Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Funny, you don't look Catholic

CatNats is an experience that has been compared by some to having your teeth pulled by a sadistic Nazi dentist with a severe case of the shakes.

The comparison is unfair to sadistic Nazi dentists.

This year we kicked off the festivities with a Brewers/Astro game at Miller Stadium. Milwaukee’s entire economy is, apparently, based on Miller beer. Everything is Miller this or Miller that, and many of the downtown buildings are topped by Miller cans the size of, but not serving the purpose of, water towers. I am told that the streets are lined with microbreweries, something I cannot personally verify (and not for lack of trying), but which sounds to me like a fifth column of the first order. Then again, if you have to have a fifth column, they might as well hand you a beer as they bore from within.

Anyhow, speaking of boring, the next day the local rag referred to the baseball game in question as “ugly.” A well-known sportsman myself, I have no choice but to agree with this analysis. I haven’t seen this many balls since Scarlett rebuilt Tara. I went to buy a hotdog (or more accurately, went to invest in a hotdog, since the amount tendered was beyond my previous wiener imaginings) and came back and found that I had missed two entire innings, complete with no runs, no hits, no errors, and as far as I can determine, no strikes, no balls and no outs. As far as the hotdog was concerned, it took me longer to put mustard on it than to eat it, so I went back and bought another one. By this point it was the seventh inning stretch, every single player was 0 for 4, I was still hungry, and I was practically broke. Still, it was fun, in some outré concept of same, and it was the last fun we were to have for the next twenty-four hours.

We all assembled at the local technical college the next morning for the seven o’clock meeting, which started punctually at about a quarter to eight. The journey to hell had begun, and our seats in the hand basket were assured. At CatNats they preset the first three rounds, if I’m not mistaken, but definitely the first two, which didn’t stop them from having another meeting between preset rounds one and two so that the conductors of this fine event could tell us what idiots all we judges were. Now, when I get bogus ballots, I yell at my tab table; I can provide witnesses to this. I do not bring the tournament to the realm of what is now a three-hour delay so that I can berate the judges, on whose good graces the entire enterprise rests. I guess I know that the problematic judges are incurable, and the non-problematic judges will simply become problematic when you tar them with the brush of problematicity. But the conductors of this event, who apparently have never been to a tournament before, much less run one, blithely set us up for total schedule disaster without any of us having to lift a finger. Ultimately meals were a hodgepodge, we were lucky to get out by ten o’clock, there was no coffee after 9:00 a.m. (!!!), and the Lexington team and I were forced to resort to playing poker for peanuts. I went all-in on two pairs, 9-10, to lose to a suited 9-10 that flushed. Damned Lexington kids! That’s all they do up there in Massachusetts. They’re notorious cardsharps, and they are now playing with Menick peanuts, except for the ones that everyone kept eating because we were all starving to death. Finally we managed to get to Benihana before the doors were locked, where a splendid time was had by all, Kate H had her first sushi (an experience she addressed with grace and determination), and no one was killed by a flying shrimp.

And, of course, Crichton McClean broke (he’s a well-scrubbed debater for Hundrick Hedson), and the New York diocese took the sweeps award, so I guess it was worth it. Plus certain smug coaches proved their infallibility in one swift, winner-take-all round of speechie bingo. This is where experience comes to the fore. Anyone who’s been around for a while will always put his money on the congressman in the orange suit. I must point out, however, that this was only earning my money back. I had put out a side pot that the first award would not be distributed until a full half hour of self-congratulations, prayer and let-us-not-forget-the-little-people had ensued, whereas in fact, the first tin traveled in less than 15 minutes. It was a bet I was happy to lose. (I later lost the quarter yet again betting on the elevators at the Hyatt. It's that kind of weekend.)

After a fine dinner Sunday at an Italian restaurant with the Monticellans, some of us supposedly went off to see if multiple viewings made the opening scene of Sith any more intelligible, while others of us went to the top of the hotel and toasted the end of the whole thing (CatNats, not Star Wars, although I’m happy to see that one ended too; the Sithers ended up bowling, by the way, if you're keeping score here). One very good aspect of the affair (CatNats, not Siths or bowling) is the renewed tribalness within the coaching world. The old farts spent a lot of time polishing the schedule, promoting the MHL, readjusting some events, etc., etc., etc. I was even invited to join an official collection of OFs in aid of preserving LD as a worthwhile event. Is this an activity that should encourage clear and reasonable argumentation, they ask. I have my doubts. I mean, isn’t it an abuse of power for the coaches to attempt to force their self-perpetuating and innately biased discourse on under-aged and socially impotent children? Aren’t all metaphors equal at the moment they become metaphors, and since all we have of reality is the metaphor, and even the concept of metaphor is suspect when examined against the hermeneutics of— Wait a minute! That’s not me! Sign me up, guys.

Anyhow, word on the street is that the new pope will be working to correct the deficiencies in the running of the NCFL tournament. If this is true, I am with him all the way.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Cowboys and Indians

Traveling through the southwest is a race to the point at which you become really, inescapably, ineffably, at your personal breaking point for dealing with cowboys and Indians. If you see one more piece of Pueblo pottery, one more boot, or one more Tony Hillerman novel, you will tear into the Rattlesnake Museum and break all the glass cages and hope at least one of those soporific serpents is lively enough to spring forth and clear the streets just a little bit. As you walk through Old Town after Old Town you wonder about the moment each of these entrepreneurs turned to their significant other and said, "You know, this would be a perfect spot for a shop selling Indian goods." You know how just about every Ramones song sounds exactly the same, but there are experts out there who can somehow tell one from the other? It's the same with these cowboy and Indian shops. They all look the same to me, but presumably there are experts out there who can tell them apart. Not that I didn't enjoy a little of this. As a matter of fact, I really liked Santa Fe, which has great restaurants in addition to its cowboy and Indian shops. It also has the GOK museum, whence I pulled some interesting tidbits on modernism to add to the ever-present Caveman (part 5 of which, the crusher, is still in the hopper). Taos began to pale a little, as something of a Santa Fe Junior, and then by the time we took that left turn at Albuquerque, there was simply nothing an Old Town or a cowboy and Indian shop could offer. Of course, this was the home of the Rattlesnake Museum, and that was worth a trip. But at this point in the journey, we were ready to mix it up a little.

Getting into and out of these places was marked by three noteworth sites. First, there's Monument Valley. Now I know for a fact that when I say John Ford to you, you think that maybe he was Edsel's younger brother, but to me it's a motherlode of American mythology. Driving through Monument Valley, you relive every Pappy film you've ever seen, and you even begin to think that, yes, maybe, perhaps, all right fine, even "The Searchers" should go into the old Netflix queue once again (and if you call yourself a Star Wars fan, and haven't seen Searchers, than you aren't fit to trim an Ewok's toenails). Secondly, there's Chaco Canyon, the ruins of a long-gone civilization. It is to marvel, shall we say. Thirdly, there's Acoma Pueblo, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the New World. High up on a mesa, the City in the Sky, you walk around in the wake of an Indian guide and fill in the complementary blank from the Chacos. We northeasterners don't think much about this part of our history. It's good to let some of it sink in.

I did, of course, succumb to a few items in the cowboy and Indian shops. In a way, it's like going to WDW. You enter normal, and before long you're covered in Mickey Mouse souvenirwear. Same thing here. I found a few things I simply had to have of the sand painting variety, plus the odd ceramic or two. So I wasn't totally immune as much as worn out, when all was said and done.

You will recognize me a Catnats by my spurs that jingle jingle jangle.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

My life as a park ranger

It's only a couple of hours from Las Vegas to Zion National Park in Utah. I recommend the visit. We stayed in a cabin on the grounds, with a nifty little instant fireplace to take off the incredible chill following our initial introduction to the Vegasian desert heat. The thing about Zion is that you're at the bottom of a canyon, and there are numerous jumping off points (figuratively speaking) for all sorts of different hikes. Mostly you find yourself climbing up, eventually to find signs for numerous other jumping off points (literally speaking). These signs are classic icons, and there are two of them. The first says Danger, and there's a picture of some schmegeggie falling off a cliff. The second says Danger, and there's a picture of some schmegeggie falling off a cliff but bouncing on every protuberance on the way down. Pick your choice of demise. In either case, the signs are posted at various one-foot-wide stretches of the path where, in fact, you will fall to your death either in one swell foop, or with a lot of little foops along the way.

That's entertainment!

Gorgeous country, though. All of it. Lots of spontaneous waterfalls, beautiful little lakes, breathtaking vistas. At some point, I found myself in a corral being eyed up and down by some squinty be-chapped cowboy who ultimately broke through his disdain and announced, "Kitty." As in, I was being assigned to the horse named Kitty. Now you know as well as I do that I should have gotten the mule named Buttercup, or the horse named Old Red, a nonchalant nag older than my mother that went instead to my daughter. But oh, no. I got Kitty. For those of you unfamiliar with our equine cousins, horses are these incredibly uncomfortable creatures that enjoy nothing more than speeding up, slowing down, eating every shrub from here to Arcadia, and doing whatever it takes to get the saddle, with the rider initially poised at twelve o'clock, to somehow reposition roughly at about a quarter past three. So, hanging on for dear life, progressively listing further and fuurther to starboard, and pulling Kitty's head back from the on-the-road brunch every two seconds, I made my way with the regiment for three hours of muscle torture that you simply can't imagine, because who knew you actually had muscles in any of those places? Of course, halfway there (such there as there was), it began to hail. Fortunately we were pummeled with these golfball-sized ice missiles for only about ten minutes or so, and it cleared up. Until, about five minutes from the corral heading home, the sky opened with good-old-fashioned American rain, just enough to soak one and all (and which, I'm sure, was the final example of Kitty's personal spite against me). We never saw another cloud for the entire trip. Or, thank God, another horse.

Not far from Zion is Bryce, which is Zion's opposite. At Bryce, you start at the top of the canyon, around 8000 feet above s.l. Which means that you're out of breath simply opening the door of the car. But what a sight! There are these things called hoodoos, rocks eroded by thousands of years of wind, that are one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. Unfortunately, all the trails down into the canyon had been washed out by recent rains, except for the horse trail, which at this point was not an option. This was a little too bad, because I would have loved to have gone down in there.

So, strong recommendations for Zion and Bryce. If you're in Vegas anyhow, add 4 or 5 days to the trip and see something (presumably) real.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Do you, High Falutin, take this Nostrumite?

Las Vegas is, I guess, the wedding capital of the world. The thing is, it's not just quicky elopement weddings, which you would expect, a Britney type, spur-of-the-moment, find-me-an-Elvis-impersonator-with-a-JP-license-fast type of affair. (For the record, btw, I counted 3 EPs during the trip: one straightforward, one seven-year-old and one pretending to be a statue.) That's what I would have expected: The Wee Kirk on the Strip, with topless bridesmaids. But in fact, Vegas is a perfectly normal (in the American sense of the normative) wedding destination. Countless venues capable of handling hordes of revelers. If they can take in Comdex without batting an eye, imagine how well they can handle your special dream day! Easy transportation from around the globe, hotel rooms as far as the eye can see, plenty of Elvis impersonators with a JP licenses. You can't walk through a single casino in the entire burg without getting knocked over by three or four brides in full white-veiled regalia, each with some purple sharkskin-tuxedoed Gobo in tow, both often belting down a three foot margarita special as they head for the penny slots, trailed by a fog of the bride's minions in complementary orange organdy.

It was the perfect place for Odelie and the Mite to tie the knot.

Of course, the reason for Vegas was, indeed, accessibility. Odelie's immediate family is in Georgia, with the extended soeurs et cousines et tantes in various Paris suburbs, plus at least one branch in Milan. The Mite's folks are Californians, while most of his friends are Bostonians and New Yorkers. I guess they could have as easily done the deed in Atlanta, but the Mite feels that one Emory trip a year is enough for anyone, and Odelie is pretty game for an Episcopalian minister; I mean, let's face it, she did just marry the Nostrumite.

The wedding was at the Bellagio, which is pretty classy. The decor is simulacrum Italianate (as compared to the Venetian's simulation Italian), all the gamblers wear shirts and shoes without needing signs on the doors to remind them to do so, and the food (at least as this affair was catered) was to die for. About a hundred of the nearest and dearest were in attendance, split fifty-fifty between rels and buds. A live band of some true quality was running the proceedings (as if it should be hard to find a musician in Las Vegas; the only difficulty was selecting which other musicians they should be imitating, but in this case, they were just plain musicians—they must have come in from LA). Dancing till the wee hours, the champagne flowing like champagne. You would have liked it. When the festivities flagged, you could mosey off and toss a few sheckels into the video poker machines. (I should have had a wedding like that, except when I got married, I think Bugsy Siegel was still running things. Speaking of which, in my family, the difference between men and women is that men throw away their money gambling with great abandon while women stand around looking over their shoulds saying, "You know, you're just throwing your money away." This is not to allude to a specific difference between men and women—I'll leave that to the people running Harvard—but merely to point out the general dialectic of my existence outside of the debate universe.)

Anyhow, when all was said and done, the Nostrumite was in a state of permanent elation, I would hope at least untill the honeymoon is over. He and Odelie headed off to the Caribbean, while the assembled horde headed back to its various origins atwixt California and Milano, and the Menick clan proceeded on its journey through the southwest. At some point while still in Vegas we saw O, rode the NY NY roller coaster, and got injected with Borg nanoprobes, among other Vegasian pursuits. From then on, well, we'll get into that tomorrow.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Back in the saddle again

We did, at some point, listen to a CD I bought of Riders in the Sky singing cowboy songs such as BITSA. I really like the Riders. I recommend them, if you like cowboy music. Even if you don't. I actually have a history with Ranger Doug; some day I'll go into it.

Anyhow, we are back. Mostly I'm getting back into the swim at work, thinking about getting organized for NCFLs, and even giving the odd nod to worrying about NFLs. Nonetheless, I do wish to report on a few of the happenings of the two weeks out West, and will do so as time permits over the next few days. Among them are such highlights as the Nostrumite's Las Vegas wedding, Menick on horseback, ruminations about Captain E0 brought on by ruminations about George Lucas, the quintessential postmodern novel, the state of health in Arizona, and various other this and thats. I will point out, just for a start, that opening day of Sith in Flagstaff (in which we partook after the odd amble through the Grand Canyon, a day of juxtapostion to put it mildly) was attended by one lone lorn Boba Fett character (although, let's not be unkind, he or she was a very good Boba Fett character) and was a nice bookend to opening day of an old film once called simply Star Wars (somewhere in this blog I've already mentioned that I attended that opening, way back not only before you were born, but almost before I was born -- in other words, I had hair at the time).

Aside from Milwaukee, I am here for the duration, and beginning to outline the plans for next year's MHLs. I will resume wasting my time (and yours) by posting here regularly once again starting tomorrow.

One last thing. It was 105 degrees when we flew out of Vegas yesterday. It was half that (if such a concept makes sense) when we arrived in New York. I leave you people alone for a couple of weeks and you forget completely that the weather is supposed to get warmer as we near Memorial Day. Jeesh!

Friday, May 06, 2005

Enough already

My bag is, indeed packed, and has been since Wednesday, since last night we took the Aged P to dinner, and tonight is poker, so when else could I do it? Liz says my bag is too big, and Kate claims she'll bring maybe two tee shirts and just be smelly for a couple of weeks. I believe in never having to launder anything, aided by bringing clothes beyond their prime and simply leaving a trail of them behind in the various motels of the Western world. I am not a fashion plate while on vacation (but unlike Kate, the air around me is breathable). But who needs to be a fashion plate in Utah?

Of all the stoppers I have run into in my debate career, the NFL PF topic takes the cake. "When a choice is required for public high schools in the United States, government funding should prioritize vocational education over college preparatory education." In other words, fed money should deliberately be spent in such a way as to keep the proles in their place. Oy. This simply is not an issue I have ever bothered my pretty little head about. I've worried often about education, but never in terms of this false dilemma.

The vacation will include Las Vegas, Zion, Bryce, various John Ford movie backgrounds, Santa Fe, Taos, that left turn in Albuquerque, the Grand Canyon and Penn and Teller, in that order. A nice mix of outdoors and indoors. We're even riding a horse one afternoon (actually, three horses, if you want the whole truth). Liz rides a couple of times a week, but me and horses, I can take 'em or leave 'em. I don't mind betting on them, though (and maybe this year, for once, I'll actually get to see the Derby rather than sitting in the LD Advisory Committee during the Run for the Roses).

So, I'm packing up the tent, turning off the email and heading into the hinterlands. The fact that I suggested that LD will weather the storm of Ks and pomo and DOD was met with great disdain, but I hope I'm right because the alternative is a slow and painful death. I've always been an optimist. I'm a cheerful fellow, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. I'm like one of those people that other people say, he never had anything bad to say about anyone, except of course I usually do. Somewhere inside of me there's a nice guy trying to get out, and losing miserably.

We'll meet again / Don't know where / Don't know when...

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Get your pipe and slippers; this is a long one.

The question everybody was discussing: is LD going to hell in a handbasket?

Prior to TOCs, the discussion was on whether there was a progressive movement in LD. Was the activity somehow changing, and was the change, as the “progressives” would have it, some real sort of progress? Was this progress in conflict with a conservative traditionalism that may be limiting the activity? It is nice to think that you are part of a new wave, the vanguard of change, the latest synthesis in a teleological dialectic. But curiously enough, it wasn’t just a small vocal minority voicing the idea that the activity is changing. At TOCs, which is something of a forensics summit conference, everyone was talking about it. And it’s a tripartite conference: the most aggressive and successful debaters in the country, a cadre of college students who to some extent set an agenda for the activity by actively promoting certain styles and case positions (either as short-term coaches or as adjudicators), and established long-time coaches. These groups probably exchanged few ideas outside of their own boundaries, except in the actual performance of the tournament. That is, high school mavericks didn’t meet with dinosaur coaches to compare notes on the subject, but at some point the debaters debated and the judgments were cast. But one serious question that arose was whether the performance was rigged. Had the Mutual Judge Preference acted to promote a single “progressive” concept of LD over some other concept by limiting the adjudication to judges predisposed to the idea of the progressive?

These are great questions. And I think there are some interesting answers.

There is no question that LD has evolved. Everything evolves. Policy has evolved, Public Forum is evolving, probably even Declamation has evolved. A clear trend of the last decade has been that the LD topics are more specific than general (the general no government vs bad government as compared to the specific separation of church and state, as one random example), and the argumentation of these topics is comparably more specific. In the early 90s you could master a handful of classical ethics ideas and apply them to just about everything. As the topics changed, these applications really didn’t work anymore, or at least weren’t sufficient of themselves. I remember the capital punishment topic. Sooner or later everyone had to argue the moral rightness or wrongness of executing wrong-doers, but before we ever reached that part of the argument we had to debate recidivists vs. the innocents. That is, every round had to point out that sometimes we executed innocent people, which would moot out against the fact that sometimes we don’t execute guilty people who kill again. Real numbers were tossed around, some small percentages of the whole death-row population, which were roughly equivalent. In effect, half of every round addressed body count. Then, and only then, if we actually got that far, could we directly address the values/ethics aspects of capital punishment.

Topics continued to move away from the general. We still get a general now and then, but on the present list, we have judicial activism, SOCAS, jury nullification, gov regulation of business, community/national stds, immigrant rights, progressive taxation, and regulation of sexually explicit material – all specific – and scientific knowledge for the common good, which is, perhaps, old-fashioned (at least, I could see it on the list 10 years ago). None of these specific topics will respond to Locke and Rousseau, or any other philosophers, for that matter, because they’re not philosophical. They are questions regarding very specific applications of ethics, germane only in that area of application. That is, you’d be hard-pressed to develop a categorical rule that applies equally, and clearly, to judicial activism and progressive taxation. They are apples and road apples. Different rules apply.

Why have the topics changed? I don’t know. Maybe we all got tired of Locke and Rousseau and Mill. To my perception, the choice of topic through the NFL process is generally reflective of the LD community as a whole, and while we may all have different particular preferences, and some of the resolutions really don’t work too well because of the wording or because the subject proves to be not all that interesting or debatable, I can’t say that the selection process itself seems unbalanced or unfair. We get what we deserve, in other words, because we are all equal in the creation of the topics and the selection on the topics.

The next big question is, has LD style evolved? That is, has the presentation changed? Has the style of argumentation changed? And you want to know something, I think the answer here is, not really.

There has been speed as long as I can remember. And it’s been regarded similarly in that time. First of all, speed only works if the audience is capable of handling it. Secondly, pedagogically speaking, speed is antithetical to oratory or, more quaintly, public speaking. I’m a firm believer that LD is intended to include learning to be a good public speaker, that learning to be a good public speaker is a valuable skill, and that blazing speed ain’t it. And third, most debaters, if they are speedy, aren’t necessarily better debaters for it. Often speed is in aid of spreading more material around in multiple arguments rather than developing one or two arguments more deeply. And, if it only works if the audience is capable of handling it, speed is self-defeating if you face a parent judge or a coach whose paradigm is anti-speed. No debater with half a brain will attempt speed in those situations. So I don’t think we’re developing a new model where speed is ramped up across the board. Nor has speed shown itself to be any more valuable in 2005 than it was in 1995. Or more prevalent. It’s an old story that, as long as there are poky paradigms and parent judges and debaters with more than half a brain, will stay in the same corner of the activity that it has inhabited for ages.

So has the style of argumentation changed? Are people somehow debating better these days? I don’t think so. Put all the TOC champions since day one into a new tournament and set them loose on each other, and the results, I think, would be random. The concept of a good argument hasn’t changed all that much since Aristotle, although maybe we can articulate the concepts of argumentation better. There’s no new logic that I’m aware of that makes more sense than the old logic.

One thing that is new to LD is the use of critiques/kritiks. It’s rather amusing to see LDers acting as if they’ve gone to the edge of the envelope with Ks, when in reality, Ks are rather old-hat in the policy world. And about as well accepted there as in LD. My understanding is that in policy the teams that run Ks often do so because they do not have the resources to compete with big powerhouse teams. If you have fifty novices cutting cards, as compared to three freshman sharing two teeth between them, you are definitely at a tactical disadvantage; the K is a strategic move to neutralize that disadvantage. Presumably there’s other reasons for running Ks in policy, but there is certainly no comparable resource disparity in LD. So people only run Ks in LD for strategic advantage absent a disadvantaged starting position.

A kritik in LD usually does not directly address the content of a resolution in the fashion in which it was meant to be addressed. For instance, in the separation of church and state resolution, a kritik would not argue simply whether there should or should not be separation of church and state. The issue would not arise in that constructive argument. The case would be about something else entirely (for instance, a commentary on the presuppositions of the SOCAS phrase itself through a Foucaultian analysis leading to an indictment of the NFL power structure—that Billy Tate is the Mussolini of his day, I guess). There are two aspects to this that ought to be clear to anyone why traditional educators are mostly not supporters of K approaches. First, most educators highly value all the background work that goes into understanding a topic. I spent a lot of time with the team talking about the pros and cons of separation of church and state. In our country, at this time, I perceive this as an extremely important issue. I believe it should be addressed head-on; it defines the world we live in, not necessarily in ways we wish it to be defined. It also helps us understand what is happening in Pakistan, say, which is your great example of no SOCAS, or in the mind of Bill Frist (shudder!). Where else do we have that discussion in high schools? Secondly, many forensics folks believe that kritiks are merely a competitive trick designed to put your opponent at a disadvantage: if you’re not arguing the topic, you could be arguing virtually anything, and how does your opponent prepare a defense against virtually anything? In this model, the K runner values competitive advantage over education. And while most forensics dinosaurs love to see their students win trophies, few of them value the competition over the education, and certainly none of them value the competition in and of itself. The K seems to be of that leaning, valuing the competition in a vacuum (and valuing winning that competition). It is no great insight that the competition is merely a means to an end in debate. We wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t competition, but the competition is merely a necessary evil. (This is true of any school-related pursuit where there’s competition, including sports.) The competition is a means to the end of augmenting traditional education. And at the point where the competition is valued higher than traditional education, there is a grave parting of the ways. Since there seems to be a small group of debaters who do indeed value competition removed from education, and this group seems to love all the gamesmanship of kritiks and speed, we get a perceived split between this group and the traditional educators. But, as with speed, kritiks are limited by the audience’s willingness to accept them. A parent judge will look at you as if you have a hole in your head, and a known coach will clearly identify in his or her paradigm an opinion on kritiks. So I think that this aspect of the activity, while more prevalent than in the past, can only go so far, unless the educators in the activity begin to disregard the content of topics and the value of teaching that content. I simply can’t see that happening.

The next big question is, are there new tools—new philosophers or philosophies—that make more sense than our classic approaches? More specifically, is critical theory taking over the values side of LD?

This is one of the most interesting thoughts being kicked around. Let’s face it, I’m writing Caveman to address the themes of critical theory that are extant in the LD universe, so obviously I believe that this material has worked its way into our community consciousness. But what does this mean for the activity as a whole?

This may be where we have the broadest split between the various camps. From the perspective of many debaters and many college students, critical theory (by which I mean everything from semiotics to Foucault to Derrida to actual CT, and yes, I know I’m being sloppy by being so all-inclusive, but you do want this essay to end at some time, don’t you?) is fascinating. It’s a whole new way of thinking, it’s modern, it’s (deceptively) fashionable (it’s sort of passé in many academic circles at this point), and it’s certainly a new way to approach LD material. Most high school teachers look at it differently: it is, at worst, a lot of incoherent nonsense, and at best, a body of thought that is beyond the skill set of the average high school student. And here’s where we start getting into an important distinction. There’s certainly nothing wrong with an intelligent high school student taking on any area of study and attempting to apply it to debate. I would hope we would encourage this sort of cutting-edge use of brainpower. But the debate teacher does not have a student with 2400 on his or her SATs (2400???) and a 4.0 GPA. The debate teacher has twenty freshmen who don’t yet know an SAT from and SST, and if the teacher is a true educator, the teacher doesn’t care. Now, I don’t think CT is really all that prevalent in debate (it’s sort of the intellectual equivalent of speed, if you get my drift), but what I’m saying here points to the crux of the rantfest. The debate teachers consider LD to be a combination of reading/research, writing and public speaking. The debate teachers have a responsibility to teach that combination to a broad base of students over a broad spread of time. They need to teach material that is accessible to their students, and which fits in with the rest of the curriculum. They need to maintain a program where the students are able to engage in meaningful competition, which usually means that they will need to enlist the aid of parent judges. And they need to maintain the support of school administrations who must see benefits in the student body gained through the activity.

Additionally, the debate teachers have seen the recession of policy over the years. Policy is an activity comprising only specialists, whereas LD depends to a great extent on generalists (i.e., enlists the use of—I would hoped trained, English-speaking—parents). At the point at which LD comprises only specialists—that is, at the point where only specialized judges can adjudicate the rounds because of either the content or the presentation—LD is on the same road to (near-) extinction as policy.

It would be tempting to underplay the value of parents as judges. I mean, no one really wants most parents at the back of the room. Even the most dedicated and intelligent parent isn’t as up to snuff as a coach or college regular. But I tab an awful lot of tournaments, and here’s the deal. None of these tournaments, zero, zilch, ixnay on the ournamentay, would happen without parents. Usually there’s about 25% parents in a judging pool. But if there’s mostly great judges and few parents (as at, say, Manchester), that’s because that weekend I’m back in NYC at a CFL for novices and intermediates which is being judged about 75% by parents; we’re all connected here, folks, and those varsity debate oaks all grow from novice acorns. Not to mention the parental commitment to aiding the running of tournaments (providing food, housing and general all-round succor). But the average tournament does use parents at the back of the room. And at the point at which I can not enlist parent judges, I will lose at least 25% of my tournament population. And the point at which I cannot enlist parents is the point at which bizarre and/or too speedy argumentation becomes the norm.

And that’s one awful big reason, ladies and gentlemen, to protect the norm, even if you're from the progressive side of things. Reduce the size of your tournaments, and you reduce the number of your TOC bids. Sure, there will still be a handful of unbelievable venues like Lexington or Emory or Apple Valley, but after that, do you really want to put your bid status in the hands of the Princeton/Columbia/Yale parli team? And even the Lexingtons and Emorys and Apple Valleys require adults to get kids there, to chaperone, whatever. Remove parents from the equation, and every program is thence required to support itself entirely from its program resources. Buy all its judges. Chaperone all its students (according to the rulings of all the individual administrations, some of which are Dotheboys in spades, if you get my Nickleby drift). I have historically sent students to three tournaments in three different states on the same weekend. Think I could do that without parents? It’s all well and good that a handful of mavericks travel the country on their own dime, but most debaters don’t, and wouldn’t, and couldn’t. And LD is not about satisfying a tiny minority out of the mainstream of academic concerns. It is about keeping the activity alive and vibrant for the whole community, including that minority. It’s not about right or wrong (and although I maintain there’s nothing particularly wrong with a “classical” approach to LD, I’m not really attempting to make value claims here), it’s about preserving the activity for the greatest number over the long term.

It’s that educational thing I was talking about before.

Which leads me to what was the disturbing thing of the TOC weekend. It was explained to me brilliantly in the advisory meeting. TOCs is certainly a fulcrum event for the activity. What happens there resonates throughout the activity. And if the elements of the activity such as speed veiling thinly spread arguments, kritiks bypassing resolutional conflicts, and postmodernist analysis generally considered inappropriate to the high school curriculum, are actually seen as winning, then that will resonate throughout the activity. Students will want to emulate the TOC style, whatever it is. And if it’s speed, Ks and pomo, that’s what they’ll emulate. And as I think I’ve made clear, if those elements were to become endemic, they could threaten the very existence of the activity.

There was a personal side to this, too. For all practical purposes, the members of the advisory committee, and for that matter almost every long-term dedicated adult debate coach in attendance, were blocked out of judging the tournament, either as low preferences or strikes. I have mixed feelings about Mutual Judge Preference, but frankly I feel that is not the issue here; it was simply harder for two debaters to agree on an adult coach as a one or a two than on a college student. But since all the adult coaches are the people responsible for keeping the activity alive (all of the students and all of the college kids will be long gone while we dinosaurs are still chomping on the ferns and vines), they were rather miffed that they had been cast aside as useless, and were saying as much to each other. Also, I gather there were comments made at DOA that were not exactly kind, and people were paraphrasing them rather liberally. (Contrary to popular perception, I seldom bother reading anything on the site except substantive discussions like Bietz’s column, about theory and practice; I really don’t give a rat’s patoot about much else, and I certainly have little interest in getting involved in long posting duels, given that the one time I did post I was immediately attacked—did you ever feel like Gulliver in Lilliput?).

So what’s the bottom line to all of this? Well, first, for all the commentary among debaters that there is a vanguard in LD setting up a phenomenal new beachhead of theory and practice that will mark the dawn of a new day, most of what is happening in LD has happened before and seems to be happening in roughly the same proportion as always. Of course, there may be some new ideas feeding into the system that will be of use to the community as a whole: I can see presenting an overview of pomo to my team to apprise them of some of these ideas, and if this material is applied to analyzing topics (as compared to ducking them), there’s nothing wrong with that. But then, there are always new ideas feeding into the system. Rawls had his day, for instance, and now there’s not much direct use for him, but no debater was ever harmed by reading one of the most important ethicists of the 20th century, and now his work is a basic element known to and available to all in the activity, if they are so inclined. (It’s also nice to read Rawls’s wonderfully accessible prose as some sort of evidence that decent prose can be written in aid of philosophical ideas, with logic applied the way it ought to be applied by a philosopher trying to make a complex argument.) And the nice thing about the outcome of TOCs this year was that the 16 finalists included strong representation of a traditional approach to LD. A Derridean K spread at lightning speed did not win the day. Which means that the indirect bully pulpit of the TOC, that fear that the fulcrum would provide leverage for the “bad” aspects of LD, enabled co-conspiratorially by sympathetic college students through MJP, didn’t come to pass. No negative message was sent to the world at large, directly or indirectly.

But there is nonetheless a hit to mindsets. The coaches are worried about what is happening to the activity. What they’re worried about may not be happening, but any pomo will tell you that, if you believe it, it’s true. The VB website aggravates this hit. There is indeed power in something like VB, not in providing a platform for what any vocal minority wishes to bloviate on, but in deciding what is and isn’t important. Inflating the importance of competition only acts to imbalance the goals of the community. Granted that VB is a money-making concern predicated on its personal profit motive, its site has outgrown its intent (selling cases and camps and, lately, its tournament). It must recognize this, and act accordingly. It has, purposefully or not, taken on a position of centrality in the community that I’ve never seen before. With great power comes great responsibility. I don’t see them understanding this yet.

Also, it is important that coaches, like me, remain open to new stuff. At the point where we summarily dismiss anything that we don’t like just because we don’t like it, we run the risk of fulfilling the prophecy the vanguardistas are making, that we are dinosaurs about to be melted into Sinclair oil. We need to address issues as intelligently as we want our opponents to address them. Dialogue is necessary, and presumably a teleological dialectic will result.

And lastly, it behooves students to remember that there is more to competition than meets the eye. There are school districts and budgets and buses and chaperones. Few schools permit students to travel as random unaffiliated teams wherever and whenever they wish to go (and few schools could afford it even if they were willing to do it). Schools have responsibilities to their entire student bodies that usually are prioritized over individual desires, especially in the extracurricular area. But more importantly, LD is an academic activity (often literally taught in the classroom) intended to introduce high school students in a meaningful way to the concepts of values/ethics, to enhance their research and writing skills, and to train them as speakers to make cogent arguments in front of a broad spectrum of adjudicators. The goal of the educators is to balance all these elements. If you wish to remove one of them, for example, limiting the audience of adjudicators to a select specialized few, you challenge the entire enterprise. Even if you are correct in what you are saying, promoting vanguardista ways, what you are saying undermines the community. If you succeed in making LD very fast and very selective and very difficult for the general community, you will re-invent policy, and the growth of LD will dissipate. The venues for LD will disappear because the schools will seek other activities that provide what LD was providing. LD as accessible debate will be a distant memory. And perhaps you will have set up Public Forum as the wave of the future to replace it (because PF, as LD once used to be, is a meaningful way to address the concepts of values/ethics, to enhance research and writing skills, and to train speakers to make cogent arguments in front of a broad spectrum of adjudicators).

I don’t think any of this is going to happen, though. I think we will self-correct what small problems we have, and blithely succeed for the foreseeable future. But we’ll only do it together, not as combatants. If you really want to change LD for what you see as positive reasons, you’d better work with the coaches and teachers you have. There really aren’t any others waiting in the wings to take their place. When they’re gone, the future of LD is gone with them.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005


So, sez you, how was it?

Well first of all, it was colder than usual. Kentucky in the spring should mean shirtsleeves out in the sun, Frisbees flying, the smell of the fresh manure that they always seem to lay down the day before we arrive (sort of like sympathetic agricultural magic, or synecdoche, or however you want to look at it). We started with a raging rainstorm, and although eventually we got sun, we never got Southern Springtime. I was looking forward to that.

We had Scott B as a fellow traveler, which was nice, a little unifying Northeastern touch. We met him at the airport and drove down from Cincinnati together. The usual quick registration and some sort of traditional argument with the tab room (Scott’s judge prefs had arrived three seconds after the deadline) and then off to Jalapenos for dinner. I actually own a Jalapenos tee shirt, which I “won” one year as a cinco do mayo prize, which may have also been tied into having a party of 103 and being the one who handed in the check. Having this as my TOC tee shirt, I’ve never felt the need to purchase one of JW’s. (He still has an assembly that stops the tournament cold on Sunday in order to hawk the latest edition.)

TOC Saturday is a busy day. 4 rounds for the debaters, a lunch and a meeting for the LD committee. The lunch is a TOC tradition, serving Hot Browns (created at Brown’s hotel in Louisville to calm the hungry crowds on derby day) and Derby Pie. This year it was at some club that was formerly a mansion owned by a nouveau rich couple that couldn’t break into the Whitneyesque Kentucky social horse scene, and then the husband died and the wife remarried one of the stable grooms (or something like that – JW regaled us with the story as an after-dinner impromptu). Every dinosaur in debate was there from both policy and LD, including a few who you thought were not only merely retired but really most sincerely retired. It’s a social event, not a rantfest, and as long as the room isn’t hit by a comet, a swell time is had by all.

Following this is the LD Advisory Committee meeting. The main order of business at this session is always evaluating the bids. As JW says, it’s not about rewarding or punishing tournaments, but satisfying ourselves that the bids are doing what the TOC needs in terms of supplying the right number people who ought to be at TOCs. There was not much disagreement this year; JW will announce his conclusions toward the end of summer based on the discussion (the conclusions are his; we literally do advise). The next order of business was judges, and the fact that although a lot of judges were hired for the tournament, the mutual judge preferences had relegated at least half of them to the status of wallpaper. I’ll talk more about judging (and the rantfest that underpinned the weekend) tomorrow, but there is general agreement that TOC judging needs to be of a certain standard reflective of the nature of the event, as compared to, say, the average weekend tournament where the spread of judges can be much more diverse (i.e., a well-trained parent is fine at a regional tournament, but a little less than what we want at TOCs). The solution(?) to this problem is to eliminate hireds altogether. JW will provide a list of acceptable judges for those bereft of them, but it is the responsibility of the entrants to provide all their own judging. I don’t think this will change the judge pool much, but it will aid in the tournament not wasting money on unusable judges, and there is certainly sense to that. Aside from the committee’s slice of the rantfest, the other interesting thing is always seeing how we individually ranked the at-large bids (JW distributes a spreadsheet of our choices). If O’Cruz offered me enough money, I might consider selling the list to MVP, but honestly, it must needs be private to the committee. I will say, however, that uniformly over the years there is general agreement. We’re not perfectly aligned, and we each have one or two in our own private Idaho, but we all read the entries about the same way, and rank the at-larges roughly identically. This is a good thing.

Dinner Saturday was at a pretty good steakhouse. Our social weekend comprised us, Scarsdale and Monticello (and Peter and Jacob on Sunday and in the poker game that couldn’t possibly have happened). Annie, it turns out, orders nothing but potatoes. The steakhouse obliged with a baked potato that was roughly the size of Pip the Wondercat. This was a Ripley’s Believe it or not potato. A Guinness potato. A potato that Annie would theoretically be eating after she worked her way through a three-foot pile of steak fries.

We left a trail of potatoes in our wake this weekend.

Sunday was a long day, marked by my judging two whole flights. I claim that this is a factor of not being particularly well-known as a judge, since I’ve been in tab rooms all year. Justin claims that it is a factor of being quite well-known and being cast off as a result. Whatever. Either way, I got to go to Starbucks to read the Sunday Times, I had a lovely lunch at that nice sandwich place near the school, I worked on the semiotics section in Caveman, I read the pomo book I’ve just listed over there to the right, I did the puzzles… What more could you ask?

The whole run-off thing was difficult. I bit the bullet for the first time since 1995 and watched the round. As you know, the reason I don’t watch HH rounds is that I get too emotionally wrapped up in them, eventually turning borderline homicidal. This was no different, but I did enjoy seeing the round, and was happy to see that 2 of the 3 judges were flowing the same two people I was.

That day I had charged Rose J-T with the chore of finding the best ribs joint in town for dinner. She did, she claimed, and off we all went to a restaurant whose name I have thankfully already forgotten. You know you’re in trouble when you walk into a ribs place and the first thing that the hostess tells you is that they’re out of ribs. As the dinner progressed, they also ran out of carbonation, French fries, bottles of root beer and ice cream. Joe V, in sympathy, ran out of patience, and as Jordan said, we would have liked to have left a big tip, but we ran out of money. Fortunately Justin forgot his tie, so the poor (literally) waiter will have something to wear if he ever receives his high school equivalency diploma.

Monday is the Breakfast of Mispronunciation, which was pretty much the usual. Then, of course, no matter how unpreferred you are, you still get to judge octos. Having scored on the strike parade once again, I used the time to work on Caveman. Lunch that day was at some drive-in where the waitresses come to your car on roller skates and say y’all (the plural of which is all y’all, by the way) and forget to collect the money. Good burger.

And finally, home to New York, watching my first Curb Your Enthusiasm shows on DVD. A fine ending to a fine weekend, and I hope next year that you qualify and I can do it all again. (I want to see what happens to Larry David.)

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Jurassic Park 4: The Revenge of the Debate Dinosaurs

We got back from Kentucky late last night. It was a fun weekend, and there's lots to tell, but I've got to catch up on work today, and tonight we're brainstorming CFLs again, so it may take a while. Plus I'm getting ready for the John Ford Adventure, so my time is pretty much taken.

But this I'll say. Kudos to Justin for breaking at TOCs!!! Poor guy had to go 6-2 to do it, as compared to the lay-abouts who only had to debate 7 rounds. Note to universe: Justin, and an awful lot of other people who broke, were far from "progressive." Solid argumentation and deep research on the topic and an accessible style—who would have expected that these orthodoxies would triumph at TOCs?

Details to come.