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The Case for “Sample Ballots” for NSDA Nationals
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.
I briefly argued in my recent Miscellaneous Musings post that one potential way to improve the quality of both judge training and student information at NSDA Nationals would be to have judges complete a sample ballot of a debate round that would be publicly viewable by students prior to and during the tournament.
Here, I intend to sketch out both what this model could look like and why I believe this would be a valuable tool to incorporate into the judging training process for NSDA Nationals (and other tournaments). Unlike my previous posts, I aim to keep this post quite short and readable because I truly believe that this model, while initially unintuitive, is ultimately uncontroversial once the arguments for and against are considered.
While my proposal stems largely from my criticisms of inexperienced judging that I have laid out in previous posts, I do not believe that one needs to accept any of the underlying criticisms of judging at NSDA Nationals to find value in this model. I believe that the benefits of incorporating a sample ballot into the LD Paradigm stand on their own regardless of where one lands on the value of different judging styles.
Finally, while I am writing in the context of Lincoln-Douglas debate, there is no reason such a model couldn’t be applied to any other debate event such as policy, public forum, or even Big Questions. Additionally, this could be a model adopted more widely for other tournaments as both a tool for judge training and for judge paradigms.
The Model and Its Benefits
My proposal of “sample ballots” could work in a variety of ways. I will propose one possible way this could be adopted, but this approach is largely flexible and adaptable. What matters is that the core idea of having a publicly viewable sample ballot remains.
The basic idea is that prior to the NSDA National Tournament, judges would watch a final round of Lincoln-Douglas debate (or any other debate event) and submit a sample ballot as if they were a judge. My proposed round is the 2018 final round between Ishan Bhatt and Jackson DeConcini on the topic, “Resolved: The United States’ use of targeted killing is unjust,” as I found the round to be an excellent example of many core Lincoln-Douglas skills and concepts.
The key point is that students should also be able to view the same round as the judges so that they can see how their assessment of the round aligns or differs with the judge’s assessment of the round.
Judges would roleplay as a judge, interacting with a Tabroom.com page identical to the one that they would get while judging. This would require having the judge click the “Start Round” button, selecting a winner, assigning speaker points, and filling out a ballot (and comment section) as if they were adjudicating a real round.
My proposal would involve submitting a decision with a minimum word count (say 200 words) and offering three (3) comments to each debater using a ballot that resembles the actual ballots judges would submit at Nationals. Those ballots could then be attached to a publicly viewable page linked to a particular judge. For example, one button on the existing LD Paradigm Page could link to this publicly viewable ballot.
After the judge submits their ballot, they would then be able to view select ballots from other judges. These could either be the real ballots from actual judges on the final round panel or they could be ballots solicited from experienced coaches and judges from a variety of backgrounds. This would allow judges to compare their ballots to ones from more experienced judges.
I argue there are two buckets of benefits to such a model: benefits to judges and benefits to competitors.
Benefits to Judges
I believe that judges would benefit in two ways from this model.
First, it provides an opportunity to get familiar with the logistical details of submitting a ballot. By having the judge roleplay a judge, they would become more familiar with the process of judging on Tabroom.com. Judges would have to click “Start Round,” submit a winner and speaker points, and fill out the ballot just as they would have to when the tournament started. Based on my (limited) experience with running the NSDA Debate Judge Training (materials available here), many judges are still unfamiliar with how Tabroom.com works and this would provide an opportunity to translate theory into practice.
Second, it allows judges to receive feedback on their judging. Being able to compare their recently completed ballots to ballots from more experienced judges, new judges can see what some of the differences in both the substance and style of comments among various experienced judges might look like. This benefit is also quite scalable as various ballots submitted through the training process can be incorporated into a training bank over time to include a wider variety of perspectives.
Benefits to Competitors
I believe that this would give competitors access to a much richer and meaningful paradigm. As I’ve previously argued in my 2021 version of my Miscellaneous Musings, judge paradigms often don’t provide meaningful information to competitors. This appears to be a widely held view amongst competitors and coaches from all walks of life. Right now, the paradigm simply doesn’t help debaters understand how to persuade their audiences. However, this proposal to adopt sample ballots would give a much more detailed and holistic view about how judges actually judge. Debaters can actually see the judging process and understand what the judge is looking for.
While I view my proposal as positively modest, there are potential objections to this proposal that I will attempt to address here.
First, and most obviously, is the additional time investment this would require for judges. While this would require an extra hour or so of additional time for a judge prior to attending NSDA Nationals, I view this as an acceptable time investment, especially given the extended time scale and importance of NSDA Nationals.
Second, this seems unnecessary for judges with lots of experience judging rounds. I could see there being a case for being able to opt-out of this requirement. For example, any judge who marks that they have judged over a certain number of rounds this season could be exempt from having to complete this. However, I would still think that it is beneficial for all judges, regardless of experience level, to submit this ballot because of the important information it provides to competitors and judges.
Third, this seems like it might provide too much information for students, potentially undermining the value of judge adaptation. Without diving into the more fundamental debate of what the value of judge adaptation is, I view this response largely as a nonstarter. Not only does this ignore that students already have access to a bevy of information about the judge via the required LD Paradigm, any additional information that the judge may choose to submit to their Tabroom.com paradigm, and any direct or indirect experience with the judge from the past, but this also overlooks the myriad of benefits this affords to judges themselves.
Other objections are also unpersuasive to me. This would not be any more complex for judges to figure out and, if anything, reduces complexity during the tournament by giving judges a less stressful environment to practice judging. This would also be quite feasible from a technical standpoint, requiring nothing more than an extra page associated with a judge’s NSDA LD Paradigm.
I think this modest proposal would only impose a very mild cost on judges prior to the tournament while returning benefits to judges and competitors far beyond the initial time investment. If adopted, I believe this “Sample Ballot” proposal would greatly decrease the number of totally inexperienced judges in the pool and help students better understand the judging style and preferences of their audience.