I had a chance to go to Harvard-Westlake last weekend for my first West Coast tournament of the season. It may have been the first time I heard an honest-to-God disad all year after mostly judging in the Northeast last semester. The LD metagame sure has shifted from the util-tastic 2013-2014 season [1]. But I digress….

In the style of Zach Lowe’s “10 Things” series at ESPN (see here), here are some random musings on last weekend, the new topic, and the debate season as a whole.


Harvard-Westlake continues to be one of the best tournaments of the year, and I’m really glad I went.

Wonderful hospitality from the in-n-out truck to fresh tacos to constant hot coffee and snacks. Shout-out to Bietz, the Harvard-Westlake parents and whoever else was involved in running that part of the tournament.

Tab was efficient, and we got home at a really reasonable time on both days without starting before 8:00AM. Bietz pushes the envelope with mandatory disclosure, refined clipping procedures, and ordinal prefs. I think most teams would have disclosed anyway, but why leave it to chance?

I didn’t judge at the round robin this year, but I know the competition was top notch. Despite there being three other bid tournaments last weekend, the debates at Harvard-Westlake were second-to-none.

I know my fellow coaches from Loyola agree with me, and I’d encourage more teams from out of state to attend the tournament next year.

Fantastic Freshmen

I had the opportunity to judge Arcadia JC and Santa Monica RE, two freshmen in elims of an octas bid tournament. And holy cow! They’re phenomenal! When I was a freshman, I was busy going 3-5 at Berkeley in the JV division. These guys are beating varsity debaters with double their experience! Both held their own against fairly tough seniors in the rounds I saw. Kudos!

Colleges and Universities?

Most debates I watched dealt with free speech generally – censorship, constitutional rights, hate speech, etc. – without addressing the particular context of the resolution. How does the fact that these are college students and professors in educational settings change our evaluation? In my coaching and brief-writing, I’ve fallen prey to this tendency too, but I have some thoughts on how to fix it:

  • Make weighing arguments for why evidence in this context is more probative
  • Argue that the possibility for counter-speech, counter-protest, etc. is greater in a close-knit college culture
  • Write counterplans challenging the choice of aff actor, e.g. suggesting that courts or legislative bodies could better enforce restrictions
  • Research advantages or disadvantages based on types of speech that college speakers engage in, e.g. research projects in particular departments (controversial views in philosophy, polisci, and climate science come to mind)
  • Research advantages or disadvantages to types of restrictions that colleges could require, e.g. safe spaces, free speech zones, trigger warnings on syllabi, regulations of protests, etc.
  • Generate moral arguments based on the goals of colleges and universities

First-Person Plural Pronouns

I didn’t care about this when only a few debaters were doing it, but now it’s so widespread, I can’t help but notice it. CX: “Did you read all of Advantage 2?” “No, we skipped the Smith 13 card.”

Who is this mysterious other person you’re referring to?

My first thought about it is that debaters who plan to transition to college policy want to start getting used to the different pronouns, but certainly the “we” has spread beyond that group. It must be stopped!

Ordinal Judge Prefs

We have the technology! Every tournament should have ordinal prefs by now. They’re more precise and produce better outcomes. But instead, teams are getting 4-5-5 panels (9-cat) in the bid round at Lex!

Why are tournament directors still using categories like it’s 1992?

Loyola has been using ordinals for four years at its bid tournaments, and other tournaments, especially those tabbed by Mike Bietz, have quickly followed suit.

I’ve heard criticisms of MJP generally, but as long as we’re doing it, we might as well do it the right way. The only problem I can think of is that ordinals take longer, but with the drag-and-drop entry screen, it’s pretty easy.

For more on ordinals, see John Scoggin here.

Non-Topical Affs

We’ve seeing a steady rise in the number of non-topical affs over the past few seasons, and I saw a few more at Harvard-Westlake last weekend.

It worries me from a coach’s and educator’s perspective. I remain committed to this idea that debaters can and should control the game – if they want to go non-topical, go ahead! But my experience as a college policy debater tells me to be cautious.

When I qualified to the NDT in 2015, my partner and I had several dozen, unique non-topical affs we had to prep, ranging from Liberty CE’s aff, “we advocate thickness,” to Weber HT’s aff, “Vote affirmative to assist in the death of god.”

It’s easy to say “go to the other side of the library” when no one’s ever debated race positions before, but that claim becomes less and less persuasive the more unique and creative these non-topical affs become. Is there a good reason that we should read Octavia Butler’s scifi novels to prepare for a tournament, as Towson TW’s aff required of us? Maybe I could be convinced of that literature’s importance in an individual debate, but when we add that book to the pile of other books that K teams demand we read, the task is daunting to say the least.

If LD goes the way of college (and to a lesser extent, high school) policy debate, we’ll see a rise in generic Ks to deal with the wide variety of non-topical affs. It’ll be ableism vs. cap or anthro vs. topicality in every debate. I like Ks – I really do – but that would be a truly lamentable state of affairs.

Effective 1NC Prep

If you’re about to stand up and read cards for seven minutes, what do you need a bunch of prep before the 1NC for? In part because of good disclosure practices, using prep before the 1NC is rare at the top levels of policy debate. LD should be the same. Some debaters I watched last weekend, like La Canada AZ, were very good about prep. When you take ten or fifteen seconds and tell me “the doc has been sent; it’ll be four off, then case,” you exude confidence. That’s worth some extra speaks, and certain judges are highly attuned to it (e.g. see Rebar Niemi’s paradigm here).

But it’s also tactically smart. Leaving oneself with a few seconds of prep is a huge red flag to the opponent – almost as if saying, “Hey, run a bunch of new stuff in the 1AR since I don’t have prep time to think of answers!” I used to debate Geoff Kristof from Scarsdale all the time, and he would regularly go down to less than thirty seconds of prep thinking of a bazillion answers to my util framework. So of course, I’d start the 1AR with two new theory shells!

Here are some tips for cutting down on 1NC prep:

  • Ask for the aff before the debate so you can prepare your strategy in advance
  • Put together a document with the neg positions and blocks you might read before the debate, then delete everything you’re not gonna read during their speech or in the little prep you do take
  • Know Verbatim inside and out. Use the send to speech feature to streamline your doc compilation
  • Have your positions timed so you don’t spend time compiling arguments you’re not gonna get to read
  • Keep track of how often you’re spending prep writing arguments you don’t get to
  • Perhaps develop a rule of thumb for when to stop prep

K vs Theory

Nina Potischman (Hunter College NP) wrote the following: in her finalist interview from Lexington, posted on our Facebook page:

I feel like a lot of framework/theory vs. K debates end up being overly simplistic and unproductive. It’s important that people engage directly with the specificities of their opponents’ positions – e.g. explaining why a specific shell/framework is problematic rather than why reading theory as a practice in general is something that should be stopped. A lot of these debates end up becoming redundant and vague, so I think that there would be much better engagement if people tried to address their opponents’ positions more directly.

And she couldn’t be more right. Even elite debaters have a hard time divorcing themselves from their blocks in these debates, so when middling or poor debaters rattle off a list of generics, it’s excruciating. It makes me feel like I should list the generic arguments in my paradigm and pick a side on which convince me the most since I’m deciding the same debate over and over again.

I like Nina’s suggestion that debaters engage specifically with the opponent position. Specificity is always good, and this can be read as an instance of the debate maxim “size of the link determines size of the impact.” Whether a theory impact outweighs a K impact depends on the particular theory argument and kritik.

I’ll go one step further than Nina and suggest that we should evaluate these debates modestly. That is, an argument for K precludes theory or vice versa should never entirely exclude the other, even if it is phrased as absolute and in general terms.


Maybe this one goes without saying, but I love the “I don’t give a ****” attitude of debaters running plans on this topic. Yeah the resolution says “any constitutionally protected speech,” so what? Plans are awesome. and Peninsula JL, Phoenix PW and West Ranch JW are gonna run plans no matter what. The topic could be “Resolved: Every gorilla is a mammal,” and they’d still read a parametricized advocacy affirming that Harambe is a mammal.

Online Engagement

The feedback we’re getting on Facebook and in the comments on this site is remarkable. I’ve been writing a lot about disclosure, and many don’t care or view it as a settled issue, but we’re still getting a big following. Keep it up, and please let me know if there are any contemporary controversies, trends or arguments I should address in upcoming posts.

End Notes

[1] By my count, at least five in quarters of TOC that year were trutilers at heart: Loyola CK, La Jolla RP, Northland SH, Peninsula AT, and Palo Alto TC.



Bob Overing | Co-Director

Bob is a co-director of Premier, coach for Walt Whitman HS, and current Yale Law School student. 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.

Bob Overing
Bob is a Co-Director of Premier, coach for Walt Whitman HS, and current student at Yale Law School and Yale School of Management. 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.