[eDebate] The Mission Impossible Role of the Topic Committee

Ede Warner ewarner
Mon May 29 00:33:04 CDT 2006

Dear Topic Committee and NDT/CEDA Community:
Given the lack of public discussion about my last post which offered two ways to view the role of the topic committee, one can only assume that the role of the topic committee is to find the best topics it can, based on two primary factors: 1) the debate theoretical knowledge and experience of the topic committee members; 2) filtering the available research through that debate knowledge and experience. No matter how willing the committee is to consider outside "voices" and perspectives , the reality is that at the end of the day, the topics that will appear on the topic will come down to the votes of those on the committee. And they have made it repeatedly clear, that they will only support topics they are comfortable with as part of their charge. And I can accept that. We vote for qualified topic committee members whose job is to create the best topics they can for the purpose of a general election in which the larger committee picks the best topic from a group of topics deemed acceptable for a year of debate by the topic committee.  Those who disagree, if there are many, need to be more vocal and vote in topic members willing to consider alternative ways of topic construction, or live with the choices being made presently.

But I do struggle with the lack of evidence that currently seems to drive present day decision making about topic construction. And I certainly don't believe the following concern is only true of the topic committee, but a majority of NDT/CEDA members as demonstrated by these discussions over possible topics, areas, and ground. While I see everyone fervisherly working on constructing possibilities for this year's topic, I still see a lack of goals and asessment measures in place PRIOR to making those decisions. In the earlier post, the question posed to the committee was simply: is the purpose of the committee to create a ballot of the "best" topics or should the committee create a set of different community choices which represent the areas of topic construction disagreement so that the community can use the voting process to resolve those differences? Is the committee charged with resolving differences like area versus list, or questions of who is the best agent, or is the committee charged with producing a series of topics which represent those differences so the community can vote on it's preference of those differences as it relates to this particular topic? These are very different thought processes.  My challenge to the community is that if it wants to produce the best topics it can, it must be willing to think reflexively about the history of topic construction and where present ideas about construction come from, and most importantly, the quality of the evidence that drives many of the commonplace beliefs held by a majority in the community. 

One example which creates some of the tenstion I believe is the notion that the term "predictable ground" has evolved to become synomous with the term "absolute certainy." Although I think the evidence is overwhelming that this evolution has occurred, I'll offer some evidence before making any arguments:


Wake's NDT page has a list of topics at http://www.wfu.edu/organizations/NDT/HistoricalLists/topics.html 

I'll post the last 60 years for years ending in 6-7:

RESOLVED: "That labor should be given a direct share in the management of industry. 

RESOLVED: "That the United States should discontinue direct economic aid to foreign countries." 

RESOLVED: "That the United States should substantially reduce its foreign policy commitments

RESOLVED: "That the federal government should significantly strengthen the guarantee of consumer product safety required of manufacturers." 

RESOLVED: "That one or more presently existing restrictions on First Amendment freedoms of press and/or speech established in one or more federal court decisions should be curtailed or prohibited." 

RESOLVED: "That the United States Federal Government should increase regulations requiring industries to substantially decrease the domestic emission and/or production of environmental pollutants." 

And each year since 1997:

RESOLVED: "That the United States Federal Government should amend Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, through legislation, to create additional protections against racial and/or gender discrimination. 

RESOLVED: That the United States Federal Government should adopt a policy of constructive engagement, including the immediate removal of all or nearly all economic sanctions, with the government(s) of one or more of the following nation-states: Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Syria, North Korea 

RESOLVED: That the United States Federal Government should substantially increase its development assistance, including increasing government to government assistance, within the Greater Horn of Africa. 

RESOLVED: That the United States Federal Government should substantially increase federal control throughout Indian Country in one or more of the following areas: child welfare, criminal justice, employment, environmental protection, gaming, resource management, taxation.
2002-2003 RESOLVED: that the United States Federal Government should ratify or accede to, and implement, one or more of the following:

The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty;
The Kyoto Protocol;
The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court;
The Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights aiming at the Abolition of the Death Penalty;
The Treaty between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Strategic Offensive Reductions, if not ratified by the United States.

2003-2004 Resolved: that the United States Federal Government should enact one or more of the following: 
Withdrawal of its World Trade Organization complaint against the European Unions restrictions on genetically modified foods; 
A substantial increase in its government-to-government economic and/or conflict prevention assistance to Turkey and/or Greece; 
Full withdrawal from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization; 
Removal of its barriers to and encouragement of substantial European Union and/or North Atlantic Treaty Organization participation in
peacekeeping in Iraq and reconstruction in Iraq; 
Removal of its tactical nuclear weapons from Europe; 
Harmonization of its intellectual property law with the European Union in the area of human DNA sequences; 
Rescission of all or nearly all agriculture subsidy increases in the 2002 Farm Bill. 


Resolved: That the United States Federal Government should establish an energy policy requiring a substantial reduction in the the consumption in the total non-governmental consumption of fossil fuels in the United States.


The United States Federal government should substantially increase deplomatic and economic pressure on the People's Republic of China in one or more of the following areas: trade, human rights, weapons nonproliferation, Taiwan.

And of course, the last Supreme Court topic:

RESOLVED: "That one or more United States Supreme Court decisions recognizing a federal Constitutional right to privacy should be overruled." 


1)  The original goal of topic construction was to define an area for debate, sometimes defining a particular mechanism, and from that area came the negative's predictable ground.  There historically was always some measure of uncertainty which allowed students "the right to define" the topic in some aspect.  The number of possible cases has varied from literally thousands on some topics to a handful on others.  However, some aspects of affirmative flexibility have been kept in place until very recently.
2)  There has been a growing shift in the destruction of affirmative flexibility in topic construction.  In the beginning, the affirmative has had flexibility in the mechanism, like how labor should be given a share of management (46-7) or how the USFG should influence foreign policy (56-7).  96-7 is the first time in our list that the affirmative is required to amend a particular piece of legislation, a serious departure from allowing the affirmative room to figure out how they would achieve the terms outlined in the topic.  But there, the affirmative is allowed to pick the area within Title Seven that they want to amend.  In 97-98, while the affirmative is required to lift sanction to five countries, use of the term "constructive engagement" allowed the affirmative flexibility in creating the case.  By 2002, the affirmative flexibility is all but destroyed as both the area (5 treaties) and the mechanism (ratify, accede to and implement) drastically reduced flexibility.  
3)  The number of cases perceived topical by the community on the 91-2 courts topic, changed over the course of the year, as a result of research and an evolution of argument strategies.
4) In recent year's, topic construction seems quite concerned with eliminating affirmative flexibility and increasing absolute certainty of predictable ground as opposed to a reasonable estimate of predictable ground.  Certainly, Treaties and Europe were moves in that direction. And while energy and China did not list the cases that could be run, the requirement of both mechanism (the how) and the area (the what), drastically reduce affirmative flexibility in case construction in an effort to create absolute certainty and not reasonable predictability.
5)  The number of cases run on any given topic is generally substantially lower than the number of possible cases that could be run, although that number varies I'm sure from year to year.
1)  Is the goal of absolute certainty desirable?  Is there any educational value to affirmative flexibility?  Does absolute certainty necessarily tradeoff with predictable ground?
2)  Is there a community consensus on the number of possible cases that one tries to create in outlining a topic? 5, 10, 100, 1000?  Should there be different numbers on the ballot or should all topics create about the same certain number of cases?  Does the goal of negative ground as a reasonable estimate no longer exist?
3)  Are there any measures of how to balance concerns about "predictable ground" with "affirmative flexbility"?  Have any formulas or criteria been developed to test topics in this area?
4)  During topic construction, does a large number of possible cases eliminate a topic from consideration?  If a topic has potentially 1000 cases, but only 10 are "good" affirmatives, does that topic get treated the same as a topic with 10 total affirmatives, with only 5 of those being "good"?  Will the committee be able to "test" topics in 2 ? days?  If so, how?
5)  Is there a point where the goal of predictable ground begins to tradeoff with other important competitive and educational goals, like creativity and strategy?  How does that goal get balanced?
6)  Where is the evidence that the debating of the last decade is substantially better than the debating of the forty years prior to that, given the current method of the topic committee is relatively new in historical context?  How willing is the committee in defering to that history in the production of some of its topics, in an effort to offer the community some topics where predictable ground is a reasonable estimate as opposed to an absolute certainty?
I write this because I fear than many of the justifications for what the committee considers "best" these days is subjective to me and flies in the face of a lot of history.  I won't make arguments that the way we write topics has lead to the downfall of debate, because that is overly, overly simplistic.  But I will say, that as we get further entrenched in a debate belief that attempts to create absolute certainty as the standard for a good topic, I would hope that the community is willing to stay introspective and test that premise against our own historical evidence to the contrary.  I think that the goal of the committee has evolved as topics have evolved, from a role of producing a series of topics which offer some reasonable estimates at predictable ground to a charge of producing with absolute certainty what the negative ground will look like.  I think this is an unmanageable goal for 2 ? days or even a month, and may be part of the growing difficulty in creating topics.  But I wish the committee luck over the next week in overcoming these hurdles.  I hope my questions and thoughts are productive ones.
Thanks for reading, 
Ede Warner, Jr.
Director of Debate Society/Associate Professor of Communication
University of Louisville
308E Strickler Hall
e0warn01 at gwise.louisville.edu

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