I Have Some Thoughts About Congress

In advance of judging at Harvard this year, I felt it may be useful to discuss what I look for in a Congress round. This is more for organizing my own thoughts than tournament use (though I wish there were more, tournaments that actually collect paradigms for Congress are still few and far between), but I know it’s helpful for me to put into semi-coherent words what I think good debate is, and may be useful to those of y’all who are still competing. I know from my time in this event that there are a lot of other judges with wildly different philosophies, but this is what I like and how you can win my ballot. I’ll be putting different topics in bold so you can quickly skim this for whatever you’re looking for. These aren’t ordered by importance (or any other system), I’m just moving from topic to topic in what feels like a pretty natural flow.

Clash: One of the most important things to me is seeing how arguments interact with each other. There’s a lot of ways to make this happen, but I do want to see something to indicate that you’ve been paying attention to the round. I know that’s difficult in authorships (and more broadly in the beginning of the round — trying to pre-empt other arguments often just doesn’t feel as natural as real refutation) and I’ll take that into account, but particularly in later speeches I hope to see some kind of interaction with the rest of the round. I don’t particularly care how you interact with other speakers, just that you do.

One note when you’re refuting — I appreciate it if you explain to me why your refutation matters. It’s not just about telling me that someone else is wrong, it’s telling me what that means for the round. Explain to me how I should evaluate both your argument and the other speaker’s argument in light of what you’ve just said. That makes it easier for me to evaluate the round, and it makes your speech a lot clearer.

Also: I know what it’s like to be called last. You’ve done everything it took to get all the way to the final round of nats, only to sit there as argument after argument gets taken because the PO just won’t call on you. And now you’ve got to give a speech, and you’ve got nothing. I know the usual response is “well just crystallize,” but let’s be honest: crystallization is hard (incidentally, a good one will get you ranked high). Going over the whole debate and breaking it down into voting issues sucks if you haven’t been planning to do that the whole round. I don’t really have an easy solution to this issue (other than maybe prep more and flow better, but that’s not much use to you when you’re in this situation), but I can promise that I’ll judge those cases with a little more sympathy — especially if there’s a noticeable pattern to how the PO’s selecting speakers.

Which is a fine segue into Presiding. I like POs. Presiding is a tricky thing to get right, and especially in outrounds or rounds that break only a few competitors it’s often seen as risky. I appreciate folks who take that risk (and if you’re one of the people presiding “for the good of the chamber” after no one else stands up, you’ll have pretty substantial leeway to mess up and still get some kind of rank). I’m also more forgiving of PO error than some judges are — if you mess up recency once or twice and the error gets caught and corrected, well, it’s three hours and we’re human. I expect you to be accurate and knowledgable in general, but I don’t care about perfection. Just keep the chamber moving along, call the right people, follow the rules, and we should get along fine.

One area where I do not tolerate imperfection is in fairness. I know there’s a lot of folks who vote for a PO with the expectation of something in return, “I’ll vote for you if you give me the first neg,” that kinda thing. If I notice the PO is selecting speakers in a way that favors a particular demographic, be it race, gender, specific schools/circuits/states, or ‘circuit kids’ vs non-circuit competitors, I will not rank you, I will not award you a PO score above 2, and I will discuss your behavior with tournament staff.

Also, a special note about presiding: amendments. I believe amendments can be useful, sometimes, but for whatever reason a lot of folks have gotten it into their heads that they should propose amendments so they can stand out, or their friend who’s POing can show off how much they know about amendments, or the PO who they don’t like is forced to deal with complicated procedure and might mess up, or whatever overthought strategery compels people to do this. This is almost always both a waste of my time (which I find annoying) and disrespectful to other people in the chamber, who see time they could have spent speaking wasted on your vanity project. Obviously, I can’t stop you from amending stuff, and I appreciate amendments that meaningfully contribute to debate, but I am much more irritated by dilatory amendments than I am impressed by meaningful ones.

Back to the issue of ethics, unless the tournament allows it, please don’t use the internet in rounds. I went to high school. I can tell if you’re looking at your phone, and I can tell the difference between looking at a pdf and opening Facebook. I’ll ask to check your wifi if there’s any doubt. Don’t do it. (If the tournament does allow internet use, go for it, fact-check everything, but otherwise don’t.)

Fact-checking leads to evidence, analysis, and impacts, all of which I’m gonna group together under the general header of “content” since they’re difficult to separate. I care about good evidence more than anything else — if you show that you know your shit and can speak intelligently about complex topics, I’m going to rank you highly. But good evidence isn’t just a matter of finding reliable sources or rattling off a bunch of economic data. Explain what the numbers means. Also, cite good sources. That’s not a hard-and-fast rule, but don’t just cite Breitbart and expect me to rank you highly. There is a lot of good work being done at less-than-mainstream sources by credible authors (maybe not at Breitbart, but in general), so if you find something really good from a source that’s not a think tank or whatever, feel free to cite the author and their credentials. Almost every time, that’s what I’d prefer anyway. If you were going to cite this article, for example, it’s a lot better to say “Corey Robin, professor of political science at Brooklyn College, explains X” than just “Jacobin says X.”

For what it’s worth, that principle goes beyond blogs or news sites. I won’t consider something trustworthy just because a think tank said it. If you’re gonna cite the Heritage Foundation saying “this bill will harm the economy” or whatever, you better explain both what the author’s qualifications are and why the Heritage Foundation is saying what they’re saying. If you don’t convince me of your source’s reasoning, name rec isn’t going to carry much weight. Tell me why they say what they say, and explain why your argument is correct. If you can then compare that evidence to someone else’s evidence, or compare your impacts to their impact, or just bring in some good analysis that cleans up the debate, you’re pretty much perfect. Rule of thumb: if you can convince me you know a lot about this issue, I’ll almost always rank you.

As for how to organize all this, I’m pretty flexible on the structure you use. I think there are some things that waste time, which often means your speech is less good than it could’ve been otherwise, but if you can make it work well I’m not gonna hold them against you. For example, I know it’s a local style to list your contentions in your introduction, which I think is just adopted from PF. That never helps you and limits your time for the rest of your speech. When you run 3 contentions instead of 2, that usually doesn’t really help your arguments and often means your arguments are all more cursory than they ought to be, but that’s a personal preference. Other than that, just transition neatly, follow a clear structure, and everything should be good.

One note: I do not care, at all, about whatever corny stuff you want to throw into your intros. A couple years ago, the TOC final round spiraled into a lengthy domestic dispute somehow involving several (?) estranged wives. Do not do that. I don’t care what you do, but not that. If you make a joke and it’s actually funny, I’ll thank you personally for saving us from 3 hours of talking about the finer details of tax policy, but as a judge your intros are important inasmuch as they introduce the theme of your speech. However you wanna get there’s up to you. Be smart about it.

That brings us to delivery, which is honestly much less of a priority for me. I care more about what you say than how you’re saying it. If all else is equal, I’m gonna rank the person with an engaging delivery over the person without, but all else is never equal — your delivery would have to be exceptional for me to rank you higher than where your arguments would place you. Obviously there are limits, but as long as you’re able to speak clearly (at that “solid but not exceptional” mark or above) you’ll be fine with me.

That, of course, allows you a lot more room to be creative with your style. If you’re naturally funny, I’m not gonna mark you down because I think debate needs to be all somber policy analysis all the time (I enjoy snarky speeches), and if you want to deliver a passionate speech I’m not gonna drop you because I think debate should be a bunch of emotionless wonk jargon. Do whatever it is you feel natural doing rather than your conception of what you think the judge wants to see.

And a note on extemporaneous speaking: it’s not a requirement for me. I care about you tailoring your speech to the context of the round, which I’ve personally found easier when I just write down a few points instead of a full speech, but if you can tailor your speech to the round while still reading off your speech, I’ll rank you just as high.

In part, this is because of questioning. Questioning is something I value and pay attention to, and it’s something that factors pretty heavily into your speech score. If you can defend your ideas well, that helps you; if you can’t defend your arguments, that raises the question of whether you really understand your arguments, which is not a line of thinking you as a competitor want me as a judge to consider. As for questioners, if you ask a particularly incisive question that pokes a hole in a major argument, that’ll help you and I really appreciate people who do that. If you spend all our time on “are you aware” or “wouldn’t you agree” or “did you know” or whatever, I’ll be annoyed, because you’re wasting time, and that may hurt you. For direct questioning, this all still applies, but more.

And finally, kindness. I get that you want to show passion in your speech and that you want to do a good job thoroughly refuting other speakers, but there is a line between passionate and mocking, and if you cross it it will negatively impact your rank no matter how good your speech is. On a similar note, I’m evaluating the best legislator, not the best debater, which gives me the unique opportunity (compared to judging other events) to evaluate stuff that doesn’t happen during your speech. You can gain a rank or three if you are kind to other competitors. The reverse is also true. Unlike the rest of all of this, this condition applies and can affect your ranking from when I step into the room up until my ranks are handed in to tournament staff.

On a closing note, I just want to say that y’all are always welcome to talk to me after rounds or via email/Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr/whatever the kids use these days if you want to discuss how you did in round, what you can do to improve, or any sort of life advice (managing debate with high school, how debate’s helped me in college, college admissions more generally, etc). I have mixed feelings about the institution of high school debate as it currently exists, but I know there’s a lot of good people involved right now, and I’m always interested in helping those people do better.