Reforming Lincoln Douglas Debate – Part I

Many have written of the continued decline in the quality of Lincoln-Douglas debate. Having been in the circuit of initial LD’ers in Nebraska in the mid-1980s and coaching policy, PF and LD today, I find myself concurring with the observation. Judging varsity and novice in the upper Midwest, I’ve grown equally frustrated with the “canned” quality of LD debate, walking away from a great number of debates feeling empty. Having thought about this phenomenon earlier in the season, I conducted an informal survey following each round where I asked:

1. What was the aesthetic quality satisfaction I received from the round? Exceptional? High? Moderate? Low? Dismal? (I like scales of five as prospect theory suggests that its a model we approximating humans can relate and relatively rely upon).
2. What was the perceived communication quality of the debaters in the round (again, using the same scale)?
3. What was the perceived intellectual capacity of the debaters in the round?
4. If there was any sense of deficiency in the aesthetic quality, could either the communication or intellectual capacity dynamics have contributed to this perceived shortcoming?
5. If neither quality could have improved the round, what could have?

Interestingly, I not only encountered more than 50% of rounds in the overall aesthetic quality category of moderate or lower, but I consistently found that as the judge, I felt that neither communication quality nor intellectual capacity of the debaters could have significantly improved the aesthetic quality. Indeed, it appeared that something else was damaging the perceived quality. Wondering if it was my perception alone, I began to reach out to other judges and coaches who were active in LD and found they too sensed something significant lacking from the quality of debate. I returned to my notes over the rounds judged using my post-round assessment criteria and took a look at item #5 for guidance and found a consistent theme: In the rounds where quality was less than moderate, I often left wanting more exploration of the ideas being addressed in the debate. In a sense, I felt robbed by a superficial debate where neither debater explored what they set off to accomplish.

As one who also actively coaches policy and loves K debate, I contrasted the observation with my round experiences from policy. Why is it that an hour of policy leaves me feeling rather intellectually satisfied while 30 minutes of LD leaves me feeling empty – especially when the debaters are remarkably good? I find this particularly remarkable given that my debate passion was in LD and not policy. I have to believe the information compression dynamic (using speed/spread) of policy, which provides a judge with a 3-5 hour debate if conducted at conversational speaking rates, provides enough content-time for the exploration of issues by both teams. Having socialized the observation and gotten consistent feedback from other coaches, it appeared that more depth and exploration was indeed needed in LD. But given the desire to keep LD free from extreme policy speed, we’re at a disadvantage in that we can’t use compression (via speed) to expand the debate. Could LD be enhanced without embracing speed and spread? In a following post, I’ll share a draft format for enhanced LD debate and provide some commentary around the structure and purpose for the length of each speech.

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