Learning From Your Elders: How To Find and Use Published Scholarship To Improve Your Theory Debating

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

1. The Debater’s Research Guide

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.

2. Contemporary Argumentation & Debate

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.

3. The Rostrum (and older articles)

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.

4. EBSCOhost Communication & Mass Media Complete

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.

5 thoughts on “Learning From Your Elders: How To Find and Use Published Scholarship To Improve Your Theory Debating

  1. Roy Levkovitz Post author

    Don’t forget the3nr.com too. Shameless plug. Bill also hasn’t mentioned there is a the 3nr facebook group, might as well join that while you’re on looking at everyone’s prom / grad pics.

    Actually discussing the post now…..

    Bill and I had this talk at the TOC regarding point #4, I think using some of this stuff as evidence in debates is kind of lame (there are exceptions which I will note below). I totally agree that reading these articles will help you understand debate so much better. I’ve read soo many of the DRG articles and found them useful as a debater and as a coach. Some of my favorites include an article from the early 1990s by Scott Segal on winning, 1991 TA Mckinney article on intrinsicness and an Andy Ryan article on defense and topicality from the early 2000s?

    While these articles are extremely informative beware of using some of this stuff for evidence. Using myself and some others as a barometer (obviously not Bill) it is unlikely that a piece of Katsulas evidence describing risk of disads will effect how I think about the disad or decide it in the debate. The reason these articles are useful is because they allow you as younger students of the activity to digest this information and translate that into better debating, that does not however mean that a piece of such evidence is a round winner. Think about these as resources guides or strategy books like for poker and chess. If you read a chess book and it said in certain spot execute this movement you’d use that information to possibly guide how you’d play in that spot but it should not decide the rules of how its always played.

    That being said I do find some articles about the benefits of debate useful particularly for framework debates. Articles by Muir and others that describe the benefits of switch side debate and Joyner for the reason roll-playing is good are really useful. I encourage debaters to utilize those in debates since the round is usually about is policy debate good or bad or is switch side debate good or bad.

  2. Bill Batterman Post author

    Here are links to the articles that Roy mentioned:

    1. How to Win Debate Rounds: Is Debate an Art or a Science?” by Scott Segal (1986)

    2. Rehabilitating Intrinsicness” by T.A. McKinney (1991)

    3. Reviving Reasonability: Affirmative Topicality in the ‘Negative Age’ (.doc link)” by Andrew B. Ryan (2004)

    At some point in the future, I will probably write an article explaining why I think reading evidence to support theoretical arguments is a good idea. But Roy is right: my position on this issue is definitely the minority view.

    One cool thing that I’ve also thought about doing is a series of “blast from the past” posts highlighting old theory articles. In addition to summarizing the arguments made by the author, these posts would contextualize these old articles to current debate controversies/issues and include discussion points for students/coaches to use. Good idea?

  3. Michael Antonucci

    1. I openly challenge any debate coach to a chess throwdown. Just saying (that I will own your soul (except maybe Batterman) or Gottbrecht 25% of the time))).

    2. I’m agnostic on direct theory articles. In keeping with current discussions about source quality, I’m often unconvinced that such articles are:
    a. particularly well peer-reviewed.
    b. free of self-interest. There’s value in distance, and I don’t know if anyone who coached or competed at the highest level ever quite shakes their memory of that one round, or the overall trends that might help or hurt their particular squad.

    That said, I really don’t understand Roy’s warrant for excluding Katsulas. He makes a logical argument – he has a good qualification – and while he’s clearly trying to influence debate, he isn’t directly trying to tilt a particular NDCA or NDT championship round. Cogent, objective enough, published, doctorate. In. If you hate it, make an arg. “Lame” is bro-speak, not an arg.

    3. Theory cards are sweet if they speak to general issues of pedagogy. I’m surprised that depth v. breadth, for example, ever goes uncarded. There’s enormous unmined lit on many basic question; much of it’s analogical, but still valid.

  4. Ellis Allen

    Great article overall, but I’m a little conflicted on #s 3 and 4. In most cases, I don’t see the utility of cutting theory articles as cards. Say, for example, I read Roger Solt’s article on conditionality. He makes some great arguments about why limited conditionality is justified, but I think it’s more effective to incorporate those arguments into my theory blocks than it is to cut them as cards for a couple of reasons.

    First, efficiency. On some other post Antonucci mentioned that most theory blocks are just warrantless blips because debaters have incentives to blow through theory debates as fast as possible. I don’t encourage shallow taglining, but efficiency is still a huge deal against any technically proficient opponents. This is especially true for me as a 1A since every second I waste on theory trades off with other important arguments I need to extend in the 1AR. However, most theory articles are written with much more decorative language and explanation than debaters need. It seems like we can reap the benefits of the ideas in theory articles without having to use exact wording.

    Also, phrasing. Theory articles are really effective when it comes to persuasiveness, but judges can flow certain phrasing better. Again, I think it’s a bad idea to spout empty taglines so the judge can write down one or two random symbols, but consider this example. When T.A. McKinney (link that Roy posted) defines intrinsicness, he says:

    “The essence of intrinsicness is that the affirmative plan must be a necessary causal agent for both the achievement of advantages and the occurrence of disadvantages. The core of intrinsicness is the idea of necessary linkage between the affirmative plan and alleged results. More tangibly, intrinsicness means that affirmative advantages must accrue only from plan action while disadvantages must be the inevitable and unavoidable result of plan affirmation. If, for example, the negative argued that the affirmative plan made the deployment of S.D.I. more likely by enhancing President Bush’s popularity, the affirmative could respond: “The disad is not intrinsic: Our plan could be done while cutting funds for S.D.I. and making its deployment illegal.” But, as our definition indicates, intrinsicness is a double-edged sword in that it involves both rights and responsibilities to the affirmative. ”

    Sure, reading this helped me gain a clearer understanding of the term, but I think most judges would rather hear “Advantages/disads are only intrinsic if the plan/counterplan is necessary to cause them” than decipher the core meaning of the paragraph.

    By the way, the context I’m imagining for reading theory articles is something along the lines of a conditionality good/bad debate. There are other instances (for example, Marquette’s risk assessment arguments near the end of the year) where evidence is necessary. Saying that contrived/extended causal link chains should be assigned marginal probability is a lot more credible coming from a published article than a debater, but I don’t mean to get back into the qualifications discussion from the other article.

  5. Bill Batterman Post author

    @Ellis Allen: I think you’ve actually summarized the way I feel about theory evidence accurately, Ellis. Excerpts from scholarly articles that purely describe arguments are not particularly persuasive and are certainly not efficient investments of speech time. Excerpts that provide backing or supporting data for arguments, however, can be highly persuasive and a worthwhile time investment.

    I’ll use the conditionality example—you’re 100% correct that the best way to use an article like Solt’s is as a “reference material” to consult as you are writing your theory blocks. For most of the “guts” of your conditionality arguments, you are better off writing the blocks in your own words / without evidence. However, you might want to cite evidence to support portions of the argument — a few examples might be:

    * evidence (perhaps citing public policy literature) to bolster the claim that a policymaker or policymaking body should consider a wide range of potential solutions to a given issue;

    * evidence (perhaps citing gaming theory literature) establishing the importance of “fairness” as a prior condition enabling productive participation in a competitive game like debate; or

    * evidence (perhaps citing economics literature) defending an opportunity cost model of decision-making as the most coherent framework for conceptualizing a counterplan.

    Many judges that dislike “theory cards” will nonetheless be persuaded by evidence that cites sources outside the academic debate community to bolster theoretical positions (either the original sources or debate scholars’ citations and explanations of them). While debaters can certainly make these kinds of arguments without supporting evidence, it seems reasonable to assume that the incorporation of expert testimony will make these arguments more persuasive. If citing a scholarly publication doesn’t add to the argument, then clearly it shouldn’t be cited. But if it does add something, especially some external backing or data, then it seems silly not to read it. Some people will still giggle about your “theory cards,” but so be it… I can’t imagine they’ll vote against you for trying.

    The bottom line, for me, is this: Instead of just asserting the nuts-and-bolts of a given theory argument, debaters should attempt to inject them with additional depth. One way to do this effectively is by referencing expert sources to bolster an argument’s credibility. Antonucci’s caricature of a “condo good” block is hilarious precisely because of its accuracy… and that is a sad commentary on the state of our theory debating.

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