Policy debate is a specialized activity with a unique vocabulary and a rich history. Its evolution has been shaped in large part by the broader developments in argumentation and rhetoric that have taken place in the academic field of communication. For many years, this connection between contest round debating and the academy from whence it spawned was made explicit by the frequent publication of scholarly articles about debate theory and praxis. Communication scholars, many of whom served as directors of the nation’s leading debate programs, contributed to the development of the activity by authoring texts about the major issues faced by competitors, coaches, and judges.
While the heyday of academic scholarship about competitive debate has passed, its voluminous legacy remains a vibrant source of inspiration and knowledge for contemporary students. Tapping into this rich history of debate scholarship is a fruitful way for students to deepen their comprehension of key theoretical issues while improving their overall ability to debate them effectively in contest rounds.
This article provides advice for students wishing to leverage debate theory research toward improvements in their debating. First, it provides an overview of the sources accessible to most debaters. Second, it provides a list of suggestions for making use of these articles. It is my hope that this article will give interested students the basic guidance they need to dive head first into the world of academic debate scholarship.
Where To Find Debate Theory Articles
Published by Wake Forest University’s Debate Team from 1979 through 2007, the DRG was an evidence handbook that included a handful of theory articles at the front of each issue. All of these articles are now available online and they provide an interesting retrospective on the development of debate theory over the past three decades. Several DRG articles are seminal texts: Roger Solt’s “The Disposition of Counterplans and Permutations: The Case for Logical, Limited Conditionality,” for example, is arguably the most authoritative work on counterplan dispositions ever written.
The official journal of the Cross-Examination Debate Association (CEDA), CAD is one of the most long-standing publications about competitive debate. The full archives of the journal are available on CEDA’s website from 1980 through 2000 with more recent volumes available only from EBSCOhost’s Communication & Mass Media Complete (see below). Articles in CAD cover a full range of issues relevant to competitive debate and include many seminal texts by leading debate theorists like David Zarefsky and Walter Ulrich.
The official publication of The National Forensic League contains a treasure trove of articles written specifically for an audience of high school debaters and coaches. In particular, a series of articles by Dr. David Cheshier published between 1999 and 2003 covers a wide range of topics that are still very relevant to national circuit policy debate theory and praxis.
Most university libraries and some high school libraries include a subscription to this database as part of their EBSCOhost package. It contains the full text of over 350 journals including Argumentation & Advocacy (formerly the Journal of the American Forensic Association) and many others relevant to debate as well as selected articles from the Conference Proceedings of the National Communication Association, a rich source of leading debate theory work produced during the late 1970s through the 1990s.
5. A Select Bibliography of Debate Theory by Steve Hunt
Last updated in 1997, this essential compilation of citations is invaluable to anyone interested in published work about debate theory. Many of the sources listed are difficult to find, but at least some can be accessed at most university or college libraries. This bibliography is subdivided into sections covering areas/issues like Evidence, Topicality, and Counterplans. It also includes a fairly comprehensive list of publications (both books and journals) that include debate theory articles.
What To Do With Them When You Find Them
1. Read them.
This should be obvious, but it bears emphasizing: the best way to gain a superior understanding of debate theory is to read as much about it as you possibly can. No article is unworthy of your time; even articles that cover topics that are no longer controversial can be incredibly valuable because they provide insight into the evolution of contemporary theories and practices of which most participants will be unaware. Most members of the debate community now agree, for example, that counterplans are a legitimate part of the negative’s strategic arsenal. But why? What motivated the invention and proliferation of the counterplan? What theoretical assumptions provide a foundation for its modern form? The answers to these questions will provide debaters with the ability to think through current theoretical controversies in a much more sophisticated way than the vast majority of their peers.
2. Talk about them.
The development of debate theory has been a dialectical process: someone makes an argument, many others respond, and the back-and-forth continues until something of a consensus is arrived upon. In the same way, an individual’s comprehension of theoretical issues can be accelerated by in-depth discussion with other debaters, coaches, or judges. While some members of the debate community find theory discussions arcane and boring, many are fascinated by them and more than willing to spend hours engaged in a back-and-forth dialogue. Indeed, many post-round discussions have been extended into lengthy dialogues when a theory issue is raised. Debate geeks just can’t help themselves: they love talking about debate. Take advantage of this: engage your friends and coaches in discussions of the articles you’ve read and try to work through the issues “out loud”. This will not only improve your comprehension of the issues, but it will greatly increase your comfort level with verbalizing these arguments.
3. Use them to (re-)write theory blocks.
It is important to write and constantly revise a set of blocks about major theoretical issues. One of the best ways to improve the strength of these blocks is by incorporating arguments found in scholarly articles. In many cases, the authors of these articles intended to persuade their audience (other debate coaches/scholars and students) to accept the validity of their positions. As a result, many articles are written to persuasively respond to and refute the counter-arguments of their critics. By incorporating these arguments into theory blocks, a debater can ensure that they have covered all their bases and that their blocks contain the best arguments others have made on the given issue.
4. Cut them as evidence.
This piece of advice is more controversial: some coaches and judges support the reading of scholarly evidence to bolster arguments about theoretical issues while others scoff at “theory cards” and prefer that debaters make these arguments themselves. While I am a member of the former group, even the most fervent critics of the inclusion of evidence in theory debating will probably concede that there are situations in which such a practice is desirable. For example, many theory articles make reference to outside literature to support their claims; in these cases, cutting the original source being cited to bolster one’s argument can be extremely helpful. Depending on your squad’s feelings about theory evidence, you might choose to cut many or only a few cards. But even a small number of high-quality cards on key theory issues can turn a few losses into wins, so the time investment is most definitely a worthwhile one.
5. Compile/preserve them.
Every debate team should maintain an organized library of theory articles to pass on to future generations of students. Too often, these resources are lost or discarded because someone concludes that they are “just taking up space” or are “no longer relevant”. Unfortunately, this makes it much more difficult to pass on the knowledge you have gained during your high school career to future members of the squad. Even if they share your drive to learn more about debate theory, they’ll be forced to reinvent the wheel and expend valuable time tracking down articles for themselves. Do them (and your squad) a favor: leave behind a “backfile” of theory articles in as good of shape as your topic backfile. Whether this is on paper (in folders or a binder) or electronically (on a hard disk), your contribution will help improve the accessibility of debate knowledge for future generations of students.