Last weekend was my first Harvard tournament and the first time I hadn’t gone to Berkeley since I started debating in 2008 (that’s eight Berkeleys!). It’s been fun judging and coaching in the northeast this season, but skipping out on Berkeley was a bummer. I missed the familiar food, the hordes of debaters, and the Marxist bookstands. And to my knowledge, there is no Crepes-A-Go-Go in Cambridge.

Still, there were many excellent debaters and wild rounds at Harvard. I came up early to coach at the RR, and I ended up judging 18 rounds and staying until semis of the tournament. Needless to say, it was a lot of fun and very exhausting.

Without further ado, here are ten random musings, featuring last weekend’s Harvard tournament!

Click here for the last edition of this series.

#1 Plants

“The plant is the degraded supplement of the ideal human, against whom ontological violence is visited daily, a necessary side effect of the metaphysical project of self-definition and constitution. The ROB is thus to endorse the best method of plant pedagogy — learning from plants is a crucial starting point for rupturing violent dichotomies and paving the way to ethical engagement with the Other.”

Wait, what?

I saw so much creativity last weekend! It started Round 1 with Evanston HS’s plant pedagogy aff, quoted above. Here are some other cases I saw that stuck out:

  • Byram Hills LP’s Foucaultian aesthetics aff
  • Hunter College NP’s (American) pragmatism aff
  • Lake Travis KE’s killjoy aff
  • Law Magnet MG’s counterfactual K
  • Oakwood JW’s formalwear theory

I’m sure there’s stuff I’m missing, but how cool! Kudos to these debaters for taking risks. Comment below on any really cool cases you saw on the topic!

#2 Harvard Prefs

Holy moly, these were a bear. There were about 200 judges to rate, and my understanding is that the bottom half of them were going to be in the JV pool, but we had to rate them anyway. I’m generally a fan of over-including judges, e.g. when I tab a tournament, I always include myself in the pool in case I’m really needed, but Harvard’s policy is egregious. It more than doubles the amount of time needed to do prefs since many of the judges who should be strictly JV don’t have paradigms. I’m quite thorough with prefs, so I run Google searches like “Jane Doe debate” to try to get more information. It took at least two hours. You want to know what would speed up the process? Ordinals!

For those who did have paradigms, I came across such gems as:

  • “I judge JV and Novice LD, and I competed Novice Year.”
  • “I’m a parent of an Varsity LD debater and have judged Novice and JV debate rounds”
  • “I should be placed in the NOVICE OR JV DIVISION as a judge”

Judges like these are to be expected at a giant tournament like Harvard, but the sheer number of them was unlikely anything I’ve seen.

Nonetheless, the top 4 seeds (all RR participants) made it through to semis without any upsets, so it seems the judging pool didn’t add too much randomness when it came to the most important rounds.

#3 Fantastic Freshmen and Super Sophomores

I had the pleasure of judging Byram Hills LP, Oak Hall KZ, Oakwood AW, and St. Andrew’s Episcopal IB at Harvard. These sophomores and freshman (KZ) were outstanding! They showed great strategic vision, knowledge of the topic, and guts to try new arguments. I can’t wait to see how they perform in future seasons if they keep working this hard.

And if I’m forgetting anyone, sorry! I don’t always know everyone’s years. Comment below on other impressive underclassmen at Berkeley/Harvard!

#4 No Wi-Fi at Harvard

Huh? How are we supposed to disclose or do any research if there’s no public Wi-Fi at the tournament site? Apparently only a small number of devices could connect at once to the grade school network, which meant most didn’t have any internet Day 1 or Day 2.

I was shocked and haven’t seen this in quite some time. A lack of Wi-Fi is not only uneducational in creating worse debates, but it also exacerbates the effect of resource disparities. Teams with great mobile data and hotspots are at a huge advantage in a no Wi-Fi world.

Lack of public Wi-Fi should disqualify a site from hosting a tournament. Period.

#5 Premier Success

What an amazing way to cap off the year for Premier alums at Berkeley and Harvard. These students put in a ton of effort last summer to improve, and the new research, writing, and strategy elements of the curriculum clearly paid off. The following is the list of Premier debaters who cleared last weekend with bid-getters in bold. Congrats!

  • Alan George, Klein Oak – Premier16 MN – Harvard Triples
  • Chris Wang, Lynbrook – Premier16 LA – Berkeley Champion
  • Doug Wickham, Loyola – Premier16 LA & Premier15 – Berkeley Doubles
  • Eddie Rastgoo, Meadows – Premier16 LA – Berkeley Triples
  • Holden Fraser, Loyola – Premier16 LA & Premier15 – Berkeley Triples
  • Jonas Le Barillec, Peninsula – Premier16 Invite Week – Berkeley Octas
  • Jong Hak Won, West Ranch – Premier16 MN & Invite Week – Berkeley Semis
  • Katherine Fennell, Stuyvesant – Premier15 – Harvard Quarters
  • Kenny Nelson, West – Premier16 MN – Berkeley Triples
  • Kevin Li, Stuyvesant – Premier16 MN – Harvard Triples (Walk-Over)
  • Luis Arbelaez, Loyola – Premier16 LA – Berkeley Doubles
  • Nikhil Ajjarapu, Lynbrook – Premier16 LA – Berkeley Triples
  • Oliver Sussman, Cambridge – Premier16 LA – Harvard RR Finals, Tournament Semis
  • Parker Whitfill, Phoenix – Premier15 – Harvard Triples
  • Varun Paranjpe, Mountain View – Premier16 LA & Invite Week & Premier15 – Berkeley Triples
  • Yichen Zu, Lynbrook – Premier16 LA – Berkeley Triples

#6 Not Flipping for Sides

You can think disclosure is bad, but this one is baffling to me. Several teams at the RR and tournament proper refused to flip against my students.

Not flipping doubles the amount of prep before a round for no reason other than gamesmanship. In thirty minutes, it’s hard to prep as it is: a lot of teams have multiple affs and oodles of neg positions that span the ideological spectrum. Why add more pressure on both sides’ prep time?

Stanford and Cal Berkeley both had posted flip times when one debater got to pick sides if the opponent hadn’t shown up. More tournaments should employ this simple fix.

#7 The Community

I had such a blast at the tournament outside of rounds and prepping. I hung out with two former debaters that I hadn’t seen in over six months. I talked to a million people and met a bunch of new debaters. While there are some enduring regional rivalries, I didn’t feel like there was bad blood among any coaches or debaters, at least that I could see. Everyone was really friendly. This was a marked contrast from the Berkeley tournament last year, which had its fair share of dust-ups. Special shout-out to the following awesome coaches and judges I had a chance to see and chat with: Paloma O’Connor, Andrew Pérez, Sophia Caldera, Wesley Hu, Becca Traber, Rahul Gosain, Preetham Chippada, Chris Kymn, Mathew Pregasen, Sam Azbel, Kathy Wang, and Paul Zhou.

#8 Theory Debates

It’s so funny to me that the northeast is all theory these days. Current debaters aren’t surprised to hit metatheory and 1AR theory in most rounds at a tournament like Harvard, but it wasn’t always like this! When I was debating, most east coast debaters were very substantive and generally philosophically-inclined. Debating Scarsdale in 2011 meant pulling out Gauthier blocks and figuring out what to say against motivational internalism. Now it often means fine-tuning a spike-filled underview.

Theory is the best example of something I like and don’t like. I think even more than K debates, theory is the swingiest area in modern LD. A good theory debate is a recipe for a 29.5 in front of me as I see it as the purest demonstration of tactical and technical mastery there is. A bad theory debate is a recipe for a facepalm and a migraine.

Luckily, theory debate has generally improved from where it was even four seasons ago. It takes two steps forward for every step it takes back. Here are some quick hits on what I think of the state of theory:

  • 1AR theory good/bad is terrible. Obviously 1AR theory is not totally good or totally bad. I don’t know who started this, but I’m going to hunt them down. Stay tuned for a full-length piece on “1AR theory bad.”
  • Even worse is aff/neg abuse outweighs. Obviously some aff abuse is worse than some neg abuse and vice versa. (Thanks to John for reminding me of this abomination)
  • T/Framework against questionably-topical K affs has gotten much better. Debaters two or three seasons ago didn’t really know what to do against Newark CQ when he would go slightly non-T, but now the top debaters can give great 2NRs on T in their sleep.
  • “Combo” shells are usually nonsense. Maybe something like “no conditional PICs” is okay, but when we get to “neg can’t read the Hobbes NC, T, deny the aff the RVI, read the NIB that they read, and turn the aff,” things have gotten out of hand. As I commented in response to “Dumpling” on my theory advocates post a year ago, it’s very unlikely that these shells isolate unique, structural abuse. Most of the time it seems they just complain about the 1AR being hard under the guise of ‘strat skew.’ Then the 2NR only justifies why some part of the violation is fair, not the exact combination of things they did, and I have to vote aff! Arg!
  • Line-by-line on stock paradigm debates like reasonability and RVIs has drastically improved. Since many teams now frontload these arguments in the aff itself or the initial 1NC shell, we’ve had a ton of practice on the particular line-by-line arguments. Reasonability brightlines are more nuanced and RVI justifications more tricky.

#9 Harvard Schedule

I’m a slow judge. I’m meticulous. I like to consider every argument, and I don’t start thinking about who’s winning a close debate until it’s over. So I expect that sometimes I’ll get e-mailed by tab or a student worker will bother me for my ballot. It doesn’t happen at many tournaments, but it happens. Harvard’s schedule made this situation inevitable.

A two-hour decision time for two flights enforced by threat of fines and pref-canceling is absolutely ridiculous. Especially for a tournament trying to run JV rounds in the same rooms in between Varsity rounds. Berkeley also uses the same rooms for multiple events, but it runs three rounds a day for precisely this reason.

Two hours is a fine amount of time to put on a schedule, but it can’t be the drop-dead time backed by threats. No way. Consider how long it takes for two flights, assuming one starts on time:

  • 32 Minutes — speeches, including CX
  • 8 Minutes – prep time
  • 5 Minutes – general dead time, especially for technology (flashing, e-mailing, compiling documents, setting up a stand)
  • 5 Minutes – deciding
  • 5 Minutes – RFD and questions
  • 5 Minutes – Flight 2 sets up
  • 55 Minutes – Flight 2 does the above

Total –  1:55 is the minimum amount of time. That leaves 5 minutes of wiggle room for any of the following common occurrences:

  • Debater (or judge) can’t find the room
  • The round in the room beforehand doesn’t evacuate by the start time
  • Debaters don’t enter the room until the judge gets there, so there’s Flight 1 set-up time
  • Debater (or judge) has to use the restroom during the round
  • Debater’s (or judge’s) technology creates a prolonged delay
  • Decision takes longer than 5 minutes in a close, complicated debate

Given Harvard’s ambitious schedule, tournament directors or tabroom officials or whoever shouldn’t be threatening judges on Day 1. They definitely shouldn’t communicate those threats to judges’ students, who should be focused on debate and not worrying about whether they’ll have prefs the next day. It also pressures judges, which may lead to worse decisions.

If you want to have a decision time backed by threat, put it in the invite, and it should probably be about 2:30, measured from the start of the round, not the posted start time.

Here are some suggestions for judges, including myself, to help get through rounds faster:

  • Use a timer. An official clock keeps things going, and sometimes students forget to set theirs!
  • Make flashing/e-mailing part of prep. If you feel bad about this because tons of students still don’t use Verbatim, then add a minute to prep time. It’ll probably still come out faster than stopping prep altogether.
  • Plan RFDs during decision time so you can efficiently explain things without needing to look back at your flow or go searching for things.
  • Join your students before pairings are released so you don’t have to find them and waste valuable prep time, which might delay rounds.
  • Make sure your students have adequately disclosed so you aren’t disrupted by interactions with the other team, which wastes valuable prep time, which might delay rounds.

Here are some suggestions for tournament directors:

  • Use only online balloting. Make sure the tournament site has Wi-Fi.
  • Try to keep rounds in one central location. Put the judge’s lounge in the building where most of the rounds are held.
  • Make it clear, if the school allows it, that debaters should enter rooms (perhaps with the door propped) and set-up ASAP. Setting up includes flashing/e-mailing the AC.
  • Release pairings with adequate prep time so coaches don’t keep students beyond the start time when they don’t feel adequately prepped.
  • Require wiki disclosure and coin-flips so coaches don’t keep students beyond the start time when they don’t feel adequately prepped.

#10 TOC is Six Prelim Rounds

Although the TOC Advisory Committee decided to switch from seven to six prelim rounds roughly ten months ago, a number of us just found out about it last weekend. I’m torn. On the one hand, side bias is real and the neg has a significant advantage. On the other hand, TOC has always been seven rounds (except in 2011) and now there’s likely to be a full or nearly-full doubles debate; that diminishes the significance of clearing at TOC and is more of a grind for tired coaches and debaters than a prelim. I spoke about it today with Committee member Scott Wheeler, so I might write up more on the switch at a later date. Let me know what you think in the comments!



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.