Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Advice for Novices

Welcome to Debate
For those of us who are involved in debate, either as competitors, coaches and judges, we believe debate is one of the most challenging and rewarding activities you can undertake.  No doubt you have heard others say the skills you will learn, if you stick with it, will benefit you throughout your academic career and your lifetime.  Personally, I have never heard a debater say after high-school graduation, that he or she regretted the choice to participate in debate.

Is Debate Difficult?
For many of you, debate will be among the most challenging things you have ever done.  Unlike sports, you probably did not grow up debating, flowing, analyzing arguments, and so you will be learning new skills for the first time.  Unless you are one of those very rare individuals with exceptional talent, skills will emerge through dedication, hard work and practice.  If you are the kind of student who always found everything easy, perhaps you didn't have to study too hard, whatever, prepare yourself because debate will probably NOT be one of those things that comes easily for you.  I can pretty much guarantee you will lose and lose often.  Everyone loses debates when they first begin.  There may be frustration, there may even be some tears but one of the keys to success is pull it together and learn from the defeats.  Remember, everyone started at the bottom.

The Debate Community
I can also guarantee, that you will find a world of support if you want it.  There are coaches, judges, ex-debaters, current debaters, social groups, internet forums, all dedicated to the promotion of debate.  Don't go it alone.  Surround yourself with help and support.  Become part of the team and embrace the community.  If you go to a debate camp, you will begin to get a sense of the community.  If not, you will certainly realize when you attend your first tournament that you have chosen to be part of something pretty remarkable.  Not only are there scores and scores of fellow debaters there is an entire infrastructure of tournament administrators, tabulators, judges, coaches and volunteers giving their time and energy to the activity.  I would encourage you to find your place in the community and participate.

What Skills are Needed?
Certainly, debate is an art-form that requires skills and the skills are developed by practice.  First and foremost you will learn to stand up in the front of the room and speak to an audience.  It is said, one of the biggest fears individuals have is public speaking.  The good news...the audience is usually very small consisting of your opponent and a single judge.  In most cases, debaters are intelligent, motivated and highly driven individuals.  One of the leading fears they have is getting up and saying something "stupid" or otherwise embarrassing.  I will not mislead you.  There is a really good chance that will happen in the beginning but you must realize one very important thing.  Every judge and every debater will likely know you are a novice and every one of them has been in that same place.  Your fear, nervousness, frustration, and embarrassment will remind them where they started out.  I can offer the following advice.  First, practice as often as possible the essential skill of standing up and speaking in front of others, and second, learn your material.  When you have confidence in your knowledge of the debate subject, it makes it much easier to talk about it in front of strangers.

Another essential skill is the ability to think under pressure.  Unless you have reached the pinnacle of achievement or you are completely unmotivated, I think it goes without saying a debate round will pressure you.  One of the essential skills you will develop is the ability to work under pressure.  To be sure, your opponent will pressure you, but in the beginning I think most of the pressure you feel will be self-induced arising from a lack of confidence and uncertainty about how to handle yourself in the debate round. I don't think I need to tell you this will definitely go away as your skills improve.  But the pressure that comes upon you in the "heat of battle" does not fade away and in fact it often intensifies as you progress into higher level debates.  My advice: do not let your emotions overtake you.  Pause and breathe.  In debate, you do not need to be smarter than your opponent, nor more knowledgeable of a topic.  You need to be more persuasive. Keep your focus on the judge, not the opponent, and make your case.

Debaters learn to multitask.  You will learn to listen, take notes, think ahead, think back, watch a timer, search for evidence, talk to your partner and in some cases, twirl a pen all at the same time.  How does one develop this skill?  I am not sure but I guess it comes naturally as a sort of debate survival skill and is a great example of the capacity of the human mind to adapt itself to its environment.  My only advice is concentrate on the other skills and save the pen twirling for later.

Finally, one of the most important skills you will learn is how to think.  One often hears the terminology, "critical thinking" and for me, this means honing one's skepticism.  Critical thinking requires one to ask questions and dig deeply into the underlying assumptions which support a claim or point of view.  This healthy skepticism will enable you to improve your own arguments through investigation and research and when combined with the other essential skills discussed above will empower you to survive not only a debate round but also nearly everything higher-education and your future employment demands.  And hopefully, you eventually give back and become a support for some novice who is standing where you once stood.

Getting a Jump Start
Often, I see novices who have some vague notion they would like debate but have no idea what that really entails and have no idea which form of debate they should do.  I expect you can look forward to a lot of fun, but if you want to be good, if you really want to stand out, look forward to a lot of work.  The season is very long.  Much longer than a typical high-school football season, or track season.  This summer, you can begin to get a feel for debate by watching the videos posted by the National Forensics League.  Final round videos for past seasons can be found here:  For the time being, the final rounds for the 2012 National Tournament are posted here:  I don't know how long that link will be valid but for now it works.  Bear in mind, the National Tournament finals are top level debates and they are conducted in front of a large audience (something you will not do as a novice) but they will give you an excellent preview of debate styles and formats.

I also recommend, you talk to other debaters and no doubt you already know someone who is a debater.  They can definitely give you an idea about what to expect but I caution you as well.  Do not let them influence your choice of what kind of debate to do.  Obviously policy debaters will think their kind of debate is best, public forum will say theirs is best.  I will tell you no matter which style you choose, you will work.  None of them are easy.  In policy debate you research one topic but there are many kinds of arguments which require development and for some it can be overwhelming.  In public forum, topics change monthly so the research and case writing is nonstop forcing you to debate one topic while researching and writing the next and for some it is too much.  Work with your coach to find the best fit for you because team and partnership dynamics will also play a major role in how rewarding of an experience you have.

Finally, if you have a good idea which style of debate you want to do, start to look at the cases and the evidence and begin to look at the analyses of the topics.  You can find some analyses on this website and there are many other online resources which are easy to find.  If you are are going to try public forum debate you will not be able to get much of a look ahead, but you can certainly look at cases from last season to learn the structure and argumentation of cases.

Evidence Warehouses
For years Policy Debaters have been exposed to packets of cases, arguments and evidence collated and sold by the various debate camps around the nation.  As this evidence became more and more open and free, there has also emerged a large number of repositories of evidence for Public Forum and Lincoln Douglas debate.  These services provide information which are commonly called "briefs" for a fee.  Some schools will buy a yearly subscription to the briefs.  The various vendors will tell you not all briefs are created equal.  In these packets of information you will often find topic analysis, strategies, and of course evidence.  The advantage of briefs or open evidence is they can help you reduce the amount of time you spend researching since you basically are paying someone else to research for you.  The criticism of briefs is someone else is doing the research for you.  This means, you may not learn a fundamental skill as well as you otherwise could.  I encourage each debater to do their own research and write their own cases.  It is my style.  I personally know judges that will favor a debater who has clearly done their own research and written their own cases.  It is the judge's bias, not mine.  Nevertheless, I am impressed with the quality of work and research turned out in some of these briefs and evidence warehouses.

The decision to use briefs or purchased cases is a team or personal preference.  At the end of the day, one can not purchase debate skill.  It must be developed in practice.  One can buy the best research in the world and if one does not know how to apply it, then it has no real value.  Evidence is usually cited in the constructive speeches but debates are won or lost after the evidence is read and real argumentation begins.  I would love to see PF and LD evidence freely available in the way Policy evidence is found. It would go a long way toward leveling the playing field and making debate better for all but I do recognize those doing the work of researching and packaging should get something for their efforts.  Novices, follow the lead of your coaches and team on this one.

Paperless Debate
Finally, I would like to wrap this up with a few words about paperless debate.  Certainly, in the past and even now in some cases, debaters were famous for killing a lot of trees.  Evidence was always printed and carried around in brief cases, boxes or tubs depending on the quantity.  The advent of small, light computers and cheap storage media has lead to their adoption and endorsement in NFL debate.  It is a good thing, in my opinion since many of the paper requirements are diminished and the planet is slightly greener as a result.  Of course, not every team can do paperless since there is nevertheless, a cost for hardware.

I will say this, for the novices who are going paperless.  At some point you need to take the time to learn your software and learn the techniques which are required to manage and share the files.  This may sound obvious but I warn you.  A novice at his or her first tournament is already nervous and their minds are sometimes on the verge of overload.  The last thing you need is the added pressure of working with your files.  I've seen it.  I recall very vividly a young Policy Debater in his very first round, slowly breaking down because of technology issues and fighting his laptop, searching for files, battery dying...  You don't need that pressure.  Learn it before you arrive at the tournament so you don't have to think about it.

Welcome to debate. Buckle up and enjoy the ride.

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