[eDebate] MPJ and the purpose of debate - false dichotomy

LACC, Forensics forensics
Tue Oct 31 20:05:35 CST 2006


I have some responses to Steve's comments, but first, I want to make a
comment about my use of the example of the murder of Rex Copeland: If anyone
who knew Rex or is/was associated with the Samford program was offended by
my use of that example, I apologize. I thought that I had avoided hyperbole
by pointing out that it was an extreme example of how far some people will
go to achieve competitive success. The reason I used this example was that
in my time coaching in Ohio, I met a number of people who debated against
Rex and were close friends of his. All of these people told me that the
motive behind Rex's murder was his coach's anger that he was planning to
quit the team. If these facts are in error, I truly apologize for bringing
up such a painful incident to make my point about some people's obsession
with competition. 

>Over the years I have found myself in agreement with most everything
>that Ken Sherwood writes on this list about debate. In fact I agree
>with a substantial part of his message today about MPJ. Personally
>I'm somewhat torn between the benefits and drawbacks of the MPJ system.

>But I do want to disagree emphatically with his dichotomy that is
>based on the assumption that if one is in favor of MPJ that it is
>because they view the purpose of debate as competitive as opposed to
>educational. There is not "only one" purpose for MPJ.

>First, I believe there are extremely strong pedagogical reasons to
>use MPJ - when used in certain ways. Ken's view that "having
>debaters adapt to all types of judging is educational" is obviously
>valid. But I think equally valid is the view that our debaters learn
>more from certain types of judges - judges who have kept up on the
>topic and have a working knowledge of the topic that develops along
>with that of the debaters as the year continues. Debating in front
>of these judges gives debaters incentives to research and make their
>arguments even more complex and sophisticated, which is certainly a
>sound pedagogical goal.

I agree with what Steve says in this part of his post except for one thing:
all of this can be achieved without MPJ. I have never, nor do I think I will
ever advocate lay judging in debate. This is one of the places where, for
years, I have vehemently disagreed with those who prefer parli to policy. I
even argued at NCA during a panel discussion that I find no place for lay
judging in policy debate. When I coached on the high school circuit I was
always bothered by So. Cal league tournaments that had rules prohibiting
coaches from judging at tournaments. I think there should be clear
qualifications for someone to be allowed into the judging pool at all.
However, once those qualifications are met, I think Steve's pedagogical
objectives are also met. Having watched MPJ in practice for many years now,
I really do think the evidence shows that MPJ allows debaters to only debate
in front of judges who happen to like their particular style and types of
arguments. If judging is run random from a qualified set of individuals,
then debaters will always have the opportunity to debate in front of judges
who have kept up on the topic.

Secondarily, while the evidence may be anecdotal, I think it strongly
indicates that a common reason debaters prefer certain judges is because
they do not want to explain their arguments but want judges who have more
than just a working knowledge of the topic but a specific knowledge of their
critical authors that allows them to avoid having to explain some of the
more basic elements of the argument. To give a specific example, the first
time I ever heard Agamben was at the Pepperdine tournament last year.
Throughout the debate, I heard the debaters referring to "bare life" but no
one ever even approached an explanation of what "bare life" means or how it
should affect my decision. This, to me is not educational. I think that even
within a random approach to judging, debaters will get the kind of
specialized and complex debate experience they desire while also getting the
experience of having to learn how to adapt to different judging preferences
and this is more valuable overall.

>Yes, there are benefits to having debaters learn how to explain
>complex arguments to all types of judges. But it also provides a
>greater incentive to them to continue their argument development over
>the year if their judges can process complexity rapidly due to
>familiarity. This is preference based on "the topic-knowledge level
>of the judge."

I think this is subsumed by my response above.

>A close cousin of this argument is preferring your debaters to be
>judged by more experienced judges. Over the years there have been
>many tournaments where I have filled out my pref sheet in part based
>on this consideration. I'm not saying that my debaters have nothing
>to learn from young or inexperienced judges, rather I'm saying - what
>I think is obvious - that debaters may have more to learn from judges
>like Ross Smith, Ken Strange, Dallas Perkins, Sherry Hall, Scott
>Harris, Ryan Galloway, etc. I don't strike this way as much any
>more, but that has more to do with the specific pedagogical needs of
>my debaters more than disagreement with this philosophy of
>preference. This is preference based on the "experience of the judge."

I agree. However, with MPJ the top teams always get judged by only these
experienced judges and never have to learn to adapt to les experienced
judges. I remember a round some years ago before MPJ became common practice
at most invitationals where a team walked in, saw who was judging them and
chose to forfeit the round rather than make the effort to adapt to a judge
who was perfectly qualified but didn't happen to appreciate the teams style
of debate. I think something significant is lost when debaters don't have to
learn to adapt. And it has polarized the community. I find it interesting
when my friends tell me that they have to argue with their debaters about
whether or not I should be preferred at a tournament and how some judges are
categorized as good or bad depending on their preference for a particular
style of debate or argumentative preference.

>When you can find judging that is experienced and has great topic-
>competitive) situation.

>A subset of this argument - and one that is somewhat less defensible
>in my opinion - would advance the notion that debaters can learn more
>about the style of debate they prefer if they are judged by people
>who are more expert at this type of argument. This is preference
>based roughly on "ideology of debate practice." I'm not as
>comfortable with this argument, but I could certainly understand
>those who like it even more than my first two.

And this is exactly my complaint about MPJ. I think the better debaters have
always been those who learn to adapt to multiple style preferences among
judges. This is also a skill more applicable to the real world. Certainly
there is something to be gained from learning complex arguments. But there
is also something to be learned from having to simplify those arguments for
slightly les specialized audiences. The goal of complexity can be achieved
with random judging while the goal of diversity cannot with MPJ.

>My second overall objection to Ken's argument is that I don't see
>competition being deployed in a way that is necessarily antithetical
>to pedagogy. In fact, I believe there aren't five people in our
>activity who do not grasp that the competitive structure of debate is
>a means to the end of pedagogy. If there are these people out there
>who coach debate primarily because of the thrill of winning - the
>"just a sport" crowd - as opposed to the good that it does for our
>students, I'd like to know their names. I'm not sure I can even
>think of one.

On this point, Steve and will simply have to disagree. I am not going to
name names, simply because I don't think there is any benefit to doing so.
However, I have met more than 5. And please understand (this is a very
important point to me and where I very much disagree with those who argue
against competition in toto) I do not think it is the competitive structure
of debate that is the problem. It is the competitive practices that are the
problem. I believe in the structure, it is what we do with it that bothers
me.

>Steve Mancuso


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