What do you like to do when the topic first comes out? If you’re like me when I was debating, you probably are refreshing the page frantically on the NSDA website, waiting eagerly to find out what it’s going to be. When the page finally loads with the topic, however, there are a number of things you could do: try to predict the most common positions, start cutting as many Affs as possible, read articles, etc.
While different debaters certainly take different approaches to the early days of research, this article argues in favor of a particular approach: starting broad and scoping out the topic early, trying to learn everything possible about it.
What do I mean specifically? When the topic comes out, I would refrain from cutting cards for at least a few hours, reading every background article I could get my hands on. For me, the purpose wasn’t to find specific positions (that would come later) or even to start amassing cards; rather, the goal was just to learn what’s out there. There are several reasons to take this approach.
First, it can avoid false starts and misleading conclusions in the early days of the topic. Debaters are well-informed and well-read, which can be dangerous; one can falsely assume that something they know intuitively about a topic (or superficially) is true, based on only a modicum of research. Many debaters, upon seeing the topic, race to start cutting positions based on initial intuitions, only to quickly find out that the initial intuition was incorrect. Instead, you should start by focusing on learning as much as you can about what’s out there: read articles, see how common terms are used, and who some of the big authors are.
By way of example, imagine the topic is about a ban on lethal autonomous weapons. Don’t spend your first five hours of research rushing to cut the deterrence disad (which may not be applicable, depending on what you learn later). Instead, read a technical primer on what autonomy means in this context; read several of the global petitions outlining the core arguments in favor of a ban. Don’t cut cards here – just listen and learn.
Second, background reading can make you more conversant in the basics of the topic, which will help you both pre-round and during debates. Having a basic understanding of who says what and what the core controversies in the topic are can help you put various arguments—and authors—into conversation with one another. This will help you know the intuitive answers to various positions, as well as add a level of detail to your explanations in speeches if you can evince strong background knowledge.
Third and finally, you’ll actually end up cutting cards more efficiently if you start broad by scoping out the topic. Many debaters try to research “top-down” where, upon knowing what position they want to cut, they search for articles to fit the mold. This is a mistake because it conflates what you think should be out there with what actually is out there. Effective research is guided by the literature, so basing the research on a strong background understanding is imperative.
To conclude, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to research. However, in our experience, starting broadly can help result in a deeper and more rigorous knowledge of the topic.