[eDebate] James Unger

David Glass gacggc
Fri Apr 4 11:39:58 CDT 2008

I am quite sad to have heard, yesterday, that Jim Unger has died.

Upon a person's death,  the rest of us are naturally moved to sentiment,
which can create a motivation to exaggerate the importance of this common
and normal event, or the impact of the person who has passed.

But in the case of James Unger, this is really not a concern ? because the
simple recitation of the facts of his debate career demonstrates the almost
singular influence he had on academic policy debate, changing the activity
significantly, and in large part being responsible for the strategic
approach that is still the most practiced?  the method  that is now viewed
as the norm.  What current debaters might not appreciate is how
revolutionary his innovations were, and how dramatically they changed the
way a debate was approached.

To take a step back, the basics:

Unger (James J. Unger) debated for Boston College with Joseph
McLaughlin.  Together
they reached the semis of the NDT in 1963 and lost in the finals in 1964.

Jim went on to coach at Georgetown.  In the 1970s he was voted:

Best Judge (89 points, 2nd place was 45)

Best Coach: (98 points, 2nd was 71)
Coach of the Best Debater: Tom Rollins. 187 points (2nd was 153).

His teams in the 1970s achieved the following at the NDT:

1973; finalists  (Brad Ziff & Stewart Jay)

1976; finalists (Chafer and Ottoson)

1977; champions (Walker and Ottoson)

1978; semis (Ottoson and Rollins)

His teams won the equivalent of the Copeland five  times: Ziff & Jay (1973),
 Ziff  &  Rollins (1975),  Ottoson & Walker (1977), Rollins & Ottoson
(1978), Kirkland & Thompson (1980).

Interestingly, however, it may have been as the Director of a High School
Debate Institute that Unger had the most influence.

Coincident with  JW Patterson's establishment of the Tournament of Champions
(TOC) in the early 1970s, which deserves considerable credit for creating a
"national circuit" of tournaments -  used to establish "bids" (credentials
for entry into the TOC) -  was the rise of nationally-drawing debate
institutes, which helped to establish a common approach to debate.   Clearly
the National Forensic League's tournament long outdates these phenomena, but
it may have been the drawing-together of teams on a more frequent basis,
which happened with the establishment of the national circuit, that allowed
for faster innovation to take place, and it was so that students could
succeed on the national circuit that they sought out those institutes which
drew nationally.

It is hard to quantify something like "reputation", but it is probably fair
to say that in the mid 1970s the Northwestern Institute was setting the
standard among debate institutes.  There, students were taught David
Zarefsky's  "Hypothesis testing" approach to the activity, which viewed the
Resolution as a "hypothesis" that could be subjected to falsification ?
drawing an analogy from Karl Popper's "Critical Rationalism"? a philosophy
of science that focused on hypotheses as instruments of falsification rather
than verification (as part of a more general criticism of inductive
reasoning).   Applying Critical Rationalism to debate, Zarefsky held that
the resolution was a similar tentative statement of fact, which should  be
held up to falsification by the negative.  This gave rise to a distinct
definition of inherency (as to whether the resolution was required for
solvency, thus testing the term "should"), and to the idea that negative
arguments were "conditional", and that as long as a negative argument
functioned as a test of the resolution/hypothesis, it was allowable (this
was most clearly later applied to counterplans? which will be discussed

There were several alternatives to the Northwestern Institute, but the major
one of the time was Georgetown, which was directed by Unger.   Here, in
perhaps direct reference to Northwestern, debaters were taught "Policy
Making", as opposed to "Hypothesis Testing."   Inherency was viewed as a
barrier to change, necessitating the plan.  The Resolution functioned only
to set the boundary for the affirmative ? it guided which plans the
affirmative could  topically advocate?  it was not an instrument of
"falsification", nor was it consulted once topicality was established.

The differences between "Hypothesis Testing" and "Policy Making" became much
more important with the advent of the Counterplan, which happened in the
very late 1970s, and the early 1980s.   I cannot confidently say who thought
of the counter-plan, or where it was first put forth in a competitive debate
round.  However I do think I can give an opinion as to where it was advanced
with the most impact for the first time in a competitive high school debate
round.   This was a team from Kinkaid (and I'll post the students names when
I can recall them), who had been to the Georgetown Institute that summer,
and had learned "counterplan theory".  The idea, as explained by Unger in
one of the initial lectures at the institute, was that if the resolution
functioned simply to set the grounds for the affirmative plan, then the
negative could offer a different plan than the affirmative, and that this
would be responsive as long as the two plans could not exist together ? thus
the counterplan had to offer some "net benefit" over the plan; there had to
be  a  reason that the counterplan was better than the plan plus the
counterplan?   and it was realized this would be the case if the counterplan
avoided a disadvantage to the plan.   The counterplan/net benefit strategy
was used later that debate season by Kinkaid, in the elimination rounds of
one of the major national circuit tournaments (one run by David Horn, in
Philadelphia).  This team introduced a States Counterplan, with federalism
as the net benefit, and the approach resulted in a blow-out.

It is hard to give today's debaters a flavor for how   dramatically the
counterplan/net benefit strategy changed things ? but to give you a personal
indication of the effect, a team of mine the next season won thirteen
tournaments, and got to semis at the TOC,  with States/federalism as their
main strategy.  Those who were slow to adopt defenses for counterplans, or
to take them in account in designing their affirmatives, simply had no
chance at national circuit tournaments.

The effect of the counterplan on Hypothesis Testing was rather devastating ?
because if the Resolution functioned as a hypothesis, then topical
counterplans could also be thought to "prove the resolution true", or at
least would fail to falsify the resolution? therefore hypothesis testers
could not advocate topical counterplans.  However, for pure Policy Makers,
where the plan was the focus, a  topical counterplan would not be a problem
for the negative to advocate, as long as it competed with the plan.   Also,
hypothesis testers of the time thought it was fine to advance multiple and
contradictory counterplans ? arguing all of these could function as a test
of the resolution ? and this strain of innovation was found to be untenable.

It may have been in large point due to these advances in argument theory
that the Georgetown School was victorious over the Northwestern School, and
debate as it was coached and advocated by Unger became standard practice for
just about everyone by the mid 1980s.   Today, one rarely hears about
Hypothesis Testing in competitive debate? the only residual effect is the
arguments about conditional counterplans, and these are rarely
paradigm-based, but rather "fairness"-based.

Some might wonder why Unger's coaching dominance lasted for only a
decade.  There
are probably many opinions about this ? but mine, perhaps predictably, is
medically based.   With Unger's passing, I hope his former students,
friends, and relatives agree that it is now acceptable to discuss some
details he held to be confidential, for the sake of the history ? and so
that people can fairly judge the  man.    It should therefore be noted that
Unger waged a long and difficult battle with epilepsy, and with the various
treatments for that condition.   He found anti-seizure medications to be
unacceptable because they dulled his thinking ? and he therefore was not
compliant with his treatment regimen.  This decision naturally caused a
significant  limitation in his activities, because his seizures were severe,
and would be devastating had they occurred while he was driving, for
example.  His battle with epilepsy was quite isolating; it was a struggle he
preferred to wage alone, on his own terms.

On a personal level, I can affirm that he was an extremely generous and good
mentor.  He hired me as an instructor at Georgetown when I was eighteen  ?
and put me in charge of my own lab.  When the reviews from the students came
in positive, he allowed me to build that group into an almost independent
entity within the Georgetown (and later American University) framework,
establishing a lab for debaters who had just completed their first year (We
felt that this was the best time to have the most lasting educational impact
on students).  He was unfailingly loyal, and functioned the way you would
expect the ideal department chairman to function ? he created space for his
instructors to do what they wanted to do, and was there to help when they
needed him.

As a person, Unger was quite idiosyncratic.   Some people loved him; others
could not abide him.  I always found him to be incisive, independent of
mind, and unexpectedly hilarious.   I still remember this small incident
during the elimination rounds of a high school tournament that he was
running.   In those days a large audience watched the final round (people
stayed for it, and the audience was filled for this particular final).  Most
of the students found him to be rather intimidating, but when he asked this
one kid to call the coin before this round, the kid said  "headsies".  Everyone
looked at Unger expecting him to cringe or something.  But Unger just walked
over to the coin, looked up at the kid and called out "tailsies"? cracking
up the audience?  I guess it is just surprising when you find out that a
supposed giant is a normal person?.   He was always there for me?.   when a
play I wrote was produced, he was in the audience;  when I needed some
advice on career alternatives, he was there.  I did not debate for him, but
I felt as though I was one of his students.  He was a good mentor, and a
true friend.

He is missed.

David Glass
Asst, Harvard Debate
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