[eDebate] Open Letter to the CEDA Community

Gordon Stables stables
Thu May 24 20:40:41 CDT 2007

Dear Community,

I would like to file a brief report with the membership at the conclusion of
my first term as the Chair of Topic Selection Committee. 

At the conclusion of last year's summer meetings I was elected by the
committee to oversee the development of this year's topic wordings. As
someone who had witnessed the last fifteen years of college debate topics I
tried to draw upon my best and worst experiences with past topics to improve
our process and product. Please indulge several of my observations from the
past year's cycle.

Reviewing the Process from July 06-May 07

It was, and remains my firm conviction, that one of our greatest challenges
in recent years was to move beyond the broad problem area that attracted us
to a topic and toward the specific type of policy we wanted to contest. I
drafted language and policies that would narrow our problem area stage to
one that asked authors to refine the central controversy that gave rise to
that policy literature. On such topics as Europe, I emphasized with both the
Herculean task faced by the committee (to draft a coherent set of
resolutions) and the confusion by the community (regarding the central
rationale for our interest in the subject matter). I have felt that if we
pushed authors and then the community to vote for a narrower controversy
would both limit the task of the committee in our meetings and clarify what
the membership should expect to see on the second (wording ) ballot.

I was encouraged when we received several good controversy papers this year.
I felt as though the tremendous reservoir of community input could be
productively channeled to clarify expectations without unduly constraining
authors. I would be remiss if I didn't offer thanks to Steve Mancuso for
many years of service to the topic committee in general and for specifically
raising the standard for topic writing. The move to controversy papers could
not have been possible without his effort to encourage the community to
write both problem area and wording papers. Steve and Michael Maffie
provided another fine service when they submitted their paper on March 1 of
this year. This 100+ page document provided a through rationale for the
controversy of increasing constructive engagement Middle East.
Interestingly, the paper included only one wording recommendation, which I
have pasted below. 

 Resolved: the United States Federal Government should substantially
increase its constructive engagement, including economic assistance and/or
security guarantees, with the government of one or more of:  Afghanistan,
Iran, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority, Syria.

I worked to provide a representative sample of this paper and all of the
controversy papers for the problem area ballot. Members likely noticed how
we, for the first time, added a direction and nuance to this vote. Schools
knew that they were voting for an increase in constructive engagement,
democracy promotion, nonproliferation norm compliance, and regulation and
control of genetic engineering. This ballot included every controversy paper
submitted by an author who recommended their inclusion. We did not exclude a
single paper from an author who asked for its inclusion. Schools also knew
that these were firm precedents that could not be reversed at the wording

I revisit this process to remind the community that the basic topic stem has
been available now for several months. Once the Middle East controversy was
selected the community now had the opportunity to examine this singular
resolution recommendation and to provide their own suggestions. This year we
also built the topic blog as part of the new CEDA topic site to allow a
year-round, easily organized, means of community feedback to the topic
community. I am fully aware that not ever member of the community has the
time or ability to write entire controversy or wording papers. In addition
to the traditional means of public meetings and communication with members
of the topic committee, this new form provided a very accessible means of
providing input. Despite my general dislike of elists, I posted regular
reminders of this process on both edebate and ceda-l.

One of the most important deadlines was the period roughly a week before the
topic meetings. This was the deadline for submission of a wording paper by
any member of the community. This was, for me, an important way to ensure
that the community could review the controversy paper and determine that
perhaps some of the specific dimensions of the controversy could be better

Hays Watson and Julian Gagnon both took up the challenge of providing
research and recommendations to the committee. Hays argued for the
subtraction of economic assistance in some wording options and Julian argued
in favor of adding Saudi Arabia to the topic. In both cases we added their
work to the topic blog. Both items were added to our agenda and both
produced changes to our wording. As with the controversy papers, each one of
the substantive contributions produced changes in the process.

At the topic meetings we continued the recent trend of web-casting the
proceedings, albeit with some technical difficulties.  We did regularly
update the blog and provided real-time updates on the topic wordings. 

I view both the controversy and wording stages as successes. The community
gained new forums for input and in each case this input was directly
responsible for improvements in the final options. At the same time the
membership enjoyed perhaps its greatest transparency and predictability with
the process.

Reviewing the Slate of Topics for 07-08

I am very pleased by the possibilities for the 07-08 debate season under any
of the four options. They each reflect sometimes subtle, but in all cases
meaningful, choices for the membership.

After five days of meetings (between the business meetings and the topic
meetings) and a cross-country flight I have neither the energy nor time to
engage each of the individual emails, but let me discuss a few prominent
features from the slate.

We recognize that the challenge of writing a topic that will govern several
thousand debates is more strenuous than writing a simple act of prose. We
worked hard to consult several independent professionals with extensive in
the discipline of grammar and devoted most of our third day's session to
grammatical issues. We vetted issues of capitalization, punctuation, the use
of hybrid singular and plural terms and many other items. What we found is
that every one of our phrases is consistent, if not preferred by grammatical
rules. There may be other ways that would be preferred by a strict
grammatical design, but those perspectives would hamper our competing goal
of designing a statement to guide intercollegiate debates. 

It was repeatedly considered, for example, that the listing of nations after
the colon would be cleaner from a grammatical sense if the sentence ended
with that list. The reason that each topic interrupts the sentence with the
list and then returns to the types of engagement is specifically designed to
encourage argument practice directed only at those countries.  We also
considered and received support for the use of the singular 'a' and the (s).
We felt the flexibility to be both potentially singular and plural was
necessary to allow debaters to pick the number of guarantees they wanted to
discuss. These are moments where our sentence use is the optimal mix of
grammar and argumentative practice. For those who have found a 'better'
grammatical interpretation I would only ask that they also consider the
unique agenda setting role of this sentence.

We also recognize that topic should be as simple as possible to express the
type of ideas that would like to see debated. Brevity is preferred over
length of sentence, all things being equal. There was early discussion of
reducing the sentence to only the specific acts of constructive engagement
(i.e., economic assistance or security guarantees). Those topics would more
closely resemble past foreign assistance topics (i.e., the USFG should
substantially increase economic assistance to one or more of the following:
....). Hays provided the agenda item in favor of a security alone topic. I
asked the assistance group to consider an assistance only topic and they did
not recommend such an approach.

 I was one of the many voices opposing the change to simplify by removing
constructive engagement because it fails to grasp the essence of this
controversy. This controversy is not about the bilateral and unconditional
provision of American economic or security cooperation. Constructive
Engagement is a profoundly diplomatic term designed to produce certain
outcomes by leveraging the tools of statecraft. This foreign approach,
despite favor in several recent administrations (Regan with South Africa,
Clinton with China and Carter with Syria) is antithetical to much of the
current administration's foreign policy. 

I have seen concern about embracing the diplomatic dimensions of this topic.
The prospect of nations refusing our assistance or offers may be unsettling
to some, even though many of our recent aid or trade topics have struggled
with this dilemma. I am very, very excited that our students will be
encouraged to consider the tools of American foreign policy not as universal
and all-powerful. There is ample discussion of the term 'offer' in foreign
policy literature and, in fact, is often the most used phrase. I would
contend that many of the proposed affirmatives would be very significant the
moment they are offered.  This is a tremendous moment for our students, and
our country, to consider if diplomacy might produce a more peaceful and less
violent world. I view that the educational benefit is sufficient to move
away from our comfort zone of simply providing some product or funds to
another nation.

The other primary 'complication' that our wording efforts produced was the
decision to fragment the term security guarantees. I know that the phrase 'a
trilateral security guarantee(s) with Israel and/or a bilateral security
guarantee(s)' has a certain inelegance at first glance, but forgive my
indulgence to explain why this is a very important phrase. Beginning with
the Manuso/Maffie paper there was some unease about how much to separate
affirmative and negative ground through the US relationship with Israel. The
controversy paper acknowledges the solvency benefits from allowing the
affirmative to directly act with Israel and Hays' paper made such a
recommendation. At the same time, the original paper recommended against
including Israel as on the nations explicitly included in the topic because
it might provided a tremendous advantage to the affirmative (at the expense
of central negative ground) and also make the topic potentially
bi-directional (because the US could negotiate a security guarantee with
Israel to protect Israel against Iran or strike an opposite deal directly
with Iran). 

Part of the value of a central controversy is to allow certain conceptual
questions to organize debate for the year. A topic where most affirmatives
would attempt to enhance American negotiations with a number of states
potentially hostile to Israel does carve out a way for negatives to always
view the debate through the lens of American-Israeli relations or politics.

This concern was ultimately balanced against the need to include some of the
most sophisticated and articulate solvency literature. There are many
discussions of negotiations involving Israel, the US and another Middle
Eastern state. I know I appreciated the input from Heather Walters on this
question when she forced us to confront the reality that in much of the
Israel-Syria literature regarding the return of the Golan Heights it was
ultimately Israel who would need security grantees. If the nation that ceded
territory was not also provided additional assurances for its safety it
seems like a potentially fatal flaw in this central element of the topic.

To bridge this divide we borrowed the trilateral language from the
diplomatic history of American relations with Israel and the Palestinian
people to provide this compromise. The affirmative could act directly with a
nation beside Israel, but if it wanted to directly negotiate with Israel it
would be required to include another state. This compromise does sacrifice
the brevity of the phrase, but it does so to not fundamentally alter the
literature base on either side. It allows debaters to mirror the incredibly
significant trilateral Camp David and Oslo accords which changed the
political landscape in the Middle East so much that it consumed two the
architects in political violence form their own people.  No one is operating
under any illusions that these types of affirmatives are easy to defend, but
they seem too important to ignore.

I also wanted to speak to the sensitive question of the public relations and
recruiting role of our topic. It should be a source of pride for our members
to recruit new students and appeal for greater administrative support by
reference to the significance of our topics. This was one of the primary
reasons I wanted to move to controversies. Every single CEDA school has been
able, and will be able, to point alumni, administrators and potential
students to the www.cedatopic.com website which has, for the last few
months, prominently featured the controversy phase and paper. 

I realize the resolutions now modify this approach, but for administrators,
I would hope that we explain that we have both a short title and a more
nuanced approach. I enjoy the analogy of the basic course title listed in a
university catalog and the more detailed element found in a course syllabus.
The university could not function without a short-form and a longer-version
and I am not sure if we can either. If anyone has interaction with their
administrators who are not satisfied by an explanation of the controversy
area and resolution as a collective effort I would be more than happy to
provide a version of this letter to any such officials. 

We also have the question of new student recruitment. After many years in
this community I fully appreciate the role that new student development
plays in our community and also appreciate that I would not pretend to be an
expert on such matters. I am sure there a number of factors that go into
retention and recruitment including topic complexity, argument practice
diversity, economics, and the foundation of the subject matter. I can only
provide two ways that I recognize that we are providing an open door via the
topic. First, the representation of the committee must be broad enough to
reflect a variety of viewpoints. I am very satisfied that our committee has
many different types of programs and regions represented by the faculty and
student representatives. Second, as Sue Peterson has explained more
effectively, member institutions may earn CEDA points and fully work within
our organizational structure by hosting events with modified topics. She
mentions the California rookie debates comprised mostly of students from
argument classes with no prior forensics experience. These tournaments have
used only certain portions of the topic at a time to allow students to ease
into a new topic. I firmly believe this is consistent with our education
mission to tailor educational programs to the needs of our students. I will
also extend an offer here to help any program or tournament help craft such
a specific approach.


With the support of the topic committee, I have agreed to serve another term
as the chair. I announced the end of our role in this process because after
months of community and committee work it is now time for member schools to
make their decisions. As we begin looking toward the slate of controversies
for 08-09 I once again invite anyone to provide input about ideas for those
topics or means of furthering community input. I am deeply committed to a
process that helps manage the tremendous diversity that our community
reflects when it approaches a topic. 

My final thought is that in many comments, and in recent reform proposals, I
have seen discussion of moving away from a committee model and toward
greater centralization of authority in the power of authors. This approach
believes a single author (or authors) is best in a position to get the topic
'right.' I will admit this approach seems to have intuitive appeal. Can't
someone just get it right and let the rest of 'us' enjoy the rewards? When I
discuss this process with folks it is amazing how often we place ourselves
in the role of 'someone' who will have all of the answers. The process seems
to break down when you consider that our community has very different views
when we aren't the ones approaching a topic. It is very comforting to be in
the 'someone' role and very disturbing to be in the larger 'us' when you
don't agree with the ideological or pragmatic expressions.

In many ways our current binding controversy process provides a great deal
of author input and still provides a democratically elected committee of
eight faculty and one student the ultimate responsibility  This year's
authors were very cooperative and they might even suggest that despite their
extensive paper the committee process, however unsightly to some at home,
improved their product.

Anyone who has ever served on a committee realizes they aren't often fun to
watch. What they do uniquely providing is a means of keeping something as
important to this community as our topic in the hands of accountable

I close in that fashion because ultimately all of our efforts come from
elections. If have read the above commentary and still feel disempowered I
encourage you to chat with me about reforms. I hope between the blog, the
two stage process and the open meetings we can be responsive to anything
offered before and up to the meetings. If that doesn't resolve your concerns
you should consider running for topic committee. I know first-hand how much
of time commitment this process is away from other professional and familial
responsibilities so I don't harbor any illusions that the only means of
participation is holding office. In the end we need your input and we owe
many thanks to the members of the community for their service.

Thanks for reading.
Gordon Stables, Chair - CEDA Topic Selection Committee

Gordon Stables, Ph.D.
Director of Debate
Annenberg School for Communication
University of Southern California
Office: 213 740 2759               Fax: 213 740 3913

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