By Bob Overing

At the end of last season, Marshall Thompson argued on this website for what has been called the context or extension model of spikes (I’ll call it CMS). From what I can tell, he received little public feedback on his view, which is unfortunate because it is a really refreshing and creative take on spikes. The thesis of CMS is that the negative should have the opportunity to respond to a spike in its entirety in the 2NR after the spike is fully extended and applied in the context of the particular round. Marshall gives two supporting arguments. First, voting on dropped spikes doesn’t properly reward better debating, so allowing 2NR responses should compensate. Second, spikes cannot be fully understood absent the context of their application.

This post only addresses Marshall’s first argument about the concept of ‘good/better debating,’ but I hope to talk about the second argument another time. In short, I like the the argument, but I don’t know where the line gets drawn between tactics that are ‘good debating’ and ones that are sketchy tricks. In my reply to Chessman’s objections to modesty, I said that even without a concrete definition, we have a functional, general understanding of ‘better debating.’ In this post, I complicate that picture a little bit. Spikes are an example where it’s tough to say if or when they constitute good debating, and people’s judgments sharply diverge. The last worry I have is how Marshall’s reasoning might be applied to other areas of debate that involve blippy high-impact arguments.

The impulse behind Marshall’s first argument makes a lot of theoretical sense. We should encourage debate practices that promote the development (an education impact) and evaluation (a fairness impact) of debate skills. This gets at an often over-looked dimension of fairness. In a post a year ago, John and I argued that the substantive/structural divide has much to do with which skills debate ought to test. Spreading faster and cutting better cards gives an advantage, but not an unfair one because it can be traced to superior skill. We argued the same cannot be said about forwarding a necessary/insufficient burden.

These cases may be obvious, but what about spikes? Is “spike-catching” a debate skill that should be tested in round? Most are inclined to say no, but let me complicate the picture. A defender of spikes might say something like this:

Spikes are an integral part of the game. They test skills such as strategic thinking, pre-emption, prediction, case construction and argument interaction. They’re analogous to leading off in baseball, which tests the pitcher’s attentiveness, not a core baseball skill, but a skill nonetheless. If the negative drops a bad spike argument, it’s her fault and she should lose. Debate is a game, and at this point in LD’s evolution, dealing with spikes is a predictable part of that game! In fact, Marshall admits that “tricky debaters…are doing what a good debater should do…mak[ing] strategic choices” (“The Concept of ‘Good Debate,’” para. 6)

It’s not too hard to get into the mindset of the spike defender. I don’t agree with this reasoning, and it could be parodied to justify all sorts of unfair arguments on the basis of “strategic thinking.” That said, I find it difficult to draw the line for what constitutes a “debate skill” in a principled way. Marshall makes the case that spikes don’t test core debate skills; rather, they test the negative’s flowing, which “is not one of the ends of debate in itself” (para. 4).

A defender of spikes will be quick to point out that spikes test many other debate skills such as case construction and pre-emption in addition to testing flowing. Marshall seems right in arguing that a tactic that merely tests the negative’s flowing is not valuable, especially if it comes at the expense of more fruitful engagement. Yet if we agree that spikes test other debate skills, then the fact that they also test flowing seems less problematic.

I take “perm do both” to be a counter-example to Marshall’s principle. We all think the aff can test the competition of a counterplan. Perhaps regrettably, “perm do both” is incredibly short, garners a great time trade-off, and if dropped, can decide the outcome of a debate. Yet we are reluctant to diminish its strategic value in the way Marshall suggests for spikes. He could bite the bullet here; some debate minds have lamented the norm in favor of brevity and under-explanation of perms in the first speech in which they’re forwarded (I’ve heard this position from a policy coach or two, and it might apply even more in LD). But even then, there are a whole host of short, high-impact arguments we would need to de-emphasize: analytic framework take-outs, weighing, drop the debater, RVI, I-meet, drop the argument, reasonability, contingent standard triggers, presumption/permissibility triggers, fiat illusory, etc. Some of these are more legitimate than others, and I am willing to admit that we should give such arguments less weight. I am also suggesting, however, that it would substantially impact how LD judges evaluate these arguments, which has its costs.

By no means is this a knockdown objection to Marshall’s CMS. I suspect he’s on the right track in thinking that a definition of “better debating” would lend insight to many theory arguments. But before I buy in, I’d like to see someone come along with a solid account of “better debating,” the set of debate skills that delineates substantive from structural abuse so we might see more precisely why spike-debating is not better-debating. I’d also like to hear how Marshall or others who hold the view propose we deal with other blippy, flow-testing arguments that might be just as unskillful but are highly entrenched in LD circuit debate.


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.