

A coach's frustrations

I've been up for an hour after getting in past midnight last night. I was hoping that catching up on sleep after a long debate weekend would make me feel better than I did as I drove home. It did--a little. But I am still feeling terribly frustrated--exasperated, even--by what I saw happen this weekend at this weekend's large, college-hosted meet in both Public Forum and Public debate.

A little of this might be sour grapes, since my PuFo team didn't do very well. (I didn't have any Public debate teams, so I don't have a dog in that fight and can speak dispassionately.) But I did judge PuFo finals, which were an absolute farce.

One team tried to shoe-horn the entire debate (whether or not the US government ought to mandate that all cars and light trucks sold in the US should run off of alternative fuels by 2040) into a silly garbage argument over the definitions of "oil" and "equivalent." Additionally, one of them in particular acted terribly rude and smug, hijacking the Crossfire by refusing to stop talking or to ever listen to anybody. To quote my wife (referring to another debate she saw), their entire strategy boiled down to trickery and aggression.

They were arguing the Neg--that we ought not mandate alternative fuels. Their case advocated that the US government create oil from algae, and that this was not an alternative fuel, since their article stated that it was the "equivalent" of petroleum. Clearly, these kids do not understand the definition of the word "equivalent," which does not mean "equal" or "the same." (Consider...In my driveway basketball game, I dominated: I was the equivalent of LeBron James. This does not mean I am the SAME as LeBron James.) You'd have to be willing yourself to ignorance to believe that algae-based fuels are not an "alternative," or that "equivalent" means "identical." It doesn't pass the smell test; smart non-debaters like our moms, postmen, and Uncle Freds wouldn't buy that crap. But that seems to be how people are coaching debate right now, and it's being rewarded with trophies. The net result: using one's intelligence to will one's self into ignorance is what I saw debaters doing time and time again this weekend.

(Another example, different round: I had a Public round where kids defined "coal" as "any form of energy other than oil." Who in the name of God would be convinced by kids pretending they didn't know the definition of a word that a second-grader knows? And what coach would say to their kids "Our strategy is to go in there and pretend not to know the definition of a rudimentary one-syllable noun! To say that the definition of 'coal' is 'wind'! Go get 'em, tiger!")

Well, you see where this is going.

Predictably, in the blowout algae-oil PuFo final, I turkeyed.

To reiterate, a Public Forum tournament--the event designed to award sensible, clear communication that a community judge would be convinced by--was awarded to the team who based their entire case around these words: "It's not alternative fuel. It's alternative oil."

Worse: the kid who acted so rude and smug, interrupting and smirking, was named the #1 speaker in the entire debate.

My conclusion: we've left behind everything PuFo was supposed to stand for.

In his original, probably-too-snarky article introducing Public Forum (then called "Controversy"), Donus Roberts said the following:
We need to have this division judged by community adults, chaperones or teachers who do not need to learn a special language and listen to high pitch speed-talking. These people care deeply about public issues.
Amen, brother. Unfortunately, the meet yesterday showed the horrendous consequences of ignoring this and ceding PuFo judging responsibilities to college debaters. College debaters reward trickery and aggression, neither of which are effective means of persuading anyone (except, I guess, a college debater).

I don't want to get too into slamming college debaters, since their time and energy are just as valuable as mine. But when one asks what the purpose of Public Forum Debate is, the answer is "to learn how to convince a community member, one not steeped in debate, about an issue."

To put it another way, as soon as you throw a college debater in the room to judge, it isn't Public Forum anymore. Rhetorical, delivery, and logical skills that would convince a regular citizen are trumped by trickery, aggression, and the latest irreverent intellectual contortionism.

I'm fighting as hard as I can at both the state and NFL levels to emphasize the need for community judges in absolutely every round possible. Beyond that, I want to say this as clearly as I can, particularly to those who run college meets with a lot of college debater judges present:

KEEP THE COLLEGE JUDGES OUT OF PUFO ROUNDS. Send them into LD and CX rounds, where they'll continue to do the fine work they've always done. But it is not Public Forum if it's has a college judge. Don't pretend it is.

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