For years, Public Forum (PF) debate was defined by monthly topics, where each month would require debaters to restart the research process anew. However, PF has begun testing a new approach, using bimonthly topics for September and October, along with November and December. This season, there is a unified September/October topic, a unified November/December topic, and then monthly topics for the remainder of the season.
Each debate event has a different approach to topic length. Policy debate has a year-long topic given out in the spring before each season; debaters then have the entire summer and year to dive deep into that topic’s literature base. Lincoln-Douglas uses bi-monthly topics, with a September/October, November/December, and January/February model for the regular season. Traditionally, PF has used monthly topics, but the recent changes indicate that this may soon be a relic of the past.
There are certainly benefits to shorter, more transitory topics. Shorter topics allows exposure to a greater number of topics over the course of the season, which can increase the familiarity that debaters have with a larger number of literature bases. It also forces debaters to develop efficient skills in research and time management to effectively prepare for a topic over such a compressed timeline.
However, I’d argue that longer topics are overall more beneficial than shorter ones. This post makes the case for sticking to the bimonthly approach to topics in PF.
First, one month is insufficient time for arguments to develop over the course of a topic. A benefit of longer topics is the potential for iteration over the course of the year. A team will read a position, see the arguments their opponent develops against it, and improve the position in response; this becomes a back-and-forth of argument improvement, fostering a research “arms race” of sorts. However, one month means that most teams will only be attending 1-2 tournaments, maximum. This short-circuits the ability for this iteration to take place at any real level of granularity.
Second, a bimonthly topic rotation allows a far greater degree of research depth. Realistically, a debater isn’t going to have much ability to do a deep dive into a topic debated only for one month. They will only have a few weeks of lead-time to research the topic before tournaments begin, juggling that with the previous topic and commitments outside of debate such as school. The result is that teams might be forced to rush in with only the fruits of a few weeks of research, resulting in lower-quality positions and an insufficient grasp of the core concepts in the topic.
Third and finally, a bimonthly topic gets the best of both worlds. While some object that a year-long topic can be stale and dull (not to mention trapping students debating a bad topic for a year, if one is selected), a bimonthly topic still gives students at least 3 topics over a given season. This allows sufficient variety, while also avoiding the lack of depth that a monthly topic engenders.
Moving PF to a rotation schedule similar to Lincoln-Douglas seems, on face, to be desirable. This would entail having a September/October topic, November/December topic, and then a January/February topic for the core parts of the year, with a March/April topic for some of the postseason tournaments. While there are certainly benefits to having monthly topics, a bimonthly schedule attains many of those benefits without the drawbacks.