Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Well, that was fun...

I just spent quite a bit of time not creating a new entry here, thanks to my new Mac, new operating system and new browser. I hate losing my cookies...

As we go softly into the half year mark—yes, it's the half year; for those of you who have been waiting for the season to start, Adios, amigos—I am struck by what has become the rather bizarre spectacle of LD as, well, bizarre spectacle. The last I heard, and I haven't seen much evidence to the contrary, forensics is an activity for a fairly, shall we say, select few. These select few are unique among their peers. They probably find few people in the old home room willing to take on the subject of why the name Etzione should never be uttered aloud, even if you occasionally agree with him. They do not now, nor have they ever, hung out in a mall. They own more dress suits than the average Supreme Court justice. They travel in the company of coaches who, in a word, are adults with nothing better to do both on Fridays and Saturdays than hang around with teenagers who shun Etzione, malls and casual clothes.

Having been once a debater and being presently a coach, I include myself in the above criticisms, so even if you do take it personally, welcome to the club.

So here's these select few, spending their weekends going from debate to debate, little verbal warriers on a quest for nothing more than better and better verbal wars. In the normal universe, they would travel in the dark, able to recognize each other in bus terminals and fast food outlets only by the twirling of a pen caught out of the corner of an eye. Their existence would be known only to their parents who wonder where they are this time, and each other (and it's dubious whether their parents, or each other, really ARE aware of their existence), but for one thing: The web site that dare not speak its name.

All right, I won't speak its name. You might, but I would stumble over the words. I, for one, remember when this little outfit was known entirely for writing terrifically bad case positions and selling them to unexpecting or lazy or unexpecting and lazy debaters who couldn't come up with their own material. Now, they provide real-time peeks into that fascinating world of debate, reporting online from, hot off the presses, drop everything and check this out Martha, places like (yes, yes, tell us!!) HENDRICK HUDSON. Can you imagine that? Live reporting from Montrose, New York. Wow. Montrose will never be the same. There's stars on this site, too. Famous people, with glimpses into their famous lives, their minds, their cribs (oh, the irony of that word in this context). Hell, I was one of those people, now forgotten in the continuing wave of newer famous people.

The fiction that the site supports is the one that there is a fraternity of national debaters worthy of immediate knowledge. Pictures of the little verbal warriers sitting around in cafeterias. Interviews with them. Minute-by-minute reports on how they're doing. And my personal favorite, photographs of schematics as they are released. Thank God for the Internet.

Of course, I don't blame the subjects of this site for the site's content. And to be honest, I don't find the site's content particularly bad, in the moral sense. I guess it boils down to everyone needing to be a member of something, that human urge to huddle. The groups we huddle in tend to be collectively identifiable as the groups that are just right for us as huddlers. The hundred or so people who comprise "the national circuit"—teams with enough money to go out of state to tournaments—stand in for the thousands of local forensicians who simply plod from local event to local event, that army of real world faceless gray debaters, if you will. This site presents a few real faces, removing the gray and showing them in living color. Oh, to be a celebrity. My only fear, and my warning, is that you don't take this stuff too seriously. Because, my friend, here's the dirty little secret behind the whole enterprise: it's only high school debating. It's an extracurricular activity with a great academic benefit (obviously, or people like me wouldn't bother with it), but, to put it bluntly, it is not important. Web sites like the one at hand make it seem way more important than it is. But it isn't. It's fun, and you should learn a few things (to paraphrase the wise Mr. JG, so recently interviewed therein), but that's about the end of it. Then you get senioritis (maybe) and then you graduate (probably) and then you forget you ever debated (if you're lucky, except when I need to hire you to judge, at which point you're only in it for the money).

So, as we enter this holiday season (some of us with Saturday's generously ecumenical prayer of Sister Raimonde still ringing through our brain), I ask merely that you remind yourself what we're fighting for. We are weird little warriers in a tiny universe, doing our best to sharpen our brains (an intrinsically good thing). And if we become the best weird little warrier there is, and it could happen, we will still be just a weird little warrier.

In other words, keep a sense of perspective.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

English-speaking only!

Putting a tournament to bed is the best part of the adventure. You spend weeks organizing registrations and food and housing and whatnot, hoping it all comes together and the bottom doesn't fall out of everything. Our biggest kick this year was the lack of the dome. The poor assistant principal had a heart attack at the sight of 150 policy teams cum tubs and suitcases, plus 113 LDers sans tubs but with the rest of their baggage, plus assorted coaches, judges and sex criminals milling about the place. There just wasn't room for them in the building. So we got started early, sent everyone off in the right direction, and while it was a little discombobulating to me, no one else seemed to suffer. After that, it was duck soup. Which is nice. And so, back in the box until next year (assistant principals willing, that is).

But of course, there's a beef. It's not a new one. I am a strong supporter of so-called lay judges. At the point where LDers can't convince the average intelligent person of a position, LD loses any real point. Or at least much of its point. It becomes so parochial that only a handful really care, supporters and administrators think of it as gobbledy-gook, and we threaten ourselves with isolation. From an academic viewpoint, that's a big risk (and one, I think, that policy has long ago taken, not to its benefit). When the only people capable of understanding positions are those who judge weekly, positions become impossible to understand by anyone else. But keeping lay judges in the mix forces debaters to pick up ballots from folks who don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' no fem Ks. That's a good thing. HOWEVER, a lay judge is not a total idiot straight from the cabbage patch without the slightest clue of what is expected from them. Three teams brought these cabbage patchers to my tournament and told me they were judges. One of them didn't even speak English.


Is it so much to ask that teams train their judges? I mean, the judges in question are usually a parent. Are they so hideous a reflection of humanity that their kids can't explain the activity to them for half an hour? What really burns me is that the teams that bring great judges are the ones who get judged by the cabbage patchers, while the teams who bring cabbage patchers get judged by the great judges. Nice trade-off. Fortunately we sorted them out in the tab room and dropped them from the pool, but that is no benefit to the tournament, merely less of a harm to the debaters.

Next year's Bump will ask for judge qualifications. It will insist that judges speak English. And I will post HH's judging instructions to the website. I do not believe that this will help (I won't detail the 3 schools who, rather than try to pull a fast one with bad judges, simply told me that they had judges that literally didn't exist, which is a much faster one, until the point I hunted them down and collected extra judge fees from them), but at least it will help me sort things out a little better.

I know who you people are. You are not going to do it again. At least not to me (or anyone else in whose tab room I may be lurking).