[eDebate] Paperless/Print-as-you-go debate

Logan Martin logan.martin
Thu Jul 24 20:47:12 CDT 2008

I thought I'd chime in on this question, because, as Veronica acknowledged,
Denver has had significant experience debating in all or many of the
circumstances contemplated by Mr. Galloway's 'thought experiment' and might
have some insights that would be useful to other programs/directors
considering making changes in their polices with respect to evidence
management and travel.

As far as I know, we've had more experience than anyone at debating on a
paperless and/or print-as-you-go system for a whole season.  I'm open to be
corrected if we weren't *the* first and I'm obviously not claiming that we
were the first to ever think of reading a card or two off of a computer, but
I'm relatively sure we broke some new ground, so consider this some
considerably less speculative information on the question.

 Before getting into that, I want to provide the link to post by the former
head coach at DU, Zach Westerfield, on how he managed to maintain an
impressive national travel schedule on a budget of around $10k.


For those who don't know me, which is plenty of people, I'm sure, I debated
for DU for 4 years (though I wasn't traveling during one of them because I
was studying abroad.)  I was on the team the first year that DU went all (or
primarily) digital with our files for production, traveling, and competing.


At the beginning of the 05-06 season (China Topic), the decision was made to
switch all of our evidence production and storage over to laptops.  Because
DU requires that all students own laptops, the initial 'access barrier'
described by a few folks on this list was not an issue.  Even so, given the
cost of a laptop that would meet the less-demanding-than-you-would-think
requirements we put on it, and considering that one could be used over the
course of a four-year debate career if properly maintained (as was my
experience), and considering how much more we spent the previous year in
copy costs and expenses, I really don't think this is a substantial problem.

The factors which led us to make the switch were not purely financial.
we simply could not move multiple teams with multiple tubs across the
country when University regulations allowed us only one driver (our coach)
and therefore one van.  In very simple, tangible terms, the switch to
laptops was essential to increasing participation on our squad.

On that note, though, when we did have fewer teams to take to the
tournament, switching to laptops meant we saved rental money because we
could rent cars instead of vans, which were cheaper generally and could get
better mileage.

Being (one of) the first teams to do this, we didn't have the luxury of an
'incubation' period in which to perfect all of the hardware/software we'd be
using to make it possible, nor did we have a 'transition' period in which to
phase out the use of paper files over the course of a couple of seasons.  We
made a lot of changes, experimented back and forth with different options,
got a mixed reception from judges/competitors, and had to find what worked
for us by trial and error.  We still haven't settled on a system and have
had to lean on paper more than we originally planned.  But for us, the
considerations weren't hypothetical, they were real, and in the big picture,
problems were pretty minimal.

Our first tournament of the year on the China topic was Georgia State.  At
that point, we were REALLY green with the use of computers and had to deal
with a lot of problems in sharing evidence with opponents, flowing, and
reading off the laptop all in the same speech.  When we FIRST started, we
had printed the 1ac plan text, and everything else we didn't provide unless
requested.  We hadn't yet given sufficient thought at this point to the
issue of evidence sharing in round, and so we would give our laptops w/ all
cards on them to opponents after each speech during their prep time.  To be
reciprocal, we didn't take any cards until after a speech of our opponents,
but, regardless, the whole business was pretty messy.

 It was at this tournament that my partner (Justin Eckstein) and I first
heard a formal "reading evidence off of laptops is unfair" argument.  The
round in which it was deployed was pretty terrible on all sides, ours
certainly included.  We made arguments about this set-up being the only way
we could participate in debate, to which they suggested that regional travel
was a sufficient alternative (in the parlance of a debate round it "solved
the majority of the impact.")

At the time I took this argument rather personally, and, to a great extent,
I still do.  "If you can't make the round sufficiently convenient for us, go
home" has always seemed to me to run counter to the values of a community
which claims to care about inclusion and expanded participation.

 The critic that round did not share these sentiments, and in addition to
voting against us explained that he just didn't see why our participation at
national tournaments was an impact, remarking that "maybe [we] *should* just
do regional debate."

I can't and don't hold his evaluation of the arguments made in a round
against him (or anyone), but I do think his rather insensitive remark
pointed to a deeper issue with respect to the 'transition' to a more
technology-centered debate.  We can have discussions for hours upon hours,
patting ourselves on the back for identifying different practical
difficulties to paperless debate and how they may or may not be overcome,
but fundamentally such discussions will never be too productive if they fail
to acknowledge the need for a 'mindset-shift' shift among
debaters/coaches/critics with what they'll consider 'tolerable' with regard
to evidence access in a round.

At any rate, during our first season our general feeling was that
reciprocity should have governed fairness issues, and we were painfully
aware of other team's concerns that we received an unfair advantage by
debating/flowing/timing off of computers while they debated off of paper.  Over
the course of the season we did everything we could to try to address this.
We began to print more and more evidence, carrying an expando with our 1ac
and most of our 1nc shells with us to increase our opponent's access to
files, and we would jump speeches and whole files regularly to opponents
with laptops during a round so that they could use them to prepare.

We later started carrying a third laptop with us, which Veronica correctly
describes as an old junker, and by late in the season we could jump any
cards we were going to read before each speech and gave them to opponents.  We
pretty much relied on the scouts' honor of opponents not to read ahead of
where we were in any given speech, and I have no way of knowing how many
people complied, but at that point we didn't feel like we had a better

 This approach did not, however, completely clear up all problems.  Opponents
often complained in or out of round that it still wasn't fair if they
weren't able to view multiple cards simultaneously, or shuffle them around
during prep time, or, in short, have the exact same flexibility that paper
files afford.  During one important round we were even (falsely) accused of
jumping a different 1nc than the one we were actually reading in a round.

 I feel like I understand the perspective of those who think that the
competitiveness/fairness/education of a round is diminished by the reduction
in evidence access caused by debating paperless, but I still think such
concerns are overstated.  Is a paperless round going to 'feel' a bit
different?  Yes.  Does it affect the quality of speeches given by debaters
in a round?  Probably.  Does it necessarily diminish that quality?  I sure
don't think so.  It's different, but it really seems like the benefits of
increased participation/decreased costs substantially offset any potential
deficits in this sense.

As I mentioned above, however, for us this was not an abstract issue or a
thought experiment, and win or lose we had to make a change if we wanted to
keep playing.


The next season I was involved with traveling/debating at DU was this last
one, 2007-2008 on the Middle East Topic.  For better or for worse, my
partner and I that year decided to purchase a printer (our money, not the
team's) and travel with it, opting to print all of our speeches before
giving them even if we'd assemble them beforehand for our own use on the

This substantially reduced issues with competitor/judge complaints, although
it did occasionally result in one ironic consequence.  Previously, when we
didn't print anything during/before a round, judges were generally lenient
with us regarding preptime when we needed to jump files to the other team,
and occasionally between ourselves.  However, once we were printing files,
something that judges are more familiar with, this lenience disappeared.

I'm conflicted on what's "fair" in this respect, but I think everyone could
benefit on some more clearly established guidelines one way or another on
this issue if the print-as-you-go model becomes more widely adopted.  I
would anticipate that this might take more quickly than a completely
paperless model of debate, since it's kind of a stepping stone between that
and the old fashioned way.

To comment on some practical stuff:

1.  We made a LOT of improvements with how we used software by my senior
year.  We modified a version of Naveen Ramachandrappa's Word template to
produce files, which made organization substantially easier, both in
pre-round prep and in cutting files.  (Ramachandrappa's template, with a
detailed tutorial, can be found here
http://www.uga.edu/~spc/debate/research_guide/).  Our original approach was
pretty boneheaded in hindsight; we didn't even have a basic grasp of styles
vs. fonts.  Often in copy-pasting files between our own computers the format
of text would change dramatically, we'd lost our formatting and stuff could
go pretty haywire.  Using a consistent template for all of our debate stuff
eliminated this problem and a dozen others.

2.  It was way cheaper, and way less hassle.  Even accounting for the fact
that Tyler and I were not the most organized folks on the debate scene and
were often printing the same few cards over and over again and again, our
total paper usage wasn't even close to what it would have been if we'd been
on all paper/tubs all year.

I wasn't keeping track of how much we actually printed to give a very fair
number, but here's a ROUGH hypothetical breakdown to illustrate the
neighborhood we were in terms of printing:  Start with the unrealistic
assumption that we printed every card for every round fresh, including the
1ac each aff round.

A REALLY HIGH estimate, from my experience, for paper per round is about
50-70 pages (2 constructives at around 25-35 pages each.  Rebuttals may have
a few more pages, but that's captured in the estimate. Seriously, though, I
don't think we EVER printed this many pages, and those who judged us could
probably vouch that we were at least as quick as the next team.  Still, for
those hot shots who are just light-years faster than your average bear,
these numbers ought to be pretty useful.)

Take that total; multiply it by 9 rounds per tournament (estimated for 6-8
prelims and one or two break rounds averaged out throughout a season.  For
those who are going deep every week this number's obviously a bit low, but
by definition that's not a majority of debate teams across the country.)  Then
multiply by 12 tournaments per year.

That's 60 x 9 x 12 = 6,480 pages.

I'm guestimating here?but if you just took that mass of paper and didn't
have to worry about dividing/filing it, I think it'd fit in one tub.  Maybe
two.  High school camps put out evidence sets bigger than this.  It's
certainly not 5 or 6 tubs worth.  Moreover, in practice, you're not carrying
around even the full set of 6,500 pages to every tournament all year.

In our experience, I know we didn't print anything NEAR this amount of paper
over the course of the season.  Maybe half of it.  But my point is that with
pretty inflated numbers, even under the absolute most inefficient conditions
the print-as-you-go model for debate still massively cuts down on paper

As for hassle, by the end of the last season we had one cardboard box in
which to carry all of our paper.  One.  It was smaller than a tub.  We could
carry it on a plane.  File management logistics, evidence moving and
storage, etc. were for all intents and purposes a non-issue.

3.  Reliability?Could be improved.  Never in itself cost us a round, though.
I really only remember my computer going out on me during one round, triples
at CEDA, and we had judges who gave me the opportunity to reboot, which was
unsuccessful, so I spoke from Tyler's computer and used his flow.
Ideal?  Obviously
not.  But not too terribly different from spilling water on a paper flow and
having to use a partner's or other similar little in-round mishaps.   I
don't know what a "round ruining crash" would look like, but if it's defined
as a computer failure but-for-which one would have won the round and
because-of-which one had no hope of doing the same, we never had one.

4.  Debating?There are a few issues we haven't fully worked out yet.  The
2ac is the hardest speech to give if assembling your materials on a laptop.
I became waaay better at it over the course of the year with a lot of
practice, though.  I found that it helped tremendously to create/organize
files differently than I would if I were going to print them.  A 1000 page
file with a 10 page index is next to useless in physical form, but on a
laptop, it means I only have to have one document open and I can more
quickly click from frontline to frontline to copy into my 2ac paper to make
a speech.

Other than that, with most other speaker positions for most average teams
there isn't a terrible loss of prep time compared to having everything on
paper, especially with a little bit of practice.

Even if there was, I still feel that whatever the minute loss is in terms of
competitiveness/education/speech quality is outweighed by gains in
convenience/efficiency/expanded participation. For us personally, it was the
difference between little to no travel and a lot of national travel.  Moreover,
with tech advances and more widespread acceptance in the community, I would
predict that these issues could easily be reduced to nil over the next few

One other significant issue that we never completely addressed was the
hassle of updating card underlining and highlighting in and after the heat
of a round.  While it wasn't TOO difficult to underline cards down
before/during rounds, integrating this underlining back into the original
file was often a chore.  And we haven't yet discovered an easy tech
equivalent to highlighting in multiple colors.

Other side note:  I'd say it was more often than not that our opponents had
at least one laptop.  They weren't using them as extensively as we were,
most of the time, but teams who went in without ANY computer seemed to be
the exception and not the rule.

All in all, we finished the season having substantially scaled back the
extent to which we were dependent on tech in rounds, but still were able to
enjoy enormous benefits of decreased cost/aggravation associated with
debating on an all-paper file system. As a few more technical hurdles get
worked out, and unless we see some kind of miraculous influx of budget money
(and even then it might be hard to go back), I suspect we'll continue to
move away from paper-based systems and towards increasingly digital



Mick raises a couple of concerns which I wanted to address.  My initial
inclination was to respond to his post in its entirety, because his fears of
increased tech reliance leading to some kind of dramatic stratification seem
pretty overstated.  On second thought, though, many of those concerns were
directed at the theoretical possibility that teams be required to use
laptop-based/print-as-you-go models for debate (or, actually, just that they
cut down their tub use to 2).  Since I read the hypothetical as more of a
tool to spur thinking than a serious proposal, I will simply trust the good
judgment of any debate director not to avoid making the switch out of fears
that more advantaged teams will see them doing it and start doing it better.

In any real context, a sensible piece of advice seems to be this:  If
there's some technology or strategy that larger teams can use that smaller
teams can't that gives them a competitive advantage, they're probably
already using it.  True, Mick responds to the "uniqueness" of this point in
his post, but only by suggesting that a requirement that all debaters rely
on laptops would give it uniqueness, and I am not super-interested in the
nuts and bolts of such a hypothetical anyways.

One or two remarks seem like they maybe go beyond that, however:

MS: Lastly, this already true, but it would magnify existing background

privileges. Those persons from privileged backgrounds are much more likely

to be already familiar with advanced laptop applications. This sounds

ridiculous but it's true: there is using MS-Word and there is

*USING*MS-Word to it's full potential.

Other add-on organization software and such things are much more likely to

familiar to those who economic status has made technological education a

much higher priority and more attainable possibility in their home

communities.   Ultimately, despite the privilege that pervades the debate

community currently, one of the nice things is that is accessible to

everyone. Maybe I am just being pessimistic but I would prefer that the

community act to limit increasing the material barriers to not just

participation, but *effective* participation. There are, of course,
exceptions and some might argue that debate is about educating people. But
call me a Luddite, but I think debate is about educating people in argument
and political awareness, not in how to use a laptop. And if laptop reliance
is barrier to *effective* participation then we are missing out educating
the some of the people that we are supposed to be targeting in the first

LM:  We greatly enhanced our use of MS Word, Excel, and a handful of other
programs over the years through trial and error.  We had to learn how to do
it.  The education was free and a lot of it came from other debate teams
like the UGA site mentioned above. For us, learning to use computers to cut
cards/read off of isn't much different at all from learning to cut cards
using lexis/other databases.

Moreover, people from privileged backgrounds can take advantage of enhanced
technology to improve their debating skills and evidence access already.  This
is at least in part proven by the many larger teams who have expansive
digital networks/organization systems just to manage/back up their paper
files. And, as you acknowledge elsewhere, teams aren't sticking with paper
file systems because of some kind of egalitarian sensibility, they're doing
so because they feel it maximizes their competitive edge.

Heideggerian ruminations aside, debating with a 'laptop reliant' system
allowed us to compete nationally on a shoestring budget.  We've done so now
for three seasons.  We qualified to the NDT in each and broke at CEDA nats
during 2. I think that qualifies as *effective* participation, but would
invite anyone to tell me otherwise.

Given the dramatically rising costs of travel and strains on team budgets
over the last few years, I don't know how it could so easily be said that
debate is 'accessible to everyone' simply in virtue of people reading their
speeches off of paper instead of LCD screens and choose to carry thousands
of pages around with them instead of printing only what they need when they
need it.  If the idea is to limit increasing material barriers to
participation, maybe the community should explore being a bit more tolerant
of teams who are forced to go electronic to compete.

And really, do you honestly believe there is a dichotomy between learning
argument and political awareness and learning to use a laptop? Couldn't this
argument just as easily apply to teams who do any kind of research on a
computer, not just those who read from them during rounds? A near as I can
tell, neither I nor anyone else on our team has yet been successful in
getting my laptop to do our arguing or learning for us.



Anyhow, for anyone else interested in increasing their use of laptops for
debate and cutting down on the use of paper files, feel free to drop me a
line.  I don't have anywhere near the technical expertise of several others
who have posted in the last few weeks, but I have had practical experience
debating this way for a few years, and might be able to help.

Thanks to whoever read this whole thing.

All the best,

Logan Martin

University of Denver Class of 2008

P.S. Heidegger was a Nazi.
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