[eDebate] Topic Formulations - Whats your method?

Gordon Stables stables
Mon Apr 24 14:51:25 CDT 2006

Jackie, and all,

I am not sure why there was any mystery about the composition of the 
committee. We all won public elections, we post on the subject, and the 
items are available via the ceda website.

That aside, In the spirit of an informative discussion starter, let me 
provide a little insight into how I approach the topic process. I will 
speak only to my perspective and nothing in this should be construed as 
anything else.

This is my second year on the topic committee. I view this is an 
important community service because it is this work in the off-season 
(and during the prior season) that sets the foundation for the coming 
topic. It is an important task and one frankly that I approach with the 
knowledge that I as a person benefited a tremendous amount because of 
hard work and foresight of past committees when I was debating. I thank 
them for their work in selecting topics as timely and valuable as the 
right to privacy, the commander-in-chief power, south asia and pacific 
rim trade. I initially didn't see a lot of personal stake in many of 
those areas, but the process of being exposed to timely and valuable 
topics helped me develop my personal and political beliefs.

That should be the first insight into my view of the topic. I view the 
role of the topic as a starting point for a process of education, not a 
subject that should be desirable to all or even many. I firmly reject 
the perspective that we should pick a topic that can or should seek 
universal adherence. I am very grateful that earlier coaches gave me the 
opportunity to learn what I felt about an area, rather than pick their 
favorite personal belief and try to get us to support it.

In practice, this process of emphasizing process means that I support 
engaging a controversial area that possesses policy literature 
sufficient to debate both the merits and process of policy change. The 
task of locating this opposing literature gives debaters to the 
opportunity to reach out to a system beyond their own knowledge and thus 
grow through research. In many cases, my worst topical experiences were 
those that didn't enjoy a great deal of public controversy. When we try 
to steer away from the site of literature based debates we leave our 
community no choice but to invent their own controversies. These may be 
interesting, but they lack the ability to sere a predictable and 
developing basis for our season.

A related approach is that I am concerned about our ability to fairly 
relate our topic to essential debates in a given area. We often debate 
topics once a decade or longer. I feel that puts a high burden on 
ourselves to make sure that when we debate 'X' that we have provided a 
valuable representative sample of that literature. This is why I was 
committed to making topical actions include Taiwan last year, because I 
felt that the China-Taiwan axis was on the most pressing questions that 
our students should learn. I will also admit to being very persuaded by 
Bill Newnam's posts declaring trade as the single most important in 
Sino-US relations. It is important that our community has a slate of 
topical choices that preserve those options for you to decide. We get 
one bite at the apple and it needs to be a good one.

I also view that this focus on policy literature controversy may 
sometimes encourage us to support what would be seen as conservative 
policies, at least one side of the topic. In this case I will be clear 
to state that I am only speaking about my view, but I feel the further 
that debate insulates itself into a contest of who can be more liberal 
we do a tremendous disservice to ourselves and our students. I hope the 
observation that debate is largely comprised of deeply passionate 
liberal perspectives isn't controversial. This is not to say that there 
are not many debaters, coaches and judges who would self-identify as 
politically conservative, but we should recognize that our general scale 
of policy arguments is representative of only a fraction of the larger 
political spectrum (generally - center-left to extreme left). Consider 
our re-appropriation of the 'clash of civilizations' phrase. Aren't many 
of our major civilizational fault lines usually the political left vs. 
an ideological left?

As I work to identify significant policy controversies I often find that 
these represent divergent political philosophies. These are difficult to 
resolve and often very controversial, but that is the essence of what 
makes them great debate topics. They are rich enough to allow us to 
immerse ourselves and encounter new insights or perspectives. Sometimes 
they will involve restricting personal freedoms, supporting a war or 
otherwise embracing a more conservative philosophy. I felt that both 
last year in the China as military threat debate and this year in the 
potential War on Terror topic our community shouldn't look past the 
opportunity to experience the debate about military force at this 
signficiant political moment. We may not share the same convictions 
about the war, but to deny that this is perhaps the most salient 
political issue of this generation is not healthy.

I worry that rejecting those topics because it involves defense of 
conservative views is a dangerous trend that makes us closer resemble 
the worst of classroom education. We can all appreciate how the desire 
to avoid controversy has reduced important classroom topics to mere 
cartoons, if present at all. Our protected political space is wonderful 
because there is room to learn and develop. I would love it if our 
classroom experiences rendered this element of debate duplicative, but I 
don't see that as likely. Debating controversies allows us to weigh 
strategies and tactics. As someone who debated the right to privacy, I 
remember being shocked by Rosenberg's contention in the Hollow Hope that 
there were some ways to appreciate how Roe v. Wade had ultimately been a 
victory for the right to life movement. Debaters may take that example 
as so outdated, because we have been exposed to the strategic nature of 
these arguments. I wish more people and more debaters got those chances. 
I guess I still remember Ralph Nader's call to the left in 2000. He said 
there was no difference between Bush and Gore. Apparently a number of 
liberals thought it didn't matter so they made a principled stand. I 
think back to that principle vs. strategy moment and often wish that 
more citizens had our skills to assess the differences between a 
strategic decision and a principled stand.

Finally, many people write to this forum seeking to make the topic 
something that better resembles their view of the world. I may be 
getting a little jaded but I view the topic as a community affirmation 
of something we agree about, even at some nominal level. My own research 
about the history of the NDT leads to me the conclusion that the rise of 
a single topic, national championship model of debate that we embrace 
was designed to give some central way to have widely disparate regions 
and styles compete under a single roof. If you believe that debate 
shouldn't be about the USFG or that we shouldn't ask debaters to switch 
sides I welcome your continued voice in this forum.

At the same time, instead of trying to remove the unifying approach of a 
national policy topic that has guided college debate for sixty years, 
why not host a tournament under your own rules? I think we sometimes 
suffer from a tyranny of form. We resist change in our procedures 
because someone else does it some other way. My observation is that our 
community both embraces the national topic and enjoys some diversity in 
its practices. The JMU Cup, the recent Towson news, the Wake 9/11 
debates, Lousville's super bowl of debate and dozens of other events on 
our campuses speak to the diversity of possible debate practice. None of 
these enjoy the popularity to unseat our current model, but that in no 
way speaks the benefits and appeal of multiple formats. If the topic and 
the format isn't what you want, draft up your own approach and invite 
us. I think we would all be better for greater creativity in this 
regard. Speaking only for myself, I would enjoy the chance to coach our 
students at tournaments designed to ask other questions.

I hope this has helped you gain an appreciation of how I approach the 
topic process. I would also suggest you read my area papers on Democracy 
Promotion or Presidential Power to see how these philosophies are 
manifested. On that note, we need help from members of the community to 
work on all of the areas for next year. If you are interested, just let 
us know.


Gordon Stables, Ph.D.

Director of Debate

Annenberg School for Communication

University of Southern California

Office: 213 740 2759               Fax: 213 740 3913


debate at ou.edu wrote:

>Here are the people on the topic committee I think.  Sometimes my posts seem more like call-outs than 
>discussion starters.  Hopefully, this is an informative discussion starter.
>It might seem like a Supreme Court call for party affiliation, but it is not!
> Mancuso 
> E. Lee 
> Stables 
> Galloway 
> Steinberg 
> Patrice 
> D. Elliot 
> T. Odonnel 
> M. Gordon
>Inevitably ? The topic committee will meet at the end of May, beginning of June.
>We will have a topic area.  These people will have to create a topic.
>Now my question is how will these people be approaching the topic formulation process.
>Last year I was told there would be a broad topic on the ballot.  Then after the support for a possible broad 
>topic, one of the members dimissed the topic as a bad idea. 
>So my question is how do you approach topic construction.
>I know most of you have no reason to respond, and would rather just show up and create a topic without 
>people understanding the methods in which you see the process should go down.
>Example #1 --  I assume the topic will say ?USFG should?.   Now,  will what the "USFG should" do -  be binding 
>to allow ?negative ground? or will what the ?USFG should? do be open in relation to the topic area.
>Example #2 ? Is negative ground better or more important than affirmative flexibility?  Will the affirmative be 
>restricted to specific ?bad? actions so the negative can have an argument? (yes bad is subjective ? that is why 
>any restrictor is biased)
>Example #3 ? Can we identify all of the solvency advocates/options within a topic area in the six weeks or four 
>days of the topic committee meeting?  Does the wording invite us to explore, or restrict us with definitional 
>I really have no clue on how some of the people on the committee approach these issues.  I have never even 
>met some of these people.
>I am not really up for debate on how you see it, I just want to know how you see it, so when the topic committee 
>meeting happens, there will be more familiarity with the process you will be utilizing. (backchannel me if you 
>I promise I will not respond to indict your method, but would find it very helpful to have an idea of what lens you 
>see topic construction through.
>eDebate mailing list
>eDebate at ndtceda.com

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