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Miscellaneous Musings – NSDA Nationals 2022 Edition
Lawrence Zhou was the 2014 NSDA National Champion in Lincoln-Douglas Debate. He is now an assistant coach at Apple Valley High School and the Director of Publishing at the Victory Briefs Institute.
The Opinions Expressed In This Post Are Those of the Author And Not Necessarily Those Of Victory Briefs.
When Scott Wunn, the executive director of the NSDA, asked all the graduating seniors to stand at the conclusion of the final awards ceremony, he expressed his deep appreciation for the gravity of the moment—the ability to speak in-person to all the students he had not had the opportunity to see for years except through the mediated experience of a Zoom screen.
Despite the pure and utter exhaustion I feel at the conclusion of this grueling, week-long tournament, I share Wunn’s sentiment. For all of the annoyances, inconveniences, and drawbacks of in-person tournaments (of which there are many), the experience of judges being able to adjudicate a debate round where the debaters weren’t digitally invading their homes, debaters to form new friendships that didn’t involve merely exchanging Discord or Instagram contact information, and coaches to be able to celebrate success amongst community members that shared in their accomplishments surely outweighed those concerns.
While this in-person NSDA Nationals felt more like a return to normal for many judges and coaches, for many competitors, this was an aberration, the tournament that did not fit with their past experiences of debate. I originally didn’t feel a strong desire to pen this piece because many of complaints and thoughts I’ve vocalized concerning previous NSDA National Tournaments remain the same—predictably, I will continue in the legacy of my 2021, 2020, and 2018 editions and offer some (constructive) criticism about judging and topic selection. However, the in-person element of this year’s NSDA Nationals perhaps warrants some additional analysis about how we can try and improve the quality of the debating and judging at the world’s largest academic competition.
First, congratulations to Hannah Pierre from Edina High School for winning NSDA Nationals in Lincoln-Douglas debate and congratulations to Easton Logback from Olathe East High School for finishing as the national runner-up! While I was unable to watch the debate live (as I was sequestered away judging the finals of Big Questions debate), I’m sure it was an excellent round on a difficult topic.
Second, congratulations to everyone who competed and/or broke at this tournament. I believe this was one of the more difficult NSDA National Tournaments to break at in recent history (whether due to the NSDA’s introduction of powermatching, described on page 111 of the June 2, 2022 edition of the NSDA’s High School Unified Manual, or some other phenomenon is unknown to me). I only counted 62 debaters in Round 7 (although someone feel free to check my ability to count), whereas I tallied there being 264 debaters competing in Round 6, a break rate of about 23.5%. By comparison, last year had a field of 368 debaters, with 113 of them advancing to Round 7, a break rate of about 30.7%. A difference of 7% of the field is quite noticeable and something worth looking into further.
Third, congratulations to Minnesota, who had three debaters in the top eight of NSDA Nationals, including my student Alharith Dameh from Apple Valley High School. While I won’t be around for Minnesota locals next year, I can tell it will be highly competitive next season!
Fourth, congratulations to Oklahoma, particularly Tuqa Alibadi and Leon Shepkaru from Norman North High School who both placed in the top 14 in LD! I always love seeing Oklahoma debaters in late elimination rounds of this tournament!
Fifth, congratulations to all the graduating seniors! Even if your tournament didn’t end the way you wanted it to, I hope that the experience of attending NSDA Nationals in-person helped make up for it. And, as I mentioned in last year’s post, please consider giving back to debate in some form or fashion next season to help make debate a more welcoming and educational environment for those who are still competing.
Now that I’ve said the nice things, time to rant about the no-so-nice things about this tournament.
2. The Topic Sucked
As I so passionately ranted about in my polemic that I termed a topic analysis (and subsequently elaborated on in an episode for the One Clap Speech and Debate podcast), I strongly felt that the NSDA Nationals LD topic (Resolved: Radicalism is preferable to incrementalism to achieve social justice) would end up being a poor topic lacking sufficient context to foster high-quality clash given the competitive incentives that dominate the activity. The rounds I witnessed did not dispel those concerns.
I won’t reinvent the wheel here—my complaints about the lack of an actor, political context, definitional precision, and consensus on what it meant to “achieve” social justice remain the same. As Chris Theis, Jacob Nails, and I have discussed repeatedly on previous episodes of The Next Off Podcast, good topics ought to clearly specify a context and actor to foster high-quality debate.
However, my complaints about the topic stretch far beyond the fact that I found the topic to be aesthetically displeasing. I think that the ambiguity of the topic meaningfully impacted the ability of judges to properly evaluate the debate, which both made judging this topic quite difficult and also likely resulted in situations where debaters who were attempting to engage the topic in good faith lost debates to cheesy or silly tricks.
For example, take the concern about whether the government will pass radical proposals. Recall the topic does not specify an actor. In one interpretation of the topic where the government is the actor, then this concern is wholly irrelevant. After all, if the government is the one passing the policy, then it ought to regardless of whether or not it will—to claim otherwise is to succumb to the is-ought fallacy. However, if one adopts an interpretation of the topic where we adopt the perspective of activist groups who are attempting to influence the government, then the concern about whether the government will pass said radical proposals becomes far more salient—whether governments will be responsive to the demands of activist groups is one of the primary concerns shaping the strategy, tactics, and messaging of activist groups.
This ambiguity played out in various ways throughout the tournament. In just one example, I heard a debater forward the argument that radicalism meant working outside the system, clearly implying that what mattered was an approach to justice that did not engage with political institutions, while incrementalism meant working inside the system, clearly implying that what mattered was an approach to justice that had political institutions pass policies. There are a few issues with this argument.
Not only was the latter definition pretty inconsistent with what the literature broadly referred to as “incrementalism,” but it was also an incoherent interpretation of the topic because it could obviously be the case that both are true. Perhaps activist groups should engage in social movements that eschew engagement with the state, but perhaps legislative bodies should enact laws that make meaningful—if small—differences in people’s everyday lives. It is simply not an opportunity cost for one group of people to engage in one course of action and for another group to engage in a different course of action.
Additionally, this interpretation resulted in perverse incentives to collapse the debate down to meaningless and irresolvable debates about how to properly interpret the topic. For example, a lot of the negative’s arguments were about how supposedly “radical” proposals were actually incremental because they involved working within the system—consequently, the debate devolved into a disagreement not about the substantive considerations of whether certain proposals were desirable or not but into semantic disputes about which side got to claim credit for those proposals, hardly the type of debate that this topic aimed to foster.
This is, of course, not meant to belittle any particular debater—rather, it is largely reflective of the fact that debaters were forced into adopting asinine interpretations of the topic because the topic failed to provide any reasonable basis for productive engagement. In a world in which topics were better worded, I suspect many of these concerns would be far less relevant.
So, what is motivating the topic committee to adopt these topics?
Truthfully, I don’t know. I don’t have privileged insight into the motivations and thought processes of the various members of the topic wording committee. And even if I did, it’s unlikely such knowledge would even be comprehensible to me. However, I do suspect that at least some portion of the topic committee is rooted in a vision of debate that remains idealistic and detached from the reality of how topics play out in an actual debate round where debaters simply do not conform to the expectations of prior periods of debate.
I’ve hypothesized on previous episodes of The Next Off Podcast that a few things could be happening here. First, there is likely a fairly strong reactionary backlash against the increasing “policy-fication” of LD. I sympathize with such concerns, especially at NSDA Nationals, where the value of LD lies precisely in the fact that it is not reducible to one-on-one policy debate. However, the cure can often be worse than the disease. In an attempt to strip away any hint of the “policy” sludge from LD topics, they’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater and stripped it of everything that could foster meaningful, high-quality debate such as an actor or reasonable context.
Second, I suspect there are strong desires to return back to the days of very principled LD topics that helped set LD apart from other debate events. There something noble about this, but I think it fails to appreciate that (A) what counts as an interesting and debatable topic shifts over time (recall that the original Lincoln-Douglas debates were about the morality of slavery, hardly worth debating nowadays), and that (B) even topics from those times were often debated somewhat poorly. For example, the 1997 NSDA (then NFL) Nationals topic was “Resolved: the public’s right to know is of greater value than the individual’s right to privacy.” In a fairly well viewed clip of the cross-examination between Marc Wallenstein of the Greenhill School and his opponent in the final round, many of the questions revolve around specific instances of when a right to know might trump a right to privacy. His opponent spent the vast majority of cross-examination just trying to dodge the questions and attempting to play silly definitional games to avoid the crux of the topic. But can you blame the opponent? The topic gives virtually no context—obviously the public has the right to know if an individual is planning on detonating a nuclear weapon, but the public has no right to know about an individual’s prior relationship history. That topic was one that sounded good in theory but ultimately could not (and did not) produce meaningful debates since the relevant debate was not about whether the right to know could ultimately trump the right to privacy in certain circumstances, but rather about (A) what those circumstances were, and (B) how we could know what those circumstances were. Similarly, this topic suffered from a similar problem—it’s hard to say that radicalism or incrementalism ought to generally be preferred above the other absent context.
Regardless of the particulars, part of the problem lies with the topic submission process—topics do not spring from nowhere; they require community members to submit high-quality topics. The free-rider problem where schools benefit from debating the topics submitted but do not themselves submit topics is a serious concern. While we can collectively demand that the topic committee take into account the empirical evidence about the quality of topics, we can also collectively do better and submit higher quality topics to begin with.
As I’ve expressed repeatedly before, the judging experience of many competitors is subpar to say the least. Ballots are often chalked full of errors, nonsensical comments, and advice that is patently absurd. While I am a very strong proponent of lay/traditional styles of debating, I think that many of the benefits derived from debating in front of a wide range of audiences become lost when judging at the upper echelons of competition create perverse incentives to debate in a way that is ultimately antithetical to the values and skills we are attempting to inculcate.
I start by acknowledging that it is not easy to fulfill the judging requirements at NSDA Nationals. The opportunity cost is substantial—a whole week in a different location is a hefty cost to pay for college students (who might have internships, jobs, or vacation plans) and adults (who are similarly bogged down with work or family obligations) alike. Consequently, it is very difficult for many schools, especially under-resourced schools, to find any person willing to exchange a week of their life where they are yelled at by high schools in exchange for limited compensation, let alone a qualified judge who is likely stretched thin with prior commitments. Some of the proposals I sketch out below potentially amplify these existing disparities, but I have tried to limit my suggestions to those that would be minimally disruptive and would not exacerbate judging and resource disparities.
Obviously, those decision-makers with the power to effectuate these changes are unlikely to read my verbose rants here, so I am likely merely preaching to the choir here. However, there are some changes that could easily be enacted without severely disrupting the tournament that you, as a student or coach, could potentially advocate and lobby for.
A Critique of (Exclusively) Inexperienced Judging
Before I jump into the rest of my proposals, it makes some sense to roughly sketch out the paradigmatic differences between those who believe in the value of primarily lay or inexperienced judging. It is important to note here that my critique is not directed at traditional debate in general—this has nothing to do with judges who prefer judging traditional debates—and is instead aimed at judges with limited or no prior judging experience.
As I’ve argued previously in Current Affairs and as Becca Rothfeld so eloquently argues in a recent article in The Yale Review, debate’s value stems more from the skills that it inculcates than from any particular content knowledge (although I do largely subscribe to the view that content knowledge translates into meaningful skills). While debate has taught me much about a wide variety of subject areas that I otherwise would have never been exposed to, the main thing that debate has inculcated is a method for evaluating arguments in the real-world.
Debate is often a horrible tool for teaching a direct appreciation for the truth—competitive incentives to win swamp nearly everything else. Rather, debate is useful for teaching skills that indirectly help us become more persuasive in the real-world—it teaches how to research, think critically, reflect on our own assumptions, and learn tools for becoming better advocates for important causes.
These are the skills that debate, as an adversarial process, is supposed to incentivize. Better research, more critical thinking, and improved rhetoric should be the recipes for success, driven by a desire to win. However, those skills are hardly rewarded if topic research falls by the wayside because a judge with no familiarity with the topic or debate itself fails to reward these skills. Debates in front of judges with no prior judging experience will inevitably fail to properly incentivize these skills for a few reasons. As I wrote in last year’s edition of this, “I think that debate at higher level competitions like NSDA Nationals needs to reward deep research that can be translated to a wider audience. Right now, it feels as if the incentives of debaters is less to do lots of research in public health ethics, philosophy, or current events and instead to focus on making simple arguments that work in front of a wide range of audiences and to polish their presentation… I think that the lack of more experienced judges in rounds at NSDA Nationals deflates the value of doing deep and real academic research, especially into more abstract values questions like the one that the resolution is posing. If such research is not rewarded, then little incentive exists to do such research.”
Additionally, I have argued that:
“[I]t is a generally accepted fact that judges without some debate experience will tend to make decisions that correspond less with the actual arguments made in the round and often correspond with less obvious and predictable factors like random presentation quirks. The fact that the NSDA goes out of its way to put experienced coaches in late elimination rounds demonstrates this. If this is well recognized, then it seems odd that the tournament allows those without prior debate experience to adjudicate rounds that are representing the top debaters in the nation. It seems to devalue some of the work that debaters do. When debaters who do a lot of work and then lose because some judge couldn’t understand some norm of Lincoln-Douglas debate or because they simply incorrectly interpreted an argument, that does some disservice to debaters. Again, it is an important skill in life to recognize that you can’t persuade everyone and debaters need to learn how to persuade those without significant debate experience in the real world, and that’s why I think that local tournaments are so valuable for everyone. However, when we’re talking about the NSDA National Tournament, a tournament that sends so many seniors off into the real world as their last tournament, a tournament that represents the best of the best, we should ask better for our students.”
Simply put, if you know that very few debates are going to be decided by a question of who has done the most work into gaining a deep understanding of the topic and instead on almost entirely irrelevant issues, why bother doing any preparation in the first place? This isn’t a mere theoretical concern—I can confidently say that many of the debaters who do well at NSDA Nationals will tell you themselves that they did not do a lot of work for the tournament.
Of course, the standard reply is that the primary skill that (traditional) LD debate is supposed to engender revolves around the value of persuading diverse audiences. Oddly enough, debate is not the event that best engenders the type of persuasion that defenders of more “traditional” styles of debate often implicitly assume in their (usually misguided) critiques of the more technical forms of debate. Surely one can correctly identify that faster, technical debate—often termed “progressive” debate by both critics and defenders alike—has a high barrier to entry, is dominated by elite institutions, and presents tremendous opportunity costs while also recognizing that the skills that such a form of debate is supposed to produce are not those directly tethered to persuading people in the real world. Instead, what critics charge, debate is supposed to directly mirror the real-world, similar to an Intelligence Squared debate, forgetting that while debates in the real-world are motivated by (supposedly good faith) attempts to discover the truth while debates in high school are motivated by wins.
Yet several speech events already exist to foster precisely these types of persuasive skills, namely original oratory, informative speaking, and even extemporaneous speaking. In each of these events, participants are unmoored from the obligation to advance arguments that they do not personally agree with—they have the opportunity to choose an issue that they are personally attached to and have done copious amounts of research on before spending countless hours fine tuning how they will craft and sell their message to a skeptical or even hostile audience. In these events, the incentive to win is actually directly tethered to the truth value of the message one is advancing. If one were interested in learning the skill of how to persuade a wide range of audiences, we should be investing more energy in these other forensic events, not in LD debate.
Again, this is not suggesting that traditional debate is bad—far from it! Rather, my point is that many of the benefits of traditional styles of debate are undermined when the national championship does not put in more experienced judges into the pool. It shouldn’t be the case that every student I’ve ever coached spends the time immediately following the tournament messaging me screenshots of some of the absurd ballots they receive over the course of the tournament—we should want students to feel like their voices are being heard. It’s just hard to do that when judges with no experience are the ones listening.
To that end, I tentatively offer six proposals that could make some difference in the quality of judging at NSDA Nationals to better serve our students.
A. Lift the Prohibition on First-Year Judges
First, I think the prohibition on first-year judges should be lifted. I have suggested this before, but I strongly feel that this prohibition is among the more damaging ones to the quality of the judging pool. I feel the case for allowing first-year judges is straightforward—first-year out judges tend to be the ones most familiar with debate and among the most motivated to judge.
Recall that there is a massive opportunity cost for judges attending NSDA Nationals. For many adults, a whole week is a large chunk of their limited vacation time; for many college students, it trades off with internships, jobs, or vacation time. Often, college students have found other time-consuming enterprises by the time they reach their second year of university, and thus it is more difficult to lure them away from either their prior commitments or their limited free time with the prospect of judging a debate tournament for limited (if any) compensation. Consequently, the pool of available judges is largely limited to current coaches, school chaperones, and parents of competitors who are willing and able to sacrifice a whole week of their summer.
However, first-year judges tend to both be more available—having yet to be preoccupied by other important career opportunities like internships—and more interested in judging—since many of them feel more attachment and excitement about debate which tends to wane over time—compared to many other judges. Without empirical data to substantiate my point, I can only speculate, but I would not be at all surprised if lifting such a prohibition would result in a decent sized influx of both available and motivated judges who tend to be more familiar with contemporary debate norms as well as the topic, resulting in higher quality judging.
There are a few potential responses that critics might levy against this change. First, critics might charge that many first-year judges will be inexperienced and biased judges. Not only is this already not a unique concern because of the large contingency of judges with zero prior debate experience, but first year outs tend to be more familiar with good debate practices compared to judges that are years removed from the activity.
Second, critics might argue that first-year judges will think too much like a debater and not enough like a judge. While I find this objection persuasive, I don’t think it scales up to suggest a prohibition on first-year judging is the correct answer. Perhaps requiring special training for first-year judges or requiring that first-year judges have judged a minimum number of rounds could help remove debaters from the “debater” mindset.
Third, critics might suggest that first-year judges have attachments to existing competitors that might affect their ability to be an objective judge. Given the size of the pool, I find this to be an extremely low-impact concern and there is always the ability to strike competitors.
To this day, I struggle to see why this prohibition exists. I acknowledge that many first-year judges are bad. That’s an obvious and indisputable fact. The relevant question isn’t whether first-year judges are bad—it’s whether they’re worse than judges that are filling the void, and given that I believe that there is some harm done to competitors when they are demotivated by low-quality decisions and poor feedback, I struggle to see how the evidence points in the direction that a first-year judge who is excited to give back to the community is somehow worse than a parent with no prior debate experience.
B. Pool Judges Differently
A less controversial suggestion could simply be a backend modification to the way that pooling works. Right now, judges seem to be more or less randomly assigned to complete days in the pool (although I’m not privy to the backend pooling process, so perhaps there is less randomness than I assume). For example, I was in the Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday pools where I was expected to be available to judge any round that day (even if many judges who were pooled never judged a round and were forced to sit in the judge pooling room all day with nothing to do).
While the tournament does seem to try and pool more experienced judges for Thursday, that’s not very useful since there are often only two debates and less than 20 debaters remaining at that point in time. It should not be the case that judges with no prior judging record are judging elimination rounds where there are only 30 competitors left. It is deeply unsatisfying when a debater who has invested time and energy into this activity leaves the round (and tournament) feeling deeply demotivated because the final round of their season or even career was decided on something that was ultimately unimportant by a judge with limited or no prior experience.
My suggestion is simple—any judge who marks that they have judged 0-10 rounds this season should be confined to the preliminary round pool while judges with more experience should be pooled for elimination rounds.
Obviously, this is imperfect—the underlying problem is that there are still judges without experience in the pool. However, I feel that this is superior to the existing arrangement. Because the preliminary rounds merely require a debater to accumulate eight out of 12 ballots, it creates a decent-sized cushion for debaters who can afford to lose one-third of their ballots before being unable to advance. It is arguably better able to capture many of the “persuasion” benefits that many coaches desire because it forces debaters to be able to appeal to a broad range of judges in the earlier rounds. The upside is that later elimination rounds against the best of the best in the country are then adjudicated by judges with experience, thus giving elimination rounds participants higher-quality decisions.
C. Require Judge Training
I was tasked with doing the optional Debate Judge Training at NSDA Nationals this year (alongside the excellent Marti Benham, this year’s recipient of the Ralph E. Carey Award!). This was a grueling 90-minute session that reminded me just how acute the curse of knowledge is. Many judges had never used Tabroom before, did not know the topic prior to arriving at the training session, and were unfamiliar with even basic debate concepts. And these were the judges motivated enough to show up to an optional 90-minute debate training—imagine the judges who didn’t even have the motivation to attend.
Judges asked not only many questions about the logistical process (which is reasonable, because Tabroom and judging in-person is a foreign experience to many), but also questions about their respective debate events that made it clear that they were unaware of how to even begin adjudicating the round in a way that would enhance the experience of the debaters they were judging. When some of the questions included asking if it was reasonable to vote for the debater who won the most amount of arguments (an absurdly implausible view of debate judging) and if a good judge ought to refuse to vote on an argument that they personally disagreed with (perhaps the one thing that a judge should refrain from doing as much as possible), it should be clear that judges need some training prior to the tournament.
I see no reason why this judge training cannot be made both mandatory and available prior to the tournament. The tournament already requires judges to take the Culturally Competent Judging course prior to the tournament; why can’t we also require judges to take a brief online training course for judging debate prior to the tournament? It wouldn’t be difficult for someone to create a simple NSDA Learn course on judge training that wouldn’t last more than 90 minutes that judges would have to complete prior to the tournament. If judges are already willing to give a week of their lives to this tournament, they can be required to give an extra 90 minutes to make both their own and the debaters’ lives easier.
One model that I have floated in the past is the “Round Feedback” model. This is where judges would watch a single final round of their respective debate event and submit a sample ballot for the round. That sample ballot would then be made available for viewing by students and coaches. That would give judges both exposure to their assigned debate event as well as allow competitors to see the judging process of their judge.
Even if the training prior to the tournament were limited to just logistics alone, that would help prevent information overload, where judges are just pummeled with information for 90-minutes on the first day of the tournament that they have no hope of recalling, giving judges more space between information dumps that would greatly help them meaningfully internalize said information.
D. Require a Minimum Number of Rounds Judged
This is almost certainly the requirement most likely to exacerbate inequality, so it’s the one I’m least wedded to, but I think that it should be the case that judges should have judged at least one tournament prior to NSDA Nationals, so requiring schools to submit judges who have judged a minimum number of rounds, e.g., four rounds, would ensure that judges at least have some familiarity with their assigned event.
E. Increase Decision Time
I think that the limited decision time as well as the constant prompting of the tournament officials to submit decisions as quickly as possible and to fill in comments later creates a perverse incentive to make decisions as quickly as possible without regard to the quality of that decision. That is usually not a recipe for crafting a high-quality decision that reflects a fair assessment of the arguments presented in round.
Let’s be honest, the average judge barely knows how to find their prior ballots on Tabroom.com, let alone be motivated to go back and enter additional feedback. I type a decent bit faster than the average judge and am typically able to efficiently give feedback based on my years of judging experience. I also have a strong motivation to offer lots of feedback (I think many of my ballots at more traditional tournaments often are around 1,000 words or so). Yet even I found it difficult to find the time and motivation to go back and fill in comments on the ballot given the compressed nature of the decision time.
I understand the logistical reasons behind encouraging prompt submission, especially now that the tournament is (finally) power-matching preliminary rounds. However, even a quick skim of the tournament schedule shows that there is ample time during the day to pencil in an extra 10-15 minutes per flight for feedback time without compromising on the integrity of the schedule (seriously, rounds start at 8 a.m. and conclude as late as 8 a.m.). Additionally, large swaths of rounds finished well ahead of schedule, with some flight 2 rounds starting a mere 20 minutes after the scheduled start time of flight 1 (since debates would often start as soon as pairings came out 30 minutes before the scheduled start time).
It would not bring the tournament to a screeching halt if the schedule allotted a few extra minutes for rendering decisions that could be the difference between a debater advancing or not at the tournament. For example, in the semifinals, I flipped back and forth on a decision several times before finally being prompted by tournament officials to just submit. While some hold the mentality that rounds are easy to resolve or decide (and they often are), I feel that there should be more emphasis on ensuring that judges aren’t missing some important argument or failing to consider the interaction between certain arguments that could tip the decision one way or the other. Had I been given another five minutes to decide the round, I could have easily voted the other way (not that it ultimately mattered as I was on the bottom of a 3-2 decision anyways).
Encouraging judges to be a little more meticulous in their feedback and decision and facilitating that by allocating more time seems an easy fix to at least somewhat improve the quality of ballots and decisions from the tournament.
F. Allow (More) Oral Feedback
I will not rehash this debate in its entirety here given my many lengthy diatribes on this issue. I think it is obvious that even if oral feedback is not always good, that barring it is far worse. The only additional thought I offer here is a little self-congratulatory but also something worth mentioning. Over the course of the tournament, several debaters that I judged over the season came up to me and thanked me for the feedback that I gave them in the post-round and mentioned how valuable they found it (something I found to be in line with my own experiences as a debater from Oklahoma, where the most valuable judging advice often came from a judge finding me upon the conclusion of a round to offer a few thoughts that they could not fully express on the written ballot).
Of course, I recognize that not all judges offer the type of feedback that I can (I do coach debate as a job whereas the average judge has made the far wiser decision to do something productive with their life), but I also think many judges do have valuable advice to offer to debaters that they cannot proffer simply because ballots are often poor mediums to communicate advice given the previous point about limited decision time.
While the tournament has made important and meaningful strides in allowing oral feedback following elimination rounds, the tournament allotted very little time to said feedback, depriving students of the ability to ask clarification questions about the feedback or the decision, an important component of learning. Additionally, oral feedback is heavily discouraged in the preliminary rounds because of similar time constraints and because much of the feedback is often contingent on the ultimate outcome of the decision. I do think that the tournament has made important gains in allowing oral feedback, but could benefit from more of it.
For many high school students, this was their first time attending NSDA Nationals in-person. For me, traveling for debate was among the more formative experiences in my life, exposing me to new cultures, locations, and food. As a coach from Wyoming mentioned to me in passing, for many students, this is their first time leaving the state, flying, or trying food from different cultures. However, such benefits come with logistical drawbacks.
Another coach from Wyoming expressed frustration at the fact that the tournament was not well suited for smaller teams because of the wide variation in tournament locations. As I mentioned in my previous post about tips for in-person NSDA Nationals, coordinating travel is quite difficult for small schools without access to a wealth of resources. For a school like Apple Valley that is well-funded and has access to multiple coaches and vehicles, coordinating travel was not too burdensome. However, for a smaller school with a single coach and maybe one extra chaperone taking four students in four different events, coordinating travel became a nightmare. With event locations scattered across the city, some schools would have to leave their hotel as early as 6:00 a.m. just so they would have ample time to drop off students at their competition sites. This imposed extra burdens on coaches who are already stretched thin (both physically and emotionally).
I think that for all the faults of the Dallas Sheraton location (hour long elevator lines anybody?), it did at least one thing well—it made it significantly easier for schools to deal with travel. With only one location, it was easier for coaches to supervise and transport their kids. I believe that’s something worth considering in the future for location host sites.
5. The Food Was Meh...
Was it just me or was the food experience in Louisville incredibly underwhelming? Not only were the few actual restaurants that we went to incredibly overpriced and unsatisfying (we ate at Guy Fieri’s Smokehouse and Gordon Biersch Brewery), but every single chain restaurant we went to (McDonalds, Taco Bell, Panera, Popeyes, Chipotle, SmashBurger, Qdoba, TGI Fridays, and a few others I’m sure I missed) felt like they were serving an inferior version of what other locations served. Not sure if this was just me, but I felt like this was a fairly widely shared sentiment this weekend.
6. Louisville Was Too Hot…
Never have I ever been more convinced by the value of trees in reducing urban heat than having to walk two blocks to pick up food. As all the evidence I cut for our Climate Justice AFF suggests, climate change is real and represents a serious threat for civilization. I didn’t have to look further than the fact that Louisville was hit by a record-breaking heat wave, making walking outside nearly impossible, especially for competitors who had to wear suits in the blistering heat. Given that next year’s NSDA Nationals is slated to be held in Phoenix, AZ, where the asphalt literally melts during the summer, I can only say good luck to all those attending next year.
In-person NSDA Nationals is an experience that I hope everyone competing in forensics can eventually experience—the electrifying environment, the prestige, and the scale of the tournament is something to behold and experience. I overall enjoyed my time in Louisville, but I think that there are definitely some things that can be improved to make future NSDA National Tournaments a more fun and rewarding experience for debaters.