[eDebate] topic wording possibilities (to paper authors)--call for general variety

Kuswa, Kevin kkuswa
Thu Jan 1 15:20:45 CST 2009

Hello edebaters,

Happy '09.  It looks like interest in writing papers and helping the process is increasing.  The debate on ?Grand Strategy? as a resolution focus has been good to see and the backchannel inquiries about other wording options have also been encouraging.  What I am trying to do in this post is to continue to categorize some of the *general* ways that topic wording might be diversified to expand or slightly shift the current types of resolutions we have been debating.  General variety in the topic wording process is, of course, relative to the specific controversy, the terms used in the literature, and the agent of action.  There are probably an infinite number of ways to vary the form the resolution takes and the topic committee has been full of insightful feedback (much of which is reflected in this post), but it may help to get some thoughts from the larger community and controversy paper authors.


To begin, changing the resolutional wording structure is not automatically a good move.   In fact, many of you are asking, "What's wrong with the topic selection process as it is?"   Nothing is wrong with the wording selection process.  It works well and it allows the community to vote on controversies generated by anyone who wants to write a paper.  It also allows the community to select a wording from a slate of options crafted by the committee with additional wording papers supplementing the original controversy paper.  Mancuso, Stables, and many others have done excellent work on getting the larger community involved and improving the process.

It is not the case, though, that these topic choices have been spontaneous creations from authors compelled to find the Truth of a controversy.  I doubt if we would want those forms of technocratic descriptions in the first place?novices (at least some of them) are still expected to be able to enter the activity from scratch.   Regardless, these wording choices are influenced by what authors think the topic committee will accept and what the community has voted for in the past.  Investing the time in a topic paper is immense as many of you know from first-hand experience.  If you were writing a topic paper about a controversy you find important, would you not take into account the fact that every resolution for over a decade and every choice on the slate of options last year used the "United States Federal Government" as an agent?  Bucking that trend would be a big risk even though the community did not actually vote to use that agent (it was the only choice).  Maybe the USFG was the best agent according to the Truth of the controversy paper, but maybe it (also) became the best agent through some of the normalizing influences of the process?

These comments about the USFG should not be seen as the only place for more diversity in our wording options.  Here are some of the elements missing in topic choices over the past 15 years or, in some cases, longer.


These paths are not equally worth pursuing, but they all warrant some degree of thinking.  They are ranked roughly in order of possibility/feasibility/support.

1. Non-USFG agents.

There is some very strong support for a topic that uses an agent of action other than the US Federal Government.  The ?international institutions? area may generate a controversy that yields a non-US option.  Calum Matheson has talked recently about a possible NATO agent in his military strategy posts, Vik Keenan has been working on a UN agent in other debate contexts, and there are additional projects underway that have potential.  We have had topics in the past that use agents other than the USFG, demonstrated by the list of previous resolutions at the end of this post.

I caution, though, that the standards used on this question (ground, research, predictability) are often manipulated slightly to give the USFG the edge.  We have debated Europe, China, and other controversies that point to a non-US agent, but we have not had a wording option without the US as agent on any of those topics.  It is an uphill climb even though it should be a downhill coast?no educator would praise a discussion?year after year after year?that is purposefully so imperial in terms of the ?Affirmative Subject.?  Certainly a non-USFG agent must be defended and this is about a well-written controversy paper and a well-defended wording paper, but there are other pressures and expectations working to limit this area of innovation.

2. Passive voice.

Leaving the question of ?By Whom?? open to debate, passive voice may well offer the best place to diversify the construction of the resolution.  Putting the resolution in the passive (which could happen for any topic, including those we have had recently) is also a way to include the USFG as one agent among many possibilities.  There is room within the passive voice to debate the question of the agent as it relates to the controversy area.  Having an option written in the passive voice would not destroy debate--there have been over a dozen passive voice topics in the last 50 years.

The community might decide that opening some ground for the affirmative to advocate action (topically) outside the constraints of the USFG could actually bring portions of critical debate closer to the specifics while allowing topicality to matter.  And, if so desired, the staunch defenders of the USFG (assuming that the community selects a passive topic) could use counterplans or other forms of agent arguments to try to bring their favorite actor back into the round.

2. b)  (or not 2 be)  Passive voice theory.  We have had passive voice topics in the past, even as recently as the early 1990s.  These topics were not over-run by counterplanning in the active voice.  On the Africa topic (that US foreign policy should be changed), there were excellent debates about other avenues for changing US foreign policy in the region (France, OAU, UN, NGOs) that emerged from the passive construction but augmented everyone's understanding of the factors in the region.  It actually helped to concentrate debates on Africa and policy in Africa instead of generic internal arguments about US politics (these arguments were still available, but they were not dominating of the argument field).

The theoretical "problems" associated with the passive voice are not reasons to avoid this type of construction; on the contrary, healthy theory debates involving what counterplans might look like, for example, are demonstrations that we should try a topic in this form?a form that is capable of helping us revisit the meaning of fiat.  Topical counterplans with a different agent like the States CP or the Executive Order CP would face different types of competition arguments and solvency burdens.  Keep in mind that current theory debates are not so wonderful that we should avoid a shift.  Given the wasteland of argumentation contained in most ?A-Spec? debates, the burden should be on the defenders of the current wording, not those willing to experiment with the passive.  This also addresses the argument that ?passive voice is a position reserved to the negative.?  Maybe, from a skewed perspective, negatives are currently deploying passive voice when they critique statist or neoliberal action, but attacking the USFG is not the same thing as advocating from a passive construction.  Moreover, the arguments against a specified agent should not only be available to the negative?this one-sided division constitutes the affirmative debater as a certain type of federal government reformer (the aff bureaucrat) or as a total radical ignoring the requirements of the topic.

Some also argue against the passive voice from Korzybski?s theory of English-Prime, or E Prime, which would eliminate most passive voice by expunging the verb ?to be.?  Passive is still possible within E-prime, however, and the ?should? verb is also acceptable.  Compounding the misapplication of this theory to the wording of the resolution, there are problems with the E Prime semantic paradigm in the first place because it conflates certain uses of the ?to be? verb (identifying something and expressing a condition) with all uses.  This is a fruitful place for discussion, but not one that would void the possibilities of a passive resolution altogether.

3. Concise wordings.  The wordings are getting longer and longer and they do not really have to grow longer to be better.  We can at least ask authors to submit wording options with less than 15 words (or provide us with the most concise option they would be able to defend).  Or, less than 20 words...or 10.  There is something about brevity and simple elegance that we have lost (and maybe have yet to find in most topics).  A beautiful topic does not (always) need dangling jewelry or topicality tattoos like "at least including...," "limited to this and this...," "through at least one and not more than the following...," etc.  Shorter topic wording do not have to be too broad and they can have more of a connection to creative thinking and argument flexibility.

4. Deeper topic assumptions that might warrant opening:

A) The present tense of "should."  We all know that "should" helps to define fiat in a way that "could" or "would" does not.  Thus, assuming that we must have the word "should" in any topic, why does it always have to be present tense?  Would we entertain a paper about a historical topic--one that says "should have..."?

B) The "Resolved :"...this may be too close to the heart of what policy debate is to think about changing, but there are plenty of debates over the meaning of this prefix and the colon that follows it.  Maybe a paper on these options could go into the different meanings of a dash, a comma, a colon vs. a semi-colon, although that would be less significant than exploring alternatives to the ?Resolved,? including ?Contend,? ?Believe? or not using a prefix at all.

C) Punctuating the sentence.  This relates to the function of the "Resolved:", but it might be possible to conclude the statement with a question mark instead of a period, changing the way the affirmative is expected to endorse the topic.

5. Words that are not "in the literature" or "terms of art."

The addition of descriptors and other words that are not regularly used in that controversy area might allow for more creativity and interpretation.  A slightly different version of this element would look for words that have not been used in previous topics---"sweeping" instead of "substantial," "initiate" instead of "increase," "energize" instead of "establish," etc.   Many debaters compete for four or more years--they could have a variety of phrases instead of repetition.  In other words, we try to alternate between domestic, international, and legal topics (roughly)--why not alternate some of the other phrases?  This can go too far if it removes the connection between research in the field and topicality or solvency, but using a few words that are not ?in the literature? could be a good thing depending on their placement and the terms of art that are included.

The elements listed above may or may not be linked to some of the critical and performative turns in debate.  The fact that we have experienced a number of theoretical shifts and paradigms in debate recently?influenced by technology, but also by fields of argument?is not hard to demonstrate.  Questions surrounding the role and agency of the debater-judge-audience as well as critiques of the assumptions behind certain forms of evidence and certain ways of debating are now abundant.  At some point the resolutions should (partially) reflect these turns, at least as much as they can within the parameters given.  The fact that the agent has been nothing other than the United States Federal Government since 1995 is not really indicative of the paths being taken in debate since the early 90s.  Maybe that is a reason to keep the current formula, but it is probably more of a reason to offer some diversity if possible.  Ryan Galloway and others on the Topic Committee have been very open to working through some of these possibilities and have articulated some smart arguments both for and against a number of these options.  We really do have a committee and a process that is open to any well-defended controversy or wording paper, making some of these paths very real possibilities.

>From Here

Think about making some of these jumps when it comes time to write a controversy paper or a wording paper.  Think about making some of these jumps when it comes time to vote for one of the options or to provide feedback to the list-serve.  Some of these elements are closely related to one another and are tied to questions coming from the controversy itself, but each is distinct enough to warrant independent discussion.  There really is not as much consensus and predictability in the community as the topics would have an outside observer conclude.  Even if there is some norm for the majority of phrases, over a four year period we should attempt to diversify the possibilities.

>From early feedback, the discussion about the grammar of the resolved and seeking out phrases that are explicitly outside of the literature are not the best routes to pursue at this point.  Those extreme changes might be possibilities that a certain controversy area could explore down the road, but in the short term the move to a non-USFG agent or a broad topic with a limited number of words would be more likely to guide debates toward the details of the controversy (a positive goal) and to temper our fears of the unknown in the topic writing process.

Thank you for reading,

Kevin Kuswa

U. Richmond

From: edebate-bounces at ndtceda.com [edebate-bounces at ndtceda.com] On Behalf Of Kuswa, Kevin [kkuswa at richmond.edu]
Sent: Wednesday, December 17, 2008 9:01 PM
To: edebate at ndtceda.com
Subject: [eDebate] topic--controversy papers

hi all--happy holiday season.  enjoying the debate for ceda admin.   Ellis, Russell, Elliot, Keenan, M. Davis...quite the panel!

this is just a little reminder to consider writing a controversy paper or helping with an existing one.  Gordon Stables, Chair of the Committee, has put together a very useful description of the process:


Also (and slightly related), we've had a USFG topic for almost twice as long as Bush has been in office...it's time for a change (even if small).  It starts with good controversy papers that lay out the possibilities for diverse phrases and wordings.  An option for a wording written in the passive voice, for a wording with a non-USFG agent, for a wording with fewer than about twenty words, or for another type of wording off the beaten path is possible, but it will need to be well-defended in a controversy paper, a wording paper, or both.  have fun with it!

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NDT (and CEDA) Topics with some variety in the agent or verb since 1946.

RESOLVED: "That labor should be given a direct share in the management of industry.
RESOLVED: "That a federal world government should be established."
RESOLVED: "That the nonagricultural industries should guarantee their employees an annual wage."
RESOLVED: "That the requirement of membership in a labor organization as a condition of employment should be illegal."
RESOLVED: "That the further development of nuclear weapons should be prohibited by international agreement."
RESOLVED: "That labor organizations should be under the jurisdiction of anti-trust legislation."
RESOLVED: "That the non-communist nations of the world should establish an economic community."
RESOLVED: "That law enforcement agencies in the United States should be given greater freedom in the investigation and prosecution of crime."
RESOLVED: "That executive control of United States foreign policy should be significantly curtailed."
RESOLVED: "That the power of the Presidency should be significantly curtailed."
RESOLVED: "That the United States law enforcement agencies should be given significantly greater freedom in the investigation and/or prosecution of felony crime."
RESOLVED: "That all United States military intervention into the internal affairs of any foreign nation or nations in the Western Hemisphere should be prohibited."
RESOLVED: "That any and all injury resulting from the disposal of hazardous waste in the United States should be the legal responsibility of the producer of that waste."
RESOLVED: "That more rigorous academic standards should be established for all public elementary and/or secondary schools in the United States in one or more of the following areas: language arts, mathematics, natural sciences."
RESOLVED: "That one or more presently existing restrictions on First Amendment freedoms of press and/or speech established in one or more federal court decisions should be curtailed or prohibited."
RESOLVED: "That United States foreign policy toward one or more African nations should be substantially changed."
RESOLVED: "That one or more United States Supreme Court decisions recognizing a federal Constitutional right to privacy should be overruled."
RESOLVED: "That the Commander-in-Chief power of the President of the United States should be substantially curtailed."

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