The circuit season is officially over, and Parker Whitfill from Phoenix Country Day School put together an incredible run. I had a blast coaching Xavier Roberts-Gaal and Camille Caldera from Walt Whitman and Oliver Sussman from Cambridge Rindge & Latin. I got to judge a number of incredible debates. Special congrats to Premier alums for their performances: Parker Whitfill (champion), Oliver Sussman (semis), Jong Hak Won (doubles), Jonas Le Barillec (doubles), Katherine Fennell, Chris Wang, and Varun Paranjpe.
I’m still recuperating but managed to put together a rambling blogpost. Previously this season, I tried to come up with 5 things I like and 5 things I don’t like, but today I only have good things to say.
Without further ado, here are ten random musings, featuring last weekend’s Tournament of Champions!
Click here for the last edition of this series.
#1 Sticking Through Elims
A huge thank you to all the judges who stayed, many past their obligation, to judge late TOC elims. The tournament can feel like a crapshoot some years because of random judging after most teams have left. I wouldn’t be surprised to get a panel of a debate dinosaur, someone who hasn’t judged since 2009, and whoever’s around from the policy pool but wasn’t placed in one of the policy elims. This year, we had some of the best panels I’ve seen at TOC. Special thanks to our semis panel of Salim Damerdji, Erik Legried, and Paul Zhou. Their sacrifice (especially Paul’s since he seemed to have the bubonic plague) made the tournament better for everyone.
Along those lines, thanks to debaters who stuck around and rolled with the squad (Oliver and me) into late elims. After they were out, Xavier Roberts-Gaal, Camille Caldera, and Niko Battle didn’t need to offer their services to a non-teammate, but did so with enthusiasm. Special thanks to Camille, who I think cut the best card I saw all tournament. Same goes to coaches Preetham Chippada, John Overing, and Felix Tan for their generous efforts.
#2 Ks Don’t Make Sense But They Are Fun
In Round 6, I judged an aff from Dulles MK that included all of Lewis Carroll’s poem “The Jabberwocky.” If you’re not familiar with it, it starts like this:
`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
And in Octas, I judged Millard North GB, who always has something weird to read at 400 WPM. I had previously judged him in prelims where after losing, he said, “well, I guess I’m never going for a counterplan again.” Sure enough, in octas it was just the K, which began:
Sssha ssha ssha ssha
Intergalactical witch walk swish-swash
Ga-ra- ta ga-ra- ta ga-ra- ta
And yes, that is what I voted on.
#3 Jonas LeBarillec, Non-TOC Seniors, Harvard-Westlake
Peninsula JL ended his high school LD career with 21 bids (Ed Correction: article previously said 20), and that total has to rank as one of the best of all time. I believe Catherine Tarsney of St. Louis Park HS had something like 26 total, so Jonas might be top 3 or top 5 in the last ten years. A number of debaters broke into the 15-20 range in the past few seasons (off the top of my head, Oakwood JW, La Canada AZ, Harrison RP, Greenhill BE, Greenhill VA, Cypress Bay JS, Peninsula AJ, Peninsula AT, Sacred Heart AT, Brentwood JL, Harrison DD, La Jolla RP, and I’m sure there are others), so Jonas’s mark of 20, beating out all of these amazing talents, is really spectacular. Watch out for Lake Highland AA to potentially break 20 next year – he’s at 10 so far, so with an ambitious enough tournament schedule, it’s very possible.
While we’re on the topic of regular season successes, congrats Crossroads NS, Mountain View DZ, and Oakwood JW for their stellar careers despite not making it out to TOC. We will soon publish the full results of our survey congratulating non-TOC competing seniors.
Lastly, congrats to Harvard-Westlake for earning 27 bids as a team, smashing the competition. If that’s not a record, it’s probably pretty close!
#4 Flexibility is King
A common topic of conversation in the top lab and strategy lecture series at Premier is the LD metagame. I’ve been a big proponent of a cyclical view, perhaps because of conversations with my high school coaches John Scoggin and Ashan Peiris. John and I wrote about it in our piece on inclusion here. The basic idea is that trends in the content and styles of LD debate are fairly predictable because they can be mapped as a more complex rock-paper-scissors game among consequentialism, moral philosophy, tricks, theory, and Ks. (I’ll write more about this in a future post.)
According to this theory, at any point in the metagame cycle, there is likely one dominant strategy. However, rather than master that one, the best recent debaters have attempted to master a variety of argument styles. This is new.
The 2017 TOC winner, Parker Whitfill, exemplified superb flexibility. He could (and did) go for 1AR theory, Kant, afropessimism, topicality, Hobbes, queer pessimism, the cap K, politics, etc. In my debate experience (2008-present), there are few debaters before this season who strike me as exhibiting that level of argumentative diversity. Yet in this season alone, at least Cambridge OS, Harrison RP, Hunter College NP, and Oakwood JW demonstrated this vast sophistication. There are a number of others who mastered policy, K, and T/theory debates, but I single out these five as having supreme moral philosophy chops as well.
Flexibility was paramount this season, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. I’m not sure how much of the trend to attribute to disclosure, decreasing dogmatism, policy influences, regional diversity, or just hard work on the part of a half dozen awesome students, but I have a feeling it will be replicated in seasons to come. The path to winning a major national tournament is to attack and defend from a variety of angles.
Argument diversity made this season particularly fun to coach and judge, and TOC all the more challenging. Over the past week, my students and I worked on Hobbes, existentialism, politics, tiny process PICs and plans, tricky theory underviews, a prioris, the ableism K, and something about geotraumatics and Negarestani that I still don’t understand (thanks Xavier for that gem). In elims, Oliver went for a straight-up plan/counterplan debate about bees (octas), a 1AR ableist discourse K (quarters), and the Kant NC (semis). What fun!
#5 Out of Nowhere
A number of debaters burst onto the circuit scene this year after having little TOC qualifying success the year before. Congratulations in particular to Success SC (from 0 to 7 bids), West Ranch JW (0 to 7), Greenhill SK (0 to 6), Cypress Woods LC (0 to 5), Dougherty Valley CS (0 to 5), and Newark Science BA (0 to 5). Putting these successes in perspective, only four debaters last year went from 0 to 5+ bids (Loyola JO, Cambridge OS, Lake Highland SP, and Millburn WH), so this is not at all a run-of-the-mill accomplishment. Expect the non-seniors in the list to up their games once again next season.
#6 Communal Bonds
When I was in high school LD, I had bitter enemies. There were some debaters I could not bear losing to, and following a loss, I’d write ten theory shells for their aff and read six articles on motivational internalism or whatever it was before I did any other prep. I wasn’t friendly with many people, and I wasn’t trying to be. I wouldn’t dare do any prep with a potential opponent, and I never had a practice debate over Skype with a debater across the country.
Maybe my animosities were just my own, but I really think the community is more networked and collaborative than ever, and that’s great! More sharing means more resources for those who lack access to a big squad, and it streamlines argument production and refinement. Now, you don’t have to worry that the best debaters will find the perfect counterplan for your aff by Berkeley. If someone finds it in January, the whole circuit is bound to know about it ASAP. There’s a whole new element to strategy that arises – should we trade a theory shell and NC for Byram’s cool counterplan file? Should we test our new aff in a practice debate with Hunter NP to see what she does? These calculations have changed the game at the top but also opened up opportunities for the whole community.
And this collegial spirit really showed at TOC. The tournament is the biggest gathering of the circuit, and that made it a lot of fun. Old friends, old debaters you coached, and old debaters they coached now coaching other debaters… And it doesn’t hurt that some of the top debaters this year (like Hunter College NP, Harrison RP, and Walt Whitman XR) were some of the nicest students you’ll meet.
I had this thought on Day 2 of the TOC, which might be the toughest for the community. Folks are crying. Careers are ending. It’s the tumultuous storm before the winner is crowned and we can all celebrate. It’s a roller coaster, but despite the competitive pressures, everyone I saw was humble and respectful, no matter the outcome. Check out all the seniors’ ‘goodbye debate’ statuses on facebook: there’s so much love in this community!
#7 Southwest Dominance
I may have moved to Connecticut this year, but Los Angeles is still the best LD debate circuit in the country, and the Southwest is the best region. It’s not close. One-third of TOC doubles and TOC octas participants hailed from California (+Arizona), beating out the Midwest, Northeast, and Texas by a hefty margin. I’m glad to see my home state performing so well. The Southwest has now won TOC three years in a row, and with non-seniors from Brentwood, Harvard-Westlake, and Mission San Jose in TOC octas, there’s a good chance it happens again next year.
#8 TOC Rules and Procedures
I appreciate the Committee’s moves to improve the tournament every year. Some amount of experimentation is really good, and I hope Committee members continue to reach out to coaches and debaters for suggestions.
I’m not sure if six rounds is the best (I would prefer eight, so long as good judges stuck around for elims), but I think people generally liked the change. Doubles should have been double-flighted to get better panels, but other than that, the schedule worked out really well. TOC procedures also included rules about flipping on time, and I hope they’ll implement a disclosure policy in the future.
There’s a lot to be said about what happened with diversity enhancement. I certainly like the idea of more diversity, but I do not like the idea of tab staff meddling with prefs and judge placements behind the scenes, according to a vague policy laid out six days before the tournament. There are many ways to improve diversity, and I hope the TOC explores them publicly well in advance of next year’s tournament.
#9 Paras Kumar, Debate Drills
Paras Kumar has easily cemented his legacy as one of the elite coaches in the game with this TOC win. While I have never coached alongside him, it is eminently clear from conversations with him and from watching his students that his method works, simple as that. This season he coached a diverse array of talents ranging from the theory-heavy Phoenix PW to the more policy West Ranch JW and the kritiky Stuyvesant KF.
The Debate Drills squad is formidable and should not be underestimated. The central tenet of their method is strategy, and strategy can only be optimized by honing one’s skills and tactics through hours of drills and practice debates. I believe in this method wholeheartedly. When I was a senior, I had three to five practice debates every weekday and then spread for an hour afterward for the six weeks leading up to TOC. I must have had over fifty practice debates with Michael Harris when it was all said and done. I take it that Parker Whitfill followed a similar path, refining his technical abilities on a couple of core strategies so that no one could touch him when the debate was about what he wanted.
Paras and Amit Kukreja took a debater from Arizona with no circuit debate team to a TOC championship this year. I suspect next year, they may be even better.
#10 Oliver Sussman (Why We Won and Why We Lost)
Oliver Sussman of Cambridge Rindge & Latin School may be the best debater I’ve ever coached (though my middle brother, Jake Steirn, Chris Kymn, and Michael Harris would all give him a run for his money). Oliver’s intuitive grasp for all aspects of debate is unparalleled and made coaching a breeze. He had one of the all-time great careers, winning Yale, Apple Valley, and Lexington with finals appearances at Harvard and the Glenbrooks. Why we won has as much to do with his innate talent and endless adjustments as anything else. The following proved strange and difficult to write, but I did it for younger competitive debaters who might appreciate an inside scoop.
By all accounts, Oliver’s technical ability was already top-notch, so I suspected our TOC results would come down to strategy, not execution. So in defining our general strategic approach, we first had to decide how new our arguments would be. There is something to be said for mastering one aff and fine-tuning it and its frontlines to make it unbeatable. Harrison RP, Hunter NP, and Phoenix PW, for instance, chose this type of strategy in continuing to run affs they’d run in February, even in TOC elims. Last year, we saw Greenhill and Harvard-Westlake do something similar.
This was not our strategy. Since we had already run so many different cases during the season, no position stuck out as a great candidate for this kind of mastery. You need to really know what opponents will say, and without the requisite number of rounds (Oliver only debated two tournaments during Jan-Feb), predicting the 1NC was a little tougher. We also lacked the workhorses that I would normally like to pursue such depth. The two of us could put in a lot of work, but some teams would inevitably be deeper. We could easily hit a massive prep-out that was two months in the making.
So after presets we ran a new aff in three of the next four aff debates. Two were moral philosophy positions (Hobbes and existentialism), and one had the option to be consequentialist or more framework-y (pesticides plan with bees advantage). We chose moral philosophy as the primary TOC strategy since our favorite judges were more framework-inclined, more of the top debaters were policy/k-inclined, and we lacked the deep squad needed to really excel going for straight-up consequentialist stuff. This also guided our innovation. Instead of prepping a new politics disad, we focused our efforts on the two moral philosophy affs (and two unbroken), the Scanlon and particularism NCs, the consult philosophers counterplan, the privatize colleges + Kant strategy, and a deontic logic a priori. Many of these were built from the ground up with specific opponents in mind, which is an essential part of TOC prep.
The problem is that the list of specific opponents we had in mind didn’t run deep enough. Outside of two tournaments, Oliver exclusively debated and I exclusively judged in the northeast this year, so we hadn’t had many matchups with the top west coast debaters. I knew a heck of a lot about La Canada AZ and Phoenix PW as juniors, for example, but barely saw them at all as seniors. Our prep was limited to the wiki, rounds online, and intel we could gather from around the circuit. But we needed to start gathering that intel and practicing against their strategies far earlier than TOC.
One way we could have rectified this deficit was to develop a super spicy, never-before-seen TOC strategy. I have pursued this approach in the past, when I was a senior with the “parameters” argument, and when Chris Kymn was a senior with the “epistemic modesty” argument. This isn’t always the route to victory, but in late elims, it’s always good to have something special in the works.
This year, we went for Kant in semis of TOC. While Immanuel Kant is tried and true, even he could not withstand Parker Whitfill’s 1AR theory blitz. At the end of the day, the debate came down to RVIs good/bad, one of the staples of any sophomore’s theory repertoire. We saved some goodies for finals, but in that debate, we went straight down the middle.
Maybe in another world the debate does come down to the Kant NC or an innovative theory argument or whether bee extinction is the best paradigm for understanding race relations. But it didn’t. For all our agonizing over prefs, crafting new frameworks, and planning time allocation down to the second, the debate came down to RVIs good/bad.
I suppose the lesson is that if you want to win TOC, you have to be ready for everything, from the Jabberwocky to the RVI. Parker Whitfill was ready for everything. Congrats!
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.