Opening Closing; Closing Opening

After the announcement that at USU Nationals this year rounds 7 and 8 would be closed adjudication, I received several short, snarky messages via social media about the ridiculousness of closed rounds, as if it would be clear to anyone that closed rounds are wrong.


As someone who has pretty constantly argued for open adjudication since I started teaching BP in 2007, I was pretty surprised at the poor quality of the arguments about open adjudication. Where are the good arguments for it?


Closed debates might be seen as a “perversion” of open rounds, getting pleasure from inverting the way things “should be.” But this normative claim from those in favor of open debates needs some depth to it. As I write, we await the RFD from several US Supreme Court decisions, all argued several months ago. The results won't be known for a while yet. In other cities, people await decisions through phone calls deciding whether or not they are going to get a new customer, keeping them in business. While all this is going on, they must continue to work, to advocate, to argue, etc. Seems like closed rounds are the social norm. If you even get feedback: “It is our decision to go with another supplier.”


Advocates of open debates argue that it's all about learning. Feedback helps students get better at debating. My response is: Get better at what? What is debating? Open debate advoates think it is about getting more 1s than 4s, and knowing right away helps you prepare for your next round to get more 1s than 4s. What is that getting better at doing? Their answer will be akin to the physician who prescribes a dangerous drug to hopefully give the patient some beneficial side effects – “oh, one day, somewhere, this learning will help them argue.”

What is feedback? It is a chance for the debaters to gather the raw material of the chair's discourse and assemble weapons. Weapons to defend themselves against a “bad judge.” Weapons to help them spread a narrative about how great their arguments were. Are we preparing our students on how to listen to feedback? (Wait, begged question: Are we preparing them to listen?)

As a community, we have no shared narratives on how to lose well. We have ample shared narratives of how to win. So what happens when the chair's narrative violates the reality principle of a team? What should happen? How should they take it and where? There is no conversation here beyond the magic word “pedagogy.” But we don't seem to get farther than magic incantation. Learning is reduced from a broad spectrum of possibilities to the tweaking of a specialized speech for an incredibly small audience of decision makers.

Let's try to open up closed rounds, and also show how closed open rounds are, as an example of the sort of work we need to be doing in order to increase the value of competitive debating.

Let's look at “pressure,” a point of contention for both sides of this issue. Chairs, under pressure to provide an RFD that will be evaluated by the debaters, must produce something that will be acceptable and meaningful to people who just gave their all in a very personal, competitive situation. Chairs may have the call correct, but the articulation is what the debaters hear and know. Without the freedom of some privacy, and some time to think about how to articulate reasons, many chairs, being human, will reach for motivated reasoning. That is, they will come up with a conclusion, then seek out utterances within the debate to back it up. This is also the root thinking of confirmation bias as well. Since the 2011 publication of Mercier & Sperber's work on reason as the creation of natural arguers (we like to think it's the other way). Such decisions, formed via motivated reasoning, might not be as helpful as the debaters need it to be. An RFD that proceeds from the heat of the moment might not get to the heart of the issues. 

Closed debates put pressure on debaters through uncertainty. We seem to have many opportunities for debaters to engage in argumentation while knowing where they stand in the competition, and where their opponents also stand. This sort of pressure, the pressure of clarity, we are good at. But what about uncertainty? There are few educational exercises where students are placed in a realm of the unknown and asked to produce. Most of them, from what I've experienced, don't do so well. And the world we send our debate graduates into consists of far more uncertainty than clearly-explained results.

Artificial openness, which is usually a decision made in just a few minutes, without reflection or much time to get the norms of conversation down with the panel (often it's a group of strangers) is not going to be the most helpful articulation for improvement.

Does feedback craft better adjudicators? It seems that experience in debate is the worldwide standard for quality adjudication. People who have done well at WUDC rarely vacate the chair. I don't know if pressure on chairs to give a good RFD makes them better judges. What might make them better would be time to reflect on the arguments. 

Open adjudication supporters would also support a system where judges must submit written decisions to distribute to the debaters after the tournament. After all, this sort of feedback would be incredibly valuable, helping them improve, yes? But we see no such call.

Those who support closed rounds claim to support an exciting competition, but if that were the case, why not make all the rounds closed? This would be true excitement. Or more realistically, every other round should be closed - this way some results are known, which adds to the tension. 

This tension usually only is experienced as a happy feeling to those who are already at the top and know it. It is a very different feeling for those who are near the bottom, who are just confused about what's going on, where they ranked, and whether or not they won or lost a debate. For those at the top, it is exciting to see where you broke versus where you broke against this and that team last month, but it is a well-controlled environment, one that has the proper tools in place for the appreciation of the tension. 

Closed debates allow a decision to be made without worrying about justifying it to the debaters. This could mean more time is put into the consideration of arguments, but more realistically, it means that there's less concern about getting the reasons right for supporting one team over another. There's no need to really articulate those details in a way that makes sense to the teams. This isn't a concern with packaging the decision - the re-articulation of viewpoints can change them. The changing of the acceptability of an argument (in this case, an argument about why a team took a 2 rather than a 3) also changes the argument sometimes. You hear it, you reconsider, you re-articulate. This process, although probably not providing the clear and educational feedback open debate advocates hope to get, is a good process for everyone to suffer through at some point or another - we are rarely confronted with the instability and arbitrary nature of our human thinking. 

All of the concern over open or closed rounds reminds me of a Buddhist poetic verse written in response to a koan. These are called "capping verses" and are poems masters write to "cap off" the controversy a koan investigates. 

It is too clear so it is hard to see

A dunce once searched for a fire with a lighted lantern.

Had he known what fire was,

He could have cooked his rice much sooner.

- Joshu washes the Bowl. Gateless Gate #7, (Zen Flesh, Zen Bones p. 176)

It should be no surprise that the primary motivation behind those who want either closed or open adjudication is one rooted in the worst of competition, whether you won or not. This comes to you in the best form depending on your culture: Either you like being told you won and why by the judge, like a classroom with familiar analogues to the teacher and the "assignment" being evaluated, or you like the grapevine, the mystery, the suspense of being either in-the-know, or watching those who are in-the-know and seeing their non-verbals, who they are debating, and wondering whether or not your hitting them means something about your points. The "leak" in closed adjudication is a cultural norm, not aberrant, and not unexpected. Both are "open" and both are "closed."

The question here is not whether we should have open adjudication or closed adjudication. That question begs a larger question - why have the rounds judged? Open and Closed don't matter so much, considering we are still unsure what it means to judge a debate. Numerous scholars have written about the concept of assent and agreement, from perspectives that are purely descriptive (such as Toulmin) to much more normative writing (like Aune, Schiappa, Blair, Walton, Van Eemeren, etc). Currently, the most normative scholarship on assent would be the Dutch School, or the scholars working in the theory of pragmadialectical argumentation. Close behind them would be the Canadian School, or "informal logicians." Both are, like debaters are, interested in the question of good argument. How do we make it? How do we know when we have it? But investigation of such issues is stifled by the domination of the conversation by those who are obsessed with competitive fairness and tournaments. This is the lantern in search of the fire.

Remember in 1915, Howard Woodward decided to eliminate judges from his debate competitions, since they constrained the type of topics his students could research, explore, and discuss before the audiences that would attend his events. This is the fire, this is seeing and knowing the fire in front of you.

We seem naive in comparison, considering there are very few, if any, debating clubs that teach competition as a value-in-itself, that competition is the heart of the value of something not winning, or loosing but both-and. Said in a Zen Buddhist way, "Debate is not winning, not losing." The debaters are most often evaluating the quality of the judge, to see if the judge is getting the debate right, and either fuming or valorizing what they hear in response.

Open adjudication would have this educational value if we didn't lash our articulation of worth and value to rankings, and did something more akin to Nietzsche's interpretation of Greek agon ("contest") which he discusses in his essay "Homer's Contest." Value from the performance, not the result, is somewhat difficult to inculcate among people raised in capitalism, but perhaps this is an additional value of debate practice. Until we have a valid and useful theory of competition, there is no point in having the argument of open or closed debates. You could have a tournament of all closed debates and participants would have the same "pedagogical" benefit of open rounds, simply because right now there is nothing but knowing how you know if you have won or lost. There's little conversation about what that means, could mean, or should mean, outside of the norms of a competition that ranks teams from 1 to 4. 

The discourse of open vs. closed debates, and the presence of one subverts the value of alternative ways to discuss a debate once it's over. They do this without justification of anything other than the debate ranking, the win loss. Without a theory of the purpose of competition in the background, neither position has a lot of persuasive play. Both sides agree that results are incredibly important, but there's no articulation as to how - making closed adjudication equally valuable as open. This is how both are lanterns seeking the raging fire. They both propose to bring light to a situation to discover the all-important fire of debate, a fire that we can easily find without either lamp. I'm cooking my rice; why are you fumbling for a lighter?