Intro

Case disclosure in LD is widespread. It’s the norm, and it’s not going away. But there are a few holdouts on the national circuit, and Martin Sigalow is one of them. He’s recently written about the value of creativity and disclosure as an obstacle to optimally creative debates. For the purpose of this post, I’ll leave the ode to creativity aside and only address the second part of his argument.

A lot of what Martin says is answered by previous publications on disclosure, which he doesn’t cite or address. I’ve read a number of long comment threads, listserv discussions, and blog posts on disclosure that I’ll cite when appropriate. I hope to advance the dialectic in two ways: first by framing the debate in Martin’s terms (creativity) and second by situating the debate in the context of contemporary LD. I do the latter by providing hypothetical scenarios for how pre-round prep occurs now and discussing disclosure in light of current argument and judging trends. Bietz (2010) was a good start, but LD’s a lot different than it was just six seasons ago.

As a brief roadmap, I will start with my own case for disclosure and then rebut my opponent’s. [1]

Constructive

Martin has this romanticized notion of debates without disclosure. He fondly recalls four minutes of prep time when he had to think creatively to answer a Derrida aff he’d never heard before. That’s great, but four minutes of prep time where you get to be “creative” is vastly outweighed by the deep research and strategy benefits of disclosure.

When the neg has no chance to prep, it’s far more likely the 1NC speech is boring generics. The current climate of LD highly prioritizes carded evidence to analytics (more on this later), which severely limits the creativity that can be done in prep time. Debaters won’t come up with twenty good original analytic arguments – they’ll default to their stock DA or whatever generic K they’re most comfortable with.

Paul Johnson, a well-respected college debate coach, specifically cites the benefits of disclosure for engaging in the recent “critical turn.” Proper engagement means knowing more than ‘they read an afropessimism aff’ or ‘they read from bell hooks.’ If we are to benefit from this massive shift in argument content and style, full tags and citations are absolutely necessary. Debaters need to focus their efforts to properly prepare for these debates, and with no disclosure, it’s very difficult.

To be clear, here is a list of things you cannot do in prep time during a debate that you can do (creatively) to prepare against a disclosed aff:

  • Research using massive databases and libraries of helpful information
  • Research to tailor one’s strategies to the particular aff (e.g. specific links, turns case arguments)
  • Research the aff’s authors
  • Research the aff’s empirical methodologies
  • Research the aff’s specific advocacy or plan
  • Research the aff’s inherency/impact uniqueness
  • “Go to the other side of the library” and prep specific critical/identity-based responses
  • Second-guess and re-think the strategy multiple times
  • Try out strategies in practice debates or practice rebuttals
  • Discuss the strategy with teammates
  • Discuss the strategy with coaches
  • Discuss the strategy with debaters from other schools
  • Write out frontlines to neg strategies

I’m sure there are more examples (Nails provides some here, and I’ve only focused on the neg). All of these apply regardless of argument content, and they’re each an opportunity for debaters to think creatively.

If my list isn’t enough, just imagine what debate would be like with no disclosure. Let’s say it’s a doubles debate, the bid round, at Harvard-Westlake. Tony debated at CPS a few weeks prior but didn’t disclose his affs. Jenny hasn’t debated on the topic, flew in from Texas, and doesn’t know the competition or the judges very well in California. Jenny gets the pairing, finds Tony, and flips (although often the same teams that don’t disclose don’t flip, but that’s another issue). Jenny has thirty minutes before the debate. Here’s what happens:

  • She figures out which three judges and three debaters saw Tony affirm
  • She messages the two of the six she knows and tries to find them in the cafeteria
  • One of the two doesn’t respond, but the other does. It was a stock aff. No flow available.
  • Jenny goes to the room. Fifteen minutes left.
  • She messages her coach, who suspects it will be a new aff since it’s a bid round, and the stock aff is too predictable, but they decide to prep the stock aff since they have no easy way to guess what Tony would read. Ten minutes left.
  • She puts together her blocks for the stock aff that Tony read against her friend and writes a few new analytic arguments.
  • 1AC starts; it’s a different aff.
  • She can’t carefully look at the aff evidence because she has to spend 1AC time thinking about her whole strategy. She can’t write down CX questions she has because she’s frantically pulling up backfiles and other arguments she can read against the aff.
  • She asks some weak questions about the aff since she still hasn’t decided how she’ll engage the case.
  • She thinks of an advantage CP that would easily solve the aff but doesn’t have a solvency advocate, so she can’t read the CP.
  • She thinks the aff links to politics (Republicans would hate the plan) but doesn’t have a card on it, so she’d just have to assert the aff is unpopular, and the aff would likely have that link debate front-lined, so she can’t read the DA.
  • She thinks the aff isn’t quite topical, but she only cut generic definitions on the resolution. She’d need a more specific definition to read the T shell effectively and doesn’t want to lose to a well-prepped counter-interp, so she can’t read T.
  • Jenny settles on one of the generic polemical kritiks like anthro, cap, or Wilderson and reads generic case turns. She goes for the K because her case turns don’t really apply, but even then, she has no specific link to the aff. All three judges encourage her to research a more case-specific strategy next time.

In the alternate universe of perfect disclosure, Jenny skips steps 1-4 and immediately asks Tony what the aff is. That plotline goes like this:

  • Tony discloses he’ll be reading the aff he’s read all topic except for the one debate he read a stock aff against Jenny’s friend because they had a traditional judge in the back.
  • Jenny pulls up the aff on the wiki and messages her coach. She has nearly half an hour to prep.
  • She’s best at a politics and case debate, so she thinks the strategy will be CP + DA and case answers. Jenny’s coach looks at the plan text and suggests topicality to add an additional layer for the 1NC and another 2NR option. Jenny asks her coach to find a definition for the T interp, and she’ll handle the rest.
  • She thinks of an advantage CP that would solve the aff and quickly finds a solvency advocate in the first few pages of google. Twenty minutes left.
  • She has a generic politics link but finds a more specific one in google news. Republicans in one state highly disapproved of a similar bill to the aff. She’s able to cut three cards on the issue and puts the best one in the 1NC shell. Ten minutes left.
  • She takes a look at the aff solvency and pulls up the articles. Two of the authors advocate slightly different plans and give very measured and restrained predictions for aff solvency. She cuts those for case defense. Two minutes left.
  • Jenny’s coach sends over the definition for T and the outline of the T shell without filling it in. Debate starts.
  • Jenny spends the 1AC looking carefully through the solvency cards for where she knows there are shaky spots, noting things she’ll ask about in CX. Her CX is confident and embarrasses the aff at a few points. She takes no prep time and gives the 1NC.
  • Tony’s 1AR has solid prepared answers, and he covers most of his bases fairly well.
  • Jenny has all of her prep time remaining, and decides to go for the CP+DA and case defense. She’s able to read new cards on the link debate and talk intelligently about the risk of the case because she read the aff’s solvency before the debate.

The first debate is uncreative. Jenny relies on old backfiles and worn-out kritiks. The second debate is more creative because Jenny came up with a new CP and T argument and was able to engage the aff on its own merits through the solvency debate. Granted, her strategy was still fairly generic, but at least it answered the aff and involved some original thought. Next time, she’ll be able to do even better. She can think of specific process CPs, a better T argument, and look more into the lit surrounding the aff. All of this is only possible in a world with disclosure.

My example assumes only thirty minutes of prep time, but with the wiki, debaters have access to huge amounts of information. They can scroll through wikis and open source docs until they see something that sparks their interest. They can use a case or a card to open up a whole new line of research. One of the files I was proudest of in my college debate career was a bizarre K that one card on Oklahoma’s wiki encouraged me to check out. I ordered a few books on the subject and spent weeks refining the argument. It became an integral strategy for CEDA that year only because I happened to stumble upon an interesting piece of evidence on the wiki.

I can ramble on about the benefits of mountains of data and information, but it’s also about the people. Disclosure increases the number of minds involved in the argument process. With disclosure, I can talk to my students and guide them in how they respond to arguments. They can bounce ideas off of each other and spend hours thinking about a new argument. Martin extols the values of creativity but ignores the huge historical precedent for great minds collaborating openly. I’m not going to compare high school debaters prepping an aff to the Vienna Circle, Andy Warhol’s Factory, or Hemingway and Joyce hanging out in Parisian cafes, but there’s something to be said for this free-flowing exchange of ideas. Martin wants more creativity in debates; hiding our arguments from the rest of the community isn’t the way to get there.

Rebuttal 1

[2] According to Martin, non-disclosure means debaters will have to respond to arguments they’ve never heard of, which is being creative. First, the idea that debaters won’t know what’s being read is ludicrous. Before the caselist, debaters still figured out what cases their opponents would read. They’d hoard their flows, make sure their teammates saved their flows, watch debates in other flights, and ask other teams for intel. Tournaments have ‘open to the public rules’ so teams with tons of students and coaches can just put someone in the back to watch the good teams they need to prep. Scouting is even easier today with better technology for sharing information: social media, e-mail chains, and case wikis.

It’s inevitable. Debaters will have case information. Or at least the well-connected debaters from big teams will. Non-disclosure creates a world where those with the reputation and community connections have a huge advantage. A fifteen year-old debater shouldn’t be expected to reach out through social media or friends to find the judge who judged her opponent two days prior to ask for information. This “old school scouting,” as John Scoggin and I call it, is inaccessible and doesn’t test any relevant debate skill. No one should have to waste valuable pre-round prep scouting when they could be, you know, preparing for a debate.

Second, disclosure only changes when the creative thinking occurs. If a new argument pops up on the disclosure wiki, debaters have to respond to an argument they’ve never heard of. The major difference is that in a world of disclosure, debaters have more than four minutes to prepare an answer. Martin is very cynical about the role of coaches in the preparation process; I’ll cover that in response to his third argument.

Third, non-disclosure doesn’t force debaters to respond to arguments they’ve never heard of because they’ve probably already researched most of what they’ll see in debates. By canvassing the topic literature and paying attention to what’s read at the first few tournaments, debaters have a pretty good grasp of what arguments they’ll hear. In a world without disclosure, the neg debater might not know exactly what aff will be read, but it will likely be in the set of strategic and high-quality affs. The touted benefit of non-disclosure that debaters will face arguments they’ve “never heard of” is suspect.

Finally, debaters can break new. The current disclosure norm is that debaters only have to disclosure previously disclosed positions, so if debaters want a big strategic advantage from brand-new, hyper-creative arguments, they can choose to break new arguments.

Rebuttal 2

Martin claims that without disclosure, debaters will try out “less academically mainstream arguments.” I have no doubt that there are good arguments that are not “academically mainstream” but Martin is defending a more particular set of arguments. He’s defending arguments that are specifically, “fringe,” “harder to defend,” “old or forgotten” or “settled in academia.”

The fact that these arguments are no longer discussed is because it’s not useful to do so. We could debate about whether the earth is flat. Maybe that’d help someone reply to rapper B.o.B. on twitter, but that’s about it. Any creativity involved is vastly outweighed by the uselessness of that conversation. If by “creative” arguments Martin just means bad ones, his justification for non-disclosure shouldn’t persuade anyone.

The bottom line is that with or without disclosure, debaters will read fringe, silly arguments. In kritik debates, they’ll defend anarchy, Nietzsche, deep ecology, afropessimism, and Heidegger. In policy debates, they’ll say global warming is good and we should first strike China. In theory debates, they’ll say “no neg fiat” or plans bad. The list could go on and on.

These strategies might be fun, and there is some value in the extreme open-mindedness that it takes to research and explore these ideas. Extreme open-mindedness can run afoul, however, when it leads to the cynical worldview that “anything can be true, so I’ll say whatever it takes to win the ballot.” Disclosure pulls back on harmful forms of creativity by imbuing a sense of ownership in the argument. People are less likely to utter offensive things in round if they know their name will be publicly attached. Argument quality also increases. Creativity is good, but the Time Cube K is not. Debaters don’t want to gain a reputation for running specious or esoteric arguments. In this way, disclosure creates a check on the offensive and the inane that we wouldn’t have otherwise.

Disclosure also checks cheating. People have a relatively short memory in debate, but fabricated evidence has been used to win at the highest levels of LD. A lot of students reading this might assume there is some formal structure to deal with cheating, but there is not. People have literally won elimination rounds of TOC using fabricated evidence with no penalty. We’ve seen people violate basic tournament procedure and get away with it. Students put way too much time and effort into debate to be left without recourse in the face of cheating. Thankfully, we now have a pretty good check on cheaters in the form of case disclosure.

Rebuttal 3

Martin believes that non-disclosure greatly increases the chance that it’s the debater doing the work instead of the coaches. This is an empirical question that’s hard to get a handle on, but I doubt most LD circuit coaches are regularly writing out line-by-line prep or complete files to answer most affs. Coaches may be slightly more involved in preparation due to disclosure, but this is outweighed by the huge benefit of deep preparation. It takes time to come up with a strategic and creative negative position. Some of the best ToC strategies my teams have come up with have often been in the works for months, and they work best when they can be directly responsive to what other teams are reading. Full case disclosure aids this process.

If anything, non-disclosure increases the role of coaches in using their connections and networks to gather intel on what other teams are reading. Less time will be spent helping students come up with creative strategies and more time will be spent frantically contacting six other judges and opponents on Facebook to ask what aff the opponent reads. Martin concedes that coaches will inevitably help their debaters prepare after they figure out what the other team is reading. If this is true, why add an additional barrier to access that information? Paul Johnson wrote the following in the CEDA forum post cited above: “More disclosure means that coaching time can be spent in the vital work of intellectual engagement with other people’s arguments” (para. 10).

I also disagree with the underlying sentiment that laments the role of coaches in debate. It’s just not true that “in the real world, a person does not often have a coach.” There are always teachers, mentors, advisors, role models, bosses, trainers, experienced co-workers, classmates, etc. I disagree that “it is better for a person to not need one.” Learning to work with others in a small group and to seek out advice when you need it are extremely valuable skills to have for “the real world.”

Ultimately, if a debater is really worried about the opposing coaches, then they can break a new case, and disclosure becomes irrelevant. Breaking new is a built-in mechanism that allows some strategic advantage to innovation. Thus, disclosure norms already balance the need to promote creativity and the need to allow in-depth preparation.

Rebuttal 4

Martin concludes that he has observed a “disturbing trend…where debaters seem unable to make responses themselves.” This argument is based solely on Martin’s personal experience, so I don’t give it too much weight. That said, I have noticed an uptick in the number of cards read on case in lieu of line-by-line refutation. If this is what Martin means, then I agree there is a newer trend in LD, and it’s worth talking about.

It used to be that few cards were read against the 1AC case proper. This is partially because debates were slower but also because it just wasn’t the norm. It would be perfectly okay to read a couple analytic turns on each card in an aff advantage that said economic sanctions cause terrorism. Cards were better, and there were many debates with oodles of cards on the aff, but analytics were more highly valued than they are now. It’s unclear if that’s because judges now value carded evidence much more than analytic refutation or because debaters do. Another factor could be the decline of moral philosophy debate, which was mostly analytic.

At least two coaches, Danny DeBois and Michael Harris, have expressed to me their desire for more specific line-by-line and interaction in the 1NC. I sympathize with this view. The reason it’s okay in a policy debate to read a handful of cards on an aff advantage and not specifically answer any of the cards or do any line-by-line is because they have double the speeches to develop those arguments. The 1NC is about getting the evidence out there and staking out a position. The 2NC/1NR generally develops those arguments with thorough line-by-line analysis and comparison. In LD, we have two neg speeches, so sandbagging that work until the 2NR means there’s less debate happening. The 1NC gets to blitz cards at the aff without any original thought. Many years ago, this might have been considered dropping the contention, since no specific arguments were answered. The neg in LD today has what amounts to a 1NC and 2NC speech in policy. It would be more educational if the neg debated as if it were a 2NC and 2NR in policy instead. More engagement earlier is better, and perhaps judges should hold the first speech to a higher standard for clash.

This discussion illustrates that if disclosure has caused less clash and individual thinking, that’s something we can fix by changing the way we teach and judge debates. There may be growing pains right now, but I see nothing wrong with disclosure in itself. Any failures can be corrected through proper teaching and judging. We don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We don’t need to return LD to the Stone Age.

End Notes

[1] Special thanks to John Scoggin for his help with this post. In particular, he helped with the content of Rebuttal 2.

[2] Martin actually makes an argument before the one I rebut first. He says there’s a connection between constraints and creativity. Non-disclosure is a constraint and therefore increases creativity. I disagree. I think lots of unconstrained games (e.g. Dungeons and Dragons) are very creative and lots of constrained games (e.g. Tic-Tac-Toe) are very uncreative. But there wasn’t much of an argument to discuss, so that’s all I’ll say for now.


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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 80 career bids, reached TOC finals, and won many championships.