Intro

With disclosure theory recently making a resurgence among LD intellectuals, I figured I would throw a few thoughts into the ring. I whole-heartedly support disclosure. It is a good norm in policy and an even better one in LD. Its benefits are well-documented: disclosure increases clash, evens the playing field, and enhances creativity.

Apart from a few dissenters, most people agree that disclosure is, in general, good. Still, there remains one significant group of hold-outs who seem to have pretty good reasons: small school debaters. In this article, I hope to lay out the specific case for why small school debaters should disclose.

Before anyone accuses me of being a fake altruist forwarding the interests of some big school, I’ll point out that I have no affiliation with any “big school.” In high school, I attended a grand total of two national circuit style tournaments, UT Austin my junior year and Grapevine my senior year. I competed for Bartlesville High School in Oklahoma, a small squad (even by Oklahoma standards) where the coach doesn’t even know what the disclosure wiki is. I personally did not disclose in high school, but in fairness, disclosure was not as common back then, and I only attended one circuit tournament a year. Right now, I compete for the University of Oklahoma in college policy debate where disclosure is a fairly widespread norm. Because we’re not a mega-team (only one coach and I cut policy cards), I end up taking a lot of cards from the wiki. I’ve gone from a small school traditional debater who didn’t really know what disclosure was to disclosing full-text and taking full advantage of the wiki. I’ve been on both sides and I can definitely say that it is net better for debate if everyone, including small school debaters, disclose.

Case

Rather than repeat all the benefits of disclosure, I’ll first make a few arguments specifically in the context of small school debaters. The articles linked above have already made a few compelling arguments, so I recommend reading those, but there’s more to be said.

Look, I get it. I really do. A small school debater disclosing prep that they worked hard to find without a lot of resources almost feels like giving away prep for free, and it opens that debater up to the potential of “prep-outs” from “big schools”. I’ve been there. But the cost of not disclosing disproportionately harms small school debaters even more.

This argument has been made by both Nails and Bietz, but I’ll update it. Nails says that top debaters at the 2012 TOC who did not disclose did not succeed in hiding their cases because (by his estimation) 90% of debaters at the TOC knew what the non-disclosing teams were running anyways. The only people harmed were small school debaters who did not have the connections to find out what those top debaters were running. While this example is a bit outdated since most debaters in out-rounds of the TOC in 2015 did practice disclosure, the same logic stands: the only people hurt by non-disclosure are small school debaters. Bietz has argued that big teams already get more flows simply by virtue of having more resources. When judging for my alma matter in Oklahoma, I’ll often send debaters from my old high school flows from debaters I judge to help them prepare for later rounds. Many if not most coaches do similar things to benefit their debaters. Because of me, my old high school has access to more information than other schools, and sometimes this makes a big difference in a close round. [1]

Some might point out that the above argument is just a reason for large school debaters to disclose against small school debaters, but the same logic applies in the context of small school debaters disclosing against other small school debaters. Say small school debater A hits small school debater B. In a world where both disclose, there is a fairly even playing field between the two debaters. Both will know what their opponent is running by simply checking the wiki so they can focus their limited pre-round prep-time on preparing strategies specific to the opponent. As a result, the debate be a lot more enjoyable, contain more direct clash, and provide the participants a better educational experience.

In a world where only debater A discloses, there’s an unfair playing field that advantages debater B. Debater A has willingly disclosed to make the debate more focused and educational. Debater B has refused, giving debater B a huge strategic advantage. Debater B can prepare against debater A but not vice versa. This not only hurts a fellow small school debater by disadvantaging them in their ability to prepare before the round but also makes the debate less-focused and educational overall.

In a world where two small school debaters hit each other and neither disclose, three scenarios can play out.

Scenario 1: neither debater discloses, but both debaters A and B have somehow found out what their opponents are running through friends, scouting, or some other mechanism. This is the best outcome in a world without disclosure, but it relies on luck since not every competitor happens to get good info on their opponent. It’s far more likely that only one knows what the other is running. Even if both luck out and get good intelligence, it’s unlikely to be as complete as full wiki disclosure.

Scenario 2: neither debater discloses, but debater B has found out what debater A is reading because debater B’s friend has hit debater A but debater A does not know what debater B is reading. This proactively hurts debater A and leads to a situation similar to a world where only debater A discloses, benefitting debater B but hurting debater A who is now at a disadvantage. Small school debaters who have more connections are more likely to have the benefits of disclosure without the downsides. This type of scouting has nothing to do with debate skill. It is completely arbitrary that debater B happens to know random judge X or be friends with debater Y and can ask for intel, but A cannot. Not only is this unfair, but it is also uneducational because it is a huge waste of time to both to have to spend time doing “old school scouting” (as Bob Overing calls it) before a debate instead of focusing limited time and resources into preparing to debate.

Scenario 3: neither debater discloses and neither has found out what the other debater is reading. These debates will tend to be less focused than debates with disclosure as evidenced by all the previously cited articles. This is especially true when one of the debaters reads a less predictable position because small school debaters don’t have as many resources to cut answers to every potential argument in debate. This leads to debates less focused and educational than in a world where everyone, including small school debaters, discloses. Disclosure is definitely good for education and there is no reason why small school debaters should be excluded from the educational benefits of disclosure.

In short, a world where small school debaters don’t disclose only hurts other small school debaters because small school debaters will either have to rely on luck to gather information on what their opponents are running or will lose the benefits of disclosure such as focusing limited pre-round prep into preparing for a debate round. Now that I’ve laid out my case for why I think small school debaters should disclose, I will move on to address the most common objections presented by small school debaters in favor of non-disclosure.

Rebuttals

OBJECTION 1: Small school debaters will be disproportionately hurt by disclosure because large schools will prep-out small school debaters.

The most serious objection that most small school debaters have is the fear of prep outs. On face, this is worrying. What incentive do small school debaters have to disclose in a world where disclosure is perceived as only helping the big schools prep out their opponents? This was a sentiment that I shared when I attended Grapevine. However, this objection is less persuasive to me now given the clear benefits of disclosure discussed above and in light of the following responses.

First, the impact of being prepped-out generally isn’t as scary as it seems. While some “prep-outs” are devastating, the vast majority consist of a few cards specific to an aff and the same generic neg args. Though disclosure does enhance clash and education by streamlining research, it infrequently results in unbeatable prep-outs. After judging hundreds of debates at camp and throughout the circuit, the amount of “prep-outs” that are absolutely devastating to an aff can probably be counted on one hand. Additionally, these prep-outs are generally read against other big school debaters, not against small school debaters. While the experience of each individual varies, generally speaking, the impact of being prepped out is a scary thought but not one that actually results in debates being impossible for the small school debater to win.

Second, even small school debaters can do massive amounts of prep to put them level with top debaters. The go-to example is Adam Tomasi from Sacred Heart, who, despite having only one coach, cut enough cards to basically supply the entire circuit with open sourced documents such that signature Tomasi cards found their way into a scary percentage of debate rounds. Obviously, not everyone can be Tomasi, but lots of other small school debaters have and do disclose. They prove that it can be done. If a debater is afraid they can’t take the time to do a lot of debate research, they shouldn’t be artificially shielded from clash. This will only harm success in the long run. Debate rewards those who do more research, and if a debater relies on not disclosing to win, then that debater may not necessarily deserve to win.

Third, the prep disadvantage is non-unique. Progressive debate arguments like theory, policy arguments, or kritiks disproportionately disadvantage small school debaters, yet there isn’t a strong argument why debaters shouldn’t read those in a debate. Similarly, even if disclosure somewhat disproportionately disadvantages small schools (which I don’t necessarily think it does), it’s not a strong reason against disclosure. If debate were all about protecting small schools, then more effective remedies that don’t decrease clash like allowing more small schools into tournaments would be preferable to a world where small school debaters artificially seal themselves out of disclosing.

Fourth, double-bind: either i) a debater is reading an aff that big schools have prepped out, so disclosure is irrelevant, or ii) a debater is reading an aff that big schools don’t have prepped out, but it’s good enough to win rounds, so everyone hears about it very quickly and disclosure is irrelevant. The first scenario is fairly likely. Even large schools with lots of resources tend to read similar affs and on any given topic, there are only a limited amount of stock affs (for example, on the handguns topic, the number of affs was limited). If big schools are so scary, wouldn’t they already have answers to every aff? Every competitive goes into a tournament with list of core neg positions and answers to common affs. And if they do, what’s the harm to disclosing? The people hurt by non-disclosure aren’t big schools who already have more prep than the average debater, but you guessed it: small schools who don’t have the time or resources to prep every specific aff. In the second scenario, the small school debater has an aff that seems too good to disclose; it’s creative and strategic. The second that debater hits anyone decently connected to “the national circuit”, the case will no longer be a surprise. If it’s weird enough or good enough, large schools will hear about it very quickly from competitors and judges, easily within 24-hours at a big tournament. Thus, even without disclosure, the surprising and strategic aff will still find its way into the hands of big schools. Once again, the only people that will be hurt by the lack of disclosure will be other small schools who don’t have the same connections and won’t be prepared.

Fifth, double-bind: either i) the small school debater is “good enough” that big schools will take the time to prep them out, or ii) the small school debater is not “good enough” that big schools will not take the time to prep them out. In the first scenario, the small school debater’s cases are already known. Top debaters, regardless of school size, dedicate time to preparing against specific opponents above a certain threshold. They will gather intel on their competition’s case positions and will have responses to it. In the second scenario, disclosing shouldn’t be a problem because the small school debater won’t be on others’ radars. Believe it or not, big schools don’t go through every name on the wiki and prep every position they see for fun. If the small school debater isn’t considered a threat, it’s unlikely a big school will take the time to prep that debater specifically, so disclosure won’t aid in avoiding prep-outs and can only help other small school debaters.

One response is that big schools aren’t prepping out small school debaters before the tournament but instead right before the round. First, if big schools have huge resource advantages before a debate, they’ll find out about an undisclosed aff by other means AND have time to prep it out. Second, prep-outs are good because they force debaters to write better affs or improve their affs to beat the prep. If small school debaters are afraid their aff will lose to a 30-minute pre-round prep-out, then they have more important concerns than disclosure, namely the fact that their aff is so weak it would lose to 30 minute prep-out. Instead of worrying about disclosure, it might be better to do some more work on the aff. Being a small school debater is hard, I understand, but it’s not a reason the debater shouldn’t thoroughly know the aff and be well-prepared to debate it. If it loses to a 30 minute pre-round prep-out, more likely than not, it would’ve lost regardless of disclosure.

Simply put, the fear of being prepped out by large schools is reasonable but has little empirical validity. I would wager that most small school debaters have never faced a serious prep out to their specific aff from a big school and that those who would probably face a prep-out regardless of disclosure.

What small school debaters really fear is the pre-round prep-out, and ultimately, I don’t this is a convincing reason to not disclose the aff. Yes, it is scary to be on the receiving end of a prep-out, and seeing the opponent surrounded by three coaches and five teammates cutting cards is certainly intimidating but ultimately shouldn’t be a reason against disclosure. Those 30-minute prep-outs improve the quality of clash and shouldn’t be devastating given that the aff debater should have spent much more time researching and understand their own aff such that 30 minutes of prep can’t easily beat it. So yes, fearing prep-outs is a reasonable concern, but in reality, not nearly a large enough problem to justify not disclosing.

OBJECTION 2: Disclosure doesn’t “just happen anyways” — non-disclosure is effective at hiding information.

A commenter named Sophie argued that “Even if large schools near me have my cases, large schools across the country most likely do not. And hearing through a chain of friends across the country isn’t going to produce an effective prep out that is going to screw me over.” On the same thread, Paras argued that “teams usually acquire flows from the debaters that flowed the round, but most debaters have very incomplete flows, whereas disclosing would provide the perfect flow. That means the quality of the prepout in a non-disclosure world is worse.”

First, this objection ignores that big schools from across the country tend to have friendly relationships with other big schools both among coaches and among students. It’s not uncommon for debaters from one big school to be very close personal friends with other debaters and share scouting information. It’s also not uncommon for coaches to ask for intel and prep from other coaches. If a big school wants some intel, they will find a way to get it.

Second, even if flows are incomplete, there are still information asymmetries before a debate because only big schools have access to that intel. If I argue that small schools don’t have access to case information when it’s not disclosed, saying “yes, but the flows shared aren’t that good” doesn’t address the underlying inequity. Small school debaters don’t have access to the flows and intel that big schools get, even if that intel is not of optimal quality.

Third, even if the quality of the prepout in a non-disclosure world is worse, that proves the educational benefit of disclosure. Debate is centered around clash, not avoidance. As explained above, increasing the quality of clash should generally be prioritized over rewarding avoidance.

OBJECTION 3: Big schools bypass disclosure by writing a lot of new positions.

This objection has been made before by Menick and on face, it seems like a reason that disclosure only benefits big schools, but upon deeper examination, this objection is mostly fear-mongering.

First, how many big schools produce enough affs to functionally disclose a new aff every round, or even close to it? A brief examination of the wikis of Harvard-Westlake, Greenhill, and Harrison (three of the most well-known “big schools”) reveals that most debaters have only a few affs disclosed. In fact, on the handguns topic, Harvard-Westlake’s two seniors read the same aff in most debates, and Greenhill’s did the same. There are very few instances where big schools read new affs throughout a tournament because A. there really aren’t that many good affs on any given topic, and B. good debaters know that reading only a few affs allows them to know their aff inside and out. Menick’s argument simply has no empirical validation.

Second, even-if big schools had several affs in the box, there is a low chance that they will break a new aff against a small school debater. Those new affs are typically reserved for the top debaters at a given tournament. (And again, if a small school debater is one of the top debaters, disclosure is largely irrelevant).

Third, the argument is non-unique. Small school debaters can also write multiple affs on a topic, and many do because the cost of writing a new aff is relatively low in LD. Writing multiple positions helps small school debaters counter the perceived disadvantages of being a small school. Some might argue that breaking new affs hurts the benefits of disclosure for small schools. It’s likely, however, that new affs are mostly read against big schools since breaking new against smaller schools with less prep has less strategic advantage. Thus, small school debaters who write new affs can preserve clash against other small school debaters who would benefit from disclosure when debating against previously disclosed affs.

Even if this isn’t true, just because large schools can do it doesn’t present a strong reason against disclosure.

OBJECTION 4: Small school debaters don’t like mandatory case disclosure.

Several commenters have noted that a lot of small school debaters personally oppose disclosure, so claiming that disclosure is good for small school debaters is patronizing.

First, I certainly don’t want to speak for other small school debaters, but I don’t think making an argument that disclosure is good for small school debaters is particularly patronizing. It’s no different than a friend offering big advice to another friend: it might feel patronizing to receive advice about one’s own life, but it doesn’t speak to whether the advice is good or not. Similarly, while saying disclosure is good for small school debaters might sound patronizing (and I don’t mean it to), this just doesn’t answer the fundamental question of whether disclosure is good or not.

Second, this isn’t easily verifiable. Informal polls like this one on Premier Debate indicate that most debaters don’t like disclosing, but we can’t say with certainty that small school debaters particularly oppose or support disclosure. For every piece of anecdotal evidence against disclosure, another exists in its favor. Instead of forwarding stories, we should stick to debating the merits of disclosure.

Third, this article is meant to convince small school debaters that disclosing is good. There is always opposition to change, especially change that could potentially disadvantage small school debaters, so the fact that there is opposition isn’t a strong reason to discount disclosure.

OBJECTION 5: Small school debaters shouldn’t have to disclose against large school debaters.

This seems like a reasonable middle ground, but it’s entirely unenforceable and arbitrary.

First, this leads to only 30 minute pre round disclosure instead of wiki disclosure which hardly benefits small school debaters who, according to the logic of those who oppose disclosure, would not have the ability to adequately prepare against opponents in that short amount of time.

Second, what constitutes a “large school” is arbitrary and makes this unenforceable. Greenhill or similar schools are often considered big schools. Yet, what makes these “big schools”? Greenhill’s prep is largely created by three people. This is similar to many so-called big schools. This isn’t to say that the small school disadvantage isn’t a real thing but that the line between big schools and not big schools is vague. How could anyone make a non-arbitrary and agreeable distinction between big and small schools?

Third, just because someone is from a big school doesn’t make them a threat (and vice versa). Harvard-Westlake has literally dozens of debaters, but not all of them are TOC-level debaters. A lot of these debaters from large schools would still benefit from disclosure and the ability to prepare for a debate. Failing to disclose would make the debate less educational for all those involved in that situation.

Fourth, non-disclosure in any instance decreases the clash and quality of debates. As mentioned above, debate can only be improved when there is increased clash and failing to disclose leads to debates that are not as educational as they could have been. Disclosure has important educational benefits like forcing the aff to defend their position against strong neg arguments. Debate is concerned with increasing clash, not decreasing it. As mentioned above, prepouts are good because they force the aff to improve their aff and better defend it in the future. The real world doesn’t insulate people from arguments by hiding them. Debate should train debaters to be prepared to defend their arguments.

OBJECTION 6: Fairness is more important than the educational benefits of disclosure.

First, a good portion of this article is specifically about how it would be fairer to small school debaters if they disclosed.

Second, even if it would not be fairer, I don’t think fairness is hurt by disclosing as explained in all of the answers to objections above, especially since fairness is concerned with ensuring that whoever did the better debating wins. Since good preparation is part of doing the better debating, disclosure helps that goal.

OBJECTION 7: Small school debaters don’t know the wiki or how to disclose.

This is a fairly serious issue because reading disclosure theory on people who don’t even know what disclosure is is basically antithetical to every reason in favor of disclosure. For this reason, this article should not be construed as a reason to read disclosure theory on small school debaters all the time but instead as a constructive case for small school debaters to proactively disclose. And obviously, this article is meant to persuade small school debaters who do know what the wiki is to disclose.

Additionally, I don’t find the argument of not knowing the wiki very persuasive in the context of small school debaters who have been to more than one TOC tournament. Small school debaters will eventually figure out what the wiki is, either from finding online resources such as Premier Debate, NSD, and Vbriefly, or simply by hearing about the wiki is from fellow competitors at the tournament. At least a decent percentage of small school debaters have stumbled across the wiki at some point in time. At the very least, this objection is a reason circuit debaters should raise awareness about the wiki to help small school debaters.

Conclusion

There are, of course, other objections to disclosing, but most have been addressed in great length in previous articles or are not specific to small school debaters, so they are beyond the scope of this article.

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely understand the case for not disclosing as a small school. I especially understand the case if said small school debater is new to the circuit. Even in college, facing a large school who has simply much more prep than we have is scary. Facing down a big school, especially one with a lot of rep behind them is intimidating to say the least.

However, small school debaters who have thought of reasons to not disclose clearly understand what disclosure is and they almost certainly benefit from disclosure themselves. Disclosure only benefits small school debaters and not disclosing doesn’t really help small school debaters. I understand the hesitancy to disclose, but ultimately, disclosure is net good for debate and the potential harms of disclosing are scarier as a thought than as a fact.

End Notes

[1] Some might argue that flow-sharing or intel-gathering is unethical. While this moral debate is beyond the scope of my article, I believe flow-sharing and intel-gathering are certainly inevitable and a net good because they increase the quality of debates.

Author Bio

Lawrence Zhou competed at Bartlesville HS in Oklahoma (2010-2014) in Lincoln-Douglas Debate. In high school, he was the 2014 NSDA LD National Champion. He was also a three-time finalist and two-time champion of the Oklahoma State Tournament and placed 6th at NFL Nationals his junior year. He now attends the University of Oklahoma where he is a member of the OU Ethics Bowl Team and debates on the OU Shannon Self Debate Program policy team, where he has cleared at tournaments such as CEDA.
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