By Bob Overing
So you want to do college policy, but maybe you’re worried about transitioning from a completely different debate event. In this post, I hope to give you some confidence and insight from my own experience debating college policy. It was a difficult transition for me, but it doesn’t have to be for you! I’ll highlight why I struggled at first and what you can do better.
The LD ‘meta-game’ evolves rapidly. My senior year of high school in 2011-2012, there were very few teams pursuing strictly policy-style argumentation. My affs often included a couple minutes of framework and a couple minutes of ‘plans good’ and topicality pre-empts with very little time spent on the plan, its solvency, and its advantages. Why? Because no one ever debated me on it! I spent all this time in my AC and NC speeches justifying why we should debate through a policy-making lens or a utilitarian framework, but very little time actually doing so. I so expected to debate framework or a stock theory argument that when it came to actually debating policy-style arguments, I hadn’t had much practice on it! In fact, two of the three (total) times my opponent conceded my framework, I lost.
My senior year, I read or answered the politics DA probably five times. I answered a kritik maybe once or twice a tournament. When I coached Michael Harris the next year, he would sometimes read framework for 5:30 and justify the contention for :30. Our opponents rarely engaged, and when they did, they often misunderstood key policy concepts like competition on mutual exclusivity vs. net benefits. They didn’t ask the status of alternatives or counterplans. When I became a camp instructor, I was the token ‘policy person’ just because I came from one of the few schools that read plans on every topic.
As you can see, debate was a whole lot different just four years ago, which is weird to say. But it’s true. I decided to debate at USC over other big college programs like Dartmouth, Georgetown, and Northwestern because I knew that coming from LD, I’d be at a huge disadvantage. I’d heard stories of LD debaters with dreams of debating for top policy teams, but it never seemed to work out that way. USC seemed to be the perfect option: a historically successful program that had recently graduated its top teams and needed some new talent.
But policy was tough for me. For one, the content was very different. In District 1, we were debating Fullerton and Fresno State and their kritiks backed by Frank B. Wilderson III and bell hooks, authors I might have heard of, but rarely, if ever, actually debated against. My knowledge of the intricacies of LD framework debate (meta-ethics, theoretically-justified standards, etc.) didn’t help in college policy land. My coaches were great, but neither they nor I knew how to translate ‘motivational internalism’ to a policy argument. Even theory was different in form and in substance. Far fewer judges were willing to check in on junky theory arguments to drop the team, and reasonability seemed to be the norm.
Luckily, the content of ‘policy’ arguments (advantages, CPs, politics DA) was no different; however, the depth required to research and go for those arguments was much greater. The biggest files I compiled in high school were framework answers and generic theory arguments. I had written about a thirty page file for one disad we went for at TOC, but in policy a disad had to be about ten times that length to deal with the variety of affs and depth that comes with more speeches. It was simply more work. And learning how to fill those extra speeches was a challenge too. Policy has double the negative speeches, and the norms for what goes in a 1NC vs. a 2NC/1NR vs. a 2NR are different than in LD. The skills of argumentation are the same, but learning the norms and how to expand on arguments productively and not repetitively took some time.
Having a partner? Figuring out which CX you’re answering questions and which one you’re asking? A year-long topic? All that stuff’s easy to get used to. For me, it was just the content and the depth. I got the hang of it well enough to clear at CEDA my sophomore year and qualify to the NDT my junior year. We beat some decent teams along the way but were never highly ranked. Overall, it was very fun and rewarding despite my difficulties. Given the way LD has gone in the last four seasons, I think college policy could be even better for you.
A circuit or regional LDer entering college policy debate in 2016 should have a much greater chance to adapt and succeed than I did. High school LD is much more like policy, and as such, LDers are much more prepared. The following is my advice to LDers trying to transition to policy.
Off the bat, feel confident because you should have familiarity with a lot of arguments that directly translate to college policy. In fact, a good bit of what is disclosed on the NDCA high school LD wiki has been taken straight from the college policy wiki! There may be downsides to this practice, but for transitioning to college policy, it’s great. You should have some familiarity with the politics DA, Wilderson, topicality/framework, the academy K, just to name a few popular arguments. Check out policy wikis throughout the year and see what the top teams are doing. Watch videos on YouTube from the major college tournaments. All of this information is so much more accessible now that if you’re thinking ahead of time, you can come prepared.
Beyond knowing the arguments and their content, you should practice these styles. Depending on your judging, coaching, and current skill set, it might be difficult to pursue policy arguments and enjoy the same success, but if your goal is to debate competitively in college, you need to start preparing right away. Luckily, we’ve had pretty good topics for debating policy-style arguments. There’s no excuse for not getting practice on arguments like politics or elections. You should be reading plans and counterplans and doing your judge prefs accordingly. There are regularly college policy debaters in LD pools, and they can give you good advice. Another benefit to employing more policy-style arguments is that if you’re considered for a college scholarship as an entering freshman, you’ll have better video material to send in to bolster your case. These college coaches can recognize good debating on any subject, but you can only help yourself by having great rounds on content that translates to the college level.
My third major piece of advice is depth of argumentation. To prepare for the next level, you should try to develop your cases as much as possible. Perhaps you can pick one aff idea at the beginning of the topic and stick with it! Expand and revise it, but try to create a comprehensive file with blocks to everything. In LD, the rounds and topics are shorter, so affs don’t have to be as thoroughly researched or deep, but you can simulate a more policy-like experience by sticking as much as you can to the same core arguments.
I hope I’ve provided some perspective and some encouragement for those of you in the Class of 2016 deciding if you want to debate at the next level. I have a couple final words of advice. First, talk to debate camp staff! At Premier 2015, we had three instructors with experience in transitioning to college policy. Seniors, reach out to LDers who have made the transition; juniors, reach out to your staff next summer. Pick their brains on the whole process and what you can do to prepare. Second, talk to college debate coaches! They’re always on the lookout for new talent and new recruits who are excited about college debate. It matters less and less whether you did high school LD or policy, so don’t be nervous. There are lots of scholarships available, and you only hurt yourself by not making the contact. Finally, try it! Little harm can come from trying out college policy debate. Who knows? You might like it even more than LD!
Bob Overing | Co-Director
Bob is a co-director of Premier, coach for Loyola in Los Angeles, and debater for the USC Trojan Debate Squad. As a senior in high school, he was ranked #1, earned 11 bids and took 2nd at TOC. In college, he cleared at CEDA and qualified to the NDT. His students have earned 60 career bids, reached TOC finals, and won many championships.