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An Open Letter to Sophomores in Policy Debate

Dear Sophomore[1] Debaters Entered into Varsity for the First Time:

 

            This is likely going to be a difficult year for you. This will be difficult not because of some arbitrary importance of a win/loss record, but because it is likely that you are going to encounter some extremely new and confusing ideas said to you at some of the fastest paces of speaking possible by this species. You will be confronted by opponents who are older and who appear to be much wiser than you (as well as judges crustily untangling your first fledgling attempts at varsity competition at nine-thirty in the morning in some damp, way-too-bright classroom in a basement or other obscure place on a campus none of you are likely familiar with) and it is essential that you remember the following information when they do their best to make you look foolish, like you do not know what you are talking about, and like you were not even worth the amount of time it took to debate: At one point or another, nearly every debater has been in your position and, despite the pain and frustration, you are more than your win-loss record. Indeed, by making it through your first varsity tournament, you have entered into a special, unique, and compelling society of some of the most incredible thinkers who have ever been set to the task in this late modernity.[2]

            I know that it does not matter how emphatically or precisely I share this information with you because the pain and experience of intellectual and (far too oftentimes) personal humiliation in these debates sometimes lasts with us for far too long than it should because of the degree of ambition that in many cases overtakes the educational goals of this activity. If you give me a chance, instead, it is my hope that this brief set of thoughts might be able to give you a different outlook than one of win/loss versus education—I want to suggest that the ‘keep on carrying on’ mindset that I am suggesting is not some kind of glorified reminiscence for some kind of Horatio Alger story. On the sharp contrary, I want to argue that the possibility integral to the terrifying situation of debating in varsity as a sophomore is an opportunity for ecstasy and sovereignty. In more concise terms, I want to show you that the importance and value of debating as a sophomore is in the fight and not the outcome of each round.

            I want to illustrate what I mean by this through a bit of an example from my own debate experience. To be clear and direct, I want to insist that this narrative is not meant to substitute for all and/or the average debater; rather, this is a small narrative of how I came to this opinion on debating as a sophomore and why I think it is a useful opinion for others to consider and discuss as they enter into their sophomore year and/or prepare to coach and judge sophomore debaters. Further, I want to extend this insistence to also suggest that while I did not have to clear the same amount and/or kinds of hurdles that others in this community have had to, the experience of partnerships changes, argument unfamiliarity, and general insecurity and anxiety do have certain similar elements that are common to participation in policy debate.

            With those important considerations laid bare, I want to bring a bit of focus onto an all too-young, smug, and excited fifteen-year old version of myself. At this point, the season was about to start and I was going to compete at my first regional varsity tournament—I had hopes of a winning record and possibly even participation in an elimination debate. What I could never have realized at that time, though, was how distant my skill set and emotional development was from being able to be ready to meet that challenge. While I cannot recall any individual rounds, opponents, feedback, or comments, I do strongly remember the feeling of disappointment, defeat, and intellectual humiliation that my performance that weekend brought me. It did not matter who I blamed because I did not have the openness to understand that blame had no place in this set of reflationary occurrences. As I think through the flashes of that time concretized in my experience, I realize that my focus was not on the interplay of ideas, but instead, on how I could make the ideas get me to the (in all reality) silly seed number that I obsessively desired. I was not attempting to work with my arguments—I just wanted to get a cheap award.

            I wish that I had been thinking about the ways in which I was learning new ideas, refining my skillset, and preparing for my next big leap. This first, small, and gentle shift in desiring-in-debate matters to me now in reflection because it would have shown me that debating for understanding instead of fake marble can fundamentally make you a better debater. Again thinking back to tournaments over this time, I remember being drawn further and further inward as I attempted to justify what I would call ‘failure’ as someone’s ‘fault’ even though my lack of experience and perspective was a strong contributor to my shallow cross-examination questions, lack of permutations in 1AR’s, over-extended 2NRs, etc. Even more, I was lucky enough to have coaches and camp experience that should have guided me to openly respond to these mistakes in my practice, but I could not think past the bowling award converted into some sort of recognition for persuasion and rhetoric. In this way, I was not learning with myself.

            Importantly, though, policy debate is not a single person-entry event—we have partners who, for better and for worse, are equal and meaningful participants in every round (that includes you beautiful, ‘getting-the-job-done’ 1NRs!). My sophomore year was particularly strange to me because I had a new partner for nearly every tournament. Instead of attempting to come into a generative set of terms with those partners as co-equal participants in the learning activity, I held a lot of the changes with hostility, resignation, and dismay for my future debate experiences. I should have behaved better and worked harder to see the places where my ambition prevented me from sharing the ideas that I wanted my partner to understand. More importantly, I had no patience, interest, or care for the ideas and strategies that my partners could contribute—oftentimes, I felt as though I needed to drop my fully prepped (or so I thought) files into their laps, give them a handful of curt directions, and wait for them to make mistakes so that I could ‘tool them out’ and gain even more control. Again, I was a sophomore debating at regional TOC-level tournaments and not doing well enough to justify even an ounce of this frustration.

            Honestly, if not for a few key events, I do not think that I would have been able to change my disposition (even slightly) and I would have continued down this angry and un-learning journey into some kind of Ornellian nightmare. One of those essential events (again while not perfectly emblematic of every sophomore debater’s experience, but similar enough to justify inclusion) was my encounter with a certain coach who had a different perspective on debate, how to debate, and what the point of all this idea word soup we constantly defend as a high form of rhetoric. During the spring semester of sophomore year, my coach had asked all of the sophomores to partner with an ambitious member of the freshman class for a local tournament that would have some good competition and would serve as a good first taste of varsity debate for these promising first-year debaters. I was given my assignment and began to work feverishly with my new partner on the fundamentals of competitive varsity debate.

            In doing this work, I realized that I needed to do more than what I had done with the past partners that I had unkindly deemed ‘inadequate.’ I decided that I would come in contact with this partner as a person and understand what he thought about debate and how our styles could blend. We did some practice cross-ex’s and I helped him with some practice speeches. As the tournament happened, we started to do well—far better than expected. However, when we had gotten to a certain bracket, the grapevine of competitive success made its way to me and informed me that there was a possibility that I would have to debate a local, rival team that ran an argument I had no care for understanding or for debating against: Baudrillard. Faced with this uncertainty and genuine fear, I asked for help in a way that I had not since my early days of novice debate. I was uniquely lucky in my asking because the coach that my program had hired to cover some judge commitments was the exact perfect person at the perfect time to explain how to begin to answer Baudrillard: Jack Ewing (debating at that time for Loyola in college debate).

            When we were told that Jack was going to be helping us out before the tournament began, I was extremely excited. Jack was in the middle of a strong and successful season with his partner James Mollison going for (what I thought at the time) were the strangest, bizarre, and banal arguments I could imagine. I had the lucky privilege of being able to watch Loyola EM debate at the Coast that year (2011 I believe) and needless to say, I was in a small bout of starstricken-ess to have a debater who could make the LK 9000 short-circuit as a coach. As I approached Jack to talk to him, I carefully put together the details that I felt were relevant and explained to him that I completely felt that I did not have any clue of what to do.

            Jack was very kind to me in that moment. He laughed a lot, but never at me. He gave me a handful of general principles of how Baudrillard was structured and we looked at our potential opponent’s wiki to see if their shell was substantially different from what Jack was familiar with at the time. Jack gave me specific questions to ask in cross-ex and began to sit down and go through our Baudrillard answers file with me (which was paper at the time!) showing me how certain lines were highlighted incorrectly and why I needed to say X here when the tag was actually saying Y there, etc. I had my frosh partner with me throughout this time, but I could tell that he was clearly coming to his limit of retention and ability to connect the ideas Jack was explaining to the ways that they would occur in the round (not to say I had complete comprehension either, but I did have more access to re-stating the warrants of Best and Kellner (yep, that’s how long ago this was!) evidence that constituted some of our offense against the alternative).

            We thanked Jack for his time and began to prep while waiting for the pairing to be posted on a nearby wall. I talked to my partner about the three or four arguments he would need in every speech and we began to break them down into more retainable soundbites that he felt comfortable sticking by when under the pressure of cross-ex. The pairing came out and we did not end up ‘hitting’ the team we had just spent the better part of an hour prepping to debate. So often is that the case in this activity.

            It is my hope that you take this extended reflection as an opportunity for some critical self-reflection on the essentially human element of this activity and the importance of centering your learning—not just of ideas but of yourself and how you interact with others—as a core task in your preparation for this coming season. No matter how small or inarticulate your opponent makes you feel, remember that negative experiences of these kinds are occasions for learning as a form of resistance. Do not be afraid to call out unkindness for what it is—an attempt to end the debate in a place of degenerated shame and not generative nihilism. Take your desire for plastic success to task for its emptiness and insufficiency. Even the Copeland collects dust.

            Policy debate is an opportunity for a kind of critical engagement and reflection that can be a central and life-changing event for any given participant. As you begin to enter into the rush and aggression that comes with varsity debate, be gentle with yourself because this small kindness can be the groundwork for a candor for the always-already legitimacy in the humanity of others. The last person who I wish you to be this year is the angry, bitter, award-hunter who does not see value in this activity beyond the mass-produced self-esteem and college admission edge that comes with above average success and beyond in policy debate. If all you feel debate is for is to produce an object-outcome for some future you that will not resemble a sliver of the good in you, then disregard the entirety of this open letter. I did not mean to take so much of your time when you should be prepping.

            On a different side of this discussion, if you are worried about the ways in which you will define success, the joy you will find in your participation in policy debate, and/or a possibility for success beyond hollow trophies and resume lines, then linger with me a bit longer. This year will be a strong test of your methodologies and systems of self-care—you will not likely have many people to fall back on who have a parallel understanding of what you are going through and who will be willing to sit down and particularize each unique aspect of the struggles you are encountering. One of the people who might be able to be there for you in that way, though, is your partner (or partners, depending on the situation). Decide to trust them and begin a dialogue on your goals for this year, your expectations on how you will get there, and how you will keep each other going when/if you do not approach meeting those goals. Be there for your partner so that they will want to be there for you. This is a team event after all. You rarely will ever have to go it alone.

 

I Wish You All The Best This Year:

Tim Lewis

 

 

[1] While I am aware that not all debaters have their first year of varsity debate in their sophomore year of high school, I would say that an overwhelming majority do make the transition during this time. To those who feel this is still too compartmentalized, please feel free to use ‘sophomore’ as a euphemism for first in varsity debate.

[2] Please understand, this does not mean that policy debate is the only and/or most exceptional society of thinkers. We have serious and structural hurdles around access, power, and safety to contest with and hopefully work through and past—likewise, there are also other excellent societies of thinkers in spaces that policy debate cannot access or touch. Regardless, though, policy debate is an example of a special, unique, and compelling society of some of the most incredible thinkers in this late modernity.



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