Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Debate: More on Academy

I've cross-posted this to the Northeast-Forensics group on Google. Please respond there, if you're so inclined.

It would seem that there are a couple of immediate responses to Academy Debate.

First, there’s a misperception that it offers some change of the present debate activities. It was suggested that it would be a new debate activity altogether, or should somehow work as a preventative against certain practices that some coaches find displeasing. This is not the intention. Academy, as it relates to actual debating, should be seen an no different than the connotation of novice or varsity or junior varsity as they relate to their particular brand of debate. Academy is rigidly defined as aimed at sophomores and juniors and excluding seniors; it can also be judged by seniors (and, of course, the usual college judges and coaches). In other words, we limit who can do it, and expand who can judge it, but we do not attempt to interfere with the content, nor make claims for any new content of debate. As I’ve said, in that regard it is something like an expanded junior varsity division. Why not just call it JV? Well, around here JV has a very specific connotation. Aside from Yale, the first tournament of the year for most participants, it only exists in local events, where it comprises mostly sophomores and upwards looking freshman, and is primarily a division that provides randomly paired rounds and access to state finals at the end of the year. In other words, there are no “real” tournaments aside from Yale that offer it, and there it’s only in LD. For the most part, aside from the local occasional one-day events (which I value highly, don’t get me wrong), debaters in LD and Policy are either novices or varsity, and for the most part they’re all varsity in PF. So on the one hand, the idea of Academy Debate is predicated on finding meaningful rounds for intermediate debaters, who both get their heads handed to them at varsity events (a little learning from losing goes a long way) and often learn to dislike the activity (at least LD) because the commitment at the highest levels is so intense, and they’re always facing competition at those highest levels (until they’re bracketed down into the bottom).

So on the one hand, there’s the benefits to a specific group of debaters of a division dedicated to them. Secondly, there’s the benefits to tournaments. Academy is not intended to be some new structure for some new tournaments. Speaking frankly, there are some tournaments that are in trouble, or will be in trouble, and Academy might be the help they’re looking for.

We need to look at the tournament situation in the region. The season begins at Yale, and then for all practical purposes there are no weekends off, aside from holidays, until April. This is not an exaggeration. Some of these are big invitationals, some are local one-dayers, but they take up the entire calendar. Every now and then some program comes along and wants to hold a tournament, and we always tell them the same thing: Fine, but there’s nowhere to put it.

So our calendar is full, and what happens is, the season begins to take shape as a result of what tournaments are when, and teams adjust accordingly. It seems that there’s about one big TOC-qual tournament every month, and there’s a lot of jockeying around them. They anchor a team’s calendar at the varsity end. Then there’s the regular one-dayers, in NY being the MHL and the NYCFL. There’s also about one of these a month, and they anchor the team’s calendar at the other, younger end. And then there’s the tournaments with no bids, and maybe no plans at trying to get bids. The bid-seeking varsity debaters aren’t very interested in these, for the most part, not only because of the lack of bids but because the competition won’t be at their level. Monticello is the perfect example of this, in all its divisions. It comes between Yale and Big Bronx, and used to have bids, but lost them over the years because it really is a regional tournament that doesn’t go out and buy a lot of circuit judges or anything like that. I find it a very welcoming venue, with great amenities for judges and coaches, plus it offers housing to the students. It’s also big enough to hold the winter Olympics in there (and, in Monticello, it is always winter). But after it lost its bids, programs seemed to lose interest in it. What programs didn’t do, I would imagine, was lose interest in developing their sophomores and juniors, many of whom might not debate at the bracketing tournaments of Yale and Bronx because of entry limits. But since Monti had no lure for the top varsity, but divisions that were called varsity (or open) that had to be judged by paid adjudicators, it became much less attractive. It was one thing to get some rounds for lightly seasoned debaters when you also had the chance to pick up a bid, and another thing altogether to get some rounds for lightly seasoned debaters between the expensive Yale and Bronx events, at the same cost.

Over the last couple of years attendance has declined steadily at Monticello, and the tournament runs the risk of disappearing, yet it is a venue that has proven it can hold a tournament of great size successfully (no easy feat year after year). If it were to disappear, I would bet dollars to doughnuts that someone else would grab the weekend, but the same issues would ensue, regardless of who grabbed it under what aegis. The bracketing tournaments determine that this one will always be what it is (unless Yale and Bronx somehow lose their bids). So we are faced with the situation of lightly seasoned debaters losing an opportunity for rounds on this weekend (and there are a couple of other weekends like this throughout the year, but let’s stick to one example for now). We can let the weekend expire, or we can try to revitalize it.

The other half of Academy Debate, and the reason for its name, is that tournaments offering this division will also offer training/workshops/lectures/brainstorms—whatever makes sense to provide not just much-needed rounds to a particularly underserved audience, but also desirable educational enhancement. Not every team has the coaching resources to do a lot of this, even if they’re piloted by strong educators. But if we find an open slot or two at a given tournament, and allow students at that tournament to brainstorm the next topic, or hear a lecture on social contract, or whatever, it becomes an even more desirable event to add to a team’s calendar. We not only get tournaments on the calendar specifically geared to the most experienced and the least experienced, but also for those in the middle.

It may be a lagniappe of having seniors judge that certain seniors with strong credentials might also participate in training. Rising varsity might especially appreciate a half hour discussion of, say, theory, from a bidded-up LDer known for running theory. Or a crack PF team who explain how they, personally, prep for a topic. There are plenty of opportunities like this, that would appeal both to the seniors showing off their skills and to their potential audiences.

Obviously the nature of the academic events offered at an AD tournament would vary according to the personnel at the tournament. And some tournaments might offer in only one division, because their other divisions are TOC level. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. And most tournaments wouldn't offer it all, because they're serving a different audience.

The plan is to test this idea at the Byram Hills tournament in January. The situation there is a tournament right after the break, the week before Big Lex, conflicting on the national level with the Sunvitational. This is a young tournament that has never drawn a strong varsity field, and it never will. But the intermediate students who will get crushed next week at Big Lex might really benefit if Byram were an Academy Debate tournament, with rounds at their level and enhancements for their long-term careers. And that’s what we’re going to try to do.

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