My name is Richard Dunn. I am a Lincoln-Douglas debater from a school in Southern California with a small debate squad, and an even smaller LD team. This past weekend I attended my first TOC bid tournament, the Victory Briefs Tournament at Harvard-Westlake. Although I went 3-3 and did not break, I can comfortably say that the experience I had at the VBT made it one of the best debate tournaments I have ever attended. I am writing this article not just because I want to applaud everyone who makes this circuit so great, but also because I want to offer the LD community a unique perspective on the state of the national circuit.
In the days leading up to the VBT, my hopes of getting a positive reception at my first national circuit tournament were not high. I had heard stories of strong elitism on the circuit, and wondered if I would be regarded by judges and competitors as an outsider because of my low national profile. However, this could not have been farther from the truth. I engaged in some meaningful debate-related talks that could never be possible on the local circuit. For example, I spectated a round in which the negative team ran a well-developed, topic-specific kritik. After the round, both competitors, the judge, and I had a productive discussion about the implications of the kritik, neo-liberal argumentation, and the role of pre-fiat arguments in LD. Furthermore, the debater then disclosed the kritik on the NDCA wiki, so I was able to peruse the literature and actually increase my level of topic education.
The national circuit finds its strength in its educators. On the local circuit, every round involves a struggle to get the judge to disclose the ballot decision; feedback and comments are extremely rare, and largely are not helpful because of the generally poor quality of judging at these tournaments. But at the VBT, every round was immediately followed with a judge disclosure, as well as an in-depth RFD and feedback session. It was commonplace for debaters to ask questions about speech time allocation, speed and clarity, and general ways to improve. Additionally, discussion was by no means confined to the walls of the debate round. I was amazed at how well everyone seemed to know each other; I often saw judges, coaches, and debaters from completely different parts of the country casually talking to each other in between rounds. The value of these conversations- both post-round instruction from the judge and out-of-round discussion- cannot be underestimated. I can say with the utmost confidence that I am a much better debater after the VBT than I was before.
However, the positives of the national circuit do not come without a few caveats. It is worth noting that for better or for worse, circuit LD has become completely inaccessible to parents, school administrators, and other “laypeople”. For these individuals, the rapid rate of delivery is the first non-starter. But even moving past that, I know plenty of laypeople who are repulsed by the constant barrage of far-fetched nuclear war scenarios, the esoteric theory debates, and the jargon-filled language that debaters use (but don’t get me wrong, I too did all of these things at the VBT). Nevertheless, with all this being said, I do not believe this is a bad thing. Debate at the highest level is a technical, esoteric activity by nature, and the national circuit should not try to reform itself for the sake of appealing to these individuals. Still, the community should be careful before eagerly shutting out laypeople, because there’s more to this situation than meets the eye. Parents and schools are the agents that pay for all debate-related expenses. Because of this dynamic, there is one solution that I offer in particular. It may not seem like much, and it may be relatively “non-unique” if some debaters already do this, but I cannot understate the importance of showing appreciation to the people who make the experience of national circuit debate possible. If you are a debater who goes to a school that pays for all your debate-related expenses, you have an obligation to give back to that school and that debate program, even if it is simply in the form of something like helping future debaters learn the activity after you graduate. If you are a debater whose parents pay for the traveling, entry fees, and other costs, then likewise you also have an obligation to show a profound appreciation to your family. Mention the research you are doing, have discussions about some interesting points of the topic, and keep them engaged. It may not seem like a profound gesture, but letting the benefactors of this activity know how much their contributions mean is an important step to ensuring greater accessibility to circuit debate.
The national circuit has plenty of features that make it truly remarkable. Competing at one tournament on the circuit was more educational than attending an entire semester’s worth of tournaments at the local level, because of the advanced level of the competitors, the information exchanged out of rounds (including the disclosure of cases on the NDCA wiki), and most of all, the amazing quality and dedication of the educators judging rounds. I look forward to returning to this “debate tournament heaven” the next time an opportunity presents itself, but until then, I wish everyone the best of luck with the rest of the season.