[eDebate] James Unger

Kuswa, Kevin kkuswa
Fri Apr 4 16:06:18 CDT 2008

Thank for for the heartfelt note to the list, David.
It is also worth mentioning the many folks who fought really hard (and continue to do so) for Georgetown debate after Unger left the hoyas. Brad Ziff and others provided an important transition, and coaches David Cheshier, the "junta" (Scott Segal, Bill Mabe, Julie Arthur, Casey Anderson), Jeff Parcher, Justin Green, many others who have helped out along the way, and now Mike Greenstein have put massive amounts of energy into the program to keep it thriving.
This is also a reflective and proud time for Hoya debate, a testament to the perserverance of the Philodemic Debate Society and the extended debate community.
Kevin Kuswa
Gtwn SFS class of '92  


From: edebate-bounces at ndtceda.com on behalf of David Glass
Sent: Fri 4/4/2008 12:39 PM
To: edebate
Subject: [eDebate] James Unger



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 shortly).


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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