10 Bits of Advice to Indian (and other) College Debaters

The following was written by Eashan Ghosh, who represented NLSIU, Bangalore at debates between 2008 and 2010, including two (now) UADCs. He completed his BCL in law from the University of Oxford in 2011 and has been CAing debates and training debaters off and on at institutions across in India since then. He’s currently practising and teaching intellectual property in New Delhi.

Ed: This was initially posted on Facebook group for Indian Debaters, called Debate Lokpal. It however applies to debaters everywhere.

Dear all,

This group is a fantastic initiative. It also isn’t, for whatever reason, addressing things that some active college debaters have sought my advice on over the past few months, so this is my entirely too lengthy effort to address some of those things.

(I’ve gone with the listicle title because nothing else comes to mind at the moment, so please understand that this isn’t even “advice” in the full, serious, imperative connotation of the term — more like a list of friendly suggestions from an oldie who wants to see everyone get the most out of debating.)

Here goes.

1. Read.

I know this speaks to a personal preference I’ve made clear to several debaters in no uncertain terms in the past but the single best thing I ever did in debating was shut myself away from it for six months and read about the kinds of topics that come up in debates. If you’re familiar with the type of material that comes up in debates, you’ll only ever feel really inadequate in a debate room around people who know significantly more than you or people who sound way more convincing than you do. Reading broadly, deeply, critically and outside your comfort zone goes a long way to solving both problems.

You’ll be astonished at how much more convincing you sound when you know what you’re talking about inside out and you don’t fear being asked a searching, attritional question about it. Something else starts to happen, too — as a speaker, you start winning close debates that you were losing before, as a judge, people start listening to you longer and more intently. Plus, the air smells sweeter, food tastes better, you start getting laid more frequently etc.

Reading is a habit that has stuck with me and, entirely unconnected with the debating project, has helped me strike up a variety of fascinating conversations with some wonderful people over the years — it really is the gift that keeps on giving.

2. Find a strong motivation to debate and revisit it when things aren’t going to plan.

Debating gets depressing on occasion regardless of your skill level — you’ll need a pretty powerful pick-me-up from time to time. Equally, there’s a strong tendency, sometimes among others and often within yourself, to equate how good you are as a person with how good you are at debating. You need to resist this by reminding yourself of why you got into it in the first place and funneling your emotions through your motivation.

If you do end up quitting — whether you made good on your motivation or not — be glad you gave it a shot. If you stick on, it’s not a bad idea to re-evaluate your motivations and targets over time. It’s a tricky thing, this alleged art/science of convincing people — there’s always room to get better.

3. Dedicate as much time as possible to creating a strong debate culture within your institution.

Old people glorify the past — it’s what they do. They do it by having access to a data set (the past) that you don’t, so (a) you shouldn’t take it as a reflection on yourself and (b) even if they sound super convinced that current standards are falling, that’s neither here nor there as far as improving yourself going forward is concerned.

If there is a problem that’s magnified recently, it is that, because there are so many tournaments, a lot of people are learning to speak and judge at tournaments rather than in practice sessions or any other safe space where they’re less likely to get torched for taking a PoI at the wrong time, or something.

I’m going to stick my neck out and say that this is a bad thing. Tournament-readiness is important for securing individual commitments, for confidence levels, even for institutional reputations. You can do tournament-readiness a million different ways that people more qualified than myself can advise you on. However, do try to identify teams/squads early in the academic year, prioritize teams with tournaments coming up, devote more time to real-time prep and practice rounds (debate sessions everyday, twice on a Sunday, whatever works), find out what people are struggling with and plan training sessions on specific aspects of judging and speaking, get external help if you need it, plan these sessions out in advance so that people can block dates and put some serious thought into what tournaments to target (more on that last one later).

It’s really hard to control outcomes at tournaments outside your institution, so it makes sense to make debating fun within your institution. You’ll learn loads about each other and yourself, you’ll offer an avenue for expression for people who like debating but don’t want to participate in tournaments and you’ll build the basis for a special type of camaraderie for those who do take the plunge with you and travel to a debate in another institution, another city or another country. All those things are priceless.

4. Respect judges.

Judges are just as critical to the debating process as speakers are and don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise. If you’re learning to judge, it’s a good idea to read as much as possible, use prep time to think about the topic and present feedback as you would in a conversation with people you know. Maybe I’m just being old and cranky but I find this new thing of delivering feedback in a format where it’s virtually indistinguishable from a debate speech pretty ghastly.

Instead, try and develop a way of saying the same thing in a conversation format, listen to people around you, see what works with their style and what doesn’t, discuss scoring with other speakers and judges to get a sense of what that tournament’s good/average/bad is, develop a routine that works, don’t be scared to share your thought process with the teams, pay careful attention to the words you use and do your best to involve all the speakers in the room in what you’re saying.

Above all, know that there’s an intangible genuineness that emanates from a judge who does her job thoroughly, thoughtfully and with conviction. It’s a genuineness that speakers simply can’t access because their role as turncoats doesn’t allow for it. And while I get that judging is a competition too, please know that this genuineness disintegrates pretty quickly the moment you demand to know from a team how much they marked you.

5. Take control of your own tournament.

One of the things that encouraged me to go to debates all over the country was how each tournament had its own quirks and styles of organization. A lot of this was because the judges and CAs were largely in-house and had styles, knowledge-bases and expectations that were diverse and challenging.

The last few years have seen a small pool of people get picked to CA a large number of tournaments. The effect is that these tournaments start to become alike. A lot alike. From the perspective of a newbie institution, this reliance is understandable. However, a lot of institutions with lots of extremely competent judges still invite external CAs and I’m not sure why this is.

More importantly, though, assuming this reliance on external CAs has some value, I’m shocked by how much control is routinely ceded by org comms to the CA team, to the point where setting up rooms and organizing break night are virtually the only visible things that some org comms do.

You’ve got to change this. That ginormous, usually hideous flex banner that YOU put up with YOUR own hands, that YOU got printed, with the sponsorship money that YOU raised, with the permission of the admin that YOU dealt with, carries the name of YOUR institution. It’s not the CA team’s tournament — it’s yours. This means that you’ve got to have a clear idea of what you want the CA team to do and what they need to keep away from and tell them this in advance. It necessitates appointing a CA team that’ll turn up for all the days of your tournament, that’ll commit to doing so well in advance, that’ll meet your org comm and tabbing people and so on and have the substantive side figured out so that you’re not pulling topics out of thin air at the last minute.

It also means that you’ll have to be blunt if they’re not doing what’s expected of them. That can be hard to do but the external CA moves on to the next tournament but you, in most cases, don’t get to organize your own tournament again — whichever way you slice it, you’ve got way more to lose.

6. Pitch your organizational efforts to the average participant.

A sample of the profile of people who comment on and, indeed, constitute this group confirms that there’s developed this dangerous tendency to focus on just the people you know. I see this happening a lot with tournaments these days — there are schedules, participation criteria, topics and general shenanigans specifically designed to please/entertain people best known to the org comm/CAs and the people likely to break (the two frequently being overlapping categories).

But think about it — you usually break less than half your teams and judges, so the people who constitute the average participants at the tournament are people who turn up, do the prelims and go home, basically. Think of them. Ask if there’s anything you can do to make their tournament experience better. Imagine yourself as a fly on the wall of their next debate meeting and wonder what they might be saying.

Do yourself a favour and talk to someone you don’t know, find a way of sending good judges to ‘bin’ rooms when possible, take some time and listen to feedback from someone you know might not make the judge break. You might just learn something.

7. Mistakes happen.

It’s astonishing to me that, for a community where how much you drink/smoke, how much you party and how little you sleep at a debate tournament is seen as such a badge of honour, debaters are so intolerant of consequences of these lifestyle choices that are statistically irresistible — a lack of concentration, a lack of coherence and, inevitably, mistakes.

Once a mistake has happened — whether you’re a speaker, judge or organizer, whether the mistake affected someone on debating merits or otherwise — you’ve got to be honest about it and, if the situation demands it, apologize. I think it’s deplorable that so much conversation around debating has, in the name of accountability, become this awful and insulting exercise of nitpicking stuff to vanishing point to find the tiniest error so that you can hit someone else over the head with it.

Equally, though, I retain the optimistic belief that there’s a large number of debaters that would accept and forgive genuine mistakes by a speaker, by a judge, even by a tab team. If you know you’re wrong about something that adversely affected someone else (a bad decision, a tab error, an unwarranted remark or insult during or after a debate) and continue to defend it stubbornly because you’re afraid it’ll show some sign of weakness or hurt your credibility, you’re probably crossing a pretty bright line into unacceptability.

Just put up your hand and say sorry. It’s really not that hard. And it certainly doesn’t make you any less as a person or debater — in fact, it might just make you better.

8. Pick your battles.

Please recognize that, while disguised as a basic minimum, a lot of material on this group is quite idealistic. With that idealism comes the inevitability that most debates you go to will fall short on some parameter.

So if there are, say, some key elements to a tournament — dates, accessibility, your level of preparation, the availability of your teammate(s), quality of topics, competition, fairness of judging, efficiency, hospitality and so on — you’ve got to decide how much you value each of those elements. You also need to accept that others (including entire org comms) will value those elements differently. That’s absolutely fine — it’s a free country, let them be.

You’ve got to figure out what you want to value, and once you do, find out as much as you can about tournaments around the world. You’re incredibly lucky, in that this information is far more easily available to you through forums like this than it ever was to us. I can’t tell you the number of times I finished day one at a debate and wanted to go back to college the next day because literally anything would’ve been better than going back to that tournament. There’s a very real mental toll that bad debate tournaments take on you and there’s no amount of deemed attendance in the world that can sweeten the deal. Be smart about the tournaments you go to.

9. Be fearless.

For all this obsession with “rep bias”, debating is often a fantastic equalizer. There are no rules that say that a junior can’t beat a senior or that an unfancied institution can’t produce better judges than a more fancied one. Key to making these glorious stories happen, though, is striking that balance between being respectful where it’s necessary and being fearless when it’s essential.

I might be wrong but I get the sense that, once you’re at home in a debate room, the great thing about it is that there are few totally unforeseeable outcomes that naturally attach to debating that would ordinarily provoke fear. Of course you could get marked down or lose the round, of course you might give terrible feedback or a terrible speech, of course it’s possible that someone might be mean to you — but you probably knew that anyway, and nothing stops any of those things from happening to other people in the room. It’s a license to just be yourself and go for it.

Outside the debate room too, it’s essential that you speak up and that you ask debaters questions you have about debating, whatever their experience level, whether it’s here or elsewhere. Few debaters will ever say they don’t know about whatever you’re asking them — it’s what makes them debaters. And if someone refuses to answer a genuine question you’ve asked them nicely, tell Ambar and then go to the top right hand corner of this page, tap ‘Notifications’ and click the ‘Follow Posts’ button.

10. Engage responsibly.

Read a draft post back before you put it up on this group or any other debate group and ask yourself if you’re helping the discussion and/or if you have a question someone on here will be able to answer. If it’s neither of those things, and given that debaters, who defend one side of a controversy based on the flip of a coin, are remarkably obstinate people when it comes to talking about debating itself, you’ll probably end up typing a lot of words without achieving anything, much like this sentence. For good reasons or bad, that’s the way it is, so try and be constructive.

Let me just conclude by saying that it’s a great time to be debating — there are an unprecedented number of people with tremendous enthusiasm and ability involved in college debating across the country today and, from my limited experience, there are some fantastic school kids coming through in the next few years as well.

Here’s hoping forums like this are used to encourage people to take up the activity, to help each other out and to take pride in the achievements of all Indian debaters.

All the best to all of you.