Category Archives: Columns

Decision Fatigue and Debate

John Tierney, a science columnist at the New York Times, wrote an interesting article in the New York Times Magazine about the concept of “decision fatigue”. In it, he explains that the mental work required to make decisions is substantially more taxing on our brains than we typically think and that the associated “decision fatigue” leads us to make bad decisions.

Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice. Ducking a decision often creates bigger problems in the long run, but for the moment, it eases the mental strain. You start to resist any change, any potentially risky move — like releasing a prisoner who might commit a crime. So the fatigued judge on a parole board takes the easy way out, and the prisoner keeps doing time.

The concept of decision fatigue has several applications to competitive academic debate.

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Learning From Hip-Hop: Lessons for Debaters from How To Rap: The Art and Science of the Hip-Hop MC

“Learn everything you can, anytime you can, from anyone you can—there will always come a time when you will be grateful you did.” — Sarah Caldwell

If one looks closely enough, there are lessons to be learned about debate almost everywhere. The book Moneyball—Michael Lewis’s look at the exploitation of market inefficiencies in Major League Baseball—for example, can help us consider ways to exploit market inefficiencies in debate. While management strategies in professional baseball would seem at first glance to have little to do with high school debate, important lessons can nonetheless be learned—if only we take the time to dig a bit deeper.

In the same way that Moneyball inspired reflection about market inefficiencies in debate, Paul Edwards’ How to Rap: The Art and Science of the Hip-Hop MC provides the astute observer with a wealth of lessons for high school debaters. How to Rap is a comprehensive guide to hip-hop MCing that includes lengthy discussions of content, flow, writing, and delivery. Based on interviews with more than 100 MCs, Edwards’ book “marks a cultural coming-of-age for hip-hop — the first comprehensive poetics of this new literary form.”

While the entire book is fascinating, the section about delivery is particularly useful for high school debate. This article refashions Edwards’ advice to prospective MCs and applies it to debate. Five areas of advice are outlined: Breath Control, Taking Care of Your Voice, Enunciation, Vocal Style, and Presence/Swagger.

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Announcing The 2011 Women's Debate Institute

There are too few women in debate. There is no shortage of potential explanations for this phenomenon-lack of female role models, difficulty in a confrontational learning environment, sexism in society, lower speaker points or even male students in the activity. While many have attempted to pinpoint the causes, there is a group I’ve been working with for several years that attempts to correct the imbalance between men and women in debate.

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Making Our Voices Heard: Public Discourse and High School Debate

When going through some old materials as part of an ongoing effort to construct an institutional history of the National Debate Coaches Association, I came across the following short piece from Alan Coverstone. The longtime debate coach at Montgomery Bell Academy, Coverstone wrote this article for the NDCA Newsletter in April of 2003. It is reprinted below the fold with the permission of the author.

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Chain Reaction: The 1995 Barkley Forum Coaches Luncheon Keynote Speech

While doing some electronic housekeeping I came across a wonderful article from the December 1999 issue of the National Forensic League’s Rostrum magazine. A written version of the speech delivered by Jim Fleissner at the Barkley Forum Coaches Luncheon in 1995, it is a poignant and compelling affirmation of the value of high school policy debate and a testament to the importance of those who teach and coach it. With another season winding down, it is a good time to reflect on the amazing power of our activity to transform lives. The full text of Fleissner’s speech is below the fold.

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Disclosure Discussion: What Constitutes A "New Aff"?

At post-season tournaments, the frequency with which teams break new affirmatives increases exponentially. Unfortunately, this can be a recipe for pre-round misunderstandings and even confrontations—especially when combined with the heightened level of stress that generally accompanies debates at these tournaments. Like baseball, debate is full of unwritten rules—norms that the community generally agrees upon but which are not codified or universally understood. When an individual feels that a peer has violated one of these rules, they are often deeply offended. But what are the unwritten rules regarding disclosure of new affirmatives? And perhaps as importantly, what should they be? This post is an invitation for coaches and debaters to discuss “new aff” norms in advance of this year’s post-season tournaments. Some starting points for the discussion—including hypothetical scenarios—are below the fold.

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