Why is Policy Debate so Hard?

The summer break for blogging is over!

There really shouldn't have been much of a break - but the world decided I should take one. The world being really, really poor internet due to our hotel in Mexico (not Mexico, which was really great, and had some wonderful free public wi-fi that was superior to what we have in New York City for the most part) and spending much needed time with family in Houston in between teaching sessions for the Houston Urban Debate League summer camp.

While teaching at HUDL the Olympics were in full swing. I would teach some World Schools debate, and see a bit of Olympics on my friend's phone or at night on TV, or out at a bar. The combinations of a global competitive event showcasing excellent athletes from all over the world combined with teaching a competitive event of excellence in verbal and mental gymnastics was not lost on me, and still isn't. Policy debate, a favorite target of those who support more recent forms of debating, is always seen as hard and confusing by new students, and that difficulty is touted by its defenders as the best thing about it.

Why do events become so insanely difficult?



I would like to create a similar image about American policy debate. But this image is analogous to the difference in what counts as a good debate in the mid-century United States, and what counts as a good policy debate in 2012. No better or more direct image is required.

Transcripts from 1950s debates that I have read indicate the exact same breadth of difference as a vault from 1956 and today. "Sticking the landing" or "the launch" are the same technical considerations that policy debaters face when preparing for competitions.

Which of these two images is better? Which one is the one we should structure our debating competitions around? Which one should be properly called "The Vault?"

And why is vaulting, or policy debate, so hard?

The answer is deceptively simple - competitive events that people love and that people are drawn to participating in change and grow as competitors innovate the practices of the form. It appears so hard, because it is an amalgamation of a variety of beliefs about practice.

This innovation has no risk of destroying the competitive form as long as participants are becoming the coaches and teachers of the event. If you notice, all critics of contemporary policy debate practices come from people who have explicitly or implicitly left it. In their mind, the practices they were involved in are more like the image on the left. The way a debate looks to them today is more like something on the right - "how in the world can someone do that?" they ask. They are also concerned that nobody, upon watching a debate on the right, would be able to believe they could do that. It seems beyond them.

The answer is that through practice and through innovative pedagogy, people are able to perform. It is an illusion that someone would need to master the practice on the left in order to master the practice on the right. It is also an illusion that someone would need to master some basic form of debate to then advance to being good at policy debate. Teach the twist right away, I say. Teach the event and teach it well.  Don't teach an artificially constructed evolution or some sort of development of progress made up in your own head.

In fact, those at the top of policy debate these days are practicing something that looks more like a basic form of debate. But don't be fooled by that, it is much more self aware and much more complex than it appears. It looks like the vault on the left, but contains within it the vault on the right.

Policy debate is so difficult because it can be either image, or hide one image as the other one. Which vault is more difficult? Which is better? In gymnastics, the performance is inter-subjectively verifiable. In debating, we have no such luxury.Policy debate is hard because it is the vault of appearances and meaning.

Healthy competitive events evolve and change over time in order to make themselves more interesting. But the motive at the time is competitive victory. Innovation that might benefit the whole field comes from raising the bar by increasing difficulty in the event. At the time, it might seem like the event has changed. Some will say for the better, some will say for the worse. But all will say that the two images are virtually unrelated, except that they are called the same event - "The Vault" - whatever that means.

"Debate" - what does that mean? What should it mean? What counts as innovation in debating? What should count?

Is it possible to go too far in innovation? At what point does debate no longer resemble itself? At what point are we no longer engaged in debating?

These questions - often the direct and apparent subject of policy debate rounds - are the reasons that policy debate is so hard.

And it will continue to become more so as students and their teachers continue to innovate and create on campuses all over the U.S.


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