Contention One: Inherency
In the status quo, the vast majority of high school policy debate judges (at least those at “national circuit” tournaments) do not provide written comments on their ballots. A very small subset of judges—approximately ten percent based on an unscientific assessment of the publicly-posted ballots from the St. Mark’s and Blake tournaments—provide any written content at all. Of that subset, an even smaller group of judges provides “substantial” written commentary (defined as more than a short, one or two sentence reason for decision). Some tournaments have responded to this norm by eliminating ballots entirely—The Glenbrooks, for example, only provides small judge cards that are not copied or scanned for the competitors.
Thus The Plan:
High school policy debate judges should provide written comments on their ballots. This commentary should supplement—not replace—post-round oral disclosure and discussion of the debate.
Contention Two: The Advantage
The plan is superior to the status quo for all three relevant constituencies: debaters, coaches, and judges.
Subpoint A: Debaters
In order to improve, debaters require feedback from their judges. Currently, this feedback is provided almost exclusively in post-round discussions that center around the judge’s reason for decision. Most often, this discussion focuses on the losing team: the judge explains why they voted the way that they did and then proceeds to explain to the losing side why their arguments were not successful and what they could have done differently to emerge victorious. Some judges, at least some of the time, also provide helpful comments for the winning side. But for the most part, post-round discussions center around the judge’s decision—and that is as it should be.
While the decision is obviously important, however, it does not exhaust the feedback that students need in order to improve. In many cases, significant opportunities for improvement are not addressed because they did not proximately cause the win or loss. In order to help students identify and correct shortcomings in their debating, it is vital that judges communicate more thoughtfully regarding aspects of a given round that were not decisive —at least not directly—in determining the outcome.
The following is a list of areas that judges can briefly discuss via their written commentary on the ballot.
1. Feedback Regarding Constructive Speeches
Most post-round discussions hinge on the argumentation and execution of the final two (and sometimes three) rebuttal speeches. When constructives are discussed, it is usually only to the extent that they effected the way the final rebuttals were debated. Other aspects of the constructive speeches are typically left unaddressed—only the opaque judgment provided by speaker points signals to debaters the judge’s impression of their performance.
Smart debaters often ask questions to solicit feedback from their judges—”how was my time allocation in the 2AC?”, “how was my politics speech in the 1NR?”, and other similar questions are commonly advanced. But unless the judge has written notes during the debate, it can be difficult to provide specific, meaningful answers. By providing written comments on the ballot as the round progresses, judges can better convey their opinions of each debater’s performance.
2. Feedback Regarding Cross-Examinations
In the vast majority of high school debates, the cross-examinations are not instrumental in determining the winner. Most post-round discussions reference the cross-examinations only if an important concession was made or if an important issue was unclear and should have been clarified. It is even rarer for debaters to inquire about their cross-examinations, further pushing these vital components of the debate into the background.
Instead of complaining about the poor quality of most cross-examination periods—a frequent occurrence in judges’ lounges—judges should write comments that highlight things that debaters did well during CX as well as things that debaters could improve. “The cross-ex of the 1AC lacked focus and wasn’t helpful in setting up any of the 1NC positions,” for example, would be a helpful comment. So would “the cross-ex of the 2NC did a good job of attacking the solvency of the counterplan, but you should explicitly reference the 1AC cards by cite that you are relying on to establish your claims.”
Even if the cross-examinations are not discussed in the post-round, the fact that students have an opportunity to reflect on the judges’ written comments after a tournament can help them improve their CX strategy and tactics.
3. Feedback Regarding Arguments Not Central To The Debate
Judges sometimes comment on the overall strategy of a given team, but they typically do so only after having seen a debate unfold. Common post-round comments include:
- “The negative should have gone for politics and the counterplan instead of the critique—I thought you were much farther ahead on those arguments.”
- “The 2AC needed more offense on the disadvantage—you spent way too much time on the critique and didn’t get to the DA with enough time.”
- “The 1NC wasn’t very strategic—without better case defense, you couldn’t really win the DA, leaving you only with T and the K.”
These can be helpful comments, but the details of a judge’s reaction to the initial presentation and development of arguments that are not ultimately extended in the final rebuttals is often forgotten by the time the post-round discussion rolls around. Did the 2AC’s topicality frontline leave something to be desired? Did the 2NC’s extension of the counterplan miss a golden opportunity to exploit a hole in the affirmative case? Could the 1NC have read better evidence to support their case hit? By writing comments on the ballot as the debate progresses, judges can provide debaters with important feedback that would otherwise never be communicated.
4. Feedback Regarding Stylistic Practices, In-Round Presence, and Ethos
Many debaters speak in a way that can only be honestly described as awful: they are too loud or too quiet, they fall into annoying cadences, they distract everyone by banging on tubs or stomping their feet, and most of all they are incomprehensible. While judges will often comment on debaters whose speaking represents an extreme instance of “needs improvement,” they typically let most borderline offenders slide without explicit criticism. The result, of course, is that many students continue their bad habits under the assumption that if they were doing something bad enough, their judges would say something.
Other stylistic practices and “ethos issues” deserve comment, too. Is a debater being too aggressive or too passive in cross-ex? Does a debater throw their blocks on the floor after reading them? Does a debater rely on certain “crutch” words like “at the point at which” or “we’ll always win that”? Does a debater wander around the room during their opponents’ speeches instead of sitting down and flowing? Judges should communicate these criticisms to debaters on the ballot so that they can work to make improvements.
Subpoint B: Coaches
Better feedback for debaters means better feedback for coaches and more opportunities to teach—that much should be obvious. But in addition to the kinds of comments that debaters would find helpful, judges can provide feedback specifically aimed at a team’s coach. Instead of relying exclusively on their debaters to inform them about a judges’ comments after a debate, written ballots can provide coaches with an objective source of documentation that can be used to guide their conversations with students after a tournament—improving the quality of these “debriefings” exponentially.
What kinds of comments can be especially helpful for coaches?
Comments about interpersonal relations. This can involve a student’s relationship with their partner—Is one partner dominating the other? Does one partner jump in at the first opportunity to take over a cross-ex? Do the debaters visibly argue with one another during the round?—or their relationship with their opponents. This kind of feedback is rarely communicated in post-round discussions and when it is, it is not something that debaters often share with their coaches.
Comments about the allocation of preparation time. Did the 1NC take two minutes of preparation time despite having a strategy developed before the round? Did the 1AR take six minutes of prep while the 2A attempted to pre-script large parts of their speech? These tactical errors can be rectified—but only if coaches know about them.
Comments about knowledge of content areas. Did the 2NC seem to struggle with their explanation of the case arguments? Did the 1AC demonstrate their expertise of the case when cross-examining the 1NC about the counterplan? Was it clear that one or both teams did not have a strong understanding of a central argument or concept? Informing coaches about deficits in familiarity with specific content areas ensures that these shortcomings are remedied.
In addition to their utility as a tool to teach students, written ballots can also provide coaches with important insights into a judge’s philosophy and tendencies. While nothing can replace a post-round oral critique when it comes to gaining perspective on the way a judge views debate, written comments are probably the next best thing. Does a judge frequently comment about the debaters being unclear? Coach your students to slow down. Does a judge find a certain disadvantage unpersuasive? Coach your students to defend a different position. The opportunity to read the comments that a judge has provided as they were experiencing the debate can help coaches better prepare their students to debate in front of that individual in the future.
Subpoint C: Judges
Writing comments on the ballot during a debate obviously requires a bit of effort on the part of judges. And equally obviously, the vast majority of judges have determined that it isn’t worth it. But if the benefits previously described are valid, this norm should be changed.
Most directly, judges have an important educational role to fulfill and written commentary can help improve the quality of their service to the students that are debating in front of them. By improving the feedback that they provide to debaters, judges can directly improve the caliber of future debates. At a minimum, written comments can help debaters better adapt to a given judge in future rounds—resulting, hopefully, in a more enjoyable experience for everyone involved.
Written comments also have immediate benefits for judges themselves. By outlining one’s thoughts about the round as it is unfolding, judges can construct better oral critiques and ensure that post-round discussions are as targeted as possible. Because issues not central to the debate are communicated on the ballot, judges can focus their oral commentary on the major issues while still ensuring that debaters and coaches receive feedback regarding the range of other issues that arose in the debate.
I’m now open to cross-examination.