Category Archives: Coaching

National Circuit High School Policy Debate Participation is Cratering

Since the beginning of the season, it has been obvious to me that participation in high school policy debate has declined. Anecdotally, tournament fields have been noticeably smaller and fewer schools have been actively competing. I’ve been concerned about this for months, but I thought maybe it was mostly an issue with the tournaments I’ve been (virtually) attending. While some tournaments might be smaller, I hoped that others might have grown and offset the difference. Has overall participation really declined? And if so, by how much?

I decided to find out. Based on my research, the answers are “yes” and “by a lot.” Participation in policy debate has declined significantly from 2020 to 2021. And it has declined even more significantly from 2019 to 2021.

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If You Want A Glimpse At The Issues Of Tomorrow, Listen To A High School Debate Today: Revisiting Two 2018 Debates About Vaccine Mandates

One of my favorite things about being a long-time debate coach is the exposure it has given me to a wide range of public policy controversies. Jim Fleissner delivered a speech about this at the Barkley Forum Coaches Luncheon in 1995 that that I really like; I republished it here in 2010.

One of Fleissner’s points is that “an often neglected facet of [debate coaches’] teaching” is “the substantial body of knowledge acquired by your students.” As part of that argument, he makes this observation:

How many times have you heard a news report about some startling new development, only to realize that you heard about it years ago in debate? For example, the first time I encountered the notion that there were forces that might cause the collapse of the Soviet Union resulting in dangerous regional instability was in a high school debate over a decade ago. Silly academic dream-world arguments? I say if you want a glimpse at the issues of 2005, listen to a high school debate today.

For me, watching the ongoing fights over COVID-19 vaccine mandates has been the latest example of this feeling that debate anticipated the news. This can sometimes be unsettling or confounding, but it can also be inspirational and rewarding. In a sense, it can confirm that what we’re learning matters and that our research is successfully grappling with difficult controversies. I’ve been thinking a lot about two rounds in particular, and I thought others might find this reflection interesting.

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Digging Into The Debate Theory Archives: Seaver on Trans-Topical Argument and Evidence Recycling

Digging Into The Debate Theory Archives is a series highlighting “old” debate theory articles that are particularly thought-provoking, influential, or illuminating and that active debate students would benefit from reading.

For many years during the 2000s and early 2010s, the National Debate Coaches Association published an “NDCA Coaches Corner” column in the Rostrum. Picking up where David Cheshier’s late-1990s and early-2000s column left off, volunteer member coaches took turns writing articles about a variety of theory and coaching issues. More than a decade later, these articles are fascinating to revisit.

In this post, I will share Frank Seaver’s 2007 Coaches Corner article about argument and evidence recycling between topics. Written a few years before the transition to paperless debate, Seaver’s article criticizes the national policy debate circuit’s tendency to reuse the same arguments year after year even when the recycled arguments are not core issues in the scholarly literature about the new topic.

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A Hard Job That Keeps Getting Harder: The Reasons Why Debate Coaches Quit Are The Same Today As They Were In 1965

Debate coaching is a difficult job that has become even more difficult because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Last March, coaches were forced to scramble to salvage the rest of the debate season after schools and large parts of the economy were shut down. They figured out how to teach and coach and judge online, taught students to compete online, and struggled to sustain their debate programs amidst often severe budget cuts.

Now debate coaches have been forced to figure out what to do next. Some are back in in-person classrooms with inconsistent (or non-existent) masking and social distancing policies. Others are still teaching and coaching online. Some are bouncing back and forth between the two. When will in-person tournaments return? Some already have, but no one in a position of public health authority is making that decision. Coaches are mostly on their own to decide what is safe and how to continue coaching debate during an ongoing pandemic. And all of this responsibility has been added on top of their “regular” jobs as teachers or professionals in other fields.

It’s overwhelming. Anecdotally, many coaches have decided to give up on debate either temporarily or for good. Others have significantly scaled back their involvement. Coaching shortages were already a pervasive problem before the pandemic. Now, the outlook for the debate coaching profession seems grim. How many coaches will quit before the pandemic is finally “over”? How many debate programs will permanently end because they were unable to recruit and retain a committed coach?

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Positionless Debate: A New Philosophy For Determining Speaker Positions

The day before this year’s Major League Baseball trade deadline, the Milwaukee Brewers acquired Eduardo Escobar from the Arizona Diamondbacks. An All-Star for the first time in 2021, the 32-year old Escobar had appeared in 1,080 games in eleven seasons for the White Sox, Twins, and Diamondbacks. A versatile player, Escobar had played in 567 games at third base, 329 games at shortstop, 137 games at second base, and 45 games as an outfielder. He had even appeared in one game as a pitcher and another as a catcher.

The one defensive position Escobar had not yet played? First base. He hadn’t even played there in the minor leagues. But in just his second game for the Brewers — and with only a short pre-game practice session to help him prepare — that’s where manager Craig Counsell penciled Escobar into the lineup.

This was an admittedly unorthodox move for a first-place team, but Escobar seemed unfazed. “The most important thing for me is to help the team win,” he said. “I’ve never played first base but for this team to compete for the playoffs or make the World Series, you want to be out there all the time. I will come early and work at first base. I’ll be ready when they need me. I’ll try to make the manager’s job easier.”

Counsell downplayed concerns about Escobar’s ability to handle the transition to a new position: “He’s a baseball player. We’re not sending a baseball player into a basketball game here.”

The Brewers’ decision to acquire Escobar and play him “out of position” was a good example of a significant, recent trend across many professional team sports: positionlessness. Whether positionless baseball, positionless basketball, positionless football, positionless soccer, positionless hockey, or positionless lacrosse, the concept is similar. Instead of accepting pre-defined positions and assigning players to play them, coaches in positionless systems assess their players’ individual skills and design strategies to maximize their chances of success.

This philosophy focuses on what players can do well rather than what they can’t do well. Each player still has a role based on their particular skillset, but those roles don’t correspond to pre-defined positions. In basketball, for example, this approach has allowed atypically skilled and sized players like Draymond Green, Zion Williamson, and Ben Simmons to thrive even though they don’t fit the traditional standards used to distinguish between guards, forwards, and centers. Across all sports, this makes teams more versatile because it allows coaches to define roles based on each player’s skills rather than to define the skills that each player needs based on their assigned role.

It is my contention that the philosophy of positionless sports can and should be applied to debate. The rest of this article will make the case for that conclusion.

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The (Unnoticed?) Standardization of High School Policy Debate Resolutions

One thing I like to do when researching a new debate topic is to review the list of old resolutions to see if and when similar issues were debated before. This can often provide useful ideas for arguments to explore, but it also offers an interesting historical perspective on the evolution of debate topics over time.

When investigating previous analogues to this year’s water resources topic — the 2003-2004 ocean policy topic, the 1985-1986 water quality topic, and the 1970-1971 pollution topic are the closest — it struck me how standardized topics have recently become. Until relatively recently, topics tended to vary in word choice and format from year to year. Even after the U.S. federal government became the standard agent of action in the 1960s, there was still significant year-to-year variation in mechanisms/verbs. These, too, started to standardize in the 1990s and 2000s, but since 2010 there has been yet another noticeable increase in topic standardization.

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Lesson Plan: Intelligence Squared Phone Surveillance Debate

Intelligence Squared hosted a debate about phone surveillance at the National Constitution Center on October 7, 2014. The topic for the debate was Resolved: Mass collection of U.S. phone records violates the Fourth Amendment. For students preparing for next season’s surveillance topic, this debate is an excellent introductory resource. This article outlines a lesson plan based on the debate that can be assigned to students regardless of their experience levels.

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Impact Description vs. Impact Comparison: A Better Way To Teach Impact Debating

Imagine that you’re in the market for a new car. You’re looking for a crossover, so you head to a Ford dealership and talk to a salesperson about a new Escape. She tells you that the Escape is a great car because it has great fuel economy, tons of interior space and leg room, and a powerful engine. It’s a pretty good sales pitch, but you want to be diligent and so you visit the nearby Honda dealership to check out a new CR-V. The salesperson tells you that the CR-V is a great car because it is extremely reliable, comes backed with an exceptional warranty, and gets great highway mileage. It’s another pretty good sales pitch. Wanting to make the right decision, you head back to the Ford dealership and ask the salesperson why you should buy the Escape instead of the CR-V. She reiterates that the Escape has great fuel economy, tons of interior space and leg room, and a powerful engine. But you already knew that; you want to know why the Escape is better than the CR-V. Disappointed, you return to the Honda dealership and ask the salesperson why you should buy the CR-V instead of the Escape. He reiterates that the CR-V is extremely reliable, comes backed with an exceptional warranty, and gets great highway mileage. Again, you are disappointed. You already knew that the CR-V was a good car, but you wanted to know why the CR-V was better than the Escape. Frustrated, you head home to read online reviews of the two models. While the sales associates did a good job of highlighting some of the best features of their respective models, they didn’t help you make the decision about which car to buy. For that, you were on your own.

The position you were left in is the same one that many judges are left in by debaters. Most students learn early in their careers that impact comparison wins debates. Judges love impact comparison because it helps them make decisions about the relative importance of different parts of a debate. As a judge, it is frustratingly difficult to make sense of debates without impact comparison. But much of what debaters consider impact comparison is really impact description. Instead of comparing the relative importance of each side’s impacts, debaters present sales pitches for their own impacts. While this is better than nothing, it outsources responsibility for comparison to the judge. Left with two competing sales pitches, they are on their own to decide which pitch is more believable. In the same way that good car salespersons convince potential buyers that their car is a better choice than their competitor’s car, good debaters convince judges that voting for their impact narrative is a better choice than voting for their opponent’s impact narrative. This requires comparison, not just description.

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Summer Lecture Flashback: Film Study

Over the course of the summer I recorded several lectures that have been posted to Debate Vision. While some readers might have already seen them, it can’t hurt to share them again here on The 3NR. This lecture discusses the use of film study in debate — it is embedded below the fold. A written adaptation of this lecture will appear in the September Rostrum.

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