The Evolution of Plans In Policy Debate, Part 2: The Plan in the Age of the Disadvantage

This is the second in a series of articles about the history of plans in policy debate. The first article explained the early history of plans, covering the 1910s to the 1960s. This article discusses the era beginning in the late 1960s and ending in the mid-1980s.


Policy debate changed dramatically in the late 1960s and 1970s. Kass Kovalcheck, the Director of Forensics at Vanderbilt University, summarized these seismic changes in a “debate in the 1970s” retrospective published in 1979:  

The decade of the 70’s in forensics actually begun during the 1966-67 academic year with adoption of the national debate proposition, “Resolved: That the United States should substantially reduce its foreign policy commitments.” This topic, directly and indirectly, ushered in most of the practices and problems we now have because it permitted the affirmative, for the first time, to both define the terms and select the topic.

Prior to this topic, affirmative teams were expected to debate the totality of the resolution. While individual cases might vary, negative teams remained relatively free from having to debate limited and narrow portions of the proposition. But the topic on foreign policy commitments altered that freedom. Judges quickly perceived that it was unreasonable to expect an affirmative team to deal with the totality of the topic, and few doubted that such changes as recognizing Communist China, ending the Vietnamese War, pulling troops out of Europe, or even altering the world’s monetary system were not significant. Negative teams, then, had to be prepared to debate four or five topics, each requiring separate analysis, separate evidence, and separate plan attacks, and this multiple topic approach was the harbinger of the 70’s.

Clearly, the changes did not come all at once. Several more narrow and specific topics restrained the impulses of the 1966-67 debate year, but by the time of the 1971-72 topic, “Resolved: That greater controls should be imposed on the gathering and utilization of information about United States citizens by government agencies,” the precedent had been established. Judges now made a variety of decisions about what constituted a legitimate affirmative case, and those decisions determined the course of intercollegiate debate. The most important of those decisions was that significance was not to be determined in relation to the topic but in relation to the impact of the plan. In the past, for affirmatives to demonstrate they were advocating a significant change, that change had to be significant in terms of the whole topic area. Thus, change in education policy had to reflect on the whole of education; an alteration in police powers had to be significant for the totality of law enforcement; a reduction in foreign policy commitments had to be significant in terms of all United States foreign policy commitments. The more recent standard of significance relates only to the impact of the plan. Currently, even if the change itself is actually insignificant, the plan is judged to be legitimate as long as the results are significant. The result is that while requiring seat belt use is not significant in the totality of consumer product safety, the saving of 10,000 lives is significant. Application of wage and price controls only to the trucking industry is not significant for the whole American economy, but the impact of trucking on the economy is significant. Changing the management of our forests only affects a fraction of land use in the United States, but has a significant impact on inflation and housing. This change in judging standards broadened already broad topics and allowed for a continuous expansion of the limits of the topic.

Kovalcheck’s article is worth reading in full; I have included it below.

These changes profoundly altered the dominant norms about affirmative plans and their role in debates. Instead of straightforward and relatively limited explanations of the resolution, plans became extremely detailed proposals whose desirability the negative was expected to disprove. The transition from resolution-focused debate to plan-focused debate was gradual, lasting into the 1990s, but the role of the plan had already fundamentally changed by the early 1970s.

Consider, for example, the differences between the plans presented in the final rounds of the NDT in 1970 and 1972 and those presented in 1973 and 1974:

1970

Resolved: That the federal government should grant annually a specific percentage of its income tax revenue to the state governments.

Canisius’s Plan — NDT Final Round: By all necessary procedures we advocate the following institutional departure. Plank 1: Twenty percent of personal income tax revenues will be held in a revenue pool for one year. It would then be distributed to state health and planning agencies, ninety percent to be spent on medical services for the medically indigent and ten percent for state medical planning. Plank 2: All appropriate federal standards would be enforced by fines and imprisonment to the individual administrators; distribution to the states is on a need criterion. And plank 3: Redundant grants-in-aid would be eliminated.

1972

Resolved: That greater controls should be imposed on the gathering and utilization of information about United States citizens by government agencies.

UCSB’s Plan — NDT Final Round: Contextual definitions are contained in the following plan. By all means necessary, one, the federal and all state governments shall be prohibited from gathering or utilizing any information for purposes of military conscription. Two, all U.S. military branches may not utilize information to compel enlistment or reenlistment for a term of more than four years. Three, all information presently held by the government relating to selective service offenses or military desertion from Vietnam shall be destroyed. Four, the federal government shall be prohibited from utilizing any information to prosecute selective service offenders, to prosecute deserters from Vietnam, or to hold offenders in prison. Five, all persons under the authority of any federal, state, or local government who violate or attempt to violate this proposal shall be subject to ten years imprisonment and $10,000 fine. Six, with respect to military personnel in Vietnam, this plan shall be phased-in over a six month period.

1973

Resolved: That the federal government should provide a program of comprehensive medical care for all its citizens.

Georgetown’s Plan — NDT Final Round: Jay and I will support the national debate proposition, examples of which will be provided in the following affirmative proposal.

Plank number one: All United States citizens will be legally entitled to comprehensive medical care with the exception of cosmetic surgery, psychiatric treatment, and dental care with no cost charged for any services rendered. Such coverage will be phased in over a three-year period, beginning with immediate coverage for all catastrophic illness.

Two: All such medical care will be a federal public service. Therefore, there will be no private practice or facilities allowed for under provisions of our plan. Wages for providers of such care will be legally set at 15 percent above specialty averages. The number of hours worked by all personnel will be governmentally set. Further upward adjustments will be allowed to compensate for relevant cost-of-living increases, shortages of technical and paramedical personnel, extensive controlled research projects, and medical treatment efficiency increments. All necessary steps, including regulation of medical schools, may be taken to ensure adequate supplies of manpower.

Three: The federal government will organize all medical workers into general health care centers. Regional service centers will be established to provide for specialized treatment. Such units will be structured in group or team fashion, utilizing models such as the Kaiser program.

Four: An independent self-perpetuating Drug Regulatory Commission will be established. Members will include Senator Gaylord Nelson, Dr. Henry Simmons, and Dr. Thomas Dunphy. Duties of the Commission will include (1) collection, coordination, and dissemination of all relevant information on prescription drugs to all physicians through their own group practice units; (2) establishment and enforcement of complete record keeping standards for all physicians, administered by their appropriate group practice; (3) regulation of prescription drug practices through review of all records by group practice administrators with Commission monitoring. In any complaint, the burden of proof will be on the physician to justify his prescription practices.

Five: A self-perpetuating independent Federal Regulatory Commission—commissioners with life tenure—will be established to ensure optimal levels of medical care for all citizens through extensive quality and educational controls. The Commission will be chaired and appointed by Dr. Robert McCleary of the Center for the Study of Responsive Law. In all matters relating to the use of X-ray techniques, standards will be established and directed by Dr. Karl Morgan. All other necessary staff and personnel shall be provided.

Six: Violators of the regulatory provisions of this plan will be ineligible to practice medical care as part of the federal public service. All other violations will be subject to fines and imprisonment.

Seven: Costs of the affirmative proposal will be financed through an independent trust fund, making progressive use of federal tax structures. Tax incentives will be provided employers enforcing the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

1974

Resolved: That the federal government should control the supply and utilization of energy in the United States.

Harvard’s Plan — NDT Final Round: As on illustration of the resolution, Mr. Garvin and I offer the following six-plank plan as a permanent redirection of government pollution abatement policy, to be implemented by all necessary enabling constitutional and statutory action over a three year period.

One, we will establish a self-perpetuating three person Board consisting of Henry Wallich, J. H. Dales, and Douglas R. Macintosh. Board members must retire upon attaining age 62 and one-quarter and will be suitably rewarded for services.

Two, the Board will have the power to: (a) set national ambient standards for air pollution, categorically identical to those of the Clean Air Act, not to exceed the levels currently stipulated under that act; (b) exercise emergency powers in cases of temperature inversion, identical to those currently provided the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency]; (c) establish regional air-shed districts and emission limits for each district designed to meet the national ambient standards; (d) appoint independent district governing boards, subject to the same tenure constraints expressed in plank one. The boards will function as enforcement agencies similar to the IRS [Internal Revenue Service].

Three, the right to distribute gaseous or particulate pollutants will be distributed in the following manner: In a sealed bidding system, each firm shall submit a contingent bid specifying the quantity of pollution rights it would be willing to purchase at each of several prices. Each district governing board shall choose among the bids so as to maximize its own revenue from the sale. Thereafter, pollution rights may be bought, sold, or leased on the open market by any public or private entity, subject to normal antitrust regulations. Duplicate controls shall be rendered inoperative.

Four, district governing boards will have power to: (a) use receipts from the sale of pollution rights to enforce emission levels, invest in corporate bonds, and repurchase pollution rights if necessary to meet changing conditions; (b) use independent local taxing authority over payrolls, above the current ceiling on the social security tax, to cover the costs to the boards of enforcing emission levels.

Five, all polluters will be required to submit quarterly reports to the district governing boards detailing their current and projected holdings of rights and actual emission levels. Each board will have all necessary investigative authority, will engage in spot checks to monitor emission levels, and will enforce compliance with fines, jail terms for plant managers and corporate heads, and incentive civil suits with treble damages.

Six, board decisions will be reviewable in the federal court system. However, the burden of proof will be placed on the polluter, and, except in antitrust cases, no preliminary injunctive relief will be granted. The decision of the board remains final until overturned by the courts.

The differences are stark. Canisius’s plan in 1970 was 93 words; UCSB’s in 1972 was 152. Both include “mandate” planks that mostly mirror the resolutional wording; they also include separate enforcement and implementation planks. These latter planks were designed to answer what contemporary debaters would understand as “circumvention” arguments; at the time, they would have been more likely called workability or plan meets need (PMN — or plans meets advantage, or PMA) arguments.

By 1973, Georgetown’s plan had ballooned to 442 words; Harvard’s plan in 1974 was similarly long. What changed? The relatively brief enforcement and implementation planks from the Canisius and UCSB plans were substantially expanded, including extremely specific details about how the plan would be carried out and enforced. The level of detail is likely astonishing to contemporary readers; for example, both plans specify the individual members of their oversight boards and the funding mechanisms to be used for generating needed revenue.

The peak of this period came in 1977 when Georgetown’s plan reached a staggering 589 words:

Resolved: That the federal government should significantly strengthen the guarantee of consumer product safety required of manufacturers.

Georgetown’s Plan — NDT Final Round: On behalf of James J. Unger, Augustus Owlsey, and Jack [Walker], I support the national debate proposition, several independent examples of which are found in the following policy proposal to be enacted and maintained through all necessary federal and Constitutional means.

One, an independent, self-perpetuating, munificently-salaried, affirmatively appointed National Consumer Motor Vehicle Safety Commission will be established. Members will be removable by the Supreme Court for mis-, mal-, or nonfeasance in office, with mandatory retirement at age 60. Commissioners will be provided with all necessary staff, information, administrative services, legal power, and funding minimally sufficient to carry out the legal mandates of the plan.

Two, commencing on June 1, 1977, all newly-manufactured automobiles operating within the United States will be required to have installed Commission-approved, maximally balanced, effective airbag restraint systems consistent with all other plan provisions. Such installation procedures will be initially phased in over a three-year period, supervised and scheduled by the Commission on a graduated, technical-feasibility basis.

Three, commencing on June I, 1977, all relevant manufacturers will be legally required to offer free and reasonably convenient maintenance and reinstallation of utilized airbag systems. Manufacturers may be required to offer incentives to the public to undertake such actions.

Four, the Commission will undertake ongoing, comprehensive, independent, competitive research into all aspects of motor vehicle transportation safety. It will be fully empowered to require the removal, installation, maintenance, and use of seat belts, sequential reminders, and passive restraints on the basis of cost-benefit analysis and other relevant inputs. Affirmative airbag provisions are exempt from removal. The affirmative board will have legal authority to ensure that current requirements cannot be reduced in terms of safety effectiveness.

Five, proposal compliance costs for domestic and/or foreign manufacturers and related industries may be financed through Commission- approved, federally-funded, long-term, low-interest loans and/or grants upon adequate demonstration of need. Full consultation and cooperation with foreign manufacturers [will be provided].

Six, the Commission will undertake national, on-going programs of publicity and education on all matters of motor vehicle transportation safety, with particular emphasis upon the desirability of airbags, seat belts, and any other Commission-approved devices. The Commission will be empowered to assure the accuracy of conflicting sources of information.

Seven, financing will be through an appropriate, Commission-determined mix of progressive taxation, deficit spending, program reduction, and efficiency savings. Funding cannot exceed amounts minimally sufficient to carry out board mandates—total annual amount not to exceed $5 billion.

Eight, enforcement will be through specially-funded, independent prosecutors. Full investigative and enforcement authority will cover all staff and Commission members. Severe, unpardonable sentences and fines for all violations of any provision, including attempts at circumvention, [will be provided]. Any investigations and information obtained by the affirmative board in the completion of its duties will be legally restricted to that purpose. Other communication will be legally prevented.

Nine, all Commission decisions will be subject to priority review in federal courts with the burden of proof upon the appellant. No preliminary injunctive relief will be available. If necessary, special Commission-appointed courts may be created especially to deal with liability suits arising from the mandates of the plan. In all liability suits, total court costs will be borne by the losing party. Governmental compensation may be given to manufacturers for court judgments, except in cases of negligent behavior. All Commission decisions, including mandation of airbags, will not constitute precedent for liability suits arising from manufacturer actions prior to said decisions.

And ten, affirmative speeches will serve as legislative history for the specific purpose of resolving all questions of plan interpretation.

Like the 1973 and 1974 plans, the 1977 plan includes extremely specific details about implementation and enforcement. Astute readers will also notice that it includes many provisions that would come to be known as “spikes,” or provisions designed to dodge anticipated negative arguments.

Why did plans change so dramatically? Affirmative teams were reacting to the prevailing argumentation norms of their era. While negative strategies in the 1950s and 1960s focused mostly on case arguments, disadvantages — and especially generic disadvantages — became more ubiquitous in the 1970s. This was a natural reaction to the expanding scope of the topics being debated. As Kovalcheck explains, this had wide-ranging ramifications on the activity:

Because of the changing nature of topic interpretation and the resulting multiplicity of topics, a variety of practices soon appeared at intercollegiate debate tournaments. The most noticeable changes related to evidence. An exponential growth in the topic area required an exponential growth in the amount of evidence. In the early 1960’s a debate team might he competitive nationally with as few as 1,500 pieces of evidence; by the mid-1970’s competitiveness required 6,000-10,000 pieces of evidence, and many teams doubled or tripled or quadrupled that amount. The sheer weight of evidence altered the nature of debate tournaments. Debates could no longer be held  within an hour time limit. Since they had more evidence to deal with, debaters needed time between speeches to make sure they had the right evidence. When one debater took time for such preparation, the opposing debater took even more time. After this escalation of delay resulted in a 2 hour and 45 minute elimination round at a major tournament, the debate community instituted the 10 minute preparation time rule, now virtually standardized. The additional 20 minutes of preparation time was far from the only problem created by the increasing amounts of evidence. Fifteen hundred evidence cards could be moved easily from room to room by two debaters. Eight sample cases or twelve sample eases or twenty-eight sample cases posed a new mass transportation problem. Even an amount of evidence modest by current standards required debate teams to make two trips. Debaters also took longer to set up their evidence and longer to refile their evidence and longer to put their evidence back in their cases. Ignoring the problem of judges who now read all the evidence presented in the debate (debaters can be refiling while the judges are reading), the one hour debate of past days now takes two hours, and most tournaments find it difficult to meet this new scheduling standard.

No longer prepared with specific, detailed answers to every affirmative case, most negative strategies evolved to include one or more generic disadvantages and a series of case attacks similar to what would now be called circumvention. Generic counterplans also became popular during this era. In this strategic context, affirmative teams used their plans to dodge the link to generic DAs and to overcome solvency, workability, and circumvention-style case takeouts. The combination of narrower cases and longer, more-detailed plans proved overwhelmingly successful for the affirmative.

In their summary of debate in the 1970s, Robert Branham and Thomas Isaacson explained the context for these changes:

The Plan and Plan Attacks

During the decade of the seventies plan texts lengthened, specific plan planks rose and fell in importance and popularity, and the weights and responsibilities for advocacy represented by the plan underwent substantial transformation.

During the first half of the decade, plans were forced to manifest a strong [end page 8] first line of defense against disadvantages. Three developments contributed to the enhanced role of the disadvantage under the policy-making paradigm: the virtual requirement of a disadvantage to counterbalance even the most marginal of affirmative advantages (as illustrated in the stock issues diagram above); the growing prevalence of generic second negative approaches; and the increased use and respectability of disadvantages based upon the processes employed by the plan. Each of these developments may be attributed to the ascent of the policy-making model and each induced major alterations in the nature and structure of plans.

The transformation in the decision weight of the disadvantage during the 1970s is perhaps best demonstrated through the contrast of two judging philosophy statements from the 1980 National Debate Tournament. A traditional stock issues judge who began coaching twenty-four years ago wrote: “More and more I find myself expecting the affirmative to carry a significant advantage or advantages which is free from significant disadvantages.”5 A different weight is suggested by a quintessential policymaker who debated during the seventies: “Debate is … a test of the relative desirability of the affirmative plan compared to the negative’s competing alternative.”6 Given the increasing acceptance of the latter view during the past decade, disadvantages have become the critical element in the comparative balance of systemic advantages required for a negative decision. At the same time, disadvantages posed by the negative came to be considered as comparative advantages of their policy alternative, requiring a level of structure and proof similar to that demanded of the affirmative.

This also explains the motivation for the “spikes” that became so ubiquitous by the mid-1970s:

Disadvantages lengthened and coalesced into generic positions applying to numerous plans. The effects of policy adoption upon business confidence, loss of competing social priorities for limited funding resources, and economic growth, to name but a few, became common arrows in the second negative quiver. The new popularity of generic disadvantages encouraged affirmative anticipation and an initial defense embodied in the affirmative plan. Two principal forms of plan-defense were prompted by the growth of generic plan attacks: the “spike” and the turnaround. Spikes originally attempted to modify the plan to forestall plan objections. Spikes might anticipate social spending arguments, for example, by providing multiple funding sources, off-budget status, or prohibitions of cuts in particular areas. During the 1970s, spikes also became an important first line of defense against generic counterplans, providing for state-level implementation or funding, on-going study, and even for plan reconsideration and possible repeal. The ascent of the turnaround, an argument which suggests that conditions raised in plan objections will be better avoided through plan adoption or that these conditions are in fact advantageous, was dependent upon the leap of thought promoted by the policy systems approach—a view of the negative as systemic advocates.

Branham and Isaacson’s retrospective includes an excellent summary of how evolving debate strategy has shaped plans over time. In large part, it was this passage that motivated this article series:

Specific plan provisions provide an insightful record of the development of plan attacks and defenses. Like tree rings, their presence records the rising incidence of particular genres of attacks, common defensive strategies issued in reaction against them, and a sense of the seasonal transitions inevitable in the course of these attacks, defenses, and the nature and purpose of the plan text.

Summarizing the plan-related developments of the 1970s, Branhan and Isaacson concluded as follows:

The common plan of the early 1970s, fresh with the bloom of the policy-making paradigm, attempted to squelch the still-potent plan-meet-advantage arguments of the stock issues era through the development of an administrative oversight and implementation agency with powers and independence unprecedented in political history. These “magic boards,’” as they were soon dubbed, were appointed by the affirmative team, self-perpetuating, imbued with an unwavering philosophy, endowed with inconceivable enforcement powers, and freed from the troublesome power checks placed upon real bureaucratic institutions.

Eventually, these aggressive but unrealistic plan provisions themselves became the subjects of generic plan objections. Plans were challenged for the tyrannous implications of independent and substantial power, for the broader precedents set by implementation provisions, for the use of independent special prosecutors to enforce plan mandates, and, as the decade began to wane, for the Constitutional violations and amendments required for such planks as affirmative appointment, guaranteed funding, and harsh enforcement which had characterized the plan of the early 1970s.

By the close of the decade, plan texts began to alter in response to these arguments regarding institutional process, representing the attempt to conform more closely to the structure and limitations of real legislation. Ironically, the rise and fall of the magic board seems to have strengthened the position of the policy-making paradigm, providing firm evidence of the self-regulating features of the model. The 1980s should provide the first real test for the desirability of this conformity to actual policy processes both as a general paradigmatic attribute and as the principal contemporary claim of the policy systems model.

Debate never remains static; as argument trends develop and succeed, counter-arguments are crafted to defeat them. The strategic rebalancing prompted by the age of the super-plan took a while to play out, but it eventually resulted in another sea change in the role of plans in debate. In the early 1980s, plans remained extremely long: 424 words in 1980, 389 words in 1981, and 511 words in 1982. But by 1983, a noticeable change had begun. That year, Kansas’s plan was 233 words. In 1984, Louisville’s plan was 215 words. And by 1985, Iowa’s plan was only 83 words:

Resolved: That the United States federal government should significantly increase exploration and/or development of space beyond the earth’s mesosphere.”

Iowa’s Plan — NDT Final Round: In order to enhance our ability to detect an ET signal, we advocate the adoption of the following plan to be implemented through minimally sufficient legislative means:

Plank one: Mandate. The federal government will increase the exploration of outer space by reserving the frequency band from 1400 to 1727 megahertz for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Systems currently utilizing these bands will be shifted to alternative frequencies as feasible.

Plank two: Ancillary provisions. Enforcement through existing means. Legislative intent based on affirmative speeches.

What changed? Two significant developments helped the negative counteract the super-plan: extra-topicality and the plan-inclusive counterplan. Those two arguments shaped the next era of plans in policy debate, and they will be the central subject of the next article in this series.


Kovalcheck, Kass. “Retrospective: Forensics in the 1970’s.” Speaker and Gavel, Volume 17, Issue 1, 1979, pp. 31-33.

The decade of the 70’s in forensics actually begun during the 1966-67 academic year with adoption of the national debate proposition, “Resolved: That the United States should substantially reduce its foreign policy commitments.” This topic, directly and indirectly, ushered in most of the practices and problems we now have because it permitted the affirmative, for the first time, to both define the terms and select the topic.

Prior to this topic, affirmative teams were expected to debate the totality of the resolution. While individual cases might vary, negative teams remained relatively free from having to debate limited and narrow portions of the proposition. But the topic on foreign policy commitments altered that freedom. Judges quickly perceived that it was unreasonable to expect an affirmative team to deal with the totality of the topic, and few doubted that such changes as recognizing Communist China, ending the Vietnamese War, pulling troops out of Europe, or even altering the world’s monetary system were not significant. Negative teams, then, had to be prepared to debate four or five topics, each requiring separate analysis, separate evidence, and separate plan attacks, and this multiple topic approach was the harbinger of the 70’s.

Clearly, the changes did not come all at once. Several more narrow and specific topics restrained the impulses of the 1966-67 debate year, but by the time of the 1971-72 topic, “Resolved: That greater controls should be imposed on the gathering and utilization of information about United States citizens by government agencies,” the precedent had been established. Judges now made a variety of decisions about what constituted a legitimate affirmative case, and those decisions determined the course of intercollegiate debate. The most important of those decisions was that significance was not to be determined in relation to the topic but in relation to the impact of the plan. In the past, for affirmatives to demonstrate they were advocating a significant change, that change had to be significant in terms of the whole topic area. Thus, change in education policy had to reflect on the whole of education; an alteration in police powers had to be significant for the totality of law enforcement; a reduction in foreign policy commitments had to be significant in terms of all United States foreign policy commitments. The more recent standard of significance relates only to the impact of the plan. Currently, even if the change itself is actually insignificant, the plan is judged to be legitimate as long as the results are significant. The result is that while requiring seat belt use is not significant in the totality of consumer product safety, the saving of 10,000 lives is significant. Application of wage and price controls only to the trucking industry is not significant for the whole American economy, but the impact of trucking on the economy is significant. Changing the management of our forests only affects a fraction of land use in the United States, but has a significant impact on inflation and housing. This change in judging standards broadened already broad topics and allowed for a continuous expansion of the limits of the topic. [end page 31]

Because of the changing nature of topic interpretation and the resulting multiplicity of topics, a variety of practices soon appeared at intercollegiate debate tournaments. The most noticeable changes related to evidence. An exponential growth in the topic area required an exponential growth in the amount of evidence. In the early 1960’s a debate team might he competitive nationally with as few as 1,500 pieces of evidence; by the mid-1970’s competitiveness required 6,000-10,000 pieces of evidence, and many teams doubled or tripled or quadrupled that amount. The sheer weight of evidence altered the nature of debate tournaments. Debates could no longer be held  within an hour time limit. Since they had more evidence to deal with, debaters needed time between speeches to make sure they had the right evidence. When one debater took time for such preparation, the opposing debater took even more time. After this escalation of delay resulted in a 2 hour and 45 minute elimination round at a major tournament, the debate community instituted the 10 minute preparation time rule, now virtually standardized. The additional 20 minutes of preparation time was far from the only problem created by the increasing amounts of evidence. Fifteen hundred evidence cards could be moved easily from room to room by two debaters. Eight sample cases or twelve sample eases or twenty-eight sample cases posed a new mass transportation problem. Even an amount of evidence modest by current standards required debate teams to make two trips. Debaters also took longer to set up their evidence and longer to refile their evidence and longer to put their evidence back in their cases. Ignoring the problem of judges who now read all the evidence presented in the debate (debaters can be refiling while the judges are reading), the one hour debate of past days now takes two hours, and most tournaments find it difficult to meet this new scheduling standard.

The evidence requirements have also taken their toll on debaters’ personal lives. The idea of evidence sharing was not the creation of the 1970’s. Prior to this time many debate coaches believed in the virtues of standardized files and group research. Other coaches, however, believed that all debaters should do their own work, and the 1970’s ended that as an option. Even the most diligent of debaters cannot research all the areas now topical. Even with the sharing of evidence, demands on a student’s time can become unreasonable. Assuming a debater attends only twelve tournaments a year, and that those tournaments do not conflict with final examinations, they represent at least one-third of the weekends available for the academic year. And a weekend is not enough since tournaments now take four days including travel. The academic year, excluding final examinations, has between 196 and 210 days, and this hypothetical debater

might be traveling for 48 of those clays, or about 25 percent of the school year. Now, for the remaining 75 percent we add in the search for evidence, practice debates, analysis sessions, making up for lost sleep, taking missed examinations, and then doing the normal amount of work required of college students, and we begin to understand why debaters might not graduate in four years (fortunately, the NCAA cannot ask us questions about “normal progress toward a degree”). Even if we accept that some students assume these burdens, make it to the NDT, receive their Phi Beta Kappa key, and go to the law school of their choice, those debaters who are only slightly below this standard face problems. For all of them, devoting time to any activity other than debate becomes a near impossibility.

The ever increasing amounts of evidence also brought about changes in the actual debates. Intercollegiate debaters have probably always talked [end page 32] too fast, argued trivialities, and abused evidence. Debate is, after all, a learning process. The growth of evidence, however, has increased all these problems. With more and more debaters examining narrower and narrower portions of the topic, an even greater emphasis has been given to time economy, efficiency, and speed. Most debaters, and their coaches, seek to achieve these goals by advance preparation—analysis of arguments and writing of briefs. These practices have improved part of intercollegiate debate. Some of the shoddy and incomplete evidence used in the early 1960’s would not last for five minutes in today’s debate. Debaters are much better at challenging both the results and methodology of studies. And, in truth, debaters probably know more about how to do research than they did in the early 1960’s. But these improvements have not come without a price, and it is, at the least, arguable whether the price is too high. When the amount of evidence causes debaters to strive for efficiency and speed, it also causes them to avoid the stylistic niceties that could make debate pleasant to hear. Transitions have evaporated, jargon has expanded, and the trivial has become important. Because of the reliance on evidence, debaters tend only to know what exists on 4×6 cards, and because evidence is shared and copied and stolen, the 4×6 cards are not reliable. While the emphasis on evidence has eliminated some of the shallow research of the past, it has also introduced the incredibly sloppy analysis of the present. Judges are now told that being employed is bad for you, that improved housing in the United States will starve millions in the third world, and that permitting the sale of pornography will lead to nuclear devastation. Judges may inwardly chuckle at these arguments, but few of us have not voted for them, and we vote for them because they may be the only arguments to emerge from the muddle of speed, efficiency, and evidence.

The growth in the amount of evidence, and the results of that growth, seem the hallmarks of intercollegiate debate in the 1970’s. They also pose problems for the future of debate. All universities are concerned about the future financial situation, and one of the questions that may be asked about debate is how many people it serves. The question debate coaches will have to answer is how debate can serve a larger number. Few people have failed to observe the decline in the number of debaters or in the number of teams attending tournaments. At least part of that decline has to be because fewer college students want to debate. It is not unreasonable to assume that some of the disinterest in debate is related to the ever increasing amounts of evidence required. After all, what reasonably intelligent 19-year-old college student would want to surrender all their free tune, sacrifice their classes, abandon a social life, and then spend weekends carting sample cases up and down stairs while becoming cholesterol ridden at the sign of the golden arches. Some still do, because of the challenge debate offers, because of the friendships it fosters, because of the education that can be gained. But that number seems in decline, and in order to change that decline, debate coaches may have to change debate.


Works Cited

Branham, Robert R. and Thomas Isaacson. “The Ascent of Policy-Making: Academic Debate From 1970 to 1980,” Speaker and Gavel, Volume 17, Number 1, 1979, pp. 8-10.

Kovalcheck, Kass. “Retrospective: Forensics in the 1970’s.” Speaker and Gavel, Volume 17, Issue 1, 1979, pp. 31-33.