Sierra Maciorowski

SCU Dempsey Cronin 2017: A Manifestation of Systemic Problems in Speech and Debate

Sierra Maciorowski
SCU Dempsey Cronin 2017: A Manifestation of Systemic Problems in Speech and Debate


The opinions reflected in this piece are solely my own/those quoted and not those of Evergreen Valley High School Speech and Debate, Nueva Speech and Debate, or affiliated coaches and members unless specified otherwise. 

The Santa Clara University Dempsey Cronin Invitational is notorious for its propensity to have a large, diverse field and lack of timeliness, among various other qualities. There are roughly one thousand eager students waiting to deliver speeches and participate in debates. The campus is stocked with judges and coaches scrambling from room to room, prepping students and judging rounds. But many problems exist under the façade of the bustling tournament several nationwide schools attend yearly.  This year, issues included sexism, ableism, and issues with breaks within parli, as well as errors expanding across other events like duo speech. The problems observed at SCU this year, particularly in parli, are representations of systematic troubles plaguing the speech and debate community.

As a parli debater in high school, I had not experienced any of the malpractices other former debaters had been talking about; I quite preferred the huge gaps of time between each debate round due to speech double entering. However this year, my senior year, my perception of SCU completely changed. The first round ended with me sitting down after delivering the PMR in a loud room stocked with several tables of yelling debaters, only to be hit with the words, “You speak too aggressively for a girl,” in a tone so typical of parent judges when delivering criticism. It was a blend of condescension and concern. Shock and horror were all I felt, and all I could reply was that my confident demeanor and loud volume was a “force of habit”.

My partner and I quickly left the round as I tried to process what had just occurred, discussing that it may have well been internalized cultural or societal biases. However, my teammates ushered me to report the incident to the tabroom, whose tabulators decided to remove the judge from the pool without making changes to speaker points or the win/loss of the round.

Despite the incident we vowed to keep a positive attitude, which persisted until the sixth round. The main problem with the round happened to be the resolution— an offensive, horribly skewed, abusive resolution. To have the affirmation defend the repeal of the Goldwater rule under the American Psychiatric Association (APA) forced them to take an ableist and anti-consent standpoint and defend a morally reprehensible advocacy that they would never defend if there had ever been another possible affirmative advocacy. But with the resolution’s inherency and wording there was no possible way that the affirmative could run an argument that was not ableist or anti-consent. The tournament’s topic writers corrected the topic two times, but did not make the simple and effective decision to strike the topic and choose something more fair and educational; or rather issue an apology to every single debater, coach, and person present at the tournament. As a human being, I had to defend dehumanizing mental illnesses and how increasing stigma of mental illnesses is fine.

. . . with the resolution’s inherency and wording there was no possible way that the affirmative could run an argument that was not ableist or anti-consent.

Many others who faced debating the resolution shared similar views. The Nueva School’s Eugenia Xu stated, “It was terrible because it forced the affirmation to take an ableist stand and forced the negation to make arguments about ableism when most teams at the tournament didn't really understand how the issue worked, which meant that ableist things were said from both sides; this kind of language is really dehumanizing to a lot of people who have actually suffered through mental disabilities.”

The presence of parent judges made it even more difficult to run kritikal arguments on the resolution or on rhetoric, which meant that the ableist nuances were being re-entrenched as “okay” and as reasonable means to obtain a win.

Moreover, obvious problems were observed in the way breaks were conducted at this tournament. SCU had 105 open parli teams and broke 32 which is 30% of the field. A tournament like Stanford, which had 124 open teams, at least went to partials, with the 4-2s in partials and 5-1s and 6-0s in double octos, meaning it broke a larger percentage of the field than SCU. This could have been done at SCU, but instead 9 of 20 4-2 teams did not advance. Additionally, SCU did not break many 4-1 teams in junior varsity parli, which is ridiculous considering they have an 80% win rate.  

The problems were not confined to just parli, however. In other events, like duo speech, biased judging emerged as a limiting factor to participants’ success.

In speech and debate alike, the problem exists where judges are not taught how to objectively evaluate students. Parli debater and duo competitor Esha Dadbhawala of Evergreen Valley High School said, “In speech, various events have specific nuances and variations that judges are not trained to look for. As a competitor in Duo Interpretation, I was disappointed to find that most judges did not have a decent knowledge about the events parameters, with one judge going as far as voting up a team because she thought the topic of a speech was "more serious and impacting", despite the speech not having any real blocking and variety, something [critical to Duo that] judges are not trained to look for,” Dadbhawala stated.

“At the point when the judge is specifically voting on impactful topics, in an event where we do not write our own speech, competitors with humorous and satirical scripts such as myself and my partner are instantly skewed out of the round. We were ranked second in our other rounds, but this judge ranked us last, putting us at 7th place, one entry away from a break. Judges need to be aware of what specifically they should be looking for and voting on, not just the general rules of the event.” The fallacies with the way parent judges were taught to judge were not unique to SCU. They occur at almost every tournament, and are just one of many parts of a system of judging, speaker points, and gender roles that works against equity for debaters and participants in speech.

The system of speaker points subjects people to an unfair ranking system that opens up space for even more bias. Targeting people on the basis of their gender or race is no way to evaluate their rhetorical abilities, arguments, or general skill within debate or speech. It is a tool exploited by judges to dehumanize students, and especially with the lack of direction supplied by tournaments and schools alike to judges, they do not know how to operate without their biases in assigning students a number.

Voting girls down because there is an expectation that they should be quieter and more submissive than their male counterparts perpetrates the most sexist and subjective evaluation of a round possible. And by the tournament not establishing a stress on equity and briefing all parent judges on how to minimize their biases and not base their decisions on things such as gender, race, or religion, incidents such as this will continue to occur in the future.

I can think of two specific solutions that can reduce gender biases within debate: either having the tournament brief judges on equity prior to releasing them to judge rounds, or requiring schools to actually discuss equity among gender and race (etc.) prior to entering judges and going to the tournament (both forms of accountability). In a perfect world, we would not have parent judges, but due to the necessity for enough judges to support a large pool of entries, we have to utilize them. The harmful effects of having parent judges in debate can be minimized if there are equity briefings before the judges are released to rounds; it reduces the effect of subjective judges who refuse to read and comprehend the judging handbook. Additionally, it shows the judges that their outside biases of gender, race, religion, etc. are not welcome in a round’s evaluation of speakers and arguments.

Alternatively, having schools keep their parent judges accountable prior to sending them to tournaments ensures that they will understand, to a greater extent than currently exists, the implications of their biases on the lives and sentiments of students in speech and debate.

The fact that people are forced out of the community due to consistently being voted down on these biases proves that they are losing out on valuable education and life experience.

So in summary, there have been three failures on the tournament’s part: not solving for the blatant sexism that took place and continues to happen, as well as not apologizing to me and the nearly one hundred parli debaters targeted by the resolution, and mismanagement of breaks. Two larger problems exist within all tournaments, that of speaker points being an abusive form of determining the breaks and quality of debaters, and the lack of care taken to educate judges on how they should be objectively judging rounds; acknowledging the existence of these issues as a community and brainstorming solutions to limit their damaging effects, however, is a step in the right direction towards equity and fairness.

The SCU tournament’s varsity parli division observed a much higher amount of these biases and issues targeting specific groups of marginalized and stigmatized people this year, due to the topic writing and lack of accountability among judges. It is the tournament’s utmost responsibility to issue an apology for the poor execution of the tournament and extreme devaluation of lives of young debaters. For hundreds of students in debate and speech, their perceptions of themselves and their futures are contingent on the way they are evaluated in round. To allow positive perceptions and equitable rhetoric to increase within the community, it is the tournament’s duty to make key changes to prevent further incidents, and the debate and speech community’s responsibility to accept and usher in these changes.

Mina Mohebbi debates for Evergreen Valley High School.