BY EVERETT RUTAN
The parli final round at the 2016 Yale Invitational was a great debate: the Regis team that placed second in 2015 affirmed against a hybrid Los Altos/Notre Dame on the motion, “THW prohibit the use of laptops, tablets, cellphones and similar devices in classrooms.” (See the news article for more details.) Whatever your opinion on the differences between East and West Coast parli, these teams were evenly matched and neither side gave any quarter. It was a classic “spread” debate where each side covered everything the other put up. You should’ve been there!
And that’s what I want to talk about, because not many people were.
BACK IN THE DAY
As a debater, I was fortunate to break at a number of tournaments, and advance to the final round in more than a few. (It helps to have a great partner to carry you!) Those final round auditoriums were fairly full, some with people sitting in the aisles. We respected other teams by staying for the outrounds even when we didn’t break or were eliminated early. We stayed to learn.
The best debate I ever saw was during my sophomore year between Boston College High School and High Point, North Carolina on gun control, probably at either Holy Cross College (now University) or at Boston College. BCHS was known to be unbeatable on affirmative, but the word was that if anyone could beat them, the High Point team, not well known in the Northeast, could. All the debaters knew this should have been the final, but the seeds didn’t work out that way, and it was one crowded classroom for the semifinal. I don’t remember much about most of my own debates after 40 years, but I remember this one.
The Yale parli final wasn’t as good, but it was up there. The difference was the room not only wasn’t crowded, it wasn’t even full—the two teams, five Yale judges, some Regis teammates, myself and maybe 10-15 other observers—in all only about half of the 70-seat classroom. Most teams tend to leave once they are eliminated. I don’t know if this is true elsewhere, but it seems common at the tournaments I’ve attended.
I believe that watching debates is essential to learning how to debate. I became a coach because I like debate and wanted to give back to an activity that did so much for me. I became a tab director and league president because I was good at it and hung around too long. But, if I had my druthers, I’d spend the tournaments judging rounds, giving feedback and looking for good debates.
Granted I’m a debate junkie. The adults who remain connected to high school debate do it for a lot of good reasons. But many of us still hanker to get up and compete ourselves. Fortunately, common decency keeps us from making fools of ourselves against teenagers who would hand our heads back to us on a platter in any real debate.
So why should you stay? What should you be doing? And how will it help you?
DEBATE IS ONE STRANGE ACTIVITY
I hate using sports analogies. As a society we spend too much supporting sports, and too little on what I consider more valuable activities like debate. How far would a debate coach get demanding three hours every day after school from his team? But the comparison here is apt.
If you’re in—pick a sport—you compete in front of your whole team and coaching staff. They watch you, provide direction during the event, take notes and maybe even video. Strengths and weaknesses guide the next practice to improve your performance and alter strategy and tactics. Lots of feedback.
Another thing about sports: competitors watch each other. Professional, college, and, increasingly, high school competitions are broadcast. Schools trade game films. Track and field meets have a lot of down time spent watching others.
If you debate, most of your rounds have just 5 observers, including yourself: the two teams and the judge. No coach is there to send in a contention in the MGC. The judge may provide some good oral feedback (which you may not remember, especially if you don’t agree with it) and may write a good critique on the ballot (though the growth of electronic balloting seems to work against that) which the tournament staff may or may not copy and deliver to you. Your coach is probably off judging other teams; even if your coach is free, they probably have more than one team at the tournament. If you break, someone you know may come to see you in the elimination rounds. Think about your debate career to date: how many times have you debated? How many times has someone with a coaching relationship seen you debate?
I’m not saying coaching isn’t important in debate: team meetings, practice debates, debate camp. But we all know of good debaters from teams with coaches who don’t know a whole lot about debate—name a football team like that! Even with an excellent coach, in my experience most debaters learn by debating. Some are born debaters, but the best debaters are the ones who have debated the most (even allowing for the reverse correlation that if you are good at something you are likely to do more of it).
But how do you get better if you don’t get good feedback?
YOUR OWN BEST CRITIC (THAT'S "CRITIC", NOT "KRITIK")
Given you will only rarely be observed by your own coach or another friendly debate professional, you have to fall back on the only alternative: you and your partner. A great debater is his or her own best critic. You should never walk out of a round wondering if you won or lost: you should know, and with a high degree of certainty. During a round you should know if you are winning or losing (and if you are winning, ease up on the other team a little). And you should know why.
This is how the real world works. You have to know when your own work is good enough, and when it isn’t. Most of the time the important feedback only comes when you’ve won or lost the case or the deal or the job, or the paper comes back with a “C” instead of an “A”. When the judge gives you the decision it’s too late for a rebuttal re-do.
Like most coaches I emphasize to debaters the importance of taking a good flow and using it to review every round. When you walk out of a round the decision is already set and on its way to tab. The only thing you have are yours and your partner’s notes, what you remember of whatever oral critique was given, and whatever shows up on the ballot sometime later. This is valuable information, and reviewing it correctly will help you develop as a debater. But that’s for another article.
Watching other debaters is one of the most valuable things you can do to improve your own critical debating skills. You can focus on taking a good flow without the anxiety of having to develop a reply and raising POIs at the same time. You can compare that flow with the flows of your teammates to see what was missed or misinterpreted. You can note things about the speakers that remind you of your own bad habits or that you might add to your own tool kit. You can compare your decision to that of the judges: you may even be lucky to hear them give a reason for the decision that you can use as a benchmark.
Observing and flowing isn’t enough, of course. You have to spend some time going over your flow with other debaters and discussing the round. It’s not just who won and why. What were the important arguments in the debate? The time-wasters? Were there any critical points where the result could have changed? What could the losing side have done to have won? If you disagree with the decision, why do you think the other judges voted the way they did? What was each debater particularly good or bad at? How do you and your partner compare? What additional information would have helped each team? What did you learn about the topic? What do you need to learn? I’m sure you can come up with a lot more.
WHY I STAY
I went to a brand new high school—my freshman year was the first year they had students in all four grades, freshman through senior—and the debate team was started that spring. We didn’t have any experienced upperclassmen (all boys school) to follow: the juniors on the team were older but they didn’t know any more about debate than we freshmen did. Our coach did the best thing any coach could do for a team in that situation: he got us to as many tournaments as he could. And we stayed for the outrounds, even though the first few years we were never in them. I learned from the best, I stole everything that worked, and it made me a good debater.
These days I stay for a lot of reasons. Usually I’m running tab so I’m stuck. At least I get a chance to watch and even judge sometimes during the out rounds. As a coach I’m always looking for good teaching examples. Students rarely recognize or apply debate theory correctly in a round until they’ve seen a lot of examples. Finally, I’m a debate junkie. I enjoy seeing a well-argued round, like the Yale parli final.
If you’re not in the habit of watching others, there’s no reason to expect they will stay for you. After all, as Yogi Berra said, “Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t come to yours.” I don’t know how common low attendance is during the elimination rounds; you can’t go to more than a small percentage of all the tournaments offered across the US on a weekend or over a year. I do think that if you make the final round, you deserve an audience and not just a trophy.
Not every round is a great one, or even a good one. But every round helps hone your listening, flowing and analytic skills, and gives you something to think about. And every once in a while, Wow! Blink—or go home—and you’ll miss it.
Everett Rutan is Executive Director of the Connecticut Debate Association (CDA), teaches parli at the Dartmouth Debate Institute, coaches, and tabs for a number of tournaments. More of his commentary can be found at the CDA website, http://ctdebate.org.