[eDebate] Topic Formulations - Whats your method?
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
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
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!
> E. Lee
> 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.
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>eDebate at ndtceda.com
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