First – Let me make clear that this post represents my own views, and I do not speak on behalf of Northwestern or any of its coaches or debaters.
I am independently hosting a round robin in Chicago, March 8-9. The full invite will be posted soon. The tournament is open to anyone who would like to attend – the only stipulation is that teams must opt-in to debate exclusively about the topic, subject to an enforcement mechanism. The idea is to remove the burden of rules enforcement from the debaters and allow debates to focus more on substantive discussion.
While the tournament will use the current War Powers topic, I broadly support the idea of tournaments providing an enforceable opt-in mechanism to debate about whatever topic or set of rules reflect the wishes of the participants. If I hold the tournament again in a future year, I am very open to trying out different formats, styles or topics instead. In that spirit, the tournament will also feature an optional round (or two) for participants to try out debating under a different set of specified parameters (e.g. passive voice or a different resolution), final details TBD.
For all of the debates about “framework” over the last 10-15 years, it seems that we have gotten no closer to an actual consensus. Instead, the status quo is failing both sides of the divide. Policy teams begrudge the number of debates in which they don’t discuss USFG policy, and K teams begrudge the number of debates in which they have to listen to endless variations on “you cheated.” If a decade’s worth of meta-debates over the rules has failed to solve the issue, I’m doubtful another ten years will make much difference.
Instead, I think that students and debate programs should have the choice of what they want to debate. Preparing for and attending tournaments takes an incredible amount of time, energy, and money. I think that if a program would like for that investment to result primarily in substantive debates over disads, they should have that option. If a program would rather debate in an alternate style, or over issues pertaining more to their social location, I think they should have that option as well. And if a program was interested in attending a variety of tournaments with a differing set of pedagogical approaches to ensure their students receive well rounded exposure to different types of debate, they should have that option as well.
At any given tournament, I like the idea of participants voluntarily opting-in to a set of minimal requirements about what the debates will be about. To me, that seems like a good method of avoiding unproductive and repetitive debates over what we should be debating about in the first place. It’s collegial, and it means more time spent discussing issues, and less time spent name-calling. While I like traditional policy debate a great deal, I also think it would be both fun and educational to have an in-depth debate over a social justice issue, or a resolution of fact, or over different strategies for attacking capitalism. I think it would be interesting to have a traditional policy debate at talking speed, or without recourse to nuclear wars, or a debate where teams “footnote” evidence.
I, unfortunately, don’t have the time nor the resources to host a million experimental tournaments myself. But I would truly welcome, as just one example, the “K” equivalent to my tournament which asks that participants agree not to go for framework. I think there’s value to debating with a shared set of rules, regardless of argument preference, style, social location, or anything else.
All forms of debate have value, but not all of them need to happen simultaneously. Oklahoma and Northwestern held what I understand to be a very productive and meaningful public debate over Stand Your Ground laws the weekend before Wake, and no one is criticizing it for being insufficiently fast or technical. Nor is anyone criticizing it for a failure to completely abandon a discussion of government policy. I think this is due to both parties’ willingness to stick to the agreed upon parameters. And participation in that event doesn’t seem to have hampered their ability to engage in different styles on the subsequent weekend.
Debate can be a lot of different things, but regardless of the topic, format, or style, I think that debates would be better if at least some of the burden for rules enforcement was shifted out of the hands of the debaters. Otherwise, competitive pressures will always result in an incentive to “skirt the rules,” and without some kind of backstop, we end up (as in the status quo) with a large percentage of debates being devoted to arguing about the rules, rather than anything substantive.
The other big issue that has been weighing on my mind for the last several years is finding a way to address the lack of diversity in the debate community, and the legitimate concerns that raises for other areas of our praxis. I do not direct a program, so my influence in some areas is necessarily limited. But in addition to hosting an independent tournament I wanted to find a way that I could substantively work to improve the community on other metrics.
I came up with many ideas – from scholarships to help send kids to camp, to subsidizing travel for new programs, to promoting novice debate. Most of them need money. So in the process of preparing to host the tournament and looking for ways to concretely expand diversity, it became clear that I would need an organizational structure to help accomplish both goals. To that end, I have been working since the early summer to set up a new non-profit organization, and have already started the process of soliciting donations and seeking funding sources. Among its intended missions are:
• Expanding access to policy debate for underprivileged students through a variety of mechanisms
• Hosting tournaments, like the aforementioned round robin, with agreed upon parameters for the participants
• Helping other tournaments interested in the same thing with a set of guidelines for putting that into practice, including an independent rules enforcement mechanism
• Seeking ways to reward students for outstanding research, not just speaker awards or winning rounds
As a result of having talked to a few people about hosting a tournament focused explicitly on debating a shared topic, and the creation of an enforceable opt-in mechanism, I was approached by a number of coaches and directors who had heard through the grapevine about the idea and were curious about supporting it or using a similar opt-in idea at other tournaments. That led to my participation in discussions like the “secret” meeting at Wake, hoping to start vetting and refining my idea and hearing other people’s ideas about charting a way forward from the current issues confronting debate. This was not an attempt at “secessionism,” it was a desire on the part of people to discuss how current NDT/CEDA debate could provide a better set of choices to participants.
That process happened organically – it was not designed as a secret cabal to segregate debate, or any of the other paranoid conspiracy theories I have heard people spreading. True, not every discussion between interested people was live-tweeted to every member of NDT/CEDA, but no children were sacrificed; no blood was drunk. Everyone I have spoken to has viewed ongoing discussions as the starting point for engaging the rest of the debate community, not an end point. It’s true that not everyone was included in the first round of discussions on these topics – but hurt feelings over the lack of an invite are ironic given that perhaps the lion’s share of all discussion I’ve heard has been on how best to reach out to more people.
The other thing that happened organically was the moniker “Policy Research League” or “PRL” being attached to the discussions. I think the phrase “PRL” originated sometime over the summer (not by me), and I’ve heard it bandied around in water cooler talk ever since then, with no particular care taken to make it a “secret” organization. To be clear, the “PRL” is not a name of my own devising - but it has been a moniker that many people (admittedly including myself) have used occasionally as a shorthand way of describing the common goals articulated above. There is no such thing as a “member” of the PRL, and no organization demanding a loyalty oath.
I think that it is worth pointing out that nearly every conversation about the future of debate that I have been party to has focused in large part on developing a concrete program for increasing meaningful diversity in the community, finding a way to incorporate a variety of stakeholders, trying to ensure that as many programs and debaters as possible are included in any future vision of debate, and strategizing ways of improving access to policy debate at all levels, including through changes to current argument practice. These are not a group of racist illuminati hell bent on destroying debate through segregation and secrecy or clinging to the vestiges of some dying form of traditional debate, these are well-meaning and deeply passionate educators who are concerned over the state of the activity and are looking for ways to make it better.
I will be hosting a tournament in Chicago on March 8-9. Everyone is invited. I am unfortunately limited to hosting a two-wheel round robin, since I am doing this completely independently and have a limited number of available rooms, but I will do my best to give a slot to any program who wants to attend. This is not an attempt at segregation or the debate equivalent of Jim Crow or slavery, or any of the other absurd and hyperbolic accusations that have been leveled in the last few days. Everyone is invited. The only condition of attendance is that you agree to abide by the rules governing the topic and debate in a civil fashion. If that’s not something that interests you, then fair enough – I believe you’re entitled to that choice.