Connecticut Snows and Elimination Debates

I'm here to challenge a trope - well, more than a trope, something that is the nearest thing to holy writ in U.S. debating circles. That trope: More debate is good.

It took a terrible surprise snowstorm in CT this February to question this assertion that masks itself as the truth. On Saturday night, we had to quickly call the tournament around 8:30 PM due to increasingly bad road conditions, the failure of the City of Danbury to plow anything, and the continued harassment of my bus driver by the Danbury Police. The ice and snow meant the campus wouldn't open until 10AM the next day, so we decided to break to semifinals instead of quarterfinals. 

Starting at 10AM was amazing. My students seemed refreshed, and staying though the final debate didn't seem impossible. Normally, students are asleep in all positions, in all seats, usually halfway through some homework or studying or something like that. The final round is a great experience, but ending a day at 11PM or later and starting the next one at 8AM isn't conducive to making this happen, much less valuable. 

In the U.S. there is a tradition of big breaks. They are seen as ways to keep university students interested in debating and keep coming back. They reward success, allowing all those who win a good number of debates to have the opportunity to become champion. I used to think this was a wonderful way to operate a tournament competition, but now I believe it to be harmful to the experience of debating, and what we can get from it. 

Big breaks and lots of elimination debates harm the competition. It puts people who have done well in the preliminary debates in positions where they could lose everything very quickly before the final round. The value of success in the preliminary debates is heavily discounted. We see this reinforced with the recent wins from way down in the brackets at the last couple of World Championships. 

It skews the value of competition. Competition has a large valence of benefits, and large breaks and lots of elimination debates make that value breaking and breaking only. If a team doesn't break, they might turn their attention to their arguments or sense of argument. If they break, mission accomplished. Teachers of debating, coaches and professors (or whatever we should be called) become comfortable in using the break as the only assessment for student learning. What about reflection, conversation, and other metrics? They are marginalized by the break.

And what a break it can be. In the northeast, policy tournaments often break to partial triple octafinals, just to make sure everyone is "rewarded." Try holding such a competition over a weekend, and the time gets away from you. There's no time for reflection or conversation. There's little to focus on but the next strategy. And perhaps on the way home you can talk about what it all meant, if you are still able to remain conscious after 12 to 14 hours of engaged speaking and thinking. 

BP is not much different. A small break feels mean and harmful, but it encourages community. People tend to stay around longer to watch the elimination debates, forming ideas and ideals about community. Shared rhetorical experiences constitute much more than a present audience, they are constituted as the audience, setting the tone for the ideal audience - what is the BP community? Who are we? Questions such as this are answered or at least engaged operationally through the act of being addressed and interpolated as the audience for a large, elimination round debate. 

The weather can be a lot of things, in this case it was frustration and inspiration for the small break. My students got much more out of not breaking and observing the remainder of the competition than they would slogging through a quarterfinal and six prelims. Ultimately, we will be better off as a competition, a community, and an educational environment when we can learn how to disconnect the rhetoric of success from breaking, and reconnect it to the value of sharing ideas within a community that is constituted through competition and reflection.