Public Forum & Judging Paradigms

The world of public forum (PF) debate survived my judging this weekend at the Lincoln Northstar tournament thanks to a non-squirrel ballot in a well executed, highly competitive semifinals round. However, the experience only raised further question about the impact judging plays in debate. While I’ve judged more than 60 policy rounds and 16 Lincoln-Douglas rounds this year, this was my first PF one. As my earlier posts on the influence of judging on the quality of debate have examined, it’s been my conjecture that the debate community could embrace a more effective model of judge paradigm disclosure in order to further the values of education, enjoyment and real-world adaptation. Indeed, I’ve argued that the role of judge adaptation is enhanced through the development of more proficient judge classification models, more consistent pre-round paradigm disclosure, and post-round ballot disclosure with the explanation of the reason for decision through that paradigm lens.

I’ve contended that policy debate, in particular, suffers from the failure of the “pre-round judging paradigm exchange” and causes poor adaptation. The result is a mismatched round, where one or more teams may argue down the wrong path. The result is a surprising ballot which leaves teams feeling robbed and the debate experience diminished. For instance, several exceptional central Iowa teams were surprised by this judge’s particular view that solvency is still an affirmative burden, even when the round has gone critical on both the affirmative and negative. The result of this mismatch is a minimized learning experience, especially when post-round disclosure and criticism through the paradigm is not provided. Debaters fail to adapt, frustration increases and eventually alternative uses of weekend time are contemplated.

Adaptation’s Role in the Real World

I’ve suggested that there is a highly relevant real-world application of this judging paradigm issue that, through its application and development in debate, has a powerful educational capacity in the preparation of high school students for professional life. A year and a half ago, I struggled through “judge adaptation” with my then new boss, the Chief Information Security Officer of First Data – United States. A remarkably gifted and exceptionally insightful man, I initially found myself confounded in one-on-ones and meetings with my new boss as my presentations tended to only increase his confusion and raise further questions than answer them. After some significant agony, I remembered the role of judge adaptation and worked diligently to examine how my style of presentation was not corresponding to his paradigm. However, I’m confident that had I not figured that adaptation out, my capacity to be successful in my position would have been significantly impaired. (Many thanks to my friend Jarra Keskessa for his excellent advice that helped me in that particular adaptation exercise!)

So with this weekend’s PF judging experience, I’ve returned to revisit the paradigm question. As a debate format that embraces greater emphasis on presentation, understandable speaking speeds and laymen judges, PF seems like a great format that includes a larger population of students into the debate world. However, as a coach who has seen ballots written by soccer moms that advise my students that “You did a better job arguing but I just believe that alternative fuels are necessary for cars and just can’t vote for someone who argues otherwise” throws me into fits. Countless academic papers over 70 years about the harms of judge intervention in debate are thrown into the barrel for incineration.

Questions of the PF Judge Paradigm

With the preface that I’m certainly inexperienced at the PF world and know that it is coached and practiced with great results by some of my coaching friends and their teams, I would suggest that the format could benefit from further consideration of paradigm issues that, while not unique and exclusive to this format, appear to be significantly more prevalent to it:

1. No communication of judging paradigms before the round: This appears to be an explicit aspect of the PF culture, though it finds periodic placement in LD and policy. The team is left with no capacity to adapt to a judge, except for prior judging experience. A risk manager would suggest that this creates a distorted market where “winners win and losers lose” – indeed, I can vouch for this factor in the policy circuit and would suggest it is even more profound in PF. Also, cross-apply my real-world “boss adaptation” comments from above. We pre-disclose judging standards before risk assessments, university accreditation reviews and even set these expectations before a Wal-Mart auto technician conducts their “15-point checkup” on the car, yet leave this aspect mysteriously absent in many debates. The debate becomes an analog to an essay test graded on criteria not provided prior to the exam.

2. Lack of classical qualitative deconstruction in the judges examination of the round: How does the judge make his/her decision? As a policymaker, I closely integrate flow-based argumentation with the standards and theories of policy debate. However, I find many PF judges making minimal notes (or worse, purely aesthetic judgment inclusive of personal biases), and gravitating toward messages that resonate with their personal experience. Indeed, the round is decided on “which team made ME believe in their story,” a model which may have a value, but is arguably interventionist through the inclusion of self and allegedly harmful (Berube 1994, Day 1966) unless structures are provided to allow the debaters to know what ME they need to appeal to in the round. Granted, some degree of intervention must occur in the round, but Day and Berube have provided compelling justification to keep that to the greatest minimum, and in doing so, openly disclose that scope of intended intervention through the paradigm. This is a practice consistently found in the world of governance, risk and compliance, where the views of the expert assessor may have a detrimental impact if not carefully identified and disclosed.

3. Failure to disclose the judges decision in the round: On an emotional level, non-disclosure strikes me as a cowardly way to make a decision. It takes courage and conviction in your paradigm to disclose to two exceptional, closely matched teams after a heated semi-finals or finals round. “Real judges” put their paradigm to the test, and through this disclosure process, actually become part of the learning experience themselves. Yesterday’s comments after an outstanding varsity LD semifinals by the ever-sharp judge Adelle Burk caused me further examine my LD model (in particular, how I examine non-status quo negative alternatives), even though we both voted for the same debater. Without this disclosure, debaters are left guessing at how to reach the judge. Combined with the lack of pre-round paradigm disclosure, they’re left playing a game of process-elimination: keep trying things until you finally pick up a ballot, and then see if you can repeat the experience. Furthermore, disclosure itself facilitates discovery. In the business unit risk assessments I conduct for First Data, risk findings are communicated openly and honestly with the assessed business before presentation to executive management. This not only invites consensus, but expands the representation of reality beyond the assessor’s mind. This is a critical test in the discovery process and deserves a fundamental role in high school debate.

4. Absence of greater judging guidance: PF embraces the laymen judge, and in doing so, makes a tremendous assumption that a layman judge is more qualified to discover and discern quality in the round. This may be an appropriate assumption backed by educational research, but it should be disclosed as it is fundamental to the determination of winners and losers.

I’m determined to explore the PF world with greater intensity this next year as we will be expanding its role in our school’s debate program. In the mean time, these are several issues I’ll be wrestling with as I try to evaluate the role of judging paradigm.


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