[eDebate] Topic Selection Process Update

Gordon Stables stables
Mon Apr 7 03:51:30 CDT 2008

It certainly seems like the selection of the next topic has certainly
generated some interest.  Unlike some of our colleagues, I don't know what
the 'best' topic for next year is at this time. I do know that we very on
the topic selection committee very much need community willingness to help
draft papers to provide us with a healthy range of options.


There are, however, a couple of items that warrant clarification.


We, as the committee,  are not excluding any options at this time.

I can't stress enough that the opinions expressed by a handful of folks does
not and should not represent the decision-making process by the committee.
If someone on edebate says something about a topic you like - it, with all
due respect, means very little. The worst result that can happen today is
someone not writing a paper because of a random post.


The committee has guidelines and must choose among the papers that are
ultimately provided. The recent discussion of Latin/South America, for
example, is a great example of good conversation that needs to find its way
into a proposal so the entire community can consider it as a topic. Mike
Davis is chairing this effort. I believe his work to be focusing on
enhancing economic cooperation. This doesn't rule out other approaches, but
it speaks to the details that the committee will consider in a few weeks.


The only reason that topics may 'disappear' from our list at this point is
the lack of someone willing to write about it. Take prisons for example.
This was discussed by folks over the last few years, but only in the last
week has someone stepped forward (Thanks Vince). This new timeline should
allow folks to review the list of current volunteers at
http://www.cedatopic.com/nexttopic.html and either agree to help a current
project or start your own. You can also leave comments about any such
proposal on the blog (see below). On a related note - 


The topic site and blog (not edebate) is the site of topic committee

We would be remiss to lose sight of the inherent problems of this forum. In
addition to all of the other problems, an email list format is very hard to
organize when we are faced with the decision-making process. Accordingly, we
built a site devoted to the topic and built a blog that will allow us to
organize your comments. At http://blog.cedatopic.com/ you can leave comments
about specific controversy papers or the topic process itself. Individuals
can still subscribe to this site (via rss) as a means of keeping current
with the process. If you subscribed you would know that we have our first
submission, a new edition of genetic engineering work, produced by Scott
Elliott. All of the broader research surrounding the topic process is
available at the topic site itself www.cedatopic.com  


Today I also began adding open threads for controversies that have been
generating conversation. I will continue to open threads as new topics are


The process requires controversies not nouns.

Those folks who remember the China topic may recall that we saw extensive
'conversation' about China being a good topic. We had several very bright
folks who started drafting papers that would allow for a full consideration
of US policy toward China. Difficulties arose, however, when it became
obvious that the committee and the community had very different ideas of
what a 'China' topic was supposed to look like. Should it be about economics
or trade? Should it be hardline or softline? What role did human rights
play? What about Taiwan? 


At that time the process didn't lend itself to narrowing this question
earlier in the process. Today we wouldn't allow 'China' to appear on the
ballot. The question of identifying the central controversy in public
deliberation (i.e., Trying to liberalize Chinese economic markets or enhance
US military deterrence) would be clarified on the initial community ballot.
This stage is designed to help the committee work with a more manageable
task and to allow the community to vote with greater certainty.


This translates into our current conversation because I want to make sure
that when folks discuss the desirability of debating something or somewhere
they should also agree on the basic parameters of that controversy. This may
require us, at times, looking at two or more different controversies from
the same subject matter, but we must have clarity on this stage of the
process. We are interested in finding timely and rich disputes in public
policy literature. This more than anything else is needed to start guiding
our work.


I will paste the full guidelines in the bottom of this email. You can also
read them at http://www.cedatopic.com/controversy.html




A little work can go a long way (and it is very easy to snipe from the

One of my favorite parts of this process is listening (and reading) comments
from colleagues who find it entertaining to dismiss  the entire process. We
have undertaken substantial reforms in the last few years to enhance the
value of authorship and to make the community more empowered to select the
topic that they want. It is very easy to say that the process "wring(s)
every ounce of goodness" or that  "thousands of person-hours to get 50-word
pieces of gibberish is insane," but our task is to manage a process that can
help govern at least the vast majority of the thousands of debates that take
place each year. 


It is no secret that some programs, coaches and students view the entire
process as oppositional to their educational beliefs. We know that some
folks don't believe in switch-side engagement of public policy issues unless
specific conditions can be met. This perspective is very different from our
task. We are trying to not only help to draft out an educationally solid
subject for debate but to also do so in way that has community legitimacy. I
would encourage every coach who finds this process abhorrent to help us find
a better model. Remember the community demand for a later process helped us
to move back these early dates. Individual perspectives are head and the
process can be adjusted. 


In the interim, we are still tasked with finding a single proposition to
guide the entire season.  We need your help. I fully respect folks who have
other commitments and cannot write papers. It shouldn't be a requirement
that you write to a paper to have your voice heard. If you can't write, help
someone else. If you can't help someone else, then leave a comment. If you
can't do any of the above then just do your best to make an informed
decision about your vote.  In the end this is your process.


Please let me know if you have any questions. Paper guidelines are pasted in
the bottom of this message. 



Chair, CEDA Topic Selection Committee


Gordon Stables, Ph.D.
Director of Debate and Forensics
Annenberg School for Communication
University of Southern California
Office: 213 740 2759               Fax: 213 740 3913
http://usctrojandebate.com <http://usctrojandebate.com/> 


Guidelines follow below - 





Guidelines for Controversial Area Papers 


(by Gordon Stables -


Originally drafted June 2006; Revised October 2007)

The Background of Topic Areas


Writing a topic paper can appear daunting, but is manageable if approached
in several steps. The first part of the process takes place when someone
decides that there is an issue that might make a valuable intercollegiate
debate topic. The topic selection committee commissions a number of areas
each year that might be valuable options, but these are designed to only
ensure that some options exist. Each topic selection is improved by the
addition of areas identified by the community.


In the last few years the writing process has been divided into two distinct
papers: an area paper due in early March and a wording paper due in Mid-May.
This process has helped lower the entry barrier for community development of
papers and has reduced the burden on any single author. At the same time,
the topic selection committee has also worked to produce wording options
consistent with the topic area selected by community vote.


As much as these trends have improved the topic writing process, we are
occasionally left with the problem of an area paper that is very
conceptually broad, perhaps too broad to produce a range of expectations
surrounding the upcoming topic. This may, in part, be due to the very nature
of writing an 'area' paper. The general procedure has encouraged writing on
a subject, such as a nation (like China) or a branch of government (the
Supreme Court). In the interests of helping develop a process that is both
accessible and predictable, beginning with the 2007-2008 process the chair
of the topic selection committee has encouraged that the concept of 'area'
papers be slightly adjusted toward individual controversies or controversial

Why select controversies?


There is a tremendous amount of information discussion about the 'best'
topics. It may be impossible to develop a consensus on such criteria, but it
is not uncommon for some of the discussion about better topics to describe
their coherence and the presence of a rich body of literature. It may be
understood that some of the 'better' topics possess a vibrant dispute among
interested parties. These 'controversies' may be understood as the specific
theme of a topic. Anyone who has explained the topic to someone from outside
the debate community may also recognize these themes as those brief
summaries of the debate topic.


Asking for a central controversy in each 'area' paper can allow the
community to vote on each area with a greater confidence. The last two
topics, which featured extensive work by individual authors, provide some
clear examples. Instead of listing the ' China' topic on the area ballot, we
might have instead listed the controversy of trying to produce economic
policy changes by the Chinese government. Alternately, the 'court' topic
could have been listed as 'reverse major Supreme Court cases.' In both cases
the precision of the specific wording is not a necessity. The next stage of
the process will be tasked with that specific responsibility. The primary
challenge for each author of a controversial area paper is to identify that
policy concern.


This also keeps our process consistent with the mandate of the CEDA
constitution (Article 2), which describes the goals of debate including to
"promote the value of argumentative discourse as a means of producing
reasoned, measured, cooperative solutions to contemporary problems of social
and political significance."


The Elements of a Controversial Area Paper


A fully developed paper should include:


Mainstream (i.e., debatable) options for policy change - The central task of
these papers is to identify the most mainstream or central proposals for
change within a given controversial area. This is often understood as
identifying the few "middle of the road" affirmatives with evidence and
cites for solvency advocates. These are the central issues at work in the
larger controversy. The identification and citation of important authors can
help guide the development of the topic wording and allow a common subject
of community debate.


The paper may also identify the central literature based arguments available
to the negative, i.e., what are the major argumentative assets for opponents
of change? For both sides, authors should consider traditional policy and
critical literature that is relevant to this controversy. Solid work in this
element is essential to ensuring that later wording options reflect the
central argumentative controversies. In this approach authors can outline
the primary types of arguments that would allow both affirmative and
negative teams a reasonable body of literature to draw upon. It is
impossible to predict exactly what arguments will develop, but authors can
at least help anticipate some of the major types of arguments (and their
answers) that teams should be encouraged to research.

Unique educational opportunities - There are obviously argumentative
strategies for both sides common to most topics, these papers should be
primarily concerned with the unique opportunities provided by this
controversy. The job of the topic selection process is not to produce a
single type of arguments, but rather to help provide the playing field for
arguments developed by each squad and team. These considerations may include
the last time such areas were debated and how earlier topics overlapped (if
at all) with these areas.


Potential directions for wording papers - These controversial area papers
are encouraged to include specific wording recommendations. The greatest
value that authors can provide is preliminary analysis of the specific
elements of this controversy. Is there a debate about the best level of
governmental response? Is there a general direction that new policies should
follow? Are there certain agencies or interested parties that define the
terms in specific and meaningful ways? Authors should to try to outline the
primary dimensions of this controversy, but should try to not provide more
than five general types of proposed resolutions. The wording process can
help identify the most precise phrase in a given context, but we need these
essays to develop a larger context with some thematic coherence. 


Recommendation of the author - It is of tremendous importance that each
author treats their task as part of a due diligence on behalf of the larger
community. It is important that interested parties work on these papers, but
each author should also consider that there may be specific historical
moments where some topics are better or worse suited for the intercollegiate
community. This concern was voiced in the fall of 2001, when there was
tremendous interest in selecting a topic that dealt with terrorism for
2002-2003. At that time, however, it was felt that the necessary literature
might be 'too ripe,' that is not sufficiently explored in scholarly detail,
to allow for the best possible topic. This concern was also raised in this
last topic cycle, when some argued that there should be additional time to
let the congressional debate on immigration policy settle before it was
considered. An author of a paper develops additional insight into a
controversy and the community would benefit from this moment of evaluation.
Accordingly, we would ask that authors provide their recommendation of the
topic's inclusion on the upcoming ballot. Options for this recommendation
include: strongly support, support with reservations, no opinion, oppose
with reservation, strongly oppose. 

Final Thoughts


Writing topic papers at any stage is a process fraught with a tremendous
amount of hard work and little thanks. The nature of the process ensures
that every topic but one will be rejected each year. That seemingly cold
fact should not dissuade potential authors. It is the process of
identifying, comparing and ultimately voting for a specific area that helps
to keep this process valuable. I mention this only to encourage people to
work on these papers, but not to invest so much of themselves that it is
difficult to handle the selection of another paper. For this process to work
at its best, we need a number of committed community members to write these
papers each year. They need not be longer than 10-15 pages if they follow
these guidelines. Even if they are not selected, each author can share in
the comfort that they are providing a valuable service to the community and
that each controversial area may be considered in following years.


Thanks and please let me know if you have questions or suggestions.


Gordon Stables - Chair, CEDA Topic Selection Committee


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