Has LD Debate Become Too Esoteric?

 

 

Article by Dave McGinnis

LD debate is too esoteric.

The skills necessary to be a top-flight national LD debater are increasingly so hyper-specific that they appear arcane to anyone outside the activity — including novices who aspire to it.

In the past two years I have had over a dozen potentially talented novices either quit debate entirely or shift to public forum because the idea of spending countless hours learning how to engage the hyper-specific aspects of debate seems pointless to them. Some of the brightest potential students are turned away because (A) they don’t have time to engage in the activity when they are also pursuing a challenging course curriculum, and (B) they recognize that much of the material they learn in LD is of limited-to-no use outside the activity.

The increasingly esoteric nature of the activity is a natural result of students and coaches pushing the envelope. LD is no longer simply an application of concepts from other disciplines. With the proliferation of camps and the institutionalization of a continuous national circuit where last year’s top competitors become mentors to (and judges of) this year’s students, LD debate has long engaged in a process of generating its own unique knowledge and meanings. Consider this list of “varsity concepts” that we brainstormed today:

Fiat, its uses and abuse

Theory spikes in the AC

Identifying and responding to NIBs

Counter-plans in LD, their use and abuse

DAs: Structure and response

Plans: How to run them, how to deal with them

Meta-ethics: Practical reason

Meta-ethics: Naturalism

Meta-ethics: Emotivism

Truth-testing vs Comparative Worlds

Skepticism

Ontology generally

Epistemology generally

Multiple sufficient aff standards – identifying and addressing

Meta-theory (and meta-meta-theory, for that matter)

Education vs Fairness

A few of these topics are of general benefit to critical thinkers, particularly those who plan to study philosophy. But many of these issues — particularly the theoretical ones — have application only in LD debate.

I think the problem can break down into three rough areas:

1) The theoretical issues debated in rounds have become so finely detailed that they are taking over the activity;

2) The level of philosophical inquiry has become so sophisticated (and in many cases, ill-conceived) that non-philosophers feel inadequate to the task of coaching or starting programs;

and

3) All of this happens at speeds of 300-400 WPM so that any non-debate person unlucky enough to stumble into a round has absolutely no idea (A) what’s going on or (B) how it could possibly be of educational benefit.

I have no problem with LD being specialized. The problem here is that the level of specification is so profound that the necessary learning curve is too steep. You can no longer generate successful competitors by starting with bright novices who learn the basics of argumentation and work their way up to varsity skills gradually over a year or two; now, a sophomore who can’t engage the meta-theory debate by November is doomed. And more novices are realizing that and jumping ship rather than waste their time slogging through the morass of necessary knowledge.

I don’t know if the problem is capable of solution. When I run it down in my head, I inevitably come to a brick wall: The increasingly esoteric nature of the activity is a result of smart people pushing the strategic envelope. Any effort at restraining this would result in dumbing down the activity. And, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to reach consensus on which aspects of the current form of LD — if any — are actually problematic. Naturally, some schools (the very successful ones) think that everything is just peachy keen.

All the same, something needs to be done. The National Forensic League has convened a committee on the “State of LD Debate,” and they are in the process of discussing this and related issues and generating possible solutions. I think it behooves the “national circuit community” to do some introspective soul-searching and see if there might not be a solution that doesn’t involve begetting an LD version of Public Forum.

Editor’s Note: Please vote in the new poll in the NSD Update sidebar about whether LD has become too esoteric.

  • Roger Ally

    LD debate is a total fraud!!! The point of a debate is to discuss an issue in such a manner as to convince the audience of the superiority of your position over that of your opponent. The normal human being cannot process listening so someone reading at 300-400 WPM. I have judged a number of these “debates”, most of the debaters never discuss the topic; instead, they meander into some abstract area of philosophy without making a nexus to the topic being debated. I had the opportunity to judge a debate on gun control, the kid never mention gun control instead he went off into an area of philosophy making a mystical arguments. When he lost to the girl who actually discussed gun control and spoke at a normal pace-he went to the organizers accusing me of being biased.

    The kids doing these debated are never taught to structure a speech for an effective presentation. They are never taught to edit out superfluous and redundant words. Instead, they are trained to be robo-speakers running their mouths at breakneck speed.

  • alex smith

    I agree and have very little to add. One thing I do want to point out is that the “at least it’s not as esoteric as policy debate” line isn’t true and hasnt been true for years. I will concede that the amount of research and coaching necessary to be successful at capital-P-policy debate (and to beat the policy teams if you’re a K team) is very high and constitutes a significant barrier to entry. But I would not call it “esoteric.” I could show one of Georgetown or Emory’s 2NRs to a smart lay observer, and that person would likely absorb and understand quite a bit of it. I don’t think I could say the same about virtually any high school LD speech.

  • Natasha

    I currently am a novice LD debater. I attended my first circuit
    tournament this weekend. Several of my novice friends and I were told to
    watch a varsity round, so we did. We came out of that round seriously
    considering dropping debate after this year. The speed and policy-like
    elements of the round completely threw us off. After all, if we had
    wanted to have kritiks and all that fancy stuff, we would’ve signed up
    for policy! I think what should happen is that there should be a group
    of tournaments, like the circuit, but with traditional LD debate. By
    this I mean value/value criterion/contention/alternatives. I joined
    debate to learn better speaking and analytic skills, and all of this
    policy jargon is completely useless to me. I think many people are of
    the same opinion, and would highly appreciate a traditional set of
    tournaments (BUT WITH NON-PARENT JUDGES!!!!!!!! WE CANNOT LEARN FROM
    JUDGES WHO A LOT OF THE TIME DO NOT SPEAK ENGLISH!!!!). Hopefully this
    high-level traditional tournament will become a reality in the near future.

    • Harvey Birdman, Esq.

      I’m sorry to hear that, Natasha. Unfortunately, there is more bad news: the “scare novices away” phenomenon you witnessed is not some side effect of circuit debate, which might fade away in time. It is the whole point of circuit style debate. The jargon and tin pot theory they read has no more independent intellectual merit than the rule book for Dungeons & Dragons. If you took a few hours to sit down and take it apart, you’d see that the logic is puerile and the links often nonexistent. They use it solely because it’s hard to respond to. Expensive camps like NSD make money –and coaches at the relative handful of circuit schools make their careers– by developing ever-more esoteric barriers to entry, then selling them to kids from affluent backgrounds. The idea–again, the whole point– is to have a small, expensive court society, where everybody knows everybody and they speak a secret language, so that a few privileged kids from 1% of high schools in the U.S. can hoard prestigious-sounding awards for use on their college applications.

      • Natasha

        That sounds about right, sadly enough. I think a way to deal with this problem would be to start a league/circuit/type of tournament that just has high-level traditional debate. No cards, kritiks, theory, or the other policy elements. This would keep the more progressive debate type from influencing the traditional. My worry is that eventually the simpler LD debate will just no longer be available. I just hope that traditional LD is preserved and made available to talented debaters who enjoy it.

        • mcgin029

          OK, I wrote the article, and even I think this is silly.

          “Harvey Birdman” — coward — calling people out from behind a cloak of anonymity. First, that something is esoteric does not mean it is without value. High theory and deep philosophy are both tremendously valuable, though they may appear esoteric to new debaters. On “debate theory” itself (ie, “A is the interpretation…”) I mostly agree with you. What I cannot stomach is your highfalutin’ snidery when you haven’t even the werewithal to share your name.

          Natasha, I’m very sorry that you’re having these troubles and I completely understand where you’re coming from. A couple of points. First, your conception of “traditional debate” is off. In the early, traditional years of LD (when I was debating), we used cards — the idea of debating without evidence is a little silly, as many arguments would then be nothing more than assertions and counter-assertions — and we had lots and lots of parent judges.

          Some parts of debate that are “difficult” are not “esoteric.” Cutting good evidence is difficult, but research skills are among the top 3 skills (along with public speaking and argumentation) that you learn in debate.

          Also, you’re making a very simple mistake in your assumption that there is some kind of wall between policy and LD debate. This is a myth. There are normative differences, and there are some obvious structural differences (time limits, partners) but there is no innate difference among any of the debate styles — they are all formalized argumentation. Defending plans and counterplans can make perfect sense in LD, just as making philosophical arguments can make sense in policy.

          It is probably not a good idea as a novice to watch high level varsity debates without the understanding that there are advanced skills involved that you will learn eventually. You would not take a Pop Warner football team to the Super Bowl, point at the players mid-play and say, “That’s what you’ll be doing next week.”

          In other words, take a breath. Be calm. There are plenty of local and regional tournaments that you can be successful at without having to deal with theory and kritiks. And on the circuit, if you do MJP well, you can also engage in debate closer to what you want to do. Finally, if you study and pay attention, you will learn that some of the things that seem completely out there now are just skills that you have yet to develop.

          – Dave

          • Harvey Birdman, Esq.

            The “coward” part was a little melodramatic, no? I mean, what could you or anyone else do if you knew my name? I use a pseudonym for my kids, not myself.

            Anyway, you’re young. Probably. Hopefully. I’ll give you a pass. Let’s talk.

            First, Dave, I’m not a competitor. I’m a volunteer coach –an attorney– who has had to explain to economically disadvantaged kids why it’s a waste of their time for us to travel to prestigious tournaments in our region. I debated in high school and college and won a lot of stuff. Just so you know where I’m coming from.

            Second, there is no “high theory” or “deep philosophy” going on in circuit debate. When I was at Harvard Law School in the mid-2000s, I actually showed some of the evidence from a Harvard elim round I judged to one of my study groups. That group included one current philosophy professor, an MD/JD who is now a bioethicist, and the now-general counsel of a well-known tech company. I’ll spare you the details, but we had a good laugh at what passes for “deep philosophy” when read at 300 wpm by 16 years olds. I assume you’re a competitor, and I genuinely don’t mean to burst your bubble, but it’s all garbage. It’s so intellectually dishonest and puerile that if you submitted it for an assignment in any decent grad school, you’d be summarily kicked out. And I suspect you know that already.

            Third, I have no idea what you’re trying to say about policy debate. It was not my intention to discuss it at all. I consider it a lost cause.

            Anyway, we’re getting sidetracked. I care less about any particular lousy, intellectually dishonest argument than about the larger issue of system design. Ultimately, the only question that really matters is whether the game of debate, as it’s currently practiced on the national circuit, is doing the most good for the people who need it most. You agree with that, right? As between rewarding the current elites and helping more deserving kids have better lives, you’d pick the latter every time, right? Of course you would. It’s not even a question.

            So having agreed on that basic criterion, we ask again, is LD debate set up to do the greatest good for the greatest number? The answer is, of course, emphatically no. The reason is, a small clique of insiders set the norms, which effectively become the rules. And when insiders set the rules (especially when they set the rules on the fly through in-round “theory” arguments), the rules will ALWAYS serve to protect the insiders and deter the outsiders. (It’s a wonder that debaters so enamored of critical theory and Marxist economics can’t seem to apply this most basic of critical principles to their own activity. When left to their own devices, people preserve their own privilege. Period.)

            Your response will be: “preserving privilege” just means the “best” kids do whatever it takes to win, and that’s inherent to any competitive activity. But remember, we’re talking about how the system should be designed, not whether the kids are acting in their own rational self-interest. Of course they are. I don’t blame the rich suburban prep schooler for reading ten blippy theory arguments, however ludicrous they may be. He’s just trying to pad his resume’ and get into Penn or Brown or whatever. I blame the adults who let this particular definition of “best” endure.

            Bottom line: the game was designed by a handful of privileged players. Yes, you have to be smart to play it well. But you also have to do a lot of stuff that has absolutely nothing to do with being smart or successful. Like comprehending obscenely fast speech and developing an “inside baseball” knowledge of arcane “theory” terms that mean nothing outside a circle of 4-5 dozen “circuit” schools. These are deliberate barriers to entry, just as surely as the history exams given to black job applicants in the Jim Crow south. They have nothing to do with anything worthwhile that debate ought to be measuring. And until circuit debaters and coaches abandon them, they are preserving their privilege and scaring away talented outsiders. (And, as in your case, doing it with the standard, dismissive: “Why don’t you try a UDL or a local tournament.” I’m sure you’re a decent guy, but seriously, that line can go straight to hell.)

            (Oh, and … As for the “Super Bowl/Pop Warner” analogy, two things. First, that’s EXACTLY what Pop Warner teams do. Kids play football PRECISELY because they see it done on television and on high school fields and can easily identify with it, even if they can’t replicate it. Which is why debate is –amazingly– a niche activity in a country that really enjoys watching people argue on TV. But second, don’t flatter yourself. It’s really easy to declare yourself Tom Brady when you get to make up your own barriers to entry.)

          • mcgin029

            Oy.

            First, re: cowardice. You spent an entire post impugning the actions and intentions of people that you don’t know, all the while hiding your identity. If the shoe fits, wear it.

            Second, you clearly know nothing about circuit debate; not about how it’s taught, or how performed, or about the people involved in it. It certainly has its problems, and I loathe frivolous theory, but my students and other national circuit students learn a tremendous amount about philosophy, argumentation, politics, and critical thinking. But whatevs; you want to sit at locals and complain about those dirty dirty circuit debaters, then Yabba Dabba Doo for you.

            Finally, economic barriers to debating are troublesome but people who really want to debate can overcome them. I hate to drag this one out again (I do so pretty frequently) but I spent the first decade of my career coaching at a city school with no budget. We worked hard and found ways to travel all over the country on the cheap, and were very successful.

            That said, the community is full of people building programs to help kids afford camps, travel, and coaching. And coaches who work to create and/or stretch a budget so their kids can travel. The difference between those people and you is that you complain and insult while they just try to make things better.

            Bottom line: debate was not “designed” by anyone. Debate develops organically, with the contributions of thousands of people at hundreds of tournaments. If you want stultifying debates, create a bunch of rules and constraints and then enjoy spending tournaments in the tab room arguing about rules violations. That should be loads of fun.

            The best attitude toward the activity is to think of yourself as a participant and work to help shape it in the way you think best. Viewing yourself as an adversary and hurling online accusations at coaches, students and programs probably isn’t helping anyone become a better debater. Or person.

          • Harvey Birdman, Esq.

            Oy, indeed.

            If you think I’m a coward, that’s fine. I’m not going to risk further ostracism for the kids I work with. If that bothers you, I won’t lose any sleep.

            Hey, did you notice the irony of your first defense being “You’re an outsider! You don’t know our ways!” I thought that was funny.

            Truth is, I know a fair amount about your ways. We make it to about 3 circuit tournaments a year, mainly for our PFers. But you’re right, I can’t keep as up-to-the-minute on the latest LD fashions as you, because my work has principally been with public school students in a poor area. So you probably do have me beat on the latest ipse dixit bullshit that teenagers are reading and solemnly declaring “theory.”

            But that’s the point, isn’t it? To keep making nonsense up and erecting barriers to entry so fast that nobody outside a few dozen mostly rich schools that comprise the “circuit” can hope to keep up? I mean, what good are rules if just any plebeian school can know what they are in advance? What good are resolutions if you can just read them and know what you’re going to debate, am I right? That would be like showing up for a football game and knowing how many players you can put on the field, rather than letting Affluent Prep negotiate with the refs (whom they know very well) about the number. And we can’t have that.

            I also enjoyed the part about how full-time coaches are better than people like me who do it for free and dump thousands of dollars of their own money into building a program. But that’s beside the point. This ain’t about us, man.

            Here’s the point: If you think debates that eschew made up, silly rules called “theory,” religious adherence to whatever butchered words can be cut into a card, or 300 wpm delivery are “stultifying,” … You’re. Just. Wrong. No one who has progressed beyond high school or undergrad debate into the real, adult world of ideas could possibly believe that’s the only way–or even a good way–to have stimulating, competitive intellectual exchanges.

            Imagine taking all the really smart people in the world, showing them a video of the TOC finals and then a video of Chris Hitchens debating pretty much anything, and asking them, “Which was stultifying?” You know the answer and you know the likely margin: 99+%.

            And these really smart people would be right. Even if you slowed the TOC round down and spoke English, they would still be right.

            They would be right because circuit debate is built around techniques for people who don’t actually know anything–i.e., teenagers. Teenagers may be very smart, but they haven’t built a base of knowledge sufficient to really fight about the details of economics, statistics, politics, history, etc. So they use speed and deliberate obscurantism to set traps and run away from these fights, rather than really engaging in them. Because at this stage of development–no matter their IQ–they just don’t have the ammunition to do anything else.

            Example: In a TOC-bid-tournament elim round a few years back, I remember a kid conceding the most absurd stuff about Justice Scalia’s jurisprudence. Stuff that’s just obviously wrong to any adult who follows the news. Because this (smart) kid didn’t have the knowledge base to fight back, he relied solely on silly, generic, kritik-y arguments (really disads) that purportedly “came before” any utilitarian evaluation. Which basically sums up circuit debate in a nutshell.

            Wouldn’t it have been less “stultifying” for that kid to actually know something about Scalia’s views, and maybe cite some examples from opinions showing how the prediction his opponent made about Scalia’s likely actions was ludicrous?

            A debate like that could be super-smart, nuanced, and challenging. But it would also be super-unpredictable, which is why you curcuiteers don’t like it. The resolution wasn’t about Scalia; the arguments just randomly evolved that way. So you probably wouldn’t have cut a card about Scalia’s opinions; you’d just have to know more stuff because you’re a well-read, well-rounded person. By contrast, circuit debaters will check down to the same boring, prefabricated a priori crap and run away from the more interesting, emergent conflicts that come up in the round. The result is both predictable–because that’s how debaters and coaches at factory schools want it–and stultifying.

            The debate I want to see would be really hard. It would be really unpredictable. It would be more likely to reward the well-read “natural intellectual athletes” from diverse backgrounds than the products of debate factories, which I’m sure you agree would be an unalloyed good.

            And when you say circuit debate wasn’t “designed,” you miss the point. It wasn’t designed by adults. It wasn’t designed by anyone in a position of impartiality. But rest assured: it’s designed. It gets designed and re-designed by 16-year-olds speaking to 20-year-olds they know from camp, in a language they made up at camp. And — as you have tacitly conceded, I think– that design will always favor the insiders and keep out the outsiders. (To a comical degree; even medieval court societies didn’t make up their own languages.)

            And when coaches throw up their hands and say “it’s organic!” they are tacitly approving of that design, just as true believers in unrestrained free markets tacitly approve of poverty.

            Your last point is that I should “help shape the circuit the way I think best.” You assume a lot. I don’t feel any such obligation to “the circuit.” You have worked to keep us out, so we don’t owe you any favors or deference. We just want a fair shot at some of those big-tournament awards to help our kids get college scholarships and deserved accolades. If real change were possible, I’d be all for remaining one big happy LD family. But since it seems very unlikely, I propose splitting LD into two events. What possible objection could you have to us simple folk who “know nothing about circuit debate” getting our own humble, stultifying event?

          • mcgin029

            You have to pick one.

            You cannot argue both:

            “You exclude me; I do not know your ways!”

            and

            “I have a thoroughgoing understanding of your ways, here is my harsh and personal criticism!”

            My point was that you *don’t* know what goes on in national circuit debate; my evidence is that your description of it is inaccurate.

            My point is not that you *could not* know about national circuit debate. Like many activities, it has its own vernacular, but if you take the time to inquire you’ll find that the patois is generally sensical. Annually my novice classes figure it all out within a matter of days.

            Show up; engage. You will find that the activity at that level is challenging and enjoyable. Certainly it has its flaws. If you want to listen to a nuanced discussion of Antonin Scalia’s jurisprudence (because, hey, who wouldn’t) it might not be for you. I do, however, wish you’d stop insulting the kids and coaches involved in the activity given that you don’t really get out to it very often.

            You have a very dark view of national circuit debate. It is unpleasant, and inaccurate, and your representation of it in the form of insulting generalizations about people who participate in national circuit debate is offensive. That’s cool, it’s a free country, but don’t let yourself believe that you are the reasonable one in this argument.

            I agree with some of your points, and there are certainly debaters who use “technical” aspects of the activity to obfuscate debate. All forms of debate can be done poorly; I imagine that, on your local circuit, as on mine, you can find lots of really, really terrible rounds. But watch some late elims and you will see a wide variety of excellent debate in a wide variety of styles.

          • Harvey Birdman, Esq.

            Okay, let me just sum up my side so this doesn’t extend beyond its usefulness.

            You seem to be arguing that outsiders can’t critique exclusionary practices because they are outsiders, which obviously creates a catch-22. Put in more practical terms, if I show up at 3 circuit tournaments a year for six years–spending over a grand per year of my own money for the plane fares, etc.–and over that time period, judge maybe 40 true “circuit-style” LD rounds, including some elims, I still don’t get to critique the barriers to entry because I don’t know enough inside baseball?

            If that’s true, what we’re dealing with is not a vernacular. It’s another language. It’s a language that’s used –not because it’s necessary for refined debate– but to keep people out. Like I said, I don’t blame the kids. They’re just trying to win trophies. But nonetheless, I have to stand up for the students I work with. I’d like for them to be able to compete for awards at Harvard and Barkley (and/or a half a dozen large tournaments in our region) in the same event they prepare for the other 75% of the season.

            I do have a very dark view of national circuit debate, and it’s one that was well-earned. I spent my first years earnestly believing we could adapt, but I’m tired of watching whole careers go by the boards because we can’t be there week-in and week-out, keeping up with the latest fads, paying for camps, etc. I just fundamentally reject the notion that any activity with the temerity to call itself “debate” should work like that. Debate should be –can be– the most democratic, empowering high school activity, period. Even at the most prestigious tournaments. Especially at the most prestigious tournaments.

            I’m not going to change your mind on the merits, so let me just say this. I don’t want to destroy your activity, and I have no interest in demonizing any individual participant or coach. I realize that most of you are grossly underpaid and have very good intentions. That said, I think the best solution is to let a thousand flowers bloom. PF and Policy co-exist, and while “solo PF” is not my ideal, I think a similar split is the least bad option for getting so-called “local” debaters out of the LD ghetto at major tournaments.

          • mcgin029

            No, I’m saying that (1) people shouldn’t critique things they don’t know anything about and (2) I know from experience that national circuit debate is not, on the whole, exclusionary. Done.

          • Harvey Birdman, Esq.

            Like white people know from experience that there is no racism. Awesome. Later, ace.

          • mcgin029

            You have a point here. I should clarify. I don’t think the national circuit is intellectually exclusionary; my evidence is that every year I coach up many novice debaters from a variety of backgrounds to be successful at circuit tournaments.

            Circuit debate is absolutely economically exclusionary and I think it’s important to work to solve that.

            I trust people of color who, speaking from their experience, say that the circuit is racially exclusionary much of the time. I can’t speak from experience on that issue but I have no reason to doubt.

          • Harvey Birdman, Esq.

            So you buy econ and race, but not all the other barriers to entry staring you in the face, affecting white kids who aren’t poor but just can’t realistically spend their lives on planes every weekend? Sheesh. Tell you what, just table the matter. Let it simmer. Consider it as one possible interpretation of the facts. Maybe you’ll see something that changes your mind. Maybe I will. And we can leave it at that.

        • Harvey Birdman, Esq.

          I tend to agree. They’re two separate events. We just need to acknowledge the separation, write a good rule set for “traditional LD” –that doesn’t permit 17 year olds to conspire with 20 year old judges to hijack it by in-round rules changes– and let circuit debate live or die as a niche event for 4-5 dozen rich prep schools.

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  • Grant Laverty

    I completely agree. It would be one thing if the strategies that are arising were providing some benefit to the activity, i.e. the theory debates were more sophisticated, or the frameworks were developing creative moral warrants, but from my experience, it’s the opposite. Debaters are running worse quality of arguments for shock value, time sucks, and confusion. Many have replied to posts like these with the simple “If it’s dumb, than just answer it.” crap, but that doesn’t answer the criticism. The problem is the esoteric nature of debate is devolving rounds into races to the bottom, defeating the purpose of “debate” for complex trickery. I would be extremely interested to see if there is a solution, but I think it has to start with the coaching. Pushing the envelope begins with the person teaching the kids to push. No one walks into practice day one and really wants to run meta- meta theory. Besides of teaching kids to run theory every 1NR, or 12 NIBS with a 6 minute long NIBS good shell waiting for the 2NR, we ought to be teaching them want Kant actually says, or why Util isn’t stupid for debate, while focusing on how to answer these dumb argument. When strategies begin to lose, they die off. We see this all the time. I know this idea isn’t exactly feasible, but it’s what I really want to happen. 

  • As a novice. I’m terrified of meta ethics. I really hope to see change in the debate community. All of this meta ethical babbling makes me think circuit debate doesn’t benefit me anymore and is a waste of time.

    • AJDOLBERG

      You should just quit

      • Josh Roberts

        As should you.

  • Dave,

    Could you add an option to the poll? I disagree with the “debaters should just figure it out” view because I think arguments are often presented in ways that are especially obscure, and it isn’t fair to expect debaters to answer arguments that they shouldn’t be expected to understand. It seems to me that the problem is often not the arguments themselves, but debaters’ lack of explanation and clarity. As long as judges are willing to vote on complicated arguments without even minimal expectations for clarity, debate will get increasingly more esoteric. This view suggests a judge-centered response that is stronger than docking speaks but weaker than a blanket refusal to vote on arguments of an arbitrary category like “theory” or “metaethics”: establish some explicit expectations for clarity and explanation, and stick to them. Debaters would then have to adapt their arguments to those expectations, and I think that would be a huge improvement.

    I think this might also answer your question about my longer article on VBD, available here: http://tinyurl.com/75edzor

    • Dave McGinnis

      I did not make the poll. Not even sure how to do it. Frankly I think it’s poorly worded. 

      • Anonymous

        What would you have done instead?

        • Thanks. Currently working on a survey to get at the demographic breakdown of people’s intuitions on these issues. Could be interesting, we’ll see. 

  • Rebar Niemi

    i’m a little alarmed by the ominous hint that the NFL might change LD’s format to combat what they see as “bad” esoterica or uneducational debate. maybe i’m just a paranoid heretic, but I’d love to hear more about what that means and is going to look like.

    it is simply not true that rigorous and niche equates to uneducational, non-real world, or useless.

    i don’t think that’s what esoteric means though. esoteric probably refers more accurately to complex and non-codified communal norms of both competition and performance (that includes speed).

    • Alec Kerrigan

      but, but LD is a VALUES duhbait!

      • Rebar Niemi

        this is nonresponsive. 

  • Anonymous

    Posts clamoring for more policy-oriented, longer debates? I think theres another event that does those things, they call it “policy debate” or something like that. Its also even more esoteric then LD will ever hope to be.

    Also, there are debaters this year that run much more *traditional* arguments and are fully qualled (and then some) to the TOC. However, the disrespect that the community shows at these debaters for what arguments they run in round is extreme. I wont name-drop, but a quick scroll through Forensics Fox would probably be sufficient. I’ve also heard debaters called “idiots” for not comprehending or being non-responsive and making simple, intuitive responses to some dumb epistemological theory that they probably dont understand themselves, If you want to stop the esoteric-ness of debate, the attitudes of certain people and certain judges towards non-esoteric arguments needs to change, and preferably sooner rather than later.

  • Alec Kerrigan

    While I believe the current state of LD is kinda weird and somewhat hard to grasp, I wouldn’t call it “esoteric”. Speaking from experience, coming from a very traditional area, it does take a bit of work to self-teach yourself how to debate the more complex arguments. Sure, I still suck at debating theory, but I don’t blame it on the big schools for running arguments that are “too hard”. Other people being rich and having the ability to afford coaches is an advantage, but it doesn’t make the activity itself esoteric. Theres 101 videos of national circuit rounds with everything from util debates to micropol up on vimeo and a wiki full of cases, so inability to have exposure to certain arguments is no longer an excuse. Hate the player, not the game.

    • Dave McGinnis

      Saying that debate is “esoteric” is not saying that it’s “too hard.” Many of the arguments I’m concerned about are just plain stupid. If you took them out of a debate context, transcribed them, and let a moderately intelligent person look at them for a few minutes, they would appear obviously moronic. 

      These arguments only function in debate because the round goes by so fast that there’s no real opportunity to assess the validity of arguments. 

      When the form and function of an activity rewards the presentation of poor reasoning in high volume, then there is a structural problem that needs repair. 

  • Victoria Riggan

    I do LD Debate here in Utah and what we call this type of LD is progressive. The speed, the plans, the counter-plans, etc; are ridiculous. Progressive LD is too difficult for Novice debaters. The Novice on my team that I help coach are all slowly jumping ship because they cannot even begin to fathom how to do this type LD. I have heard some say they should make a new event for people who want this type of LD. I agree with them.

    • The historical trend that has been seen across all three debate events is, as Dave mentioned, a tendency for debaters to push the strategic envelop. This results in traditionally accessible, slow and non-technical debate being left behind as the best debaters develop new strategies and styles to win rounds.

    • Anonymous

      It’s my 2nd year doing debate. I’m in a school where we don’t have a coach and I am only learning fro my captains. And I’ve been able to even at some circuit tournaments and break at Alta. I am guessing a huge problem is that some novices assume they can be as good as some of the best circuit debaters in a day when it actually takes years and years of hard work. To begin, you gotta just learn the basics until you can learn the more complicated things. As for all the complicated arguments, they actually help you a lot. It helps your critical thinking skills so now its easier to jot down 3 answers to an argument. Or it helps your strategic thinking with what arguments to go for in the 2ar or how to allocate your time in the 1ar. I’m really encouraging you that you don’t quit as this style of debate, although might take a few years to do well in, will definitely be applicable to the real world

  • Anonymous

    I think the problem can be broken down to two things:  the strategies kids choose to run and the arguments judges and coaches choose to endorse.

    Let’s be honest. The last few years have seen an increasing move towards meta-ethics/complicated philosophy and a move towards theory heavy ACs, the both of which are cased specifically to avoid arguing–the common thought is that a good case is one where the aff only has to answer one or two arguments and then spend the remainder of their speech pointing out how the negative didn’t fully comprehend the nuances of their position and extending the complicated framework with simplified, dime-store explanations that were absent in the 1AC. The same is true of negatives, the majority of which either opt to be exclusionary or overwhelming (we all know the side-constraint NC that is a prerequisite to the aff, or the infamous “4 off” strat). The theme, consistently, is to avoid argumentation in favor of spikes, dodges, and general nonsense that’s come to define LD. This would normally be just considered strategic–a crafty position that really encouraged critical thinking; however, as debaters continually push the edges of what can be done, the purpose of a case stops being how to actually argue one side or the other, but instead devolves to being a quest for the most obscure analytic philosopher with a meta-meta-ontological justification for their neo-Kantian epistemology, which excludes just about everything except for the one impact that an equally obscure author has managed to contrive (if, by some miracle, we are actually graced with a topic specific piece of evidence). No wonder novices don’t understand the totality of LD; that’s the whole point: to be unintelligible. The fault is not only on the debaters, however. Certainly they are responsible for writing the cases, but it’s difficult to sell people on the point that it’s good strategy to write stock positions without meta-ethics or spikes–the time tradeoff is just to good in the short run (I’d like to think that, as a community, we could realize that this is, in fact, not in our best interest in the long run, since it only encourages similar, equally-esoteric nonsense to be run against us in turn). My two cents: coaches and judges are the answer. Nuke speaks–it’s not so unreasonable to give a 26 to a TOC qualified debater if the case they read is so sleazy you feel like cleaning your ears after hearing it. 

    A few other options that I haven’t really given a huge amount of thought to include:
    1) Disclosure. A lot of the confusion over exactly what a case says comes from the fact that we are only allowed to hear it for 6 minutes at top-speed. In the interests of novices and education, it might be best to encourage disclosure with maybe an explanation of what the cards actually say as opposed to the tags, which are generally meaningless or too boiled-down to be comprehensible.
    2) Diverse topics. A problem I’ve seen with topics this year especially is that they try and cling to everything. Domestic violence would be an almost excellent topic (the questions over exclusion and offensiveness aside) if the wording hadn’t been so strained to include morally permissible. The core of the literature is about the law and rarely does the phrase morally permissible actually come up. Perhaps, when selecting topics, diversity should be looked to–an ethics topic; a law topic; an IR topic; a domestic policy topic.

  • Mathew Pregasen

    I actually don’t think this is a major problem.  

    Honestly the best way to cope up with the esoteric nature of LD is to go to camp(s).  Anything becomes a business given time, but also camps provide a gateway to tackle such things in LD, and practice off course.  
    Also, with open evidence project and multiple blogs about LD, if someone was really into debate but didn’t have the resources from coaches, camps etc.. the internet still provides them with a start in learning the “technical”  aspects of LD.  

    Further, there are plenty of TOC qualled debaters who don’t run these positions, just are good debaters.’

    Further, if LD isn’t right for them, there are other events.  There is no reason i think that LD should change to increase its participation when the NFL supplies other alternates.  Its just a distinct event.

    • Alex Kramer

      If the best solution is requiring hopeful debaters to spend thousands of dollars to go to camp to be competitive at most events, that’s a pretty bleak situation, since it structurally excludes (or at least severely disadvantages) large groups of people lacking the ability to take advantage of that resource. Yes, scholarships and the like exist, but they’re not nearly sufficient. The same applies to other alternatives. True, there are some debaters that manage to become nationally competitive on their own, absent much help because they devote a huge amount of time to the activity. It seems incredibly illegitimate to say that all hopeful debaters who are not fortunate enough to be wealthy enough to hire personal coaches or go to an established debate school or go to debate camp after their novice year should have to do an arbitrarily higher amount of work for the same measurable success. Besides, alternatives like blogs, free videos, etc. only serve as approximation of the experience that debaters can get at camps or in actual debate practices with a team; they’re not equivalent replacements.

      Also, if the final answer is “Sorry, the accessibility barrier for LD is too high for you. Go do something else,” that bites right into the criticisms this article makes.

      • Mathew Pregasen

        Though I agree with a lot of your points, i think its still not a pressing problem that degrades the quality of the activity.  

        The esoteric problems with LD are often only in the circuit, not in local debates.  If you have plans to go to the circuit and compete nationally in LD, it is only logical that you put into a key amount of work into the activity.  Otherwise LD might not be the right event.
        Im not trying to say we should exclude people from this activity, rather, it is like any other event that is specialized.  PF and Duo events require a partner of equivalent work ethic and talent, LD has its own requirements.  Further, we should remember that LD is in whole based on logic, and even debaters who are not so involved in the esoteric aspects of LD could still be TOC qualified.  

        Also this is like any other activity.  You may be a good tennis player, but if you can’t afford the trainer you may be at a disadvantage.  This still doesn’t make the activity any harder.  

    • I disagree with you.

      On your camp arguments, first, saying that the best way to solve for esotericism in debate is to make it more elitist seems counterintuitive. Why would indivduals entering debate that see no value in the activity pay money to attend camp, and those that do care about debate, the community excludes them based on their parents salaries. Secondly, what about those that drop out of debate early, we will only debate for 4 years in highschool, which means if we desire debate to be anything short of a 4 year long actvity, we need recruits. But if the structure of the activity is not appealing to those recruits (not arguing that it is, rather just discussing the implications) then how can we hope to ensure the life of the activity. Now I understand that debate is not going to die out in the next few years, that is not what I am saying, I am just saying that if debate is structured like that, we are losing recurits that could be very valuable additions to our activity.

      On the online arguments, this could be true. I’m not denying the existence of debate blogs and sites dedicated to furthering debate knowledge, rather I am questioning their value. As anyone knows who has attended camp, watching lectures online as opposed to experiencing them in person, those where you could interact with the speaker were significantly more educational. Also, these sites generally only represent a regional view of an issue, or an out-dated view. For example, if you look for LD instructional books, you will find books written old school, where none of the issues we were discussing above are even mentioned. It is all value, value-criterion type information, not ‘progressive’. That puts those who cannot attend camps, or find ‘progressive’ debate websites at a large disadvantage.

      On the TOC debater argument, I don’t think anyone has suggested that those that run the posistions are not good debaters, just what they are running are esoteric. Furthermore, from who I have personally watched/debated, these types of arguments outlined in the actual post compose 95% of what is read in round.

      Finally, on the change events argument. I think that is a terrible argument, with terrible implications. The best thing about debate (arguably) is its ability to be self reflective and solve its internal problems. Just denying that there could even be a problem, and saying that anyone that has a problem can just go to different events seems ignorant and exclusionary. The problem isn’t that everyone is doing LD, its that those that would bring value to the activity are being pushed away due to the esoteric nature of the event.

      • Mathew Pregasen

        Camps will always be an advantage, that’s that.  I dont think it matters if debate was esoteric or not.  

        However, I think this is where the local debate solves.  If debater’ don’t want to engage in more esoteric style of debating, the local circuit still solves.   Im just trying to say that if you want to compete nationally, there is always the way, though it might be harder then those who can go to camps.

        Further, i think my arguement is changing events is simple.  We are not excluding people, rather, LD is just an event distinct that you should adapt too.  If you prefer not to switching to PF or extempt or interp isnt a bad things at all, and there is nothing special about LD (though its esoteric of course).  Im just saying that this is what makes LD somewhat unique on the national circuit.  THanks for the criticism though, much appreciated especially on issues like these.  

        • I really don’t think anyone can overgeneralize local circuit debate to
          categorize it one way or the other. I live in Houston, so when I go to
          Houston local circuit tournaments, I get a nice mix of most-all forms of
          debate, including the type that doesn’t really have a flow or any sound
          logic, but merely attempts to appeal to whatever odd beliefs the judge
          might have (comparable to national-circuit debate in terms of  being
          esoteric in my opinion). But that’s just it- local circuits attract
          every type of judge.

          Also, everybody gets that LD takes work, but calling it a “specialized”
          event doesn’t justify the structural exclusion of entire populations of
          kids. It’s not just about “putting the work in,” it’s also about having
          effective work. National circuit debate is also a game of reputation,
          connections, and politics. That’s just how it is. Somebody trying to
          break into that scene who may be impoverished will have a tough time
          because A) connections are made at camps and other national circuit
          tournaments (obvious problems here for the kid), B) not being fortunate
          enough to have a national circuit savvy coach (which is likely) hurts
          the efficacy of work, because there are limits to being self-coached,
          which then C) requires a disproportional amount of work to catch up to
          everybody else (which shows the unfairness of it in the first place)
          which results in D) the dilemma of spending time efficiently, because
          I’d argue that most impoverished kids trying to break into the national
          circuit scene try to be high achievers in general, which includes having
          multiple AP/IP courses, a job, leadership in other extracurriculars
          that are also important to the student etc. All of these problems hurt
          the efficacy of the student’s work, which at that point nullifies the
          hours spent a day trying to be prepped and knowledgeable.

          A structural change to make LD less esoteric ( which once again probably
          won’t happen if people still prioritize winning rounds over including
          people in the activity) would be nothing less than amazing and
          miraculous for countless kids trying their best already.

  • Seems like this happens with everything competitive: if there’s a winner and a loser, people do stuff to be the winner, so they’re not the loser. That’s how it’ll always be as long as there’s a ballot and bragging rights at stake. Yeah, tons of arguments in LD are functionally useless in the real world (skep, multiple extinction scenarios for the most part, theory/T, etc), but I think almost everybody knows that- so the absurdity of it kinda boils down whether or not it alienates LD to an unacceptable degree, which it might very well do, but that doesn’t matter because right now- those strategies and arguments get you the ballot and bragging rights (which are perceived to be super duper important in debate). So then I’m not sure if that’s the right question, yah know? I think the real question should be whether or not those functionally useless/uneducational arguments should be penalized in debate to maybe prevent the seemingly inevitable alienation of LD, because even if those arguments totally alienate LD and do awful things etc, if they’re not penalized, then they’ll keeping being competitive and functional in LD.

    Actually going about penalizing this is probably not going to happen though, because that’d require a universal consensus among debaters and judges that those kinds of arguments (which is vague enough to say) should be penalized, but where’s the incentive to do that? Once again, debate is a competitive game and those arguments are winning rounds (tons of them). So it seems like, as of now, national circuit LD will probably get more extreme and alienating, and there’s not much we can do about it structurally for the time being.

  • Mathew Pregasen

    I seems to me that debate has its phases and extremes, and now the util extreme phase has died out and we are now in another phase.  Further, speed has its ups and downs, but overall i think it is positive for more clash in round, and the fact about novices is inevitable.  

    Further, this article contributes to the next movement/change which will just lead to another phase and on and on.  So right of now everyone has to just cut answers to next Esoteric K for harvard.  

    • It’s not so much about speed. Speed can be made accessible with a reasonable amount of practice and the increased number of rounds posted online make this even easier. Also, I hardly think we could expect an esoteric K since 1) The idea of running a K with Ballot implications about accessibility seems woefully misguided and 2) There is really no solid alternative. I think, more than anything that the purpose of this discussion is to create discussion and awareness of the issue. There is no reason why every online discussion about the debate community will necessarily  become a micro-political advocacy.

      • Mathew Pregasen

        Matt, the comment about the K was meant to be sarcastic, I fully agree that such K’s are under-developed and unstrategic.  I noticed at sunvite the topic nullification was often a micropolitical argument being run, but not with much success.  

        Id also like to point out that meta-ethics K’s and K’s of theory have the same idea behind them of trying to curve down debate, but the problem is such positions are often esoteric themselves and are extremely nonstrategic.  

  • I once tried to explain to one of my non-debate college buddies what national circuit debate was. It was like trying to explain multi-variable calculus to a fish. 

  • Woody Allen clips relevant to the state of a lot of LD rounds: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4iX6HxF-zDM&feature=related

    Based on my experience, what seems to happen is this: the non-philosophy esoterica are inadvertently created and bred by prominent people and teams by virtue of their prominence. Less prominent people and teams who don’t have the time or resources to get fully up to speed embrace the philosophy esoterica to level the playing field. This creates a vicious cycle where each side of my loosely-drawn false dichotomy learns the esoterica of the other, so the esoterica keep getting more and more esoteric which hurts everybody, but especially people who aren’t from the schools that generate the esoterica. This culminates in the tragic situation McGinnis describes, with probably no plausible end in sight. 

    Two additional notes: first, I’m as guilty as anyone of embracing (especially philosophical) esoterica; for example, I got a bid running Kierkegaard. 

    • Anonymous

      Marshall McLuhan=Korsgaard

  • Anonymous

    I have made the following argument for a few years.  The speed, hyper-technical aspect of debate, and the advanced level of nuanced use of philosophy were all predictable years ago.  As policy debate continues to involve (and become faster, more technical, and advanced), LD will soon follow.  Whether it is good or bad is irrelevant.  Rules cannot stop it.  Judges won’t stop it.

    In my opinion, there is only one solution.  Make the debate longer.  Add times to all speeches, add more speeches.  Give the debaters more time to resolve the issues.  The rebuttals will be more focused on key issues.  Those that think the debaters will use the extra time to make even more levels of argumentation can look to policy debate as a model.  When policy moved from 4 minutes to 5 minutes in the last 4 rebuttals, many were concerned that it would add more arguments to the flow, making the debate harder to resolve and lowering the quality of the argumentation.  The exact opposite happened.  The overviews became longer, not the line-by-line.  I think the same thing will happen with LD.

    LD rounds will be better if the rounds were longer.  However, it could end flighting, since we may not be able to fit 2 flights of LD in the same time slot as a single round of policy.  At some tournaments, this would result in fewer entries.

  • I miss util debate. Someone please run a criterion of net benefits, the latest Cummiskey ev, and an “Israel strikes” scenario. It’s a dying artform!

    • That becomes esoteric on an entirely new level in terms of engaging in Plan, Counterplan and Disad debates dominated by evidentiary shitstorms and highly technical weighing and evidence comparisons. Also the use of meta-ethics as a strategy means that util debaters still need to be able to engage complex positions.

      • Hamilton Bloom

        Let’s be honest, even at its most esoteric, the LARP debate was nothing compared to how esoteric debate is now.

      • Dave McGinnis

        At least when LARPing you can outweigh. The standards debates are so complex now that it is often very difficult to even figure out at the end of the round what counts as an “impact.”

  • Breaking news: debate can be glorified intellectual masturbation.

    I have to say, I noticed this even when I was in high school. Sure there might be some students who truly understand the authors (particularly the philosophers) that they are carding, but the vast majority probably do not. It always seemed funny to me how freely people would card obscure texts which scholars spend their lives analyzing. I was certainly guilty of this. There are some coaches that I have in mind who really teach their students these subjects well, but let’s be honest, it’s only a handful.

    There’s no way to avoid this sort of practice and in some ways it can probably be a good thing i.e. exposure to these texts isn’t bad…I’ll be interested to see what “solutions” the committee puts forth. Granted, they will probably accomplish very little.

    It just strikes me as funny that some things never change.

  • I disagree that the activity as a whole is esoteric. Granted, I have a small sample size of the nation as a whole, but the TFA circuit in Texas remains very diverse in terms of all of the “varsity concepts” you have listed above. At the same, however, even if it is esoteric, I don’t see the problem. Does it take extreme amounts of time, effort, and intelligence to be successful on the national circuit? Of course. That’s a no brainer. This applies to wanting to succeed at anything with varying levels of difficulty. If a student wants to make an A+ in an Advanced Placement course, they have to invest significant time and effort along with being extremely gifted and intelligent. If students aren’t smart enough or aren’t willing to put in the effort, they can take Honors or “on-level” courses. If debaters aren’t smart enough or talented enough or they don’t want to put in the requisite time and effort to succeed on the national circuit, then they can compete on a smaller, more localized circuit where the “varsity concepts” listed above are not as important. At the end of the day, there are a select few students who can compete at the level the TOC requires — that doesn’t mean it’s esoteric, it just means it’s challenging.

    Not to mention, this evolution is inevitable in any competitive debate event. I suspect Public Forum will eventually get faster and more “hyper–specific” just as LD did over the course of 2 decades. The same evolution happened in Policy debate. Debaters will continue to push the strategic envelope in their attempt to win the ballot.

    • Dave McGinnis

      I agree that local circuit solves back to a degree. 

      But the policy example is telling. At the same time that policy became hyper-specialized, the level of participation nationally took a nose dive.

      Finally, if the issue were simply a matter of debates becoming better, I wouldn’t have a problem. But “more arcane” does not equate to “better.” Particularly in terms of theory, the hyper-competitive atmosphere is certainly generating a race, but it is not always a race to the top.

      • Jared, I think the point isn’t so much that being successful on the LD national circuit is challenging (It would be a separate issue if it was not), but rather that it has become almost prohibitively esoteric and specialized for anyone who is not a “debate insider.” I was fortunate enough that, even though our school didn’t have an LD program prior to my freshman year, my school has a decent a policy program that was able to introduce me to certain concepts. However, the time investment required to grasp concepts necessary for high levels of competitive success is astronomical without somebody to consistently work with. I have a full IB schedule and I barely manage to have a 3.0 Unweighted GPA and am 40th in my class. However, unlike what one would expect, I don’t waste much time just messing around. I spend my time working, reading and studying to understand the complex body of knowledge necessary for the national circuit. I agree with Dave and Jared that this is the result of intelligent kids doing whatever they can to win and similarly don’t see a solution. As much as I hate to say it, the state of debate seems to parallel the state of the music industry; people who have lots of natural talent are easily forced out due to the nature of the game. As sad as it is sometimes, there also isn’t much we can do about it without severely impacting the quality of debate rounds.

        I also think the issue of the local or traditional circuit is incredibly complex and doesn’t necessarily avoid the problem’s mentioned, it just shifts them. If you look at local circuits which contain one or two schools with national circuit success, those schools tend to also dominate local circuits and introduce a steep learning curve on those circuit’s as well. It also sort of bothers me that the only solution we have is the equivalent to saying telling people that basically they aren’t good enough to play with the big boys. (Not to say that the local circuit is actually inferior, but this is undeniably the general feeling I get from talking to people in the circuit community)

        • While I think the “debate insider” argument is true to an extent, I don’t think it’s an insurmountable problem. It goes back to the discussion on the other thread about elitism in debate. The kids I coach now were far from being “debate insiders,” but they’ve been able to rise above that this year with coaching and dedication.

          • Jared, The key there is that they were able to rise up with coaching. While I wouldn’t think to discredit their hard work and dedication, I would be willing to bet that without your help they would not be nearly as successful as they are because of you. While I understand that this is almost universally true in competitive activities (Athletics for Example), it seems to be even more true for debate. In activities such as athletics, a coach can run drills, design plays etc. However, without a solid coach these activities are not prohibitively specialized or esoteric.

            There are, of course, exceptions to this rule and I recognize that some individuals have put in the insane amount of work and dedicated necessary to achieve high levels of success. I am just worried that debate has advanced to the point where it takes absolute dedication at the expense of other activities.