This weekend gave me another chance to go into the lab of “judging quality,” where I’ve continued to examine the influence of the state of judging in policy debate and its impact on the growth or decline of the activity. Judging seven rounds of varsity policy at Iowa’s IHSSA state this weekend and visiting with some of our coaches who have a policy background, I had the chance to think more about a thought that has continued to bother me, having returned to policy as a coach after many years of absence.
After some rather interesting squirreling at previous tournaments by some fellow judges (not me, thankfully) in elimination rounds this year, and from the review of some ballots reflecting a wide range of views on what policy debate is, I’ve been considering the conjecture that the decline policy debate may be partially attributed to the inconsistency in paradigms practiced, communicated and judged in the round. Applying the perspective from the risk management world, I believe we have indications of substantial error or “noise” in the debate round process which is leading to an inconsistent and lower quality experience, and furthermore, I conjecture that this error is contributing to the decline in the sport.
Consider this: If policy debate is supposed to be an educational experience (as many frameworks and abuse arguments will claim), how is it educational when the same input yields highly inconsistent outputs? Is it educational if a student wins one round and loses another on the same level of quality against the same opponent in the same debate (three judges in eliminations, for instance)? Is it educational, only in communicating the inherent subjectivity and unfairness of the world, and if so, do debaters need to invest such great amount of times to learn this lesson when it may be available elsewhere for less cost? If the same “performance” (not that I’m advocating this specific judging paradigm) by two teams can yield very different results on a consistent basis by judges would certainly have to have a detrimental debate in the recruiting and retention of students interested in the activity. Very few would want to continue an already difficult sport that requires extensive hours invested, practice, camps and weekend after weekend in rounds consuming both Friday and Saturday nights. Remember, these are teenagers we’re talking about. So when that same activity gives a participant a loss when another judge would have declared it a win, it seems probable that this inconsistency would encourage students to find other things to do with their time.
In the conjecture, I should note that I’ve made a clear distinction between paradigms “practiced,” “communicated” and “judged.” If the conjecture is accurate that there is error, I believe it would have to be in at least one of these three areas. Specifically:
Looking through this situation from the perspective of an risk manager trying to figure out where the error is coming from, I believe we owe each area some attention. Because the concept of a judging paradigm is the subject of our search for error, and the concept itself is the topic of many differences and disagreements, part II will have to examine this creature in further detail to make sure we can continue with this examination of round error.
A final note on my conjecture: I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that there certainly are other factors (or “coefficients” for the statistically inclined) contributing to the decline of policy. One would have to certainly question if the expense of running a policy program is a factor. Policy is not something you dabble in and continue. It requires a full commitment from the school, coach, team and parents. “Timesuck” (to borrow the in-round policy concept) from other activities also has to be a factor. Debate alternatives like Public Forum and Congress certainly could have an erosive effect, taking a portion of the quality policy-capable debaters away from the field. These all are items I’ve seen referenced in other discussions and should continue to be examined external to this exploration on the Quality of what occurs within an individual debate round and its contribution to the development or decline of the sport.
(Continue on to Part 2 – Policy Debate Judging Frameworks)