Head 2 Head: Is the Judge an Educator?

This is NSD Update’s Head to Head! Two people will argue back and forth on a controversial debate topic. They are presented with word restrictions and limits on time for when they must submit their responses. The winner will be declared upon the posting of the next “Head to Head.” Vote and let us know who you thought won!

Last time, Wesley Hu and Adam Brown went to head to head on the topic of whether or not Fairness is key to engagement. This was then covered on Episode 1 of our podcast Hutt Up or Shut Up.  On a 97-47 decision, Wesley Hu was declared the winner!

This week, in a Lab Leader v. Labbie battle, Salim Damerdji and Alex Wurm face off on the following topic (recreated below as given to them):

Is the judge an educator

This is based off of the previous year’s dialogue between David Branse’s “The Role of the Judge” and Ben Koh and Rebar Niemi’s “How Do We Reach These Kids?: An Affirmation of Polyvocal Debate” concerning the nature of the role of the adjudicator. Examples of topics include whether the debate round is a pedagogical space or purely a game? Does the judge have any obligation beyond the evaluation of the flow and to cast a ballot? etc.”

Alex will be arguing that the judge is an educator, and Salim will be arguing the latter.

Alex Wurm: 

First, I’d like to thank Salim for having this debate with me; after two years in his lab, It’s great to have this discussion that affects the entire debate community.

The typical argument against the role of the judge as an educator is that they do not have jurisdiction to change the rules of the game (usually a football analogy), but this analogy mischaracterizes the role of a judge. While debate is a competitive activity, the debate space is intrinsically educational, which is why we host tournaments in a university setting. Unlike referees, judges are people debaters will speak with out of round and may talk to about personal information. It is largely accepted that judges must maintain a safe space for debaters to compete in; thus, the judge acts as an engaged facilitator, not an objective evaluator. Debate judges; therefore, should be viewed as teachers, not officiators.

Accepting this premise, the following analogy clarifies why it is within the powers of a judge to vote for the debater who offers the more educational arguments:

In the classroom, students are graded based on the content of their writing. While all students are given the same prompt to prove/disprove, the grade a student receives is based on HOW they do so. If a teacher believes a student worked especially hard to bring a unique and relevant perspective into the assignment that made for an interesting essay, no one would disagree that the teacher can (and should) give that student extra credit. The automatic objection to this analogy will be that school does not replicate the competitiveness of debate; however, all students are in constant competition for the best grades. If a student’s essays address topics that the teacher believes are especially important, the extra credit that student receives may be what earns them an A over their peers.

Similarly, if a debater’s arguments bring an important issue to the table and effectively tie it to the resolution, the judge can reward that debater by attributing greater value to their arguments.

This analogy does not mean the judge’s sole obligation is to foster education; obviously there are constraints such as affirming/negating the resolution and speech times that I do not reject. However, within the confines of these basic rules of debate, the judge serves the role of an educator. In the same way that a student writes an essay and answers the prompt in order to get a grade, a debater uses the resolution to structure their argument, and the educational value of the argument determines the quality of their debating. For the judge to be an educator, they do not have to change the rules of debate. While a student may write an essay with beautiful syntax, if their essay is bland it will receive a bad grade. The judge does not have to decide in round that the rules of debate should prioritize education; “being the better debater” should already take into consideration the educational value of an argument.

Lastly, the issue of subjectivity with education is inconsequential. Debaters adapt to judge’s paradigms every round and pref judges with whom their style of debate aligns. Mutual 3’s aren’t exciting, but they’re a reality debaters have to deal with. If two teachers grade essays differently, you write different essays for them. Similarly, two judges or debaters might value different types of education, so you adapt your strategy for the round. “Being an educator” does not mean selecting one topic as important and only voting on arguments related to that topic, but rather fostering an environment where debaters can learn and discuss effectively. This means rewarding those arguments that create such an environment.


Consider how strange it’d be if judges were educators: one summer after graduating high school and a teenager becomes an educator, no certification process needed. If judges are educators, the term “educator” loses its meaning.

To confuse a judge for an educator is like confusing a soccer referee for a personal trainer. Judges promote learning just as referees promote personal fitness: as a side-effect of performing their actual roles as judges and referees. If a rogue soccer referee started rewarding teams that hustled more (rather than the teams that scored more goals), we would rightfully think she deeply misunderstood her role as a referee [1].

Alex concedes rules constrain LD and that debaters must affirm/negate the resolution. I’d phrase this differently: as the names of each role suggests, affirming or negating the resolution is the objective of each side [2].

This is why I reject Alex’s analogy. Expressing an interesting perspective is the objective of essays, so rewarding essays for being interesting is non-controversial. Having an interesting perspective, however, is not the objective of debate, so it’s not the metric by which we evaluate good debating. If the affirmative cannot defend her fascinating AC against a boring negative, would there be any question who won? Would Alex nevertheless calculate the educational value of every argument employed, sum them all up, and vote for the debater with the greater total score?

Such a process would be subjective. If judges must evaluate the educational value of every argument, their political biases will affect who wins. It’s an open secret that LD judges span the political spectrum between moderate liberals and anarcho-communists. Discourse Ks with microscopic impacts have become voting issues while politically conservative buzzwords are rarely given the same reverence. Even if LD should promote education, having judges view themselves as educators, not adjudicators, undermines education by creating a race to the left. Echo chambers don’t foster critical thinking, and it’s not real-world to discourage students from exploring half of the political spectrum.

Education is subjective in another important sense. I have no pretenses that studying philosophy is the best education absolutely, but it is the best education for me. I simply don’t find other subjects as fulfilling, and my disinterest in biology makes me a worse biology student. It’s a fallacy to think there is one optimal form of education. We need a diversity of extracurricular activities to meet every student at their interests. Coincidentally, LD is a values debate, and that’s where we meet students. Viewing the judge as an educator enables students to exclude or diminish the value of philosophical frameworks as TJFs and Ks do virtually every round. This suggests LD does more to optimize education across extracurricular activities by differentiating itself from alternatives like policy. In particular, topic debate would guarantee a home for framework debaters.

But I want to maintain further that LD need not be in the business of maximizing education. If our activity is reasonably educational, and many of us find ourselves wed to the benefits of topical values debates, what more must be said? It seems unreasonable to occupy this activity and force students who desire topical debate to adapt [3]. Such a logic taken to its extreme would justify occupying math club and asking them to become policy debate. Some might call this fascist [4]; I’d settle for “unreasonable.”

Judges are people, hopefully good people, so in extreme situations we can always take off our judging hat and put on our concerned person hat. This is perfectly fine. The rules of monopoly don’t need an additional rule saying, “Btw, if there’s a fire outside, feel free to put it out.” Rather, if you saw a fire outside, you just have strong enough reasons to stop playing monopoly. For this reason, no conception of judge jurisdiction needs to include explicit exceptions for rejecting offensive behavior [5]. Judges simply need to be human, not educators, to care about others.

[1] Analogy shamelessly lifted from Branse’s article. http://nsdupdate.com/2015/09/04/the-role-of-the-judge-by-david-branse-part-one/

[2] I am willing to engage this debate further in the comments, but I’ll bracket it aside for now since Alex seems to agree.

[3] Discussed further in McGinnis’s article. http://nsdupdate.com/2014/10/31/in-defense-of-topical-switch-side-debate/

[4] http://nsdupdate.com/2015/09/15/how-do-i-reach-these-kids-an-affirmation-of-polyvocal-debate-by-ben-koh-rebar-niemi/

[5] I thank Emily Massey for our conversations two summers ago, which inspired this argument.


            Salim’s response to my initial argument misunderstands my characterization of “educators.” First, the claim that high school graduates cannot be educators is false. Most schools have peer-tutoring clubs where students who have taken a class assist those currently taking the class; similarly, while no one has a Ph.D. in debate, those who have debated for four years are qualified to facilitate educational discussions between other students. Second, I preempted the sports analogy Salim uses by distinguishing the out-of-round importance of a debate judge from a referee. Since he concedes that judges must create safe space for debates, we operate under the belief that judges are teachers, not officiators, so promoting education is not just a “side effect” of judging.

            Next, Salim’s reason to reject my analogy is flawed because it conflates objectives and metrics of evaluation. Expressing an interesting perspective is NOT the objective of an essay. In the same way that a debater’s goal is to affirm/negate the resolution, a student’s goal is to prove/disprove the given prompt. Providing interesting perspectives is what distinguishes good essays from bad essays, in the same way it distinguishes good debates from bad debates. This structural misunderstanding of arguments is why Salim’s objections to valuing educational debate are non-responsive. He asks if I would sum up the educational value of every argument to decide a winner, but I clarified that fostering education is not the sole obligation of the judge. If someone cannot defend their case they will lose the round, but presented with two competing, equally valid arguments, the better argument can be determined using educational value as a metric. An argument being educational is a reason to prefer that argument, not an independent reason to vote for it.

            While one might argue that this simple action of using an educational metric in round seems insufficient to “be an educator,” that is because the descriptions Salim provides mischaracterize what educators do. As I mentioned previously, an educator does not decide what argument they think is important and make it the first voting issue in the round, but rather fosters an educational environment. Educators rewards arguments that create this environment. Next, Salim’s point about judges’ political biases commits the straw-man fallacy; I never advance the proposition that an educator automatically votes on the argument they personally believe is most educational. Also, education is often radical not because of political bias, but because the introduction of new voices and ways of thinking changes your beliefs, meaning educators do not create echo chambers [1].

            Additionally, Salim’s issues with subjectivity are resolved with other preemptive arguments made in my first response. Salim seems to think an “educator” votes for the most radically left argument available, ignoring philosophical and topical debate. 1) Based on the description of an educator I provided, fostering a space for argumentation encompasses relevant topical and philosophical debate, and 2) I never assert “one optimal form of education,” since the premise of my argument is that strategies change every round and good educators have to be open to hearing and evaluating new arguments. LD aims not to provide forms of education that can’t be found in other places like policy, but to provide the most educational environment possible.

            An activity cannot be “reasonably educational,” because education is measured by the way topics are discussed, not just what is discussed, and an educational discussion is open to arguments that change our way of thinking. The educator being open to change is an opportunity available to students so they can learn, not a burden forced on them, which makes the math club analogy irrelevant.

            Finally, Salim’s best argument is simply that we don’t need an explicit rule that judges should be educators (that judges can reasonably infer when to take on that role given the right situation). This argument, however, ignores my point that “being the better debater” already includes introducing more educational discussion into the round; thus, actively (not passively) facilitating educational discussion is intrinsic to playing the part of a judge. Salim is right, we don’t need an explicit rule, since it’s already an integral part of the game. Sure, judges don’t need to be educators to care about students and try to help them out, they can just be decent human beings outside of round. But the debate we’re having is whether a judge IS an educator, not whether they NEED to be one. And based on a lack of sufficient reason to reject the arguments I laid out in this debate, the answer is yes: a judge is an educator, and should act like one in the debate space.

[1] http://nsdupdate.com/2015/09/15/how-do-i-reach-these-kids-an-affirmation-of-polyivocal-debate-by-ben-koh-rebar-niemi/


                 Alex’s position is as follows:

  • Judges “must maintain a safe space for debaters.”
  • If judges must maintain safe spaces, then judges are educators.

            I grant premise 1 and contest premise 2. Recall the monopoly analogy: monopoly does not need an additional rule to permit you to put out a fire if there’s a fire outside – a fire simply motivates us to quit playing. Likewise, judges can quit judging someone acts objectionably. (If the round stops being safe, one would hope judges wouldn’t let in-round arguments settle the matter!) That folks who judge should maintain a safe space indicates nothing about the activity itself; that’d be like claiming fire-fighting is part of monopoly. Judges need only be human, not educators, to maintain safe spaces for competitors.

            One of Alex’s replies is that we’re debating “whether a judge IS an educator, not whether they NEED to be one.” This is an odd rebuttal given that he originally claimed the judge needs to be an educator to maintain safe spaces.

            Alex’s other reply is that “being the better debater” entails being more educational. First, this is circular: the judge being an educator (since they promote safe spaces) was used to warrant the conclusion that “being the better debater” entails being more educational.

            Second, Alex concedes the constitutivist argument for truth-testing and concedes Branse’s soccer analogy, which indicates pragmatic benefits (like education) never trump constitutive rules. Alex simply adds to the picture by claiming judges should also promote education, just within truth-testing’s constraints.

            Now, initially, Alex claimed only that debaters had to discuss the topic, not that the judge must vote aff if the resolution stood affirmed, neg if negated. His latest clarification comes late, so please excuse a late reply. And if Alex hasn’t actually changed his view, but merely conceded arguments he thought were compatible with his view, then these concessions made his position implausible, so new scrutiny is fair game.

            Notably, Alex’s newly clarified view prohibits Kritiks and education voters. In fact, Alex gives only one example for when education matters: as a tie-breaker between “two competing, equally valid arguments.” But what are the chances two competing arguments are precisely as compelling as each other? And that presumption, permissibility, or “err my way” claims can’t resolve the issue? And why not default err aff to correct for side-bias? If twice a tournament some judges use education as a tie-breaker, do those judges become educators? Do their actions imply judges in general are educators?

                  Sadly, only one argument from my last write-up still applies: allowing judges to prefer arguments they view as educational amplifies their political biases. LD judges are absurdly liberal, and even mediocre leftist arguments are more revered than conservative arguments. Alex’s first reply is that judges shouldn’t automatically vote on arguments they view as educational, but he certainly asks judges to prefer educational arguments as a tie-breaker. Alex’s view might rarely impact rounds, but that’s equally defense on its educational advantages and educational disadvantages. Alex’s second reply is that radical education introduces new voices, avoiding echo chambers. But if all the voices introduced are incidentally leftist, then we’re still missing half of the political spectrum.

                To recap, we both agree truth-testing constrains LD. Alex’s only qualm is that education – not erring aff or any other factor – should be a tie-breaker for equally compelling arguments. Why? Because judges should maintain safe spaces. Ask yourself two questions before you vote: 1) Does that make any sense? 2) Even if it does, would it really imply the judge is a full-fledged educator¸ or just an adjudicator occasionally short on luck?

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Think they made all the right arguments? Did they miss something? Are they wrong? Are they right? Let us know in the comments down below!

Want to suggest topics or go head to head with somebody else? Message Ben Koh on facebook. We’re looking for contestants still!

Look forward to the 2nd episode of NSD Update’s Podcast: Hutt or Shut Up. On it, our hosts Sam Azbel and Paul Zhou along with guests Shivane Sabharwal and Sean McCormick will discuss the H2H and other topics!

Alex Wurm

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 10.32.38 AMAlex debated for Byram Hills High School for four years, co-captaining the LD team his senior year. He cleared at many national tournaments his junior and senior years, including Bronx, Beltway, Princeton, Ridge, the Sunvitational, Lexington, Harvard, and Columbia. He was also a semifinalist at Blake, and has won speaker awards at several national tournaments such as Beltway, Ridge, and Princeton. Additionally, Alex competed at the Penn and Harrison Round Robins, and went to TOC his senior year. He will attend Cornell in the fall to study engineering. He was a staff member this summer at NSD Northeast teaching a lab along with Marshall Thompson and Kathryn Kenny.

Salim Damerdji

14445633_10154535728484812_862784756_nSalim was the 11th speaker and 11th seed at the 2014 TOC. His students at Mission San Jose and MVLA have earned 17 bids in two years, won two quarters bid tournaments, and reached quarters of TOC twice. Salim studies Philosophy and Statistical Science at UCSB, where he also works as a Campus Organizer for The Humane League.

Benjamin Koh