Thursday, April 1, 2010

Episode 21 - Public Forum, Pt. 1

What activity has so many names and so many nicknames? Controversy, Ted Turner, Puff, Pffft, etc. Maybe its lack of accepted nomenclature affects its lack of format? Whatever. Menick, Bietz, Cruz and Palmer begin their dissection of the beast in this this episode, with predictably confused and incoherent results. Have a listen.


  1. As a public forum debater, this was quite an interesting insight into many differing viewpoints of the event. The main thing that was interesting was the discussion of lay and flow judges. In contrast to what you all found to be the case, in my experience, lay judges are harsher on rude and "sleazy" debaters than flow judges. It's undeniable that rudeness is not persuasive, and many lay judges seem to echo that belief. Thank you for the very interesting podcast. I'll be sure to listen to Part 2 when it is completed.

  2. There was only an indirect discussion of what appears to me to be the major tension that PF represents in the community, which is that between quality and accessibility.

    It is politically incorrect to say that PF is dumbed-down, but it is. Debaters are proactively encouraged to disregard arguments and focus only on what they deem the "main" points. Judges are encouraged to decide rounds not on the basis of the residual quality of the argument, but on the basis of their own nebulous intuitions about who "persuaded" them more (apparently they are not to be persuaded by whether or not a position is true). This is why the rounds have no principled basis for decision. The use of evidence is facile. The speech times are absurd (a one minute speech!). This is not to say that there are not incredibly smart PF debaters and coaches (there clearly are), but rather to say that the norms of the activity encourage unrigorous argumentation.

    We should not be surprised that "sleeze" wins debate rounds under these conditions. If we encourage students to act like news pundits or candidates in Presidential debates, they will do it. Both of those are fora which are notoriously uncritical and unrigorous. To my mind the norms of a debate format should be to encourage students to engage in social and political discourse as we wish public figures did, not as they happen to do presently. I would be embarrassed if my students debated like the presidential candidates do.

    The obvious tension here is that the less rigorous we make the activity, the more accessible it is. Every discursive forum has idiosyncratic norms and jargon. In policy and LD, that kind of background or architecture that represents the “technical” side of debate is relatively complex and works to promote rigorous and critical thinking (imperfectly, of course). The great aspiration of PF, I think, is that if you simplify that kind of technical architecture, you can make the event more accessible. But from my admittedly limited observations, what has happened is that throwing out the technical aspect also compromises the educational aspect.

    There must be a better compromise. Accessibility continues to be a huge challenge for the community, and I’m very receptive to the idea that there might be a debate event that is both accessible and intellectually rigorous. Maybe that’s parli, maybe that’s PF, maybe that’s something else. But a good way to start is to change the way we teach and judge the activity. Encourage people to focus on the quality of the argument, and set up the format so that good argumentation is actually possible. It is not “progressive” or, in my opinion, overly exclusive to make quality evidence, reasonable speech times, and reasonable decision calculi a foundation of any debate event, regardless of whether jargon, speed, “tech” arguments, etc. are employed. I fear that at present the balance we’ve struck throws out the baby with the bathwater.

    One additional thought: Jon says we shouldn’t be too hasty to jettison PF because it is young and other debate events have evolved over time. I agree entirely, but I also think that we should be careful not to interpret every argument for improving the quality of PF as an argument for abandoning it. Policy and LD no doubt evolved in response to criticisms like this, so I think that the discussion is healthy. Right now the major barrier to that evolution in my mind is that some people won’t participate in PF because it is so unrigorous. I think that my kids will get a better educational experience in LD than PF, so we don’t do PF. For many teams, PF is just kind of an over-flow event. I think it will evolve more quickly once it is rigorous enough that a lot of folks who are really dedicated to doing debate seriously are willing to put their time and effort into PF. There are already a number of people who fit that description and more every year, and hopefully we will start to see the result in the average quality of PF debates.

  3. The reason to create any new event should be to teach a new and different skills set. If you were to alter PF to make it more like LD, than I think you should just abandon the event all together. I will warn readers that I come from a speech background, so I may be out of my element here, but I have judged a fair share of PF rounds (about 40 in the past two years), and there are certain trends I take issue with.

    To use the speech events as an example, DI and HI are seperated so students can test serious acting chops and multi-character comedic timing respectively. Duo is meant to help students learn to work together to create a scene rather than building your own head of steam. The challenging aspects of these events (memorization and physicalization) are why I believe events like OI should be JV only events, but that is an argument for another day.

    Based on the event descriptions I have read, PF is not meant to be decided by the flow chart (as opposed to LD or Policy), but rather the "full package" or the combination between the arguments and the presentation. I do flow when I judge PF, but I only do it to keep track of the arguments. I only penalize for dropped issues if they are truly significant to the round. The thing that bugs me the most is that many debaters completely ignore the speaking aspect. If they were to actually deliver this speech in a public forum (notice the lowercase letters) they would be laughed off the stage. This comes up more at strict debate tournaments than at University tourneys or locals. At Big Bronx this year a clear majority of the teams I judged stood up and stared at the printout of their case reading with absolutely no expression. I wanted to shove my pens through my ears. If you are going to do that then you might as well just hand me and you opponents the printouts, I'll read them and we'll jump straight to the first crossfire.

    So the question is: How can PF be more accessible and challenging at the same time. Well I have two ideas. Mind you I have little clout or means of initiating these ideas but I just want to throw them out there. First, what if you eliminated the monthly resolution and made it random every round. This makes PF much more like Parli but the crossfire would still be intact, and priviledged info would be allowed. Having one topic area for every tourney or for every month would avoid PF debaters needing loads of tubs like Extemp, but it would be challenging debaters to build strong arguments on the fly and force them to defend them. My other idea is to require that the opening cases for each side be memorized. This would halt the slow march debate takes toward spreading and it would place a greater emphasis on presentation. Students would make 2 or 3 strong arguments instead of a 6 or 7 little ones. If I can memorize an ten minute oratory and 2 or 3 ten minute interp pieces, I think a PF debater can handle two or maybe even one 4 minute case.

    I'm just saying that if you want a third debate format, shouldn't it be unique? TVFT team, what do you think?