Observations from Judging

Prince Hyemang | Jul 27, 2021
15 min read

I don’t think this article is going to be groundbreaking. Wow, that’s an underwhelming intro! But it’s true. I merely intend to share my perspective from judging at a pair of circuit tournaments this year (Yale and Harvard). Yes, my sample size is small and may not be indicative of all debates taking place on the circuit but from the 29 rounds I judged in the 2019-2020 season I feel pretty comfortable saying I saw an extremely wide range of argumentation from a good subset of the circuit. Coupled with all the rounds I watched posted on the DebateDrills youtube channel, the sample size was robust enough to justify the following views. In an ideal world, this laundry list of points are things you have already thought about as a debater, fellow judge, or educator/coach. So I’m going  to attempt to bring to light some of the things that I feel like people aren’t discussing enough.

Speed Kills

It seems like a lot of debaters idealize tech. The romanticized circuit debater is super fast and technical but at least from what I’ve seen, that desired level of speed is oftentimes not strategy-enhancing and unnecessary. Having a top speed that exceeds most of the circuit only serves as an advantage if you’re able to exploit it with argument diversity and deadly collapses. It is rendered moot if you opt for the “throw the kitchen sink” approach that leaves room for your opponent to still win time splits by going “all in” on the right issue. This is why it can be wise for faster debaters to also practice debating and drilling at conversational or non-top speeds to stress focus on concision, efficiency, and issue selection. Additionally, high speeds have to be wielded with great clarity, mild transition speeds, and reasonable volume to work favorably. Otherwise, it is futile.

Speech Docs and Flowing

I know this has been touched on before but on the whole I want to resurface the point that judges are worse at flowing than debaters think. (I personally practice my flow before going to a tournament to bring myself up to speed and I know that is an anomaly.) I feel like this produces two results. There seems to be one cohort of judges who place the onus heavily on the debaters and feel completely comfortable not evaluating arguments that they didn’t catch on their flow or fully comprehend when initially articulated. This cohort seems to be dwindling (although very much still present). The other cohort seems to give their best effort to flow arguments when first articulated and use speech docs to bridge the gap between their flow and the actual speeches. This cohort seems to be growing but with significant variability. Some judges are heavily dependent on speech docs which somewhat de-emphasizes the role of speaking. Other judges only look to the speech doc to resolve human error, clean up their flow, or review major points of contention. And to make matter more complex, judges vary disparately with how transparent their flowing process is. I don’t think debating right or wrong is very useful. Rather, my plea to judges is that regardless of where they fall on the spectrum, be consistent. This way debaters can begin to discern and adapt accordingly. Very quickly, I want to make a plug for SpeechDrop as an alternative for email chains. I prefer it because it allows me to quickly view docs in “preview mode” without having to download them. Additionally, it's a little less cumbersome to deal with one room code than multiple email addresses at the start of each round.

Evaluating Paradigms

There seems to be two extremes when it comes to evaluating paradigms. On one extreme, there is the overfixation on the paradigm (which rarely actually is fully true) and on the other end is the sheer neglect or ignorance as it pertains to the content of the paradigm. Most debaters fall in the middle and rightfully so. Good debating will always trump nit-picky stylistic preferences in a paradigm. Moreover, the paradigm may not actually be a great indicator on a judge. Some judges edit their paradigm religiously, others don’t. Some judges don’t even remember what they’ve put on their paradigm. This is why it’s imperative that debaters ask if there’s any uncertainty, doubt, or confusion. There really isn’t a dumb question if it means that you’re better equipped to adapt to your judge and win rounds. Judges get annoyed when you ask to summarize their paradigm. Although, as a last resort, this is comparatively better than having no idea at all. Moreover, perception always seems to differ from reality so you can only fully appreciate a judge’s style and preferences by seeing rounds they’ve judged or debating in front of them. This one of the many reasons recording rounds is so vitally important.

I also want to add a quick note about judge evaluation. Judges change for better or worse. This is why seasoned judges are generally perceived as more consistent and reliable because they have often reached a point of maturation whereby their RFDs become more predictable (if that’s even possible in LD). The bottom line here is review and analyze paradigms but don’t lord over them. Most of your energy should be devoted to getting better at debating and then making slight tweaks to adapt to judges as opposed to the other way around.

We’re not paying enough attention to C-X

On the whole, judges don’t have a strong recollection of what took place in C-X and I don’t blame them! C-X has become a lost art. Most debaters right now would probably be better off using their C-X time as part of flex prep and that’s unfortunate. While there are debaters who leverage it strategically, there is still a lot of throwaway time in C-X. I challenge debaters to change this. Time in debate rounds is very finite. Debaters need to be more intentional about how they wield their C-X time so it carries as much weight as their speech time if not more. Think about this: a 30 second line of questioning can render large swaths of your opponents speech time moot. That’s what it means to truly win a time-tradeoff.

C-X can accomplish many goals:

Being good at C-X is something debaters should definitely work on. And disclaimer, working on C-X skills is more than just being able to ask and answer questions, it’s also being able to manage that finite amount of time whether that be by getting a ton of questions out with effortless transitions or allocating most of it towards one lethal line of questioning. Practice. Please.

Hot take: All debates are evaluated after the 1AR (and thoughts about prep time)

This will definitely ruffle some feathers but I can’t think of any reason not to bring this point to light. If a judge is not able to evaluate the debate solely from listening to the 2NR and 2AR in Lincoln-Douglas debate, the debaters have a suboptimal job of collapsing the debate. If you don’t believe it, try it. Watch a round starting right before the 2NR and try to evaluate it. Everything before that is merely context. So with this in mind, I hope this helps inform debaters in a couple ways. While it is often argued that the 1AR is the hardest speech in Lincoln-Douglas, even a botched 1AR can result in a win if the aff debate is spot on in the 2AR. Debaters should spend significantly more time working on their 2NR and 2AR execution than any other speeches. With sufficient prep, all the speeches prior to the 2NR can be fairly scripted. Yes, even the 1AR with some affs against certain 1NC strategies. Most debaters find themselves in trouble when they attempt to script out the 2NR. Doing so usually lacks the appropriate allocation of time and specificity to any respective ballot issue. So why is this post 1AR evaluation possible and what does it mean from a judging standpoint? It is possible because even the most promising 1ARs can be wasted with a scattershot rambly 2AR. Similarly, a 7 minute barrage in the 1NC can turn into a misallocated half-baked 2NR (the latter is more common than the former). The 2NR essentially lays down all the relevant issues. In this process, they explicitly establish what the sequence of priorities is based on their coverage, weighing, and time allocation. Then the 2AR comes in.

A good 2AR will also simplify the layers of the debate. They usually consist of 1) making a significant concession on what the focal point of the debate should be and winning the substance of that focus, 2) outright winning the framing, or 3) explaining how they resolve the various layers in order to get to the layer they’re ahead on (usually the hardest and longest path). From there, it is simply a matter of following the trail. Did the 2AR accomplish what they said they would? After reviewing this model, it can be easy to see why affirming in Lincoln-Douglas debate is perceived to be harder than negating. Affirming has less margin for error. However, the affirmative has the upper hand in the sense that they have a clearer vision of what it will take to win. If affirmative simply look at the entirety of the 2NR and assess where the most and least amount of time was allocated, they can typically find a good starting point for their speech. Even in rounds where unintentional concessions have been, affirmative are able to salvage when they exploit 2NR misallocation of time. It’s only when the 2NR delivers nearly 6 mins of exactness that the affirmative is done in.

From a judging standpoint, this means a couple of things. 2NR and 2AR explanations matter more. And they should! Everything before was set-up. I want to clarify that this doesn’t give debaters a free pass to be blippy early on and blow things up later but a lot of questions of framing and sequencing come in the last speech. This also means debaters are never out of the round. Good judges don’t form major judgments or impressions about the round until the 2NR. Sure, the round could look over when the aff extends a conceded theory spike in the 1AR but the 2AR could completely fumble the bag (this actually happened to me R1 my first time at TOC). As a debater, you never know when your opponent may overlook an argument that you can collapse to and weigh against all other relevant points of tension. Moreover, this also means that you should be malleable enough to win on your terms or with whatever your opponent gives you to work with. You might have thought you were gonna go 5 mins on the K and 1 min on substance but the best route to the ballot may actually be resolving any offense on the K, kicking it, and going for 2 case turns on the aff for the remaining 4:30. These mid-round adjustments are only possible if debaters leave themselves sufficient prep time for their last rebuttal.

People debate about this. I don’t think there’s a right answer. But here are some important considerations. Unless your 1NC is pristine and 100% applicable to the aff, you should take a little bit of time to ensure that significant portions of your strategy will not be rendered moot OR that you have not neglected significant portions of the affirmative. Before the 1AR, debaters should use enough time to generate at least 2 offense routes to the ballot but not so much that they are unable to adequately address new 2NR add-ons, offs, etc. Conversely, I don’t think many debaters run into the problem of using too much prep time before the 1NC. This really only happens if the opponent is breaking new, in which case, you’ll probably be relying on a fair amount of pre-written prep anyway although slightly more generic. The only real acceptable use of significant prep before the 1NC is dealing with analytics that may pose devastating to your 1NC strategy or your ability to execute a good 2NR. Furthermore, most 2ARs can do a bit of prep during the 2NR because you can make a determination of the appropriate collapse while the 2NR is still arguing. This is why the most effective of 2NRs necessitate a degree of preemptive work on the issue they’re collapsing on.

Stop leaving the room for indefinite periods of time after the round!

Couple reasons I think this is a bad idea. The first being that you don’t know how long it's going to take for a judge to decide. I personally vary considerably from round to round. There are some rounds where I’m one of the first ballots submitted and there are others where I am one of the last. Staying present can help speed the tournament up. Secondly, what if I have questions for you? I have to disrupt my train of thought to go find you and ask. Third, I truly do not believe that communicating with your coach and/or teammates is more pressing than the outcome of your round. You can tell them everything about the round after. Better yet, text them. Fourth, staying in the room will force you to reclaim the time immediately after the round when you’re at your peak clarity about the events that transpired. Most of your best thoughts regarding a round happen either immediately after or when rewatching the round. Why rob yourself of that precious moment to merely hangout? Fifth, it can create a distraction for the adjudicator which doesn’t work in your favor either. Sixth, this means you stay closer to your laptop and other belongings. The benefit is two-fold: 1) You’re able to create and save important insight from the round such as exempted analytics, speech docs, personal judge review, rounding tracking, questions for the judge, and general post-round research and prep 2) nobody else is liable for your belongings and they’re well-protected. There’s the obvious caveat of having to go to the bathroom or grab water. Please still do these things, just don’t linger.

Roadmaps are getting pretty long people...

Roadmaps are not a substitute for signposting. I’ve seen a lot of rounds online, and judged a handful, where debaters are referencing everything they’re going to cover in their roadmap. It’s a waste of time. A roadmap should merely reference the flows/layers that the debater intends on interacting with in the speech. I think it is even reasonable to say that you only reference the layers from the earlier parts of the speech but this up to your discretion. If you’re transitioning from the Aff to the K to T, you’re going to have to tell me what flow it is and where within the flow you are arguing during your speech anyway. I’d argue that it might even be disadvantageous to give anything more than that away in the roadmap because you are priming your opponent by allowing them to see exactly where you’re going with your speech. AC NC top down is a good roadmap. So is T, K, O starting on the voter section or Theory on the violation, T, K/AC, etc. These types of roadmaps are “to the point” while being informative.

Judging can be challenging and stressful

It can be very easy for competitors and coaches to blame the quality of the judging for bad or wrong decisions, the reality of the situation is that there are a lot of judges who are earnestly trying to do their best. Sometimes that yields great decisions, very well-thought out decisions. Other times, it produces headscratchers. This is part of the reason I believe that most debates that can be, should be recorded. The round serves not only as a great educational tool for competitors and educators but judges present and future. Judging national circuit tournaments requires a niche skill set and demanding time commitment that typically exceeds the compensation. Think about this: a hired judge could work on the sales floor of a big box merchandise store and receive the cash-equivalent in hourly pay as weekend at a national circuit tournament. Judging however is far more intellectually rigorous and, given the timeline of tournaments, physically taxing. I think this is why the collective quality of the judging pool is diminishing and things like the entourage rule is having to be put in effect. Even seasoned judges rather opt out of judging in favor of working with students. I don't know what the future holds for debate but with online tournaments popping up, I’m curious to see whether that produces any permanent changes to the landscape of judging and judge pools at future onsite or remote tournaments.

It’s okay to sit down early

This doesn’t happen often, usually the lopsided debates (like presets), but there are occasions where the 2NR or 2AR can resolve the debate in less time than allotted for the speech. Do it. It’s okay. It’s not rude. It’s not cocky. It’s being precise. I can’t conceive of any reason a judge would have with not being okay with this. What is the alternative? Rambling on about non-essential issues in the round. To me, that communicates a lack of strategic vision. As if the debater didn’t wholly know what they needed to accomplish in order to win the round. I know there’s some merit to hedging your bets but that looks starkly different than covering non-essential flows/layers in the 2NR. It usually just a bit of preemption work. Debaters should be rewarded for being concise/efficient enough to end debates in this matter. I hope this will gain more reception. For now, if you are reluctant to sit down early as a debater because of your judge, I would encourage you to deliver the speech slower if you are able to as opposed to including filler content.

The Opinions Expressed In This Blog Post Are Solely Those of the Author And Not Necessarily Those Of DebateDrills

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