Monday, April 13, 2009

Tubs: A very special episode...

Before engaging in this battle, let’s look at some credentials. I have personally judged a round of extemp every single decade since the early 1990s. I have been in an at least one extemp prep room (although, admittedly, I had wandered in by mistake and was immediately shooed out by the denizens therein). I have double-entered numerous LDers into extemp at our local District Tournament over the years (although—another admission—they were so bad that the NFL’s “down-two-and-out” rule had to be changed to a “down-one-and-never-show-your-face-in-this-town-again” rule). I am, in other words, a seasoned veteran of this activity. Compare CP, who regularly coaches and judges extempers, and who is known to run extemp prep rooms. I have socks older than he is!

So there you are.

CP bases his reply on my two points of cheating and creation of the modern intellect. Let’s look at cheating first.

There’s a couple of ways you can cheat at extemp, apparently. First of all, you can have prepared material on every possible topic. Now, as I said earlier, it seems to me that a good extemper will, indeed, prepare material to some extent on what is perceived as every possible topic, although the extemper will not necessarily bring that material into extemp prep. If I were going to a tournament today, for instance, I’d have something to say, prepared in advance if not toted along, about G-20, pirates, bailouts, stimuli, Republicans, Democrats and Kumar Patel, et alia. The issue seems to be not that I would prepare speeches, but that I would actually write them up and smuggle them in with me. Apparently people do this, or try to do this, already. CP has caught these spalpeens red-handed and thrown them bodily from the prep room. He claims that this is easy to do now, and would not be easy to do if people had computers.

There’s a couple of issues here. First, this sounds like an implementation problem to me. There are, at present, ways of detecting cheaters smuggling speeches in their tubbage. Because computers make this sort of cheating seem easier, that’s good enough reason to ban them? Wouldn’t we be better off arranging the tab room so that the staff can simply see what’s on every screen? Like a computer lab? Wouldn’t students themselves be monitoring their competitors? I don’t know. I just find this logic hard to accept, that this potential problem (which assumes that an awful lot of extempers are, in fact, not good extempers but simply successful cheaters) cannot be solved mechanically. We don’t solve the problem of people smuggling in canned speeches by banning the tubs in which they smuggle them; computers, although harder to police, perhaps, should similarly not suffer banishment just because they are potentially dangerous. And as I say, is the potential of cheating so large? I find that scary.

As for consulting the coaches, I have about the same reaction. Who the hell are these coaches that would provide their students with surreptitious speeches? And why aren’t they in their own rounds judging, for that matter? Again, the assumption is that offering forbidden fruit turns everybody into a forbidden fruitier. I just don’t buy it. And I don’t buy that even if extempers were to consult less than ethical coaches, it would help all that much. I message you that my topic is G-20’s impact on the world economy, say. (As if, as I’ve mentioned above, I weren’t already prepared for that.) What is the God of All Extemp Coaches going to message me back? I mean, yes, I’m being dense here. I just don’t get it. And if it’s truly an issue, the problem is not that we’re being modern in the extemp prep room, but that we’ve got some real stinkers who don’t belong in the educational system. Some method other than banning computers would seem to be necessary to toss them out.

My arguments rely, of course, on the assumption that the benefits of computers would be worth the trouble. My thought was that banning internet access seems, well, a little old-fashioned. (Given that CP himself wrote up the Harvard tournament in light of how well people cited sources, my assumption was that correct use of sources was one of the goals. That was probably a misreading of his posts, which did, in fact, bemoan the pressure to throw in a certain number of sources. I’ll concede that.)

Here’s the crux of CP’s response: “The point of extemp is to develop students whose success is predicated on their ability to manipulate their own brain and knowledge. An extemper who relies on their sources and evidence, no matter the derivation, is already failing. Evidence tubs should be hard to use, because the goal is to wean students off of them, and make them into clear, independent thinkers. Your brain is the fastest database you own, and developing and expanding it is the best investment we can make. A computer offers the most nefarious shortcut imaginable: the search function.… So take an extemp question, [search] the key terms… and there’s your pre-written extemp speech; the thoughts and the words of all the thinkers in your database, strung together topically. Copy them down — no need to understand them! — and you’re ready to go. Search functions thus remove the necessity to walk into an extemp round with prior knowledge of a breadth of subject areas, and thus remove the purpose of the activity altogether. [emphasis added by JM] Knowing the stuff would be easier still, but it’s not enough easier that the bulk of students will need to develop that internal database to succeed. In short, more kids than currently would get away with bullshit.… Sure, the Great Extempers will need to know that stuff — but why should we even allow moderate success to come to those who don’t know anything at all about the world, but sure know how to run a database search?”

And here, I admit, I think he’s got a point. The extemper is supposed to know everything before going into the round—perhaps being one of those people I’m always longing to know, the ones who read the newspaper every day—and should simply use the prep time to synthesize the correct thoughts that are already roaming around in the brain. This makes sense to me. For that matter, how could you be any good on the day of the tournament if you weren’t prepping every other day? That is the academic beauty of this activity. The choosing of the topic and the half hour of prep is simply the focusing of the mind. The ability to string together mindless facts about the topic, gleaned from any sort of research, is a poor substitute for knowing what you’re talking about in the first place. This does raise the question, though, of where the judges come in on this; shouldn’t they be the ones separating the Wheaties from the Chaff Flakes, so to speak? Then again, that presumes competent judges capable of determining the difference between wheat and chaff, and no doubt they’re as rare, or as populous, as they are in every other activity (like, for instance, LD, where neg presumption reigns supreme). CP’s argument is that computers would make for better chaff, perhaps at the expense of the gathering of wheat in the first place.

I wonder. If I already know my stuff, I’d be damned good doing some quick research to bring up the best supporting material. Then I’d present an even better speech. If I don’t know my stuff, I could still be damned good at doing quick research, and it would be a simulacrum of a good speech. And, apparently, the judges are not always going to be able to tell the difference? That’s too bad, but I don’t want to hamstring the better person to limit the abilities of the lesser person.

So there you are. I persist in discounting the whole cheating thing as chimerical. If there were a benefit to computers in extemp prep, we’d devise ways of managing potential abuses. The question is, really, if there’s a benefit to computers in extemp prep in the actual scope and intent of the activity. And here, while at least understanding what CP is saying, I still think I disagree. The thing is, that student who has the broad knowledge, who has the brain we’re trying to create through the educational process of extemporaneous speaking, has to have gotten that knowledge somewhere. Twenty years ago, that knowledge no doubt came from reading the newspapers and the weekly newsmagazines, secondarily clipped and put into tubs. But the thing is, that paradigm of keeping up with things doesn’t stand anymore. Newspapers and magazines are going out of business, and in most cases are barely viable. They have been, for the most part, replaced. A tub filled with Time magazine clippings (or comparable Lexus printouts) is no more representative of how knowledge is gained in 2009 than if one were to bring in hieroglyphs etched on stone tablets. Somehow, keeping in mind this—prior knowledge of a breadth of subject areas [is] the purpose of the activity—is there no way we can integrate computers, the source of that prior knowledge, with the actual activity? To me, it’s a disconnect. Are we going to wait until all the newsmagazines are out of business and then allow computers? Because that’s exactly what’s going to happen in the not very distant future. I think we should be ready for it.


Ms. Crow said...

Just a note on cheating...The other day we were watching a video on plagiarism in my English classes and one line caused every class to break up laughing: "Studies have found that 4 out of 5 high school students have cheated in an academic class." They were laughing because, as one of my kids said, "The fifth kid was lying!"

Ryan Miller said...

So I guess I'm forced to comment on the dispute here, since CP doesn't seem to have a comments function. I guess that's how he proves that he's an extemper and not really a debater?

In any case, I'm fairly impressed by the arguments in his recent post, cat-threats and all, and I guess I see the difference between extemp and debate communities that he does, even among the students on the team that I coach. Because of the lack of direct engagement with opponents, dedicated judging pools with some thought about judge assignment and (at some tournaments) enforced written RFDs, and especially because of the lack of oral critique, I think extempers have a much more "magical" mindset than debaters do, and not in a good way. Further, unlike top interpers, top extempers frequently only even see their competition in a handful of rounds per year, so even that feedback comes mostly through rumor and innuendo.

The result, at least in my case, seems to be that I have a lot less credibility with my extempers than I do with my debaters. When I tell my debaters to try something and they lose, they'll very frequently get reinforcement from the judge to the effect that it was a good try, but they needed to execute it better in some particular way. Further, I know many of the judges, and they can directly give me such feedback, or at my request they'll give feedback to my students outside of rounds. My extempers, however, if they try something and it doesn't work out, are just as likely to believe that it was a bad thing to try, especially if it's contrary to preproom rumors of what works, than to get any detailed feedback on what to change.

So why not move to an opt-in extemp judging situation, where only certain judges see that event? Surely we've gotten to a sufficiently computerized age where tabrooms can handle this. Perhaps we can even encourage 3-minute oral critiques, and more cross-x extemp in outrounds? Then maybe we'd be in a much better position as regards the event's current ills and more able to figure out what the role of computers should be.

This isn't to say that I'm in complete agreement with CP about the virtues of extemp, but I'll save that for another day.