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
-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.