Dear Coaches, Please Stop Ruining Novice Debate

I told some people of my plans for this article earlier in the year and they were almost universally against it. In all the time I have written about debate on the internet, approaching 10 years now, I have harshly and without reservation criticized students/debaters and their practices when I thought they were in error. Yet in all that time no post received anywhere approaching the backlash that the living wage for judges article did. I got over 30 different “hate” emails about that one and numerous other people came up to me in person to give me a piece of my mind. Most of them were totally off base/had clearly not read the article, but some I could tell were just angry that they were the ones being criticized for once. Coaches in debate usually get to dispense the insults rather than absorb them.


Well fire up your hate mail tying devices coaches cause this one is directed at you.


There are a variety of tournaments intended for novices, culminating in the end of year “novice nationals” of which there are now several. The purpose of novice debate is to provide a space were students with less experience can compete against other students with little experience and get some rounds under their belt/work on their confidence. Students who show up to their first tournament and have to debate people who are orders of magnitude better than they are often come away angry and frustrated about debate. Any coach who has worked with novice debates knows that 1 or 2 bad rounds were they get destroyed (or are disrespected) by their opponents can be the make or break issue for whether or not they stay in debate. Yes, some people stick it out regardless. Yes some other people are going to quit regardless. The fact remains- for beginning debaters the experience of going to a tournament and just getting destroyed is universally negative.


It is my contention that over the last 5-10 years the number of students being placed in novice who have no business being in novice has been increasing dramatically. Obviously this has always been an issue to some extent, but it is getting much worse and these are some of the factors that I see contributing to this


1. Students are starting debate younger and younger. I have no objection to this in the abstract, I started taking a debate elective in 7th grade and I know that served as a considerable advantage to me- I got to get my 3 years of being absolutely awful at debate out of the way earlier than most. So this should not be read as me saying debate should only take place in the high school. However, if you debate prior to your 9th grade year, then in your 9th grade year you are not “a novice”. Now, tournaments have gone out of their way to bend over backward to make their entry conditions such that basically anyone can enter because they want to have large tournaments that make money. But if you have to hire John Yoo to craft the legalese in your tournament invite so that you can make it appear that you are offering a novice tournament when in fact you are not, that should be a sign that something has gone awry.


Now, people offer a large number of weak sauce defenses of why students who have debated for 3+ years should be allowed to be in the novice division. Lets look at them


A. Middle School debate isn’t the same as high school debate. Obviously. However, the experience someone gets in middle school debate IS related to success in high school debate. Learning how to speak in public, flow, answer the other teams arguments- these are the fundamental building blocks of debate. If you have 2-3 extra years of practicing these, in any format, you are going to have a big edge over students who do not.


B. They weren’t doing policy debate, they were doing LD/Parli/Pofo etc- doesn’t matter. At the novice level the types of debate are almost indistinguishable because no one has any idea what they are doing.


C. They weren’t debating at high school tournaments- as if this matters at all. They were debating, were doing so at a tournament, that’s enough. One novice team I judged this year said they had been to 22 tournaments over the last 3 years. It doesn’t matter if those were Magic the Gathering tournaments- having that kind of experience is going to give them a huge advantage over students who did not do that.


Again, this is not to say that any of this is bad in the abstract- debate is good. But placing these students in the novice division at a tournament is NOT COOL. They do not meet any reasonable understanding of what a novice is (which we will get to later)


2. Bad arguments. What is and what is not a bad argument is obviously not a clear brightline. If you really think the Heidegger K is the greatest argument ever and you teach your students to read it and understand it- great. If your novices can explain Heidegger they deserve to win the national championship. What I want to talk about when I say “bad arguments” is two things


A. Block dumping- this is where a novice team is given a file they know nothing about and just encouraged to read blocks. Now, if the other team knows what this argument is and has been reasonably educated this strategy doesn’t work, so it has to be coupled with

B. Purposefully selecting obscure crap that other teams will not have learned about yet as they are in their first year of debate. It would be REALLY easy to just write 10-15 blocks for some random K arg and tell novices to just stand up and mindlessly read them on the aff and neg and see pretty good results. If the kids are even a little fast at speaking you can dominate. However, this is a pretty shitty model of teaching kids how to debate. In fact, you basically ruin their entire novice year because they aren’t really learning anything, they are just regurgitating things. It has to be acknowledged that the time of a novice year is finite- there is no way novices can be taught everything. In order to get them ready to debate they have to learn to flow, cut cards, make arguments etc. Then they have to learn about the topic, common cases, disadvantages, counterplans, and hopefully some kritiks. Its just not possible to take someone who has never debated before in September and come March have them ready to debate


-death good

-the litany of no plan affs that don’t discuss the topic

-every backfile K from the last 20 years


“Coaches” have figured this out, and so the number of teams employing a strategy like this at the end of the year has increased significantly. Again, in the abstract I have no problem with this- I know that in the long run students who are properly coached/educated to get good at debate as opposed to sacrificing all of that for the short term win will get better and crush these teams. The problem is GETTING to the long run. Novice retention is getting increasingly more and more difficult because students aren’t having fun, they don’t enjoy going to debate tournaments and having 6 rounds where they have no idea what is happening in any of them.


And lest you say “this is just some whine, they should learn to beat it” as if I didn’t already explain why that is possible, remember that the students reading these arguments generally HAVE NO IDEA WHAT THEY ARE TALKING ABOUT. If you really want to argue that point I have nothing else to say to you- I have seen a ton of novice debates first hand and seen the way they read blocks without knowing why or where to read them, read the same blocks regardless of what arguments the other team makes etc. Its not a defensible position.



3. Trophy hunting- I have confronted some coaches this year about why they are doing this. Inevitably when pushed their answer boils down to “we want to impress our administration/they care about who wins the novice XYZ tournament”. Allow me to let you in on a secret: no, they don’t. At all. In any way. There is less than zero chance an administrator at your school has ever been thinking “well I have to decide whether or not to cut the debate team in some way… but they did win that 3rd place novice trophy at a tournament I’ve never heard of… I guess I’ll cut the football team instead”. If you actually think you are doing this because its what your administration wants and not because you are vain/selfish let me give you some tough love: the administration wants a successful VARSITY program, your varsity program sucks because you screw up your debaters when they are novices chasing achievement medals. Which brings me to number 4


4. Spite. Not many people will openly admit this, but a  lot of the reasons novice debate is messed up is out of spite. People, in a security K esque dilemma, think that their rivals are packing the novice division with talent. They think they will look bad when their rivals are raking in all the novice accolades so they respond in kind- WE CANNOT ALLOW A NOVICE DEBATE GAP! Anyone who has spent 5 minutes in a region with competitive local debate will be able to quickly identify this dynamic.. This is messed up. You are basically saying its ok to sacrifice your students educational experience in order to stick it to some other school. Bravo, educator of the year material here for sure.


So, what is to be done? Unfortunately there isn’t a lot that can be done other than engaging people in 1 on 1 conversations, but after a year of trying that I can tell you the results are “mixed” at best. It would be nice if there was some kind of governing body of debate who actually did important things like try and keep the activity educational, but we all know that is never gonna happen. What would I like to see in an ideal world?


1. Clearly define novice. You are a novice if you are in your first year of debate- OF ANY KIND AT ANY LEVEL- if you have debated before this year you can go in the 2nd year division or JV/Varsity. I’m much less concerned about 2nd year divisions because if you look empirically at results inequalities seem to really work themselves out by that time. Students who have been taught well generally stop losing to garbage, and teams who were novice hotshots usually flame out. For regular non end of year tournaments I also think if you clear, win speaker awards, or especially if you actually win a novice tournament you should not be debating in novice anymore. Let some of the other kids who are struggling have their moment.


2. Novice tournaments should be… novice tournaments. If you run one of these, cowgirl up and actually enforce a policy of being novice. Yes you may lose some teams who are in their 9th year of debate- boo hoo. I think you will find that there is a huge pool of teams/coaches who have been gradually moving away from your tournaments for the very reasons mentioned and who would be more than willing to come back if you actually held a real novice tournament.


3. For students, it may be hard to turn down cheap wins, but you should know coaches (and oftentimes more likely varsity debaters) who are encouraging you to debate in the style outlined above are HURTING you long term and making your debate progress go much slower. Don’t be afraid to say no.














4 responses to “Dear Coaches, Please Stop Ruining Novice Debate

  1. I agree with 99.9 percent of this. However, when novices say to themselves “I really am interested in learning more about this crazy death good argument I heard when I stuck around to watch a varsity elim round and actually flowed instead of playing Tetris battle” and then they go out and find a backfile and edit it themselves and maybe even cut a card or two, I think there is nothing wrong with them (late in the year) running arguments that: (a) make them happy; and (b) take them outside their own comfort zone. Please do not interpret this to mean that I support handing novices K arguments to read with minimal instruction or even when my varsity students do the same thing. Rather, I support encouraging their intellectual curiosity when THEY show some initiative vis-a-vis critical debate.

  2. Hey David,

    Interesting observation, I’m one of those kids you described above (at least I was 3 years ago). But the problem I see is that the amount of kids that take it a step further from that and take the initiative themselves to go out and read the critical literature is very low. I’m a UDL debater so it’s exceptionally harder for people from my area to learn critical literature; but from what I’ve heard, most, major, SDI’s are focused more on explaining to the debaters how to win with arguments, say like Wilderson, than actually known the basis of the argument itself. For instance, in a typical anti-blackness debate students will not contest the thesis of social death, or even know what social death is or entails for the black body – this is why you get a bunch of white kids from GBN reading Anti-blackness and making it to break rounds when they hit a new aff that some poor soul spent hours prepping out. I think that those few who DO actually take the time to learn the critical literature are the ones that win a lot of rounds; take for instance Harvard BS, in the their 2nd round at the NDT this year, they hit Trinity RS and although I don’t doubt the debate ability and level of intellect of Trinity RS, it was BoSu’s knowledge on McGowans book that allowed them to beat them. Bradley had literally read the entire book and made a comment about it in cross examination about how McGowan inevitably concludes affirmative – and that’s pretty rad. Then we have Steven Murray, Edmund Zagorin, Rashid Campbell, Ryan Walsh, Elijah Smith…basically the people who’ve studied the most in their area of interest are the best critical debaters we’ve ever seen. However, the number of debaters reading the actual literature is decreasing every year as students become more focused on trying to win with certain arguments, like say Baudrillard, than actually understanding what Baudrillard says…I’d bet that half of the teams currently running Baudrillard probably take his theory of the “hyperreal” as literally meaning that nothing exists (which is true, but not to the extent that those debaters exaggerate it to). I saw an SDI video on YouTube that showed a lab leader explaining Deleuze in literally 5 minutes. That’s impossible – did the students understand what Deleuze means when he proclaims his philosophy in Difference and Repetition as being a “transcendental empiricism”? No, and neither do I mind you (still not at that level yet, but I’m getting there). I think that Open Evidence is actually more of a hindrance to debaters nowadays than it is a benefit as it means debaters no longer do original research – although Open Evidence does mean that there will be more debaters (because having the evidence all stored on a massive database means they don’t ever have to work) in the activity, the quality of the debates becomes reduced. I doubt you’ll ever see a debater who hasn’t been coached by one of this ToC/NDT-qualfied critical debaters, explain the Bifo “radical passivity” alt coherently.

    With gratitude,

    Pablo Jacobo

  3. I’d like to contribute to and expand upon some of the discussion currently happening. First, I will say that I agree with the vast majority of the article and I think it’s definitely a necessary intervention. That said, I guess I’ll focus on my points of contention with the article so if I don’t engage some section, you can assume I’d agree with it.

    I find it interesting that the section on “bad debate” contains two things which I actually find to be opposed to one another, although nowhere near completely. The first section states

    “A. Block dumping- this is where a novice team is given a file they know nothing about and just encouraged to read blocks.”

    I of course wholly agree that this is bad practice, but I find two parts of this strange: the first being that this is the smallest section of the post when I perhaps find it to be the largest problem with novice debate. I found in my experience both doing novice debate and judging it as a high schooler and someone now out of high school that there were certain schools who regardless of whether they were reading a new or tricky argument or not seemed to have the coaching method of giving their students a bunch of blocks and hoping everything worked out. To me, this is entirely antithetical to what debate is, and perhaps is a large factor in dissuading young novices from continuing. Not to rely overly on personal experience and anecdote, but I know for my first tournament I was given (well actually had to find myself with my partner on the openevidence project) a 1AC, some 1NC shells, and MAYBE a couple 2AC cards and was told to go in debate. That we did, and we won both of our rounds competing there. The rest of the year, I continued to debate against and win huge quantities of rounds with minimal evidence against teams who had the entire debate prepped out. It was because I was debating, not reading through blocks. However, I can also remember a few occasions in which there was a team who was barely engaging us, yet read the blocks they had prepped out with 20 or so cards and for whom the judge voted because we weren’t able to respond to all their cards as a novice. Perhaps the judges were JV kids who had learned the exact same style from their novice year, or perhaps they just thought out-carding was more important. But the important note was that oftentimes these teams were not reading new args or ones which we had no backfiles for (well we didn’t have any backfiles but that’s beside the point…). Instead they would read the exact same 3 or so arguments with the exact same cards (or maybe some new politics updates) the entire year. Boring.

    That’s where I find my second strangeness in the article which is B.

    “Now, if the other team knows what this argument is and has been reasonably educated this strategy doesn’t work, so it has to be coupled with [detailing of how people pull out their evil backfiles in debate to trip up novices]”

    I think subpoint A. actually exists quite oppositionally to subpoint B (you know, a double turn) in that subpoint A laments how our novices stay on their blocks but then B laments how fair it is that they don’t have blocks against old arguments. So what? These are novices! Even if their coach hands them a perfectly prepared Baudrillard strategy they’re bound to screw stuff up in the 2NR (and probably the block as well) and if they don’t and manage to give a perfect 2NR as a novice on Baudrillard, that’s awesome, they won the debate, I’ll give them 30s and try to recruit them. But, since they’re novices and that probably won’t happen, they’re bound to make mistakes, and if we train our young debaters to be less-block reliant, perhaps the 2AC will stand up and make some smart analytics that the 2NC won’t know how to respond to because they’re just a dumb 14-year-old (although I don’t think we actually give high school freshmen enough credit, I’ll get to that later). You want to know the best way to get novices off their blocks and actually thinking: you force them to.

    Perhaps I was privileged in that I debated in Iowa, where we lost our novice limits as early as October, after only a few tournaments had occurred. Rather than destroy debate and cause everyone to quit though, this influx and ability to read new arguments (perhaps ones the other team had no answers to) was probably what got me to stick with debate. I think the moment at which debate for me truly “clicked” and I truly felt a love and passion for debate was when I walked into my first tournament without novice limits. I had just heard debaters could read critiques of capitalism, and being a socialist since age 10 I wanted to engage. So, my coach handed me a 1NC (just a 1NC, actually, no blocks) and told me to get in there and debate, and I won my round. Of course, the other team probably was a bit confused, but they made arguments (such as that cap was good, etc.) and we debated. The debate may have been nowhere near perfect, but it was novice debate. It was fun!

    A quick comment on “trophy hunting” which is that at the end of the day I think we all do it for the W. Of course, no other activity allows the sort of unique educational aspects which debate does (and which should be allowed whenever one pleases), but I imagine much more than 50% of debaters would quit competing if they didn’t get that feeling of satisfaction from winning a round or getting a trophy. Even, and perhaps especially the novices. Nothing feels better than coming home to the parents/guardians with a new piece of shiny hardware to show off.

    In debate we always need to impact fairness and education, right? Even if it’s just that little footnote in the 2NC that “education is the reason we do the activity.” This post’s impact is that “Novice retention is getting increasingly more and more difficult because students aren’t having fun” so I think I might as well lay down some impact defense (and perhaps an impact turn) here. Because I think we need to have a fundamental understanding that policy debate, especially in its present, “new debate” form, is an esoteric activity. It attracts a weird group of people who are willing to devote their weekends, most of their weekdays, and large sums of (their parents’) money in order to continue. And it certainly isn’t the after-school club where people debate in a formal manner about politics that many kids expect when they sign up. And those who don’t like its esoteric-ness often quit, and this happens regardless of whether or not they were exposed to the “weird” arguments their freshman year or their senior year. Let’s face it, debate attracts a certain type of person, good or bad, and those who don’t fit that mold will either change or leave, sad as it may be. My argument is that we should try to hold on to the type of people who thrive in this world, and make sure they don’t quit out of boredom THEIR novice year. I pity those who I watch at the novice national tournament hitting the exact same aff and reading the exact same 3 off-case they’ve read all year. I know that were that the debate I were exposed to as a novice, I would not be writing this post right now. I echo David when he brings up the novice (who I’ve met and is a charming person) that wished to read death good: why not let them? I’d rather allow debate to be a space for the type of person it’s going to produce inevitably anyway than attempt to restrict it under the guise of some educational benefits. While I am in moderate agreement with the post when it discusses how coaches shouldn’t be making these decisions for the purpose of a win (my agreement is tempered by the fact that coaches are where we often learn of the existence of new arguments from, and as such break stagnancy), I don’t think that we should prevent debate from being open to new possibilities. Closing novice debate off to scary arguments, I think (as well as the VERY real problem of having the coaches be the ones DOing novice debate which the post identifies and I am in wholehearted agreement with) means (to quote Jack Halberstam) “missing out on the chance to be frivolous, promiscuous, and irrelevant” and “compels people to follow the tried and true paths of knowledge production.”

    As a brief sidebar, perhaps that “litany of no plan affs that don’t discuss the topic” might actually have some useful knowledge and education-value to novices. I can imagine countless young people of color, queer people, impoverished people etc. that quit debate when they found out the discussions had nothing to do with their everyday lives and more to do with fantasies and delusions of nuclear war that could perhaps be saved with the knowledge that it doesn’t have to be that way. But of course, those discussions are once again thrown to the wayside.

    To be short, I think students have much more fun when they have freedom to debate what they wish (even if their coaches initially gave it to them) and not when their model of debate is defined by stagnancy and repetition. I know personally that the idea that I could say anything, even death good or capitalism bad was what stuck me in debate.

    Now, I’m going to quickly (well for me, I understand I can be long-winded) engage with Pablo’s post. A caveat should of course be added that I have briefly coached the novice team that reads death good which Basler refers to, and can say that they do so not to trip people up but because they enjoy it, and that they have an infinitely better understanding of Deleuze than I would expect from 14-year-olds.

    You bring up that that “SDI’s are focused more on explaining to the debaters how to win with arguments, say like Wilderson, than actually known the basis of the argument itself.” I fully agree with the problematicness of this position and I in fact think there are tons of things wrong with our current “debate camp” model, but perhaps that’s a discussion for another day. I’m not sure the problems related to evidence quality and camp/coaching structure are unique to novice debate.

    However, you claim that these things are too complex to be discussed by novices. As a matter of fact, I agree. No 14-year-old is going to have a full understanding of Baudrillard or Deleuze, and even though I’ve read books by each I’m not sure I have a full understanding of either (although I like to pretend it’s pretty good). However, I don’t see how this is unique to what may be labeled K-debate. Most novices don’t have an understanding of the intricacies of political theory or international relations, yet we give them politics DAs (which are the most ridiculous oversimplifications of like ANY THEORY, EVER) and Russia DAs. Critiquing debaters for not understanding the arguments they’re reading is like critiquing cows for producing milk: it’s part of our nature. The very competitive and limited nature of the research in debate means that that’s inevitable. I can only tell you how much my mind was blown once I came to college and had professors that actually understand Foucault and not the severe bastardization we get in debate. Perhaps we should let novices make mistakes and not expect perfection from them in terms of K-debate, because novice debate is, inevitably, far from perfect. Leave the good debate for the big kids and let the novices have some fun and explore. Eventually they’ll learn.

    Second, can we give the novices some credit here? (this one isn’t per se directed at you but rather at everyone). The novices and high-schoolers who excel in debate are some of the smartest people I know between the ages of 14 and 18 and are generally as well interesting, nice, etc. and perhaps everything but well-rounded. I understand that generally when you try to teach complex philosophy to a 14-year-old they’re going to miss some stuff, but I guarantee you the same is true at 15, 16, 17, etc. leading all the way on up. I know it’s easy to infantalize novices. I mean these days when I look at the batch of incoming freshmen I definitely see less and less of myself and more baby-faced little newbies to the activity. However, I know when I was 15 I was definitely able to understand what little of Virilio (my pet K-author for a bit of time) and Zizek as I had read, and that in fact they helped to open up my mind and educate me much more than the Royal 10 card ever did. Perhaps instead of treating novices as these creatures who must be trained to debate in a hyper-specific and rigid way we can recognize that they are intelligent, are highly capable of learning, and that maybe we can even learn something from them.

    Sorry for the long-winded and rambling post, I’m out.

  4. Max,

    A is related to B because block dumping only works when the argument is obscure enough that the other team is unprepared and confused. Its not a double turn because I am not “lamenting” that the aff team has no block to answer the old K, I am lamenting that they have to have 6 debates at a tournament where at no point in any of them do they have any idea what the other team is talking about. Most novice debate classes do not start with a 3 week meta ethics course on why death is in fact bad. If you really think the politics disad is as complicated and obscure as Deleuze i’m not sure this conversation can move forward, and comments like this
    ” Perhaps instead of treating novices as these creatures who must be trained to debate in a hyper-specific and rigid way we can recognize that they are intelligent, are highly capable of learning, and that maybe we can even learn something from them.”

    make it clear you either did not read or did not understand the post.

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