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Author Topic: ballot size and possible remedies  (Read 4061 times)
Full Member
Posts: 108

« on: May 08, 2012, 02:00:10 PM »

Sometimes I walk into an election voting booth and there are 16 names running for three City Council seats. In theory, I'd like to have read the platforms of each candidate and be ready to make a highly informed decision. In practice, I -- like most voters -- am not as prepared as I should be.

In a 14 day span that (for many) overlaps with final exams or moving out of the dorm, college debaters were asked to vet 11 different topic papers. The topic papers -- more thorough than ever -- included 430 total pages of reading.

There are a variety of concerns that the Topic Committee needs to balance -- and I can't pretend to know all of them. That said, I would like to encourage the TC to consider a few things as this year's and next year's process moves forward:

 a) "choice" is awesome and all -- but can hit a point of diminishing returns.

Looking forward, a ballot slated with 10 or more resolutional wordings (next phase) is probably a recipe to ask people to vote with their gut and not vote based on Forums discussions, wording papers, etc. In fairness, some "menus" are more digestible than others -- it was not terribly difficult to look at the same stem for demo assistance and decide if Syria or Morocco was to one's liking. Still, overwhleming choice can lead to unread papers and voting based solely on the problem area (not other items like mechanism, topic uniqueness and a host of other warrants this year's set of authors placed in their papers). What initially feels like an inclusive ballot often gets *selected* on the basis of predisposition.

 b) the TC has vetting authority and, I think they should feel a little more comfortable using it.

I am not currently a TC member, but I know enough to know that the TC is way, way, way better than it used to be. I understand that some folks are frustrated with recent topics -- but the TC's process has improved considerably. The TC are your *representatives* and they take their responsibility to be informed far more seriously than their predecessors did 10+ years ago. I have often attended a TC meeting 100% sure I was correct about "X"... only to learn that TC members had been working on said item for some time and were ahead of where I was at.

We should have some faith in them -- or, more directly, -- the TC should feel a touch more comfortable saying:

"Sorry, this wording/controversy is just not there".

That decision might provoke some backlash -- but I think moving a ballot down to a digestible number of option may be worth it.

 c) in particular, I think vetting could start with assessments about mechanism quality.

All of these papers speak to mechanism to varying degrees, but I think few of them are strong on:

 -- whether the mechanism has a durable lit base
 -- whether that mechanism is balanced (i.e. Aff-Neg fairness)
 -- whether that mechanism will/will not suffer from topic uniqueness issues.

On that basis, I think the number of topics on the ballot could vary -- but would consistently stay beneath 11. 

Food for thought.


kevin kuswa
Sr. Member
Posts: 345

« Reply #1 on: May 08, 2012, 08:36:16 PM »

Thanks, Will.  This is a good post and something the committee is thinking about.  I believe some of this issue will be addressed at the meeting and we all need to think about ways to maximize the process and make voting meaningful.  On the other hand, 400+ pages of reading is not terrible for a decision of this magnitude, especially for a debater or a coach.  Another solution would be to assign papers to different members of your team and have them provide reports on the questions you list in your message.  That would save some time and allow a thorough evaluation of all the papers so that you can vote in good conscience.  The bottom line, though, is that writing a topic paper is tough to do, usually at the end of the season and at the end of the semester and we need to have choices for our controversy area.  You agree that the papers are improving so I do not see this as a major problem as long as we can find creative ways to digest the papers.  The risk is scaring away potential topic paper authors and finding ourselves with too few papers. 

Overall, I would rather have too many papers than not enough, even if the voting is difficult.  This year we were presented with 11 solid options so there are 11 items on the ballot.  It's not like voting for California Governor at this point, so I think we are still within reason.  That is not a bad place to be.  Thanks for the thoughts and the concern for the process and I hope to see you in Lexington.  Kevin
Full Member
Posts: 148

« Reply #2 on: May 09, 2012, 05:54:23 PM »

The entire Topic process is flawed. I mean it sincerely when I say that I know the Topic Committee members are doing hard work and it is a thankless job. However, when you are working with a flawed system, you are going to continuously get flawed results. We need to rethink, and reboot, the system.
 My intial thoughts on the matter:

1) Model the high school topic process. Why not have a year to contemplate a topic area to vet problems?
I do not know all the nuances of their process, but I do know they spend more time than we do. It is insane to think that we can consistently produce good year-long topics by having people jam together topic papers within just a week or two of the NDT, and right before final exams; have people read and contemplate said topic papers during final exams (students and faculty); and then try to research and draft a year long resolution in three or four days during the summer business meeting. This is NOT the way to determine a topic that affects every one of us for an entire year.

Why not pick a topic area an entire year in advance? Any one of the topic areas discussed in the current topic papers are important and potentially viable. But, as we have seen with the visas topic and the democracy assistance topic; we need to do some long term, contemplative thinking about topic mechanisms before we put together a list of resolutions. A year of thoughts, research, comment, committee work, and draft resolutions could not produce any worse results. So the only risk is for potential better results. Additionally, a year of contemplation will allow us to avoid the growing trend of "its in the news the month of April, let's write a topic paper and submit it." I cannot think of any other academic area where  people rush to judgment so quicky about an issue that impacts so many people.

2) Recycle some of the Topic papers and topic areas that were second place in previous years. There is no need to reinvent the wheel every year. Why should any of us have to write a topic paper next year? The top five vote-getters this year will still be relevant. Let's take the the top four topic areas from this vote, have another vote in September, and then spend the next eight months thinking about how to craft the best possible resolutions that get to the core of the matter.

Scott Elliott
Sr. Member
Posts: 334

« Reply #3 on: May 09, 2012, 07:07:27 PM »

Thanks to Scott and Will for their input. Like many folks I know this is a busy time of year with exams and grading, so I will be brief.

The community has the power to change the topic process. Several folks submitted amendments to the topic process this past year and anyone is capable of submitting items in the future. If the community wishes for a different topic process the power to implement those changes is in their hands.

I am sorry to disagree with my colleagues, bur my view is that our topic process is in pretty good shape precisely because the community is actively participating. I view the current process as essential to encouraging community input. I consider ourselves fortunate to have so many topic choices, even if both of my colleagues find problems with so many options. Both of you are right that there are challenges to reviewing so much material in a short-time, but any proposed solution needs to consider how to balance the time to review topics and the ways to encourage community authorship. 

I do think there is a ripe conversation about other items to add to the standards for controversy papers. I would very much like to see authors have a clearer idea of what the community would like to included in these papers. In this way we could make the papers easier to write and more valuable for the community. Will - I think you are alluding to some of these ideas and there is very much room for anyone to suggest changes to the documents. I think this is a better way to consider what makes it on the controversy ballot. I view it is not very effective for the committee to, post hoc, dismiss papers if they meet the standards they set up. It would be much better to clarify what you are looking for before authors make the long investment of writing papers.

I view the change to push the topic process back after CEDA and the NDT as essential to making it possible for so many papers to be written. Both of the ideas mentioned  (a longer process like the high school community and the community's greater editorial control over what appears on the ballot) have been true in the past and I believe both discouraged paper-writing. Only a few years ago we had more of a year round process with early topic discussions in November (at NCA and sometimes the Wake tournament) and a spring meeting at CEDA nationals. It is not surprising that under this process it was harder for authors to write papers and be ready for our end of the year events. The longer model doesn't make the papers better, it actually made for much fewer papers.

I have tremendous respect for both the people and process for high school topic selection, but I don't view it as entirely analogous to our challenge. Their consensus is to produce a very broad topic, so they have much less  emphasis on producing wording options that balance affirmative and negative ground. Consider what would have happened if the college topic community produced a topic with decisions about domestic investment (as in this upcoming high school topic) without substantial community input.

I would also highlight that high school produces a topic a year in advance because they teach new students in their spring quarter classes, which often run through June.  The high school community has embraced never having an off-season from a topic, but I don't feel this is a judgment shared by our community. I have been very clear that, if I had my view implemented, we would have even less time with the topic released. I believe we need to very careful with the length of the season, which is initiated with the topic release. We have a great number of significant personal, professional and community challenges that can be addressed during our off-season. The intellectual energy that some folks would like to spend a year out of a topic I feel could be better involved in addressing these issues.

Finally, Scott I am not sure we disagree about recycling papers. Several of these papers did exactly what you seem to be asking for - revisiting old work. My education paper, for example, is a third iteration with much of the work done on previous years. I know there are other examples, such as the First Amendment and the Tax Code paper, and we encourage authors to bring older ideas back. We agree that even though one topic wins each year, there is a lot of great work done. This is also why we have kept all of the papers, controversy and wording, on this forum so we now have a permanent library of work.

I my view we are in very good shape because we have a lot of community input. This year seven papers were written by the community with no involvement from the topic committee. I would submit that we have never had a cycle where that much work was done by volunteer authors. To me, this is a remarkable index both that there is appreciation for the importance of the topic and that authors feel that if they complete good work they can have their topic seriously considered by the community. There are always ways to make the topic process better, and we look forward to hearing your ideas, but I would caution critics of any reform that dissuades community authorship.

I guess this can also serve as a reminder that the topic ballots are due Sunday and the complaints about the new topic, I mean the announcement of the new topic will be on Monday. Good luck to everyone to everyone with finals!

Gordon Stables
Assistant Dean for Student Affairs
Director of Debate & Forensics
Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism
University of Southern California
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