Emporia State University Makes Collegiate Policy Debate History

Ogden, UT–The NSD Update staff congratulates Emporia State University’s Elijah Smith and Ryan Wash for winning the 2013 National Debate Tournament (NDT) last night. Their victory is one of many firsts: Last week, Elijah & Ryan won the 2013 Cross-Examination Debate Association national tournament (CEDA), making it the first time the same partnership won both college national championships in the same season.

Elijah previously debated Lincoln-Douglas at University HS in Newark, NJ, before transitioning to college policy debate at Emporia State. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time a former Lincoln-Douglas debater has won policy debate’s premier national championship.

Attempts to embed the video have resulted in site errors, but you can find it here.

  • Pretty thorough ballot from one of the judges posted for those interested in learning more- http://www.cedadebate.org/forum/index.php?topic=4762.msg10246#msg10246

  • First of all, huge congrats to Emporia! This is a tremendous accomplishment and one of which they should be very proud.
    Second, Emporia’s success – as well as the success of West Georgia, Central Oklahoma, Towson ,and other teams reading versions of this argument – raises the question of why these arguments seem to be so violently disfavored in LD (as we all saw back in 2011 during the fracas over Jalon qualifying to TOC – a discussion in which Elijah Smith was a major participant!). Maybe it’s time to use this accomplishment to spark a discussion of what sort of discursive space LD should occupy and what sort of progress LD has made to become more racially inclusive.

    • keinobjekt

      Because analytic philosophy is a space that is defined by the views of privileged white men who are utterly incapable of self-reflection and who view discussions of privilege as exterior to the pursuit of truth. Even worse, in LD we use (non-critical) theory as a means of excluding minority voices, because apparently having your views challenged isn’t fair or something. God forbid we actually have an honest discussion about how the debate community approaches gender and race in round, because it sure doesn’t ever happen outside of round unless triggered by controversy.

      • Analytic philosophy is supposed to be less conscious of race than continental stuff? Last I checked, Tommie Shelby (Pitt philosophy represent!), Kwame Anthony Appiah, and Cornell West were all analytically trained (Appiah even wrote a book on the semantics of conditionals, of all topics). Those are three of the most important thinkers on race issues on the planet. What exactly do French and German philosophy have to teach us on the subject of race?

        • keinobjekt

          There are plenty of reasons to value a training in analytic philosophy, but being conscious of race is not one of them. It’s fairly difficult to write about socio-political issues in symbolic logic. Sure, Cornell West may have read Rorty in graduate school, but he also writes about Marx and Gramsci. Yes, there’s also such a thing as feminist epistemology, but that doesn’t mean that Anglo-American philosophy departments are doing a good job addressing issues of gender either. Perhaps I’m being a bit unfair in singling out analytic philosophy as a major obstacle to these sorts of positions being run in LD, but those who seek to exclude these discussions on the basis of framework and theory are a huge problem. Maybe it’s unfair to characterize them as analytic types, and I apologize if that’s the case.

          • I think the picture of analytic philosophy you’re working with is a bit dated. Appiah and Shelby teach in philosophy departments; they write on race (among other things). Social and political philosophy has been a core research area in the field since the 1970s. And my great teacher Michael Thompson, an analytic philosopher if ever there was one, regularly teaches a course on Marx.

            (This is not to pretend that as a discipline, analytic philosophy is free of race and gender issues. I’m just trying to point out that the idea that analytic philosophers never think about anything connected with social and political reality is a caricature that does no justice to the discipline)

            I’m not totally sure I understand the incompatibility you want to find with respect to framework debate; basically any position of consequence in analytic moral and political philosophy is going to hold that racial discrimination is impermissible, and that racist attitudes are bad. For example, Kantian-style views provide a very natural and powerful explanation of what is wrong with racism. Racism is plainly inconsistent with the idea that all persons have a kind of unqualified dignity that cannot be overridden for the sake of any end. So I’m not sure why there would be any clash between thinking seriously about race and taking the idea of Kantian dignity seriously (it actually seems to me to be difficult to give a really convincing explanation of what is wrong with racism without invoking something Kantian in spirit. Most consequentialist views aren’t going to be able to support the idea that there is something intrinsically wrong with treating people differently on the basis of race. What they’ll have to say instead is something like, “while there is nothing intrinsically wrong with differential treatment, as it turns out racism makes the world a worse place”).

          • keinobjekt

            I enjoy reading some analytic phil. (of mind mostly) and am willing to remain open minded. However, in my experience with regards to LD, many judges who come from an ‘analytic’ background (gross generalizations, aside) are VERY skeptical of ‘continental’ epistemologies that frame questions of ethics in ways that are different than simply deont vs util. I think this sort of skepticism is fine in your academic life, but when judging a round should be set aside. Unfortunately, I’m not sure this is the case. Elijah and Ryan’s position is specifically about the production of knowledge in specific spaces. The sort of person who calls continental philosophy “mysticism” is far less likely to buy the importance of intersectional criticism and consequently the internal link to the role of the ballot.

            Perhaps it’s an issue that there are fewer educators who can teach difficult critical positions effectively to high school students. This seems to be true. I don’t particularly enjoy bad critical cases, especially bad micropolitical positions that aren’t debated from a really genuine place. I don’t doubt that everyone in their respective philosophical systems is opposed to racism, but there’s partially a reason why things like quare theory aren’t being written about in philosophy departments. I do not believe LDers can effectively engage in fair and productive framework debate with these sorts of positions because they are not prepared to engage with them substantively at all. Instead, many debaters fall back on theory, which is not necessarily their fault, but insanely problematic. If LDers want to question the assumptions of critical theory, that would be awesome, but they don’t know how to do it yet.

          • A college philosophy major being frustrated that high school students are bad at debating critical philosophy is like an elementary school math teacher getting upset that the children don’t know calculus. I mean, *you* know it, why don’t they? The knowledge development of high school debaters (and coaches) isn’t a linear progression — it’s not that case that at the end of 10 years of debate, a current debater has absorbed 10 years of the development of debate knowledge. They each get their 4 years, and moving a 9th grade novice from “this is a value premise” to intelligently discussing quare theory in 4 years is, to say the least, challenging. Add to that that the vast majority of debate coaches are not in philosophy. I think it’s keen that debate isn’t just Locke vs Kant vs Rousseau as it was when I debated and dinosaurs roamed the earth, but the trend of trying to shoehorn continental philosophy and kritik into high school debates is a recipe for lots and lots of bad debate rounds. If you are a coach who studies philosophy in college I can see where that would be frustrating, but at the same time, you should be aware enough to understand the *space* within which you are, yourself, operating. Insisting that debaters be able to sling around trendy philosophical concepts in order to gain access to this game is itself kinda exclusionary and off-putting. Just ask the many local circuit coaches and students who are alienated by national circuit debate.

            And honestly some of the language in critical philosophy is a barrier not just to understanding but to sense. Just ask Alan Sokal and the readers of Social Text.

          • keinobjekt

            And national circuit debate does such a good job not being exclusive on its own? I think you’re severely underestimating the intelligence of your students. I’m not suggesting that high school debaters should have intensely involved academic debates about the intricacies of Heidegger. But its absurd to say that basic political, race, or gender theory is any harder to teach a student than Korsgaard. There are many kids who aren’t white hetero and privileged. I’m sorry that you think ‘quare theory’ is some esoteric academic jargon fawned over by college undergrads, but for students who come from intersectional backgrounds like being black and gay, it’s not terribly difficult to understand the ways in which power operates in spaces as privileged as the ‘national circuit’ debate. Yes, there is sometimes jargon involved, but debaters are already pretty used to jargon.

            At least these sorts of positions address substantive issues in the real world. Theory debate is far more difficult to teach to a student or ever understand if they lack the resources required to go to a camp or have a coach who is knowledgeable enough to teach them about the various tricks that define LD. A 16 year old can read Marx or Butler or even Zizek, but there’s no book or recourse out there that can teach a student how to debate theory.

            I’m sorry that your debaters feel bad when someone asks them to examine their privilege, but imagine how other less privileged students feel when they lose because they trigger some blippy hidden analytic argument. I’m not even hating on your students either, I understand they want to win and why they want to win. But being competitive is not a particularly good reason why they shouldn’t be asked to question their own privilege once in a while.

            I’m unsure why you feel the need to invoke Alan Sokal of all people, because it makes it seem as if you don’t take this sort of criticism seriously at all. I don’t care if you think Derrida is absolute non-sense, but these sorts of arguments are not the attempts of coaches to “shoehorn” continental philosophy into the debate community. I’m sorry that ‘continental philosophy’ happens to be widely used in the social sciences and humanities, so it’s a bit unavoidable if you want to criticize something happening in the real world. I’m sure these critics could work on being more transparent, but so could the debate community.

          • I mean, I don’t think anyone could reasonably have a principled objection to the idea of Continental/postmodernist/post-structuralist philosophy. It should really, I think, be evaluated like any other argument. But as someone who is familiar with a fair share of this sort of literature, I’d have to say that sometimes the stylistic choices of continental and postmodernist authors make it quite difficult to integrate these arguments into a debate round in a reasonable way. The writing is highly metaphorical, abstract, deliberately paradoxical, and dense. Most problematic is that I feel like this type of philosophy escapes being packaged into a neat claim with a clear warrant that can be encapsulated in a card. The writing deliberately evades making any clear thesis that can be given a conclusive warrant. You have to read it, try and make sense of it, and think long and hard about what they could possibly mean until it makes sense.

            Of course, one of the tropes of Continental philosophy, especially someone like Derrida, is that the necessity for a clear rational warranted argument is itself a bias of logocentric Western culture–and the need to provide clear rational explanations for your claims is not mandated by anything that transcends language and cultural conventions. But the norm seems pretty clear that I could only legitimately treat these arguments as being won in a round if they are justified through an appeal to my rationality. If I am being told to do something different than evaluate reasons given in favor of accepting certain propositions, my alleged duty to do so has to be won through something like a reason for doing so–an appeal to rationality. The argument seems self-defeating. The claim that these arguments are self-defeating should be something that emerges as a response from the opponent in the debate, however, not a reason to intervene against the argument. In fact, most of the Continental stuff I see that’s of a Derridean flavor doesn’t even get to this level of analysis– its just used as a kind of dressed-up sophisticated a priori saying you can’t vote on the resolution ’cause language is indeterminate.

            No one should think these arguments should be outright rejected, again, they should be treated like any other argument. But given the way these authors write, it makes it hard to consider the explanations and evidence given for these arguments as being developed enough to accept as “being won” without expecting the opponent to have an extraordinary ability to interpret dense literature they are unfamiliar with, and even worse, without the judge inserting a significant degree of charity to the explication of the argument in the round, either by having to insert specialized knowledge of Continental lingo and common tropes and beliefs among Continental authors. This isn’t entirely unique to Continental philosophy–I think dense meta-ethical framework cards written by analytic moral philosophers are often poorly explained and require too much of the judge’s charity. I think that this is a poor and exclusionary trend in debate as well.

            There are good educational reasons why we should prefer concise, clear explanation of arguments that don’t require unreasonable amounts of specialized knowledge. Ultimately, being able to explain an idea simply and clearly to an audience that hasn’t read the literature you have is a good test of how well you actually understand the idea. Surely, we should also try to familiarize debaters with various strains of literature they are not acquainted with, but there are limits to this that we should recognize, whether we are talking about Derrida *or* Engstrom.

          • keinobjekt

            Yes, reading Derrida in round is pretty problematic, especially as a tactic to confuse your opponent. There’s no doubt that there are stylistic reasons to dislike students reading such arguments in round. At the same time, please don’t suggest that all critical theory is as dense or non-(un-)warranted as Derrida. A student does not have to stand up and give a lecture on Plato’s use of Pharmakon in order to explain the idea that words have power. I’m not exactly sure what your point is, but you don’t have to win a logocentrism framework in order to argue that the space of debate produces knowledge in a particular way. You seem to be using the difficulty of reading post-structuralism to condemn a whole lot of writing that cannot be characterized as such. I agree that there should be limits, and agree that Derrida probably should be a limit. But that’s not a reason to reject positions that discuss race/gender/privilege from being run in LD.

          • I’m saying it’s not unreasonable to think that a lot of continental philosophy is incompatible with debate. Maybe I am working with an antiquated notion of what continental philosophy is like. But a lot of positions I have seen that borrow from continental lit fit the characterization that I gave (of being incompatible b/c they are too dense to understand in the context of a debate round). So I can see where Dave is coming from in thinking certain continental lit would need to be shoehorned in. I don’t know about the specific arguments run in these rounds, or about what race/gender/privilege theorists you are talking about to think that there is a fair share of continental philosophy that’s just not a very good idea to run in debate. That’s all.

            The point about Derrida was just made because a.) you brought up Derrida and also b.) I was anticipating the possible response that continental philosophy critiques the typical requirements of clear logical warrant/explanation, since the lack of articulating a clear warrant/explanation was my justification for why some continental literature is incompatible with debate. (Someone like Derrida is exemplary of this sort of argument)

            I don’t know much about the positions being advocated in these policy rounds and I don’t have much to say about them. However, I agree with Dave that the best options to argue against these positions are theoretical–because most people in debate don’t oppose the struggles of oppressed groups of people. While I can understand how a bunch of superficial theory arguments against a position discussing something highly personal, political, and emotional (their own oppression) can make it seem like these positions are not being taken seriously, I think it is troubling to label this as a means of “excluding minority voices”. I think it is more likely just a kid not wanting to stand up and argue with someone about an issue that is highly controversial and provocative, like the race or gender issues of the other debater, because it’s a pretty uncomfortable situation to be in. Additionally, at various points in discussions about these positions, those who voice their preference that the topic should be a ground rule in the activity have been more or less characterized as being “violently” resistant to these positions, as if they are committing some form of ideological violence motivated by privilege. I don’t think that’s really fair or productive.

          • One of the problems debaters and coaches struggle with in engaging these kinds of critical projects in round is finding a way to frame a counter-advocacy without denying the legitimacy of the issue raised. I think it is manifestly true that (A) racial and gender equity are goods and (B) society, and debate as a product of society, struggle with those issues, to the detriment of women, queer people, people of color, etc.

            So a debater confronted with a position like this has a handful of options. They can concede the round. They can try to dispute the question substantively. Or they can object to the practice theoretically. Most aren’t willing to concede the debate. Most aren’t willing to dispute that race and gender are important issues worthy of attention.

            Project critical positions are fascinating, but one thing they do is reject the resolution and stake out the ground of gender or racial equity for the project debater. Given that debate is an activity of clashing positions, that puts the opponent in a difficult position.

            I think that most of the good reasons to vote for the opponent of a critical project position are theoretical. That doesn’t mean that having our assumptions challenged isn’t good, it just means that running a critical project position challenges the “normal” structure of the activity, and if one is not willing to challenge the core claims that equity is important then arguing about how those issues should be framed into or out of debate rounds seems like a reasonable way to go.

            There are certainly other strategies that are, I don’t know if this is the right term, “counter-critical.” Most times that I’ve seen this kind of position in an LD round that has been at least an element of the strategy against it.

          • keinobjekt

            I fully appreciate the difficulty that students find facing these positions. There seems to be a lack of coaches in the community who are capable of teaching students how to respond to these positions strategically, however. There definitely are good non-theoretical ways to respond to a position like this (or generally any critical position). I don’t blame students for falling back on theory when they don’t know how to debate these positions. Yet there seems to be a huge difference between debating the role of the ballot and standing up and declaring that your opponent should lose for being unfair. Not to mention actual substantive framework arguments that LDers at best will read from a policy back-file.

            Can you imagine how this round would have looked if Northwestern would have stood up and run 10 minutes of LD-style theory? Perhaps you disagree, but it seems on some level incredibly problematic to exclude minority voices like that. Yes, these same exclusion arguments are made in policy, but, because of the structural differences in the activity, there are always multiple areas of debate occurring, it’s never *just* theoretical framework arguments as to why the position is the most unfair thing ever and should be excluded from debate.

            We should encourage our students to engage with positions. This sort of discussion should not just a be a free win to make a political point. I believe facing these sorts of positions is insanely beneficial for students, even if they end up making sort of ‘exclusionary’ substantive framework arguments. I don’t think LDers are dumb. They can learn how to question critical methodologies, even with the frameworks they are use to running, util, deont, etc.

          • Dave, it’s not that hard to engage with these positions substantively. For instance, you could say:

            -identity politics are not an effective strategy for social change;

            -their exclusive focus on one node of identity is bad because it displaces the role of (race, class, gender, etc.)

            -switch-side debate is a better form of training for political engagement, better encourages critical thinking and deliberation, is a good model for democratic citizenship, etc.

            -the topic is a better vehicle to engage the problem identified by the other side than a disembodied, freestanding position

            -their position is bad because it triggers backlash/the collapse of debate or forces people to make repugnant arguments to get the W

            -a permutation

            None of these arguments rely on vapid appeals to “fairness” or “ground” or other mainstays of LD theory. Even if you think that the best objections are “theoretical”, those theory arguments would probably look nothing like the typical buffet of bad theory arguments that you’d see at an LD tournament. I am not sure that NU’s decision to go for switch-side debate good in the finals of NDT was the correct one, but their explanation of the argument is quite good and is perhaps a model that more LDers who want to answer these positions could emulate (or, for another good defense of switch-side debate, you could watch Georgetown in the semis of the 2012 NDT – the video is up on Vimeo, I believe).

    • I think there should be an nsd forum for this discussion.

    • sjadler

      To be fair, the anger about Jalon’s qualification seemed to be much more about his not having a bid before-the-fact than it was about the arguments he eventually ran at TOC. (Although it certainly didn’t help that VBD shut down their website in response to the negative outpouring.)

      I agree that it’s important to discuss these issues, but a better place to start is probably with people’s reaction to Tyler Butler’s case at Berkeley–including my own willingness to slough off some of the arguments and make the routine response that the round is an inappropriate forum.

      My views have evolved since then, largely as a consequence of that round actually, and I now feel that the round is a necessary forum if other alternatives haven’t done what they’ve sought out to do (or have left work to be done). But, that still raises the question of whether we’ve made progress elsewhere, so I’d be interested in hearing people’s thoughts.

      • keinobjekt

        I understand people’s frustration with facing these sorts of positions in round. As someone who personally possesses a lot of privilege, it’s difficult to feel like you are being asked in switch sides debate to negate someone else’s identity.

        At the same time, the round is the only forum many kids have to voice their concerns. Some people don’t have the influence or connections to post an article here, and bottom level comments on an article aren’t a particularly effective way of addressing concerns.

        Even worse, despite steps being taken to make camp more accessible, attending a top-level camp is still a huge barrier of entry to even being taken seriously in this community. Yes there are well known community members who take a stance on these issues, but there are far more who are content to sweep them under the rug, or even worse act as if there are no problems at all.

        I can understand why a high schooler might not appreciate their privilege, but it’s shameful that many of the adults in the activity are totally blind to the way in which privilege, and specifically money, structure the activity, or act as if it’s simply inevitable.

    • Let’s start the Jalon thread again. I’m bored and feeling nostalgic.

  • Adnan Toric

    A victory for critical debaters everywhere. Ryan’s 2AR was crazy powerful. Anyone who hasn’t watched the round definitely should.